his work as the guitar player and principal songwriter
for Black Flag alone, Greg Ginn made a crucial contribution
to the formation of '80s hardcore. Black Flag's notorious
work ethic and constant touring helped build and maintain
scenes in cities around the country, and as a recording
group, Black Flag was staggeringly prolific. For example,
between 1984 and 1985 eight Black Flag albums were
released. This, however, just scratches the surface
of Ginn's accomplishments. He transformed an electronics
company he founded as a teenager into SST Records,
one of the most important independent labels in rock
history. As a label head, Ginn oversaw the signing
and releases of a remarkable range of artists, including
Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, the
Descendents, Bad Brains, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees
and Dinosaur Jr. To this day, Ginn plays in bands
like Gone while running SST Records.
want to start by asking you about a sentence in
the Trouser Press Guide: "Black
Flag was for all intents and purposes America's
first hardcore band." When you started out,
what sort of music did you expect to play?
I think I had a general feeling that we could add
something to what was missing, rather than revolutionize
things or get rid of the old and bring in the new.
The first band I played in was Black Flag which
originally was called "Panic." Somebody
else had that name, so we changed it to Black Flag
before the first record came out. Mid-70s rock was
getting kind of stale: The edges had been buffed
off of a lot of it. People wanted a more hard and
aggressive sound. We could add something that was
sorely missing to the landscape.
were one of the bands featured in The Decline
of Western Civilization. Did you
feel at that time you were part of a scene that
involved the other groups in the film?
think in that movie a lot of the live footage and
interviews of the bands were really good, but not
the other sociological gobbledygook and generalizations.
It is a very ignorant movie. They are trying to
put some kind of sociopolitical framework onto a
certain group of bands, and I thought that was very
bogus. I certainly wouldn't take that movie seriously,
aside from the groups in it. But sure, certainly
those groups, aside from maybe the Circle Jerks,
would be groups that I would go see a lot and that
we would play with. X never played with us. They
were always afraid of being considered too hard,
because they were always trying to get some major
label deal. But we used to go to their shows, and
they talked about playing with us.
X mention Black Flag in one of their songs?
I thought that was kind of interesting. They were
a really good band and probably had their reasons,
but they sidestepped us in terms of actually being
associated with us, because we were the bad element
that they might be afraid was scaring away major
labels. That may have been true. I notice a lot
of bands waving the punk banner now were trying
to escape from it at the time.
major label didn't swoop down and sign Black Flag—you
formed your own label, SST, to release The Nervous
Breakdown EP. How did that come
started recording some stuff and we didn't have
a way to put it out. Right now, there are all kinds
of independent labels, different ways people are
doing records, alternative forms of distribution
and all that. So it might not seem out of the ordinary
now, but we just learned by doing it. I found a
pressing plant by looking in the telephone book.
Initially, we didn't have any way to sell [the EPs]
except by mail order and when we would play at places.
We also took them around to stores and sold them
second SST release was by the Minutemen. What was
it about the Minutemen that made you want to put
out a record by them?
seemed to have a lot of originality. That sounds
like a pageant word "originality"—Miss
America, or Miss Arkansas or whatever. They had
an original sound: the energy of it, the lyrics,
everything. They were doing really good music. That's
pretty trite, but true.
me ask you about another early band you signed,
Hüsker Dü. They weren't from Southern
California. How did they come to your attention?
first time I saw them was in Chicago. I had never
really heard of them. I don't remember if we had
a day off or if it was just after hours. But it
was at this club where they were playing, and I
just thought they were incredible. We didn't work
with them until some time later, because they had
their own label at that point, Reflex Records, on
which they had put out a single. There weren't very
many people in the crowd, because it was just kind
of a strange gig after hours in this bar. They were
incredibly good. Certainly their sound evolved and
they got into different kinds of things, but all
of it was real good. They had a unique energy.
as you toured with Black Flag, you'd see bands around
the country, and that's how you found many of the
early bands you signed?
a lot of them were from Southern California, bands
I would see out here, but also demo tapes. After
a while it was more demo tapes. When Black Flag
would tour, we would tour with groups that were
on SST, like the Minutemen. But living in the L.A.
area, just about everybody comes through here, so
you don't necessarily have to go to a lot of places.
lot of the early members of Black Flag went on to
form influential bands. Keith Morris from the Circle
Jerks started out in Black Flag, and Bill Stevenson
of the Descendents was in Black Flag. I think I'm
just scratching the tip of the iceberg. Did you
see Black Flag as a recruiting ground for talent?
don't think of it as recruiting, I think of it as
development ground for talent. The work ethic and
the approach—a lot of people picked that up
from Black Flag. A lot of people have talent but
it's a matter of developing it, bringing it out.
For example, Keith Morris was the first singer in
Black Flag. But when the group started, he didn't
sing, he wanted to play drums. I knew him, he was
a friend of mine. We used to hang out. It took me
six months to convince him to try to sing. He said,
Well, I don't write lyrics, and I said, Well, I'll
write the lyrics. He said, Oh I want to play drums,
and I said, Well, we don't have a drum kit, and
we don't have any prospect of getting one. You've
got a friend that you say plays drums, let's get
him, and you sing, because you'd make a good singer.
I'd never heard him sing a note. It's just I felt
like he could do it, and I felt like I knew how
well he could do it, and there wasn't ever a doubt
in my mind about that.
you went into the studio to record Damage,
that was the first time Henry Rollins recorded with
Black Flag, but the songs themselves mostly predate
his arrival. Right?
We were already doing most of the songs. We were
going to record it first with Keith and then the
second singer, and both of them left and delayed
it. So when Rollins came along, there were already
all these songs. It was pretty developed, because
those had been played live.
you toured on Damage, did you
make an effort to get all-ages shows and work outside
the mainstream venues?
yeah, we made an effort. But in many cases the mainstream
made an effort to keep us out. We didn't get gigs
until we started promoting our own shows and renting
out—like the Moose Hall and Elks lodges and
that kind of stuff. At first, we just played parties
around the South Bay. The group really didn't fit
into the L.A. punk scene, because we didn't dress
the part or fit into the art punk thing that was
happening in L.A. So we really had to develop a
different audience, because we didn't play the Hollywood
this why Black Flag is credited with helping create
the '80s hardcore scene?
but it wasn't just Black Flag. I would say the Dead
Kennedys and DOA were bands that we knew and worked
with to exchange every bit of information in terms
of places to play. We did a lot of networking with
people that we liked to play shows with or had common
goals with, and those two bands, along with Black
Flag, really broke a lot of ground in getting out
there. We would help them in certain areas, and
then they would help us in certain areas, and we
exchanged a lot of information when we toured. Because
L.A. is such an industry town, a lot of the groups
were waiting around for major label deals. X never
toured around until it was a part of the industry.
But the Dead Kennedys and DOA and Black Flag were
always looking for any venue, any new venue, and
then we would go and play. We exchanged a lot of
information because there wasn't a circuit. We had
to find individual clubs that were willing to do
something, or some kid in some town who was setting
up gigs on a certain night. So we didn't do it in
isolation. But there were only a few groups that
weren't waiting for somebody to do something for
them and that were taking it on themselves, and
we felt a lot in common with them.
it take a while for SST bands to find an audience,
or did you find that you had tapped into a market
that the mainstream ignored?
Black Flag took a couple of years to get exposure,
but we started developing audiences fairly quickly.
I would say that most of the groups took a lot of
time. That's what a lot of people don't realize,
they kind of compress all that period, but a lot
of those other records certainly didn't sell well
at first. We took many of the groups on tour with
us, and that was probably the most important aspect
of getting them exposure, because it certainly wasn't
radio or video or anything else.
Black Flag released My War,
there was a change in sound, slower tempos and a
heavy metal influence that surprised some of your
have never looked at records as though a particular
record defined the band in that sense. We had already
done Damaged and a bunch of singles
and EPs and other stuff. A lot of bands would just
do that again because that worked, but my opinion
on it was to add to what we were doing rather than
duplicate it endlessly. Records should add to what
a band does, rather than define it. So when My
War came out, that's not all we played.
We also played a lot of old songs live and a lot
of new ones that weren't recorded. Some of the things
that people say are pretty ridiculous, in terms
of it being a calculated move. I think of it in
terms of the music itself and the actual songs,
and also as a live band adding to its sets. Our
sets got longer. First they started out as a half
hour, and gradually they went to one-and-a-half-hours.
We had more time at the venues because now we were
headlining. It was a way to offer more, rather than
exchange one thing for another. Black Flag didn't
play less fast material, we just played a longer
set with different kinds of material.
1985, Black Flag released three records of new material.
Did you mean that as a statement?
not like we were counting or that it was a certain
kind of strategy or business plan; it's just because
the music was there. We had a lot of songs and a
lot of delays in recording. Maybe some of that stuff
could have come out earlier, but there were a lot
of changes in the group. The group went through
four different singers, four or five different bass
players and four or five different drummers. Each
of those changes caused delays. I think it is healthier
for a group to be up-to-date in what they are doing
than to hold some material and then release it later
did Black Flag tour so much?
play. I know that might sound simplistic, but there
wasn't any other reward.
1986 Black Flag split up...
like you mentioned, hardcore kind of dissipated.
Black Flag didn't dissipate in a commercial way
or in popularity. At that point, in fact, more opportunities
were opening to the group. It was actually because
there was a more commercial focus, the scene was
fact, that was the period where some of the great
SST bands began to go to major labels—Hüsker
Dü went to Warner Brothers in 1986.
A lot changed. Up until that time, people thought
that if you were able to tour and play your music
to people that defined success. We didn't really
look beyond that, because there wasn't any model
for that. If we could be Black Flag and tour around
and play, that would be great. But we were poor
and always lived in substandard conditions, to say
the least. So it wasn't something commercial that
people were aspiring to, but I think the thing changed
in the middle '80s, when alternative rock started
coming in and taking the edges off for the general
population. People began thinking that maybe they
could start getting radio play and some kind of
mainstream acceptance, and maybe this could be a
career. I think a lot of the groups were getting
a little bit older and feeling less reckless. I
think it softened up a lot of the music. Even in
SST groups, you can trace that softening up of the
sound between when they started and when that alternative
wave came through. There was always a difference
between punk rock and new wave music. I hate new
wave music, I hate it, and I hate alternative rock.
I basically have a distaste for that kind of thing,
which is saying, "let's take punk rock and
just make it palatable to more people." It's
different because it's quirky; not it's different
because it is threatening. A lot of groups went
that way within SST and also in the general music
community. People thought they could be the next
independent labels were being bought out, too. Have
you ever thought of selling SST to a major?
That's not how I got into it, and that's not my
purpose. To me, the purpose of SST Records is to
put out music that I like and to try to promote
it as well as I can.