Waving the Punk Banner
An interview with Greg Ginn of Black Flag
By Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly January 1999

For 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.

I 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?

GG: 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.

You 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?

I 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.

Didn't X mention Black Flag in one of their songs?

Yeah, 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.

A 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 about?

We 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 on consignment.

The second SST release was by the Minutemen. What was it about the Minutemen that made you want to put out a record by them?

They 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.

Let me ask you about another early band you signed, Hüsker Dü. They weren't from Southern California. How did they come to your attention?

The 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.

So 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?

Well, 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.

A 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?

I 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.

When 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?

Yeah. 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.

When you toured on Damage, did you make an effort to get all-ages shows and work outside the mainstream venues?

Well, 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 thing.

Is this why Black Flag is credited with helping create the '80s hardcore scene?

Yeah, 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.

Did 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?

Well, 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.

When Black Flag released My War, there was a change in sound, slower tempos and a heavy metal influence that surprised some of your hardcore fans.

I 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.

In 1985, Black Flag released three records of new material. Did you mean that as a statement?

It's 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 on.

Why did Black Flag tour so much?

To play. I know that might sound simplistic, but there wasn't any other reward.

In 1986 Black Flag split up...

It's 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 getting commercialized.

In 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.

Yeah. 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 REM.

The independent labels were being bought out, too. Have you ever thought of selling SST to a major?

No. 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.