Black Flag's Mike Vallely on Former Singer: "He Doomed the Reformation From Day One"
Courtesy of SST Records
"It's not my imagination, there's a gun at my back." - "Revenge" from Black Flag's 1980 Jealous Again ep. For fans and non-fans alike, there is no arguing the legacy of Black Flag. Angry, visceral, and a revolving door of singers and rhythm sections, lead guitarist Greg Ginn and the crew he's tabbed to rock with him at any given moment have always charged head first into the fray, playing whatever the hell they have wanted, and thumbing their collective noses at any type of mainstream success.
Let's just put it right out there: The last 18 months or so has not been the best era of storied Los Angeles punk legends Black Flag's history. In fact, there are probably not a lot of unknown bands out there that would have traded places with these dudes given the media and fan backlash that has recently occurred, and that says a lot. If there has been a time in recent years where there might be a feeling of desperation within the Black Flag camp, it's probably now.
If you haven't been keeping score at home, there have been lawsuits, questionable record covers, alleged public firings of band members, undeniably the weakest record of their career, misuse (and possible abuse) of a Theremin, and massive amounts mudslinging in the media that marred one of the more exciting comebacks in punk rock.
Over the past month or so, Up On The Sun has had the opportunity to catch up with the new members of Black Flag, primarily new singer, skateboard legend and longtime musician, Mike Vallely. Joining Ginn and Vallely for this incarnation of Black Flag are Texas based rhythm section, bassist Tyler Smith and drummer Brandon Pertzborn. Greg Ginn doesn't do interviews, so it was up to these three to field all of the questions, tough and otherwise. Black Flag, Hor, and Cinema Cinema will exercise some demons on this Saturday, May 17, at Pub Rock Live. If the show is half as good as their answers, it's going be killer.
Up on the Sun: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Mike. For full disclosure, I am a fan. I'm older, so I actually did get to see the band "in the day." I'm also an old skater and completely appreciate the way you ride and have put yourself out there over the years.
Mike Vallely: Very cool. Thank you.
I'm an old fan too, and I also got to see the band "back in the day" as they say. I was 14 years old and it had a very profound effect upon me and how I viewed myself and my life and it was all very much so for the better. To become the vocalist for the band almost exactly 30 years later would seem to be some crazy twist of fate, but for me it really is at this point just a natural evolution of my friendship and working relationship with Greg Ginn. The reformation of Black Flag did not go quite as planned and instead of letting it fizzle out or end on a bad note, Greg and I have decided to forge forward with strength and cohesion.
Up on the Sun: Tell me about the current line-up.
Vallely: The rhythm section is really dialed in at this point. We were looking for Texas-based musicians that could really commit to being in the band full-time, and that's what we've got. Tyler Smith on bass and Brandon Pertzborn on drums. I think this line-up of Black Flag will see the music fully realized. That's the goal here.
Up on the Sun: What is it like to be in Black Flag? It's never easy stepping in and filling someone else's shoes, especially when some of your predecessors are very well-respected?
Mike Vallely: Well, I don't really think of it in those terms exactly. I just look at it like I'm in a band right here, right now with three other members. I mean, I get it -- this band, this music is actually a part of my DNA, but when we step into rehearsals or onto the stage everything that was just needs to be dropped at the door. I don't and can't buy into any mythology or listen to the noise. It's about a living, breathing organism -- It's about musicians going someplace together. That's what matters here.
Yes, it's Black Flag. Yes, we are playing songs that are considered classics and we need to respect that -- that is fully understood. But if we get hung up on that or let it fuck with our heads, we won't be doing the music and songs and ultimately the fans that come out to see us justice because we will be trapped by whatever parameters buying into such ideas would set in our minds. That's not what music or being in a band is about. That's not what Black Flag is about.
Drummer Brandon Pertzborn: An absolute honor. I am very well aware of the respected shoes that I'm filling and I don't take that lightly at all. The hours upon hours I've put into learning, studying, and then rehearsing the music is a reflection of respect I have for the band. I know I will have to prove myself to people by my playing and I have prepared for that.
Bassist Tyler Smith: It's amazing. Waking up every day and getting to play truly great music that you love is more than I could ever ask for. I'm well aware of the previous bass players particularly Chuck Dukowski and Kira Roessler. I have tremendous respect for them, and they did indeed leave huge shoes to fill. All I can do is play to the best of my ability.
Mike Vallely: I'm up for the challenge. Not really worried about it all. I'm pretty confident in my abilities to pick it up but more importantly move it forward, That's not to say I don't respect the contributions and talents of those that came before me but I'm not hung up about it either.
What do you remember about the first time hearing or seeing Black Flag?
Brandon Pertzborn: I was 13 years old the first time I heard Black Flag. Around that time I was listening to a bunch of classic rock and I loved it. Every day at school, my friends and I would get together and share the new music we recently discovered. Usually it was the same type of rock music. I remember the day my friend had me listen to "Rise Above". I was absolutely sold after I heard that song and I bought the album, Damaged, the same week. It was perfect. I was blown away. I loved the intensity, the speed, the energy, and the fact that they did whatever they wanted to do. That album was a huge game changer in helping me develop my drumming style.
Mike Vallely: The first time I heard Black Flag was September 1984. The song was Rise Above. I would see the band perform a month later in Trenton, NJ. I was fourteen years old. It was a life changing experience.
Tyler Smith: Most of the bands I listened to while growing up were directly influenced by Black Flag, so that's how I was introduced to their music. I specifically remember "Six Pack" and "Black Coffee" being two of my favorites.
I'd love to think that I have an inkling about what Black Flag is all about, but I'm interested to have you go deeper with that...What is Black Flag all about? What does it mean to you and what does the band stand for?
Mike Vallely: To me, Black Flag is about the moment. Total freedom of expression. It's about musical evolution -- expansion, spontaneity.
Tyler Smith: To me, Black Flag, more than anything, represents the "do-it-yourself" attitude. If you don't know how to play a musical instrument, teach yourself. If you're not signed to a record label, start your own. Black Flag is about pure musical expression and the rejection of everything superficial.
Brandon Pertzborn: To me, Black Flag represents freedom of expression. They never played by the rules. They play fast, they play slow, they write songs that are 50 seconds long and then write songs that are 6 minutes long. Who cares? They didn't try to conform. They didn't want to conform. They stayed true to themselves. I believe that in 2014, we will still carry on this same spirit. The same mindset Black Flag has always had, will continue.
So...What is working with Greg like? He's got a reputation of being a bit of a control freak. An old band of mine opened for him in the mid-90's and he watched our whole set and was sort of friendly, but I also got the sense that he just wanted to crush us, too, after we were done. Is he competitive?
Mike Vallely: No, not at all. The first time I met Greg my band was opening for him as well. He stood out front, watched our entire set and then went and bought one of our T-shirts. At the time it seemed so crazy to us. But over a period of time we would end up doing a series of shows supporting Greg and he stood out front and watched us play every single night and on many of those nights he was wearing our shirt. That's just who he is. Last year I did over eighty shows with Greg with our band Good For You, and anytime we had support acts on the shows, Greg made a point to watch all of them. It's a matter of respect. Bands get billed to do support acts and in a sense "play with" a touring act or whatever but many times they never even meet the band that they are gigging with. Greg doesn't go for that. If a band is supporting us then Greg wants to see them and support them. It's about respect, musical kinship, not competition.
As far as Greg being a "control freak" -- I don't really see it like that at all. I mean "control freak" has such a negative connotation. I more so see it as Greg is really just a true artist, and that he knows exactly what he wants to do. He has a very clear vision for his music. And as it relates to Black Flag, the majority of the music and the spirit of what Black Flag is has always emanated directly from Greg. That's just the way it is. At the same time, my experience in working with Greg has been very open. If I have an idea creatively that I feel strongly about, Greg is the last person that is going to stand in my way -- unless of course it's a terrible idea. At the same time, I would never dream of telling Greg what he should be doing musically, creatively. I mean, if him protecting his own artistic integrity makes him a "control freak" then really, shouldn't we all be control freaks?
In 2013, Black Flag officially reformed for the second time since 1986 (there was a short, three show reunion in 2003). This reunion, on paper, looked like a possible return to glory with former lead screamer Ron Reyes coming back into the fold. From this perspective, it seemed like Ginn and crew were not going let Keith Morris, Dez Cadena, Chuck Duckowski, Bill Stevenson, and Stephen Egerton have all the fun playing Black Flag music as FLAG, so they got back together to go on what would become a much maligned and ill-fated tour.
Up on the Sun: Tell me about your perception of what went wrong with the reformation....I think there is a lot of confusion out there about your role in the departure of Ron, for example. Did you really fire him mid-song/mid-set?
Mike Vallely: Well, no matter what I say, I think the general perception will always be that I did fire him onstage, mid-set. That's what is out there, that's what people believe and in a sense I guess that is what happened. But the main thing is, Ron very definitively quit the band that very morning -- And although I realize that he'll never own up to that because it would detract from the sob story of him being the victim here, I also don't feel bad about doing what I did and I'll willingly accept the role that I played in his departure. The reality is, when Ron was asked to leave the stage, Black Flag finally became Black Flag again, and so it had to happen. But don't get me wrong, I was never pining away for Ron Reyes' job.
All along I wanted nothing more than for Ron Reyes to succeed and I worked hard day in and day out to help Ron Reyes succeed. To help the band succeed. He knows that. He knows the effort I made night in and night out on his behalf, But Ron was always Ron's own worst enemy. Ron was Ron's only impediment to making this whole thing work -- He couldn't get out of his own way. So, he can rant on and on about the drummer, the Theremin, the start and stops of songs and anything else that he can think of, but really it was only Ron Reyes that stood in the way of Ron Reyes.
And it's too bad. I liked Ron, and I think he's great vocalist and that he could be a great frontman for Black Flag still, but the way he played it -- that just wasn't and isn't possible. He doomed the reformation from day one from only having one pinkie-toe in the Black Flag camp and the rest of his existence pandering to the Facebook crowd. Really, it's sad. When he quit the band that morning in Australia, we weren't even sure if he'd turn up for the show. When he did turn up, we were very concerned about him using the stage as a platform to air his grievances. When he did begin to use the stage as such a platform, I cut him off. It wasn't some overly premeditated thing, it was rather spontaneous -- I mean, I was ready for it but I didn't really want to have to do it. And, of course, Ron being Ron, he didn't really give me a choice. The thing is, with the way that he had handled himself on his way out the door, I didn't feel that he deserved to have his cake and to eat it too. Enough was enough.
How do you feel about the backlash related to the last record cover?
The much-maligned cover for Black Flag's album, What The...
Mike Vallely: I feel that if Ron Reyes was still the singer of Black Flag and that if he would have just really owned being the singer of Black Flag, and if he would have just owned the artwork that he created, and if he had actually written songs with substance that he and the band could stand behind regardless of any critic's opinion, then it would all be a non-issue. It's only an issue now because of how Ron let things play out, and his half-assed approach to being in the band, creating the artwork and writing the songs. It's unfortunate. Greg opened the gates and Ron shit on the lawn. That's just my opinion. Time will be the judge of that record but I can tell you, I'll never listen to it nor will I perform any of its material.
Recently, there was a lawsuit in action between Greg Ginn and the FLAG camp, which included Keith Morris (original Black Flag vocalist, but also a member of the Circle Jerks, FLAG, and Off!) and Henry Rollins (who made his name singing in Black Flag). This lawsuit asked for an injunction against FLAG, which would not allow them to use the iconic "four bars" Black Flag logo or promote themselves as "Black Flag." The lawsuit has been settled, with each band able to go out and play Black Flag songs, but FLAG will not be able to use the logo, moving forward, nor promote themselves as Black Flag in any way.
Up on the Sun:I got the email about the lawsuit. What is the overall feeling in the Black Flag camp about this?
Mike Vallely: We are relieved to have this nonsense behind us. The fact that these ex-band members would do anything to cash in on the Black Flag name, even go as far as trying to steal the trademark, was very disheartening. There never was an issue with Flag performing the songs of Black Flag, but when they and some of their promoters began billing the band as Black Flag and then Rollins' and Morris' fraudulent trademark application was discovered, Greg really had no choice but to protect this trademark and creative output, legally.
Up on the Sun: How has all the legal bullshit changed your view of your predecessors, or has it at all? Did you have a favorite between Keith, Ron, Dez, and Henry?
Mike Vallely: The "legal bullshit" as you call it is on them, not us. They created the entire situation. Not Greg. Greg was simply protecting his work. Anyone would. They forced that issue, they created this situation and there's no way around that. -- I saw Black Flag in 1984 and Rollins was the singer and he was a big part of what I liked about the band, no doubt about it.
What music are you excited about right now outside of projects you are involved with?
Mike Vallely: The band that is supporting us on most of our Victimology North American dates, Cinema Cinema, is a really great band. I'm excited about that. Having them with us is going to really make these shows enjoyable for me being an audience member as well.
Up on the Sun:So, Brandon and Tyler, how did you guys get this gig? What was your previous relationship with Mike or Greg?
Brandon Pertzborn: I received an email from Greg in early 2014. I called Greg later that night and we set up an audition two days later. I learned a good amount of songs and then drove to Greg's studio to audition. Over the course of a few hours, I probably played about 15 songs. After I drove back home, I recorded two songs a day and would send them to Greg every day for a week so he could get more of an idea what my playing style sounds like. Exactly a week after my audition, I got the call that I made the band and here I am now! I didn't know Mike or Greg personally before I started playing with Black Flag, but I've known who they are for years. I've been a Black Flag fan for years, so I was aware of Greg and I used to skateboard all the time so I knew who Mike was and I've been a fan of his musical projects.
Tyler Smith: As it turns out, I originally joined Black Flag last year but had to back out due to personal obligations back home. When I learned that the previous bass player left the band, I contacted Greg, auditioned again, and was fortunate to rejoin Black Flag.
What do you think about all of the negative press that the band has gotten over the last couple of years?
Brandon Pertzborn: It motivates me (and the band) to work THAT much harder to prove to everyone we are the real deal. Negative press is inevitable, but at the same time, we are well aware that not everyone was happy with last year. I challenge anyone that has a bad taste in their mouth about Black Flag to come out to a show this year and we'll prove through our playing that we are a tight, cohesive, and powerful band that people expect Black Flag to be.
Tyler Smith: In a way, I understand it because Black Flag has a very passionate fan base. They expect this music to be performed at the highest level. All I can do is assure people that we are working extremely hard to deliver a level of performance that Black Flag fans have every right to expect.
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