Sunday, September 11, 2011

Interview with Chuck Dukowski, August, 2011

Interview with Chuck Dukowski
Chuck Dukowski Sextet
Black Flag
Co-founder of SST Records

Chuck Called Me on
August 12, 2011

Transcribed by William Jergins

Matt- So Chuck, if you could tell me a little bit about your role in the creation of SST Records.

Chuck- SST Records was an outgrowth of Black Flag and SST Electronics. When Black Flag recorded its first EP. . .We thought we would have a label to release it. We thought Bomp! Records would want to put it out, but there was some break down in that. They had money problems and they couldn’t do it. So coming out of the meeting where we were told that there wasn’t money for it, Greg and I talked about it on the way home, and decided to release it through SST Records.

M- Which wasn’t a record company yet, right?

C- No. We decided to self release it, and SST was a convenient thing because Greg was running an electronics company and had a secretary, and letter head, and bank accounts, and things like that. It provided an easy way to pile on the resources that were already there. We could use the same name even, and that way when the secretary answered the phone and said “SST” it wasn’t a problem. And so a little time when on and then Greg said, “Ok. You should be a partner in this, and let’s be formal about it.” And then we did. And then shortly thereafter we did The Minutemen record.

M- So you had already recorded the first Black Flag EP is that right?

C- That’s correct.

M- And you were just shopping it around?

C- Well, I don’t know shopping it around. We took it to one label.

M- Were guys aware of whole punk rock do it yourself? Had that term even come to be yet?

C- I don’t know if the phrase existed like that, but yeah of course. It was what was going on.

M- And so your role was what? You are often cited as a co-founder of SST. Did you have specific tasks at the time?

C- I did everything.

M- And everybody did everything?

C- Well in the early days there were two everybodies, and Greg was pretty preoccupied with running his electronics company.

M- So then Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, and Black Flag, those are the first three? Is that right?

C- And be in sequence, hmm. You can look at the numbers on the records. I think that tells the story. But definitely the first one up was Minutemen’s Paranoid Time.

M- And then fairly quickly after we get to Meat Puppets, right?

C- That’s a few years later. Might not be years, but it’s a while later. We had already moved to Hollywood before we hooked up with the Meat Puppets, or even met or knew anything about them.
M- How did you did hook up with Meat Puppets?

C- The way that the sequence worked is that we did Black Flag and the Minutemen and Saccharine Trust and then, I believe, right in the same time period the first Minutemen album and also recorded the Stains album in that same time, right before we got kicked out of our place in Torrance. Then we moved to our place in Hollywood, and uhm, because we had been run out of there, out of Torrance, and we brought Carducci, and in that same time we became aware of the Meat Puppets.

M- And how do you remember that happening?

C- I remember seeing them. Carducci was a big fan. And I remember seeing them at The Whiskey in L.A., and hearing their record; they had a single. I don’t remember exactly the sequence of events there but, saw them at The Whiskey, played a show with them in Riverside or Pomona, and hooked up with them again somewhere in that same time period out in Arizona when we were playing a show in a boxing ring. And uhm, just liked them. They were pretty radical in their way. They were very radical in their way, really. So we recorded them at Unicorn’s studio where Damaged was recorded, right after Damaged.

M- Is it possible to expand on what you mean by they were radical in their way?

C- Well they’re, they’re, I mean listen to their record. They’re extreme. They combine a balls-out energy, real extreme energy, with a looseness, a loose interpretation of structure, and the execution being spirit and energy first, form second. And so you listen to the words and don’t hear them, but you hear the emotion of what the words mean to Curt or Cris, whoever happens to be singing at the moment. But uh, on that first album, single, and the stuff on the “Hair,” on the Monitor, and on the Keats. Good luck trying to figure out what they were talking about.

M- Were other people, particularly in L.A. receptive to Meat Puppets?

C- I suppose I wasn’t super preoccupied with people being receptive to things. We had already been doing the Minutemen who, when they played with us at our first shows, were showered in spit the entire time they played. I think I enjoyed, personally, I enjoyed running a cross current.

M- Curt has said this before, and I’ve heard from other people that opened for Black Flag, that as time went on, Black Flag audiences didn’t enjoy the opening acts too much.

C- I don’t think that’s wholly true. I think a lot of people in those audiences really liked the groups and were really excited to be exposed to new and interesting things. We toured many, many, many, times with Saccharine Trust and it’s undeniable that they’re an extreme challenge to the typical hardcore sound. They’re really, really, different, yet they’re geniuses. Jack Brewer and Joe Baiza are both real geniuses, and still are. Their music was great then and it’s great now, and they did pretty well with us. They didn’t have troubles. And maybe sometimes it was challenging to people but ultimately the Black Flag audience, the large portion of it, came to appreciate what we were doing.

M- What are some things you remember of the making of the first Meat Puppets record? Were you in the studio at all?

C- Not so much. I dropped in on it but, uhm, trying to let the guys have some space, you know.

M- How did things work at SST? You paid for studio time?

C- We had a deal with Unicorn. Yes, we paid for studio time through that and recorded that first record there.

M- What can you remember about that time? Specifically about Meat Puppets?

C- Oh I don’t know. There they were. They were playing this, uhm, crazy loosey-goosey music. Screaming and yelling about it but not in a normal hardcore way. I thought it was fun. I enjoyed mimicking their vocal styles in radio interviews and stuff while I talked about them.

M- And they would stay at SST, wherever you were located at the time?

C- I guess they stayed at our place some. They also had other friends in L.A.

M- Moving on to Meat Puppets II. Many people, especially, you know, the critics, and the historians, and such, they mention quite a difference between these first two records: Meat Puppets and Meat Puppets II. Do you see that difference?

C- Well it seems like they relaxed for Meat Puppets II. If that makes any sense. It’s the same but they’ve relaxed and went ahead and let themselves be themselves, and you can hear some of the words which helps them get across. And the songs were executed a little slower most of the time. Because of that it’s less buzz and crazy rawness and more twisted soulful. The Hüskers, The Minutemen, and Meat Puppets all were transitioning around that time in kind of in the same direction. A relaxing of their sounds into letting their roots, their non-hardcore angle surface a little bit more. So in the Meat Puppets it comes out in a twisted kind of Neil Young-esque country influenced sound. And the Minutemen, they do it their way. Their record that was around at that time was the Buzz or Howl record. And then uh, the Hüskers came with Metal Circus around the same time. And then that direction manifests fully in all three groups. In Meat Puppets it’s Up On The Sun and with the Minutemen and Hüskers it’s their double albums. And, uh, you get the more accessible; well I won’t say accessible, a little bit slowed down. You can dig into what the hooks are. Also as song writers all three of them matured and became better at it too. I’d say in each case these guys were musicians before punk rock, and it stuck a screw driver in the spokes of their musical directions that was exciting to them and stirred everything up and sent them tumbling down the hill off their bikes and then they collected themselves and got going again, but took in that influence and then developed something that incorporated it all more completely.

M- It seems like the first Meat Puppets, and even Hüsker Dü, their first records they’re trying to be hardcore. They’re kind of generic Black Flag, Germs sounding hardcore.

C- I would never say that. None of those groups are generic in any way. Land Speed Record?! Is that stuff generic?

M- Well, maybe thirty years later.

C- Even then, man. I listen to that. I picked up that and I say “Whoah!” This is not, uhm, I don’t know, you know, it’s not Bad Religion. It’s something else. And you could hear, you hear what’s going to happen later, just like the Meat Puppets. It’s just the raw, buzz-saw, full-edge version of it.

M- Meat Puppets II, especially, has over time been considered a classic, not just of the time, some people say in the history of rock. Do you see it?

C- They’re all classics man. Yeah it’s a classic. I love it. Great record.

M- Do you think it deserves that place?

C- Sure.

M- Do you remember anything of the recording of Meat Puppets II?

C- No. I don’t think I was there. Where was that recorded? Was that recorded at Total Access or something?

M- I think it was Total Access, but you weren’t there?

C- Maybe I stopped by but, nawh, we were doing something else. But we were getting the tapes, “Alright! That’s great! that’s cool!” And getting all excited about what’s coming in but not sitting there minute by minute as they did it.

M- Have you ever listened to or paid much attention to Curt’s lyrics? Especially on Meat Puppets II.

C- Yeah. Oh yeah.

M- What do you think?

C- I think they’re great. He’s got a unique way and a unique insight. There is a sort of relaxed clarity to his vision.

M- You use the term relaxed a lot. That’s a good term for them I think.

C- That’s one of the things about them. Once they get going there is a clarity to what they do, an easy going nature, in their sound and their demeanor and in their insight.

M- Have you seen them recently?

C- It’s been about a year ago now. They played out here in a place called The Mint I believe it was. They were great. It was about six months before that I was playing a show or a year before that I was playing a show out in Belgium and they happened to be on right after us.

M- Oh really? Well that’s cool.

C- And that was cool. It was great to see them. I hadn’t seen them in years, and years, and years, and years.

M- It’s nice to see they’re all still alive.

C- Word. Not everybody gets to stay living.

M- I don’t think anybody gets to stay living.

C- No, you get some time you know? And some people’s is shorter than others. It’s the nature of humans, we’re temporal. I think that’s why music is such a powerful art form for us because it’s material is time. It happens in time. You don’t just get to plop it down and take it in out of time.

M- Very cool Chuck. That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. I’m focused on these first few records at the moment, and I appreciate your comments. Is there anything that I’m missing?

C- I think people will keep listening to their music. It’s an interesting take. Other artists have been influenced by it just like other artist were influenced by Hüsker Dü and it’s like, you know, Nirvana, Kurt Cobain talking about the Meat Puppets. And then there’s a next generation behind that already, and all of those sounds are important to the kids who are nineteen, twenty, that are playing now who listened to Nirvana and maybe went back and checked out the Meat Puppets. So it’s got a place and hopefully people will keep listening to it. You know it’s the uniqueness of our age that people get to listen to your actual performances many years down the line. Cuz, uhm, it was just recently learned that Mozart’s sound palette was about a half step flat from ours, so everything you hear Mozart is actually played sharp, for instance. And what about the pop music of those days? That’s just the hoity-toity rich person’s music, the classical stuff. What about the pop music? What were the guys playing lutes and stuff sitting in the tavern somewhere, what did they sound like? And the people who were deeply involved in that oral tradition of music. Because notation is relatively new, and even a standardized pitch scale. That’s twentieth century. We don’t even get to hear music really that’s older than twentieth century in any way that’s accurate.

M- We only get to hear the last hundred year’s renditions.

C- Right. And like I say, you learn that Mozart was working in a whole different range of pitches than we are. Just because he happened to have a pitch pipe and his whole orchestra was tuned to that, and his A was, you know, B Sharp or whatever. Or, you know, his A was A Flat. The point is that Mozart was working at least a half step flat from what we hear when people play it now. And that makes a big impact especially when singers perform the vocal stuff. It changes the feel. I mean think about all the heavy rock dudes and even the folk people who like to detune. It changes the tone of the instrument quite a bit as well as just pitchwise, the pitches that are involved, and it changes the feel of the music. So we get to hear what people actually did and their own enunciation. And that’s neat. And for an artist who works in sound like myself it’s great.

M- We get to hear Sonic Youth as Sonic Youth did it.

C- Or the Meat Puppets as the Meat Puppets did it, you know? And music’s like that, it depends so much on feel. You could get some sheet music of “Lake of Fire” and it wouldn’t be the same would it? After a little while people’s interpretations would stray pretty far from the original composer’s interpretation.

M- And we can even see that these days too right? On Youtube you can see a hundred people doing “Lake of Fire”.

C- I guess so. I don’t know. I haven’t done that search.

M- Right. Well you could hear a hundred different people doing “My War” I suppose.

C- I don’t think there’s a hundred people doing that one, but a couple. I do. I’ve done a couple versions of it.

M- I bet there’s some kid out there on acoustic guitar doing it.

C- Possibly, you know, and there are. And people play those songs. That’s not the best song for acoustic really.

M- They’ll try though.

C- You never know. People might try.

M- Ok Chuck, I appreciate your time this afternoon.

C- Okie-doke, bye.

M- Bye.

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