Since his time in pioneering powerhouse hardcore band Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski has incarnated the best and most daring spirt of his old home label SST—the Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, and even a little WURM all work their way into his music, often in the same song. His Sextet is a band, a family and probably a philosophy of life, too. This interview by Josh Landau.
Lora Norton (vocals): So what are we doing? We’re talking?
Chuck Dukowski (bass): Josh is going to interview us.
Today I’m going to attempt to be an interviewer. What year did you guys start, as the CD6?
CD: In earnest—it was like December of ’02. I had the first rehearsals in December of ’02. I started it out and had a drummer going and just started playing again. With him. Lora had gotten me that five-string for my birthday a year or two earlier and I wanted to roll it out and start doing jams on it.
LN: We’ve moved in a huge way—the band is so different.
CD: So epicly.
LN: We didn’t have Milo to play with us because he was so much younger then. But also it was a more improvisational—like an art piece sort of?—less traditional band.
Like you just wanted to go out and scream?
LN: It was more Chuck’s vision, I have to say. It wasn’t so much me. For me, when we started having more set songs—like when we started covering ‘Venus in Furs’—that made me have more structure and helped me find a space in that better.
CD: I just felt like at the beginning, I wanted to start playing. I wanted to start out some radical thing and let it form its own sound. So I got a drummer going I had played with before, and then I go, ‘Oh, I’ve never played with a horn player!’ So I call up this guy I know who played clarinet—bass clarinet—and saxophone, and he said he was down. I had already played with the drummer for a couple months at that point, juicing it up, just getting it rolling and getting him in the pocket so we could guide whatever it is, so we’re taut with each other. So we got the horn guy and he brought in a guitar player, which was interesting, and another horn player. We played one or two times and then I asked Lora if she wanted to come in. And she represented! We did it about three or four times and I said, ‘OK, I booked a gig.’ Actually you [Lora] booked the gig. And we just started playing shows. [Laughs]
I’ve seen a handful of the line-up variations and even though it started earlier, this seems like a totally new beginning. You’re starting to write songs and put out the third album and push stuff. It’s like you filtered out everybody but the family.
LN: When you say ‘filtering out’—that’s on. I feel like for me and Milo—tell me if you think this is true too, Milo—I feel like this last album is my maturing as a songwriter and a melody-writer. And for you too, Milo—you’ve just gotten more and more and more great at playing guitar and better and better at songwriting. So we’re able to bring that to the band. That changed everything a lot.
Milo Gonzalez (guitar): Yeah.
LN: Anything to say about that, Milo?
MG: Well less … less is more sometimes.
CD: I know for me it’s a big difference. We started out jamming and I wrote all the songs, but now it’s pretty much everybody.
LN: How does it feel for you, Ashton, to work with the family?
Ashton Slater (drums): I think it’s really awesome. It sounds weird, but the only option is to be cool because you guys are family. It’s always really awesome. Being able to play inside your house as a family is just deeper in that.
It’s really unique. There probably isn’t another band in L.A. or the country or whatever that I know that’s a rock band—or a psychedelic rock band—that’s a family band like you guys are. It’s a standout.
LN: I think we are different, being a family. Not that we can’t be pretty sometimes, but we’re kind of aggressive. The most often thing, especially by girls, that’s said to me is, ‘Wow! That’s so inspiring somebody can be so rad on stage, a girl being so …’
LN: Yeah, to be bold.
AS: You generally only see men acting crazy in a performer’s sense. It’s much more common to see a guy freaking out, but when you see a girl freaking out it’s like, ‘Whoa …’
LN: It’s funny—I don’t think of myself as ‘freaking out.’
AS: Yeah, but you know what I mean.
LN: I do know what you mean and certainly, with the early phase of the band—you’re talking about screaming …
I mean, not even literally screaming, but wanting to get out and make a bunch of noise to let it all out.
LN: I literally screamed! I literally screamed and that was some of the trial-by-fire by the early jazzy sort of things where I would literally go out there and be like, ‘MLAAAGHGHGHH!!!!!’
While we’re on you, Lora, you do scream like fucking crazy and really powerfully, but most of the time it comes from a very dynamic technical singer approach that’s not ‘punk.’ A lot of the singing is not from what would be the obvious influence of the band because of Chuck’s history. Where did that come from?
LN: That’s a nice question. I was a big punk fan, and I love to see that music, I mean—Henry Rollins was a huge inspiration to me when I was a kid. We do cover ‘My War’ and I do sing in a scream-y punk rock way, which is fun, but it’s not my natural style. I’m more of like a belter. I’m a person who has a big loud voice and am inspired by people who sing in a technical way. Like—I really wanna sing in a beautiful, on-pitch, complicated way.
Were you singing like that when you were 15? Like in bands or maybe in front of the mirror?
LN: I did a little bit. I just sang around—I liked to sing. I sang in choirs in school, I had little bands with my girlfriends and stuff like that. I played backyard parties but I didn’t do anything really professional until Chuck. It was Chuck that made me kinda get real about it and take it more seriously and put in the time.
Not the first who said that about Chuck.
LN: Yeah, right! He has a magical quality and he brings out the best in people. I think that’s why we have the band, because of your magical quality—honey—and Milo, too. We were just talking about that the other night.
MG: Yeah, it’s true. Chuck’s magical quality. [Laughs] I think it’s amazing. I feel like there are so many random crazy places I never would have seen out here in this gigantic, epic city if it wasn’t for the band and us just going around and playing all the time. Parental influence was pretty heavy for me, you know? I dropped outta school and played the guitar and shit and I think that a lot of the reason that I can do that and that I’m doing that right—that I’m so concentrated on it—is because of you guys [Chuck and Lora]. Because of both your magical qualities.
LN: It does feel really cool for me, when sometimes you’re doing a show and you’re like, ‘Yeah! This is so awesome!’ And you look and you’re like, ‘There’s my Milo, that’s my baby!’ And he’s just ripping that solo and it’s so awesome.
CD: I thought it was a cool thing to do that. I remember … just to try, my first choice with Lora. I go, ‘OK, I’m gonna have this band, and it’s either gonna be something to do away from my family and away from my wife, or it’s gonna be something I do with my family and with my wife.’ It’s a matter of choice at this stage and I just decided to embrace that. I’m used to bringing people in. I recognize talent and I knew it was there. It is really cool. I want to share the experiences that I’ve felt and have been so important to me and let them have them if they want them. Lora says this all the time—that humans are all about specialties. It’s finding that. You see everything through that window. If you can line yourself up with what you’re meant to do and go after that, then you’re powerful. Then you have joy and success in all things, and that’s my real opinion. The sooner you get on that, the better—the sooner you see it, you don’t go down any bunk paths. If you can just zero in, that’s just all the more. Few people choose the extreme—to go after the things they feel. And if you do, you’re likely to succeed. It’s more than if you don’t—actually much more. I used to think, ‘OK, being in a rock band, being a musician … yeah I could go to college for ten years to get a B.A., or a B.S., and try to get an advanced degree—but that’s gonna take ten or twelve years!’ Hard work. If anybody pursues something else with the same vigor, you’re going to get the same result, maybe better. And you’ll get joy with it. The trick is to pour as much focus in, because it’s easier to get distracted.
LN: The thing about knowing what your specific gift is—it’s so hard to recognize. For me, the struggle of what to do with my life was a huge thing. I was a teenage mother, I had Milo so young and then quickly I had another child and by the time I was 22 or 23 I had two kids and it’s a complete left turn. So it’s a struggle for anybody to discover what their point is, but I think it’s a mix of both introspection and looking at yourself and thinking, ‘What do I do? What do I love?’ And also—I was reading about this idea of ‘right work’—you do work that not only fits you as a person, but fits your morality and place in the world. And I think music … it makes me super happy to get to make music because it’s ‘right work.’ You get to do something that’s bringing—if not positive energy, than cathartic energy or excited energy or a group joyful emotional truth-telling experience to people. That’s a gift.
CD: Right. Human community—I mean, bonding of a group of people—starting at the group of the band, which works together to make the art, and then on to everybody who listens and shares with you. The people who bother to come to you and say, ‘That’s so cool, I love your music.’ And you’re like, ‘Wow … it worked!’
LN: When did you guys know that you wanted to be musicians—Ashton?
AS: I don’t know, I guess when I picked up my first bass I was like, ‘Yep, that’s what I wanna do.’ Drums happened on accident as a result of Rabies—I was in a band with Josh [your friendly interviewer—Ed.] playing bass and I swore that I would never be in a band with him because I thought I would never wanna do that. Obviously being wrong. [Laughs]
LN: You’re like a bilingual-instrumentalist—playing drums, bass, and you can sing. You’re very multi-talented.
AS: He invited me over one day and was like, ‘Come fill in for practice so we can get the songs together.’ More or less that was kind of the idea—that I wasn’t really gonna play in the band, that I was gonna come have fun for one day. And it was just one day. We played through whatever songs and whatever covers we knew—whatever Circle Jerks and Flag songs we knew just by listening to them. That’s basically all it was.
LN: That’s so cute.
That’s something I wanted to ask all of you guys: What was the first thing that made you realize you wanted to be in a band or to play music?
MG: Well, I would attribute it to you.
LN: To me?
MG: I would attribute it to you, and I would attribute it to I guess just a natural inclination. My uncle’s a drummer, and you’re a singer and you’ve been playing guitar in front of my every day since I was 8 years old. I think about when I was little, and my mom here would put on a Black Sabbath record and be like, ‘Listen to this!’ And I would go hobbit in the corner with my toys and listen to Black Sabbath. And then when I was 13 or 14, I picked up a guitar and took a couple lessons and couldn’t do anything else. It’s just all I can concentrate on. I just picked up a guitar and that was that.
Who are you listening to nowadays and getting stoked on? Who are you looking at that’s making you think, ‘Tomorrow when we play I’m really gonna fucking go for it like this band …’ ?
MG: At the moment, I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music. I really like classical guitar and maximizing the potential possibility of the instrument. Or any instrument. I like to play lots of them. I don’t know—I’m actually terrible at listening to music. I don’t really listen to as much music as I should, you know? People always ask me, ‘What are you influenced by?’ I listen to a couple things sometimes, but before I listen to something I usually just pick up an instrument and start playing instead.
LN: Robert Plant—that’s my favorite.
CD: That’s a great band. I hadn’t really picked at that music for a long time. You watch a video of them and you’re like, ‘Whoa!’ Sure, it’s a Page/Plant-fest and a Bonham-fest, but really what’s special of theirs—the ability of theirs—is their strong musical language. It’s what takes them beyond—the ability to multiply each other by just knowing right away, by just doing the right thing and everybody knowing ahead of time without even thinking about it—even while they’re improvising! They’ve just played together so long that they know how the other person’s sense of melody and rhythm moves and they just do it.
LN: In terms of singers, Henry Rollins really has been a big influence on me. You listen to ‘Damaged’ and for me … that song is sooo genius because of the emotional truth and heaviness that he was willing to bring and brought. ‘Yes sir! Do it again!’ It’s like fucking A! Stay out! I do feel that that’s something I want to do in music—tell the emotional truth.
‘Slow Bullet’—that’s probably my favorite song on the new album because the lyrics are really direct and filled with angst. Who was the target?
LN: [Laughs] I’m not gonna say …
MG: Voldemort, dude …
LN: It was totally fucking Voldemort. No, but it was a feeling that I had and it really conveyed something meaningful to me. Sometimes things are slow and they take a long time and you have to work and it seems like, ‘What am I doing?’ It’s always felt empowering for me to sing that song because I do always hit my target.
CD: Relentlessness—that’s what it’s about to me. It makes me feel strong with a sense of relentless imperative and a continued focus. Lora’s got that too.
MG: I heard Ian MacKaye say once that half of the meaning of a song is up to the interpretation—up to what the person hears and thinks about themselves. It’s just as important as what you wrote the song about.
CD: And that makes it better; in a way, the more you can bring your truth and focus from your specific [idea] and let it be open for other people to embrace for their own—that’s the power!
LN: Even something that you record, it will be kind of a toss-off like ‘All is One.’ We just kind of recorded that like, ‘Whatever.’ But Milo just added something so amazing to it.
CD: Yeah, Milo—one day he just kind of disappeared into [a] garage and the next day he played it and I was like, ‘Whoa! That’s cool!’
Your brand new album, Haunted, is the first thing you didn’t release under Chuck’s own Nice and Friendly records, right?
CD: I’ll tell you something else—it’s the first time I’ve ever had an album out on a label that I didn’t own. Ever.
Wow! That never occurred to me.
CD: It’s the first time I haven’t been releasing my own record basically—aside from comps and license deals. But I have to say, I like it! There’s someone else doing stuff and someone else who’s got, as they say in that world, skin in the game. Trying to sell the record, trying to make us more successful and liking what we do enough to even put our record out. Putting some faith behind it and I’m stoked with that. There’s a social aspect to it too—not just in a shallow way, but I like engaging and working with other people—that’s my thing. That’s why I have a band instead of just tooling up in a corner somewhere. I’m a team guy. I like a bunch of people around me. It’s why I have a big family and it’s just what I’m about. I know that I can’t do everything. It’s like … I would not have thought to put out the 7’’ split with Mike [Watt]. That was a good idea. It bridged my past to my present. It was a smart move and I was excited with that. I was also excited that Dave [Jones] was able to record it in four hours notice.
About the new single—’My War’—people ask Tony Iommi if he’s sick of playing ‘Paranoid’ and he says, ‘To be honest, I probably get more out of it today than I did when I was younger. I love to play it every single night. I just don’t get tired of it.’ Do you feel like that about ‘My War’?
CD: Sure. Different people have different minds on that sort of thing, and I am of the sort that I enjoy and totally get behind playing songs that have emotional resonance with me, over and over and over again forever. I think we fully own that song.
MG: Playing that tune is like a trip for me—I love that fucking song. It’s a great song … oops, sorry, I shouldn’t be cursing—sorry!
CD: It’s not the radio, man—they’ll print this shit!
MG: It’s a really powerful thing for people to see a family playing such an aggressive, gnarly song. You know? It’s a trip for me to see my mom up there onstage screaming, ‘FUCK YOU! YOU’RE ONE OF THEM! AND FUCK YOU! AND FUCK YOU!’ People make all kinds of different music of all different states of mind, and it’s interesting for me to get into the space of playing such an aggressive, gnarly song that’s so heavy and intense with my family that I love … in our nice cozy house, you know, we’re all like driving to the show together and then, ‘FUCK YOU! AND YOU’RE ONE OF THEM! AND FUCK YOU! BLAGHHH!’
AS: What a set closer … There’s kind of an outstanding theme of death for the last album, and Lora does shine really well in writing that style a little bit, but no matter what, the music is always uplifting. It’s strange and it’s really amazing; people write songs about death and it’s usually a total bummer. People sing about death and it only makes you more afraid of it sometimes. But I feel [on the album] it’s been very properly executed that it’s not something to necessarily be afraid of.
Sometimes it seems to me like trying to communicate an important message through music in this day and age has lost importance. It seems music has been taken apart and owned by the music industry and society, and put in a corner where it’s no longer the soundtrack to some sort of revolution like it used to be. So much new music feels kinda tongue-in-cheek and focused around a made-up persona or fluffy, non-confrontational, feel-good ideas; staying away from any topics that might ever make you think or make your blood boil. I feel like you guys are trying to push something in that direction that nobody else really is.
CD: Yeah—music is my voice. Things associated with music are my voice—what else? Otherwise I go around and I go to the store and get food and talk to the people at the Farmer’s Market, and it’s a closed circle. I love those people that I deal with, but it’s the same people every week and I do enjoy branching out. I really, really enjoy other people’s art. It’s a giant motivator. It’s like, ‘There you are—wow!’ I’ll try anything. It doesn’t all turn out great, but some of it does and it’s worth it. I gave up a long time ago being all calculating about things. I like to hear the other bands.
In The Decline of Western Civilization they’re talking about your mohawk and you say you’re ‘still searching.’ There’s another interview, one of those TV interviews, and you say, ‘Oh no, I can’t look into the future—my parents wish I was out breeding. Maybe I’ll be dead in five years.’ Could you see this coming—the family band?
AS: In that interview didn’t you say something like, ‘I don’t know, maybe I’ll end up having a bunch of kids and living in a big house’? I remember seeing an interview like that and it tripped me out.
CD: I don’t really remember! All I remember is that I felt it was important to stand up to the police and not get tripped up in that mess of what was really going on in my life at that time. I felt epicly repressed and I felt that that was real. I was tuned into that and the other things and I just spoke from the heart and there it was. The mohawk—I’ve not really been a haircut guy. It’s like, ‘OK, what’s the thing?’ I’ve never really been a haircut guy and then … at a show in San Francisco playing with Madness—Flag and Madness—I popped my kneecap and I was like, ‘OK. I’m going to quit my job. I’m hauling all the Holland pool tables and they’re like a thousand pounds and I wanna focus on music now. It’s time.’ It was just a trigger—it was coming. It was building emotionally and this happened to me and I just switched out. I had been up in the mountains or something and I watched this movie, set in the 50s or something, about these guys reading Steppenwolf or something. They were going off to Korea and they had mohawks. I thought, ‘Huh,’ because it hadn’t really happened in that music scene yet. Everybody was doing the spiky guys. And I said, ‘That’s American.’ That’s American and it’s not copying somebody really, so I went down with my friend who did haircuts—she was always offering to give me a haircut over and over, and I said, ‘OK, do it! Mohawk.’ And so she gave me a mohawk and it made waves! I remember all the punk rock people like Darby or Pat making fun of me saying it was like I had a caterpillar on my head. [Laughs] But it was radical—it was a trip to do it because I’d walk down the street in Hermosa Beach and it was scary. I felt like I had to be scary or people were gonna beat me up. It was a polarizer—I was gonna get hate so I had to be intimidating or it was going to unleash on me. And I felt that way about it because I was in Hermosa Beach. It’s not underground over there. It was very mainstream. It’s flare pants and aerospace engineers. It was intense to just live day to day out there like that and the police would come on me. Anyway, it was a trip because it changed me. It did change me to do that—something external. People say, ‘Ah, the external things don’t matter.’ No—the external things are real, and they do change you. What you do with the visual part of your body matters, both to you and to everybody else. It just changes it, and in a more modern world—I’ve thought about it—and I think it’s even important, if you got it in you, to represent there. Part of it is just letting the world know that you’re a freak. That’s important because there’s a lot of effort put into alienating us all from each other, and I think that by being a freak you let people know—
MG: —that it’s okay to be a freak.
CD: And everybody’s a freak, really!
AS: Let’s face it—you’re either gonna tell them or they’re gonna find out.
CD: You can’t pass, really, and you sure won’t be happy if you try. It’s weird cuz while you’re doing stuff—you’ll see, down the pike—while you’re doing stuff you don’t notice that it’s some big heavy trip. And later on everybody will talk to you about, ‘Yeah, back when you did this!’ or ‘When you had that!’ but while you’re doing it, you’re just doing it. With the mohawk I was just doing it. I just quit my job and I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna get marked. Here I go.’ I think now the freak thing is important. I tripped on it when Bush got elected. I mean he’s such an epic pig and he put us in these hellish wars. Somehow to let everybody know that I’m not what that is. That shit is not me, and I’m like 50 … something? 56 or 7 or something. I’m getting up there, man! Is it even 8? So I’m not gonna pull what you’re doing, but I need to somehow come across as, ‘George Bush—I’m not with him.’
You guys gig like fuck. The pigs constantly shut down shows. The pigs have shut down a whole bunch of DIY venues in L.A., making it hard to play. They seem to want to force the power of being in a band and playing successful shows into some sort of garbage Sunset Strip pay-to-play fantasy reality that’s just a business scam. That whole word is an awful Jack Daniels commercial that has nothing to do with music. They’ve shut down venues like the Echo Curio and the Cozy Castle …
CD: They’ll even shut down the drum circle, man. It’s about keeping people apart. It’s a pig parade, and it’s about keeping people apart.
AS: Generally, if they can’t do anything to anyone individually, at the very least they can tell you all that you can’t hang out with each other.
MG: I think it’s terrible how people don’t appreciate the effect that music has on people just for the pure value of happiness on the human race. These government officials and police officers freak out and go, ‘Oh! We’re not making money on this thing where maybe there’s money going around in circles and people are collected and gathered. It’s not official—we should be taxing this!’ They don’t just appreciate that people are appreciating, you know? I feel that the world would be a better place … I don’t know, I’m getting really, really grandiose.
AS: Truth is truth.
MG: Yeah. That’s what it is. People need to appreciate people being happy more. We’ve all been at so many shows where people are not fighting; they’re jolly, drinking and smoking or doing whatever drugs they want. As long as they’re not dying or fighting each other, I could care less. It’s just ugly when people roll up and they’re like, ‘Stop having fun. This is wrong.’ It makes no sense to me. The age divisiveness thing I think is really horrible too. I mean, I think liquor is wonderful, but I feel like you can have old people drinking and little tiny children frolicking around and that’s great. Maybe little babies don’t want to hear loud rock ‘n’ roll music but it doesn’t mean you have to force them not to.
CD: I think that the forced separation is about creating distrust against groups so that then you can play them against each other.
AS: When you’re separate from it, it’s hard to identify with it, so you immediately—before being able to identify—think about what’s wrong with that.
CD: Or at least you can be played that way. I don’t think that’s the first instinct.
MG: People get so specific about the rules, you know? I mean, we’ve showed up on so many shows with the 21+ shows when I was like 16, for so long. We’d roll up on this bar or whatever—I don’t really drink, you know? And here I am with my parents! Here are my legal guardians at this place, the people who are supposed to be the judges of me doing good or bad things, the points of reference, and here’s this abstract law dividing everything—family, culture and just young people who just want to go to shows. ‘This awesome band that I love is playing this place, but I’m not old enough!’
CD: And the older people are supposed to feel superior somehow. That’s a load of crap too! It’s like a small step to racism, it’s the same game being played—we’re supposed to feel superior and someone is supposed to feel inferior. Classes—it’s all the same power game.
THE CHUCK DUKOWSKI SEXTET WITH INSECTS VS ROBOTS AND DOUGLAS AND THE FURS ON SAT., OCT. 13, AT THE SMELL, 247 S. MAIN ST., DOWNTOWN. 9 PM / $5 / ALL AGES. THESMELL.ORG. THE CHUCK DUKOWSKI SEXTET’S HAUNTED IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM ORG. FACEBOOK.COM/ORGMUSICLABEL.