Interview: Greg Ginn of Black Flag

words by Jackson Ellis
| Wednesday, November 10th, 2004

Black Flag circa 1983Originally published in Verbicide issue #12

Beyond the laughable fashion, the corporate pop, and the buttons and canvas patches, punk rock embodies an ideology — and I’m not talking about political liberalism, or anarchism, or cynicism. What I am referring to is the blue collar, nose-to-the-grindstone DIY ethic. “Do-it-yourself.” Want to put out a record? Do it yourself. Want to put out a zine? Do it yourself. Want to put on a show? Do it yourself. Book the band, rent the equipment, make some fliers, and paste ‘em around town.

Greg Ginn is someone I’ve admired for a long time. The founder of SST Records and the leader of Black Flag throughout its entire decade-long existence, Ginn has taught the world a thing or two about DIY work ethic and independent business sensibility. His label has released thousands of records by a slew of who’s who in the history of underground rock, and his music has always reflected his complex ingenuity and diverse tastes — oftentimes to the dismay of those who can’t get beyond the Damaged LP.

Ginn and Co. have stood out as skeptics in a cynic’s world, consistently challenging the underground as well as the mainstream — quite understandably, Black Flag in particular was nearly as loathed as it was loved (and maybe this trend continues today, judging by the many acerbic responses Ginn’s Black Flag charity reunion received). Nevertheless, the popularity of SST Records continues to this day, fueled by those who clamor for pure substance over fashionable trends and style.

It was really great for me to get the opportunity to pick Greg’s mind about the history of SST, the various states of independent music, and even his charitable passion for helping homeless felines. Simply put, if Ginn has put his mind to it, his endeavors have been largely successful — by his own merit and on his own terms.

I read that SST started out as a ham radio business, and I was wondering, when did you make the jump from electronics to records?
Well, when I was a pretty young kid I had a business and I published a magazine…

What was the magazine?
It was an amateur radio magazine. I also started an electronics company, which was basically building amateur radio equipment, and I did that in high school and through college. When I got out of college that’s what I was doing — when I got into music, you know, when Black Flag started, that was what I did for work, SST Electronics. Because I had that set up, I just called the label SST Records.

Was it an LLC [which means “limited liability company”] you’d already legally formed, or were you just hooked on that name?
No, it wasn’t incorporated, but I already had the PO box for SST Electronics! That was the work I continued to do, building electronic equipment — kind of specialized stuff. Then, when Black Flag really started to tour a lot, that’s when it became difficult for me to stay in [the electronics business]. I had to basically phase out of working in electronics, which was something I enjoyed at the time. When we were out on tour it just got to be too much.

That’s actually related to a question I wanted to address later, but I’ll ask it now: how do you deal with running a record label and also being a touring musician? I imagine in the ‘80s when you were doing tons of touring it must have been really tough before the advent of the Internet and cell phones.
Well, yeah, the communication has gotten a lot easier logistically, to do that — even in terms of just the phone bills, and having a phone card, whereas [in the ‘80s] it used to cost $20 to call New York or something. So, the communication has certainly gotten easier, but we also had help later on. One thing that I always tried to do when I’m playing is to make use of the time when I’m touring. I like to use that time traveling where it’s so easy to just “hang out.” I just worked myself into a [routine] where I was getting up early, not just lazing around and hanging out, but using the time to practice or work or read or do something productive…write songs, which is kind of hard to do on tour, it’s easier said than done. But it’s such a shame to waste that time.

When you started putting out records, the first album was the Nervous Breakdown EP, correct?
Yeah.

At that time, did you see running SST Records as a temporary method of getting your own music out there since Black Flag’s initial deal with Bomp fell through, or was it something you foresaw as being a long term business endeavor?
At first, you know, I really had my hands full with SST Electronics, which was really expanding, and I had a lot of new things I was doing. Then, all of a sudden, I got interested in playing music, got the band together, and I wasn’t really looking to get into a new business. I was really hoping that somebody else could do that and I could continue to work with my electronics. I was hoping to work with a record label that already knew how to do that and have that worked out, instead of me getting into a whole different area that I didn’t know anything about.

Which is why you had that initial deal.
Yeah, but by default, I had to get into [the record label business]. Maybe if I didn’t have all the extra work with the record label I would’ve been able to keep working with electronics, but it became too much. It was what I wanted to avoid in the beginning, but by default, I ended up having to put out the records because, really, there wasn’t any other way to get around it.

What’ve your most successful bands and releases been to date?
We don’t have any gigantic hits or anything; we just have a lot of bands that’ve sold fairly well. I wouldn’t say that there’s been one that sold way more than the others, but I don’t know exactly.

There definitely was a lot going on for a while in the mid-‘80s.
Yeah, actually, we probably put out a thousand records or something like that.

I guess you’d probably credit a lot of your label’s longevity and success to a number of things: solid records, strong work ethics, business sensibilities. But would you credit your time at UCLA earning your economics degree for giving you lots of insight and preparation for running a business?
Not really. I had already been involved in some kind of business since I was 12 years old. By the time I went to college I had SST Electronics. I liked studying, I liked going to college, but I can’t point to that much that’s directly practical to running a small business. It’s more theoretical; it’s more economics on a larger picture that I studied rather than [studying] anything to do with the practicalities of running a small business, which I just learned by doing.

With all the censorship that was exercised by MCA long ago, I wouldn’t imagine your view of major labels is exactly positive. Do you feel that, today, independent labels are being exploited or co-opted, how you may have felt?
I don’t see that independent labels are “exploited”…we’re just kind of “down the food chain,” where we’ve had distributors go bankrupt on us, but the larger labels always have secure deals where they get paid anyway. If you’re small, you’re always susceptible to a certain extent. We certainly have had a lot of problems with that, bankruptcies of our distributors, where if we were larger, we wouldn’t have lost so much money. But I don’t look at big labels as being exploitative. A lot of people did when big labels started signing a lot of bands from independent labels in the late ‘80s.

Sort of using the independents as a major league baseball team would use a farm league.
Right, and we all know that farm leagues aren’t profitable. (laughter) They’re subsidized by the big leagues, but we weren’t offered any such subsidies. But I never minded that; we probably had 20 or 25 of our bands or solo artists that we worked with eventually go to major labels, and in most cases — almost all the cases — the results have been pretty disastrous. But in almost all those cases, the bands were kind of past a certain point where I wasn’t so interested in working with them anyway. I wasn’t interested in hanging onto the same bands forever. If you lose one band, you get to work with other musicians, a lot of times that keeps it fresher. But I’ve never objected to bands going on to major labels. Usually, it just ends up with making the music suck pretty bad. That’s where I object to major labels: it’s the music they put out.

Now, as far as the business, the politics, I don’t really care. Everybody should do what they want, I don’t care. But what’s striking is how much money they’ll throw into the music business, and how little inspiring or worthwhile music is [released]. I don’t mean [that no good music is released by majors], because there’s always good music that surfaces everywhere. But I mean, for all the money spent, you’d think there’d be a little bit more in terms of interesting, quality music from these entertainment conglomerates. People can justify a lot of what goes on by pointing out the few examples of good music going on in that domain, but that’s not really what I’m talking about.

I think even a lot of the bands that start on small labels that make the jump, well, a few of them lose something when they get there, but a lot of times they sucked when they were on an independent, so maybe it’s appropriate.
Right. But it’s nothing to worry about. I think it’s funny, the corporate rock thing, but it doesn’t keep me up at night! I really don’t care. I’d rather spend 98 percent of my time working on positive things. I don’t have a lot of time to complain.

Are there any bands out there today that really flip your switch? Or do you feel that a lot of what you and Black Flag brought to the table in terms of innovative sound and work ethic is lacking today?
I don’t know…it was lacking then! People kind of lose track of that; yeah, Black Flag worked really hard, but I think that, as far as the average band is concerned, it’s pretty much a slacker mentality. I guess, as far as music that’s new — relatively new — that’s been inspiring to me has been a lot of electronic stuff from the late ‘80s and ‘90s up till today. Some of that stuff is evolving it’s own tradition.

I wouldn’t have expected that.
Well it’s been my favorite new music, but I like a lot of different music; I like a lot of instrumental music, I listen to a lot of jazz, jam bands…It seems like there’s always good bands coming up. It’s disappointing, though, how many average, mediocre groups just plod along. But I don’t have any trouble finding bands I like around Long Beach and LA. Sometimes real good bands get lost in the shuffle, but you’ve just got to keep your ears and eyes open. As far as specifics, I always draw a blank, because I’m all over the place music-wise. I like to hear music coming from different people [and] different cultures, not just people I’d consider my peers.

I know a lot has already been said about the reunion charity show you did with Black Flag, but I was wondering, looking back a year, what is your take on the whole experience? In terms of the money raised, was it a really big success?
It raised about $100,000 to benefit six cat rescue groups that work in the LA area, and it’s something I’ve been involved in myself. I have a cat rescue organization. The benefit didn’t have anything to do with my own organization; it benefited organizations that do similar types of stuff. But I’ve gotten real involved in that the last six or seven years, as far as just rescuing cats, particularly adopting them out. We do adoptions at some of the local pet stores, try to save some of the cats to find them homes, we take care of cats with medical problems…The whole reunion wasn’t my idea originally, it was the idea of one of the singers of the band, Keith Morris, who approached me saying, “We should do a Black Flag reunion.” I said, “Well, I’ve never been interested in [reunions].”

He wasn’t even part of it, right?
Yeah, he wasn’t because it became a benefit. He looked at it as something to cash in on. That’s reasonable, but Black Flag wasn’t that type of thing. I just felt like Black Flag shouldn’t be one of those bands that comes back and cashes it in. A lot of people might say, “Oh, you guys deserve to make a lot of money,” and maybe so, but that’s not the way to do it in my mind, to have a nostalgia thing…when Black Flag broke up, I felt like that was a good time.

So anyway, Keith kept calling me, and I kept saying, “Ah, Black Flag always practiced, we’d need to find a rehearsal space,” and he said, “But we can raise all this money.” So I said, “Well, if you’re really into it, then I’d be willing to do it for a benefit.” I could see it as a way to save the lives of a lot of cats. But it was a lot of work, a lot of preparation, and it got delayed a few times…Also, for me, it was kind of expensive because we wanted to make it a real benefit, not a “phony” benefit where people take quote-unquote “paid expenses” that result in a big payday. I’m very glad we did it as a benefit; just the fact that everyone involved came out because they wanted to do it — and it’s really my cause. Other people, like Dez [Cadena] and Robo and C’el [Revuelta]…

Yeah, isn’t Robo living in South America?
Yeah, where he’s originally from, Columbia. He’s down there right now, as a matter of fact, but he comes up the US usually a couple times a year — he actually has a little restaurant down in Columbia… He’s not a wealthy person or anything, but he called from South America asking when the benefit was, and I told him [it wouldn’t pay] and he just said, “Well, tell me when to be there!” We got together about six or seven weeks before the show and started practicing every day and just putting in maximum effort, really using that time…that was really gratifying. Dez lives on the East Coast, and he had to fly out…

Did he do all the vocals?
Yeah — well, actually, we did three sets. It was a pretty long show. We did the opening set that wasn’t Black Flag, but with Mike V & The Rats we [performed] the whole My War album, and Dez played guitar so we had a chance to play with two guitars. Mike Vallely was on vocals for that set, and Dez played guitars because his vocal chords got enough of a workout as it was, singing two more sets!

And C’el played some bass, and I guess “Dale Nixon” made an appearance as a pre-recorded bassline?
Yeah, we had Dale Nixon play the My War set.

That must’ve been interesting getting the timing down for that.
Oh, well, I’ve done that a lot. It worked out, it was real fun. And I’m glad it wasn’t some cynical thing with people just getting back together for money. Everybody just wanted to be a part of it, and put so much effort into it. Dez and C’el and Robo were just great.

That does sound great, it wasn’t a Sex Pistols circa ’96 sort of thing.
No, well, I saw the Sex Pistols when they first toured the US in San Francisco. We went up there, and that was great and stuff, but there comes a time when I would feel bad, almost yucky, to see them now. And I don’t mind them doing it, or if people want to go see them it’s fine, but I would never go to see the Sex Pistols now. But with Black Flag, it was a benefit, that was what was on my mind, and we made it as good as possible.

Do you think another reunion benefit might be something you’ll do in the future?
It’s hard for me to say. I never turn down something for cats, but I had to stop a lot of things to do that. It was a lot of work for two shows. We don’t have [enough] money to do a benefit tour and pay our rents at home.

What other musical projects have you been up to personally lately?
It’s an ongoing project; I’m always playing music, jamming with people. As far as the few bands I’m playing with right now…Mojack, which is an instrumental group I’ve had going for a while with Tony Atherton on saxophone. We do lots of songs, lots of improvising, and we’ve done a lot of recording. I’ve been doing a lot of recording, with them and a band called “Confront James.” Tony’s also in that group, as well as a singer named Richard Ray. Lots of recording, but nothing’s come out recently.

I’ve read that after a bit of hibernation, SST is set to begin releasing records again, and I was wondering what you have on tap?
Well, those are a few of them.

The bands you’re in, you mean?
Yeah, as far as what’s already recorded. Mainly, I’ve been concentrating on my music since I’ve been recording and playing so much. But we’ve got a lot in the works. Just being patient about it.

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