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Harley Flanagan: The evolution of Cro-Mags

What hath 2020 wrought? Fires, floods, plagues, and civil strife, yes, but also an album by venerable hardcore outfit Cro-Mags, which is their first new release in some 19 years.

Does that counterbalance all the horrors of the past six months? Hell no, but frankly we’ll take our fun where we can get it, and the new album, In the Beginning, and first single and video, ‘From the Grave’, a) both absolutely rip, and b) come at the tail end of a hotly contested legal battle between founder Harley Flanagan, singer John Joseph and drummer Mackie Jayson. Long story short: Harley gets the name Cro-Mags, while Joseph and Jayson now perform under the name, Cro-Mags “JM”. The whole feud has been going on for years and would take pages to really dig into, but Rolling Stone have the Cliff Notes here.

For his part, Flanagan is very happy with the result, although it’s clear he still harbours bitterness towards his former bandmates. Still, glass half full: “I got two record deals, I got tours offered, I got the settlement and pow! That’s when we put out the singles, the videos and now the album. I pulled together what I think is the greatest all-star Cro-Mags line up of all time. I’ve got guys from all different eras and line ups of the Cro-Mags to all play on the record. It’s definitely a hundred percent Cro-Mags.”

As a band, Cro-Mags has been around since ‘81…

To be fair, that’s when I came up with the name and started working on it. It took a little longer until it became a kicking, working, touring band.

But how would you say you’ve developed as a musician, a songwriter and a performer in that period? Where’s the Harley today compared to the Harley of ‘81 at that point of the hardcore scene?

Now, at that point I just did it purely on instinct and you know, at that point your instinct isn’t even completely refined – you’re just going on. Now, I’m actually a much better musician and I have a lot more experience, not just with music but with life. I’ve listened to so much music, lived so much life, had so much inspiration, it’s like night and day. But, you know, I’m still the same animal.

I saw the Punk doco series, the one that Iggy Pop produced. It just hit Australia a couple of weeks ago. So I saw some really early footage of you drumming with The Stimulators at age 14. Growing up in that environment, did you ever think that you might do something outside of music or were you just destined to always work in this milieu?

I come from a low-income family. If it wasn’t going to be music it was going to be crime. I’m just lucky I stuck with what I stuck with because it would have been one or the other.

On ‘From the Grave’ you’ve got Phil Campbell from Motorhead in the mix there, laying down a great guitar solo. What kind of energy does he bring? How did you find working with him?

I was so lucky to have a legend like Phil Campbell of one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time playing on one of my songs. It’s something beyond an honour; it’s something I can truly be proud of forever. I met him back in the ’80s because we toured with Motorhead on the Orgasmatron tour, and I’d known Lemmy since the first time they played in America.  They were a big inspiration and Lemmy was actually a big inspiration for taking my name back. I actually had a dream where Lemmy and I were having a conversation and he looks at me and says, “Take it back, mate. It’s yours. You started it.” I woke up and it was such a real dream. You ever have dreams that are so real that you have to question if that actually happened the night before? Like, I know he’s dead, but it was so vivid, like he was there, you know?

“I’ve listened to so much music, lived so much life, had so much inspiration, it’s like night and day. But, you know, I’m still the same animal.”

When do you expect to be able to tour, given the current state of play where there’s a pandemic on so many places are in lockdown? How do you even plan a support tour in light of what’s going on in the world?

Well, you know, we did have all these gigs lined up for the [northern] summer and obviously all of them got cancelled. But the good news is that so far everything that has been cancelled is being rescheduled for next year. Like literally every show.  So, we’re not going to get out most likely until next year, but next year will be really busy, because we’re not just going to be making up for lost tours, but doing a lot of additional shows.

In the meantime, have you guys embraced the online culture which has evolved out of this? There are a lot of bands out there doing live streaming gigs and at home stuff, but I don’t know how that would translate for a hardcore outfit – you wouldn’t necessarily get that kind of live energy.

We were actually one of the first bands to do an online show after COVID. We did a show, a quarantine gig, literally the day after quarantine went into effect in New York. When everything was shutting down we were debating right up until the last 48 hours whether the gig was going to go on, and then the mayor and the governor said no more public gatherings so what we did was what got all our gear and we put up our backdrop and lights and everything, and got a mixing desk and got the film crew from the movie I was working on and filmed the show and put it out live, so it was actually the first quarantine gig.