Interview: Former Black Flag Member Chuck Dukowski and Oxbow's Eugene Robinson Talk Black Face
Today, Chuck Dukowski leads the bent alt-rock unit Chuck Dukowski Sextet (a.k.a. CD6), but to punk fans, he will forever be known as the visceral, animalistic bass player and songwriter behind Black Flag’s seminal first five years. “My War”? Yep, Dukowski wrote it. “Spray Paint” and “I’ve Heard It Before”? Both flowed from the bassist’s poison pen. So when Revolver learned that Dukowski had recently formed a new band, Black Face, whose set list included a handful of Flag classics as well as songs from Dukowski’s post-flag bands SWA and Würm, we were pleasantly un-surprised to find that he’d brought in Oxbow frontman Eugene Robinson to front the proceedings. Robinson’s own visceral, confrontational and heart-attack-serious delivery provides the perfect complement/vehicle/assault weapon for Dukowski’s id-saturated songwriting, and in anticipation of of Black Face’s Hydra Head debut, which comes out November 25, Revolver spoke to the pair to talk about their combustible collaboration came to be.
REVOLVER How did Black Face come to be?
CHUCK DUKOWSKI I’ve known Eugene for quite a few years and have been a fan of his music. I was instrumental in SST Records putting out Oxbow’s [1997 album] Serenade in Red. Eugene is a totally compelling and courageous performer. He once brought Oxbow to L.A. to play with the CD6 at a blowout party at a warehouse space. On the floor with no stage, in a room packed with kids, Eugene taped down his ears and got down rolling in the muck at their feet, growling and sweating. It was super intense and great. People tripped out. I doubt they’d never experienced anything like it, especially so up-close and personal. It stuck in my mind.
Sometime in the middle of 2010, Eugene gave me a call and started talking about putting a band together. We picked up the conversation from time to time. The thought of making music with Eugene was compelling. I told him about a couple of songs I remembered from late in my Black Flag days that might be interesting to try out. He was all for it.
Around the same time, I rediscovered a trove of all of my writing going back into the ’70s and up to the early ’90s. I found the original handwritten lyrics for “No More,” “I’ve Heard It Before, “Spray Paint,” “My War,” “Padded Cell,” “I’m Dead,” and many more. I was reading them and thinking, “Damn, some of these are real good.” When I told Eugene about all of this, he was way into it. It’s awesome to finally bring these ideas to fruition. It’s not all about old stuff, though.
EUGENE ROBINSON I've known Chuck much longer than Chuck’s known me, having been a crazy fan and having seen Black Flag for the first time back when Dez [Cadena] was singing. Then I moved to California, and as these things go, meandering crossroads style, I met him, possibly via an interview. And thusly began the association.
Now, the idea had always been in my head to sing for him or with him. But there are only some times in life when the right chance shines the right way, and it makes a kind of sense that it didn’t before, and I am sensitive to that. And that sensitivity had me, after years of mulling it over, mentioning it to Chuck. After talking to the guys at our label, Hydra Head, and then having Chuck let me know that while we could get Dez and [former Black Flag drummer] Robo, [founder/guitarist Greg] Ginn’s participation was not going to happen, it seemed that all signs were pointing toward what had been staring us in the face.
Rather than just do some retro thing, we could do something that no one else could do. Call it the lost Black Flag basement tapes or whatever: all of the Chuck Dukowski–penned tunes that went with him when he stopped actively playing bass in Black Flag were what we’d do. Songs that he had lyrics for, music for, and even in some cases had rehearsed and recorded. Given all of the great Flag songs he himself had written, it seemed we could actually put together a set of shit that would just kill you, and this would be outside of the Flag tunes that he had written—which, of course, were on the table for the live shows.
Chuck came up with the name, the music, and the lyrics, and we got Dukowski’s son, Milo Gonzalez, from Insects v. Robots, as well as CD6, on guitar. I came up with the voice and Oxbow’s former drummer Tom Dobrov. So, long answer, and bound to get longer. But you asked.
Black Face—there are several levels of wordplay in there that are simultaneously dumb and brilliant and thought provoking and enraging. Of all the names you could’ve chosen, why that one?
ROBINSON For precisely all of the reasons you mention. Through Oxbow and Oxbow’s live show, my involvement has always been on some agitprop edge of pushing tender spots. And this name worked on me in the same way Black Flag did when I first heard it: “Oh, like the bug spray?" And all of the cheap-seat laughter that that engendered, followed very quickly by a very, very heavy correction that was all about how else the name worked. To walk away from it only thinking about Al Jolson would be wrongheaded. But even if it is only that, I still like it.
DUKOWSKI I was throwing stuff out there, and when I tossed “Black Face,” Eugene stopped me. There was a sick racist drift in our culture that had people mocking black people while feeling the desire to channel some of their spirit, virility, and cool by wearing black face. Eugene is excited about taking on all of that. He also insists we perform [Black Flag’s] “White Minority.” Let’s have a look at this fucked-up shit.
I also just like the concept of a mask. Masks are powerful; the Aztecs were super-interested in the power of costume and masks. Things like black face, haircuts, uniforms, tribal costumes, masks and assumed names all bring a transformative experience to the wearer. At the same time wearing black face is a mockery, it’s also a wish. Freud said sometimes we present our deepest desires as a joke.
There have been multiple attempts to resurrect some incarnation of Black Flag over the years with new people on the microphone. What makes this one different?
DUKOWSKI I don’t think there will ever be a real Black Flag reunion. For me, Black Face is a way to channel my Black Flag emotions and creative energy. Black Flag was not a “thing” for me. It is, and was, part of me, and that part of me needs to scream.
ROBINSON In my mind, this is no resurrection. I could have done this only one time in my life, and that time is now. Oxbow has a certain elegance to it, but the trajectory of my life since we recorded our last record, or even the Oxbow record we’re working on now, has been everything but elegant. I don’t drive a Benz. I don’t live in a mansion. And in general, not many give a fuck whether I live or die at a point in my life where someone should care. So Black Face makes sense to me emotionally in ways that it never could when I was 19. It’s a sledgehammer for a man desperately in need of a sledgehammer.
Chuck, you’ve had decades to keep all this material simmering. What do these songs mean to the 2011 version of you, and how do you think that comes across both on record and live?
DUKOWSKI It’s me, they’re me, and there is no distance. When you hear them, you’ll understand. It comes across.
Eugene, you’ve experienced many of these songs for the past 25-plus years of your life, too. What does it mean to you to actually be able to get in front of a microphone and do this?
ROBINSON It didn’t make itself known to me in any real way, even through the rehearsals, until we got into the studio. I stepped up to the mic and realized that I needed a moment because I, in all likelihood, was going to lose it. I have stepped up to a lot of microphones, and I have lost it a lot. But not like this.
Why have you decided to release your first material on vinyl?
ROBINSON All of the stuff I am releasing on Hydra Head these days will start like that. Oxbow’s next record, The Thin Black Duke, will play out over several 7-inches. Some other writer asked us if we were trying to thwart file sharers/music thieves, and I said that it’s not so much that but trying to return art and artifact to some sort of magical space. And as a lyricist, at least with the Oxbow stuff, I am fully fucking sick and tired of people asking me what the lyrics are because they’ve purchased a download and the lyrics don’t come with it. Besides which, for us, or me, it sort of recaptures that cool thing that kicked in when I actually tracked down some of those first few Black Flag 7-inches.
DUKOWSKI CDs and MP3s are great, and I listen to music all the time in these formats. But records are better than CDs both as a listening format and as an artifact. Their weakness is portability. I still own and play the first 7-inch I ever purchased, and it still sounds great. Time does not decay the sound. When I buy a new computer or don’t pay my data-storage fee, it’s not deleted.
Remember that between every two points there are an infinite number of other points. So, even the highest-resolution digital picture of sound leaves an infinite amount of that sound unheard.
OK, last question: Is this a real touring band, or something you guys have to get off your chest?
ROBINSON We’re going to tour. But is it on our chests? Are knives usually found on people’s chests?
DUKOWSKI How about yes and yes?
Photos by Raymond Ahner