Cro-Mags – ‘You got to keep fighting, you got to stay in the game’

Words: Miljan Milekić

Where to start introducing Harley Flanagan or Cro-Mags? Do I really need to? I don’t think there is a single person out there, even remotely interested in hardcore music, that didn’t at least rub off against the legendary band’s legacy. And now, they are back. After years of legal cases, frontman and mastermind Harley Flanagan finally took the name back, took the things into his own hands again. Not only did Cro-Mags recently release their new album ‘In The Beginning,’ the first after two decades, but they have new music coming up in a matter of days. We got to a phone with Flanagan himself and talked about the new record, upcoming music, the legacy of the band, skateboarding, and much, much more. Tune in below.

Hi Harley, thank you for finding the time to do this. I would like to start with a question about your new album ‘In The Beginning.’ I feel like the record name itself holds a lot of symbolism. The sound itself has lots of connections to what you did on the first few Cro-Mags records, but at the same time, it brings something new and serves as the continuation of the band. Am I on the right track here?
Harley: I agree. You are absolutely on the right side. And it actually goes a little bit further because, the photograph on the cover, it’s an abandoned building on the Lower East Side that I was living in when I wrote almost all of the songs that wound up on ‘The Age of Quarrel.’ When you open up the inside of it, that’s the front door to the same building, the squat that I was living in when I wrote all the songs off of the first album. And if you look at the back cover, it’s a recent picture that was taken just last year, of me looking from the roof down at the same location where that building used to stand. So in a way, it’s me, looking at my past, and the front of the record is where it all started. So it’s really a full circle, you know? And what you explained about the music, I feel like that is also part of the circle. The art, the sound, and even the lyrics are really about all of that – the journey, where we start, where we are now, and reflecting on everything we’ve learned in the process.

How did the writing process for this album look? Was it any different from how you usually write?
Harley: Honestly, I pretty much do the same process every time. I don’t start with music or lyrics. I, kind of, do both, in whatever way it happens. I went into the studio with only about six or seven songs completely finished. The rest of them, a lot of them, I just wrote in the studio as it was the way I was feeling. So, it was a nice combination of work that was pre-imagined and pre-written, and the spontaneity that comes from just creating stuff on the spot. It’s a combination of elements that I like because that way, some of it comes really rehearsed and super tight, and some of it has more of a free spirit. And that’s where you really get the fire.

If you listen to any old jazz and stuff, a lot of that stuff was freestyle, and it was done the first take. Sometimes, those jam sessions of real musicians, that’s when you get those moments that you just can’t repeat. Especially if you practice them over and over and over again. Sometimes, it can get so tight and so homogenous that it loses that initial fire. That’s why I like to combine the elements because obviously, I want a tight record, something that has that same quality as, you know, some old Bad Brains, or some old Metallica, or something tight like that. But at the same time, I want the freedom, and the explosiveness, and the fire that comes from just creating at the moment. For me, that’s the magic right there, you know?

So, before the record was out, you release two EPs as a taste of what’s to come. What was the thinking behind that?
Harley: Well, initially, the plan was just to put out one, but then the whole Coronavirus thing happened, and everybody was miserable. People were stuck in their houses, and there was not a lot of anything good to look forward to. So I felt like – okay, the album has been delayed a little bit, so maybe we should just give them some more music. That’s why we also made one free download. In times of real cultural difficulties, I think that’s our job as artists to try – not just to distract people but also channel their frustration, give them something to express themselves. Music has always been a good release for people. And if you have the ability to reach out to people when they’re at a really bad time in their life, I think that’s a gift. So I had the music, and I said – “You know what, let me give these people something to play this week, while they’re sitting there, losing their fucking minds.”

I think by now everybody knows about the lawsuit, and I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it at this point, but what was my impression when I first heard new Cro-Mags music is that you were really itching to unleash it on the world. It’s like you had so much to say and just waited for everything to be over so you can put it out. How true is that?
Harley: I mean, I have been writing, I always do, but everything on that record was written right around the time of the resolution of the legal situation. I had started recording right before it was solved, but I only had, like I said, between five and seven songs completed. And they were all fairly recent songs because I have put out a lot of stuff over the years. It’s just that people didn’t really notice because it was not out as Cro-Mags. So it didn’t get all the attention. It was out as Harley’s War, it was out as Hardcore because, at the time, there was still a lot of confusion about the name. You know, there were people out there masquerading as the band, without me. I couldn’t really put out records as Cro-Mags was while this was happening, because there was just too much confusion. So I had to settle that.

And, ironically, as it turned out, Tom Brummel from Victory Records, he believed in me, he believed in my case, and he signed me before the legal settlement was even completed. And it was pretty crazy, nobody knew that was happening. And then, the day after the settlement was announced, we announced that we were releasing a single. Then the first Cro-Mags EP came out the day before we went on a short tour with the Misfits. It was like – day one: Cro-Mags are mine again, day two – the first-ever EP for the Cro-Mags, and then boom! – five shows with the fucking Misfits! Then boom – another EP, two videos back to back, then a free download, then the album! And then another video. I mean, I’m fucking on fire! (laughs) I don’t think you know it, but I just finished another recording. I just handed it to my label today, and it’s the release that’s going to be out before the end of the year. It’s called ‘Cro-Mags 2020,’ and it’s 20 minutes and 20 seconds long.

Wow! That’s, actually massive news!
Harley: So, I’m on fire, my brother, I’m on fire. The lyrics on this next EP, it’s the story of this insane fucking year that we’ve been living. And I even use samples from the sounds happening outside my window.

I actually can’t wait to hear that. So, you said you signed for the Victory, but in the meantime, it became Mission To Entertainment.
Harley: Yes! It’s another reason why ‘In The Beginning’ is a perfect name! It’s like the beginning of a new label, as well as the rebirth of the band!

Well, that was my question, word for word! (laughs)
Harley: Sorry, I didn’t mean to steal your question! (laughs)

Cro-Mags / Photo: Maurice Nunez

No, I actually love it when it happens, it means I did my homework. (laughs) I am actually going to risk a stupid question, considering you’re on the scene for decades now, but do you feel any pressure writing and releasing music under the Cro-Mags name, knowing the band’s legacy and how much it means to people?
Harley: You know, that’s actually a good question. On one hand, yeah, but at the same time, I felt very confident in the album. I was really looking forward to it because I felt like it was my battle-ax that I was going to take all the doubters’ heads off with. The fact that matters is, the only people who really don’t like it are people who are going to talk shit about me anyway. There are people who, for whatever reason, don’t like me so, I could go and, like, give them a thousand dollars and kiss their babies, and they would still think I’m an asshole. (laughs) So, it’s really no loss. I didn’t make any new enemies. If anything, I made the majority of the old fans happy, and I got a lot of new ones.

I felt good about this release. I mean, obviously, every record is going to be a little different, especially with this band, because it has had a revolving door of musicians in it throughout the years. If you look at every Cro-Mags record next to each other, the only person – the ONLY person, who’s been on every single record, and written every single song – or co-written it at the very least, is me. Even if you go back to the first demos of the band, it was me playing bass, guitar, drums, and vocals. That’s the only thing that has been consistent besides a certain level of quality that I always expect. I always have a high standard for what I do. So, of course, there’s pressure. When you’ve written an album that people consider to be a classic, that’s a rare thing in life. And, of course, people are always going to judge it against that. But for me, every record is an opportunity to make a new classic. ‘The Age of Quarrel’ wasn’t a classic when it came out, neither was ‘Best Wishes,’ or any of the other ones. It takes time for people to look back and say that it’s a classic. And, you know, maybe ten years from now, people are gonna look back at ‘In The Beginning,’ and say – “That’s a classic!” I believe in always trying my hardest and doing my best.

So, there are two songs on the album that I’m particularly interested in hearing the story behind them, and I will start with ‘From The Grave.’ The first time I’ve heard it, I thought it was some kind of a nod or an homage to Motörhead. Then I saw that Phil Campbell is actually playing on it. How did it happen, and how much does that song mean to you, knowing your love for the band?
Harley: Well, first of all, I can tell you, it was just an incredible honor because, obviously, Motörhead is one of my favorite bands and a huge influence on me. Behind the scenes story is that when I decided to go into court and fight for my trademark, it was because I had a dream that I was sitting with Lemmy, and he said – [in Lemmy‘s voice] “Take it back, mate! It’s yours. You started it!” I woke up, and it was such a real dream. It was almost as if it really happened. The only reason I knew it didn’t, is because Lemmy is dead, so it could have happened. (laughs) But it was so real, that I could almost smell his cigarettes when I woke up. And I looked at my wife, and I said – “I just had like a really crazy dream, and Lemmy told me that I got to take it back. And he’s right.” That’s when I launched my court case. So, in a lot of ways, Lemmy was the inspiration for how I got back to my position.

Then, when I wrote that song, I just had this idea. I said that song would sound really cool if it had slide guitar on it. And then it hit me. I was like – you know what, Phil Campbell plays slide guitar like a motherfucker. And he’s probably one of the few people that I’ve ever heard do it to metal. Or not necessarily metal, but to like hard rock and roll. I mean, Motörhead are beyond metal, they’re just rock and roll. They’re what rock and roll is supposed to be. Them, and Chuck Berry. (laughs) And, I was like – oh man, I gotta reach out to Phil. I asked him, and I said, – “You know, my label, I’m sure would be willing to pay you, and this and that.” And he said – “man, I don’t want any money. Are you kidding?” He was so happy to play on it, and he loved the song when I sent it to him. And it meant so much to me that he did that. He went to the recording studio with his son, and they recorded his guitar parts, um, in Wales, I believe. They sent me the tracks, and I fucking loved them. They sounded great. It was perfect. It was as if it was written for him, you know?

Another song I’m really interested in is ‘Between Wars.’ How did that come together? I really love it, but it’s not something I expected to hear on this record.
Harley: If you listen to a lot of older Cro-Mags records, I’ve done instrumental tracks that really were different. On ‘Revenge,’ for instance, there’s the hidden drum track at the very end of the record, which is one of my favorite parts of the record. And, if you listen to ‘Alpha Omega,’ there’s that very crazy, jazz-fusion, acid rock, or whatever the fuck you want to call it, that jam session at the end of the record, which was just me, the drummer, and the guitarist. I like to have fun and do experimental stuff. I don’t believe in getting pigeonholed or stereotyped. You know, a lot of quote-unquote hardcore bands and musicians feel like they have to do the same shit over and over again. To me, that’s kind of a cop-out. I think it’s selling out when you constantly repeat yourself over and over again, just to satisfy your fan base. I mean, yes, you want to satisfy your fan base, but if you’re a true musician or a true artist, you have to try different colors and different sounds. If you’re a chef, you have to try different spices, you have to explore and be happy with what you’re doing to keep it exciting.

I just write what feels good. And then, I had this idea for this thing. The time signature that was a little different. And, every day, when I was going to work, on the subway, I would hear this guy playing the cello. And his playing is beautiful. So, one day, it just hit me in the head. You know what – that shit would sound really cool on this song! So I approached him, and I asked him if he would do it. I don’t think he thought I was serious at first, but eventually, I got him into the recording studio. And this guy, he’s pretty intense. He was a member of the Bloods since he was seven or eight years old. They had him running crack from one location to another when he was young, and he eventually went to prison for like seven or eight years. He’s been shot multiple times, he’s been involved in a lot of heavy shit. He was a Blood up until recently when he got out of prison, and he leaves in a really fucked up part of Newark, New Jersey. He’s basically just playing music in the subway to try to make money and feed his family so that he doesn’t have to go back doing illegal shit, and doing stuff that he grew up doing. I really appreciated him as a human being. Having gone through a lot of hardship myself, I understand his story, and I think the fact that he’s trying to find redemption through his music is a beautiful thing.

He learned how to play the cello in school, back when they used to have music programs in public schools. Of course, we don’t have that anymore in New York, but when I was a kid, we did have music programs in schools. That’s how he learned how to play. So, long story short, me and him became good friends, partially because we both have PTSD, and we’re both musicians, and although we come from different lives, we’ve shared a lot of similar experiences. We really bonded. Actually, he played on this new record that I just recorded as well. But, on actual songs, not on like instrumentals. I had him play on two of the songs that are more hardcore, metal, thrash, or whatever you want to call them, but on the endings, he’s there laying down textures and accenting some of the chords in it. I think it’s pretty fucking cool. Then, I got a part in this movie. It was called ‘Between Wars,’ and then they said they would love it if I’d be interested in contributing some music to the movie. And it is really cool because this song is very different from what I normally do. So this would be an opportunity to put this song as part of the soundtrack. And that’s how we got all the b roll for the video, all that footage from the movie. So, it’s cool and interesting on all kinds of levels. It’s a cool song. The story behind my cellist is a cool story. It wound up being in an actual movie that I wound up acting.

I really love to hear stories about people and the way music helped them overcome different challenges in life.
Harley: Well, when he was in prison, part of his therapy for his PTSD was music therapy. They would let him listen to classical music and stuff like that to try to, you know, calm the fucking savage beast.

I see Cro-Mags as one of the bands that cut their teeth on the stage, playing shows and going on tours. And now, after the release of ‘In The Beginning,’ you weren’t able to do that. Did this pandemic cripple your plans and your chances to really reach your fans?
Harley: Yes and no. We were supposed to tour a lot this summer. We had a lot of festivals booked. We were supposed to do Japan towards the end of the year. A lot of things got fucked up. But again, we took advantage of a bad situation, in a way. Look, I grew up poor. And when you’re poor, you learn how to make something good out of something bad. You learn how to survive with very little. You learn how to make an entire dinner out of like a potato. (laughs) You know what I’m saying? You learn how to make shit happen, even when it seems like there’s nothing that you can do.

So we were supposed to do that tour. Gary, my drummer, was over here to do some shows. He lives in Hamburg. We had a show coming up with Body Count, and within 48 hours of the show happening, it got canceled because the governor and the mayor of New York banned all public gatherings due to the Coronavirus. This was on March 15th. We thought the show was happening all the way up until March 13th. So, with less than 48 hours, we managed to put together a film crew from the people who filmed the movie I was in, ‘Between Wars,’ and we did what I think was one of the first, if not the first, live coronavirus shows. And because everybody had been in quarantine, so many people tuned into that thing that it got around 200,000 views. We were supposed to play a show that even if it would’ve sold out, would have been maybe 1500 people. And it was a show I really wanted to do, but because of the situation and the circumstances, we wound up doing a show for the entire world.

People were able to interact live while it was happening because it was broadcasting live on my Facebook, so everybody was writing on the page, throwing emojis, and doing the best they could to have a good time in what was really just a fucked up situation. And for me, that was just an incredible moment. The whole world of hardcore and rock and metal and all, we’re all here right now. Like we can all connect right now through this show. It was a beautiful thing. Even though it was a little awkward, I was very proud. When I look back in hindsight, we did something that was brand new, and now, it’s common practice. Now everybody’s doing it. But for that moment, it was just like – “Shit, man, our show got canceled. What the fuck do we do?! OK, you know what we do? We set up our gear, we put up our backdrop, and we play a show for the whole world. We broadcast on all of our social media, and it’s free. That’s what we do.” That’s how you take a situation, and you turn it into a good one.

And then, because there was a ban on travel and my drummer couldn’t leave New York – what did we do? We recorded two albums of material. So right now, we have an EP that’s getting ready to come out before the end of the year, our tribute to this year, and everything we’ve all been through, and we have the beginning of next year’s album. So, even though I was frozen in a way, I didn’t let that handicap me. If anything, I looked at it as a gift. This was an opportunity to get into the recording studio. This was an opportunity to write songs. This was an opportunity for me to exercise a lot, and spend time with my wife. With the bad, you got to find the good. And, and I certainly did, I’m not complaining.

And next year, we’re going to be touring like a motherfucker. If everything goes right, if the quarantines are lifted, we’ll be back. All the festivals that got canceled this year, Japan, everything else has been rescheduled. God willing, we’ll be doing that. And if for some reason there’s a pushback and maybe the year starts off slow, and people aren’t touring yet, at least we have more music that we’ll be ready to put out. Life is going to throw curveballs at you, and things are going to happen that you don’t expect, but you just have to learn how to pivot, how to adjust. It’s like being in a fight, sometimes you’re going to get hit, but you got to try, got to bob and weave, and stick and move. You just got to try to stay in the game.

Cro Mags / Photo: Maurice Nunez

A bit earlier, you mentioned the Misfits tour. How did that happen? How did it come together, and how was it for you to play in such massive venues?
Harley: First of all, it was amazing. It was so much fun. The energy on stage, and the energy backstage, and the energy in the audience was so fucking great. People can talk all the shit they want, that it was too expensive, too big, rockstars, whatever. All of that shit means nothing. It’s meaningless because everybody who was there had a great fucking time, they will never ever forget it. I know I will never forget it. And I was so proud to see those guys on stage together as a band because I’ve known them since I was a little kid. I used to see them playing in front of maybe a hundred people sometimes, maybe less. And to see them on stage fucking owning an audience of 30,000 people? Fuck yes, man! It made me proud of them. And how did it happen? Glenn Danzig sent me an email and said, “Hey, Harley, you feel like opening up for the OG Misfits?” What do you think my answer was? (laughs) I wrote “FUUUCK YEEEEAAAH” in the biggest letter I can possibly write on my computer with like a hundred exclamation points. (laughs)

We touched on this one a bit earlier, but from this point in time, how does it feel to look back and see the influence Cro-Mags had on people around the world? Like, I grew up in Serbia, in Eastern Europe, in a town called Novi Sad, and ever since my teenage years I’ve known people who were fans of Cro-Mags, but also bands like Sick Of It All, Agnostic Front, and the whole New York hardcore scene. How does it feel to be part of something that influenced generations and generations of people?
Harley: Well, first of all, this was never my goal. I grew up very poor, I was living in squats when I was writing a lot of music, and for me, it was just a way to express myself, and maybe not lose my mind and maybe have a little fun. I was just writing words about my life. I wasn’t making stuff up. I wasn’t telling stories. It was just my story, my music, and my life. And the fact that my music has been part of so many people’s lives, that it has been the soundtrack to so many people’s good times and even their bad times, I feel honored beyond belief. It’s an unimaginable privilege to be able to have people play my music when they want to feel good or when they need strength.

I have a friend, his name is Jocko Willink, he’s a Navy seal. I did one of his podcasts, it’s pretty intense. He said that my music helped him in some parts of his life. And for me, that really changed everything. I realized that my music was much more important than I ever imagined. I know music has gotten me through some of the toughest parts of my life. It got me through parts when I just wanted to give up, given me strength, and given me hope. And to be able to be that guy to other people, it’s an unimaginable honor.

That’s one of the reasons why I take it so personally that John and Paris and Mackie, and Doug, they couldn’t get past their bitterness and their resentment and their anger. I tried so many times throughout the years to extend my hand to all of those guys. Not because I was like – “Oh guys, I love you.” Moreso, because I believe that the fans deserve it. And I feel like if you can’t see that what you are giving to the world is more important than your personal anger, or your ego, or your pride, then there’s something wrong with you. If you have the ability to make thousands and thousands and thousands of people happy – just like that, and you choose not to because you’re pissed off, then you got some serious growing up to do, man. Serious fucking problems. I almost feel bad for them that they can’t see the greater value of actual PMA. Not just talking about it, but actually saying – “You know what, to make all of you people happy, I’ll fucking swallow my pride.” If they can’t do that, as far as I’m concerned, they don’t deserve the fans that they have. If you’re not willing to give to the fans, you don’t deserve them.

And besides influencing hardcore fans all over the globe, both Cro-Mags and you personally became part of New York City’s culture, the same way as I don’t know, Ramones, or Andy Warhol, or
Harley:Melle Mel, or motherfucking Run DMC. You got it, man! I’m honored. That is more meaningful than any fucking Grammy award or anything. I’m a part of New York City’s culture. And you know what, I don’t really feel like there’s many… even the bands from the New York hardcore scene, I don’t think any of them can say the same thing. They weren’t game-changers. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but they didn’t change the game. You know what I’m saying? Sick Of It All, good band and everything, but they didn’t change the game. They sounded just like Negative Approach. They didn’t do anything different. Agnostic Front didn’t do anything different. We did. We changed the game, and I’m not too proud to say it. That’s why people, even people who didn’t like us as people, who didn’t want to like our band, they knew it. And you can’t fuck with that. You just can’t.

Apart from music, a lot of our website is dedicated to extreme sports, especially skateboarding. And what I know for a fact, is that Cro-Mags have massive popularity in the skateboarding community and skateboarding scene.
Harley: Oh, absolutely. I was good friends with Jay Adams back in the day. Andy Roy is a good friend of mine. He’s a crazy skateboarder. And I’ve been doing this since, jujitsu since, what was it, ’95? So yeah, man, insane sports go hand in hand and with insane music. (laughs)

Cro-Mags / Photo: Laura Lee Flanagan

Do you think that this connection to the skateboarding culture played any role in helping Cro-Mags rise to the level of a cultural phenomenon, rather than just a band?
Harley: I couldn’t really answer that because I don’t know. There’s a lot of things that I don’t know about the effect of the band. I was talking to my producer, Arthur Rizk, and he’s been and is in a lot of metal bands, and he produced a lot of bands. He produced Power Trip, and I was saying – “Wow, I heard Power Trip doing a cover of ‘We Got To Know.’ I was really surprised. And he was like – “Dude, that’s like the most covered song in hardcore. You didn’t know that?” I still get surprised at stuff like that.

I think this will be the last one for today. I’ve read somewhere that you still write and that you might have another book on the way. Is there any truth in that?
Harley: I have. Actually, I have been writing more because, obviously, a lot has happened since then. We got the settlement for Cro-Mags, the Misfits shows, just a lot of, mostly positive things. I just feel like there’s more to tell now. They actually wanted me to write another book, and I started writing, but then I was like – “Man, you know what? I can’t write two books about myself. That’s just a little too full of shit. Like, who the fuck do I think I am?” But we can do an updated version that gives the results of all these things and talks about where we are now. I honestly feel like it underlines that you can overcome really hard shit and still land on your feet.

When my book ended, there were a lot of unanswered questions about things. And the truth is, I’m in a better place right now in my life than I’ve ever been. I’m not just doing better financially. I’m happier. I’m more at peace with myself. There’s just so many good things going on in my life that I feel like I need to tell people that so that those who are going through hardship realize that it may be hard now, but you don’t know what the future is going to be. And if you give up fighting, you’re never going to get there. If you keep fighting, good things can happen. You got to stay in the game, sometimes for a long time, bro. It took almost seven years for my life to get back to being great.

After all that Webster Hall shit, and the Rikers Island, and my band, and losing my kids, it took seven years for me to land on my feet. If you would’ve told me it’s going to take me seven years before I’m happy, I would’ve probably jumped off a roof. I don’t think I could’ve handled that because things were really bad. You don’t know how long it’s going to take. It may take five years. It may take five minutes. It may take ten years. But if you don’t give up, and you keep fighting for the right things, if you stay positive, and most importantly, if you keep doing the right things, eventually good is going to happen. But you got to keep fighting. I think it’s important that people know this. 

I had, one of my best friends, Anthony Bordain, threw in the towel, man. And It pisses me off every day, you know?

And it must be really hard to see someone so close to you go like that…
Harley: Yeah. You know, on one hand, I have one friend of mine who throws his life away, and at the same time, I had two friends of mine who were fighting desperately for their lives against cancer. So that’s why I just said to myself – “You know what? You just cannot give in, no matter what. Because what might look like the end of the world right now, tomorrow, it might be the beginning of the best thing that you ever had. You just don’t know.”

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