Cro-Mags: NYC hardcore icons enter a new age of harmony
Cro-Mags founder Harley Flanagan staged a sneak attack last week. After an expensive legal battle and decades of drama, the iconic hardcore band formally released new music for the first time in nearly 20 years. The worthy Don’t Give In EP is technically three singles, released with some surprising new partners.
True, Flanagan released a solo album called Cro-Mags in 2016. But this release—a taste of a forthcoming full-length—has an even better claim to the name “Cro-Mags” on at least two levels.
One, after settling a lawsuit with former bandmates, Flanagan now owns the name for his band, which has been active, intermittently, in various forms, since 1980. Flanagan filed a federal lawsuit against his former bandmates, who were performing as Cro-Mags, in 2018. In a settlement, both parties reached a mutually acceptable arrangement and stop spending money on expensive legal proceedings. Former bandmates John Joseph and Mackie Jayson will play under the name Cro-Mags ‘JM’ until their booked obligations are complete.
Two, unlike Harley’s solo album, Don’t Give In exclusively features actual certified Cro-Mags. The all-star lineup are all players from different incarnations of the groundbreaking group, which fused metallic guitar riffage into bass-fueled hardcore anthems that were bloodthirsty but positive-minded.
Legendary guitarist Rocky George is best known for Suicidal Tendencies’ most visible years. Guitarist Gabby Abularach is a prolific, in-demand ace whose credits include the traditional jazz standard-bearers the Gil Evans Orchestra. Drummer Garry “GMan” Sullivan’s A-list credits range from the B-52’s to Parliament-Funkadelic hero Bernie Worrell. Together, they bring a palpable musicality to vicious tunes that live up to the band’s brawling legacy.
The team behind the scenes goes even deeper: Arthur Rizk (Code Orange, Pissed Jeans, Power Trip) produced. In America, the EP and forthcoming music will be released via hardcore foundry Victory Records. In Europe, the group are signed to Arising Empire, a Nuclear Blast imprint with roots in Century Media, which released two 1990s Cro-Mags albums before the relationship crumbled. (European fans can look for three colored-vinyl seven-inch editions of the new EP.)
Don’t Give In was a long time coming: Flanagan has been a high-profile member of the New York punk scene since age 12, when he drummed for the Stimulators in the late ’70s. As a star, bassist and sometimes frontman of Cro-Mags, he helped popularize tattoos and the metal-punk crossover. All these years later, he’s actually professor Harley Flanagan, a black-belt instructor at New York City’s Renzo Gracie Academy. Brazilian jiu-jitsu has helped take the edge off Flanagan: He’s calm but energetic in conversation, a ball of energy who’s finally cleared to cut loose.
In between wrangling his beloved pit bulls Rocky and Reilly, Harley told AP about the top-secret new release when he discussed his relationship with the late, great Anthony Bourdain. In this part of the talk, Flanagan was excited to discuss the latest Cro-Mags lineup, his bass rig, the group’s legal travails, forthcoming movie work and the band’s opening slots at Original Misfits arena shows. He also shared some hard-won business advice every musician needs to hear.
The new songs are Cro-Mags. There it is.
HARLEY FLANAGAN: A lot of people forget that almost every Cro-Mags album had different players, a different lineup. The one and only thing that has been consistent since me coming up with the name has been me. I am literally the only person who wrote or co-wrote every single song, both the lyrics and music. And a lot of the songs I wrote by myself. So anybody who wants to question the validity of this record, you’re way off.
These guys are all serious players. I’m trying to take everything I’ve learned about songwriting and take it to another level. All the elements that I’ve learned and that work the best about my catalog of music, those are the things I’m trying to recapture and refine. And the fact that I’m playing with these badass dudes, the possibilities are endless.
How long have you been writing these songs?
Bro, you know what? I write songs literally every day. It just depends when I have a recording session and what songs I decide to start working on. I have 25 pieces of music that aren’t all done right now, but need vocals and guitar leads. And now I can pick out what I think makes the best album.
How did you connect with Victory?
True story: I got a phone call in the middle of the night from Tony Brummel from Victory Records. And I thought it was a prank phone call. And it wasn’t. Tony’s a big fan. He saw the Cro-Mags play some of our most legendary gigs in Chicago, back to when we opened up for [black-metal pioneers] Venom. Those were some life-changing gigs, not just for him; I’ll never forget those shows. The whole crowd was there for Venom, and all of a sudden, these dudes with shaved heads and tattoos walk out. They hated us. And within the first song-and-a-half, we had crushed the place and won the crowd over.
That was a game-changing gig for Tony. And he made that very clear. He said, “That made me want to start a record label and start signing bands.” So it’s really great to be working with people who are genuinely fans of the music.
In Europe, we’re signed with Arising Empire, which is a division of Nuclear Blast. So we actually have two record deals. Ironically, a lot of that deal was negotiated with Robert Kampf, who was the [CEO] of Century Media. The fact that Century Media was part of the process goes to show how many people are in my corner supporting this project. My deal with Century went south, but we had respect. That’s why all these years later, me and Robert are still friends.
Is it a multi-record deal?
It’s more than a one-record deal. I can’t get into all the details. And I’ve written so many songs that the next record will not take long.
What’s the plan now that you’re free and clear? Will Cro-Mags be a presence on the scene, or will you be resurfacing every four or five years like a rock band?
Hell yeah, we’ll be a presence. I write songs. That’s what I do. I’ve held back because of not having record deals, because of this legal stuff. If you want a badass song, I can write you one in 15 minutes. You have other people out here, playing the same songs for 30 years.
Now [that] I have somebody behind me who wants to put out my music, you better believe I’m going to be taking advantage of it. If I can put out at least a record a year, that’s what I’m gonna be doing. We’ll be touring, absolutely. I’m on a mission. You don’t know what the future holds, but…
One thing we do know about the future is you’ll be opening more Misfits shows. How did that come about?
Glenn [Danzig, Original Misfits frontman] called me and asked me if I wanted to do it. I’ve known them since I was 12. I’ve always been friends with them. And throughout the years when Glenn and Jerry [Only, Original Misfits bassist] were having their issues, I stayed out of that. I always told Glenn, Jerry too, “I wish you guys would work it out, but it’s not my business.”
And I wish more people would have been like that when all the drama was going on with the Cro-Mags over the years. Sadly, the hardcore music scene is like some High School Musical, teenage drama bullshit. And everybody’s gotta pick sides and play those games.
That Jersey show, it was amazing to see that size [of] a hardcore/punk gig. [In May 2018, the Original Misfits sold out a concert at New Jersey’s Prudential Center arena, capacity 19,500. Cro-Mags, Suicidal Tendencies and Murphy’s Law opened.] That was the biggest hardcore gig ever on the East Coast. To be a part of that was amazing. Every band that night brought their A game, killed it.
Without getting into the history, was the resolution over the legal situation a settlement?
I can’t get into the whole thing, but it was a settlement. I will say this: This was a very costly settlement, but worth every penny, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think anybody has spent this kind of money in this genre except for the Misfits. So I’m not fucking around.
Having been through that situation, what advice would you give to young bands?
Everybody starts writing music to play in bands and just for fun. But the fact of the matter is: If there’s any level of success, even if it’s just playing local shows, things are going to happen. Friendships go south. Egos get out of control. And everybody needs to know the deal going in.
You should know how you’re breaking down the writing credits. You should have some sort of legal advice going in. Shit doesn’t stay harmonious. It’s like being married to four people. Marriages don’t even work out when two people love each other and have kids—never mind four dudes trying to get along. It’s all fun and all great. But as soon as someone starts making some money, shit starts to change.
My advice is: Yeah, make it about the music. But don’t be stupid, either. You need to have somebody who knows giving the band advice. Don’t be stupid. I just had to spend more money than most people will ever make in music to get my shit back.
What’s your bass rig these days?
I am playing a bunch of different stuff. On the majority of the record, it’s the same amp and the same head and the same bass from the Revenge record. I use my Marshall setup to add a little bit of high end and ring and extra distortion when I need it, to build the level up and down when I need it. I get a little more low end from the Ampeg.
On the record, I played my Guild Pilot and Guild Starfire. I also played my Fender, which is a new precision body with a built-in preamp and a jazz neck. And I’m running everything through my Ampeg. I’m also running everything through my Marshall, in honor of [Motörhead frontman and all-time bass great] Lemmy. I figure somebody’s got to hold it down, and somebody’s gonna be me. Those [mid-’80s] shows with Motörhead are something I will never forget in my life, and my ears are still ringing.
What else are you working on?
I’m scoring a movie, a soundtrack. The movie’s called Between Wars. I’m actually in the movie. [The Sopranos’] Michael Imperioli’s in it, people from The Wire, people from Sex In The City, people from Boardwalk Empire—real, legitimate people. I have a pretty decent speaking part. It’s perfectly cut out for me. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say more.
What’s the music like?
I’m not a one-trick pony. I’ve always appreciated a lot of different music. And I’ve listened to movie soundtracks as background music while I was doing stuff. I listen to Mongolian throat singing, jazz, blues…Some of it is definitely very different. I will say some is very heavy and/or ominous. It’s heavy, even the stuff that’s sad or moody. I have recruited musicians—one guy is a subway musician who plays cello, a black dude from the housing projects of New Jersey, which are really fuckin’ rough, who did time in jail, who’s been shot. I’ve got some amazing tracks with him. I found somebody who played beautifully, and his life comes through his playing, like mine.
Don’t Give In EP is available to stream now via Victory Records. The EP will be pressed to a 7-inch in four different variants: glow in the dark, black and blue mix, solid orange and clear. Preorders are available here.