Chuck Dukowski Sextet: Interview
Black Flags Lighten Up Given Time
In a big, old house in Venice, California, I sat at a dining room table with punk legend Chuck Dukowski's "sextet," featuring lead singer and artist Lora Norton, drummer and photographer Tony Tornay (also of Fatso Jetson), and the 18-year-old circus freak and guitar virtuoso, Milo Gonzalez.
Still reeling from their performance at Coachella, I had the great pleasure of talking to them on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Nice and Friendly, the name of Chuck and Lora's label, couldn't be any truer words to describe them. Funny and open, welcoming and real, The Charles Dukowski Sextet is the best, freshest, rockinest thing to hit the music world since, well, Black Flag.
I think people who haven't heard you, or even people who have, would have a hard time trying to figure out one word to describe you guys...
LN: One word?
LN: Can we use punctuation?
MG: Like an exclamation point!
TT: That would be my word... Hyphenated.
LN: Milo has come up with everything clever. I don't know, you don't want to sound pretentious or something about your own thing. But I am going to go with "intense" or something like that. That I try to... even in beautiful songs or so I am not using one word, but I will describe my word intense. Even in a beautiful song or in a more aggressive song, I try to bring a lot of emotion to it, a lot of feeling and expressiveness. People could get into it, the singers that I admire. I look at Janis Joplin or something like that. What did she do? She brought that beautiful extremeness to it. So, that is what I am going to go with. Now it's your turn, Chuck.
CD: Right, right. I try to... I love playing and it's really for me; it's about the experience of doing it and wanting to bring myself all the way to it and hopefully get other people involved in that. Get an interplay going on stage and be able to bring all of myself to that moment and try to help bring people together in the world. To my little bit of that, you know, so the music, I feel like, the classic good bands, you know, its like Zeppelin, Stooges, MC5 - Motor City 5, I'm trying to...
CD: ...bring myself all the way to it and just get other people with me who will do that. You know you get what you get.
When people see you or hear your music, what would you want people to take away?
TT: I think that's really up to them. The thing about being in a band is that I remember reading a quote from Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth at one point where she was like music is the only art form where people pay to watch people believe in themselves and you know it. I don't know that anything that I personally would have to say would ever be as important as what somebody gets out of art, and whatever they get out of it is fine by me. Hopefully it's something good, hopefully it doesn't make somebody want to beat somebody up or something, but at the same time, I always kind of... I don't know; it's so interpretive. I guess what I am saying is that I don't really necessarily care what people get out of it, as long as it is beneficial to them in some way, and I wouldn't ever presume to think, to know, what they need to get, which is completely vague to say, and I'm sorry.
CD: Well you can't control that stuff; all you can do is step to it. But maybe we can save the world with our ragin' groove.
LN: I do feel like I am communicating with the audience. It's real exciting to me when I feel like people are understanding, and that there is a sharing of energy. Not to be dorky and I think that is one of the most powerful things about music is there is something about rhythmically everybody going at the same time. That was one of the great things about punk rock was the feeling of audience participation. I'm not above you; we're all in this together, and I suppose, really, the hippie thing too has that same element, and so I certainly feel an excitement and a joy when I feel people are...
LN: Yeah, you know when they are killing it; it's exciting.
"Music has become this commodity, it's this thing, that especially with iTunes and downloading in general, it's this commodity, and the culture of it is slowly being stripped away." --Tony Tornay
CD: And we're on message, we're trying to bring some good ideas. I think it's important to stand up and to... like you said, Tony, unabashedly just, do, be, try, and inspire by doing your standing up and being different and being, saying the things you feel. Then other people feel a sympathy for that and it makes them stronger. You can bring that together and that's a good thing. People's strengths and weaknesses are really not as individuals but as groups. People have done all of there greatness as groups, and that's the unique thing about our species and so...
LN: I don't know if it unique to our species, but...
CD: ...in terms of having more control over it, because our life cycle is long so we have to do it mentally, where ants they do it biologically; they cycle their generations, and because they can cycle fairly quickly, they can adapt that way and there just different ways of approaching it. But they are both very social. It's our thing, it's what makes us happy, it's what makes us strong and our big tragedies -- our misappropriating of it, the sense of altruism and coming together when it's misappropriated it is how you get war and all of that crap. So it's important to avoid that side and understand that we all want to be together and we're all in the same game. To have that happen, there is no winning or losing. If someone wins, the whole thing loses; it's all screwed up. You have to work together.
MG: We're all brothers and sisters.
CD: There you go. You know in the history of it that's really true, anyway. Just because I am in rock band you got to listen to me...
For Chuck: How do you see the changes in music as far as its accessibility? If you see it as a positive thing or if the whole downloading thing gets you down and how your personal music experience has evolved.
CD: You mean in terms of the physical interfacing of music? There are exciting things about the way it is now; it's good. I deal with those kinds of things in a pragmatic way. I'm not going to stop the computer-sharing/file-sharing, but more as what is good about the way it was. Why did that work and why was it so compelling to have your record collection and show it off and have that cover up there and the sense of ownership of the culture piece that you got there? It makes people feel stronger, because there is some oneness; here's this band there saying this thing, and I'm identifying with that.
LN: You're talking about vinyl records having that kind of compelling badge to them. I'm down with The Minutemen. I've got their record. I have the first Black Flag single or something like that. Those are meaningful things that are lost a little bit.
MG: When you buy something off iTunes, all you get is a little bill on your credit card. 99Â¢ or something, I've given up on iPods entirely; I just stopped using them. I have a 4-gig Nano, and I just quit it. I'm back to CD players now. I couldn't deal; they kept breaking. It's just frustrating, like I don't have a credit card, I don't want to bother, you know what I mean? I just want my CD.
LN: We talked a lot about how people say all music will become downloads, and there is not going to be any CDs anymore. I think the fact that there is all this downloading and that record sales are so poor... People are not buying music as much, and I think there is a related thing there, because it feels weird... you get a little bill. I spent 99Â¢; there is no object, and it feels weird to buy noise flying through the air. If you have a record, you have a talisman of your collection.
TT: Music has become this commodity, it's this thing, that especially with iTunes and downloading in general, it's this commodity, and the culture of it is slowly being stripped away. Where as a kid, I would go into the record store in the late '70s, early '80s, and I used to buy records as I was just becoming aware of different music senses by the cover art and everything associated with it. There is good and bad in that in the scenes that you're kind of identifying yourself with a culture. Yet, at the same time, you're finding things and going, “Wow, that looks cool.” And there is a sense of ownership within that and a sense of discovery and even being a part of this little club or whatever. You know, CDs were bad enough; you've scaled it down. There's not the graphic real estate, and to me that was always part of the art; it was part of the experience. I use to get bummed when I would open up a record and there would just be a white sleeve. Kind of almost a little gypped, you know. People talking about the way it's going to be. You're going to download a record then you're going to go to a website and download the artwork. Wait... that, to me, strips away a part of the art of the whole package. You know, there were some bands that had graphic identities and maybe even logos and this and that. That's fine, but the whole thing to me was part of what the band was kind of about, and when I say message I don't mean a political message or whatever, but it was part of what they were. You look at bands, whether it was Kiss or Pink Floyd or whatever.
LN: The Grateful Dead.
TT: You got a sense of the community they were trying to build or they were a part of. On one hand, I think downloading is amazing in the sense that it is instant music for anybody who can plug their computer into whatever internet access they get. But at the same time I cannot help but kind of think that it cheapens the entire experience and it becomes as disposable as, you know, fucking whatever.
LN: A commercial.
TT: Yeah, It's just like music has become so disposable to people that it's like something you get into, and it's very transient and like, “Here's a cool pop song, I'm over it,” a week later; what's the next one? I don't know. It seems to lose a bit of permanence when it's just this thing that you get off the internet like eight million other things, or like Milo said, where all the cultural significance you're left with beside the music is a receipt.
LN: I have faith on this whole thing that there are people who actually don't think it will go that way. I actually don't think that it's just going to be left with just getting a JPG off the computer and downloading, because people want that object and I just feel there is going to be a big shift. We're in a deep valley here, and it's going to go up the hill, and there is going to be another cultural break, and there will be some change. We can't foresee exactly what it is. I feel strongly that it will be that way.
CD: I agree 100%. People will find a way to get what they need.
LN: I'm an artist and I can show you our next album cover actually.
[Shows album cover]
LN: I would sure like to have something as big as a whole record to do art for, but we are thinking about trying to add some contents, more imagery to go along with our music, and that is something that we are working at. We, as record collectors and music fans, want something of more substance, too. I find myself with the new CD by whoever, I want more -- what's their scene like? What are they doing? I think about that as a musician and I want to deliver that to my audience; more a sense of what we are about, what our aesthetic is, more sense of community.
"People's strengths and weaknesses are really not as individuals, but as groups." --Chuck Dukowski
TT: Here in LA, just the other day I found this great little record store over in -- I live in Silverlake -- but right next door in Echo Park there was this great little record store called Sea Level Records is shutting down. Erin's Records, which, admittedly had been kind of in the dumps for a couple of years, all these places that were kind of cultural icons in and of themselves as being the community record store, whatever, are going out of business. A lot of people are blaming it on Amoeba opening; I don't really think that's true. It's just between downloading and quite frankly the apathy of people when you turn on 91X or KROC and you're just inundated with shitty corporate rock all the time, and it's like the record industry blames downloading. It's like, no, put out a fucking product that people would want. You know, like Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and the other millions of crappy bands -- who am I to talk? It's just opinion, but they have embraced the one-hit-wonder. It's really weird, that its, like, we are going to build this cult of celebrity for two years. This person, you will hear all about them for two years about how amazing they are and then you never hear from them again. And American Idol... I mean, no wonder people don't like music. One of the most popular TV shows in history of TV is based around the idea of we're going to show you how to create a vapid little trollish rock star who doesn't do anything, has their music written for them, and then maybe they're crazy because they have long hair or something. Where is the danger, risk of anything, when you have some drunk pop star from the '80s and a bitter English guy and the sort of conciliatory middle guy and all they do is critique people. People like it because they like to see other people be made fun of, and then three people end up becoming huge stars for like one record and then they are gone. You know, talk about trivializing an art form.
CD: When you think about how our capitalistic economy works, it's all about trying to commoditize resources and commoditize as far down the stream as far as possible. Then nail down the commodity so to speak and then devaluate commodities that you can't nail down and put all value in the commodities that you can nail down, and then try to own all that. Where they are frustrated is when people say I want the real thing, not your commoditized Hostess Twinkie Puff commodity version. From time to time, people get sick of it and they don't put up with any more, and you get some punk rock, or some hippies or some shit like that.
LN: We're poised for that happening.
CD: Radio impact is always sucky really; you can have nostalgia of when it was good, but it never was...
LN: It's true, you know in the '80s you didn't hear good music... it was all that new wave crap.
TT: I guess the thing I find somewhat interesting though, is that American Idol exists in this weird vacuum of lowest common denominator. Yet nobody, for instance, along those lines does a show on say Dischord Records. Here is this vital music scene that has existed for, what, 25 years now? Or with Touch and Go or any great independent label of any musical genre whether it's hip-hop, punk, you know, blues. I don't know, it gets boiled down to “Let's watch Kelly Clarkson, sing a song,” and nobody really cares.
LN: It's not really about music in some weird way.
TT: That's the thing; it's not.
They have none of their own music; they are doing covers of something that someone else told them is good for their window.
CD: Here is an interesting thing, so that's corporate culture. The music really, and we were talking about this earlier is about culture. What you're missing in the artifact is part of the culture piece, a piece of the culture. People relate to music and culture, too. There is very few people who cross their culture that much to listen to music. They get involved in some culture and the badge is part of the music and the music is part of that culture and that's where you're wanting more of that, in the graphic stuff. I don't know, Milo is the person to be talking about it. He is someone young trying to get culture and interfacing with it day-to-day in a way, and I get some of my access from what I see as he goes through that.
MG: I don't know; it seems like to me that throughout time there has been the pop, junk food culture and then there is the other culture that's jolly and good, and it's going to keep rolling like that. There is always going to be crap music. That's never going to stop.
LN: You know what I hate though is people of more punk rock generation start being insulting of the younger generation saying “Kids today they don't blah blah blah.” That's not what I see at all and I am around kids all the time and it's not what I see at all. I see the kids as being interested in music, wanting something with substance, wanting to have adventures, go somewhere, see something new and different, and I think there is something that happens when you get older; maybe you're losing touch with what younger people are doing, and then there gets to be a thing of your youth as being the only time when things were free, perfect, or whatever, and I'm not into that. I think it important for people who have had those experiences when they were younger to recognize those experiences in younger people and bring some connections and some mutual respect that helps the young people have more shows and more things and more a sense of connection to the outsider artists of previous generations. It's exciting for us as a band to have such an age variant, you know, Milo is my son, it's exciting to have that.
TT: You know what's funny for all the people that complain about how music is, it's unfortunately people my age that are making the crappiest music right now. I'm 34 years old, and people my age are ripping off things that happened about five years before they really started getting into music, all the like Joy Division and et cetera rip-off bands, so it's my fault, by extension its my fault; so I'm sorry.
"I think it's always reassuring to me to talk to people who are into music and excited about music and that everybody who is reading the website can give themselves a pat on the back for being interested in culture and art." --Lora Norton
CD: They are into that music and they are like there is no, we don't have enough music like that so we generate new ones.
LN: On the bad side though, is that, this is the penultimate, you know, the ultimate thing was Joy Division, and you saw it before in the '70s. Well where the '60s happened and nothing can be as whatever...
CD: Like, my god I saw Hendrix!!
LN: Right, and god only knows we love Hendrix, but after awhile, it's like fuck you, you know. I want to have something, too, anyway, so we went on and on.
I guess that in some ways you've answered this... What do you hope to do with the label? What sort of bands are you looking for? Do you have bands already?
CD: Good Bands! Good, interesting music/art.
MG: Nice & Friendly bands.
CD: Yeah, no kidding. Yeah, Nice & Friendly is important.
Are you looking for a particular genre.
LN: No, no, what we are trying to do is... we want to represent our taste, we have a taste in music and we like a lot of different kinds of music, so we would definitely be one genre of music. But what we want to do is put out music that is good. Music that we can stand behind and say this is a great record and I'm so proud to have put this out. So, in that way, we are going slowly and making sure we are behind the things that we want to put out. It's really exciting for us. We want to build that base that SST had back in the day, where you felt that this is an SST band; this is going to be good because it's an SST band and that's what we want to do. I don't know if it right to bring up that, but we want to, or you know like Dischord. Just to put out music we like to put out their music.
CD: I figure if I like it, there is going to be someone else that likes it. On the other hand, I have noticed that my taste runs slightly off of the mainstream in music...
LN: We're going to put out Kelly Clarkson's next records...
CD: You know, that's what I am going to be able to do best ultimately. This gets to another concept, specialization. Part of the reason people are needing to be together is that each person is a specialist, and needs to, like they say in a lot of mystic culture, they need to find themselves; they said it in the '60s, too. They need to find what's good for them, what they are needing to do in their lives, and that will make them powerful. That will make them happy and effective. The meshing together of a bunch of that is the power of a human community...
MG: A rock band.
CD: ...like a rock band, a rock band is a small model of that.
LN: You're saying your specialty is...
CD: Doing the music that I like.
LN: Not only that, but picking out good music too. You look at bands that you helped choose to put out, you know The Minutemen, Saccharine Trust -- those are great bands...
CD: True, Fatso Jetson.
LN: Yeah, Fatso Jetson, right on.
TT: I always kind of viewed independent records labels as almost like hero-meters and using them like collectors in a way. Where you knew there were some museums that you just didn't like so much, but there were some you knew were hanging good work. As a kid growing up in the early '80s I would buy things on SST, Dischord, Alternative Tentacles, and Touch and Go; as you can tell, I was a kind of punk rock-type kid. But I would see that logo on the back, and if I never even heard of the band I would buy it because I trusted their opinion. You know, it was like, this came from Touch and Go; they also did this, this, and this that I dug -- I'm sure this will be right up my alley.
CD: Or, at least it's worth a try... and certainly at the labels there is a culture that goes with them you know. Somewhere back there I wanted to say it's because you can't buy them, there's no buying Ian McKaye.
LN: It's true, it's not for sale. It's an idiosyncratic individual vision that is interesting to see.
TT: Driven... driven by art, not commerce. Of course you need to make a couple bucks to be able to print up the next thing, but...
CD: But the commerce follows...
TT: The commerce isn't the goal.
CD: Secretly, the commerce is best achieved that way, not being the goal.
TT: That's what I was going to say; it's not a Universal Music Group thing where there is a master marketing plan. It's done for the love of what is being done. The only ulterior motives are for people to hear something you believe in verses shilling something you don't believe in, but trying to convince everybody they need to hear it.
LN: It's like what's shallow over what's deep; the metaphor to me would be: you're growing a big redwood tree; it takes a long time and needs a lot of care, but it becomes a big strong thing, or growing some pesticide covered, miracle-grow weed, that might grow fast but won't live... that's my metaphor.
What sort of current bands/musicians are you listening to, if any?
LN: We are going to put out a band from Japan called the Decay of the Angel on our Nice and Friendly Records; they have a great record. That one band we have been listening to.
CD: The Comets.
LN: We have been listening to Comets on Fire, I've been liking that a lot.
"I've given up on iPods entirely; I just stopped using them" --Milo Gonzalez
MG: I saw a band called Melt Banana last night. They are like a crazy Asian experimental punk band from Japan. It was like one of the best shows I have ever seen. Stage diving was over the top; the whole club was a mosh pit. It was ridiculous and amazing. It was cool.
LN: I like Queens of the Stone Age; that's a mainstream band though. That's an example of a band that is very commercial, but they are making really good music. I enjoy their music a lot.
TT: I've been listening to The Evens and Autolux.
LN: The Evens, we love The Evens.
TT: I'm really digging Autolux still, PJ Harvey.
LN: I love PJ Harvey.
CD: I've been listening to The Evens and Carla Bozulich's records too.
LN: Yeah, Yeah, Carla from the Geraldine Fibbers; she's great. What else?
TT: Blood Brothers.
MG: Yeah, The Blood Brothers are crazy; that's an intense band.
LN: Fatso Jensen... and I'm on an MC5 tear lately.
TT: For me lately, like older stuff, Stooges, Black Flag, Fugazi. I've been kind of geeking on Sonic Youth.
CD: Sonic Youth have been very influential, really. There is a unique mood coming out of that, that I like, a harmonic thing...
MG: Yeah, that just barely out of tune thing bands do.
Where do you see the focus of the band for the future; what do you guys want to be focusing on?
TT: American Idol!!!
Of course, the dream.
LN: We have our new records; it's all finished. It's going to come out soon, and we are really excited about that. We are really, really proud of it.
A release date?
CD: I'm guessing early August.
LN: It's called Reverse the Polarity.
TT: It's called "the best fucking record you've ever heard."
CD: It's the first album where Milo is the lead guitar player on all the songs. Milo and Lora wrote the title song together, the song "Reverse the Polarity," a fucking cool song. It's the first album that Tony is on. Tony and Milo together have made us a more high-power band.
LN: I feel like we have really turned a corner, not just in terms of... Our song writing has improved. I mean Chuck and I have even developed more of a song writing repertoire, and Tony has just taken us into a whole other level of powerfulness. So, I think, we're super excited about this record. I am really, really proud of it, and I think people will like it. We want to play a lot. You know, maybe some little tours and certainly we'll play around Los Angeles a lot. We would like to do more stuff like festivals and stuff like Coachella; that was fun for us. We are all about the family, we have a big family. Our band is like a family, and it is exciting for us to go out and spend more time together.
CD: And bring the whole crew -- we roll pretty big and it works.
TT: To quote Ice Cube, I'm going to go for an Ice Cube quote.
LN: Go Tony.
TT: “It's a gang and I'm in it.”
LN: Yeah, that's right.
CD: That's cool. I'm with that, bringing the power.
This is for Tiny Mix Tapes, so imagine you guys are going to go on the road and you are going to make a mix tape pick out one song each to put on the mix tape?
LN: “Jaybird” by Comets on Fire.
MG: A mix tape, umm... like new?
Whatever you're going to listen to in the van. Something that you really like.
LN: “Boardstiff” by Fatso Jetson.
CD: Maybe like “Warpigs.”
LN: Yeah, “Warpigs.”
MG: I've been listening to “Electioneering” by Radiohead a lot. I would put that on there.
LN: Let's pick an Even song, which one? We'll just pick all of The Evens first and second record.
TT: My song would be “Demons Sing Love Songs” by Unwound.
LN: What else?
MG: “Kaja Kaja Goo” by Polysics
MG: Or maybe um, some Clay Aiken. Yeah man.
LN: You know what I like? I like... this is just weird -- Nino Rota. He did soundtrack music, but he did the soundtrack to a Fellini movie called Juliet of the Spirits, and there is some beautiful, beautiful music on that record. It's really great and I would put one of those songs in there which has an Italian name that I can't recall. The whole record is amazing.
MG: “Insect Eyes” by Devendra Banhart; that's one of my favorites.
LN: What else?
TT: She said one song...
Do you guys have any closing things that you guys want to say about something I didn't cover?
LN: I would like to say, I think it's great that you have the website and people are reading that, that an interest in music shows a turned-on mind. I think it's always reassuring to me to talk to people who are into music and excited about music and that everybody who is reading the website can give themselves a pat on the back for being interested in culture and art. I think it truly in a real way makes the world a better place, not to be hokey, but it really actually does. It makes more beauty in the world.