I spoke to Chuck a few months back for my Conversations with Punx project. For my reader’s that may not be familiar with Chuck, he was a founding member and bassist for one of the greatest, if not the greatest, hardcore punk band of all-time, Black Flag! He co-owned SST Records which was one of the most influential and popular independent underground labels in the 80s that released important records by bands such as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Descendents and the Meat Puppets. Chuck has also played in bands Würm, October Faction and SWA. His latest band, Chuck Dukowski Sextet (CD6), is one of my favourite projects to date, comprising of a close family friend and Chuck’s family, fronted by his amazing wife Lora (who is also a wonderful artist). Here’s a sneak peek of the conversation.
CHUCK DUKOWSKI: I guess I’m not making it [music] to fit into a peg hole, maybe someone will invent a peg hole for it to fit. I feel like by the time people get a handle on stuff it’s already changed because, everything is in flux like that. It’s like you invent a name and you’re really talking about the past or you’re throwing a handle on the present that references the past. The more literal minds build a box and then the people whose joy in life is to categorize and put things is boxes, can then debate which box it fits in and stuff. They can entertain themselves with that and go into the realm of academia and what not if it gets established enough [laughs].
I find when I read academic analysis of music it always seems to take something away from its essence and what it’s really about, it always seems so clinical and soulless. For me music is quite an emotional, feeling thing.
CD: The thing is they’re two completely different realms of thought. One is an artistic, emotional product and the other is a descriptive, categorizing way of dealing. It’s not that either are necessarily evil, it’s hard to talk about music. When I get together with musicians I focus in on playing because I’ve realised that the talking about it is problematic. Even figuring out how many of what part or how to think about the parts, because different musicians have different ways of thinking how the parts reference each other in an arrangement. One will think of one part as the main thing and the main theme and the other will think of another, they’ll have referencing based on different ones. Where the different bits start and finish is different in the different musical minds that’s within the people playing the music.
I read an interview with you from a while ago and someone was asking you about the making of the Meat Puppets record and about the way they go about making stuff. You commented that it’s about the execution and the energy first and then the song form comes second.
CD: I think so. I think music that is about form first misses the mark. I feel it’s very difficult to get to greatness there.
How did you originally get into music?
CD: I just wanted to listen to music and so I listened to music. I was very, very interested in more music and more music as a little kid. I would listen to the radio and I started buying records. As a player, fairly early into the record listening days, maybe even before the records when it was in the radio phase, I felt like I needed to play music also. It took me a while to be serious about that and to find my instrument. Eventually I went there.
What drew you to the bass?
CD: You know it was sort of accidental really. I always liked that part of music, that feel, although I listened to all the instruments. The first instrument I tried was drums, and I liked drums really but, I never learnt to get good at them. I never owned a full drum kit so I was hamstrung in really going there. I wasn’t driven enough to go jump over all of the hurdles that were in front of me to doing that. When I picked up a bass a few years later, I did jump through all of the hurdles; I got an instrument and figured out amplification and then made bands. I’m in the rhythm section and thinking in those parts of it but, I get to have melody and harmony.
Are you self-taught?
CD: Yeah I am. When I was younger my mom paid a guitar player friend of mine to give me a one hour lesson. That’s the extent of my schooling. He wrote down the strings, how it tuned and what the string names were, gave me some exercises and set me loose!
I understand that Black Sabbath was a really important band for you?
CD: Oh definitely. I think Black Sabbath, once I started listening to them, they became gradually but fairly quickly, one of my favourite groups and they continue to be.
What is it about them you like so much?
CD: I like the vocals, the guitar playing, the drumming and the bass playing and I like the ensemble sound. I think they’re true innovators in music, in their time they’re kind of taking a step forward from blues rock in bringing in a whole new realm of musical material and embracing the intrinsic sounds of electric amplified instruments to bring power and an orchestral feel to a small ensemble of music. Somewhere along the way they recognised that and did it. Who else did that at the same time? Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. You can really hear the difference moving from what went before like Cream and [Jimi] Hendrix. The first band I loved was Cream. I didn’t get to hear Hendrix until I was already listening to Black Sabbath. I didn’t really realise he was there, probably because he was a black guy playing rock and they didn’t play him on the radio. Weirdly they did play Black Sabbath, not the first album but the second album got on the radio, and also the second Led Zeppelin record – I went and bought both of those. They seemed strange and different compared to the stuff that came before and also so big and powerful. To me I thought of that as metal before I even knew what metal was. I used to imagine…I had shop classes in school sometimes and when you get a big sheet of sheet metal and flop it around it makes this noise like a distorted bar chord, like that I was able to get with my bass playing it loud and distorted.
What’s one of your favourite sounds?
CD: I like the sounds of guitars and drums but outside of that, I live near the ocean so I like that. I enjoy the sound of the waves on the rocks. I like natural and quieter sounds too. Although I have this constant ringing that gets in the way of subtler stuff. I don’t care for the car sounds and motorcycle sounds so much. Some of the construction sounds can be interesting. I’m not as attracted to them as I once was. I used to run a factory floor and we worked with power tools all the time and I thought the sounds of the saw as they’d bite into the wood would slow down and speed up and the ring of the blade and all that had a thing. Now my favourite sounds are more naturalistic outside of music.
I can relate to that I live 15 minutes from the beach myself.
CD: Right! There’s a jetty here in Venice that’s by the skate park and it used to protect the Venice Amusement pier that burned down. The rocks are still there that were put there to keep the storm waves from damaging it. I like to go down there and hear the power of that. It’s neat the different sounds that go with that when the waves hit. Even just when they’re coming in on the sand it’s neat.
Do you write daily?
CD: Yes, I play my bass and guitar every day and often it involves composing. Not always though, sometimes I just play. I like to just go ahead and get into a groove. I have sort of an ADD mental process where I like to bring a musical idea forward and evolve it right away. I’ll state the melody and then I’ll take it to another step, I might repeat each section once and then I’ll keep going and just build on it. By the time I’ve gone on for a few minutes, I definitely don’t know where I’ve started and I don’t know what happened a couple of steps in from where I started because the process, if I stop to think about what I’m doing, I wouldn’t keep going forward. When I stop if I think I want to repeat that and then I’ll repeat it, the forward rushing of new musical content stops while I try to remember the thing I just played. The composing and the playing is interlinked but, the process of stopping, remembering and developing sort of stops the free flight…
Do you have a mission or philosophy in to what you’re doing with CD6?
CD: I think with my life and our lives, as much as we are nice people and we enjoy what we are doing, I think it’s super important to try and get on a better more productive path with humanity—I’m trying to represent for that—I think we all are and we need to get out from underneath the destructive patterns that dominate the world lately. Wars are a bad idea, we can’t face the problems of the near future that face our species in the world in general, if we’re fighting, or at least it will be a lot nastier confronting them that way and much, much, much more suffering. If we get together on things we can have a lot more people live a lot more productively and happily, more total also, by cooperating on resources and absolving political problems we can do a lot better of a job because there’s a crud load of people out there and it’s the old model that allowed current ruling elite to be where they are. It’s really the ‘Genghis Khan’ model or the ‘American’ model of ride in and suck the resources out and move forward, which is also what your reigning peoples that ended up dominating the world did as well; they go into some place, suck the wealth and resources out, then move onto the next one. That’s over now, there’s no new place like that out in the world. The shakedown of political…who rules, who runs these different things in the world, has pretty much also happened. Every time these people argue over who gets to have us all work for them, everybody suffers. At some point people need to say, I don’t want to fight for you anymore It doesn’t do anything good for me or anyone else except maybe some shmoe will get to be the one who is at the top of the pyramid. Ultimately I feel that resolving things that way and the need for there to be such a concentration of wealth for some people is destructive for humanity and the planet. Dealing with the future allocation of resources in a violent way is going to destroy them and poison the planet. It’s like the nukes, that stuff never goes away, you can’t be messing with that—it’s a bad idea, even for energy. Why are we messing around with it? It’s only for some people to make money. Along with the wealth always comes power, destructive power that you can be used to threaten people with.
…we need to be better stewards of the resources and wealth…we need to work towards a more global way of thinking like maybe first, let’s just start with some peace in general because in the conflict driven mind of our world, there’s too many emergencies that provide too many excuses for too many assholes to screw everything up. It’s important!
For more Chuck Dukowski Sextet.
Nice & Friendly,
*Photo Credits: courtesy of Chuck’s fb. 1 – Mira Gonzalez / 2 – Jonathan Weiner / 3 – Sam Bencivengo / My War live footage/video by Alec Singer