On the eve of Black Flag’s North American tour, the band’s newest (and fifth) vocalist, pro skater Mike Vallely, reached out to The Skateboard Mag for a quick Q&A about the group, lawsuits with former members, and his role in the iconic SST band’s current set-up.
Interview by Kevin Wilkins
Lots of people are invested in their own memories of Black Flag and they’ve been bitching and talking shit about the current set-up. It’s been confusing to try and follow along, actually. So before we go into the legal stuff and what it all means, can you tell me who’s in this version of the band?
Black Flag has always started and ended with Greg Ginn. Greg is Black Flag. There have been numerous other members through the years—four other vocalists before me. The 2014 version of the band features Brandon Pertzborn on drums, Tyler Smith on bass, Greg on guitar, and I’m doing the vocals.
To me it seems like Black Flag has always been changing. I think the last time I saw them it was the long-haired version [My War, Slip It In]. Henry Rollins [Black Flag’s fourth singer] was wearing Dolphin shorts with a cucumber jammed in there, Kira Roessler on bass, Bill Stevenson on drums, and Ginn on guitar. The band was catching tons of shit then, too, for not being the real Black Flag. Before that, people hated on Damaged as not being the real Black Flag because Rollins was their new singer. Is the friction between the band and the rest of the world just part of what Black Flag has always been?
Black Flag has always been forward moving, always evolving, and thus open to criticism from people who think the band is supposed to be one thing or another. When I saw them play in 1984 there was a crowd in the parking lot that was talking shit about how they went metal and sold out. I couldn’t relate. The idea of punk opened my mind and here were all of these close-minded punkers. At the same time there is a huge fan base that gets it—has always understood it—and supports the band and Greg’s approach. They’re just not the ones bitching about this or that in the parking lot or now in the new parking lot on Facebook.
Have you done a show since you were announced as the singer?
First show is May 15, in Midland, Texas.
You must be tripping out a little bit. I mean, I know how much of a fan you were of the band growing up, and how much of a Rollins fan you were, too. Now you’re going to be up there on the mic singing the songs we all know the words to, we’ve all attached our own meanings to, and songs you’ve probably sang along to in your car on the freeway.
I definitely can appreciate the antidotal aspect of all of this, but my relationship with Greg has developed over such a long period of time and has happened so organically that it just feels like the right thing to me. If Black Flag is going to shoulder on, I’m the best guy for the job.
I haven’t been a Rollins fan for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, I give credit where credit is due—he brought a lot to the band and he did have a direct influence on me when I was fourteen—but over time I have lost all interest and, ultimately, respect for the guy. As a fan, attending his appearances through the years, I always found him to be an asshole in any personal interaction. It was very off-putting. I made hundreds of excuses for him then because I didn’t want to not be a fan. When I met him and worked with him on a professional level several different times in the early 2000s, I again always found him to be an asshole. At a certain point, I lost interest and stopped investing my time and money in him in any way.
A year and a half ago or so, when I discovered that he and Keith Morris [Black Flag’s first singer] had filed a fraudulent trademark application basically attempting to steal the Black Flag trademark from under Greg, I was done with the guy entirely. He is not on my radar in any way. The fact that I was once a fan of his and am now the singer of Black Flag just is what it is.
When Greg determined that the band was no longer evolving in the 80s, he disbanded it. When he started it up again in 2013 it was with the hope that it would once again continue to evolve. Ron Reyes [Black Flag’s second singer] was given the chance to participate and didn’t seize the opportunity. By no means would I imply that the previous singers didn’t help it evolve in their own ways but I don’t think any of them could now. This is what I know. I can.
Sure, what I’m doing is built off what has come before me, no doubt, but I don’t think any of the previous vocalists can honor what already existed and at the same time move it forward. That’s why I’m the vocalist of Black Flag. That is very clear to me.
Do you fantasize about the moment when this’ll stop being a defensive exercise and become a good time?
Press of any kind is always a defensive type of situation. I guess if you’re going to open yourself up to that then you have to accept it. I have never sought social justification for how I live my life and I’m not gonna start. I don’t make decisions based on what other people say or think. I am my own guide.
But don’t get me wrong. We’re having a great time already. The band is in a great place, the music sounds great, and we’re excited to get out and play. We don’t spend our time worrying about the noise. It’s pointless. Our focus is the music, and we’re enjoying it. For me, when the band hits the stage for our first show, everything else will fall away. The moment is all that matters.
Have you guys been practicing a lot? What’s a day in the life of Black Flag like right now?
We have been rehearsing nonstop. The band is based in Texas. We are in a small town with no distractions. We put the music first. That is our focus. Twice a day rehearsals are the norm. Our days are built around rehearsing and nothing else.
Are there a lot of new songs? How much of the 70s and 80s stuff will you guys be playing?
Our set list for this tour is a classics-only set list. We cover a lot of ground from Nervous Breakdown all the way through to the In My Head. The shows will be a sing-along from the opening note to the closing note. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.
Have any past Black Flag members or old punks reached out to give you advice or words of wisdom?
[Laughing] No. What could some old punk or someone who might see themselves as a punk expert have to say to me? I have lived my life on my own terms … always. I’m not seeking anyone’s blessing or advice here. I am quite certain of what I’m doing. Black Flag is a living, breathing organism. It’s not some band trapped in an era, genre, or definition. Its nature has always been beyond such shortsidedness.
Have you thought about your haircut for that Black Flag hair timeline thing?
[Laughing] No. Those are the kinds of things other people care about—the length of my hair or counting all of the perceived stones in my road. Just a bunch of noise.