For his latest Bassist Spotlight interview, Jeremy Holehan speaks with Harley Flanagan of Cro-Mags. The pair chat about his technique, influences, and music in general. Thanks and check out the other interviews in the series here. —Carlos Ramirez
Introduce yourself to everyone.
My name is Harley Flanagan.
How did you first get into playing the bass guitar, and did you take to it right away?
I was a drummer/percussionist originally, but I started writing songs on bass at around age 11 or 12.
I did take to bass right away because I wanted to arrange notes in orders that made songs and riffs that I wanted to hear. You don’t often get to write the songs as a drummer. I was always more of a percussive bassist with my right (picking hand) then a busy one with my left (fretting hand).
Did/does your family support your music?
Are there other instruments you enjoy playing?
Drums are still one of my favorite things on Earth. I like to write on an acoustic guitar.
When did you start singing, and playing at the same time?
When the then singer quit in 88, I think; I used to sing a song from the drums in my old band the Stimulators, but that’s when it became my full-time gig.
Is there a typical way you write for your bands? For example, at practice, or humming riffs while walking down the street?
I write all day; hum into my phone, play my basses, my guitars; one of the first and last things I do every day and night is touch my instruments and fool around, even just strumming chords or playing runs. There is literally a guitar or bass sitting in every corner or on every other chair in my apartment; you can't turn around without seeing something musical.
Have you always played with your fingers? I've seen pictures where your fingertips are looking shredded after a show. Have you ever damaged them so much that you couldn't play a show the next day?
I used to play almost exclusively with a pick except for reggae and ska, etc. But over the years, I have started to use my fingers a lot more. No, I play no matter how shredded I am. Once I start playing I feel no pain, I feel only the moment, but it gets pretty ugly. I go off when I play.
Are you doing upstrokes or downstrokes more?
When I use a pick, it’s really a combination of the two, with more leaning on the down picks. I set certain patterns and attack it the way I would with the kick and snare drum, so I'm mostly picking down on what would be the kick drum and picking up or hitting power chords or power octaves on the snare hits, but it really all hits me then at the moment; I do what feels right at that time and place and just go with it.
If it wasn't for my cell phone, I would lose so many great riffs forever. How do you remember parts in your head if you're away from the bass guitar?
I rely on the riff being good enough to remember. If it's good, I'll remember it. If it's OK or not so good, I'll forget it and come up with a better one.
What bass players have influenced your style of playing?
As far as rock and influencing my style of playing, mainly Darryl Jenifer of Bad Brains, Lemmy of Motörhead, Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath, Cronos from Venom, but countless others have made a huge impression on me and have influenced how I play and I try to learn from all of them—most of them reggae, jazz, and funk guys.
Are there any drummers who have changed the way you play bass?
Well, as a drummer, that being my first instrument, drums are everything—it decides what I play. I have drums going in my head at all times so it sets the whole thing in motion. I'm already feeling what the drums should be doing in my head and my body when I hit my first note on the bass. In a lot of ways I’m playing drums on the bass and that's why I always click with a good drummer right off the bat. I’d have to say Earl Hudson of Bad Brains, and Bill Ward of Black Sabbath.
I apply a lot of their feel to my bass playing, and I have played with some amazing drummers: Gary Sullivan is my current drummer, Dave Dicenso, Ryan Krieger, Pablo Silva, Pete Hines—all amazing drummers, as well as many others.
What is your current bass guitar, pedal, amp combination?
I always use Ampeg if I can, I use a Sansamp if I need it, but currently, I'm using a Fender Precision Bass with a Jazz neck and a built-in pre-amp that has so much thunder that I don’t even need the Sansamp, I just go straight to the amp. I do get nervous with built-in preamps and extra pedals cause I beat the hell out of my instruments and I'm always nervous about all the extra gadgets, wires and more stuff that can go wrong.
But so far this bass [the Fender Age of Quarrel bass] has been really killing it, they made it custom for me—it has a Jazz neck on a Precision body. Thanks and shout out to my man Jason Klein and Fender.
Do you have any gear horror stories during a live show?
Too many. I've been at it a long time. One show in Chicago at the Metro with Venom comes to mind; the story is in my book.
You have toured a lot. Are there any other cities you would like to live in?
There's a lot of beautiful places in the world. I'd like to see as many of them as possible, but I’m content in the New York area. I do like California. Honestly, wherever I am at is fine, as long as the company and surroundings are good.
Are there any bands past or present that you would love to fill in for?
No, cause the bands I like I also like the bassists, and would rather see them in their bands than me. I’d play with Sabbath but I’d rather see Geezer; I’d play with Bad Brains but I’d rather see Darryl; Discharge but I’d rather see Rainy, and so on. I’d rather see the guy it’s supposed to be, however, I’d love to jam with all of these people and many others if possible, but not fill in for them.
Is there anything going on in your personal life you'd like to talk about?
Too much; doing movie soundtracks, recording new songs, new album coming out, and tours coming up.
Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for someone picking up the bass guitar for the first time?
Have fun with it.