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an interview with Chuck Dukowski on the Würm reissue

wurm exhumed

Chuck Dukowski came to prominence as the first bassist to record with Black Flag; however, it’s possible that without his previous band Würm, the group might never have emerged from Hermosa Beach as one of the most important American punk rock bands. Dukowski initially met Keith Morris and Gregg Ginn at the Würmhole — a hangout for local musicians in the late 1970s as well as the band’s practice space.

Würm actually recorded an album in 1977 that was never released. Although Dukowski formed SST Records with Ginn and played with Black Flag on 1979’s Nervous Breakdown EP (under his birth name Gary McDaniel) as well as the legendary 1981 Damaged, he still kept tabs with guitarist Ed Danky and drummer “Loud” Lou Hinzo.

While Black Flag was forced to take a hiatus due to a lawsuit from MCA Records, he reformed the band to release a three-song 7-inch in 1982. Dukowski took lead vocals on “I’m Dead” while Hinzo sung on “We’re Off” and a noisy cover of the Chamber Brothers’ hippie-soul classic “Time Has Come Today.” They reunited again a year later adding vocalist Simon Smallwood of the band Dead Hippie and recorded a full-length album Feast. The group split up permanently during the recording but SST released the album two years later.

For Record Store Day Black Friday, ORG Music is releasing Exhumed, a limited double vinyl compilation featuring Feast and more. It’s fleshed out with the EP, tracks culled from the two Blasting Concept compilations, unreleased, demo, and live tracks. Dukowski adds retrospective liner notes and never-before-seen photos. Among a handful of good reasons to brave the post-Thanksgiving crowds to hit your local independent record store (our Record Store Black Friday Guide runs down some of them), Exhumed is the most iconic and important.

Dukowski (who also played in SWA and The Chuck Dukowski Sextet and now plays the music of Black Flag with other band alumni as Flag), chatted with us about Würm’s history and how the Exhumed retrospective came about.

Würm recorded an album in 1977 but the tapes were scrapped after the studio wasn’t paid. What would that have sounded like? Would rock-‘n’-roll history changed had it been released?

It would have sounded good. I have a messed up cassette (jammed, heat and liquid damage) of some of it that we used to try and get shows. I thought of including a song from it on Exhumed.

I’m not sure what would have happened had the Sewer Rock album been released in 1978. I feel like it would have had some fans but the culture wasn’t quite right. We didn’t quite fit punk rock and the punk/metal world had not manifested yet. This cultural mismatch is part of what disillusioned Würm’s guitarist Ed Danky. If we’d kept at it until at least 1981 or so I think we could have done well. But then who’s to say we would have been able to keep the vibe intact through all of that time and the inevitable resistance and influences that we would have encountered.

Songs on the Sewer Rock album included ones that appear on Exhumed: “I’m Dead,” “Padded Cell,” “Guitar,” “Daily Dose,” “I’ve Heard It Before,” “Bad Habits,” “98 Da,” and “Sewer Rock.” I don’t think we recorded “Modern Man” (then).

Würm had a fairly extensive repertoire. There were songs to fill more than two additional albums. Some of the titles are “Our Lives,” “Metal Maniacs,” “You’ll Hear From Me,” “Goons,” “Mystery Girl,” “Space Station,” “Catacombs,” “Star, Sea and Sky,” and “I Want To Be Insane.” I had the flu a few years back and the in the midst of a high fever all of the songs came rushing through my mind playing in an inescapable soundtrack to my fevered dreams.

In press material the band is called “sludge metal” but I get the feeling such a description was not used when the band was active. How did you or fans categorize Würm?

I’ve never thought of Würm’s music as “sludge metal.” Not so sludgy is it?

We embraced a self-image as metal, acid, heavy, hard, and before the idea of punk became defined by the Sex Pistols, punk. I’ve referred to our sound as acid metal. I think of Black Sabbath as that. Würm’s live version of “I’ve Heard it Before” included a really twisted slow acid part and a remake of The Seeds’s “Pushing Too Hard.”

There were pronounced dividing lines between metal and punk throughout the time from Würm’s formation through your time in Black Flag. How did you handle that while concurrently existing in both worlds?

That is true and was a problem of perception and for audience building. We handled it by breaking up. By the time we did anything again the lines had blurred thanks to Black Flag, Motörhead and a number of other groups.

The song “Modern Man” was recorded by Black Flag. I love how the Würm version has more guitar noodling than Flag’s but their version has your bass all over it, like the opposite of what might have been expected. How did that come about? Was there any subtler crossover for Würm material being incorporated into Black Flag?

“Modern Man” was originally composed in 1974. I wrote the lyric and had it in my head when I came down to Whittier for the weekend to hang out with Ed and his roommate [and] (then) Würm drummer Bill Landry. We’d taken over the campus coffeehouse for a weekend of jams and partying. Ed started playing a riff and I grabbed a mic and sang: “He’s too straight and you can wait, I’ve only got time for a few” then we added a chorus and had a new song. Our sound was built on improvisation and we built it into most of our songs.

My dad commented after we’d done a garage jam one weekend that our music reminded him of chamber music because of the interplay between the bass and guitar. I brought a lot of Würm’s lyrical ideas into Black Flag. I liked ‘em and felt like Würm was not going to ever get to manifest them. Hell, “American Waste” was a Würm-era lyric.

Punk rock was hostile to the hippies but Würm covered the Chambers Brothers. Was Würm ahead of its time with irony or did you have genuine affection for the song?

Würm was earnest as hell. We added an overtly heavy acid rock meltdown to the jam but choked on saying “psychedelicized?” What were we thinking?

wurm feast

The album cover for Feast seems like it would have been quite provocative in 1985. What’s the story on the model and concept? Did it cause SST any problems?

The idea is to tie the title Feast with the Adam and Eve myth of tasting the fruits of knowledge. My then girlfriend Suzy Gardener was the model. Suzy is a rock star in her own right. She is the founder and guitarist of L7. I think it’s a beautiful picture. Naomi Petersen took the shot on Spahn Ranch using infrared film. It’s probably more provocative today than in 1985.

The only contemporaneous review of Feast I found was not particularly glowing — Ira Robbins of Trouser Press said, “Feast features the gallingly awful singing of Dead Hippie’s Simon Smallwood but, in fairness to him, is pretty dire all by itself. I’m not sure, but I think it’s an imitation of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Then again, it might have been more influenced by Atomic Rooster.” Were other reviewers more kind at the time?

We got plenty of good reviews as well. We were used to orthodox people dissing us for what we were successful at doing and reveled in it. Simon, may he rest in peace, was an amazing singer. I loved his singing and the effect his image had on people. Punk rock could be so conservative in a way. In 1983 – 1984, Würm would often start playing without Simon on stage and then he’d come through the audience to the stage and freak people out with his Dead Hippie wild eyed hippie thing. Everyone would trip and then he’d get on stage and get mental.

How did getting involved with Record Store Day come around? Are you generally a fan of the concept? Have you dutifully trekked out to your local mom-and-pop record store on previous RSDs?

The record label ORG brought Würm into Record Store Day. I’m a big fan of it because I like listening to and collecting music on vinyl LPs. I think Record Store Day helps stores and labels connect with record buyers and helps bands connect with their audience. The Internet has diversified and atomized current music culture, which has many advantages, but it makes it more difficult to concentrate interest so that anyone notices. Things like Record Store Day are a great way to bring more connection between artists and audience through retailers.

Exhumed is coming out on ORG Music, not SST where much of the material first appeared. I know that other SST artists have had all kinds of problems getting master tapes and sorting out the rights. How did all of that work out?

I won the return of rights to Würm’s SST released material as a part of a litigation settlement with SST in 2007. Tragically, so many of the artists that had releases on SST have had every kind of problem. It breaks my heart that the label I put so much into creating has been reduced to the hot mess it is now.

Lou Hinzo is the only surviving member of Würm. Are you and he still in touch? Does he know about Exhumed and what does he think of it?

Yes, Lou and I are in touch. In fact we’ve even gotten together for some jams. Lou is very excited that Exhumed is releasing. We used to fantasize about naming a retrospective album Exhumed back in 1977. The real fantasy was that anyone would care about our music in the future! Dreams really can come true! Ha!

Exhumed will be released as part of Record Store Day Black Friday 2018. To find participating independent record stores, please visit the Record Store Day website. It is limited to 1,100 copies.

Dukowski is currently part of Flag, joining other original Black Flag members Keith Morris, Bill Stevenson, and Dez Cadena with Stephen Egerton of the Descendents performing the music of Black Flag.

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