Tom Flynn interview, Barbacoa, Orinda, 25th October 2012

Text: Rokko / Photos: Tom Flynn, Stacy Bucks, Rokko


Tom Flynn not only has a signature guitar style but more generally also quite an amazing CV: With his label Boner Records, he released albums by bands such as Steel Pole Bath Tub, Warlock Pinchers, MDC, Ed Hall, Verbal Abuse, Milk Cult – and some of the Melvins’ very, very finest: “Ozma”, “Bullhead”, “Eggnog”, “Lysol”. He also was in bands with Smelly Mustafa (known for Plainfield and other super obscure phenomena) and joined the Melvins in the early 1990s when their bassist Lori Black (as mentioned countless times before, the daughter of child star Shirley Temple) was going through certain problems. His main band back in the early days, though, was Fang, and currently, he plays guitar in Antler Family. But let’s not mix things up.

Tom Flynn in 1978 © Tom Flynn

Rokko: Your official biography kinda starts with Fang and Boner Records, but you had a life before that too. Can you tell me where you grew up and when you got hooked on the whole punk rock thing?

Tom Flynn: I grew up in Connecticut on the East Coast and I got into punk rock when I was 15 or 16 years old, around ’77. We had kind of a band in high school called Tapeworm. We recorded a single but only played a few times live because there wasn’t any place to play, especially where we lived. It was just about 50 miles out of New York City, but we couldn’t really easily go to New York.

What were the bands that got you into all that?

Ramones and Sex Pistols pretty much, you know, the usual.

Then I was in another band in high school called The Safety Patrol. We never released any recordings, but we did play live a few times, at CBGBs once.

After high school, I moved out here to the West Coast when I was 17, started trying to get bands together for a little while. A year or so after I moved out here, my friend Brian Beattie from high school who I had been in Tapeworm with, also moved out here and we decided to start Fang as a two-piece because we couldn’t really find anyone else to play with. [laughs] One of us would play drums, the other one would play guitar or bass, and sing. We recorded a single and also went on a small tour in the US, I guess that would have been 1981.

Then he left to move to Texas, I came back out here, found other people and kept going with Fang.

Did you live in Berkeley back then or in San Francisco?

I lived in Berkeley, in Emeryville,…

What made you move to the Bay Area anyway?

After high school, I was supposed to go to college in Chicago at Northwestern University. And I went there… for… three weeks [laughs] and then dropped out. I knew someone from high school who had moved out to California, so I moved out with them. It was kind of to see how far I could get away from where I had grown up.

And then, you started Boner Records to release Fang records.

Yeah, because we wanted to release some records and rather than having someone else doing it, it seemed easier to just do it ourselves. We also had more control over it. I released two Fang records and then helped that band Special Forces release a record of their own. Then it just went on from there.

And when I quit Fang, I just kept doing the record label.

When did you quit Fang?

That was in ’84. They kept going with different members for a few years and then, in ’89, I think, Sam strangled his girlfriend or ex-girlfriend. He was on the run from the law for a month or two and finally they caught him in Alaska, and he went to jail.

[for a rundown of these events by Sam “Sammytown” McBride himself, check the book “Avant-garde from Below: Transgressive Performance from Iggy Pop to Joe Coleman and GG Allin”: ]

Right now, he’s playing in our new band Cornelius Asperger and the Bi-Curious Unicorns and in Fang. But before I started playing with him again this year, I hadn’t played with him at all since ’84, so it had been a long time. And he’s a much different person now than he was then. He’s off heroin, that’s always helpful. [laughs]

Tom Flynn after the interview © Rokko

Agreed. Now back to your label: Who came up with the grandiose name Boner Records?

[laughs] That would be me, I suppose. I lived on this street in Berkeley called Bonar and people would write me letters, spelling it as Boner Street. So it was Boner Records on Boner Street. It never was really thought of as a permanent ongoing thing, it just kind of turned into that.

Then it just developed, and bands approached you?

Yeah, I liked doing the label. I would look for bands or they would send me tapes. But mostly it started out with bands I knew from Berkeley and San Francisco. I didn’t put out that many bands, it was mainly through mutual contacts.

How did it happen that you signed the Melvins?

I had talked to them on the phone a long time ago, like ’84 or ’85 through Green River. I knew Green River from playing with Fang in Seattle and I actually wanted to put out a Green River record, but they ended up doing it with Homestead. They wanted to come down and play with the Melvins. They had sent me a Melvins demo, I think. So I knew the name and then I’d heard about the “Gluey Porch Treatments” record, it got good reviews, but I’d never really heard it.

Then, maybe in 1988, this girl I knew, Stefanie Sargent – she was in 7 Year Bitch later – she had been playing “Gluey Porch Treatments” for me and was really pushing the Melvins to me, who by then had moved out to San Francisco. I liked it and we started to do a record from there.

So what did you think when you heard their records?

I liked “Gluey Porch Treatments” a lot. It just seemed like the same stuff I had been trying to do before, sort of punk rock mixed with Black Flag mixed with Black Sabbath mixed with Flipper.

When you heard the records that you would release, like “Bullhead” or “Lysol”…

they didn’t seem that weird to me at that time. Well, “Lysol” might have seemed a little strange because I remember the first time I heard it: the intro just went on and on, it was guitar playing forever and ever. But I had been playing bass with the Melvins before “Lysol” so I knew what they were capable of doing. [laughs]

You played bass with the Melvins after Lori… kind of left for the first time.

Yeah, they had a tour set up, but Lori couldn’t do it, so they had me do it.

That was in 1990.

1990, yeah, right. So I did this two-month summer tour with them. Over that fall, I did a few more little tours with them on the West Coast. In December, we did a tour with Helmet, it was right after Helmet’s first record and they opened up for us. This was for three weeks and that’s about it.

You never recorded with the Melvins?

I recorded in Seattle with them, the Kiss cover “God of Thunder”. That’s the only thing I ever recorded with them ‘cause Lori was still their bass player at that time. After we got back from all these tours, she started playing with them again. I think pretty soon after it, they went to Europe for the first time and Lori played bass. It was January or February of ’91, I think.

Yeah, I heard some stories about that tour… [laughs] like buying drugs in squats and getting really sick.

Might have been, I don’t know. The Melvins were on tour with Steel Pole Bath Tub.

Was it tough for you to join the Melvins, to learn how to play the songs?

It took a lot of practice, but these guys are willing to practice as much as it takes. It didn’t seem that hard, although there were some complicated little parts, when the timing is weird. But I knew the songs from listening to them a lot.

You rehearsed in San Francisco?

Yeah, they lived in San Francisco and I lived in San Francisco too, so that was easy. I’m not sure how long it was before the tour started when they asked me to do it, but they knew that I knew how to play. It worked out well.

What was the end of not playing with them anymore like?

Well, it wasn’t like I was kicked out, because I was only taking Lori’s place on tour.

No heartbreaker?

No. I even played one last show with them right after the European tour, that was early ’91: They came back, but Lori stayed in Europe. I think her mom was there. I don’t know if her mom worked as an ambassador then or if she was just there.

Yeah, with Lori, there were all these rumours that she might have OD’d or living on the peninsula of Yucatán and studying the Mayan calendar. [laughs]

Ha, I’ve never heard that one! But I did hear people saying that she OD’d.

You saw her in San Francisco afterwards, right?

Yeah, I don’t know if she ever OD’d – I was never part of her “problems”, whatever they were, you know. But she never could go on tour successfully. I was there in Europe on their tour for a part of it ‘cause I played in Duh. So I saw them in England and she seemed to have it together then to play every show. But I heard stories that she might have been difficult in some towns. [laughs] For whatever reasons, I don’t wanna speculate.

Yeah, sure. When did you see her the last time?

Well, I’ve talked to her on the phone because I still have to deal with her with the Melvins royalties. So I talked to her on the phone within the last year or two. But I don’t know when I have actually seen her in person last… maybe… 15 years ago. As far as I know, she still lives in San Francisco, but I don’t know what she’s doing now.

Soon after she left the Melvins, she talked about wanting to play music, but I don’t know if she ever did or not.

I heard she collected art…

I wouldn’t doubt it, but I don’t know. She has wealthy parents, so she can probably do whatever she wants.

Tom Flynn playing with his current band Antler Family © Stacy Bucks

How did you manage the distribution with Boner Records back then?

Well, I don’t know what it’s like now because I haven’t really dealt with it in a long time, but back then, I had to pay the record pressing plants, make the records, have them shipped to my house and then I had to sell them to distributors. There were a few around, there was Rough Trade and Systematic; Important on the East Coast, which turned into Relativity; Dutch East India – I don’t even know if they’re still operating or not. So you had to send them, you know, a hundred records, and hopefully they would pay you. Usually, they would pay you very late, but if they sold out of records and they wanted more, then they would have to.

It usually worked out, except for a couple of times when companies went totally bankrupt and out of business which would end up with me losing thousands of dollars.

I think in like 1987, there were three of them that went out of business all at once and it was a real tough time.

You co-released some records with Tupelo Records – what about that?

That was this guy Gary Held, he runs the distributor Revolver now in the US – they distribute all our stuff now. He was always in the US, but he would release stuff in Europe and take care of the European sales.

What was the development of Boner Records like after your first releases and those of the Melvins, who kind of already had a name…?

At the same time I started doing the Melvins stuff, I started doing stuff with Steel Pole Bath Tub which worked out well, and Ed Hall, Superconductor, Warlock Pinchers, and I was in a band called Star Pimp, so I also released that stuff.

But then, I guess I gradually lost interest. It started being not as much fun as it used to be. It wasn’t any fun trying to be professional, doing professional promotion and all that stuff. The Melvins had started working with major labels, Steel Pole Bath Tub too. I didn’t feel like looking for new bands, so I just… stopped. [laughs]

The last thing I put out was Superconductor’s “Bastardsong” in ’96. Then I didn’t have any interest in putting anything else out. I mean, it stills exists, the whole back catalogue is still in print and for sale, it’s still being sold now!

Did you ever have interns or did you do everything alone with Boner Records?

It was mostly me, every once in a while, there would be somebody helping, but there were no interns. For the most part it was me doing everything: all the mailing, all the mail order, all the art layout, all the phone calls… pretty much every job you could imagine.

But for a while it really paid the bills.

Yeah, it still pays the bills! Just the Melvins stuff and the Steel Pole Bath Tub stuff – on a much lower level now, but for a few years, I’d been making good money, yeah. The costs were low, so it was pretty easy to make a profit.

Did you have contracts with the bands?

I had contracts at the beginning, probably for the first Steel Pole Bath Tub and for the first Melvins. But then it was pretty much mutual agreements from then on and I’ve never had problems with any band.

What did you focus on after the end of Boner Records?

Ahh, I didn’t do anything for a long time, really. Just recently I started playing again in that band Cornelius Asperger and the Bi-Curious Unicorns, but I just hung around and, you know, watched TV, didn’t do anything, really. [laughs]

You lived off the money from Boner Records?

Yeah, I don’t have any big expenses, so I can still live off it nowadays.

So it’s still a successful label. [laughs]

It’s still a raging success! [laughs]

Three-legged Smelly Mustafa © Rosie Ball

You also had a band with Smelly Mustafa, called Rudolph.

[laughs] Yeah, right!

Can you tell me anything about that?

Well, it was a band with him and his girlfriend Karen and a few different drummers. We made some recordings, but I don’t think there were ever any plans to do anything with them. We played locally and I guess Los Angeles. It was always sort of a part-time band for everyone involved. Then, when he and his girlfriend broke up, I guess that’s when the band broke up, I can’t even remember what happened. It was mainly a band for his girlfriend to do what she wanted to do. She had some songs written and it was a way to get those out there.

Did Rudolph also have that weird Plainfield quality?

It was not as violent as Plainfield. I don’t know how to describe it… A lot of stuff was sort of more punk rock, Black Flag type of thing. Plainfield had all that jazz but there was none of that in Rudolph – ‘cause I wouldn’t allow it.


There were no weird violent lyrics like in Plainfield. A lot of the lyrics were just gibberish, him making chicken noises or whatever. It was a good band, but like I said, it was pretty much sort of part-time.

Did you see Plainfield in Europe?

No, unfortunately not! I’ve only heard about it.

Well, each show was different, I guess, but if the audience was antagonistic, it could get pretty violent. You never knew who was gonna be in the band ‘cause there was always a different line up. He had like five different guitarists. I think it was always him, Smelly singing and then there was this guy called Greg playing bass.

Gregg Turkington?

No, not Gregg Turkington, I guess Greg Frair was his name. But then he had a lot of different people playing guitars and drums.

Yeah, the Melvins also joined in…

I don’t think Buzz ever played anything with Plainfield. Dale might have played drums once, but he had some people from Mr. Bungle. Trey Spruance played guitar in Plainfield sometimes. I guess he liked having a lot of different musicians and they liked playing because he would take care of everything: He would supply them with the equipment. All they had to do was show up, get on stage and play – so everyone was happy to do it, he would do all the work and arranging.

Yeah, Smelly had a good reputation – for some time…

I guess he was always… I don’t know how to describe it… He was a hard worker. [laughs] He could be kind of self-destructive in a way.

Do you know why he then made that cut, changed his life completely and went to Hawaii?

No, not really. He broke up with his girlfriend in San Francisco and then he got together with this other girl and they got married. Then they both moved to Hawaii. I guess he just wanted to change his life. Now he sells real estate in Hawaii and I think he’s in bands there, but I don’t know what kind of music it is.

Yeah, he puts a lot of pictures online, from bands and from his real estate business.

Ah, you’ve seen them, yeah. I saw him maybe four years ago when he was over here. He’s kind of the same as he was. The whole Plainfield thing… he was willing to get hurt, but a lot of it was a show. He was not like a poser. If you would try to beat him up or whatever, he would, you know… [laughs] But it was a performance art thing in a way. Like GG Allin, but not as extreme.

Yeah, with more humour than GG.

Yeah, but who knows what was going on in Smelly’s mind. That’s always a mystery. [laughs]

Yeah, that keeps it interesting. DDKern, a friend of mine, saw Plainfield in Austria back then and told me the bass player was wearing a bear costume – for the whole three months tour, which includes sleeping in it. And DDKern remembers a slight colour change in the ass area of the costume. [laughs]

It’s amazing how he pulled that European tour off! It’s not like they had any fans or anything. They released a whole lot of 7” records, but I don’t know how he arranged that European tour. It’s all the best to him that it actually worked out, but I don’t know if they lost a lot of money or if they made money or what happened.

Apparently, that European tour might have broken up the band because I think there were some real physical fights…


Between the members. The bass player was almost psychotic by the end, just from excessive drinking and everything else.

I guess it’s a hard job, touring with Smelly! [laughs] You never played with Plainfield?

No, I haven’t, but I played in this other band before Plainfield, Boom and The Legion of Doom. I played a guitar solo on that album, but never live or anything else.

I saw a video of Boom and The Legion of Doom and they had a lot of dead animals and meat on stage. [laughs]

Yeah, that was one of his early bands in Michigan and I guess they used to throw a lot of meat around on stage. Then when he moved out here, he kind of started the band up again with new people but they didn’t last very long.

And after that, he started Plainfield.