Keith Morris may not be the most recognizable name in hardcore punk’s first class, but as evidenced in documentaries like American Hardcore, he’s easily one of that scene’s most magnetic personalities. As the original frontman for Black Flag, Morris proved an excellent foil to guitarist Greg Ginn’s ear-shattering instrumental frenzy, a veritable mouthpiece for the style’s enraged sound. After his short stint in Black Flag, Morris quickly formed another beloved L.A. hardcore act, the Circle Jerks, and cranked out three classic albums in just a few years’ time.
Now, Morris has stumbled upon critical and cultural acclaim once again, this time with his newest band, OFF!. The project came together when Morris teamed up with producer Dimitri Coats (of Philly's Burning Brides) on the Circle Jerks’ follow-up to their 1995 album, Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities. That record was scrapped, but Morris and Coats picked up the pieces from those sessions and put together a venerable supergroup, with Coats on guitar, Steve McDonald (Redd Kross) on bass, Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes) on drums, and Morris on vocals. The band’s debut, First Four EPs (Vice), became an unexpected hit, and has gotten many a punk fan and critic excited.
No one appears more excited about OFF! than the dreadlocked frontman himself, who will be joining Dinosaur Jr. and other Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins at the Electric Factory tonight. The A.V. Club decided to give Morris a ring to talk about listening to his earlier recordings, why he doesn’t want to call OFF! a punk band, and his analogous connection to Mick Jagger.
The A.V. Club: I read that you listened to a lot of your earliest hardcore work while working on OFF!’s material. What was that experience like for you?
Keith Morris: Well, I’m not one to normally sit around listening to my own music. When you record it, you listen to it afterwards to do the sequencing and make sure everything’s the way that you want it. And then, of course three weeks later, it’s like, well, “Why didn’t I do this?” Or, “Why didn’t we add this?” Or, “Why didn’t we do that?”
So, that was part of our writing process, was listening to all of these different records, just getting jacked up on some coffee and listening to—unfortunately—like the first three Circle Jerks albums. I don’t really want to talk too much about The Circle Jerks. I would like to equate that situation to, what would it be? Hercules versus The Three Stooges. Or, the Three Musketeers get transported to Mars where they’re going to fight the evil king of Mars, and, as it turns out, Mars is like the party planet; all the women are running around naked and there aren’t very many guys, so it’s kind of like Australia where there’s like 10 girls to every guy. Something like that.
But, I’ve heard those records enough to where I don’t really need to be told, “Well, when you recorded this song or when you were writing this song you were listening to Judas Priest, or you were listening to Black Sabbath, or you were listening to the Damned, or you were listening to the Misfits, or you were listening to The Monkees, or you were listening to Paul Revere And The Raiders, or you were listening to Dusty Springfield or…”
You know, the list goes on and on and on. When you write an album, all of the music that you’ve been listening to recently seems to creep up or seep into your musical mentality, so it’s kind of unavoidable—listening to The Kinks or The Who or whoever you’re listening to, and then to have some of that come up in your music. The fact of the matter is, it’s all been played before anyway, so all you can do is just add your personality to it. You just do the best you can, you just toss in as much of your creativity as you can, and you paint with what colors you know.
AVC: You seem to be pretty excited about the process of writing the OFF! record and how it came out. Is there any reason in particular that this has been such a positive experience for you?
KM: Well, it’s been so long since I’ve been creative. We were working on the record for my other band, and it got really ugly in the writing process.
Both Dimitri [Coats] and I came to the realization that this stuff happens, and there’s a reason for it. We certainly turned it into a very positive situation for both of us.
We—our songwriting process—I turned to Dimitri and I said, “You know, we’ve got to have our plan B, plan C, plan D. We need to maybe think this out a little bit more.” Normally, I’m just a guy that just lets the cards be dealt the way that they are, and just plays whatever is dealt to me, rather than try to force the situation or try to be a little bit more aggressive and be more on top of the situation.
But, we got to a point where Dimitri and I had written the bulk of the music for the other band. Of course the other guys, being mature, older burnouts… it was just, it was almost inevitable. The phone call that comes in and says, “We’re making a decision and we know that, because it is, this decision, you’re going to quit the band.”
I get into a conversation at 10:30 at night with the guitar player in the other band, telling me that we made a decision and we know that you’re going to quit the band. Why, if you know that the lead singer in your band, the lyricist in your band, the front-guy in your band—and I’m not saying all of this to inflate my ego, because I could really care less—but it’s like, the guy that started the band. That would be kind of like—this might be a terrible analogy but—you don’t kick Mick Jagger out of The Rolling Stones. You don’t kick Peter Gabriel out of Genesis. You don’t kick the guy with the really high voice in Styx out of the band!
So, of course, I chimed in and said, “This conversation is over, I quit.” If you’re firing the guy who is supposed to produce our record and is the only guy that can get us in a room to even try to work on some songs or hash out some tunes, and you’re firing this guy, then obviously, it’s apparent that you don’t really want to make the record. It’s like all of these guys are saying, “Oh, we’ve got to make this record. We’ve got to make this record so our guarantee’s going to be $10,000, and we go out and play.” And it’s like, “Yeah, okay, let’s make a mediocre record. Let’s make a really pedestrian ‘punk rock record.’ Let’s make a record that we can sell to all the kids on the Warped Tour. Let’s not try to kick it up a few notches and try to do something serious.”
So, yeah, I quit. About half an hour later, I came to my senses and realized if I started the band, why do I need to quit this band? I don’t need to walk away from this band. Those guys, they can all go play with themselves, they play in whatever other band they’re playing in. I guess what they did was, they gave me—and I need to thank them at this time—they gave me a brilliant opportunity to go out and do something else, and it’s been nothing but positive situation after situation. All of the shows that we’ve played… I mean, granted, I’m the guy that answers the majority of the posts on Facebook, and there are a lot of meatheads out there that don’t get it. But, so far it's been a pretty great fucking rock ’n’ roll adventure.
AVC: What exactly are people posting on Facebook? What don’t they get?
KM: These would be the punk-rocks and the hardcores. These are the people that have read the rule-book. “This is what you do to be this.” I don’t want to, like, bum anybody out, but it’s inevitable. The fact of the matter is we’re not punk-rocks, and we’re not hardcores, we’re human beings.
AVC: Did anything about the political state in California influence your writing for the record?
KM: Well, I live in one of the busiest intersections… it could be one of the busiest intersections in the world. Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard. There’s seven corners, and the energy is just so fucked up, it’s just unbelievably screwed. We had a couple of people shot over some road rage, and there’s got to be an accident at least two or three times a week, people running red lights. It’s just too chaotic for that type of situation to take place. I think that the best thing is the guy that on Friday afternoon, after he gets off of work, he stands on one of the corners and he jumps up and down with this sign that says, “U.S. out of the Middle East” and “Let’s promote peace.” I totally back that.
AVC: Sounds like a pretty interesting place to live.
KM: Well, I’ve got a supermarket, I’ve got a movie theater, I’ve got an auto parts store, I’ve got an auto dealership, I’ve got a Blockbuster DVD rental. It’s pretty crazy, there’s a lot of hubbub, people going back and forth. It’s nutty.
So that, just all of that chaos, and some of the crap that’s going on in the world today, some of the crap that’s just going on right here in my neighborhood. I pretty much just consider myself a mirror as to what’s going on, and that played a big role in what we were writing about, the lyrics.
AVC: Back to the people writing negative things about OFF!: There’ve been a lot of old punk and hardcore acts returning in recent years; you’d think people would be used to what you’re doing now.
KM: Well, there’s a lot of them that are, but they chime in just like totally ridiculous crud. These people, one of the things that I’ve found is, they’re very selfish, they’re very narrow-minded. When we were doing this in the beginning, it was all about freedom, it was all about just being able to do what we wanted to do, because we wanted to go play wherever we could, and just play different ways. You know, party on wheels.
A lot of these people, they’re authorities, they’re know-it-alls, and they’re of the mindset that you have to look a certain way, you have to behave a certain way, and you also can’t do things out of the box, you’re supposed to remain in this box, you’ve got this box around your head, you might as well be in prison. But the fact of the matter is that we, with this band—we want to play with bands like Deerhunter and Neon Indian. We want to play with Best Coast and Wavves, and Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall. We played shows with The Black Lips.
We haven’t played a lot of shows with bands that are punk-rocks or hardcores, and we welcome that. There’s no reason for us to have to do that. Part of the flack, or some of the crap that gets tossed our way, is the fact that that’s not cool: We’re going to be playing Coachella, which is one of the biggest music festivals in the world, and we start getting bombarded with these rants about, “That’s not punk rock. That’s all of these corporate sponsors.” And “PJ Harvey, she’s not punk rock.” Or “Duran Duran’s not hardcore.”
It’s like, who cares. We want to go out there, we want to play. We want to play in front of people that don’t know anything about us. We want to go out and we want to make new fans. All of these punk-rock, hardcores, they’re gonna show up to the party anyways. They might not necessarily show up to the big party at Coachella. But we played a bunch of free shows. We’ve pretty much been really generous in our live performances; we’ll play a party here, play a free show there, play in a warehouse, let everybody in for free.
You would think that for all of the years that I’ve been doing this, my skin would be a lot thicker. I’ve got a bunch of people that tell me, “Keith, you’re not supposed to be affected by all of these nitwits. Let them say what they’re going to say; you’re the one that’s really doing it.” I should really just be the little duck in the pond, dive in for my food and come back up to the surface, shake my tail feathers, keep on swimming, and not let any of this affect me. But for some reason, I guess I let my guard down, and I let some of this garbage seep into my skull, you know, get into my psyche.
But, the fact of the matter is that we’re going to do what we want to do, and we don’t really care about fitting into your category. Try to think of something else to call us, be a little more creative.
AVC: What you describe is what I’ve always kind of thought of as punk rock. It’s doing whatever you want to do.
KM: You would think that people would be more open-minded. I tend to find that the majority of them tend to be very, very close-minded. Like, you talk about it, you go out and you do all of the stupid things: get drunk, throw a brick through a big window or, you know, just stupid silly things like that. But, the fact of the matter is that the punk-rock rule book, of things to do and ways to dress and all of that, that’s a book that needs to be donated to the Goodwill, or sold at the yard sale. Maybe they need to go out and get another book called the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Webster’s New World Dictionary or something like that. Go out, free your mind. Not everyday you have to try to keep up with the spirit and the ghost of Sid Vicious.
AVC: Earlier you mentioned a handful of bands, like Neon Indian and Best Coast. Are they the cream of the crop of making free music today?
See, I worked for a record company, and it was a really great job because they would allow me just to go out and do whatever I wanted to do. They’d welcome the fact that I was playing in a band, and I would go out and play. So, I was going from town to town, going to the record store, and going to the person behind the counter and say, “What’s that we’re listening to,” or “Who are the good bands in town? Who’s everybody excited about?” That kind of thing.
I’ve always been in love with music, on all sorts of different levels. I grew up listening to AM radio in my mom’s car. We’d get in the car and go to the market, or we’d go to the movies, or we’d go to wherever we were going to go. She was going to drive us to school or what have you, we would listen to AM radio, and all that consisted of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Kinks and The Seeds and The Temptations and The Supremes and The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Royal Guardsmen and Love and Byrds, all sorts of bands.
Why shouldn’t it be like that? Why shouldn’t it just be one big, open space for whoever wants to play to do their thing, and if you like it, cool, and if you don’t… yeah, so maybe they don’t look like the way that you want them to look, or maybe they don’t sound the way you want them to sound. Well, you know, maybe you’ll hear something that piques your interest and leads you onto another path.