Without trying to sound cliche, Keith Morris probably needs no introduction. As singer for two of the most notoriously important bands to emerge from the hardcore scene of Southern California, Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, he’s literally been at the punk forefront for more than three decades. However, rather than continue to rest on his living legend laurels, he’s put his money where his mouth is and decided to channel his energies into a new project, OFF.
As has been recounted many times elsewhere, the Circle Jerks had enlisted Burning Brides singer and guitarist Dimitri Coats to produce a new album, their first since 1995’s Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities. By 2009, however, work had reached a halt, primarily because Coats didn’t think the material the band was bringing him was worthy of the Circle Jerks name. When the other members of the band decided to fire him, Morris sided with the producer. The pair recruited Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald and Rocket from the Crypt/Hot Snakes drummer Mario Rubalcaba, and OFF! was born. The band didn’t waste any time, releasing four EPs between October and December 2010 (collected appropriately enough as First Four EPs). This week they are releasing their first full-length, a 16-tracks-in-16-minutes self-titled LP. Like its predecessors, the record shows Morris’ decision to disband the Circle Jerks was justified. Each track courses with the kind of spastic electricity that has long been the singer’s speciality. But while the short and sweet songs may pack the wallop of hardcore, they share none of its tired stereotypes. Instead, the band packs the quarter-hour with all the creativity and poignancy of an album four times its length.
I caught up with Morris on the telephone last week, and while he wasn’t naming names (I think you’ll be able to figure out who’s who), he wasn’t shy about his opinion of his former band members— or anything else, for that matter.
Did you find it hard to break ties with the guys in the Circle Jerks after having been a band for so long?
Keith Morris: Well, a couple of us are still friends, but a couple of them had a really tough time moving on. What had happened with that band was... how should I put this? It was like, “I’m broke. Let’s go out and play some shows.” It became...
A cash cow?
KM: I wanted to say “cash cow,” but it was more like a cash dog. It wasn’t big enough to be a cow. One of the guys, who started off as a guitar player, is playing guitar again. He’s happy and getting married, so I’m happy for him. One of the other guys is extremely bitter, and he’s the guy who wants to go around and punch everyone’s face in. He’s the firefighter, the woodsman, the lumberjack, who punches things and breaks things when he gets angry. He wants to strangle to Dimitri, the guitar player in OFF.
Our situation was that we were working on a Circle Jerks album, and things got ugly. The older guys didn’t want to take orders from the new guy, the young studly guy who had all of the great ideas and motivation, and had us working towards a goal. Everything just started to disintegrate. One of the other guys, who is a full-time member of another band, he can go off and do whatever he wants to do. I’m over that part of the band relationship. We might get back together somewhere down the line, but it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s not like we’re going to get in a room and be friendly because there’s a lot of baggage and a lot of damage. There was a lot of horrible decisions, and I’m in a band now where there is so much going on for us, so why would I want to go back to being in a band where everyone is unhappy?
Prior to Dimitri coming into the picture, did you feel like the Circle Jerks were stagnant creatively?
KM: Yes, very much so. When Dimitri came in, there was an energy that we needed. For some reason, the other guys couldn’t grasp that that was what we needed. Instead, they were being grumpy old guys, and that wasn’t going to work for me. I thanked them when they made the decision to fire Dimitri, because he and I are running. It’s not like we’re sitting around scratching our heads.
Having gone from Black Flag to the Circle Jerks and now to OFF, have you felt like you’ve needed to change things up to keep it interesting for you?
KM: What happened with Dimitri and I, because we were working on this project and didn’t know it, he struck some chords when we were working on songs in my living room, and it was where I needed to go on an energy level and in terms of the mentality. It was like he had somehow created a time machine that took me back to the church. (Black Flag practiced in an abandoned church in Hermosa Beach.) I felt like that was the kind of energy that was necessary. There are so many bands now that if we are going to come out and run in the race, we better not be wearing cement boots. We better not be dressed to be walking on the floor of the ocean. We’re older guys so we have to come out with all guns blazing. We’re going to need to be running faster than everyone, and Dimitri brought that energy.
See he’s new to this, so it’s fresh to him. Dimitri comes from Nirvana and Black Sabbath, Kiss and ZZ Top, and Alice Cooper and Van Halen. He’s familiar with The Misfits, and he’s heard bits and pieces of Black Flag and Bad Brains, and we played with the Cro-Mags. We have to be able to get up there and stand our ground with all those bands. He brings that energy and in doing so, it’s like a vitamin B shot in the heinie for me .
Talking about that energy, is there anything you do personally to tap into that?
KM: The thing with me is that I’ve got a certain mentality. I’m a very angry person. People are always telling me, “Keith, you can’t be angry all the time. When are you going to write songs about holding hands with your girlfriend and growing roses in the front yard? And oh, look at the little hummingbird, and there’s a puppy and a kitten.” That’s all fine and wonderful, and there might come a place and time when that might happen, but we live in pretty ugly times. There’s a lot of negativity that’s happening. I’d like to dwell on the positive, but I live at one of the busiest intersections in Southern California, so there’s always some really ugly energy going on. There are horns honking and road rage and people pumping their fists—and not in a “Yeah, let’s party!” kind of way, but in a “You motherfucker, I hate your guts! Get out of your car so I can punch your face in!” kind of way. It’s difficult to not be aware of that. I know I don’t want to be like that, but I’m a part of it because it happens in front of me. I’m just a reflection of what I see. One of these days, I might make an album with the mellotron and the string section with the cellos and the violins and the all-girl backing choir. Maybe that will happen one of these days, but it won’t be something that happens soon.
I’m consumed by the Republicans versus Democrats and the Tea Party—all of that garbage. When is the good guy going to come along? When is the guy that makes sense going to come along? But we’re constantly caught in a whirlpool of garbage.
Yeah, it seems like the songs with OFF! are more topical than perhaps with the Circle Jerks. Was it hard to be taken seriously doing a topical song when you are in a band called the Circle Jerks?
KM: Well, I don’t think we really need to talk anymore about the Circle Jerks, because that’s a thing of the past—even though it was a huge chunk of my past. I carried some of my baggage along with me from Black Flag to the Circle Jerks, and I did the same thing with OFF. One thing that’s allowed me to navigate through it all was holding onto a sense of humor.
Let’s talk about the new OFF! record then. One song that sticks out to me is “Toxic Box,” and I was curious about the stories you make reference to in that song.
KM: That starts with the Paiute Indians, who are indigenous to Nevada. This particular tribe is about 30 miles outside of Las Vegas. Normally when there’s wind, you get a sandstorm. But they have this scenario where this coal company is dumping its ash—not even digging a hole and burying, just dumping it—so when the wind picks up, instead of having a sandstorm, there’s a storm of coal ash. It settles on these Indians, and they can’t breath and their tongues and eyes burn. They have sore throats, headaches and can’t sleep. Nobody will do anything about it. The energy company could care less.
Then there’s spillage down south in Alabama and Tennessee. They’ll dump waste in the water and build a dam, but the dam isn’t structurally sound. So they dump in the water, which is supposed to be dammed off from the water supply, but it’s leaking into the water supply. It’s one disaster after another.
In general, most of the songs on the record don’t even top 90 seconds. Do you feel like that’s all you need to get your point across?
KM: It’s a bit of a challenge because now instead of having four or five verses to say what you need to say, you have two verses and a couple choruses. But there’s something great about that. Look at the attention span of the people we’re dealing with. They are being bombarded and overloaded with information. It’s like ADD. You can’t pay attention because you’re hearing voices in your head and you’re reading a website, and the television is on and the guy on the news is telling you baseball scores, and the garbageman is banging cans and crushing garbage in front of your house. There’s so much stuff going on, you don’t have time to paint some epic four-hour movie. It’s get in and get out and get on with it.
So it sounds like that was done very consciously.
KM: The idea was no flash. I went to see Bruce Springsteen on the Born to Run tour like 200 years ago. He jumped up on the piano and the sax player was doing a sax solo and then the piano player banged out a Jerry Lee Lewis piano solo. Then the third guitar player did a solo, then the second guitar player did a solo, then Bruce started singing again, and the song was like eight minutes. So what, are you going to do that all night?
Well, in his case, yeah. He usually plays for like six hours.
KM: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, because there’s a lot of people that like that and he’s probably a really great guy, but I’m not much of a fan. Our thing is to trim the fat and let’s go!
Did Vice give you any shit about wanting to release a 16-minute record?
KM: Vice is really nice to us and really like and appreciate us. They know what we’re about, and they weren’t going to get anything more than a 16-minute record. Who needs to put out a CD with 72 minutes of music on it? We don’t write orchestral arrangements. We don’t know the synthesizer player who can give us a 20-minute solo. That’s not what we’re about.
Was naming the band OFF! an homage to Black Flag?
KM: Our guitar player thought he would be clever. He Googled “Black Flag,” and of course, the first thing that comes up in not the band, but the insecticide. The light bulb went on over his head because all these other brands came up too. OFF! happened to be one of them. Raid happened to be one of them too, and that’s the one he went to. That’s not a very exciting band name. Thin Lizzy would have named one of their songs “Raid,” but I didn’t buy it.
I’m the administrator on both the OFF! and Black Flag Facebook pages, and every now and then there will be that smart aleck character who will chime in, “Oh, that’s really exciting that you named your band after an insect repellant.” The scenario is no, not even close. Black Flag equates to piracy and anarchy, and OFF! is like I'm getting off. Here’s Friday, I’m getting off. I’m going to blow some steam off. I’m going to jump around and get off. I’m going to go off. So none of it has anything to do with insects.