Bands like Black Flag and Circle Jerks have been paradigms of punk since its inception. That’s exactly why it comes as a surprise to hear the former frontman of both bands, Keith Morris, say in an exclusive MXDWN interview that he is done with Circle Jerks and moving on to a place he calls OFF!
I first want to congratulate you on the formation of OFF! The four of you manage to create a very original sound that’s a unique medium between years of experience. Obviously the four of you in OFF! individually had a hand in directly shaping the old school punk scene. What do you hope to accomplish in OFF?
The situation is that we don’t really have any set goals, like the other bands I’ve been in. we don’t have a map or list of things to do. We do have a manager and a cool record company who are all full of cool ideas, but the fact of the matter is that all of us are older guys, three of us are dads, one of us works for a record company, and all of us were in other bands. So we just get together when we get together and do whatever we can.
So is this just a jam band for you?
This is a real band for me. I’ve been in a couple of full time bands and my last band turned into less than a full time band because one of the other guys had a busy schedule going on the warped tour, so rather than wait around for these guys to finish what they’re doing, Dimitri and I decided to start another band. We were working on another CJ album and it started to deteriorate. The other guys who were supposed to participate decided that they were too good or too busy or that they had more important things to do. In that particular situation I looked at Dimitri and said, “We have to have a plan B for this.” Dimitri and I wrote the bulk of the CJ album and they decided they didn’t want to make the album. Rather than have the songs that Dimitri and I worked on and created go out the window or get tossed out with the trash, we decided to start a band. So Dimitri said “Why don’t you make a list of people you would call right now and ask to be in a band with you?” And that’s who is in the band. They [Steven McDonald and Mario Rubalcaba] both volunteered. I asked Steven, who was first a little iffy and sitting on the fence, then I gave him a three song demo which was just Dimitri and I jamming in my living room. Steve called me back the next day and asked me, “When do we start rehearsing?” Mario lives in San Diego, a couple of hundred miles south of LA, he said “Let me know when you’re going to pick me up because I’m more than psyched to be in the band.”
Does Mario still live in San Diego?
Mario lives in a place called Cardiff by the Sea, which is an amazing surf town. If you look into any surf magazine, Cardiff by the Sea is high on the list of best places to catch waves.
I didn’t know Mario was a surfer.
He’s a skater dater. And his girlfriend, Amanda, will be happy that I mentioned that.
[Keith and I burst into laughter]
So ultimately, these Circle Jerk songs you weren’t going to use, you ended up using in OFF!?
We don’t refer to them as CJ songs. Rick Rubin made an offer to Circle Jerks to record an album for Epitaph, so we were working on that, and Rick told Greg Hetson and I that we needed to go back and listen to the first couple CJ records. What he was suggesting was, “I don’t want a tired record. I don’t want a record made by a bunch of know-it-all, tired old fat guys pretending to be punk rock.” Rick worked on Metallica’s last album and told them the same thing. So Metallica started playing all of the songs off their first album and went on a European tour where they played the entire first album and some songs off of the second album and a few of the new hits and that was basically the same thing he suggested to us. I’m not a fan of Metallica. Anyway, in Dimitri’s and my song writing for OFF, we were first writing songs that were going to be applied to another record. At one point Dimitri played a rift and I said, “We need to go to this place.” You have to understand that he is more of a metal, grunge type of guitar player. Kind of like what Black Flag turned into in the end. What happened was, he started ripping in my living room and I said, “We need to get a burrito and some coffee because you just struck some cords that are extremely important to me. You took me into a time machine and brought me back to a place called Church in Hermosa Beach. The old Baptist Church on Manhattan Ave and Pier Ave.” I told him, now we’re at where we’re supposed to be at. This kind of intensity, this angry, depressed, frustrated, fucked up, drugged up, drunken energy. This is where we need to be without being some of these things, and what I mean by that is not being messed up because I’m 23 years sober. I don’t need to go back into that space, but I need to go back in my bulletproof vest and my armor and my scuba gear and navigate through this stuff. I tell Dimitri, “You’ve got homework,” because he would write a song in my living room, then work on the lyrics, then go home and at 3 in the morning, he would listen to the music on the computer with his headphones. I told him to go home and dial up the Nervous Breakdown EP and come back with a critique. “Tell me what you think. Tell me what you heard.” And he came back and was so excited and he had like 5 songs. he was like, “No one has ever recorded anything like this before because you guys captured all of these different emotions and all of the stuff that was swirling around in your lives at the time, all of the frustrated, nerdy, non-athletic, skateboarding, jump off the pier, “let’s go to a party with the Hell’s Angels, and cheerleaders, all of the surf-monkey greenies that slept under the bridge in Hermosa Beach” wild energy with everything attached to it. What I explained to him was that it was a time capsule. We just happened to capture the right thing at the right time in the right studio. No one else has done anything like we did.
Are we still talking about Nervous Breakdown?
We can talk about the Bad Breaks, we can talk about the Misfits, we can talk about Minor Threat, we can talk about Ted Nugent, we can talk about New York Dolls, we can talk about Sex Pistols and The Clash and the Damned and all of these bands and their all amazing bands but we just happened to be in the right place in the right time doing what we needed to be doing… Now I’m starting to get all hippie-dippie and cosmic on you. I do believe in all of that stuff. I do believe in Karma and if you fuck someone over it comes back to you, I do believe in ghosts and I do believe in flying saucers and I do believe that we just happened to grab onto what we needed to grab onto at the time and turn it into what it became. Dimitri is incredibly sharp when it comes to dissecting and removing this limb and sewing this limb back on. He brought up the fact that we hit on something that no one has ever hit on. When I say we I mean him referring to old Black Flag. Now , he had me listening to the first few Circle Jerks albums and I was like, “Dimitri, I don’t need to be told I was listening to Judas Priest or the Misfits or Black Sabbath or that we went to the Clash concert.” I didn’t need all of the descriptive mumbo jumbo because I didn’t really want to listen to those albums anyway. I don’t sit around listening to any of the songs I’ve worked on except for OFF! because that is the new fresh thing for me. I don’t need to be reminded of some of the other bands that I’ve been in.
So OFF! is your primary musical focus right now?
OFF! is my only focus. I’m having a great time and when we play it’s a total fucking blast. We played a party a week from last Friday. It was genius! All of the energy was great. There was one meathead who swiped some girl’s purse but he ended up getting decked by a security guard and went to jail. If you do something stupid you’re going to end up hanging out with a bunch of other stupid people. What we’ve noticed is that the energy of all of these kids is not all coming from the same place. They’re not all coming from the Clash and Sex Pistols. They’re coming from No Age and Deerhunter and all of these different angles, which is the beauty of the situation. It’s like, “We’re not a punk rock band. What the fuck is a punk rock band? A bunch of Sid Vicious clones with a six foot mowhawk?” Well, that’s bitchin and we love that, but I’ve been doing this all of my life and we play this party and there are a lot of beautiful, happening chickie party action girls and a lot of some of the more intelligent guys who might not necessarily listen to Screwdriver or the Exploders but they might listen to Animal Collective or Vampire Weekend. Whatever they listen to, it’s like, bring it all on. Let’s just have a giant party.
And why not? So, Keith, what do you think about modern day punk trends and the massively divergent genres?
I get asked that question almost every interview. It’s not the Warped tour and it’s not the See More Blood tour, it’s not hardcore punk rock. They are just description. Some guy writing about a band can’t come up with something more clever? Like, “This band is totally electric and ready to fucking explode and is volatile.” I love Fucked Up. I love No Age. I love Liquor Store. I love Deerhunter. I love Neon Indian. I love Crocodiles. I love Lowered Ends, and there are all sorts of bands that I love and they might not fit into the categories you want to put them in. Stuff like a garage, punk rock replacement sort of Cheap Trick thing. Cheap Trick is not punk rock, they’re just a great band, and a great band is a great band and that transcends categorization.
Truth. Hey, is there a story behind the name, OFF?
We’re tired. We’ve been working all week. 9-5 or whatever hours you work. Friday comes along and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to go to shake your ass or drink drinks or smoke smokes or get laid and all of the fun shit when the boss comes up to you and says, “You’re not finished. You still have a couple of hours of work left.” And you just want to say, “Get the fuck off my back! You’re keeping me from going out and getting off.” There’s off and then there is on. Let’s go.
You know, I’ve heard the term “Dark Party” Thrown around a lot with OFF!. How would you best describe that?
Black Flag was part of the Dark Party. And the Germs. It was basically wherever we would go to party, there would be a strange mixture of certain notes and chords that were played and certain words. Dimitri wanted to name our next record Dark Party. I think that’s a terrible name for a record. Maybe a song. So him and I are going to argue and I’m going to throw some stuff around in my room and he’ll want to punch me, so I’ll tell him I need to go for a walk for fifteen minutes to cool off. Cool Off. There is another one, no pun intended. Anyway, we’ll probably end up letting the talented rhythm section of our band name the album. Dimitri called the first one, The First Four EPs, which is a take off of The First Four Years. We also have Raymond Pettibon doing our artwork. Raymond is a friend of mine from Church back in Hermosa Beach. We all love Black Flag, but we need to only reference them on a musical level. We don’t need to swipe all of their ideas.
Exactly. Why go back and listen to all of the stuff you’ve done before since OFF! is your main musical focus right now. I know you just finished The First Four EPs but when do you see yourself getting back in the studio with OFF!?
We don’t want to get caught in the same problem that we did with this last batch of recording because we signed a record deal with Vice records and we had a window of opportunity. We ended up doing 4 or 5 months of work in about 3 weeks. I’m an older guy and I don’t need the stress. Just making sure no one gets hurt while we’re playing is enough stress of me as it is. So it forced us into a situation where we were leaping through flaming hoops. The record company has absolutely nothing going on. They say, “If you make these deadlines, we can make all of these things happen for you.” My original idea was to release The First Four EPs as single EPs. The first one would come out, people would have it for three or four months, then we release another one. Then over the course of a year we would release them along with another two or three songs in an album including maybe a live track or two for the people who need to have every single recording, and the completists and the music nerds. I’m sitting on my couch right now and I’m raising my hand because I’m guilty of that as well. The shoegaze bands would release EPs, and each EP before it would ultimately turn into their album. That was my idea for OFF, and here I am thinking I was being original when I knew that it was done before. It’s like a road map. But even then we would just do it when we feel like doing it, not be forced into a timeline. So getting back to your original question, we have lyrics, we have music, we have about four songs and with a little work we could record another EP. We’re not going to get lazy, and Dimitri’s wife who is in a band called the Burning Brides, she is getting ready to have Chazz. I’m not into this new medical stuff where you go to the doctor and he tells you whether you’re going to have a boy or girl. What happened to the surprise? I have no kids. I’m not married. I have no girlfriend. All of that could change. So Dimitri names his kid after their grandfather, Charles. How fucking boring is that? Charles. So, will we call him Chuckie, like the little monster doll kid in the movies or will we call him Chazz. The Chazzster is fucking cool.
Chazz, I like that. Do you think you guys will be playing at SXSW in 2011?
Right off of the top of my head, we’re playing 5 shows in Austin. We’re going to play with Mastodon, Public Enemy, the Black Lips, Raveonettes and all of these really cool bands. This is where I get to earn triple merit points with the label that we’re on because I’m playing their party and all of the bands will be there. That’s going to be a really wild one. We’re going to play Mess with Texas. We have like 3 other shows where we don’t know who were playing with but it doesn’t matter because we want to play with whoever.
That’s just at SXSW?
Yeah! And I think we’re playing three shows to get out there. Phoenix, Tuscan, maybe Dallas, Fort Worth, Huston, San Antonio, then New Orleans. I hope we get to play Mississippi and Alabama. Not a lot of people play there because it’s a really depressing area, but maybe we need to play just like a $5 show there or something. Then we play at least 4 shows in Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, maybe North or South Carolina. And then we head home. That’ll be our first real tour, then we’ll wait until the weather warms up. We’re a bunch of Southern California boys. Surf, sand, sun, bikinis, palm trees, barbecues, keg parties, plastic surgery, Lindsey Lohan, burritos. One of our guys is an East Coast guy and he’s calling us pussies but if we were to gang up on him we could fuck him up and shove his guitar up his ass. That wouldn’t be cool because he wouldn’t be able to drive the van then.
When can we expect these tour dates to be official?
Well, Dimitri is having Chazz around February, at which point his wife is pushing him out the door until he comes back with a paycheck to put some booties on Chazz’ feet. She’s like, “Go pay the bills.”
“You can’t see your son until you bring home a paycheck.”
“Sleep on the couch until you start making money.”
[We both erupt into laughter.]
Let me riddle you this, Keith: When is the next LA based show?
Couldn’t tell you. Something might come up. we’re pretty bombarded by people wanting us to play. Chances are we might, but if I find out last minute, we will post it on Facebook. That’s where you can get all of your info.
Great. I’ll do that. Thanks for chatting with me.