Keith Morris’ place in the history of punk rock was long ago cemented with his work as singer and frontman for Black Flag and Circle Jerks, two of the most influential hardcore punk bands coming out of the California music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nearly three decades later, Keith continues to be a main player in this scene and beyond as singer for the recently formed band OFF! With Dimitri Coats on guitar, Steven McDonald on bass and Mario Rubalcaba playing Drums, OFF! delivers an impressive debut with their First Four EPs album, out Dec. 14 on Vice Records.
Just a week and a half before our interview, Keith Morris and OFF! Members caused quite an uproar with their performance at Club Europa in Brooklyn, during CMJ 2010. That night OFF! unleashed a tightly wound collection of new material before a packed crowd, whose stage diving and rowdy antics quickly turned the place into a steam room of angst and aggression. With punks and headbangers pushing to the front of the stage, the charismatic Keith Morris screamed into the microphone, eyes wide open, singing to the raw sounds of a band he calls “the greatest I’ve ever played in.”
That is saying a lot, considering Keith’s resume. Keith, however, is not one to rest on his laurels:
“I’m a doer; NOT a don’t-er, and I love what I do. Working with Dimitri, Steve and Mario takes me way back, all the way to the beginning in the ‘70s. We didn’t know what we were doing back then. We were just presented with this puzzle, but we did it, we started putting the pieces together.”
Like in the ‘70s and ‘80s with Black Flag, one of the center pieces to the OFF! puzzle is renowned contemporary artist, Raymond Pettibon, whose illustrations crafted a dark, visual ethos that has become synonymous with Black Flag and the sound of the early ‘80s in Hermosa Beach. Nearly three decades later, Pettibon’s work, like his early illustrations for Black Flag, illustrates the energy and bold emotion that is OFF! His art is featured on the sleeves of the OFF! debut release, The First EP 7” as well as the The First Four EPs box set. The latter includes four separate 7” records totaling 16 songs that clock in at just under 20-minutes. This, you should understand, is the OFF! way.
“Back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Ray [Pettibon] and I went to the same school in Hermosa Beach, California,” explained Keith. “He was a part of The Church scene, which was a place on Manhattan and Pier Avenue where misfits and other outcasts interested in loud and abrasive music would gather.”
“Ray’s sister, Erica Ginn, was also a friend of Michael Pieper, who owned Rubicon Records, where I worked. Erica would come in to visit Michael with her other brother, Greg Ginn, who soon started hanging out at the record store with me listening to Black Sabbath, Aerosmith and Ted Nugent.”
“That’s where the seeds of Black Flag were planted. Greg had been writing songs and played them for me. Soon we found a room where we could blast the speakers and make some noise. Raymond designed the artwork for Black Flag and it flourished from there.”
Over 30 years later, Raymond Pettibon returns to his Hermosa roots with Keith, creating a fresh, yet familiar, visual aesthetic that defines OFF!, and their aggressive sound.
“I’ve heard some pretty wild stories about that band,” reads the text on Pettibon’s illustration for The First EP, which features a black and white image of a bloodied leg, severed limb and finger on the floor as a bassist holds a guitar and looks on at the mess. For the art on the cover of The First Four EPs boxset, Raymond keeps with the black and white scheme, presenting a long-haired teenager who stares back intently, simply asking: “So you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star?”
“Ray senses what OFF! is about as a band,” explained Keith, “we make a lot of noise and have dark sarcastic themes to our songs. Those themes are also prevalent in his work, and that’s why it works, that is why he is an honorary fifth member of the band.”
Now based in Los Angeles, California, about half an hour from Hermosa Beach, Keith Morris recalls the early days of Black Flag with poise and speaks of his new project with a pronounced sense of excitement that is telling of what he calls “the teenager still inside me.”
“Originally, when I started working with Dimitri in 2009, he had signed on to produce the next Circle Jerks record, so I was working on some lyrics for songs that were intended for that album. The sessions never got started though because of conflicting schedules and priorities for other members of [Circle Jerks] resulting in some no-shows at the studio.”
“To tell you the truth,” said Keith, “I used to go against the flow of things, now as an older person, I’ve learned to go with the flow and see where it takes you. So I told Dimitri that this new Circle Jerks record wasn’t going to work right now, and that we should come up with a plan B, C and D… so Dimitri and I started OFF!”
These songs are too good to have been tossed out the window, too good to have someone from another band use them. We just started hanging out all the time, much like Greg [Ginn] and I did in the ‘70s, and ended up writing the songs for The First Four EPs.
Keith’s sense of appreciation for OFF! is derived, in large part, from his new bandmates.
“I have a lot of respect for Steven McDonald. He has played with Beck as well as Sparks. He also founded Redd Kross, which is a great heavy pop band.”
When you consider that Red Kross’ first gig was opening up for Black Flag and that later, guitarist, Greg Hetson, left Red Kross to play in the Circle Jerks (before joining Bad Religion), its easy to understand what Keith means when he says that “Steve comes from where I come from musically.”
“Dimitri [of Burning Brides] and Mario though, they have sort of a different sound.”
Keith makes a good point, since Hot Snakes and Rockets From The Crypt (both bands that Mario played with) also shared members with Burning Brides.
“We’re not hardcore, we’re not punks, we’re not hippies, we’re just a boy band with a lot of hair,” said Keith, in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek style.
“I like hippies though, they protested Vietnam like we protest the wars in the Middle East. They’re not bums. They have families and kids. There’s nothing wrong with that. I love kids. My bandmates have kids.”
With plenty of musicianship, experience and hair, Morris looks forward to future collaborations in the studio with all three of his band mates.
“Dimitri and I had already sort of written the songs for The First Four EPs when Steven and Mario came into this project, but we intend to incorporate them into the writing process as well on future releases.”
During the CMJ 2010 conference in New York, copies of The First EP 7” sold out at the merchandise tables for the band’s Club Europa and Generation Records performances, leaving fans without their copies, waiting until Dec. 14 when The First Four EPs boxset is released. The set has already been a top seller at interpunk.com on pre-order for over a month.
“I’ve been playing music for 33 years and I’m not so interested in the musical marathon [from] the everyone looks the same, sounds the same attitude. Before we are any label, we are human beings. I’m not a punk rocker, I’ve never been one; I’ve been a wise guy, yeah, and now I’m an adult with a teenager still running around inside me!”
Keith’s trademark sarcasm resurfaced when our conversation turned to playing the Carson Daly Show.
“We were loud, there was a smoke machine and they weren’t crazy about shooting us, but the show went alright because it was recorded as a live performance so the crowd enjoyed it and so did I.”
While on the topic of doing more commercially accessible gigs, Keith took the opportunity to elaborate on his feelings about reaching a wider audience.
“I’m 55 and I have a lot of integrity, opportunities come and go, and if you don’t take advantage of them you watch it go by, only to later say, why didn’t I do that? With the Carson Daly show, we usually don’t get opportunities like that. You wont see us on Letterman or America’s Got Talent; we’re not backing music for Jersey Shore.”
As the end of our call neared, Keith was not shy about providing honest insight into his beliefs about the music business.
“Selling out is a load of shit, there are bills to be paid and a lot of us are not millionaires, we are part of the struggle to pay rent and keep our noses above water. I was hearing and reading all this shit about “Search and Destroy” on a Nike commercial, a Buzzcocks song on a Volkswagen commercial; well, I’d rather hear that than some shitty boy band or pop girl. For all of these selfish people that think this music like “Search and Destroy” or the Buzzcocks belongs to them and their friends only, I have something really simple to say: When you play music you want as many people as possible to hear it!
Following a brief pause, Keith added:
“After the Carson show, I called my mom and told her I was on TV.”
The First Four EPs album by OFF! is available now. Find more info at offtheband.com.