“Helloooo, Alternative Press.” Even across a patchy land line from his apartment in Los Angeles, KEITH MORRIS’ wry, nasally surfer’s drawl is unmistakable. It’s the voice that launched 1,000 sneering copycats, and the roar that, as part of Black Flag’s seminal first lineup and, subsequently, the Circle Jerks, defined California hardcore’s first wave in the 1980s. Though the latter band—which he co-founded in 1979 with Bad Religion guitarist Greg Hetson—have appeared intermittently over the past few decades, recent tensions in the band found Morris making a beeline back to his roots. Now fronting OFF!—the scorching, barely year-old combo that finds him alongside bassist Steven Shane McDonald (Redd Kross), drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket from the Crypt/Hot Snakes) and producer/guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides), Morris has turned the Circle Jerks’ aborted attempt at a return into his own creative rebirth. Just before the release of the band’s debut full-length collection, First Four EPs (Vice), AP rang Morris to find him typically charged with attitude—before, also in comically typical form, his phone died in mid-conversation. (Photo: Dan Monick)
Why couldn’t you have made this same record with the Circle Jerks?
Well, in some ways, this is the record I would have made with the Circle Jerks if the other guys in the band had been in the same place where I was when we sat down to write the songs. But people get older, and careers come into play, and motives change, and egos come into play, too—I mean, the other guys in the Circle Jerks made it absolutely clear that they felt Dimitri, who was supposed to produce the album we were working on, was egotistical and impossible to work with. But when you think about it, aren’t those the exact same things people have always said about everyone in the Circle Jerks? [Laughs.] So now I’m on my own, in a manner of speaking, with OFF!, and we’ll see where this thing goes. I feel like OFF! is the place where I need to be right now—it’s my chance to get back to the essence of why I started making music in the first place, and in some ways it’s a chance for me to answer the big question, what would have happened if I had never left Black Flag? That being said, I do want to make it clear that nobody in OFF! considers us to be a “hardcore band,” or even a “punk-rock band.” This doesn’t mean we have an elitist attitude toward what other people would consider to be hardcore or punk-rock music—we’re not the grumpy old men who want the kids to get out of our yard. It’s just that when you look at the four of us, we have such incredibly wide musical vocabularies, and such a huge range of musical experience, there’s no way we can get together and write from a purely “punk” or “hardcore” space. The brains just don’t work that way anymore. We’re a rock-and-roll band. This, to us, is how rock and roll should sound.
The songs sound weirdly contemporary, but at the same time, they could’ve been recorded 35 years ago in some California sweatbox, and to people whose frame of reference goes back even further, there’s even some British Invasion in there. It’s a weird sort of formula I can’t explain…
“I Can’t Explain.” I think you just did! I love the Who. I love the British Invasion. I think we’re closer to that than we are to contemporary punk rock. I mean, ask me about the Beatles sometime—I could talk about the Beatles forever.
You’ve only played limited live dates so far—would you like to see OFF! turn into a full-time touring band?
Of course, but it has to be the right tour. When I first started going to shows, there would be four of five bands on a bill, and the only thing they had in common was that they had to plug into the electricity, and they played amplified music. I miss that! One of the things that’s happened over the years is what we call the punk-rock marathon, where if you go to a show it’s like all of the bands are from the same genre, from the same ilk, from the same cloth, and it’s kind of boring. We want to play with Deerhunter. We want to play with Fucked Up—even though they’re kind of in the same genre, they’re not, because of some of the stuff that they play. We want to play with No Age, who just worship the ground that I walk on, but I love those guys, too. I love their music; I love the fact that they’re not your typical—you know, they’ve been called a punk-rock band, but I think they’re more a punk-rock band in mind and spirit, not in the music they make. We’ve been playing festivals, and we really love the festivals just because of the mix and match and the gumbo pot of stew and pick a part here, pick a color there…
Clearly, you’re having fun.
Oh, we’ve been having a blast. I’m having more fun now with this band than I’ve ever had with any band—or at least maybe early on, in some of the other bands I’ve been in, where it was just a whirlwind of “Let the party take place; let’s see where this takes us; let’s go where this takes us and let’s just see what it turns into.” That’s where I feel this is going, and I love it. Because OFF!—we’re still in our infancy. We’re crawling right now. Were not even running. We’ve not been out touring. We’ve not been able to put five, six, seven shows in a row, so we’re really looking forward to being able to do that—becoming more of a close-knit musical organization. We’re still learning about each other’s character traits—we’re nowhere near the point where we’re going, “Fuck, I don’t want to do this anymore! Dude, your feet stink—keep your shoes on!” [Laughs.]
The American Hardcore version of history says that [legendary artist] Raymond Pettibon was never going to do another punk band’s album cover after Black Flag. How’d you get him to do the art for First Four EPs?
We made him the fifth member of the band. We gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse. [Laughs.] No, Raymond’s my friend—you have to understand; he and I go back all the way to the ’70s. We were like party buddies and we’d go to gigs together—he and his older brother, Greg [Ginn, Black Flag founder and guitarist], and I—and so we’ve known each other for probably 35 years. It was that easy, really.
Your run in Black Flag was infamously tumultuous—when’s the last time you and Greg Ginn crossed paths?
The last time our paths crossed, there was supposed to be a big Black Flag reunion [in 2003] at a big space over here called the Hollywood Palladium. I’m actually writing a book, and that’s one of the stories in the book—it got really stupid. I was brought on by the promoter to help make sure that, when they advertised this thing as “Black Flag: The First Four Years,” it was going to be Greg Ginn, Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Robo and Ron Reyes. But the reunion that ended up happening was so bad and so depressing that I couldn’t even do it. It ended up being a benefit for cats! I was being accused of doing things that I didn’t do; I was ultimately told that my services were not necessary. It was like the worst elements of that early experience had come back to haunt me all over again, so when I walked away from the Black Flag experience for the second time, I realized why I walked away the first time.
You mention not wanting to come off like the grumpy old man, but when you look out at the musical landscape today, is there anything you’d like to turn on its ear?
At some point long ago, bands learned that the way they were going to be able to pay their bills is to get in the van, bring some T-shirts along and go play music wherever you could play music—take it to the people, rather than waiting for the people to come to you. That’s the bummer about nowadays, is that people can come to you because of the Internet. Everybody wants everything for free, so they’d rather watch a live concert on the Internet than actually go out and experience the live phenomenon, you know: get the juice, get the electricity, get the buzz; rub elbows with your friends; drink in the parking lot; smoke cigarettes; stomp through barf and break bottles and piss off the man and get chased by security guards when you’re trying to climb the fence. Like we used to do in the movie theater, where one guy would pay to get in and we’d go to the back door and open the exit and six more guys would sneak in and everybody would be sitting in the front row watching the movie. You know, it’s like, get out and live life! Experience something firsthand! I was on Facebook earlier today, and some guy said, “When is your record going to stream, so I can get it for free?” I wanted to delete the guy, but it’s Facebook—everybody should be allowed to say whatever they want. It is a free country, and hopefully almost a free world. But dude, if you don’t have the money, borrow the money from your friend and help pay my rent. I’m 55 years old. I can’t be giving this stuff away for free. Metallica can afford to give it away for free, or Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson—they can all afford to give away their music for free, because they’ve already made millions and millions of dollars. They’ve already fleeced the public. alt