Q&A With OFF!’s Keith Morris

Hardcore will never die, at least while Keith Morris is still alive and kicking. The 55-year-old Morris co-founded the legendary Black Flag with Greg Ginn before leaving the band three years later to start the equally seminal Circle Jerks with future Bad Religion guitarist Greg Hetson. That band lasted a decade, though since 1994, the Circle Jerks have continued to tour sporadically but haven’t released a new album since 1995. That was going to change when the band convened last year with producer Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) to work on new material. The result, however, was Morris quitting the CJs and forming OFF!, a new hardcore supergroup with Coats on guitar, Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) on bass and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes) on drums. OFF! recorded four EPs that will be released as a vinyl boxed set, First Four EPs (Vice), on December 14. The band will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“Upside Down” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/UpsideDown.mp3

“I Don’t Belong” (download):
http://magnetmagazine.com/audio/IDontBelong.mp3

MAGNET: OFF! started in part when Dimitri signed on to produce the first Circle Jerks album in a decade and a half. What made you guys want to work with him? I’m sure you could have worked with just about anybody.
Morris: Dimitri came to the CJs to get us working onna’ new recording, and three of us wanted to work with him because of his enthusiasm. He failed to read the fine print! I know him from our relationship with V2 Records as his band the Burning Brides were one of my faves on the roster. One of the Jerks disliked him from the very beginning ’cause of a power trip and losing his reign over the rest of us. Too much ego tripping and older idiots not wanting to take direction from a younger character. A character who writes circles (no pun intended) around the songwriters in the group. In the process he was dragged through some mud and, like myself, was shown a total lack of respect. The other non-participants weren’t really creating anything worth listening to, so when one of the nitwits who plays in a full-time band said he was leaving for the summer to go play on the Warped Tour, we had a deadline but only a handful of songs. Not enough to make an album. The word went out that we were writing in my living room, but nobody showed up! Well, actually, that’s not true ’cause one of the guys showed up for an hour on his way to Long Beach to pick up his daughter, as he didn’t wanna’ piss off his ex-wife. Dimitri and I decided that if there was to be a new album, we’d hafta’ write it. The long list of excuses came in as to why they didn’t want to continue on with Mr. Coats, and in the process I was forced out of a band I was responsible for in the first place. The sitch turned pathetic in that this band would figure out a way to fuck up a free lunch! It’s hit the brakes to stop any forward motion and let’s kill the momentum! They were too important to work with Dimitri, so we (Dimitri and I) in our work process came to a point where I said they’d find a way to sabotage the scenario. I told him that I wasn’t gonna let them screw up what we’d created and we’re running with this! I knew in my head that these songs were better than anything those guys were gonna come up with.

Is your departure from CJ permanent? What’s up with the rest of the CJ members these days?
I’ll play occasional shows ’cause they pay my rent! There’s a small army of new kids out there who’ve not seen the CJs but are interested, so why not? The other CJs are so busy with whatever they’re doin’ that it’s mind boggling and beyond difficult to keep up with their busy schedules. I gave up trying years ago.

You and Dimitri brought in Steven and Mario for OFF!. What was the appeal of those two guys?
Well, if you look at their pedigree, it’s way beyond eye-opening! Steven’s an underrated bassist who’s obviously great enough to play with Beck, Sparks, Courtney Love and an incredible pop band called Redd Kross. Their Phaseshifter record’s pretty amazing! McD reminds me of Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, Paul McCartney and Rob Graves, who played in the Bags, Gun Club, 45 Grave and TheloniousMonster. He’s as solid on bass as Mario’s on skins. Mar’s list of groups he’s been in is insane: Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, 411, Clikitat Ikatowi and currently drumming in Earthless. He recently told me that he’s played with the Black Heart Procession, who’re pretty happening, and he also filled the drum duties for Dimitri’s other band, the Burning Bridees onna’ Queens Of The Stone Age tour. He’s a Latino John Bonham! We wanted the cutest male underwear models on board to make us look even more handsome, so these guys fill those shorts. You’ve gotta remember that OFF! has to compete with all the other boy bands in an ugly world, so it pays big time to appear as studly as possible!

What was the songwriting and recording process like? You recorded the first batch in January and the second in August, right? How many days for each?
Our songwriting situation was pretty grueling, as we were working in my front room with the sun beating in during the hottest months of the summer. We were broke and trying to figure out how we would pay our bills, and being desperate made for the perfect setting of our songs. It’s all about the struggle and the depressing times! The January recording came off a bit uneasy, as we rehearsed three times, and with the other guys’ jumbled schedules, it had a hectic vibe, which made for a real sense of urgency. The second session was different as we’d played our first shows and came closer to being a real band. We spent one day in the studio both times we recorded, and we had carte blanche in another space to mix the tracks.

Is it difficult to write 16 songs that together total less than 18 minutes? Did you do that by design, or is it how it just worked out?
This is where I come from. Skip the guitar noodling, cut and trim the fat, and just get to it! No dicking around! There’s no room for showboating and breaking out the hambone, so let’s go! Wasn’t difficult in the least bit as we had a certain place we had to get to. Dimitri came around as he got deeper into it and realized that he was going somewhere he’d never been before and gotta buzz from the energetic blasts of noise!

I read OFF! had signed to Epitaph, but that’s obviously not the case. What happened with that? How did the deal with Vice come about?
We had a deal in place, as I’d played the first four songs/EP for Brett “Starbolt” Gurewitz, and he wigged out. His initial response was that the songs were the best stuff he’d heard in four or five years and we could do anything we wanted with Epitaph. He told me he loved both the songs and lyrics and that I sounded like a 20-year-old. OFF! had received our contract from Epitaph but wanted to see what other offers were out there. The reason we decided to go with Vice was based on two things that took place: A guy at Epitaph who was probably gonna be responsible for major decisions regarding how we would move forward made the wrong suggestion, and our friend Jamie at Vice showed a crazy sense of love for us. We asked what Vice wanted to do for/with us, and she was outta her head with ideas and mapped out a strategy inna’ coupla’ days. We were totally jazzed with her energy. The most important reason for Vice over Epitaph was the fact that most of the people who are into the Vice world aren’t a part of ours, so we’ve gotta show up and bring them over to our side. We’ve gotta bring extra party favors to the fiesta to make new fans.

Raymond Pettibon does all the art for OFF! Is this the first time you worked with him since the Black Flag days? What kind of relationship do you two have?
What happened with Raymond and me was the long touring schedules bands had back in the ’80s and ’90s, where we’d be out for three or four months at a time. Come home and settle in for a coupla’ weeks and then go out for another two or three months. We were party brothers in the late ’70s but lost track of each other when my other part-time band was doing full-time work during a time when we were out tryin’ to win the big musical popularity contest. Raymond is mi amigo. We go back to Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, where we grew up, and he realizes how his older brother treated me. I have the utmost respect for Greg Ginn as an artist, but he sucks as a businessman. Ray’s one of the smartest and funniest kooks I know! He’s also our tambourine player and the fifth member of OFF!, so watch out ’cause he’s an extremely bad-ass mofo who has a rising curve whiffle ball!

How many shows have OFF! played? Is there a tour planned?
We’ve played 13 shows if you wanna count three parties, two in-stores and a recording for online streaming, and we’ve gotta “veggie” van that runs on vegetable oil, which we plan to take out onto the highways of North America in late February. As for bands we wanna bring to the party or invite us to theirs: No Age, 400 Blows, Deerhunter, Neon Indian, Thee Oh Sees, Mastodon, Melvins, Soft Pack, Mudhoney and Big Business, to name a few.

Is OFF! going to be an ongoing concern or just a, uh, one-OFF!?
I’m extremely happy in this group, so why would I quit OFF! to be around a buncha grumpy know-it-alls? This band’s in its infancy, and I want to go where I know it’s gonna take us. I’ll do everything I can to make this as ongoing as possible due to the other bands I’ve participated in forcing me out. “Keith, I know you’re going to quit the band based on our decision, but we can’t work with Dimitri.” What in hell is up with that? Why would I want to go back to that shitty mentality and deal with a guy whose work ethic equates to doing three hours of work but wanting to get paid for 300 hours? I would hafta’ be a complete pudwhack to do that except to play a show here and there to keep my Chinese lesbian landlords off my scrawny tail end. I’d just end up asking myself why I spent as much time with them as I did. I should put a gun to my temple and end it now! OFF! is notta’ one-OFF!.

What do you think of the state of hardcore in 2010? How has it evolved since the early days?
Hardcore 2010 sounds like the title for some filmed adult entertainment. I don’t pay that much attention to or subscribe to any one particular genre, as I’m a fan of a few genres. Is Fucked Up a hardcore band? A punk band? Who cares? They’re a great band! I dig on Trash Talk, Brutal Knights, White Shit, Pissed Jeans, Cerebral Ballzy, Dessert Storm and the Bronx, but those are the only bands I can think of off the top of my head that fit into this category. As for the evolutionary thing, there’s just more of them! They’re everywhere! They’re on every corner and coming outta the floorboards! Save us!

What newer bands are you into these days?
I’ve listed a few inna’ coupla’ earlier questions, but I can go on: Lower Dens, Nodzz, Greg Ashley, Smith And Westerns, Teeth, Flight, Okie Dokie, Dum Dum Girls, Jim Jones Revue, Duke Spirit, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Screaming Females, Woven Bones, Dead Meadow, Happy Birthday, Best Coast, Whoa Hunx, Audacity,  Jay Reatard (R.I.P.), the Drones, Night Marchers, Obits, Crocodiles, Entrance, Cold Cave, Drug Rug, Bird Blobs, Archie Bronson Outfit, Cheap Time, Vivian Girls. Take into consideration that I worked at a record company and a coupla’ record stores so was always and still am listening to many musical organizations.

How would you compare American politics today with those of the early days of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks?
This is a really depressing question! I think we’ve allowed ourselves to get in way too deep! There needs to be a major shakeup, which will only happen if we create a third party or worker’s/middle-class party who are willing to take back control and put up with absolutely no shit from the people in charge. I feel sorry for all my friends’ children ’cause it’s getting ugly. I’m really a pessimist who’s hoping for the bright light in the cave, but … who knows? Maybe somebody will come along to rally the troops and make things right! Until this takes place, it all sucks!

Are you still as angry as you were back then?
My anger coupled with my diabetes will probably lead to me falling over clutching at my chest. Too many people who are too busy to care about the events and decisions being made for them by people who’re not qualified to make the decisions in the first place. Enough of the Doritos, Coke, NASCAR and America’s Got Dancing With The Stars Fever, as it’s time to get up and do something!

Did you ever think you’d still be doing this at 55? What would the 20-year-old Keith Morris thought of a guy your age fronting a hardcore band?
Never woulda’ thunk it, as I’ve got other things I want to do, but sometimes they don’t materialize or happen for whatever reasons and you blink or sneeze and they’ve passed. As a 25-year-old, I was opposed to the senior citizens making music, but over the years certain music effects you in different ways. I never thought I’d pay attention to Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, ABBA, Nick Drake, Captain Beefheart, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Judy Collins, Carpenters, Johnny Cah and hundreds of others, but life takes some unpredictable turns and here we are. I guess I’ve grown to not be so narrow-minded.

You have been living with diabetes for more than a decade. How are you feeling?
I have great days, and then there are the ones where I can suffer hypoglycemia a coupla’ times, and the health peeps told me that they rate hypoglycemia up there under heart attack and stroke. I’ve hadda’ coupla’ diabetic dilemmas, but for the most part if I pay attention and eat when I’m supposed to, I can run ’round 90 percent. I’ve been feeling good enough to still be pissed off!

—Eric T. Miller