Anyone more than passing-familiar with punk knows the name Keith Morris. Co-founder of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, Morris was one of the driving forces of the late 70s/early 80s California punk rock explosion, but unlike many of his peers who’ve peeled off into other careers or less blunt force forms of musical expression, Morris has remained on the front lines, and has in fact gone back to the unfinished work he began on the earliest Black Flag recordings with his new band OFF!, a glorious whiplash rush through panic attacks, dark parties and other bruised knuckle environments. Morris’ nicely possessed, commanding vocals intertwine with the gut level satisfying sharp shock of Burning Brides’ Dimitri Coats (guitar), Redd Kross’ Steven McDonald (bass), and Rocket From The Crypt/Hot Snakes’ Mario Rubalcaba (drums). The minute-and-change outbursts are models of brevity, perfect meldings of form and function arriving just as punk can use a bit of such sour breath in its lungs. Their debut, First Four EPs (released February 15 on Vice), gathers together the four seven-inch single EPs from last year, and listening to it will churn the blood and scratch at the mind in the best ways.
What was initially scheduled as a 10 minute phone interview with one of the Impound’s musical heroes turned into an hour long free-range ramble that began with Morris saying, “It’s all cool. It’s all friendly. Don’t place me on any kind of pedestal. Let’s just carry on like a couple of record retards and music geeks.”
Morris turned out to be a human torrent, chatting with a mixture of heedless abandon and long considered ideas, peppering the chat with unexpected pauses followed by rushes of words and theories. It’s a challenge to keep up with him but the exchange – the sheer bare knuckle engagement with life and culture – makes one feel quite alive and fired up to get in the ring, too.
We began by discussing the state of music today.
Keith Morris: I guess it’s the same with any genre of music. There are some pearls and some diamonds and some rubies. There’s some bitchin’ jewels out there, but there’s also a big trunk filled with rocks and pebbles and pieces of coal. You have to dig through it to find something really decent.
That reminds me of going to Warped Tour last year. All the bands I loved like The Adolescents and The Dickies were stuck in the back corner like some ugly uncle, and the rest of lineup had this weird, homogenous, just awful quality.
Well, the bands you really wanted to pay attention to were on the Old School Stage. And all the kids were like, [his voice slipping into a sniveling whine] “We’re not really old school. We’re not even middle school. We’re probably not even new school. We’re not even elementary school. We’re pre-school.” The majority of those bands are just exactly what you think they are. Out of all of those bands if there’s 500 of them there might be three or four of them that might be worth listening to.
That’s an older guy, jaded statement but the fact of the matter is there’s a lot of new music out there that’s pretty amazing. There’s a lot of new music that’s pretty cool that has absolutely nothing to do with Alternative Press and those bands. That thing is a whole genre. All those boys look the same and they’re interchangeable. It’s like what happened with hair metal with Stryper and Ratt.
It’s a costume people figure out how to wear. They know the outfit they’re supposed to suit up in and even the tone they’re expected to take.
Not only did they see the pictures in the magazine, they heard the music and they know where to go to get what they need to look the way they look. I remember going to see The Bangles – I love The Bangles because I grew up with them. I’m 55-years-old and I’m from Los Angeles, and I remember going to see The Bangles when they had their hit “Walk Like An Egyptian.” They were playing places that held like 10,000 people, and I went to the show in Orange County and the line going into the building looked like a production line. It was like ants climbing on top of the ant hill to go down and hang out with the Queen Ant. If you reversed the line it would look like a factory spitting out all these people. It was just exactly what you’d expect at a Bangles show – all the girls wearing their pastels and puffy hair and all that fun stuff. And this is not to take away anything from The Bangles, who’re a great band. They’re talented and their vocal harmonies are amazing. Not a lot of bands can do what they do with their vocals. You’ve got to appreciate stuff like that.
That kind of environment is toxic if you’re not interested in being one of those things pumped out by the factory.
The other part of that scenario is you’ve got to wear you armor, you’ve got to have thick skin, and you’ve got to move stealthily like a submarine through the mud and glittery, goofy garbage that’s out there. You’ve got to be true to yourself, true to your heart. Keep your soul, keep it all intact, and don’t let any of this stuff affect you.
You’ve been making music for over 30 years. How do you keep your armor up in the face of trying to make a living doing this?
My shield and my sword or spear or AK-47 or bazooka or tank that I drive is tainted with sarcasm. You can’t take all this stuff seriously or it will drive you into the loony bin. You might as well put your head in the garbage disposal. This is what I do, and I’m good at it. Granted, I’d like to make more money and not have to fret over my bills. Yes, I’d like to be like my friends in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who are one of the biggest bands in the world. But you see these guys, these multi-millionaires that people want to lick the ground they walk on, and they’re just as fucked up as anyone else. Their problems are just larger. Their problems are just more expensive.
The main thing in all this for me is to keep my overhead low. I don’t have kids. I don’t have a new car I’m making payments on. I don’t own a house. I love the space I live in. I’m near to a lot of things that are really happening. I can do a 15-minute walk and be at the Echo and Echoplex in Echo Park or the Echo Curio. I have the Vista Theatre right in front of me. I’m behind the sign that turns green at night. If I have to go to West Hollywood, say I’m gonna go to the Whiskey A Go Go or The Roxy or The Viper Room or House of Blues, I’ll jump on the bus. It’s a buck thirty-five and you don’t have to worry about gas or any of the other freakazoids that are out there driving. You don’t have to pay ten or twenty bucks to park or worry about [car] insurance or being a slave to the oil companies. It’s some brain time. You can whip out a book or listen to music.
That’s a philosophical approach to living that’s really appealing. You’re not just taking a stance to take one. You’re doing things that actually produce a better quality of life.
I drive and I fill up my tank one and a half times a month, but I try to walk everywhere I can or get a ride with a friend, carpool, and keep it at that. I’m not gonna be a slave to my vehicle. I’m not gonna be a slave to the oil companies. I’m not gonna be a slave to any of those people. They want us to bow down to them and follow their instructions and rules and be a good consumer. And I don’t want to be any of that.
It’s strange how so much of that kind of thinking gets internalized. So much of what we do is unconscious. That was what initially attracted me to punk rock as a teenager. There’s so much that people tell you is the norm, that this is how things are done and you should follow suit because that’s just what you do. I loved that there were people out there that let me know it isn’t like that.
It is like that BUT there are things you can do to make it not like that. My thing is I’m a pessimist. I think we’re fuckin’ doomed. We’ve allowed all this shit to go on and keep going and nobody’s really made a stand [against it]. Our government doesn’t represent us anymore. They’ll represent whoever they feel like representing. They’ll give us the face time that implies they care about us but they don’t really care. A lot of people are dissing the President, but he inherited the largest shit sandwich that’s ever been handed to a President. Not only is it lunchtime and you’re getting lunch but you’ve got enough to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner and snacks and some for your kids to take to school. You’re wife can throw a Tupperware party and be digging it out of the Tupperware.
It’s pretty fucking unreal, and I find myself thinking – especially of Americans – as locusts. It seems like we’re going to eat it ALL until there’s nothing fucking left.
We will eat whatever they give us.
I’m actually getting ready to do a lecture at the downtown L.A. library on the merits of why we need libraries. It’s really simple. When I was a kid and I’d get out of school, there was no babysitter. My parents couldn’t afford it, so my sister and I ended up at the library, looking at magazines and newspapers, hanging out with friends, going out to the parking lot to play spin-the-bottle, learning how to do all that kind of stuff. It was part of our social network. We all grew up to be pretty intelligent. We grew up to be good people who know the difference between right and wrong and what’s cool and what’s not. We’re able to discern what we like and we don’t like. And the library played a big role in that. We’d read and do our homework, so our homework would be done by the time we got home. Then we could ride bikes or skateboards or go body surfing or what have you. And I’m going to get up in front of these people and say, “Our government is doing everything it can to keep people in a pen.” They want us to be this hoard of animals that they have control over. It’s part of the dumbing down. They want us watching NASCAR and eating all these food products. They’re fattening us up for the slaughter.
It makes me think of Motel Hell with the farmer stuffing food into the mouths of these people planted in the ground before he turns them into sausage. That image pops into my head a lot these days.
That would be Rory Calhoun. When I was a kid, he was on Saturday mornings. He was some kind of cowboy. He was like the poor man’s Roy Rogers, who you would probably think was some sort of Republican fuck-whack but he actually turned his ranch into an orphanage in Apple Valley. So, some of these people you’d think bad things about might have a spot in their heart or area in their soul where they do good things. And Rory Calhoun was the guy who owned Motel Hell.
I like that you have that kind of perspective AND can still write a song like OFF!’s “Fuck People.”
I told you I live behind the Vista Theatre, which is like seven corners and one of the busiest intersections in Southern California and it gets really ugly. We had a road rage where this guy got out of his car and shot the guy in the car in front of him. That’s what we’ve become. And on the weekends, there’s a guy in front of the Vista with a big sign that says, “Honk For Peace,” which I’m totally into. It’s not like I’m some hippie or “let’s be mellow,” but it’s what we need in the world. We need more fucking. We need more people in love. We need more sex. Fuck all the drugs and the guns. Fuck all the political people making our military people go to places they don’t really need to go to.
Our military should have been here and President Barack Obama should have sent the fucking Navy out to British Petroleum off the Louisiana Gulf with the Marines and the Army and the fucking Green Berets and fucking Blackwater and all those people, and said, “You’re cleaning this up now. We’re not waiting six months or a year. You’re going to clean it up now.” But he couldn’t because all these politicians are pretty much ball-less and spineless, especially the Democrats, who’ve really gotten that way. We need someone to stand up to these people.
It’s been especially galling lately. One thing you thought Obama wouldn’t budge on was more tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country. And right away, they telegraphed they were going to cave. They just needed to soften everyone up to the idea.
They’re in the chicken coop and they’re stomping around in the chicken shit and rubbing it all over themselves. They’re taking off their suits and ties and dresses and heels and polished shoes, and jumping around naked in the chicken shit and rubbing it all over themselves. That’s what we have to look forward to. It was a big deal for them to stand up to the upper echelon…
…it’s why this guy got the level of popular vote that he did. A presidential candidate finally connected with people like you and me who think politicians are fucking useless or just downright evil for the most part. Here was a guy who seemed ready to step up to the plate and knock these people around for a little bit…
…or at least push them around and try to pull rug out from underneath them, pull a few tricks on them.
I don’t understand why people aren’t more pissed off right now.
You gotta understand that there’s a certain portion of the population, which I guess would be the majority of people who live in America, who are like the families the Republicans are always saying they’re all about. Yet they’re the ones [creating a system] where the dad has to work two jobs and mom has to work a job on the side, and they’re closing down the schools! It’s the dumbing down of America. They’re putting everyone in their place, and there’s these rich people who point and say, “Go stand in the stable. Maybe we’ll throw you a carrot once in a while.”
One of the things that pisses off virulently pro-life folks I’ve interacted with is when I ask, “So, how many of these unwanted children you insist a woman bring into this world have you adopted?” Because if you’re going to insist on abortion being abolished then you better be ready to open your doors in the Christian spirit you espouse and take these children in. And not one of these people I’ve had this conversation with has ever told me they’ve adopted a single child. That’s just one really basic flaw in the thinking of the majority of the self-identified right wing. There’s not a lot of thinking through the consequences and implications of these hardline positiions they take, often about other people’s lives.
They don’t look past the guy waving The Bible and telling them if they don’t do this they’ll go here and you’ll go there and it’s like this. Everyone is cowering before these people, but do they even know what goes on in these orphanages? I read a little blurb in the L.A. Times this morning, and I didn’t even read the whole story because I had friends who lived in a house that used to be an orphanage and some of these bedrooms had four or five locks on the doors. They’d lock the kids in and there’s no way the kids can get out. It’s brutal. I’d like to say these pro-life need to get real but they wouldn’t know reality if they were completely immersed in it.
I’ve felt a really strong need for catharsis in this political/social environment, and not to steer things back too practically to music, that’s part of what’s made me so attached so quickly to OFF! The exclamation point is so appropriate. Everything about this band is so unruly and impolite and perfectly in tune with how pissed-off one should be right now.
Well, I don’t want to be pissed-off but I just call it as I see it. I don’t get to make up songs about flowers and hot chicks and driving a fucking hot rod and being limo’d around and my best friend is a coke dealer and we’re going to go to Cheetah’s to watch strippers and my world is just totally bitchin’. When we were writing these songs, we were writing in the middle of summer, and Dimitri, our guitar player, and I would have these conversations where we’d bash at this stuff. When we were writing these songs I was wondering how I was going to pay my rent. There were days where all I’d eat all day was a burrito. I don’t want to sound like some pathetic, loser-type character but a lot of these songs came out of the struggle – you’ve got to struggle for your art, you know, that cliché, except we were actually living it. Dimitri has a wife and a daughter and was just freaking out, like, “Dude, what are we going to do!?!” Well, we had to continue writing these songs. This is where we’re at. This is what we’re doing. We have a direction and a goal and a deadline we need to meet. As long as we’re busy doing this, we’re not thinking about a lot of the other things troubling us [laughs].
Getting back to “Fuck People,” that’s a pretty blatant and ugly statement to say but getting back to where I live, it’s ugly at the seven corners. There are people out there that just don’t care! Those are the ones we’re saying “fuck people” to. It’s not the entire population. There are good people out there, but there’s a certain portion of the population that needs to be put up against the wall and somebody needs to slap them a few times and say, “Hey, get real! Start paying attention!”
Wake the fuck up! I dig the slap of this music. It may have been born out of frustration and the things you were going through at the time but there’s something pointed about it that’s perfect in a way. ‘Perfect’ isn’t a word I use very often to describe music but there’s something very right about every aspect of OFF!’s music. And I love that the longest song is about a minute and 30 seconds.
We’re holding onto our 15 minute opus. I’m kidding. It will never get to that. We’re not going into the studio and turning up our guitars and bass to 11 and letting the feedback go on because that’s already happened with Earth and Ohm and all those Sunn O))) type bands. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing on any of those bands. We may eventually get to a two-minute song but only eventually. I’m a 55-year-old diabetic and I get up there jumping around and I get angry and it kicks my diabetes up. I might as well be an astronaut; I don’t even need a rocket ship. So, on one hand, it’s healthy for me to rant and rave and scream and yell, and the other hand, it’s like, “Your ticket to the grave is number 6543.”
I do want to play some different types of music and write different kinds of lyrics. I was hanging with a friend last night named Ryan Adams, who’s big in the alt-country world. And Ryan was like, “Keith, we’re gonna write a punk rock record!” And I was like, “Err, if you’re gonna write a punk rock record you’re gonna write it with someone else.” We were talking about DJ Bonebrake, the drummer from X, and he’s also a percussionist who plays marimba and vibraphone and he can get jazzy. And I told Ryan we need to write music that incorporates instruments like that. I want it to come out of the right speaker and move all the way to the left speaker, kind of like The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” I want to get a bit more picturesque, a bit more cinematic, a bit more colorful because OFF! is like when you turn the switch off and you’re in a black room. You’re in the darkness and you’re at the dark party. That’s what OFF! is about.
Dimitri plays guitar in Burning Brides, and they’ve been on tour with Queens of the Stone Age, A Perfect Circle, Audioslave and Mastodon. So, he leans to a heavier thing. His favorite writers are Kurt Cobain and John Lennon. That’s a big swath, a big brush stroke. But I had to get him to a point he’d never been to before. All of the sudden he’s jamming in my living room and he’s wailing away on this Swedish guitar that’s half plastic, half wood. And it won’t stay in tune and that’s the beauty of this guitar. So, he’s playing this guitar through a little single speaker practice amp and all of the sudden he’s jamming and taking me back to a place before the band before this one [The Circle Jerks] couldn’t because they wouldn’t know how. They would think that they were going there and try to go there but they couldn’t because they didn’t have it in them. So, he’s jamming away and after we recorded the guitar riff I told him, “Go home and tonight around 3 a.m. you’re gonna be sitting on your couch listening to this track on the computer through your headphones and after you get through listening and dissecting it go on iTunes and purchase the first Black Flag EP.” And he says, “Keith, I’ve already heard ‘Nervous Breakdown’ played by a few different bands. I’m familiar with ‘Nervous Breakdown’ and I think you guys (meaning the Circle Jerks) play some of those songs.” And I just said, “You go home and just listen to those four songs.” The next day he had five new songs written.
One of the best critiques we got was at SXSW. We played three shows at SXSW, and after we got through playing our second show, some broad was standing there yapping her gums at one of her friends. She said, “I had to leave because that band sounded like a Black Flag cover band.” To me, that’s probably the greatest compliment we could be paid. I was a member of Black Flag and I walked away because I was fed up with some of the personalities. I was fed up with the fact we weren’t playing a lot of shows; a tour for us was getting in the van and driving to San Francisco for a couple of shows. So, I never really got the opportunity to do any real touring with Black Flag. We were basically rehearsing for four, five, six hours per night and playing to placate ourselves and make ourselves happy. It was something we had to do to get things off our shoulders, off our heads, off our chests, but it started to get too workmanlike.
You can do a lot by yourself but until you stand up in front of the world it doesn’t really become what it can be.
You need to take it out there and see what people’s responses are and how many people show up. I feel that putting it onstage is the best place to scrutinize it. It’s called Live Legs. In order to survive, you need to go out there and rock out and bring the party to the people.
The video I’ve seen of OFF! performing looks thrilling but exhausting. Everyone is just leaning into it, and of course, you’re the most possessed of them all.
Getting back to Black Flag, that’s where I come from. That’s the first band I was in, and people can make all the comparisons they want because I was a founding member of that band. I was an integral part of that band, Greg Ginn and I, and basically the way I look at OFF! is it’s what would have happened if I hadn’t left Black Flag, what would have happened to the next batch of songs if I was still in Black Flag. That’s a pretty big bite to take because Black Flag is like Bad Brains, The Germs, Middle Class and Minor Threat. There are certain bands that help create a template, a blueprint that a lot of other bands tried to copy but couldn’t come close. The thing with Black Flag when we recorded that first EP was we were going through shit. We didn’t like each other. We were just barely having a good time. When we were singing “Depression” we were really depressed. Things were not happy-go-lucky. You’d think with a new band everything would be all, “Hey! Yeah! We’re gonna party and do drugs! Look at all the girls!” It was not like that. It was the start of the dark party, and that first Black Flag EP captured all of that. It was a perfect moment in time to get all those different aspects, all the different drug habits and fighting with girlfriends and getting fired from jobs. All that stuff rolled into one big ball, not knowing what we were doing but just going for it.
And there’s a little bit of that going on in OFF! Like one of the guys got fired from the job he’s been doing in a warehouse and has to try and become a serious musician and make a living for his family working three jobs. And our guitar player is the same way, trying to hustle up any work he can. I’m doing a radio show and working on trying to get some funding and flying in some sponsors. And the thing with sponsors is if we know them and know they’re cool guys, even though they’re corporate, they aren’t all these steam-rollers that fuck people over and reach into their pocketbooks and purses. There’s a certain amount of integrity you can have AND there’s a certain amount of not having integrity because there’s certain things that need to be covered on a financial level. I’m not saying you should go out and take all the money being offered. We had a meeting and discussed these different sponsors and somebody brought up NASCAR, and I said, “Why the fuck would you even bring that up?” My friends the Red Hot Chili Peppers sold a song to NASCAR and it bought a couple houses in Malibu, but we’re not looking for that. We’re not looking for uncool bullshit like Nike. It may come our way but we don’t have to go for it.
I’ve seen a couple of threads on Facebook where The Black Keys are in some car commercial and video game and my argument for them being on all this stuff is they’re a cool band and the music is actually great and wouldn’t you want somebody you like to get some kind of financial compensation?
I make that argument a lot. Don’t be some kind of prima donna with this shit. If a skateboarding video game that’s going to sell 25 million copies worldwide wants your song then do it!
That’s my rent for two or three months!
Trying to take extreme stances while keeping bread on your table doesn’t always work. It’s a hard balance but it can be achieved.
You’re watching television, whatever sporting event is on, and the commercial comes on and you hear a little bit of The Stooges’ “Search & Destroy.” I would much rather hear that than Good Charlotte or whatever. Fuck, man, get real!
I’d much rather hear “Lust For Life” than some other bullshit in a commercial.
In a fucking cruise ship commercial! But hey, if you don’t dig it you’ve got the fucking control in your hand. Goof off to another channel and don’t pay attention. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head saying, “You’ve got to watch this.” I’d rather hear great music on the television and radio than most of the crap, filler Pablum that’s out there. I hear that bass riff from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and it’s fuckin’ awesome!
The ways people discover music today is really changing. There are drones that take what MTV, CMT and the like tell them to consume, but there’s also another stream of people who hear a snippet of cool music in a TV commercial or video game and seek it out to explore further. And suddenly they’ve discovered The Stooges!
And hooray for them. And I hope Iggy sells another million albums because he deserves it. He fought for years and years and did all the legwork and busted his ass and went through all the rigmarole you have to in a band. He deserves success and so do all the guys who play with him. More power to them!
And to you, Keith. I’m just glad you’re still doing it. A lot of people give up. It isn’t an easy path.
I got really lazy and that’s part of the reason I’m doing OFF! With my other band [Circle Jerks], the booking agent was saying if you put out a new album your guarantees will be $10,000 wherever you go, which is not the way it would be but that’s what he was saying. So, wow, we’ll get together and write songs. I said, “Guys, whatever music you’ve been writing and working on bring it in. Let’s listen to it.” Then, Dimitri came along and said, “It’s time for you guys to record an album. I’ll produce it and we’ll get everyone in my rehearsal space. There’s equipment in there and all you have to do is bring some extra little do-dads and we’ll start hammering out a record.”
In the process, it turned into exactly what I thought it would turn into at the very beginning, which is just a bunch of mediocrity and middle-of-the-road songs that, to me, were very uninspiring and not very interesting. All of the sudden, Dimitri is telling me, “Keith, you have to pay attention to this song and that song. By the time you write the lyrics and get everything in place you’ll love it!” So, I’m writing the lyrics to a bunch of songs I would have normally listened to two or three times and said, “Let’s move on.” In the process of this, I had to say, “Hey, we’ve got a deadline coming up.” Then, one of the guys announced he was going on Warped Tour and that we needed to have the record recorded before he left. So, Dimitri puts out the email and we’re writing in my living room since I’m centrally located. Let’s do this…and then nobody showed up. Dimitri and I are sitting in my living room and realize there’s not going to be an album if we don’t write some songs. And that’s what we did. And that’s how OFF! came about.