Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Members: Keith Morris, Dimitri Coats, Steven McDonald, Mario Rubalcaba
Album: First Four EPs
For Fans Of: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, hardcore punk
Around this time last year, middle-aged hardcore rockers OFF! played their first live shows as band together at SXSW 2010. The band, originally forming out of the ashes of frontman Keith Morris’ longtime group Circle Jerks, brought together four musicians who played substantial roles in rock ‘n’ roll over the past 30 years through their involvement in bands such as Black Flag, Redd Kross, Burning Brides and Rocket From The Crypt.
Despite being significantly older than the vast majority of punk acts, OFF! have turned heads with the First Four EPs—an 18-minute, 16 song effort that fiercely fires off track after track of punk done right. Their debut release is not only a return to form for these four musicians, but also resonates as a head-turning collection breathing energy into an oft-stagnant genre. Paste recently spoke with Morris about all things OFF!, getting electrocuted onstage, playing with Chuck Berry and his love of The Shins.
Paste: About this time a year ago, OFF! made its live debut at SXSW. How have things changed over the past year now that the group has been together for some time? Will you be playing just new OFF! material or will you be playing songs from your other respective groups as well?
Keith Morris: Well, we have to stop and take a breather because we’re older men, so we’ve got to maybe run off stage and grab some oxygen. But we’re going to just crash and bash through our repertoire of the First Four EPs. Of course, there’‘ll be the laser light show, smoke machines and mirror balls…
Paste: No pyrotechnics?
Morris: Our theme is going to be signs of the horoscope. I’m a Virgo, so I’m going to have to dress in drag?No, I’m just pulling your leg. [laughs]. Just being facetious… That would be kind of cool if someone did that. I could see someone like the Flaming Lips doing something like that or Beck. We’re just a bunch of guys that are going to get up there and crank it and grind through it and jump around. Try to stir up some craziness and some zaniness.
Paste: You mentioned that you were older. You’re around 50, right?
Morris: I’m 55.
Paste: Do you approach an OFF! show differently than the way you did 20 or 30 years ago with Black Flag or Circle Jerks?
Morris: Not really. I just got to make sure I eat so I got fuel in my tank. We just go at it. My problem is that I’m a diabetic—I have had a couple of situations where I’ve suffered from Hypoglycemia onstage… For my performance, [it] isn’t a good thing because Hypoglycemia is like having a vacuum suck everything out of you…I’ve buckled. I’ve doubled up in pain.
Paste: Do you have to cut off shows when that happens or do you try to make your way through it?
Morris: I try to make my way through it. It usually happens towards the end of the evening’s musical performance.
Paste: With Black Flag and Circle Jerks, it seems like both bands cater specifically to punk and hardcore fans. But with OFF!, there has been a lot of coverage by major publications that wouldn’t have necessarily covered your other bands in the past. Have you noticed a difference in the types of people showing up to OFF! shows because of this?
Morris: Here’s a perfect example: the last show we played…we were going to play was outdoors. Shepard Fairey, who was famous for the President Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster, has a gallery right up the street from where I live. They had a big exhibit with Raymond Pettibon, Dave Markey [director of 1991: The Year Punk Broke], Ed Colver [photographer whose work has been feature on the album covers of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Bad Religion, Snoop Dogg, etc.], Glen Friedman…so they were having this big exhibit and OFF! was going to play in the parking lot. Unfortunately, it was on a night where we got one of our worst rains. Obviously that’s not going to work because electricity and water—you don’t combine the two. That just leads to really negative scenery, really bad vibes or what have you.
I will get to your question, but I had to explain to Shepard that one of the first shows that I ever played in Black Flag—we played in a basement. The party was in the basement, the keg was in the metal tub with all the ice, the ice had melted and the water had spilled over the side of the tub onto the floor. We were going to play on the floor.
Paste: I have a feeling that didn’t turn out too well…
Morris: So I’m standing in a puddle of water. And I don’t know it because I’ve been drinking from the keg, I was having a great time, wasn’t feeling any pain. So the band launches into the first note of the first song and I reach up and grab the mic to start screaming and yelling and acting like a monkey with a firecracker up its butt. Of course, the entire room turns into one big flash of light for me. When I picked myself off the ground ten minutes later, I realized that I just got the shock of my life. Your life flashes in front of you.
I don’t know really how to explain it. But I explained that to Shepard…[how it could] get really ugly and you…could have millions and millions and millions worth of insurance and even that wouldn’t cover you. To divert a disaster, we moved the show to a place called the Echoplex at the very last minute—we were going to go on at about 12:15 a.m. Well, the show that was there that night was Sebadoh…[Lou Barlow said to the crowd,] “Look, whoever wants to stick around and see Steven McDonald from Redd Kross, Keith Morris from Black Flag and Circle Jerks’ new band, stick around.”
We had about 400 people stay after—the club had about 600 people in it…Maybe there’s a lot of curiosity seekers, thrill seekers. Maybe everybody just wanted to hang out and drink some more. Maybe they didn’t want to leave because it was raining. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that maybe the majority stuck around because they wanted to see what we were about.
Paste: Going back to my question, do you think that the wider range of coverage has made others who would not usually listen to hardcore warm up to you?
Morris: The thing with Pitchfork or a magazine like [Paste]…you just don’t want to be horizontal all the time, you like to go for the vertical… The thing is with us, we’re going to have all the punk rocks and the hardcores. We’re going to have all the meatheads, we’re going to have all the nitwits, we’re going to have all the idiots that don’t get the message or even take the time to listen to the lyrics. They’re more about just getting caught up in all the energy and excitement. [Now] there were will be people actually paying attention to what we have to say. They’re a little bit more intelligent.
Our thing is, we’re really not that band anyway. If you look at us, if you see pictures of us, we don’t look like a bunch of punk rocks. This isn’t the Sid Vicious look-a-like contest. We’ve been playing a lot of festivals. We’ve played with everyone from Best Coast and Deerhunter, speaking of Atlanta…we want to applaud Deerhunter, we love Deerhunter. And since we’re on Vice Records, we’re labelmates with the zany, crazy Black Lips…maybe there’s a thread going on here but I love Deerhunter and I love the Black Lips and…I kind of like the Atlanta Falcons but…no [laughs].
Paste: I’ve also read that you’ve mentioned bands even less similar to OFF! too, like Ryan Adams or Band of Horses as potential bands you wouldn’t be opposed to touring with. With Deerhunter and the Black Lips, they’re not exactly hardcore, but they’re not that far off compared to Ryan Adams…
Morris: Both of the bands… Bradford [Cox] and there’s a couple of really wacky characters in the Black Lips who are huge Black Flag and Circle Jerks fans. My family tree in music and all the musicians I’ve played with is very far reaching. We go as far as, speaking of another Atlanta band, The Black Crowes. Chris Robinson came up to me one night and said, “We wouldn’t be playing music if it wasn’t for you.” I looked at him and went, “You’re The Black Crowes, man!” I would think he would say something like they wouldn’t be playing music if it wasn’t for the Rolling Stones…Motown or Stax…or Muscle Shoals.
I get paid compliments like this all the time. My favorite compliment and probably the greatest compliment that could ever paid to a guy in a rock band by a guy in another rock band would be Chuck Berry. In one of my other bands, we played a show at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis and Chuck Berry…said he wanted to be a part of it. He joined us onstage and we played “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Paste: Wow, that must have been an incredible moment.
Morris: I would imagine that maybe along with Little Richard and Jerry Lewis—those three guys probably by themselves are the guys that created the genre. There’s probably others we could mention, but those are the big three—that’s the big triumvirate. The axis of insanity.
Paste: Speaking of compliments, I read that you thought OFF! being referred to as a “Black Flag cover band” was a huge compliment.
Morris: Well what happened was that we played our second show at SXSW [last year] and what happens at SXSW is that sometimes if you’re not one of the early signees, you can get just get tossed onto any bill here or there. So you could be playing with a bunch of bands that the only thing you have in common with them is that you’re plugging in and playing amplified music.
Paste: So that was someone that wasn’t all that familiar with OFF! or Black Flag?
Morris: I had overheard a couple of people conversing outside that we “sounded like a Black Flag cover band.” Maybe [they] didn’t know our lineage in that I was one of the founding members of Black Flag…our lineage goes all the way back to 1977 or 1978 in Hermosa Beach, Calif. in a Baptist Church. [But], the matter of fact is that the way they described the band is what would’ve happened if I had never left Black Flag and I was allowed to write lyrics and maybe come up with some musical riffs.
Paste: It’s interesting that all four OFF! members came from different backgrounds, yet you still ended up forming an extension of where you originally started as a musician.
Morris: Well, Mario Rubalcaba, he has Latin blood. The way he plays on drums—he adds that kind of flavor in what we’re doing. As brutal as the music is…there’s a little bit of sexiness there, like a danceability to it. You’re not going to hear our music being played on So You Think You Can Dance? or Dancing With The Stars or that kind of stuff. But Dimitri [Coats], when he and I were writing these songs, brought to my attention the fact that…you can dance to it, you can actually move to it. You don’t just have to jump around and beat each other up. If a pole dancer wants to dance to this… Now, of course, you’d have to be on methamphetamine, but she could still in a minute and a half strip off whatever she has to strip, swing up on the bar four or five times. So I got a kick out of that, you know.
Basically what we’re doing is like all the garage rock. You listen to the Black Lips and you can dance to the Black Lips—if you can’t dance to the Black Lips then you don’t know how to dance! We would just be taking the Black Lips and picking up the speed a bit. They’re a great band, just like Deerhunter. Huge, huge fan of Deerhunter—that Microcastle album is one of the greatest albums recorded in the past ten years.
Paste: It’s a fantastic record.
Morris: I place the Microcastle album up their against The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow. [Chutes Too Narrow] is brilliant, to me there’s only one song that doesn’t hold up to the rest of the songs. When you can find a record that has that many great songs on it, it’s a great record. A fantastic record.