by Michael Hill
"The guys that we were working with before just had this mental thing where we can just write whatever we want and people are gonna like it. It's like what the fuck is up with that? Are you kidding?" - Keith Morris
OFF! (photo by Dan Monick)
Keith Morris was the original front man for Black Flag and later the Circle Jerks, two bands that defined the sound, ethic and attitude of American Hardcore Punk. For that, he achieves legendary status, at least in my eyes, so when I was offered the opportunity to talk to him about his new band Off!, I was blown away to say the least. If you were basketball fan, it would be like meeting Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson.
The easy way out would be to label Off! a "supergroup" but that's not accurate. The reality is that the band is made up of a group of friends that happened to all have been in great bands. That's apparent when you listen to the 16 (18 minutes long!) tracks on The First Four E.P.s and see the live show. The core of the band is Morris and Dimitri Coats, the guitarist/vocalist for Burning Brides. The rhythm section consists of Steve McDonald (Redd Kross) on bass and Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes, Black Heart Procession, Clikatat Ikatowi) on drums. The music is raw, to the point and vicious, it's everything you want a hardcore punk band to sound like but after talking to Morris and Coats, it was made clear to me that Off! is a band that sounds like a punk band but doesn't carry the baggage of being a punk band. You won't see any Mohawks or leather jackets, there won't be any whining about "The Scene" or any posturing going on. You just go to the show, get your mind blown then go home taking with you a true, honest experience.
I showed up to the interview [on 10/21 in NYC] about 30 minutes early, got a cup of coffee and kicked it in the lobby of the office where the whole thing was going to take place. I had questions prepared...I was trying to be a "pro" as possible but when I heard Keith Morris's unmistakable voice emanating from the other room, I became like the 16 year old fan boy that wrote the words "Damaged" on a plain white t shirt with a black sharpie and pounded 1 litre bottles of Jolt! Cola. I also learned that you don't actually interview Keith, you sort of capture his vibe and maybe steer him towards the subjects you want to talk about.
Read part one of our talk below...
Off at Europa (more by Keith Marlowe)
So is it a fly-in show or are you guys on tour?
KEITH MORRIS: Well we were originally playing the Europa show, and I kept hounding Brady, "Dude, we can't come out there just to do a show. There's too much stuff going on, get us some other shows. Do some managerial work."
So are you doing some dates around this show?
KEITH MORRIS: We're doing Europa tonight, we're gonna do Live on AOL as soon as we get through here. And then tomorrow is Generation Records
Right on. That's gonna be nuts.
KEITH MORRIS: And then on Saturday we're doing Fader Fort. We're sandwiched in between a couple of gangster rap groups.
KEITH MORRIS: Well, Body Count, you know? He was a huge fan of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks and all that kind of stuff.
Yeah, I saw Body Count on that first Lollapalooza tour with Rollins Band, Jane's Addiction, Rollins came out, did Cop Killer
KEITH MORRIS: They all kind of fit in. I was in a semi-popular...what you'd call hardcore punk rock band [Circle Jerks], or soft-core or medium-core punk rock band, and we were asked to perform with Run DMC. Run DMC said, "We want a white punk rock band to play with us." And so the promoter said, "Well who would you like." They have them a list, we were on the list and so they asked us to play and it would've been a really big show for us, it would've been like 45,000 people. But the night before they played at the Long Beach Arena, and a fight broke out in the middle of the floor and there were like 500 injuries. Out of the 500 injuries, like a bunch of people got hospitalized so the promoter said you can't do that. There's not enough insurance in the world to cover that. That would ruin my promoting life.
KEITH MORRIS: So that was getting back to the show on Saturday night at the Fader Fort. We're playing with a couple of gangster rap groups. I know nothing about them because I'm not really that familiar with that world.
[Editor's note: Off! was scheduled to play between Freddie Gibbs and Waka Flocka Flame who cancelled and was replaced by Theophilus London]
(OFF! at) the Fader Fort (more by Jason House)
Yeah, the last hip-hop stuff I was into was the Wu-Tang Clan or Kool Keith and from the late '90s.
KEITH MORRIS: Oh, I love Kool Keith, he's a freak. The Red Hot Chili Peppers had him on some shows with them and his rider was individual barbecued chicken wings wrapped in like baggy sandwich bags, you know, Ziploc bags because he was gonna throw them out to the audience. And what had happened was one of his shows he did that and the fans took them out of the Ziploc bags and threw them back on stage. So now all of the sudden you've got equipment...
So the Chili Peppers said no, you don't get to do that. You can do just about all the other stuff you want to do but you don't get to do that. Our crew is not capable of coming in and sandblasting the stage. Kool Keith equated himself to Elvis Presley, like "I'm the black Elvis". The guy can not only open for, say the Beastie Boys or the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Faith No More, but he could also take it a step further and open for the Butthole Surfers, open for the Flaming Lips.
I see you have a Gun Club T-shirt on.
KEITH MORRIS: Not only do I have a Gun Club T-shirt on, we actually have a song on the set....
Jeffrey Lee Pierce?
KEITH MORRIS: Yeah, because Jeffrey Lee Pierce is not only one of my heroes, he's totally inspirational to me. He was also my roommate and at one time he was by best friend. And before he died I got to watch him deteriorate; it was just brutal.
One of the last things we were gonna do was put together a band. He started playing me this music and I taped it on one of those little microcassettes and the song, he was like, "Keith, you're gonna have to write about Deborah Harry," because he was president of the Blondie fan club. I like Blondie but I like the Ramones better, or the Dictators, out of that group of New York bands, when all of those bands came up.
So how did Off! form?
KEITH MORRIS: He's the instigator. (pointing to Dimitri Coats)
DIMITRI COATS: Oh, Keith and I have been friends for a long time. I sort of got the feeling that the Circle Jerks were either gonna break up or make another record. So I encouraged Keith to make a record, and maybe consider me as a producer. To make a long story short, Keith and I would write songs together because those guys don't really get along when they're all in the same room. People stopped showing up to write, so we started writing. And that record fell apart. But during our process together, we realized that the stuff we were doing was pretty bad ass and Keith mentioned one day, this stuff that we do together is more like his first band (Black Flag). It's heading into like just a more brutal direction.
Keith Morris at Fun Fun Fun Fest (more by Tim Griffin)
KEITH MORRIS: We had a record company, a main guy at a record company says "I'm gonna tell you the same thing that Rick Rubin told Metallica: you gotta go back to your very first stuff and then you come back to me and play me some songs". So Metallica went to Europe, did their entire first album, played a few of the newer hits, came back with a bunch of songs and went to their producer, that was their process. We had another record company executive say you need to go back to where you came from, where you started. Basically what he was saying is you got to stop being tired old men and stop having this mentality that you can just write what you want to write and get away with it and people will love it because you are who you are. But if the mentality is not there, the energy's not there, the vibe is not there, all of weird, wacky, goofy, crappy, shitty events that happen in your life aren't there, you know, like you're living a happy life or you're struggling and the struggle is not coming through in the material that you're writing, it's like if you're not reaching for something, you're not gonna grab it. There's too much posturing behind a bunch of this crap.
Especially with all the reunions that are happening these days, you know, as far as the reunions go. When you listen to a reunion of an older band it sounds very forced and very false in a lot of ways. However, when I listened to the 16 tracks that are on "The First Four E.P.'s" it sounds very vital.
DIMITRI COATS: Well there's a reason for that. It is partly because I don't come from the same place that Keith does. Even though I didn't grow up going to hardcore shows, my record collection and his record collection and Mike Watt's record collection are virtually identical for the most part. When you get down to the real core of what we love about rock music. And so my influences are the same influences that these guys had when they were inventing that stuff.
KEITH MORRIS: He left out two other guys and then he also left out all of the people that are listening to it. See what's great about my feeling towards this is there's an energy that's crept back up in this. The guys that we were working with before just had this mental thing where we can just write whatever we want and people are gonna like it. It's like what the fuck is up with that? Are you kidding?
When I listen to the record it sounds like a new band.
DIMITRI COATS: It's the sound of two friends that would've been hanging out anyway, and he's basically saying to me, hey, I've always loved your guitar playing and your band but now you're coming into my world and it's sort of like you only get these colors to work with, these parameters. It's almost like people think like punk rock, you can just whatever, it doesn't fucking matter. But it's actually very strict and there are certain things that you can and can't do.
In general, that is what's wrong with "punk rock" these days - it should be about is expressing yourself freely.
KEITH MORRIS: Well one of the best compliments we got paid is we played a series of shows at the South by Southwest. Jay Mascis was standing right in front the whole time with his mouth open. He didn't know how to describe it. I overheard somebody asking him, "So Jay, what did you think of the show?" And he was gasping for air. But I'd overheard a woman saying it sounded like a Black Flag cover band. And I thought yes! That's excellent. Right on. Good for you. I couldn't pay you enough money to say something like that. See because what I'm actually setting out to do is I'm really trying to mimic Henry because he's like my favorite Black Flag vocalist except for Ron Reyes who is better than Henry, but I think Dez is better than Ron. And I think Henry is better than Dez and I know that all three of them are just as good as me if not better, but I still know that I'm just as good, if not better than them. All three of those guys are my favorite Black Flag vocalists.
Off at SXSW (more by Brian Reilly)
Tonight will be my first experience seeing you guys play live. The only thing I've seen is YouTube videos and stuff like that. How many shows have you played so far?
KEITH MORRIS: Six, seven, eight. Eight? We're probably not even at ten.
How did the other two members, Mario Rubalcaba and Steve McDonald, get drafted into this whole scenario?
KEITH MORRIS: We have a friend, he's a promoter in LA and also promotes some stuff elsewhere. And he did an Earthless show, our drummer Mario plays in this band. They're basically a heavy jam band.
DIMITRI COATS: I saw them last night at the Mercury Lounge.
KEITH MORRIS: And Mario played in Rocket From the Crypt, Hot Snakes, Black Heart Procession... So part of his world is part of my world and another part of his world is part of Dimitri's world. So now all of the sudden all of our worlds are coming together. He did an Earthless show and I was gonna go but for some reason, being a diabetic maybe I'd suffered hypoglycemia and I couldn't go and I told my friend, the promoter, to just let Mario know. I said just pass on my phone number to Mario and have Mario call me. And Mario called me a couple of days later and we had maybe a 15 minute discussion. He said, "Keith, I will drive the 150, 175 miles every night to play with you guys. I heard that you and Dimitri are putting together a band." He played with Dimitri in the Burning Brides.
DIMITRI COATS: We were on tour with Queens of the Stone Age and there were these few shows where our drummer had some kind of a family thing or whatever, couldn't do part of the tour, so I brought in Mario, he was always one of my favorite drummers. So we agreed that that was really our first.
KEITH MORRIS: So one day he said, "Keith, just compile a list of who you would play in a band with." So we had our list of drummers and we had our bassists. Our number one drummer was Mario, I loved Mario's playing in Rocket from the Crypt and I'd seen him playing in Earthless once. And then on our bassist list was Steven McDonald who I've known since he was 11 years old. He was a big fan of Black Flag and we'd done shows together. The other band that I was in... our guitar player [Greg Hetson, Circle Jerks] was one of the guitar players in Redd Kross. So there was a familiarity, like a comfort zone. But I'd seen Steven playing, he's just a rock solid bass player and it's not about hey, look at me and look at the notes that I can play. Steven was at the top of the list. Mario called me, said that he was in. I saw Steven at a Jay Reatard show. And Steven's standing there with a couple of his friends back stage and I go, "Steven, I'm putting together a band, would you be interested in playing in the band? Let me tell you who's playing in the band. Dimitri, you've seen the Burning Brides, you're familiar with the Burning Brides," and he's shaking his head. He was somewhat into it. Then I said, "We have Mario Rubalcaba who played in Rocket from the Crypt," and I was getting ready to go down his roster of all the bands that he played in and the two guys that were standing there with him, when I said "Mario Rubalcaba" and "Rocket from the Crypt" I didn't have to say anything else because then they rattled off Hot Snakes and Rocket From The Crypt and people were like shaking him like, "No, you're gonna play in this band." And they were getting physical with him, like no, you are gonna play with these guys because they knew what was going on and that was just based on Mario alone.
Steven at Fun Fun Fun Fest (more by BBG)
So he was the linchpin of getting him in.
KEITH MORRIS: Yeah, so Steven perked up and became interested. And I said, look, I'll give you a three-song CD of Dimitri just jamming through on this plastic guitar in my living room through a little Marshall practice amp. And I didn't have the CD with me at the time, I just said I'll give you a call. Well what happened was about a week and a half later I'm standing at the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock and watching this band called Entrance and all of the sudden I look to my right and Steven's standing there next to me. He's bobbing his head and looks at me and says this would be an amazing room to just pull up a mobile unit or bring in some recording gear, we could record a live album here, it would be amazing. So we started chatting and then went to take a cig break, I followed him out there and said, "Look, I'm gonna go to my car and I'm gonna bring you the CD." So I gave him the CD and I said, "Just get back to me, you got my phone number." He called me back two days later and he said, "Keith, when do we start rehearsing?" And at our first rehearsal I wasn't like super excited about it like Dimitri was because there was a bit of heaviness to it and I was thinking man, it's got to be more aggro and I listened to the rehearsal CD and realized that I'm playing with like some amazing players and it's not gonna be a situation where I get to be the dictator and say you need to play this, you need to play that, it's like these guys are too good. You know, it's like nobody told Picasso what to paint, you know? Nobody took Salvador Dali and said look, man, you need to toss some red in there.
DIMITRI COATS: I come from more of like a hard rock borderline metal background. So all these different ingredients come together to form Off! and that's why it's so interesting is because we're all focused on hitting a particular bullseye which is black and white.
That is what I find interesting about the band is that it's not just guys who all have been in bands that sound the same. There's a focus to make a certain emotional statement and it brings sort of all of your different backgrounds in and the point where you all converge results in the band's sound.
DIMITRI COATS: Yeah, that's accurate.
So are you guys going to be touring in the future?
KEITH MORRIS: Well we hope so. The situation with the band is that there are three dads in the band and I am not pro deadbeat dad, that's not gonna happen. It's like all of the little kids come first.
DIMITRI COATS: We're definitely gonna tour, there's no doubt about it. There's too much excitement in the air, the reaction has been too great for us not to take advantage of all the opportunities that are coming our way. We're definitely gonna tour. We'll go to Europe, he's never been to Japan or Australia, he's never experienced some of the things that he should've experienced so we're gonna do that in this band. If a bigger band asks us to open up and play hockey arenas and they're good, we're gonna do it.
KEITH MORRIS: And we like them; I mean it's cool that they like us because there are a lot of bands that maybe they're not critical darlings and maybe they don't sell a lot of records. A perfect example of that would've been the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I saw them play at the LA Sports Arena and the opening band was Pearl Jam. The middle slot band was Nirvana and both of those bands went on to become ultra-mega bands. And that's all fine and fantastic, that would be wonderful. Obviously the people that were in the building when the Red Hot Chili Peppers invited everybody to come in and all of the bands that played with them, paid attention to the opening bands, but usually that's not the case. Or they're there just to see the headline band.
DIMITRI COATS: We're gonna take advantage of certain situations but also we kind of skate this line between hey, yeah, there is these opportunities over here, but over here in our backyard, we book our own shows in LA. Nobody comes near us. We have a booking agent, we have a manager, but we do all that stuff on our own. We play parties, we book warehouse spaces, places where friends live. We don't go to the normal venues. But you know, we have to look out for ourselves and we don't want to be dishwashers when we're not doing this [laughs].
OFF at LA's FYF Fest (more by Rachel Carr)
You still want to retain control... but there's a desire to maintain control over like the types of venues?
DIMITRI COATS: Yes.
KEITH MORRIS: Well here's another part of our scenario, we had an opportunity to sign with some of the biggest punk rock labels and we talked to them and everything was kosher up to a certain point when one of the guys said something that was not kosher. Not in my world, not where I come from, all of that stuff is gonna be available anyway. The pastrami in the corner, the beef and the chopped liver and the tongue, that's all gonna be available. I want some kreplach (dumplings filled with ground meat and potatoes, often times served with broth), I want some coleslaw. But the scenario was that we looked at each other and said, you know what? What else is out there. This is amazing. We're being brought into another world that we're not a part of. So now it's like we got to show up to the party and we gotta make some friends, we gotta blow some fucking minds, we gotta fucking kick in some doors, we gotta like do some stuff that we would not normally do.
[editor's note: Off! ended up signing to Vice]
DIMITRI COATS: If you go over to his house the last thing he's gonna be listening to is punk rock music. He's got his ear to the ground, he knows about all the new bands. We want to play with bands like
KEITH MORRIS: Deerhunter, Neon Indian
DIMITRI COATS: Sonic Youth. We kind of want to play against our strengths.
Yeah, that's actually the only way you grow is when you're out of your comfort zone. It's like physical training or something like that. If you stay within your comfort zone you don't ever expand.
DIMITRI COATS: It's funny because we're hearing about these bands that have nothing to do with the kind of music we play who are fans. And in this day and age I know Fucked Up, for instance, is going on tour or is on tour with Arcade Fire. And we're hearing about bands like Band of Horses and also Ryan Adams, who is a friend of Keith's, they love us. And that doesn't mean we're going to go on tour with Band of Horses
KEITH MORRIS: Or Ryan Adams and whatever band he puts together.
DIMITRI COATS: But you never know. If they come through and we have an opportunity to play the Hollywood Bowl opening for Band of Horses, why the fuck not? Who the hell cares? You know? [Laughs]
KEITH MORRIS: Well the only people that would care would be the people out there that have that costume, that Sid Vicious costume.
Yeah, they stay very firmly entrenched in their comfort zone.
KEITH MORRIS: Yeah, it's for us and it's not for anybody else. And I'm sick and fucking tired of that.
DIMITRI COATS: Keith won't even let us say that we're a punk band or that we're a hardcore band. He won't allow it.
KEITH MORRIS: We sound like that. I'm not punk rock just because I wanted to piss off the Empire State Building and yell "rain" at the people below. That doesn't make me punk rock, that makes me stupid, you know? That makes me a smart aleck and a smart ass. But it's just... we have so many things that we can do. This thing that we're doing right now is just the start. Let's just get all of this crap out of our system.
So future records might sound completely different?
DIMITRI COATS: Well, you know, at the same time, there is a groove that we've carved out for ourselves and if the marble doesn't go down that groove, it doesn't make it into the cut, you know what I mean?
KEITH MORRIS: Or the bowling ball goes into the side gutter and doesn't hit any of the pins [laughs].
DIMITRI COATS: We usually write everything in front of each other. I pick up the guitar and I start hammering away on the guitar in his living room or wherever we are until he gets excited.
KEITH MORRIS: No butterfly. I had to tell him to leave the butterfly at home. And you know what the butterfly is?
No, I have no idea.
KEITH MORRIS: When you hear these speed metal bands and you're going wow, that guy is playing so fast it's like oh, geez, how does anybody else keep up? Oh, fuck, man! It's gonna blow up! Oh, Jesus, coming up to the speakers [guitar sounds]. He's playing a butterfly, he's not doing a down stroke. Yeah, the butterfly is the picking up and down, it's like a folky kind of thing. So I'm waiting for "So where do all the flowers grow, oh, there's the stream, little doe and deer, oh, they're skipping, there's the naked children dancing on the side of the hill, better teach the world to sing in perfect harmony."
So it's about the down stroke then.
KEITH MORRIS: It's about the down stroke. It's an attack, it's an approach, it's like here we come, you know?
Well the down stroke is more like the stabbing motion of a knife, sort of, you know?
KEITH MORRIS: Yeah, but we're not trying to stab anybody. Poke out a few eyes maybe or make some eardrums bleed a little bit, no stabbing anybody. Leave that to the guys that have the knives and the mafia guys and all the bad guys.
to be continued (stay tuned for part two coming soon)...
DOWNLOAD: Off! - "Upsidedown" (MP3)