Interview: Keith Morris (of OFF!)

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off by aaron farley1 Interview: Keith Morris (of OFF!)

OFF! is a hardcore supergroup with members from Black Flag and the Circle Jerks (Keith Morris, vox), Redd Kross (Steven Shane McDonald, bass), Burning Brides (Dimitri Coats, guitar), and Rocket From the Crypt and Hot Snakes (Mario Rubalcaba, drums). After four EPs, the band finally released its first full-length, OFF!, on May 8th.

Recently, Consequence of Sound spoke with Morris about the band, its formation, and how they don’t have the time for songs filled with pomp and circumstance. We also chatted about riding the party train that was the Circle Jerks, checking egos at the studio door, what it means to sell out, and how much he loves the Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses.

I used to believe that if a punk band was around long enough, they simply became a rock band. You seemed to have proven me wrong.

We could just as easily be a rock band, because the guys in this band, they love… two of them, I think maybe three of them, were members of the KISS Army.

Nice! So I guess when you say “three of them,” that means you weren’t one of them.

I’m not one of them. I’ve probably seen more KISS shows than all three of them put together. I’m a fan, but a faraway fan, a fair-weather fan.

Yeah, I caught them on the ’95 reunion, when the four originals got back together.

Yeah, and they’ve since gotten rid of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. Which is typical. It’s like Black Sabbath is gonna tour without Bill Ward. I’m not going. I saw Black Sabbath on the Master of Reality tour and Volume Four. So, I don’t need to go see the Rick Rubin-produced Black Sabbath.

Did you ever catch them with Dio?

No, no, no. I’m not a fan of Dio. Dio was in a band called Elf, which was like a rock & roll band. That was cool. But getting back to all of our rock & roll heroes, Dimitri’s guitar god is Billy Gibbons. So, I guess it doesn’t get any bluesier, more rock & roll than that.

But I can’t imagine you guys breaking out “La Grange” during a set.

That would never happen. That would not happen, no.

Talk to me about how OFF! came to be; it’s my understanding that it came out of a failed Circle Jerks reformation?

Failure after failure. Bad decision after bad decision led to the firing of one of my favorite guitar players [Greg Hetson]. One of the other guitar players that I’ve played in a band with for over thirty years, who is a full-time member of another band called Bad Religion, and I just had enough. Here we are, like two weeks away from recording a new album for us. When I say “us,” I mean the other band. Plan A, we’ll call them Plan A. We’re two weeks away from getting ready to record an album, and they decided, “No, we don’t want to work with Dimitri.” Because Dimitri was going to produce the album. And, in my mind, Dimitri was the only one who was going to get us in the studio. Dimitri was the only one who was going to really make it happen. He was making things happen, and consequently, because of that, he’s “overstepping his bounds,” he’s “arrogant,” he’s “egotistical.” He’s doing all of these things that should have been done in the first place. And because they were being done in the way that they were being done, the other guys didn’t want to work with him, and that’s fine. I couldn’t be happier.

Well, that sounds like a clash of egos. How did you manage to get around that with OFF!? You’re in a supergroup with members of some of the most influential punk acts ever.

Well, there’s some egos. But we actually know… you know in Japan, you can’t enter a house without taking your shoes off. And at the ABC studios where we rehearse, you can’t enter the rehearsal space with your ego stuck in your head. So, consequently, because of our lineage, a couple of the guys, the newest members of the band, which would be Stephen McDonald and Mario Rubalcaba… we call him Mario Speedwagon. That seems to be a really great nickname for him. He doesn’t like any of his other nicknames. John Reis from Rocket From the Crypt, in Mario’s stint with Rocket From the Crypt, Reis called him Ruby Mars. That was his moniker in Rocket From the Crypt. Mario doesn’t like that, so sometimes we’ll call him Mario Speedwagon. And he’s the biggest guy in the band, so if he wanted to punch somebody in the face, he could (laughs). Those fuckin’ drummers. Throwin’ their weight around; they all want to be front men. He fronts his own band called Spider Fever, who are going to play some shows with us here on the West Coast. That was my idea to have Mario do double-duty; let’s see how he holds up.

There’s this thing where they say that everybody’s on the same page. And that cliché applies to us. Here’s another part of our situation: All of these guys have played in other bands; all of these guys play in other bands. All of these guys, with the exception of myself, are parents. And, consequently, they can’t spread themselves out thin; they’ve got a lot of stuff goin’ on. When we get together, we don’t know the next time that we’re going to get together. I mean, we do, but there’s going to be some kind of a break in between, so you better go out and do what you need to get done. The same applies for this band. We get in the room; it’s very compact. All the fat’s trimmed, and we’re running a marathon, and we gotta run as fast as we can.

Well, the new album comes in at a whopping 960 seconds, or 16 minutes.

You’ve really been doing your homework. You busted out your calculator? Or your abacus?

Abacus, my man. I’m just a few years younger than you (*well, more than a few). But 16 songs in as many minutes. Why the brevity?

The situation with that is that we live in times where the average attention span is a little bit larger than an ashtray or a garbage compactor or a blue recycle bin, an empty bottle.

You can get everything out before anyone realizes they’re not paying attention anymore?

We understand that we can only grab somebody’s attention for so long, so we need to put as much into as little space as possible. And I don’t mean everybody playing on top of everybody else’s parts. The guys in my band, they like Van Halen and a couple of them like Rush.

David Lee Roth Van Halen or Sammy Hagar?

No, when we’re talking about these bands, we’re not talking about the vocalists. We’re talking about the music and the guitar player and the drummer; and everybody’s playing a zillion notes. And a lot of it’s just meaningless. A lot of it’s just showboating. A lot of it’s just Las Vegas glitz and glamor and hambone, and we don’t have time for that. It’s great that you listen to that music. I’m not putting it down, because I have bits and pieces of that. I do own the first Rush album. I own a couple of Van Halen singles. But there’s no room for that; there’s no time for that. That’s not our mentality.

If you include all the material from this full-length, and then all four of your first four EPs, that is still just barely a half hour, a little over. During your live sets, is there any consideration to playing material from any of the other bands or covers, or do you just play the 30 minutes and that’s it?

I’ve had the same inquiry a couple of dozen times. Ya know, “When ya gonna cover Black Flag? When are you gonna play Nervous Breakdown?”

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you, if you were insulted by that question.

circlejerks Interview: Keith Morris (of OFF!)I’m not insulted in the least, because it comes with the territory, and the people that will be listening or reading or paying attention to what you’re going to present to them, and what I’m telling you [is you] deserve to have that answered because they might not have read anything else where I might’ve said this. The people that pay attention to you might not necessarily pay attention to somebody else. So, if the question’s asked, like my dad says, “No question is too stupid or dumb.” If you have a question to ask, you ask it.

My answer to your inquiry is that I love the Circle Jerks, and I love Black Flag. And my band that I’m in with Dimitri, Stephen McDonald, Mario Speedwagon, borrows, lifts, steals, takes… Did I say borrow? Did I say swipe? Here’s the bottom line, it’s music, and it’s all been played somewhere else, by somebody else, and even before them, somebody else played it before them. And even before the person that played it before them, somebody else played it. We’re going all the way back to the guy that’s pulled a branch off of a tree and he’s banging the bottom of the tree. And he’s pissing people off, and they’re going, “Ooga! Booga wooga!” And it’s irritating people. This music is irritating, I know that. But the fact of the matter is, all the notes, there’s only so many things you can play on the guitar; there’s only so many notes you can play on the piano. The orchestra, they can only play so many notes. It’s all been played before, and all you can do is put your personality into it.

Like I said, I love Black Flag, and I love the Circle Jerks. I might not particularly care for some of the members that were in the bands, but that’s a story for another day. The fact of the matter is, no, we’re not going to be playing any Black Flag songs, and we’re not going to be playing any Circle Jerks songs. And there will be people that listen to OFF!, and they’ll go, “They took that bit from the Circle Jerks,” [or] “it sounds a lot like Black Flag during this period. Greg Ginn was doing this, and Greg Hetson was doing that.” All that’s fine and wonderful and part of the fun of listening to music. One of my favorite bands, one of my favorite artists, one of my favorite characters is a guy named Robert Pollard, who’s in a band called Guided by Voices. Part of the fun of listening to all of the music that this guy has created… the guy has made enough records to last him for the rest of his life.

off by aaron farley2 Interview: Keith Morris (of OFF!)

Prolific doesn’t even begin to describe it.

This is a guy, when he sits down to eat, he walks away with an album. He goes in to take a dump, and he comes out with a double fucking album. “I hear The Who; there’s some Kinks.” Ok. “That one was kind of like The Beatles. That one,“Bulldog Skin”? That kinda sounds like somewhere between Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Black Crowes…” Ya know?

That’s part of the fun of listening to some of this music. It’s all been played before. One of my favorite bands is a band from Sweden called the Soundtrack of Our Lives. You listen to one of their records and you go, “God, that sounds like Arthur Lee in Love. Isn’t that kind of a slowed down, mellower Deep Purple riff? There’s some Pink Floyd.” What they do is that they’re going through my record collection, and they’re pulling bits and pieces out of my record collection, and they’re putting it all together in a song on an album. I appreciate that. It’s stuff that I grew up with; it’s stuff that I love.

Even if it’s not theirs, though? What if they’re just saying it because they think it’s there, but it’s not? Wouldn’t that insult you and your work?

No, because having done this for so long, it’s like the little duck diving in the water to get something to eat, then it comes back to the surface, and it shakes its tail feathers, and it just keeps paddling along in the water. You just get along with it.

Well, speaking of getting along, you made a comment in 2011 about how OFF! was going to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers despite pissing off some of your younger fans. Does that really matter to you that they would have been pissed off? And what about your older fans, people that grew up with you in the Circle Jerks?

This is a really profound answer to your question: It is what it is. Or, who cares? Or, is it really that big of a deal? We should be, as a band, with the certain amount of freedom we have (or we should have), we should be able to go out and play with whoever we want to play with. With the lineage that we have, with the amount of time that we’ve spent in vans traveling to get from city to city to play shows, sometimes in front of six people, sometimes in front of a pile of sand and a guy with a broom sweeping it into the parking lot and a couple of bartenders.

I agree. To say you’ve paid your dues would be an understatement.

To say that we should be able to just go out there and do whatever we want and play wherever we want, whenever we want , that too would be an understatement.

 Interview: Keith Morris (of OFF!)How’d that tour end up, with the Chili Peppers?

It never happened. We didn’t have to deflect any of those naysayers, the detractors. We actually have been invited to perform on stage with, well, not with them while they’re playing, but before they play, in front of a very large audience, two nights, here in Los Angeles. And we’re gonna do it, because it doesn’t matter. We’re sell-outs. That’s what we’re gonna be accused of. I’m 56 years old. For me, it’s a little bit past that. Our bassist worked at Warner Brothers Records.

But Warner Brothers has been pretty friendly to a lot of rock acts compared to other labels, right?

Warner Brothers has been pretty friendly to people like Alice Cooper and Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, yeah. Jethro Tull, yeah. The Kinks and Neil Young. Yeah, over the course of the years they’ve been pretty friendly to a lot of rock acts.

I’ve gotten the chance to talk to a couple bands like LP and Built to Spill–they’re on Warner Brothers–and Warner Brothers in recent years seemed to pretty much let them record what they want to record. It seemed counter to the way most big labels have been so heavy-handed with their artists.

Ok, but their deals could be that maybe Warner Brothers isn’t giving them a lot of money. Maybe these are bands that don’t have the multi-million-dollar record deals, where if you put out a record and it only sells like 75,000 copies, you would be gone. But if we only gave you like $50,000, $80,000 to make a record, then you get to stick around. The whole thing got inflated and overblown. And we hear all of these stories about these record labels, and they’re all shaking in their shoes, and they’re all scrambling to keep their jobs. The fact of the matter is that most of those people don’t deserve to be there in the first place. They should be flipping burgers and scrubbing toilets at Union Station, what have you.

But our bass player worked A&R at Warner Brothers, and we somehow got attached to Warner Brothers because Vice Records, Vice Music, the people that put out our music signed a deal with Warner Brothers. But just because our record label signed a deal with Warner Brothers doesn’t mean that all of those millions and millions and millions of dollars, or whatever the transaction, whatever monetary thing happens, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to come our way.

Of course not.

Yeah, but see, you know that. But a lot of people that would be reading this or listening to this or what have you might not know that. They hear the words Warner Brothers and OFF!, and all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, these guys, they sold out. They’re part of this ultra-mega-corporate whatever it is.” Hey, all that happens for us, it guarantees that our records are going to be a little easier to purchase. That’s all that that means.

Well, now you are getting ready to tour with a newly reformed Refused, another band that has political and social commentaries, though I think they’re a bit more Marxist than you. How did you guys connect with them?

We’re very fortunate in that a lot of people know who we are. A lot of people that pay attention to this kind of music know who we are. We’re loved everywhere, from Deerhunter and Queens of the Stone Age, TV on the Radio. A lot of people know about us, so we have a lot of opportunities to play with a lot of different people.

Regarding the time when you left Black Flag, you cited “freaking out on cocaine and speed.” So, did you clean up when you started the Circle Jerks? And what was it that you were able to accomplish with the Circle Jerks that you couldn’t do with Black Flag? Is it like how you were able to accomplish stuff with OFF! that you couldn’t do with Circle Jerks?

When it comes to my sobriety, I’m supposed to remain anonymous, but I’m not, because I don’t adhere to any of that AA rulebook crap, “God saved your life,” and all of that shit. You’re the one with the problem; you’re the one that’s got to solve it. You go and listen to some stories. You surround yourself with people who are like-minded. I didn’t sober up. The Circle Jerks, that was a fucking party train. Dude, not only were we looking for the coke dealer and the speed dealer, we were looking for the pot dealer, we were looking for the liquor store, we were looking for the guy with the biggest keg in his backyard. That was a party train, and my party train derailed at another party in Beverly Hills. I got in a fight with a girlfriend. I’m not that person, I’m a good guy. I’m a small guy. I don’t have a lot of weight to throw around, so I’m not supposed to be doing things like fighting with people. I hit my wall; I became sober. I’ve been sober for probably 24 years.

Is it hard being on the road, seeing that all the time?

No, it’s not, because I look at everybody and go, “I was just like them.” I take the time-traveling device, and it’s like, “There I am; I see myself,” and I’m like, “How fucking idiotic is that? What a waste.” So, I quit Black Flag, started the Circle Jerks. The Circle Jerks provided me the opportunity to party and go out and see parts of the world–travel across America several dozen times, and it ran its course. We talked about it early on, how one bad decision leads to another bad decision leads to another bad decision leads to a 56-year-old guy saying, “You know what? Fuck this.” I’m too old to have these moronic choices made for me. I’m quite capable of making choices on my own. I’m quite capable of screwing up my own life, and I don’t need a bunch of other screwups to screw up my screwed-up life. So, with the Circle Jerks, there were more opportunities than there were with Black Flag.

I was going to get kicked out of Black Flag anyways. There were a couple of guys in Black Flag who I continue to be friends with, and they were beyond crushed after I left, but they weren’t going to say anything because they were fully into it.

You’re still friends with Pettibone [Raymond Pettibone, artist for SST Records], because he’s doing the artwork for you guys.

Well, Pettibone was one of my party bros. Pettibone got screwed over just like a lot of the other guys got screwed over. Corporate rock still sucks. I equate that to, if you’re gonna get fucked, you might as well get fucked by a dick that’s lubed and a larger dick.

Just before the interview, I was talking with Karl Precoda; he stopped by the station real fast. [Note: Len Comaratta records from WUVT-FM at Virginia Tech.] He said I should ask you, “Where’s Lucky?”

Karl Precoda? The guitar player from The Dream Syndicate? What happened to Karl Precoda? Where’s Lucky? What’s Karl Precoda doing musically?

Nothing. He was in Last Days of May for a little while, but he teaches here at the university. He doesn’t play music that much anymore.

Oh, well. At least he’s got a good gig. Tell him “hello” for me, and tell him that I am a fan. Lucky decided that he would play drums part time.

Yeah, Karl said that he looked like a guy that was going to become a lawyer.

Well, he eventually, because the California State bar exam is one of the most difficult to pass, decided to take the bar exam in Texas or Colorado or Hawaii. You know, I’ll pass all of these bar exams, and that’ll set me up to pass the California bar exam, but the thing with the California bar exam is that you don’t get to take it every time that it comes up. They do it once a year, but if you fail, you don’t get to come back the next year and take it. You gotta wait like three or four years. You gotta do your homework. You gotta do your studying. You gotta take some more courses. Lucky’s dad owns one of the world’s largest eyeglass frame manufacturers, and they have like five factories around the world. They’ve got one in Manila, in the Philippines. They’ve got one outside of Moscow. They just built a new one out here by Las Vegas, and I think they’ve got one over here somewhere on the west coast. So, he oversees the company; he’s the guy that makes sure the factories are being run the way they’re supposed to be run, and that everything’s cool and everything’s kosher.

off e1336676095803 Interview: Keith Morris (of OFF!)

Well, the tour is opening at the Whiskey. That’s going to have a lot of memories for you, I’m sure.

That’s the idea of playing the Whiskey, because nobody plays there anymore. It’s pay to play. The last time I was in the Whiskey, I think I was working A&R for V2 Records, and I had to go see this kid’s band, and they were called Slytherin. They wanted to be Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails and Metallica, and they were cute. Let’s just say they all wore their little costumes, and there was a little bit of makeup, and I think the oldest guy in the band was about 15.

You can’t fault a guy for being young. Your bass player was a pre-teen when he first opened for you in his band Redd Kross.

Eleven years old, that’s right.

Well, Keith, I’m gonna let you go, so you can get on with your day. Thank you very much for your time. I loved your candor and your honesty.

Well, when you see Karl Precoda, please let him know that The Days of Wine and Roses… fucking awesome.

He made that record. Yeah, he doesn’t like talking about those days that much. He’s got some bad memories from back then.

That’s too bad. That record’s really fucking cool.

Photography courtesy of Aaron Farley. Feature photo by Meghan Brosnan.

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