The vast majority of punk rock legends are either dead or boring. Keith Morris is neither of these things. As the original frontman of Black Flag and the longtime leader of SoCal hardcore mainstays the Circle Jerks, Morris has maintained the vigor and pissed-off attitude that so many of his peers lost (along with their hair) as they ventured into the worlds of spoken word and middle-aged tedium. Morris’ new band OFF! takes punk back to its angry, simple roots, and in the process has raised the bar not only for Morris’ fortysomething comrades, but for punk rock musicians of all ages. I got the chance to speak with the dreadlocked one in advance of OFF!’s performance in Salt Lake City this Friday, October 7.
SLUG: Hey Keith, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. How has your day been so far?
Keith Morris: Well, I’ve been answering a few emails, which is hard to get out of. I’m staring at a bowl of chopped fruit with cinnamon. I’m a diabetic and I haven’t done any cinnamon in probably a month-and-a-half, maybe two months. I need to do cinnamon because if you’re a diabetic, it keeps your glucose level down.
SLUG: That actually sounds pretty delicious, fruit and cinnamon.
KM: Well, I’m stirring in a bowl of chopped strawberries—not chopped—sliced strawberries, sliced banana, blueberries and raspberries. I have this farmer’s market that I go to on Saturdays occasionally, and what I’ll do is I’ll skip breakfast knowing that I’m going to the farmer’s market and I’m gonna have this amazing opportunity to sample this fruit. Sometimes you taste the fruit and it’s amazing, but when you get it home it’s just not what you tasted at the farmer’s market. So that’s the reason that I put the sliced banana in there, to sweeten things up a little bit.
SLUG: Well, I’m glad I got to talk to you about fruit a little bit. I spoke with Dimitri [Coats, OFF! Guitarist] about OFF! a few weeks ago, but unfortunately there was a problem with the audio and we couldn’t use it. He told me a little bit about how you guys met, but I want to hear your side of the story and how you became friends with Dimitri.
KM: I worked at a record label—damn those corporations, we hate them—but I worked for one of my best friends, who was the eyes and ears for the record company on the West Coast. They provided me with this insanely great healthcare plan, so I got to take care of some health issues while I was working for them, but the great thing was that I didn’t have to answer to anybody. The president of the company in North America would call every once in a while and say, “Hey, what’s up, who are you listening to? What do you think of this band?” Just to keep things flowing. It was great to know that I was working for a company where the main guy actually cared. It wasn’t just about the bottom line and keeping stockholders and shareholders happy, keeping their bank accounts fat. V2 had just signed the Burning Brides, who were mixing their first album at the time, and that would be Demitri’s band. The Burning Brides just became one of my favorite bands. I listened to a lot of the bands while I was at the label. I really liked Grandaddy and Elbow. I also loved the Icarus Line. I got to work with The Datsuns and The Adored. I made friends with a lot of these people. In the process of my friendship with Dimitri, I actually worked for the Burning Brides selling t-shirts or moving equipment or what have you. See, I’m one of these guys who thinks that just because I know the band and can get on the list it doesn’t mean I’m gonna show up and cut to the front of the line—I’m just not into that whole scene. If I know the band and I can help them out, then I’ll earn my way into the gig. In that process, Dimitri and I became really close friends. At one point, Dimitri became a fan of a couple of my bands and we decided that he was going to produce the new Circle Jerks album, and everybody in the band was excited—well, one of the guys was kind of questioning it. Over the process of working on what was supposed to be a new Circle Jerks album, it just got really stupid and negative. We were supposed to be in a process of moving forward, but every time we made some progress, something would happen that would just take it all the way back to the starting line. That gets tired after a while, the know-it-alls and the arrogant attitudes. There was a prevailing mentality of, “Oh, we’ll just write a bunch of new songs and record them and throw in the New Found Glory and Bad Religion radio-friendly production and everybody’s gonna love us! Our fans will be crawling out of the woodwork! It’ll be like turning on the lights in the kitchen and watching the roaches scamper!” I don’t buy into that. I knew that eventually something was gonna happen that would make all of our efforts go to another place. Dimitri and I were the only ones doing work—the other guys were just submitting songs. Dimitri’s a really great songwriter, and he knows the difference between a good song and a bad song. He also did his homework, meaning he did the same thing that Rick Rubin told Metallica to do, and it’s the same thing Brett Gurewitz told a couple of the guys in the Circle Jerks to do, and that is to go back and listen to your own earlier stuff and come back with some of that energy and that attitude, not this tired, 45-year-old-guy mentality. That just wasn’t happening in the songwriting process with the other guys in the band. I said to Dimitri, “We’ve gotta have a plan b,” and ultimately that plan b is what you will experience, see and hear in Salt Lake City.
SLUG: Awesome. I did the math the other day and figured out that OFF! only has about 20 minutes of recorded material. What do you do in your live setting to make sure that the people there to see you are getting a full concert experience? Maybe that isn’t the best way to phrase it…
KM: Okay, well, we have our costume changes, and we have a little bit of tap dancing and choreography. Also, we bring out the horn section and the gospel choir. What we do is we take the 51 second long song and turn it into a 5 minute and 10 second opus.
SLUG: That kind of sounds like what Fucked Up is doing, actually.
KM: Yeah, yeah. Well, we have since added a couple more songs, so instead of being on stage for 20 minutes, we’re on stage for 22 minutes. I have to bring up one of the first bands I was in: I was one of the co-founders of Black Flag with Greg Ginn. When I left Black Flag, our set only consisted of 16 songs, and we were working on about three or four other songs that were going to eventually be brought into the set. I come from a school of you just get up, say what you have to say, do what you have to do, don’t bust out the 15-minute experimental ultra-mega-extra-long noodly crap. We have this problem that started with the introduction of the 72 minute CD. Bands started filling up the entire CDs with a bunch of crap, so you had to sort through all of this music just to find two or three good songs. Part of our mantra is just to strip the fat.
SLUG: You talked about it a little and I’ve read about it in other interviews, but you have what some people might consider to be a surprisingly wide musical taste. You joked about it, but have you ever thought about working from something that isn’t necessarily a punk framework and introducing some of the influences from some of the other bands you love into your music?
KM: We will eventually get to that. When I talk about this band, though, I feel like we just got out of the incubator. Right now we’re learning how to take baby steps. Granted, we’ve gotten a lot of great press and all these people are heaping all kinds of praise on us, but we’ve been going about it in a certain way. We love a bunch of bands, and when I say a bunch of bands, I mean a bunch of different kinds of bands—it’s not just Fucked Up and Cerebral Ballzy, it’s not just No Age and bands of that cloth. I love Leon Russell and Alice Cooper and Jesus & Mary Chain and Television and Golden Earring and Blue Oyster Cult and The Jesus Lizard and Superchunk. Who wants to go in a gallery where everything hanging on the wall is black or white? I need to look at some flowers and some jet planes flying over a nest of birds and I need to see the kids dumping red food dye into the swimming pool—I need more color. There needs to be a little bit more than just the same lines over and over.
SLUG: Do you have any new material that you’re currently working on? I know you guys put out a 7” earlier this year on Southern Lord.
KM: We are supposed to record a new full-length in January, I believe, so we’re just chippin’ away. Dimitri is tossing a few riffs around and I’m scribbling down some notes as we go along. What we do when it comes to lyrics is the same thing that Mike Watt said about D.Boon, which is when you get an idea, you just write it down—you don’t necessarily need to expand upon it at that very moment. Eventually it either gets nixed or it’ll get used.
SLUG: I know that Dimitri lived here in Salt Lake for a little, but I was curious as to whether or not you have any special connection to Salt Lake or any particular memories, especially since I’m sure you’ve passed here quite a few times with your various bands.
KM: Well, I remember the Massacre Guys. One of them is now playing in The Descendents, Stephen [Egerton]. We just played a couple of shows with the Descendents and it was really amazing. We played the Leeds Festival in England and the Reading Festival and we just played the FYF Fest with them in Chinatown in downtown LA. Bill [Stevenson, Descendents/ALL drummer] and I go way back. I met Billy when he was 12 or 13 years old, and he came into my father’s fishing tackle store and one day he asked me, “Keith, what are you listening to? What should I listen to?’ I just rattled off stuff like Ted Nugent, Black Oak Arkansas, Cheap Trick. Obviously he spent time listening to Cheap Trick, because if you listen to the Descendents or ALL, they have a very poppy sensibility, which is totally happening, and we can blame them for all those boy bands out there on the Warped Tour. Now, what is the venue we are playing in Salt Lake?
SLUG: You’ll be playing at Club Sound, which is the smaller room of a place called In The Venue. Actually that same night the hip hop group Odd Future is playing in the larger room, if you’re familiar with them.
KM: We played some festivals with them. They’re really noisy, really obnoxious, really chaotic, a lot of anarchy. They’re actually really happening. I embrace the chaos.
You can watch the dreadlocks fly and embrace the chaos with OFF! when they hit Club Sound this Friday with Retox and locals Problem Daughter.