[Q&A] Keith Morris of OFF! on Black Flag, Circle Jerks, tweaking on iced coffee and making hardcore danceable //10/21 @ Mid East Down

Keith Morris has been, throughout his career, a man who understands brevity; his entire recorded legacy with Black Flag, the band he formed in 1978 that went on to be the most influential band in 80's punk, was five minutes of music contained on their debut single, Nervous Breakdown; the debut LP from his next band, the almost-equally legendary Circle Jerks, was 15 minutes long, and each of their subsequent five releases were under a half hour; and with two records under his belt with his latest group, OFF!, he had yet to release a record that lasts longer than fifteen minutes.  But as anyone who has heart the man talk can attest, his curtness in song is matched by his wordiness in conversation.  When I first tried reaching Morris, at his LA home on the eve of an OFF! tour that brings them to the Middle East Downstairs this Sunday, I got his voicemail a few times-- and even that was long-winded!  When I eventually got Morris on the phone, he was apologetic for having missed my calls, and blamed it on a flu medication he was on that has put him out of commission for a while.  He then talked about the nature of his flu in detail and for quite some time, which was hardly the beginning of the conversation I imagined when I had dialed up the phone of this punk/hardcore living legend, a 57-year old man who has seen it all and lived to not only tell the tale, but still rock the fuck out with OFF! in a manner that most definitely does not befit his age.  But fuck it-- I spared you some of the gory details of the man's flu so that we could get to the meat of his thoughts on a three-plus-decade career in the punk trenches, but at the same time I think if I was going to listen to anyone prattle on about the minutae of their flu, it might as well be Keith Morris, one of rock's most important and funniest dudes.  Apologies for the length of this, but you really must understand: the man talks awfully fast, and every word is kind of funny when you think about it.  This conversation went on for the time it would have taken to listen to the entire OFF! discography, Keith's Black Flag record, and the first Circle Jerks album, and you could probably even spin nervous Breakdown a few more times for good measure-- but fuck it, the man is a treasure and a I probably could have talked to him for twice as long.  All hail one of rock's most batshit frontmen!

So how did you get your flu?

Apparently what I picked up was a flu down in the south, down in maybe in New Orleans or maybe in Florida, you know, and here I am on the West Coast and it’s like “We don’t know what this is so we’re gonna give you the full dose, so take one of these pills every day for the next three days, and you can tell it goodbye”. And so I’m just, like, I’m in a space where I’m like sitting in my living room and looking out my window and today’s probably one of the worst days to be doing phone interviews in my living room because all of the gardeners are gonna be showing up and they’re gonna be trimming grass and they’re gonna have the leafblowers out. But my neighborhood smells amazing, freshly cut grass is a wonderful thing!

I have to say, this sounds likes one of your songs-- instead of the self-medication of your youth, this is the next step.

Right! And instead of the smell of napalm in the morning, it's played to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries"-- "I love smell of freshly cut grass on Wednesday morning", because it offsets the foul odors that are in the air, all of the gas and car exhaust.  I live by a very busy corner, so there's always some kind of commotion, there's always someone fucking with somebody else.  Some kind of congestion, somebody honking on their horn, someone wanting to kill somebody for cutting somebody off, road rage, all that shit.

When you started OFF!, did you think you still be doing this sort of punishing schedule?

Well, I think we're about two and a half years in, almost three years in, and I didn't know that we were gonna be this busy, I've never been this busy in all the years that I've played music.  Like "Here's your schedule, you've got two weeks off.  Oh you've got the flu?  Well, you'd better go get it taken care of because when we leave this next leg is more important than the leg we just went out on.  You're going somewhere with your new video is out and you have to kick it up a few notches so let's go, let's do this!"  There was a point in time where-- you know, Henry Rollins wrote the book "Get In The Van", and at that point, when Black Flag went out they'd go out for a year, year and a half, non-stop, without more than a day or so off here and there.  And that time the Circle Jerks were also doing quite a bit of touring but not like having an entire year and a half blocked out for a tour.  And we would go out for three, four months at a time.  And this was at a time where there was no such thing as an all ages show; I mean, you might luck out and someone had rented a VFW hall or Masonic Temple, they found a warehouse where everyone comes and brings their own booze, or if you don't have booze you stand out front of the 7-11 and go "Hey mister, we'll buy you pack of cigarettes if you buy us a six pack", that sort of thing.

So anyway, we would go out on these tours, but the tours OFF! does now, because we're at the age we're at, they're kind of grueling.  This last leg, I was sick for half of the tour; when you have the flu and don't know if you have the flu, it's the worst.  Like we were playing the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, and we were standing next door at a record store.  I love going in record stores because I like buying some vinyl every now and then to add to my library of vinyl.  So I'm standing there in this record store and I'm fingering through the vinyl and I'm looking at all the records and i break a sweat.  I'm fucking sweating over what I'm doing with my fingers!  I'm not doing anything physical here except standing here and looking through these titles, just sweating and shaking and feeling really uncomfortable.  So I got some sort of weird gunk.  Steven got it too, and his turned into a staph infection, and that's serious because it can fuck up your heart.  I'm okay; part of my deal is that I've been laying off of iced coffee, because I drink a lot of iced coffee.  It's been about a week, week and a half since I've had any iced coffee-- and when we're in songwriting mode, that's our fucking juice, our drug of choice.  Just to fucking tweak out and get hammered on iced coffee and then go at each other, see who can strangle who, let's see who can pick up the heaviest object and toss it across the room!

With OFF!, how much of what you guys do is self-consciously focus, to do a certain thing, especially now that you've done your second record?

Well, we get focused when we know we have stuff going on.  Like right now we know that we've got touring dates coming up, that we're playing Australia, that we're playing some shows with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jeff The Brotherhood.  We're going to play some shows in Australia, like the Big Day Out, and I look at the roster and I'm just like "Some of these bands I've never even heard of!"  So that could be interesting; some of these bands might be some lurking genius, you know, some lurking something that's really outstanding!  But just to be able to hang out with my friends in the Chili Peppers, that's totally cool, I don't mind doing that, they love us, they're fans of the genre, they've always been fans of the genre.  And I will defend them-- I mean, I don't jump up and down and do triple somersaults and backflips and bust out all of the gymnastic moves over what they do, but when they do what they do it's pretty gosh-darned good!  And it's not like they're slouches, they're great musicians and they're very entertaining and they're my friends!  I knew Flea before he was even a member of the Chili Peppers.

You know Keith, I'm not surprised you have diverse musical taste; I remember there's a scene in the documentary American Hardcore where you sort of defended the music of Journey.

Well, some of those musicians, some of those guys-- some of the guys in Journey played with Carlos Santana when they were teenagers.  And they're great musicians and you cannot take that away from them.  I mean, I grew up not only listening to all sorts of types of music, but I spent a lot of time in record stores.  One record store I worked at, the guy that ran the place was heavily into prog rock.  So we got to listen to Genesis and Gentle Giant and King Crimson and Yes.  We listened to those bands and they all are great musicians, you cannot deny that, you cannot take that away from them.  Maybe the music isn't your cup of tea, but the fact of the matter is that-- okay, let's cite the Bad Brains as an example.  Do you not think that at some point the guys in Bad Brains were listening to, like, jazz rock fusion, Chick Corea and all of those kinds of bands, Weather Report?  You don't think that wasn't a possibility?  And that music is hard to get a grasp on, okay?  So we have all of these different forms of music and you ask "Why would you want to fucking limit yourselves?"  You have all of these punk rock hardcore purists, and there's something wrong with that.  It's kind of like a limited vocabulary, like going to the library and only being able to look at the magazines.

That's a pretty great analogy.  What do you think of the standard punk narrative, that there was this bloated 70s thing going on and punk came along and trimmed the fat and made all that other stuff irrelevent?

Um, you know, I want to be burned out on it but at the same time I'm not, because I know where these people are coming from.  See, I grew up with the British Invasion, I was fortunate.  I grew up with Motown, when all of that early Motown stuff was coming out, because we listened to AM radio in the car.  We had two stations here in Los Angeles, we had KHJ and we had KRLA, and we got to listen to the Seeds and "Paint It Black" and "Mother's Little Helper" and the Beatles and The Association and The Doors and Otis Redding and all this amazing music.  It's amazing!  And you take from it whatever you want to take.  And then there are these purists, and I find them to be quite selfish.  I mean, when we started playing music, we didn't know that it was punk rock.  We didn't know what we were doing.  When I started Black Flag with Greg Ginn, we didn't know what we were doing!  We were just making a bunch of noise.

What were your musical aspirations at that time?

We had no aspirations!  Our thing was that we were a couple of nerdy guys, we met in a record store, and we knew that we didn't want to listen to Joni Mitchell, and we didn't want to listen to Judy Collins, and we didn't want to listen to Buckingham-Nicks!  We wanted to listen to the Seeds and MC5 and Black Sabbath and Ted Nugent.  Even though nowadays that word, Nugent, is a bad word, but we loved all of that, we embraced all of that!  We gravitated toward the loud and the noisy, and then all of the sudden we have the Clash and the Sex Pistols and the Damned, and it's like now we're excited!  We have the Ramones, and the New York Dolls, Greg Ginn at one pointwe had a handful of songs and Greg was like "I want to cover the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale"" and-- you see, I was into Lou Reed as a solo artist and I wasn't familiar with the Velvet Underground's music.  And I was like "We've gotta do "Louie Louie"", which Black Flag would eventually record with Dez doing vocals-- that was my idea at the time.  I wanted to do something that I'd heard Iggy and the Stooges do, they did a live version and that's where that came from.  But we had no rules, we just wanted to do this and let this take us wherever it takes us.

I'd imagine between then and the point when the Circle Jerks were a big punk band, the rules must have been established, right?

Well, the rules were established, and we weren't really-- well, maybe we would call ourselves punk rock out of spite, because what else are we gonna call ourselves?  And the whole modus operandi was that we were just going to do it, and we didn't want to adhere to any of the rules, that's the reason we started Black Flag.  We didn't know that we were going to start our own set of rules-- we didn't know that!

When you moved on to the Circle Jerks, there must have been such a difference, because if there wasn't a scene for what you guys were doing in Black Flag, there definitely was by the Circle Jerks.

The thing with Black Flag and Circle Jerks is that they were two bands with two completely different mentalities.  See, Black Flag realized that they were able to stir shit up, and things started to get thick and heavy, and the violence was more apparent at their shows.  Whereas with the Circle Jerks, it was like, we wanted to find the girls.  We wanted to find the drug dealer, we wanted the directions to the party.  We wanted to supply the soundtrack.  Now here's something that's been pointed out to me, and that's that the thread from Black Flag to the Circle Jerks, there are a lot of these bands that you can't really dance to, there's no melody, there's no ass-shakability there.  There are these vocalists who sound like they are trying to vocalize with a dog turd and a handful of glass and a couple of tablespoons of glass, so you can't understand what they're saying.  And there's no melody.  One of the things that I've always been able to drag along with me is a pop sensibility.  Whether you hear it or not, all of the music that I've been associated with, you can dance to.  So let's throw a dance party, let's throw a teen dance, and if they want to throw elbows, so be it.  But one of the main differences between Black Flag and Circle Jerks was that-- for one thing, we weren't big physical guys.  Even though the music has a physicality, we're not the guys who are going to throw our weight around-- we just wanted to come to the party and have a great time, you know?  We wanted to drop some Spanish fly in the punchbowl.  Whereas with Black Flag, everything went-- throw your hands up in the air and if it turns into a big brawl, then so be it.  And we weren't into that.

What did you think, in the mid-80s, when that became the thing?

Playing this kind of music, you're gonna have people like that at your shows.  People like that listening to your music.  I occasionally come across as a tough guy, pointing fingers, "I've Had It With You", "I've Got News For You", that kind of stuff.  And everybody has the ability to think that way, like "I've been pushed around and I don't want to be pushed around anymore and I want to do something about it."  But I weigh 135 lbs, I'm not gonna jump into a pit with a bunch of guys that have been weightlifting and have a bunch of tattoos and are wearing motorcycle steel-toed boots, you know?  I'm not gonna do that.  I have!  I've seen stuff go on that wasn't cool-- but it's a party, okay?  And when you have a party and the invite goes out and all of the sudden you're gonna have people on the phone calling their friends and now all of the sudden you have no control as to who's gonna show up to the party.  So okay, the front door's open-- but if you're gonna show up with a certain kind of mentality, that ain't cool!  If you're showing up because you think you're gonna get in the pit and beat people up, that's not happening, that's a ridiculous mentality.  You should show up because you're gonna be in a room full of people that you want to be with.  You want to be in a room with a bunch of like-minded people; you're there because of the music, the mentality.  And yes, there will be a lot of physical moments, to be expected.  But the fact of the matter is the fact that there are some of these guys that show up because they saw the video, they saw the band that was promoting the bro-down throwdown.And that's all fine and cool and that stuff has its time and place, but not when I'm around.  Like all of these guys that are beating each up-- instead of beating each other up, why don't you get laid?  Why don't you hold hands with some hot chick and get a blowjob instead of getting your face punched in and your teeth kicked out?  Because when you show up and you want to do the violent thing, we might as well have the ROTC hanging out.  If you guys want to be like that, go to the Middle East, if that's what you think that this is all about!  You're obviously not catching our drift, you're not grabbing and taking our message for a ride.

I'm sure over the years you played Boston numerous times-- what was your perception of Boston, did you ever find it to be artless and macho?

Well, I've seen that.  I actually lived in Boston for about three or four months, back in the 90s.  I've seen a lot of that, and when I was living there I wasn't going to those kind of shows.  I'd see a band like the 360s or Grind or, I dunno, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, which was the night that I had my epiphany that "I'm here, living in Little Italy, and I need to be doing something musically."  I tried to form a band with Chris Doherty who was the main guy from Gang Green-- and we were in his living room, and he's playing me some of his riffs, and it's lilke, Iknow where got all his riffs, from the first four or five AC/DC albums.  And there's nothing wrong with that because AC/DC was an amazing band, Gang Green, they were an amazing band, Chris Doherty, an amazing guy and amazingly great guitar player-- but that's not what I wanted to do.  And all of the sudden I'm looking at his wife's record collection: I'm fingering through the collection, and it's like here's a Traffic album: with Stevie Winwood and Dave Mason, an amazing record.  And here's a Cure record, Head On The Door, whatever record that was.  I said "Look, dude, why don't we look to this stuff for inspiration?" We didn't need to do the same thign we were doing before; we didn't need to start Gang Green pt. II, we didn't need to start the combo platter version of Gang Green and Circle Jerks and AC/DC and Van Halen.  It's like "Let's take this out a little bit farther, let's do something that people are going to scratch their heads and go "Wow, this isn't what I expected from these guys."  And he apparently couldn't fathom that, so it was really sad and ill-fated.  I worked for Curtis at Taang! Records, and the guys that worked there they played Misfits and the Pogues, and one of the guys would occasionally play The Fall and Pavement, and a couple of other bands.  But I burned out quickly on the Misfits and I burned out real fast on the Pogues.  And they were a great band!  That's okay because I've come back around, I can now listen to them.  See, working in that environment, they got to pick the music that they had access to and that was the music they were choosing.  And they weren't bad choices, but the music was constantly being played and that got a little bit tiring and a little bit boring after a while.  But while I was living in Boston, it wasn't about going out to hardcore shows; it was about checking out bands that were passing through town going to the Middle East; and there was a really great local band called the 360s, they would have been right at home in Seattle, nestled in there among Love Battery and Screaming Trees, they were one of those kinds of bands. 

What was it like for you, transitioning into the 90s after having pioneered punk and hardcore in the previous decade?

Well, I didn't pay attention to that, to be honest.  I was in a band for over thirty years where we had a dry spell where we hadn't put out a record in fifteen years, but we could still go out and play to 500 people, play to a thousand people.  Granted, there were pockets that were, like Florida, where nothing was happening and we'd pull into town and end up playing in front of 250 people.  But we were still able to go out and work.  And sure, we had our period where we should have been trying to create new music-- and I'm raising my hand, I'm probably the main culprit, the lack of any kind of creativity.  And it wasn't like the other guys didn't want to get creative, it was just that what they were created wasn't something that I wanted to be a part of.

Well, yeah-- plus you have to sing this stuff, so you have to be into it.

Right!  And I would also like to take this opportunity to thank them for the opportunity to be in the band I'm in right now, OFF!

It's interesting to hear you talk about your wanting to do things that were more creative and offbeat, because with OFF! it seems like you've returned to a really traditional sound, a really traditional approach to punk/hardcore.

How about that we're a real rock band?  In this musical landscape where there aren't a lot of rock bands, and we just happened to kick it up a couple of notches, the volume is a lot louder, and we make it lean, you know?  We just -- I would attribute this to being in the right place at the right time.  There are all these people who call us a supergroup, or call us the new hardcore saviours.  I don't buy into any of that-- we're a rock band, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Yeah-- it seems like the momentum of the band has to do with reception you guys have gotten, it doesn't seem that planned out.

Well, if we have a plan, it's just adhering to being true to ourselves.  This is what we want to play, you know?  The first time we got in a room together to bang out songs, we didn't have a lot of songs but we wanted to find out how it was gonna go down.  And it was very organic.  I drove away from the first rehearsal scratching my head going "Is this what I really want to do, I don't know if I like the way this went down?"  Because it leaned more to like a heavier thing than a faster in-your-face grundy kind of thing, what I'd grown used to.  And then when I collected my thoughts I came to the realization that I'm playing with some pretty amazing players, and nobody told Jimmy Page what to play!  You know?  Nobody told Jack Bruce what to play!  Nobody told Keith Moon what to play.  You let great players play what they're gonna play because it's an instinctual thing.  It's coming from the gut, it's not coming from the head.  It's not the sort of thing where you stand around looking each other saying "Maybe I should do this, maybe I should play these notes instead of these"-- when the music's being played and you're playing along, you're going along with it, you're diving in, and that's what I love about this group of guys.

Do you feel like, in a weird way, OFF! is a mature project for you?

I don't really shine that kind of light on it-- whether it's "mature" or this or that.  I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing; I'm 57 years old and I'm in a great band-- I'm just going with it.  And who knows where this is going?  We're writing another record in December, and who knows?  Normally when we get ready to write music, we have a whole batch of music that we listen to, whether it be classic rock and Deep Purple and Alice Cooper and MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, or punk rock or hardcore, the Damned, The Clash, Sex Pistols.  I guess we just let this take us where it's gonna take us.  Which takes us all the way back to some of the stuff I was saying all the way at the beginning of this conversation: when we started playing music, there were no rules, there was no book of "This is what you've gotta do to get to where you're gonna get to."  You just play it as it lays!

It must be nice to not feel like you have to impress a specific crowd.

We were also fortunate that we actually adhered to that kind of mentality where you just go out there and play.  Actually, out of all of this, we did kind of create a rule for ourselves, which was Rule A, which is thirteen giant question marks.  See, what we did was in the beginning, we were being asked by all of these bands to play with them, and they're all really fun and fantastic bands to play with but they're kind of old guard and they're the kind of bands who never really set out to better their world, they just play and you can see them at Friday night at some 21-and-over club in Orange County, playing shows with the same bands that they've played with for the past thirty years.  And so we set out to do things that a band like us would not normally do-- because we wanted to keep it interesting.  And not put ourselves in a box.

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