Catching Up With OFF!'s Keith Morris
After four punk-rooted, blink-and-they’re-over EPs, LA hardcore revivalists OFF! released their first full-length album today through VICE Music. Clocking in at a neck-breaking 16 minutes, the album is filled with aggressive, inspired cuts like “Wiped Out” and “King Kong Brigade.” We caught up with the band’s frontman, former Black Flag and Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, to discuss the album, the spirit of hardcore punk and how we can probably all relate to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver sometimes.
Paste: How did you approach recording your first full-length album with OFF! compared to the way you did in your other bands?
Keith Morris: The way the band came together was that [producer and guitarist] Dimitri [Coats] and I were presented an opportunity by my former band. We were working on recording a record with the Circle Jerks, and it started to get really silly—a bunch of old guys didn’t want to take orders from a younger guy, a new fresh face on the scene. The old dogs didn’t want to play with the pup. And in the process things went completely wrong. Dimitri and I started off, and [bassist] Steven McDonald and [drummer] Mario Rubalcaba were the guys were at the front of our list if we were going to start a band. They were in the fold within two weeks. We got together and played and it was pretty amazing. Granted, the first time we got in a room and made noise, I was slightly disappointed. I wanted it to be aggro, I wanted it to be ferocious and Slayer-like. Having roots in Black Flag, I wanted to hear more of that than some of the stuff I was hearing. But as I was driving away, I had my epiphany, being 56 years old, you can only yell and scream so much. I’ll save that for when we’re on stage, I’ll save that for when we’re in the studio, I’ll save that for when we’re rehearsing. I don’t need to yell at everybody anymore, I don’t need to be the dictator. I’ll show up and do what I do, and I will enjoy myself. I’m having a great time.
Paste: Is the song “I’ve Got News for You” on OFF! about this past recording experience with the Circle Jerks?
Morris: That is one of those angry, spiteful songs that points its little finger at a lot of different things. That could be directed at some of the people in my past, it could be directed to some of the people in the future. I’ve been involved in a lot of different bands, some of them have been great, for the most part they’ve been fun, but there has been some ugly scenarios. That would be taken from those scenario. With OFF!, a lot of our subject material is pretty offensive and in your face and pertinent to things that are happening now, and some stuff that’s happened in the past. That’s just part of our makeup. We’re a band that’s made up of three fathers who are not dead-beat dads, which means they’ve got to have family time. Three of the guys play in other bands, too, which means they have to devote time to those other bands. OFF!, if there’s 365 days in a year, OFF! might exist for maybe 100 days out of the year. In that scenario, when we’re together, we don’t have a lot of time to rehearse, or to write a lot of songs. We don’t have time to write five-minute-long songs, three-and-a-half-minute-long songs, songs with four verses, five verses and four choruses. We don’t have time for that. We have to get down and romp and stomp and do our thing and chew it up and spit it out and present it the way it is and get on with our lives. Trim the fat and swim from the sharks. If you’ve fallen off the side of the boat in shark-infested waters, and people are screaming “Swim! Swim! Swim!” you’re going to swim as fast as you can. You’re going to tread water
Paste: At the same time, it doesn’t feel like the music is being compromised because of that time limitation.
Morris: I appreciate the fact that you would make a comment like that. We’re very fortunate that the gentlemen in this band have a special mentality. They’re really talented musicians, and consequently they have a mentality that there’s not a lot of space to show off. There’s not a lot of space to pull the Eddie Van Halen or the John McLaughlin, or the Steve Vai or the Yngwie Malmsteens, where I have to fit a classical piece of music in a space that’s only allotted time for five notes.
Paste: In the press release, Dimitri said you wanted the recording to “be true to the spirit of the way things used to be,” referring to the early punk movement. What was that spirit like for you?
Morris: That spirit had a freshness to it. It had a rawness to it, it had an aggro vibe attached to it. It also had a very festive vibe attached to it, like, “Hey, here we are, the Chinese or the Russians might be hitting that red button and those rockets might be flying, so tonight might be the last night of our lives. Let’s live it up, let’s have a great time, let’s party.” Because of that, there was a bit of that mentality that ran through a lot of that music. We have over the years lost some of that attitude. We’ve been bombarded with longer, lengthier musical pieces and loopier, ethereal, swirly stuff. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I wholeheartedly love some of that music. We’re also dealing with the situation today that people don’t have a long attention span, so here we are. Zippity do da, we’re out of here.
Paste: There seems to be some experimenting with noises and structure on “King Kong Brigade.”
Morris: Well, that particular song, if you read the lyrics, they’re pretty brutal. What we’re dealing with is a situation, what would it be like to be inside the mind of a character like Robert De Nero’s guy in Taxi Driver. Here’s a guy that fought and came back and was discarded. He needed help and no one would help him, so he spiraled out of control. We all have that capability, we have that mentality attached to our psyche. When you’re inside the mind, the mind can be like the Grand Canyon, the mind can be like an empty soup can, the mind can be like a black alleyway, the mind can be the beautiful green landscape with the hillsides. But getting inside that mind and going to that part of the psyche, we were working in my living room. One of the posters in my living room is the album cover from Alice Cooper’s Love it to Death, and one of the songs at that time was “Ballad of Dwight Frye,” which is a longer piece of music that has these swirling moments, but the swirling is like a dark swirling, and I don’t mean like if you’ve dropped acid and you’re at Coachella and you’re listening to whatever the fruit of the day is or the flavor of the month or whatever synthesizer dance band you’re listening to—and I’m not dissing that, there’s room for all of that, hooray for all of those people, and hooray for the people that go there and want to dance to that.
On “King Kong Brigade,” I’m going to set fire to your lawn, I’m going to staple your scalp to a steering wheel, and I’m not that person [in real life]. I consider myself a good person. My parents raised me to know the difference between right and wrong. I try my hardest not to do bad things until the person is parked out in front of my house on Saturday morning, that you can’t park there because you’re going to get a $70 parking ticket. That’s my good deed for the day, that’s me being a Cub Scout. I could say “Fuck you, pay the $70, I don’t care.” But that’s not the person I am. I’m a good person, but occasionally, a good person gets pushed to a place they don’t want to get pushed to.
Getting back to the music, some of these little music interludes, our guys in the band, two of them were members of the Kiss Army, some of them love Van Halen, some of them love ZZ Top, some of them love Rush. These are all bands that are known for having a bit of musicality. We don’t have to stick to the booms and crashes, we can throw in a little musical knowledge in there. We can stretch out a little bit. I just got done doing an interview with a guy in Italy, and one of the questions was, “What are you going to do on your next record?” Well, we could add a Moog synthesizer player or a Mellotron player, or a string section or a flute player or a saxophone player. That’s the future and I’m not predicting the future. For years and years, that’s been my mentality. I no longer have to be the dictator. I just have to show up and do what I do and do it the best I can, and I know at the end of the day that I’ve done a pretty decent job, and I might get a pat on the back and that’s reward enough, the “Good job man, keep up the good work.”
Paste: That must feel refreshing.
Morris: I love it. I’m having the time of my life. I’m playing music festivals. I’ve never played music festival. I mean, the Warped Tour, that was fun, but playing with bands like The Cure and Bjork and TV on the Radio and Deerhunter. The Strokes were on Coachella the year we played. I’m not a fan, but I had a really great time.
Paste: You’re also on Refused’s upcoming reunion tour. Do you have a personal relationship with them?
Morris: No. I think the only guy that has a relationship with them was Mario. Mario was in Hot Snakes or Rocket from the Crypt, and they played some festival dates with Refused, and he made friends with them. And I love Refused, I’m an administrator on the OFF! and Black Flag Facebook page, and sometimes I have to deflect certain comments. “Oh, they’re screamo, emo, I don’t like them.” Well, you probably don’t know much about them or you’ve only heard one song. I liken the band to being a poor man’s Fugazi with a few other musical twists tossed in.
Paste: What do you think people are missing if they dismiss OFF! as just another hardcore punk band?
Morris: We’re older guys, we’re a little more worldly. We have a certain lineage that leans toward that, but our bass player has played with Beck, that’s some great music and it has absolutely nothing to do with what we’re lumped in with. That’s one of the things I really appreciate about this band. We give off this first appearance, and we’re capable of doing other things. We’ve brushed against some of those other things. I was talking about “King Kong Brigade,” that’s just a thought, a speck, a flea sitting on top of the iceberg, and we know the story about the iceberg, we don’t even know how much is under the water.