Keith Morris of OFF!: "I don't see the light at the end of this tunnel"
Maybe Jesus wanted it to happen," says Keith Morris, explaining how his new band, OFF!, was formed. He's kidding, of course. But somehow a simple question about his band's formation spirals into a half-dozen tangents: A notorious talker, Morris finds creative ways to answer questions about everything from a band's formation to the awfulness of the Japanese tsunami to the humorlessness of religious pamphlets.
The last topic prompts a monologue from Morris on Mars Hill, the Seattle-based conservative mega-church, and its concept of Jesus as a tough guy, and then he jerks back full circle, claiming that he is anything but a follower, which is what really led him to form this new band and to the recording of his most powerful music in years.
"Ultimately, I was being forced into a situation by a bunch of other guys," he says. "And I don't like being put into that kind of position."
The "other guys" he's referring to are his longtime bandmates in the Circle Jerks, the legendary hardcore band Morris formed in 1979 after leaving Black Flag, the equally legendary hardcore band he co-founded in 1976 with fellow Hermosa Beach, California, resident Greg Ginn. According to Morris, his Circle Jerks bandmates were dissatisfied with his decision to hire Dimitri Coats, a guitarist for hard-rock band Burning Brides, as producer. "They said, 'Well, he's not punk-rock,'" Morris recalls. "Well, what the fuck is punk rock, anyway?"
After some finger-pointing and shouting, his old bandmates informed him that they would be firing Coats — which left Morris flabbergasted, since the Circle Jerks was his band to begin with. "I mean, what're they gonna do, go hire another singer?" he exclaims. "You fucking morons! You assholes!"
Unlike his bandmates, Morris liked what Coats wanted to do — strip the Circle Jerks' music back to the raw brutality of their early-'80s recordings, Group Sex and Wild in the Streets. Coats was encouraging Morris to go back and listen to those albums, but after the breakup fiasco, Morris had little interest in revisiting that part of his past. After a night of listening to Link Wray and the Ramones in Morris's living room, Coats and Morris were both inspired. "The songs are nothing but down strokes," Morris points out. "And if you listen to the down stroke of Link Wray on 'Rumble,' it just says 'Fuck...you...now!'"
He instructed Coats to go home and do his hardcore homework — listen to the first Black Flag EP, 1977's four-song, five-minute assault, Nervous Breakdown, widely regarded as the template for hardcore. The next day, Coats — whom Morris has said worshipped at the feet of Kurt Cobain — picked up his guitar at Morris's house and started jamming. He played all down strokes, fast, angry and aggressive, like a knife to the chest — in short, the style of playing that Ginn had pioneered in Black Flag. "I'm like, 'Yes! That's where I wanna be right now!' says Morris. "This is my chance to relive some of my old glory from Black Flag. It's like, imagine if I had been allowed to bring some of my musical inspiration to Black Flag."
Morris loved being in Black Flag. As Michael Azerrad chronicled in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, the group not only pioneered hardcore punk, it also pioneered the anti-corporate entrepreneurial spirit that once governed the indie-rock world. But Black Flag was Ginn's band, and everyone played by Ginn's rules.
Morris needed his own outlet, which is partly why he quit to form the Circle Jerks. He also quit because he was an admitted "alcoholic and a cokehead," which was the cause of much dysfunction within the group. But there was a desperation in the music he made with Black Flag; each song was played as if it was absolutely necessary. There were things about living life in this society that needed to be said but weren't, so they said them. And it wouldn't have been possible without Ginn's driving guitar and Morris's unhinged vocal wails.
Working with Coats, Morris was was at a point in his life when he needed to hear that sound more than ever. Coats delivered on guitar, and the songs came pouring out. Soon they were joined by Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald and Rocket From the Crypt/Earthless drummer Mario Rubalcaba. Together they recorded a batch of songs that amount to some of the most vital punk rock made by anyone in a long time. Released in December of last year as a set of four seven-inch singles, OFF!'s debut, The First Four EPs, reignites the spirit of American hardcore but somehow resists becoming a nostalgia trip.
For starters, the set boasts artwork by none other than Raymond Pettibon, Greg Ginn's brother, who designed the Black Flag logo and was responsible for the band's comically violent and raunchy album covers and show fliers. And then the songs come, fast and furious — sixteen of them in under eighteen minutes — with Morris ranting and raving breathlessly about everything from social and political elitism ("I Don't Belong") to the stupidity of people who spout opinions without really knowing what they're talking about ("Full of Shit"). On "Black Thoughts," he refuses to apologize for his negative view of the world ("I can't stop/Thinking black thoughts"). On "Fuck People," he delivers a punch in the face to the disappointing many he is forced to share the planet with.
"People were asking me 'Why would you write a song called "Fuck People"?' says Morris. "Well, why wouldn't I write a song called 'Fuck People'?"
Much like Black Flag's Nervous Breakdown, The First Four EPs is a rough, dirty piece of work, sounding as if it had been recorded on cassette in a single, sweaty L.A. afternoon. The guitars are buried in a murky sludge as Morris's vocals crackle against the microphone and threaten to blow out the speakers. This brings it a fervor that might have been lost on a more polished recording. Still, it seems no amount of studio wizardry could have diluted Morris's rage. If he was pissed off in his twenties, he's seriously pissed off now.
On "Upside Down," he sings "You wonder why I'm always SCREAMING!," and the effect is profound when you consider he's a middle-aged man. Three decades ago, he was a young punk screaming his head off about how he was "about to have a nervous breakdown" and how he "won't apologize for acting outta line." Now, he's 55 and bespectacled, with dreadlocks down to his waist, and yet shit is still fucked up in the world and worth screaming about.
Morris says he's often asked why he's still so angry. As an explanation, he tells of his apartment on one of the busiest corners in L.A. All day long, in their cars, people are constantly cutting each other off in the intersection, honking their horns, giving each other the finger, and shouting obscenities. People drive cars that cost a fortune down a street where the homeless beg for spare change. Amid all this urban chaos, a man appears on that corner every Friday to jump up and down while holding up a sign that says "Peace."
"I'm an advocate of that guy," says Morris. "I love that he's out there doing that. I wish I could be out there with him. But I'm a pessimist. I don't see the light at the end of this tunnel. My lyrics are observations. I just have to call it like I see it."
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