The punk supergroup reconnecting with their energetic roots.
When four legends from punk’s halcyon days joined forces as OFF!, they helped the world reconnect with their energetic roots.
Keith Morris is feeling a bit sore. He slipped and fell in a shower in Amsterdam yesterday after ignoring instructions on the door. “Nooo fuuucking waaay,” he says in his famously drawn-out way. Peering at me through John Lennon-style specs he adds: “I’m gonna shuuut the showwwer orrrff wherever I waaant.”
We are sitting in the lobby-cum-gallery of XOYO in Old Street, London, where Morris and his band OFF! are playing a show tonight. Although thirty-five years and two thousand miles separate us from the garages of Hermosa Beach, California, where Morris and Greg Ginn formed their first band, Black Flag, traces of that legacy are blooming all around us. “This is a good, little happy scene,” he says, looking around the space that awaits his UK fans, apparently unaware that he helped create it.
Since the Hermosa days, punks have grown up, got suits, mortgages and babies, or fallen through the cracks and met sticky ends (Morris wears a Gun Club tee in homage to his late-friend Jeffrey Lee Pierce who died of his excesses aged just thirty-seven). So why does this fifty-six-year-old act like no time has passed? And how is he still keeping it real? “Well,” he says, leaning back. “Because I’m an idiot and I don’t know any better? There are so many phony, fake, plastic bands out there… A real band is just a real band. People who are true to their heart and what they do. People who don’t put up with bullshit. People who follow their path, even if it’s the blind leading the blind, because sometimes that’s the best path to follow.”
Bassist Dmitri Coats has another theory. “A lot of it is Keith,” he says. “Listen to the way he talks, I’ve never heard anyone talk like that. He’s a total individual. And I don’t think he could do what he does any other way.”
The members of OFF! have histories, like strands of DNA, that intertwine to form the current all-star lineup. It began when Morris left Black Flag to form Circle Jerks in 1979 (the band he would continue to play with for nearly thirty years). By the early eighties, Circle Jerks were rehearsing in ‘The Church’ (a legendary venue in Hermosa Beach, birthplace of SST Records), which is where Morris met a teenaged Steven McDonald playing bass with his Exorcist-referencing band Redd Kross. At the end of that decade, down the coast in San Diego, a kid called Mario Rubalcaba was discovering skateboarding and joining Team Alva. He shredded sidewalks professionally until the early nineties when he picked up some drumsticks and adopted the nickname ‘Ruby Mars’, drumming for legendary post-punk bands Rocket From The Crypt and Hot Snakes, finally forming his own psychedelic rock band Earthless in the early noughties. At the same time, across the continent in Philadelphia, a curly-haired guitarist called Dmitri Coats was shaking up the East Coast with his stoner rock three-piece, Burning Brides. But their record label collapsed so they uprooted and moved into the studios of Los Angeles, which is where he met Morris attempting to record a new Circle Jerks album. The Jerks fell out, Morris and Coats recruited McDonald and Rubalcaba, and OFF! was born.
It’s a meeting of great minds with a myriad of different influences. So what’s the common ground? “Well, we hope that the time you spend at our show, you’re jumping up and down, screaming and yelling and making new friends, having a few drinks and becoming part of our party scene,” says Morris, who rarely pens songs longer than a minute. “For a little chunk of your life, you can actually just blow off some steam and be angry without smashing and breaking things. It’s the same as skateboarding; the mentality, the speed, the aggressiveness – the gung-ho, go-for-it, let’s-do-this state of mind. And if there’s skateboarding, there’s surfing, there’s snowboarding, there’s water skiing, hand gliding, sky diving. There’s the pie-eating contest, the hot dog-eating contest, there’s the all-you-can-eat buffet.”
Keith Morris’ thoughts bounce around his head like firecrackers. He exudes his experiences – from the lines that run deep across his face to the long dreads that fall down his back – and to sit next to him is to soak up some of that star-spangled history. In Spray Paint The Walls: The History of Black Flag, music journalist Stevie Chick quotes Morris remembering his youth. “I’d get off work, and we’d get up to trouble,” he says, “smoking angel dust, snorting elephant tranquilisers. Just real goofy, ‘why-would-you-want-to-do-that?’ kinda stuff, the kind of things you get up to when you’re young, and into experimenting. If it was a good experience, then cool; if not, well, then it was just a real hard lesson learned.”
Those days may be gone – “Hermosa Beach is horrible now, full of yuppies” – but OFF! marks a return to that spirit. “The other [Circle Jerks] were stuck in their ways,” says Morris, who parted ways with them in 2009 while trying to record a new album. “They were like, ‘We can record whatever we want and everybody will love it because of who we are.’ Which is just a horrible mentality. With [the guys in OFF!], the vibe and mad energy acts as kind of a bridge back to a place where everything was wonderful, brightly coloured like a fairy-tale, and all the little kids skipped and jumped and were happy. But it’s also going back to a more chaotic time when we were basically the blind leading the blind. That is, we didn’t know what we were doing; we were just doing it.”
Critics were quick to compare their debut record, First Four EPs, with early Black Flag, but if Morris had gone on to make a new record with Circle Jerks, instead of breaking away to form OFF!, would the result have sounded just the same? “No. This is a whole different set of circumstances,” says Morris. “When I mention the Circle Jerks I wanna say really horrible things, but at the same time I want to thank them for allowing me the opportunity to be doing what I’m doing now. Because this is really exciting.” So he’ll never go back? “Not at this time. I’m having too much fun. I’ve got too many other things to do… Those guys can all go off and purchase e-tickets for the rides at Disneyland. They can all ride on the Matterhorn together and get their picture taken with Goofy and Snow White.”
There is a latent rage in OFF!; a pure dissatisfaction with the way the world is. They all, apart from Morris, have kids now, but they’re not proud to pass this planet on. “We live in really horrible times,” says Morris. “It’s always a handful of people that fuck it up for everybody else and that also equates to our world situation. A perfect example would be Libya. It’s great that the rebels are overthrowing Gaddafi, but what’s going to happen after Gaddafi’s gone? All of the oil companies are going to race in there and all of the people who live there are probably going to be even worse off than they were before. They’re getting a million barrels of oil out of Libya every day, and there has to be some guy in a business suit, sitting behind his desk somewhere, just salivating. He’s just filing his teeth waiting to bite off his bit.”
With that, Keith Morris must go. It’s true, we may be thirty-five years and 2000 miles away from those halcyon days of punk’s outrageous origins, but as we get up, shake hands, and descend into the basement of XOYO for a couple of hours of fast, dark disruption, it still feels like we could be a part of something different.