By Rose Riot
Keith Morris is known as one of the godfathers of American Punk. He is responsible for fronting two of the most crucial bands in the genre, Black Flag and The Circle Jerks. His latest band, Off! is creating a stir among fans young and old. The word on the streets is that Off! is the real punk rock deal. Having seen them recently at SXSW, I would agree. I felt honored that I was granted an interview with Keith, a man who has a lot to say and some great stories to tell…
Keith Morris: We [Dimitri Coats and I] were working on a Circle Jerks album. The situation in the band started to deteriorate, so Dimitri and I decided to pool our efforts and start Off! I explained to Dimitri that I’ve been a part of a band for 30 years and over time the band starts to get some momentum going, we hit the brakes and put a stop to all of it. Like quitting in the middle of tour, or developing a drug habit, or touring with another band.
I quit the band that I started 30 years ago, I decided to do what everybody else was doing. I had been writing music and lyrics with Dimitri so we said, “Let’s start our own band” and that is how Off! got started. Everything has been downhill from there, ha-ha. Just kidding, I couldn’t be happier.
RR: It sounds like you are confident things that have happened in the past with other bands won’t happen this time?
KM: I didn’t quit The Circle Jerks, they quit me. Maybe down the line we will all shake hands and be all palsy-walsy and do something again. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen. I have opportunities now with Off! that I never could have had with The Circle Jerks. Someone always used to manage to find a way to flush it all down the commode.
RR: I saw Off! at SXSW and whatever you guys are doing, it works. I certainly wouldn’t say you are going down, unless downhill is a good thing. Ha-ha
KM: I was just joking, ha-ha.
KM: I get a little info on the Internet. I try to read a newspaper every morning. I get the L.A. Times for some info, but being enlightened the way that I am, I can only believe a little of what I read. I try to be well versed but I’m no Jello Biafra and I’m certainly not politically correct.
I try to do good things like get my car tuned up when it needs it. I try to drive as little as possible and be environmentally friendly. I recycle as much as possible. I just try to be a good person. When you hear my lyrics a lot of it is very dark and unoptimistic. I don’t try to live that way but I am a product of my environment. I am a mirror and sometimes that can be a bit brutal. The guys I play with now believe in what I say. My old band would freak if I made comments on stage and I would get a lecture afterwards.
I love watching The Super Bowl. I don’t love purchasing the products advertised on The Super Bowl. I’m not going to eat Doritos and drink Pepsi or drive one of those big cowboy trucks they have commercials for. Just because they want me to, I’m not gonna do it.
I fall into the mentality and whole-heartedly believe that the government is some of the worst people in the world. So rather than have a teenage dance show, some horrible half-time entertainment, I mean, I don’t want to point fingers but The Black Eyed Peas are pretty terrible and Slash playing a 10-minute guitar solo doesn’t work for me.
My idea would be to have a public lynching a good tar-and-feathering. I say, let’s go into Congress and grab about 20 people there and then go to the White House and grab 25 more people. Have some guy fly over in a helicopter and dump tar on them, then have little kids run around with pillows having a big pillow fight. The pillows would all burst open and all the feathers would go everywhere. All the public officials would just be running around with all this gunk. We could even take it a bit further, like a blindfold and a cigarette up against a wall. Our politicians should all be treated like criminals because they are all well paid criminals.
KM: I don’t trust any of ‘em! I have the utmost respect for Jack Grisham from TSOL, he ran for Governor. He said after being a part of “the process,” he’ll never vote again.
RR: Coming from the L.A. punk scene, do you still ‘like to make noise and irritate people’?
KM: We are bombarded by people who play nice and keep it safe, maybe Lady Gaga isn’t doing that.
RR: Is there anyone out there that you think is making an impression on the world today like you and punk made on the world 30 years ago?
KM: I have never looked at music that way. I saw The Clash trying to make changes but they got caught up in the trappings of Rockstar. For me, music is my work. I listen to a lot of bands and they don’t change my world. The only person that can change your world starts with you. It’s where you are at, you gotta’ do something.
Of course, there is music that inspires you but I’m not gonna’ tell you, “This band is amazing, they are gonna’ change your world!” You have to decide what’s cool and what’s not cool. You could listen to The Who or The Clash or Burning Brides or The Flesheaters, they are all great. I could go on and on with bands that I like but that doesn’t mean you are going to do back-flips over them. I never really thought music changed the world.
RR: Off! debuted at the 2010 SXSW. Why did you start there?
KM: We were dying to do some gigs. We hadn’t played here in L.A. yet, SXSW presented itself. My good friend Graham used to book Emo’s, he presented us with the opportunity. We played four shows at the 2010 SXSW. We made a lot of fans. There were a lot of people from other bands in those crowds. We found that other bands really loved us. Jay Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. who we will be touring with on the East Coast, Dave Grohl from The Foo Fighters, he can’t say enough great things about us. We have a whole army of people that dig us. Having this great fanbase is what helps pay the bills.
RR: There is a lot of buzz about Off!, everyone I know is talking about you guys.
KM: We are tapping into a lot of disgruntled people. They are people that want to say fuck you! to their boss. We are in tough times, so it’s not a good time to tell your boss to fuck off. We are appealing to people that want to throw a brick through a window. Off! says a lot of things for a lot of people, we have struck a nerve.
RR: People my age are really hungry for what you are doing but I noticed at SXSW, there were a lot of kids at your show. The place was packed with kids. Why do you think these younger fans gravitate towards you?
KM: I’ve been a member of four very important punk bands. We didn’t realize we were creating a blueprint. There was first wave, bands like The Seeds and Music Machine. Second wave, you had Elementary School, X, The Dickies, The Flesheaters, The Zeros, Black Flag, Misfits, Bad Brains, Minor Threat. These were the bands that got in the vans and traveled across the land (Keith says this with a rhyming voice reminiscent of a Dr. Suess line). They mapped it all out, they were explorers.
RR: They were pioneers?
KM: Yeah! None of us knew what we were doing back then, we were the blind-leading-the-blind.
RR: How is touring different today than it was 30 years ago for you?
KM: Really simple, you are probably on a cell phone, sitting by a table with a thing on it called a computer. That computer allows you to talk to the world. Back in our day, we talked to our friends. We called them and said, “Hey, next Friday we are playing in Fred’s garage.”
RR: When I saw Off!, I felt like I had gone back in time to a punk show in Fred’s garage. Your show felt very really, very raw. Is this the effect you go for when you are performing?
KM: You have to understand, now there is a huge leap in technology. Today stuff is so mainstream and nice and friendly. I think that is a horrendous quality. I am not like that.
You know I don’t have any tattoos. I’m in a band where no one has any tattoos. If I wanted to come up with a tattoo, it would be an invisible vampire robot with a pipe filled with angel dust and he’s wearing a Superman cape. He would be on a skateboard, riding downhill as little kids dressed in Huggies throw rocks and hand-grenades at him.
RR: Well, if you decide you want that, I can probably hook you up, ha-ha.
KM: Ha-ha, I don’t think I could sit still for all that!
RR: What was the last show you saw?
KM: Piggy, Ron Reyes new band. I saw The Jolts, the remind me of The Clorox Girls. One of my favorite bands I’ve seen recently is Deerhunter. The album Microcastle is great. It’s like a late night album. It’s very moody and hypnotic.
RR: Do you think punk is dead?
KM: I don’t think punk is dead. I don’t think punk is alive. I don’t think punk is punk. Don’t go by a rulebook. Be open to experience. I listen to a lot of what would be labeled punk rock. I don’t like that label. If you look in the dictionary, the word punk means someone who takes it in the ass when he’s in prison…
Be free! That, to me is what “punk” means, freedom…
For more information on Off! visit their MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/off
(Rose Riot is a photographer in Atlanta and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine)