Still a Malcontent
Three decades as a punk-rock icon has dulled Keith Morris' classic revenge-of-the-nerds wrath, but not much.
"I have a little Napoleonic complex," admits the aptly compact singer, his unfaltering gaze framed by run-amok dreadlocks as we chat over chicken kebab in a Hollywood strip mall, "having been bullied all my life ... getting my head shoved in the toilet by the football players."
At 56, Morris has a youthful gait that is at odds with his wry, sage air. He calls himself a "horrible singer" — which is perhaps technically true, though he's a great vocalist and frontman — but he found a rabid audience for his pent-up proclamations after co-founding pioneering Hermosa Beach hardcore punk bands Black Flag in 1976 and the Circle Jerks three years later.
Morris might have been content to live off his legend, the Circle Jerks' sporadic reunion tours and the sometimes menial jobs (including deejaying weddings) he has taken over the years to make ends meet.
At one point he was an alcoholic and cocaine addict: "You could have lifted me up by my legs and I would've vacuumed your carpets with my nose," he says.
He got sober in 1988 and was diagnosed with diabetes a decade later. In recent years he'd gotten lazy, he says.
But in 2009 a curious turn of events reinvigorated Morris' signature fury, spawning his new band, Off!, who mark the release of their self-titled debut with a show at Whisky A Go Go on May 8.
According to Morris, it happened like this: Circle Jerks were writing songs for a long-awaited seventh studio album, set to be produced by ex–Burning Brides singer-guitarist Dimitri Coats. Coats felt that Morris' bandmates' new songs weren't up to par, preferring the tunes he and Morris had been simultaneously penning. When the other three Jerks — guitarist Greg Hetson, bassist Zander Schloss and drummer Kevin Fitzgerald — announced they wanted to fire Coats, Morris opted to jump ship and form a new band with the prospective producer. It was the rock & roll equivalent of running off with your marriage counselor.
"For about 30 years I was in a love-hate relationship, and we got to a point where we didn't really want to hang out with each other," says Morris of the Circle Jerks. "I didn't buy into them killing the momentum, killing the progress."
"We didn't hire Dimitri to be a ghostwriter, we hired him to produce and guide and encourage," Hetson says. "[Morris] was frustrated with, I think understandably, the part-time-ness of the Circle Jerks."
Completed by Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald and ex–Rocket From the Crypt drummer Mario Rubalcaba, Off! were powered by the visceral, lo-fi venom of, well, early Black Flag and classic Circle Jerks. A flurry of last-minute shows at South by Southwest in 2010 paraded four middle-aged blokes delivering frantic, minute-long sound bombs with the restless irreverence of testosterone-loaded teens. Their sets at FYF Fest the past two years were similarly well received.
Off!'s hastily recorded demos morphed into a vinyl 7-inch, which was subsequently rereleased with three additional discs as the First Four EPs boxed set at the end of 2010. It's 16 tracks of deliberately raw West Coast hardcore with appropriately paranoid song titles like "I Don't Belong" and "Fuck People," which together clock in at less than 20 minutes total. True to Off!'s professed do-it-yourself ethic, First Four was mixed by McDonald and produced by Coats; the latter also booked Off!'s early live shows.
But Off don’t do everything themselves; they are signed to Vice Records, which was an independent label when the act came aboard in 2010, before the imprint established a global partnership with major label Warner Bros. Records a year later. This partnership was reportedly spearheaded by the band's bassist McDonald during his tenure as a Warner A&R Executive, though it wasn’t finalized until after McDonald had departed his position there.
McDonald is the son-in-law of former Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker and has been an A&R consultant for numerous other labels. "There's nothing I'm ashamed of, that's for sure," McDonald says. "It didn't mean that, like, in a sneaky or backdoor way we were putting Warner's millions into [Off!'s] campaign. That's not the case ... not at all."
McDonald maintains that Off! is unaffected by the Vice/Warner deal, other than Vice's now having access to a better distribution network for its product. Like Morris, himself a former A&R executive for V2 Records, McDonald is unapologetic about working with big corporations and insists that his band has "controlled the conversation" throughout.
"It's not like we're pretending to live in a squat. ... We are grown guys trying to support our families and doing it in a way that makes people feel good."
What exactly constitutes a punk ethos — and even punk music itself — seems widely up for debate these days. But with the genre having largely devolved into post–Blink-182 peppy pop, most critics greeted First Four's uncluttered anger and back-to-basics arrangements warmly; Pitchfork gave it an 8.5 out of 10.
It seems possible that the grown-up commitments of Off! may have fueled the band's sense of sonic urgency. After all, Coats, McDonald and Rubalcaba are all fathers, and the latter lives removed from his L.A.-based bandmates in San Diego. Thus, they can't get together very often, perhaps only a half-dozen times for the new album, Morris says.
Coats is nearly 15 years Morris' junior and calls him his "best friend." Though he comes from an East Coast alt-rock background, it was Coats' zeal and clarity of vision that put Morris into a "time machine that took me back to the basement of the Church," Black Flag's original rehearsal space in Hermosa Beach.
"[Coats] was in my living room jamming away, and I said, 'What you're playing right there, this is what we're supposed to be doing,' " Morris recalls. Though they reject the label, they're clearly inspired by classic American punk; their debut album delivers deftly executed hardcore while hinting at a nuanced collective personality taking shape. Opener "Wiped Out" could be heyday Dickies, with Morris' adolescent speak-shout punctuating studiously garage-y guitar progressions, but then "King Kong Brigade" lets things (relatively) decelerate, with its undulating dynamics and atmospheric outro.
"I come more from a metal background, so I try to pull in some of the dark stuff," Coats explains. "And [Morris] wants it to be more of a party."
They're hitting the road with a reunited Refused in July, and between Off!'s short tours and occasional rehearsal and recording sessions, Morris' bandmates return to their families. He wanders back to his rented, memorabilia-stuffed Los Feliz apartment; he speaks of selling his collection of albums and autographs and moving abroad, perhaps to Berlin.
Having been called a legend by any number of publications and websites, he's not sure what to make of it all.
"I don't shine that kind of light on myself," he mulls. "Being a legend, with a pocketful of change, might not get you a bus ride or a cup of coffee."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.