Hardcore King — The Circle Jerks Reunion is in Full Swing: For years, Keith Morris insisted that he didn’t want to do the Circle Jerks again. The band is responsible for one of the great hardcore punk albums in 1980’s Group Sex, they released a bunch of other awesome records and are remembered as one of the truly great live hardcore bands. But by the time they embarked on an indefinite hiatus, bitterness had infected the inner workings. Morris was done. The circle was all jerked out.
But time is a great healer, and when Morris was approached about a Circle Jerks tour in 2019, he had softened. Older and wiser, the man could see the sense in the plan.
“I had a friend come to me and say ‘Keith, I’m willing to bet that you have no retirement plan. ‘I said, ‘I think I know what you’re getting at’,” Morris says. “See, the Circle Jerks a long time ago were offered a ton of money to play Coachella. This would have been right when Coachella started doing two weekends back-to-back. I was deep into the OFF! Situation, and I didn’t want to do it. At that time I was very angry and bitter toward my fellow bandmates, so I said no. I told a booking agent, ‘don’t wave any more carrots in front of the guys – that’s not fair.’ He said, ‘It’s my job and I have to do it.’ OK, do whatever you’re gonna do. Try to book whatever you’ll try to book. I’m not playing with the Circle Jerks.”
We meet with Morris at a Silver Lake breakfast spot – one of his regular haunts. The staff there know him, but it doesn’t seem like they know who he is. They seem surprised that we’re there to meet with Morris. Morris himself is friendly but focused from the very start. He’s not one to smile constantly; rather, it feels like his mind is always working. He’s very, very serious about what he does and cares deeply about the music that he’s leaving for the world – his legacy.
“I told my friend, ‘What do you propose? Are we going to Europe to play festivals?’ Because we never did any of that,” Morris says. “My friend said, ‘I need seven months and you’ll cover Japan, Australia, South America.’ I had been to Europe with OFF! and we played Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. I was talking to the promoter of our stage. He’s wearing a Minutemen T-shirt, so he’s very well aware of my history. In the conversation, I somehow mention the Circle Jerks. I’d play with the Circle Jerks for a trip to Spain or Portugal. I have no problem with that. I can get over my grumpy, curmudgeonly, bitter, angry – I can get over all of that. That’s how it started. So far we’ve played about 19 shows, and it’s going great.”
We should never forget that Morris co-founded Black Flag with Greg Ginn, and sang on the incendiary Nervous Breakdown EP. The impact of that EP, and that band, can’t be overestimated. The fact that he quit Black Flag and then did it again with Circle Jerks is a reflection of Morris’ talent, drive and energy.
“I consider myself to be extremely fortunate that I took this path and it’s actually turned out pretty well,” Morris says. “I’ve been able to go to a lot of places that, if I was working a 9-5 job, I would never have been able to do. I’m extremely fortunate that I’ve met all of the people that I’ve met.”
Morris is confident, but quite humble. When discussing Group Sex’s place among the great punk rock albums, Morris comes up with an endless list of records that he thinks are better. That said, he’s aware that lots of people love it, and he’s massively grateful for that. It’s fair to say that he was enjoying the start of the Circle Jerks tour, taking those songs to the people again, before the pandemic shut it down.
“We had 70 shows booked, and then everybody’s told to stay home and wear a mask, get vaccinated and get boosted,” Morris says. “I have no problem with any of that. The scenario with the quarantine really threw us for a loop financially. I sold off a chunk of my record collection, part of my book, DVD and compact disc collection, like everybody does when they’re scrambling to pay bills. Our booking agent was staying on top of the whole situation. He rebooked these shows twice. Finally, everybody said ‘Look, we’ve brought it to a place that we can probably live with, and we went through the Omicron and that was brutal for some of us even though it was not as harsh as Delta.’”
Zander Schloss joined the Circle Jerks in 1984, and the bassist has been involved with every lineup of the band since then. He’s delighted to be back out with his old pals again.
“I’m so grateful to be with these guys, who I’ve known for so long,” Schloss says. “Who would have thought, at the ripe age of 60 years old, that I’d be doing this. Literally, my solo career came out of the fact that I didn’t think I’d be doing this. I’m a long game player. So the kind of music that I’m making, I could make for the rest of my life and I don’t intend on retiring. But the Circle Jerks, it’s amazing that we can physically pull off what we’re doing at our ages. It sounds sharp, and it sounds fucking intense. If you close your eyes, you could imagine being back in 1982-1984.”
Yes, Schloss recently released his debut album, Song About Songs. It’s being promoted as the “polar opposite of punk rock,” with his Tom Waits-esque, singer/songwriter style.
“I tried to have the guts to say some things out loud that roll around in my subconscious, in the hope of giving myself therapy,” Schloss says. “And maybe, just maybe, somebody will think that it’s gutsy of me to say that stuff out loud, being that I’m in a hardcore band. Admitting tender and vulnerable feelings, daring people to uncross their arms. I don’t think toughness is helping the world right now.”
Schloss isn’t the only one doing other things. Morris has been performing his old Black Flag tunes in a band called FLAG with fellow former members Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson and Dez Cadena. He also has a cover band called Midget Handjob. And his creative outlet for new material is the hardcore band OFF!
“The OFF! situation is that we’ve recorded our new album three times with three different lineups,” Morris says. “Right before the pandemic, we hit a wall. We had a problem with a member of the band overstepping his boundaries and trying to pull off something that you don’t do to your bandmates. No details, but it was seriously uncool. One of the guys got fired, the other guy quit, and it was time for Dimitri [Coats] and I, if we were gonna keep the band going, to come up with a new rhythm section. We couldn’t be more excited. We’re releasing 16 songs for the new record, which comes out in September. We signed a deal with Fat Possum Records, who are great.”
Dimitri Coats is a former member of Burning Brides. He met Morris at a house party and the pair hit it off.
“Writing songs with Keith is one of my favorite things to do where being in a band with him is concerned,” Coats says. “We spend a lot of time just fucking around, going to eat, shop for records, then we’ll come back and play the records that we bought. We’ll get fired up drinking coffee. I might smoke some weed, and we’ll just basically party like two kids after school who are discovering bands together. It’ll get to the point where we can’t take it anymore, and I’ll grab a guitar and start hammering away on it. He’ll be scribbling down words. In the case of the new album we’ve written, we went into really strange territory, and decided we wanted to experiment and approach an album a different way.”
They sure did, and that’s why there’s an OFF! movie in the works, too. Understandably, it has a lower budget than the recent Foo Fighters horror flick, but it sounds intriguing nonetheless.
“We discover something that gives us the ability to move back and forth in time,” Morris says of the plot. “We all have these different jobs or we’re doing different things, before we’re in the band. That’s just the simple plot. There are wrongdoers, and we have to rid the world of evil. Dimitri wrote it.”
Back to the Circle Jerks, who will finally be playing a hometown show at the Hollywood Palladium in May. The band is composed of Morris and Schloss, original guitarist Greg Hetson, plus “new boy” drummer Joey Castillo. The guys aren’t spring chickens anymore, and Morris says that he prepares carefully for each show.
“I’ve got to eat,” he says. “I’ve got to try to eat three meals before we play. Being a diabetic, I normally eat every four hours. Maynard from Tool taught me to try to stay horizontal, as much as possible. Hopefully with your eyes closed. When I go to bed at night, I might sleep for four hours, five if I’m lucky. Rest, food, and Dimitri taught me some vocal exercises. There’s one where you put your fist in your jaw to loosen your jaw. There’s another when you push your tongue against your front teeth. I occasionally drink some throat coat [tea] with some slippery elm.”
Meanwhile, the main man is psyched to be performing in SoCal with his Circle Jerks, and everywhere else, too.
“We’re playing the Hollywood Palladium May 11,” Morris says. “It’s sold out. We’re also going to be playing a Glass House show. We have somebody working on Central America, South America, about three weeks of shows between those two areas. We’re also working on Australia and Japan. Possibly going back to Europe after we do this run. What was supposed to be seven months could go all the way into 2023.”
At the end of the day, this is what Keith Morris does. And whether he’s with Circle Jerks, Flag, OFF!, Midget Handjob or anyone else, he gives it everything he’s got.
“I’m 66 years old and there’s no retirement for me,” he says in conclusion. “This goes through 2023 and 2024. There’s no retirement for me, based on the path that I’ve chosen.”
We’ll always be here for you, sir.
Hardcore King — The Circle Jerks Reunion is in Full Swing: The Circle Jerks play at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 13 at the Hollywood Palladium.