OFF! Part 1
by Tim “Napalm” Stegall
June 18, 2012
Keith Morris entered punk rock legend as lead vocalist of legendary hardcore tactical assault unit Black Flag. Morris sang on their debut EP, Nervous Breakdown. (better-known Black Flag singer Henry Rollins insists Morris was Black Flag’s best frontman.) He proceeded to lead another legendary Los Angeles-area hardcore band, the Circle Jerks, through 20 years and seven LPs. Steven McDonald came to light in 1979 as the 12-year-old bassist in Redd Kross. Then playing snotty brat punk as Red Cross (before a certain disaster relief organization took offense), they rehearsed in the same abandoned church as Black Flag. 20 years after meeting in that church, the duo are now half of OFF! Their debut disc, The First Four EPs (Vice Records), unleashes a furious, 18 minute, vintage punk rock blitzkrieg that returns Morris to the uncontrolled rage and aggression of his Black Flag beginnings. Such vicious rhythms and a penchant for unusual gigs have made OFF! the least likely Pitchfork buzz band in history. Morris and McDonald paused long enough to muse on it all with RocknRollDating at a Shakey’s Pizza on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood.
The definition of insanity is: “Repeating an action, and expecting different results.” So the question then would be I suppose: “Why do you keep doing this?”
Keith: The answer to that is, “Just because we’re stupid, and we don’t know any better!” (laughter). Basically, we’re a bunch of morons. It’s all about the stupidity factor.
Steven: I’m the moron!
Keith: And in this branch of showbiz – this arm, this division, this floor of showbiz – is certainly better than cleaning up after the elephants at the circus. There’s this joke that my friend Bob Forrest (Thelonious Monster vocalist) told me where this guy walks up, and this other guy has got his arm all the way up this elephant’s ass. The elephant is obviously constipated, and this guy’s got his arm all the way up to his shoulder in the elephant’s ass. And this guy walks up and asks, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that?” And the guy with his arm up the elephant’s ass says, “Hey, its showbiz!” (laughter)
I know you told me that this initially sprang out of a set of songs that was meant to be on a Circle Jerks album.
Keith: What happened was, Dimitri (Coates, OFF! guitarist) and I were working on a Circle Jerks record. All of a sudden, between he and I and the vibe we were creating, our conversations and the music we were listening to, we all of sudden started to go in another direction. And I said, “That’s where we need to go!” What I call that is Dimitri building our time travel device, because now we get to go back in time. And the brilliant part of this conversation that we’re having here is that both Steven and I go back (to that time). It takes us back to Manhattan Avenue and Peer Avenue in Hermosa Beach (location of The Church, the abandoned church where Black Flag was headquartered in its’ early stages, and where numerous other are punk bands rehearsed, including early Redd Kross).
It has been noted that your sound does hearken back to the first Black Flag EP, and there is an interesting thing about the name OFF!, as well.
Keith: And just to dispel that rumor, it has absolutely nothing to do with eliminating pests.
Steven: Or guarding against.
Keith: Repellants: “Stay off of me!”
Steven: But the name Black Flag had nothing to do with ant or roach spray, either.
Keith: And a lot of people assume that, especially when Black Flag had their little campaign against Adam And The Ants: “Black Flag kills ants on contact!” (laughter)
Steven: I’d forgotten about that!
Keith: Everybody just all of a sudden jumped on that bandwagon, and its like, “Okay!” (People are) failing to remember that all that’s missing from the black flag is the skull and crossbones. “Here we come! You’d better watch out! We’re gonna make some shit happen. A lot of it, you’re probably not gonna like. But, hey! It’s a free country! There are all sorts of different places you can go!”
It’s certainly been awhile since you’ve played this kind of music yourself, Steven.
Yeah! And I’ve hopefully kept the spirit tucked in there somewhere.
Well, even in Redd Kross, you guys could hearken back to that spirit now and again.
Sure. I can’t quite reach those high notes after about 14 years old! (laughter) But the attitude is still there.
The most striking thing about listening to OFF! is the rage! And the conviction. You must have bottled a lot of stuff up before you wrote these words.
Keith: I was placed in a position of being very angry towards a lot of things, including one of my other bands, if you will. (laughter) I, at one point, was thinking I was doing this just to rub their nose in the shit. But then I realized that I don’t have to do that. All of the guys that are in this band are all amazing players. It’s all instinctual and coming from the gut. It’s not like we sit around and say, “Oh, we’ve gotta do this with this part, and this part needs this.” We don’t have time to do that. We’re not that band where we get to rehearse two or three nights per week. We get into the room to rehearse, we’ve just gotta go. “1-2-3-4, GO!”
Steven: Run the set! The funny thing is, the initial question was about his rage. I will tell you that I don’t think he bottled anything up. I don’t think Keith is someone that bottles stuff up, in my opinion. But that’s the beauty (of it). And that’s the cool thing about this group, too: We’re all kinda old enough to know just to vent sometimes. We’ve gotta let him do his thing. There’s not a lot of hurt feelings or anything like that. And we all back his agendas, anyway. But just in terms of us playing together, this may sound really corny or like your reading one of those rock bios. This may sound funny coming from a hardcore band, but it’s like when you read about that moment that Led Zeppelin first played together. We all wonder, “Wow! I wonder what that was like.” But they talk about this sound that just filled the room, and it felt right. You just can’t question it. In our own hardcore way, I feel like we had our own moment like that. It’s a pompous comparison, I know. But I think it’s one of those things where we have to acknowledge that this is very unique. It’s hard with our adult lives and Mario living in San Diego to make things happen sometimes. It’s definitely worth it to make the extra effort. Luckily, people have received it that way too.
The other major striking factor is the way you introduced yourself to the world: You made every show an event, not your typical sort of show. (Example: They debuted in a warehouse with a skateboard half-pipe set-up and noted artist Raymond Pettibone painting live as OFF! played) It helped to really build a buzz for you guys.
Keith: We don’t want to repeat a lot of the weirdness and crappiness and some of the garbage that we did in some of our other bands. Plus I want to say that we’ve been sort of precious about what we are doing. Actually, we get a lot of flak for it. But we’re older guys, and its like, “Bring it on! We’re used to it!”
Steven: That answer almost comes off like, “Hey! We’re entitled!” And it’s funny, because I never really allowed myself to think that. But it sounds really good coming out of his mouth! I like that! ‘Cuz I always want to be Mr. Nice Guy.
Keith: But we fought all the wars. We’ve been through all the battles. Now we get to drive the tank. We don’t have to fall over the barbed wire.
Steven: We were actually talking about this recently. Our decision to do things kind of outside the system of the LA club scene hasn’t really been directed at any one group or party or no one. It’s really been a conscious decision on our part to create our own story outside of that system. And it’s not like we’re saying, “We’re not a part of that. That’s not cool.” We’re not making any statement about what may exist here or people or anything like that. We just wanna do our own thing, and we’ll come around eventually on our terms, I think, and be a part. But we didn’t want to start off that way, because it’s a tough road. And we’re old enough and some of us are smart enough to know better. I can’t necessarily profess that I’m one. But it’s been a cool experience, and it’s been extra work for some of the band mates, as well.
Keith: But when we play and we’re doing any of these parties or events, we’ve had a blast. We haven’t really experienced any of the crappy things that happened early on, where we have to fear for our lives, or the bikers wanna kill us, or the surfers.
“Oh, shit! The LAPD just busted down the doors of the club and are marching in, clubbing everyone over the head!”
Steven: No, we haven’t had to worry about the LAPD, either, although we did have an experience where the LAPD shut down our record release party. But it was very different, the way it went down.
Keith: Meaning the way we chose to do our record release party was too underground. We should have noticed that when you’re in a big building and you put 500 people or 700 people in a building? There’s got to be more than just one exit! (laughter)
Steven: No, it was just an entrance! There was no exit!
Keith: Well, the entrance was the exit.
Steven: Exactly. I’ve been to some countries where that’s cool. But that doesn’t really fly around here. And the funny thing is, that was really awesome. It was a really cool space. Those guys should just cut a hole in that cinderblock behind the stage. It was this big room downtown…
Keith: …down in the warehouse district.
Steven: They did some underground shows there. They called the place The Sex. But the thing is, we kinda promoted it and by the time we did our record release party, there was a buzz for OFF! So, someone alerted the LAPD.
Keith: Plus we were playing with some great bands. They all had their buzz on, too.
Steven: The remarkable thing that happened is the cops showed up around 8 o’clock, and they didn’t really buzzkill the show. They did it before the show started. If the show had started and they shut it down, then that would have really fractured everything and made it impossible to do anything. But they kinda came and essentially said, “You guys should know better. There’s no exit here.”
Keith: Well, I had gone to get something to eat. And I came back and there was nobody inside the building except band members moving equipment and guys that ran the space, and some of the people from Vice Records. I noticed when I left that there had maybe been two or three hundred people in line. When I came back, it looked like there maybe had been 20 people in line, just trying to figure out what’s going on.
Steven: “What happened to these people?” “Oh, they vanished! They evaporated!”
Keith: It happened to be raining that night, so they might have just washed down a drain! (laughter)
That happens, when it rains in LA!
Steven: And that was the first time that happened in a long time. I was thinking, “Who knows what could happen with this show?” But the cool thing was, we had some friends help us out and get us another venue on the fly. We called this venue up and said, “Kill your dance club night! We’re taking over!”
Keith: They actually had some other bands playing, but there was nobody there for the bands that were playing. The guy that ran the club said, “Of course, bring that over here! I wanna sell some alcoholic beverages!” In fact, I deejayed the free Monday night show at The Echo: Slang Chickens, Mini Mansions, both really cool bands. And I got a note, this kid walked up to me who was in this band called the Cigarette Bums.
Steven: And we bumped them from their show! (laughter) “You owe us an opening slot!”
Keith: “I worship everything you do. I highly respect you, but we got bumped off our show.” He said that Sean Carlson promised them another FYF show, and he hasn’t come through with it yet. But things happen. He’s a good kid. I’ve never heard his music, but maybe he could be another (colorful Leaving Trains leader and LA Weekly writer) Falling James, that kinda character. That would be interesting.