I’m making my way over to talk with punk rock icon Keith Morris. Keith was the front man for legendary punk bands Black Flag and The Circle Jerks. Keith is actively fronting his new band called OFF! I can’t wait to talk to Keith about the history, present, and future of his music career and see if he can define the LA sound for me.
IH: Oh boy. All right…
KM: I guess we’re going to start at the beginning aren’t we?
IH: We’re going to start at the beginning. Let me tell everybody we’re with Keith Morris, punk rock legend…
KM: In his own mind.
IH: [Laughs] In my mind, too. Nobody else’s just me and you.
KM: A legend amongst six other people.
IH: Well I think a couple people know about the band Black Flag that you sang in. I think maybe three or four…
KM: You call that singing? [Laughs]
IH: Well…that you fronted. And three or four other people might know about the Circle Jerks, the other band that you fronted for a little while. Umm…so for those of us out there who don’t know about either one of those bands, why don’t you enlighten us? Tell us about those bands and those times.
KM: Well once upon a time…there was the punk rock prince…[laughs]…Um, I was living in Hermosa Beach. The music scene – the live music scene – was beyond frustrating because there really was no live music scene.
KM: All the bands were top 40 bands covering, like, doing really bad versions of Led Zeppelin or Heart or Doobie Brothers or, you know, all of that fun stuff.
IH: What year…?
KM: And I don’t have anything against any of those bands, because they all have their time and place. They all have their influential moments, and the first Led Zeppelin album is one of my favorite albums of all time. So I’m not dissin’ on Led Zeppelin, I’m just dissin’ on the musical quality that was happening in Hermosa Beach. This would have been, like, mid-70s.
KM: And we just, we got fed up with having to look for anything original, and occasionally if something original did happen it was really cool, it was really special. Not like it is nowadays, where you have to listen to, like, ten thousand bands to find two or three bands that are like, really ultra special.
KM: Back then it was just a big desert. And occasionally something would happen that was really bitchin’. But, um, we were just a bunch of frustrated guys. And we were always the guys who were picked last in PE, everybody picked on us, and we were the nerds, we were the geeks. We tried to be cool, you know, tried to be cool by hanging out with all the cool people, and um…I was working in a record store part time. Working for my dad. And through Greg Ginn’s younger sister Erica, I developed a friendship with Greg because she would bring him along with her to the record store where I was working part time.
IH: And Greg was the guitar player.
KM: Greg had just…he was strumming around on the guitar trying to figure things out. You know, trying to figure out his influences and everything like that. It was, we struck up a conversation and that was basically where Black Flag came from. And, uh, I was in Black Flag, I think I was in Black Flag for about three years.
IH: How did that segue into The Circle Jerks?
KM: Well what was happening was everybody was pretty much hanging out at this place called The Church in Hermosa Beach.
KM: Uh… the guys in Redd Kross were using Ron Reyes’ basement living space as a rehearsal space, and they’d auditioned Lucky. When Ron quit Redd Kross they needed to replace Ron, and so they auditioned Lucky. I remember this was on a Saturday. They auditioned lucky. The McDonald Brothers didn’t like Lucky because he had north drums, which were like these futuristic…
IH: Oh those are the ones that bend out?
KM: Return to Forever…
IH: I know exactly which ones you’re talking about. [Laughs]
KM: Tony Williams Lifetime…and a Chick Corea kind of thing.
KM: [Makes drumming sound] And that was for them, you know, being fans of Kiss and New York Dolls…that was a real put off. And…
IH: Seems like you were a fan of Kiss that would make sense, those drums. But New York Dolls not so much. I don’t know…just a footnote.
KM: Well that’s also two different worlds.
IH: That’s what I’m saying.
KM: Even though they both wore platforms and both wore make up.
KM: Two different worlds.
KM: But, um, they were put off by Lucky. They didn’t like his playing because Lucky is based in Big Band, swing, jazz, you know, school orchestra, Stan Kenton
IH: Which is all great stuff, but for punk rock…
KM: That’s all fantastic, any drummer should be listening to that kind of stuff anyway.
KM: But, they were put off by that. Um. So it was obvious that lucky wasn’t going to be a part of Redd Kross. Greg had become fed up with the Brothers because they didn’t want to rehearse. They wanted to party, they wanted to hang out in front of The Starwood and hang out in front of the Whiskey A Go-Go. I mean, they’re younger guys. That’s what, you know…the kids want to be part of the scene.
KM: Which is totally cool. Nothing wrong with that. And Greg was fed up with that, and when I say Greg I mean Greg Hetson not Greg Ginn.
IH: Right. Greg Hetson who…
KM: I’ve spent too much time around guitar players named Greg in my lifetime.
IH: So they get confused. Well let’s let everybody know that Greg Hetson is also known for being one of the guitar players in Bad Religion as well. Just wanted to throw that out there so they know who we’re talking about.
KM: That’s right. Well Greg was a member of Redd Kross, Greg was from Hawthorne, which is also part of the South Bay.
KM: The McDonald brothers were also from Hawthorne. So were the Beach Boys, so it all makes perfect sense. We should just all form a big band and sing harmonies.
IH: [Laughs] Totally.
KM: The thing with the Circle Jerks – the seeds were planted for The Circle Jerks when the McDonald brothers decided that they were, they wanted to be a band but they didn’t want to do all the work that was necessary to be a band.
KM: I mean, maybe songwriting yes, but all of the rehearsing. Which I can appreciate that, because the Redd Kross band, they’ve always had this – up until lately – they’ve always had this real loose…just like the New York Dolls if you listen to the New York Dolls, what, do they practice once a year?
IH: Yeah. [Laughs]
KM: You know, they’re getting ready to record an album, and they get together for six hours to write the songs and another six hours to record the record, and…
KM: You know. And I’m not dissing the New York Dolls because I love the New York Dolls.
IH: Which is amazing in a way to do it that quick, but I’m someone who wants to practice all the time and make sure we know our stuff. Period. Plus I love doing it. It’s my therapy as well.
KM: Well I’m like that because of what happened with Black Flag.
KM: It’s like, I want to play these songs until they just bore us to tears and then we’re just looking at each other like we don’t want to play these songs anymore. Normally you look and bands and bands are like, “Oh no, we need to write a new batch of songs, because we’re just bored with these songs.” And it’s like, some of these bands are bands that haven’t been out playing a lot.
IH: Now, is there anything you did with The Circle Jerks you did differently from Black Flag as far as that stuff goes? Or will you still like, “I’m still hungry for this. I still want to just play my tunes, and do it our way and that’s why I want to do another band.” You know?
KM: Well what was happening was that for The Circle Jerks things started to happen quicker than for black flag. Because with Black Flag we were just feeling our way through all of the stuff.
KM: You know, where can we play? Well, nobody wants us to play so we’re going to have to rent the Moose Lodge. We’re going to have to throw a teen dance party. We’re going to have to play in somebody’s back yard. I mean, I still to this day love playing in garages and backyards, basements, people’s living rooms.
IH: I know, me too.
KM: There’s a certain energy, there’s a certain cool quality about that. Like, we’re not so big that we can’t just pull up and jump out and oh, there’s some kids playing in the back yard. Can we play fifteen, twenty minutes on your equipment? You know? It’s like WOW, sure, ok. Um, we had no idea what we were doing.
KM: It was just like, maybe what it was was…let’s take this pot and just start stirring it up and we’ll start adding these ingredients: frustration, nerdy geeks, can’t get laid, ugly girlfriends, too much beer, not enough beer, doing drugs, community hates you, get the fuck out of here, what are you doin? Start stirring that up, ok. Can’t pay my bills, um flat tire today, parking ticket. Let’s stir it up some more. Um, you know? That’s what it turns into.
IH: Sure, the bubbling cauldron of life. And that’s what creates the music!
KM: So we’ve concocted this fucking gloppy goo gunk gorpy whatever it is.
IH: Gorpy (laughs)
KM: And if you can hear this going on in the background, let’s toss some of that in there because police were constantly on our tip.
KM: And for what reason, I don’t really know? It’s like they thought that maybe we were some subversive terrorist organization and…you know, the only thing we wanted to blow up was whatever room we were in, and we’d like crank the equipment and hit notes, you know?
IH: [Laughs] Totally. Well the cops, well authority has never understood that but especially back then authority didn’t understand that, so…
KM: Like, I’ve seen the tattoo that says “FTW” and that’s “Fuck the world” you know?
IH: Yup. Well I know the feeling, I just had…let’s see, the other day my motorcycle broke down on me, two checks bounced that day and then I got a $219 ticket in the mail. All in one day.
KM: And you felt like Bruce Lee and you wanted to go out and just slug somebody in the face. The first person that you saw?
IH: If I didn’t bring myself back down I would have leveled my whole house. I would have razed my house to the ground, everything would have been destroyed. So I just found this little place and went, I’m just going to sit down for a minute and just breathe. [Laughs]
KM: Well wouldn’t that be called meditating?
IH: But when I was younger – sort of. It wasn’t quite meditation. But when I was younger, I didn’t know how to do that, and that’s why I was in bands that did exactly what you were talking about in the early days. Just going out there and wanting to just destroy what you were doing at that moment.
KM: It could be the big difference between Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. Black Flag encouraged that, didn’t pay attention to that, just all anarchy, hope it all falls apart, blow everything up. The Circle Jerks wanted to take all of that energy, and turn it into a party. You know?
KM: The girls started to get…all of the sudden there’s a few more girls coming to the shows. You know, it’s not just a bunch of like geeky guys and you know, guys beating each other up, and punk rock jocks and all of that kind of thing.
IH: Right, so some estrogen started balancing out the testosterone crowd.
KM: All of the sudden there are a few girls were coming to the party.
IH: Yup. So you guys wanted to party.
KM: We wanted to party.
IH: I don’t blame ya. [Laughs]
KM: We’ve waited all week. It’s Friday night. Let’s party.
IH: All right. So, now your new band, OFF! Tell me about it.
KM: That would be, um, capital O capital F capital F exclamation mark. A lot of people are going to say well, Black Flag was a bug spray. OFF! Is a bug spray.
IH: Oh no…
KM: Black Flag wasn’t a bug spray. Black Flag was a flag of anarchy and piracy. And do what you want. And don’t conform to all of their rules. I mean, there are a few rules that are good, that we’ve gotta live by…
IH: Sure, I’m thinking that’s just morality I guess, you know?
KM: OFF! Basically rose up out of a really, what I would call, a pathetic situation. Um, we were ofrignally working on a new Circle Jerks album. The first Circle Jerks album in about 14 years.
IH: Yeah, no kidding, wow.
KM: And we were about two weeks from going into the studio to lay down some tracks. Let’s go in and let’s blow up, this isn’t going to be some month long things where we’re going to do triple guitar overdubs or “Oh that cymbal doesn’t sound right, we’re going to need to go rerecord that cymbal.” We weren’t going to be doing any of that. The idea was to, like, go in on a Friday, leave on Monday with everything mixed and ready to go.
IH: Wow. Everybody was on board for that? Greg…?
KM: No, see what happened was the word went out because Greg said, “well, Bad Religion’s leaving on the Warp Tour, we’ve gotta record the record before I leave on the Warp Tour.”
IH: Ah, ok.
KM: So now all of the sudden it’s all based on his Bad Religion schedule. See, and the beauty of OFF! is that we’re a new band, and I don’t have to…I don’t have my life dictated to me by another band.
KM: Which is… that’s a beautiful thing.
IH: So what you’re getting to is The Circle Jerks, the new album, turned into OFF! because of that, because you were like, “I wanna get this record done, I want to go out and play, and have fun and do my craft without having to wait on another band.”
KM: Well, we have a producer who is cracking the whip. A younger guy who’s like, “No. The song you brought to the rehearsal space is not good enough to be on a Circle Jerks record.” So all of a sudden, feelings are being hurt. So he’s basically, and I really love this, become a bit of a dictator. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So we’ve always been sort of the guys that just done whatever we felt like doing. As all of this progresses along, it’s like all of these excuses come out like, “Well no, he’s arrogant. He’s egotistical. He’s overbearing.” And in the process, I’m learning more and more about the guys I’ve been playing in this band with, and it’s like, “You know what? I’m really soured on this whole situation.”
IH: So it’s kind of a combination of a lot of things that sort of stopped it in its tracks.
KM: Um, I actually got a phone call from one of the guys and he said, “Look, we know you’re going to quit based on our decision, but we’re firing Dimitri.” And I said, “You know what? You’re right. I didn’t do all this work on a Circle Jerks album to have you tell me that, you know, that you don’t like the songs or, you know, one day you like the songs and the next day you don’t.” And you know, these guys are making all these excuses, they’re pointing these fingers at him and now all of a sudden we’re working with a guy who’s an amazing songwriter. He’s recorded and produced records of his own. I’ve worked with him in the past. That’s the reason I was gung ho and totally out of my mind with excitement. And two weeks before we were supposed to go in and record they just said, “Well we just don’t want to work with Dimitri.” And you know I don’t need all of that. I was focused on writing these songs. And that’s where OFF! came from.
IH: Do you, and this is a hard question, do you think there’s a defining LA sound? You know, it’s such an eclectic place, I know it’s such a weird question, but is there an LA sound? Is there something that’s just born here, you know?
KM: My answer to that question would be probably a very large “no” when it comes to an LA sound because of the makeup of the city. Because there are so many different people, so many different cultures, I don’t really hear a definite defining LA sound, no. I guess what I would do is I would use the, what I call the second wave of LA punk as an example, where you had The Bags, you had The Eyes, you had Dickies, you had Fear, you had the Germs, you had The Flesheaters, Screamers, Weirdos, Controllers. If you listen to all of those bands, they ALL sound different. They all have their own personalities. It’s not a horizontal thing.
KM: And because of that, there’s no defining sound. I mean, maybe it was energetic, maybe it was angry. Maybe it was sped up, maybe it was amped up, maybe it was caffeined up…
IH: Right. Or just under the “punk” title.
KM: Maybe it’s because we live close to all of these roads and streets and alleyways and then all of the sudden you’ve got the freeway, you know, you’ve got the helicopters flying overhead.
IH: (Laughs) Lots of zig-zagging.
KM: You’ve got LAX, you know? Sped up. Maybe that could be part of the defining LA sound, I don’t know. I think I would just be reaching, I would be grasping at something there.
IH: It’s almost like there’s points about this city to cause bands to do a certain thing, you know? You know what I mean?
KM: We didn’t have any punk rock bands come out of Laurel Canyon.
IH: There ya go. And that’s a whole different feeling, right there, it’s still Los Angeles, but…
KM: That whole Laurel Canyon feeling like Love and the Byrds and even Frank Zappa and Buffalo Springfield. And that’s going back to the 60s, but you know. Probably because everything’s so spread out, and I guess that would probably be a good way, if there is an LA sound, it’s not a definitive sound, it’s spread out because of the suburbs. You’ve got the South Bay, you’ve got The Valley, somebody lives up on a hill, and somebody lives next to a landfill…
IH: Right. And that is, that’s the sound. It may well be. Speaking of sounds. Wanna go play a song?
IH: Aw come on (laughs).
With a huge knowledge about rock n’ roll along with a vast music collection. Keith’s own musical history is a part of that very fabric. Off, Circle Jerks and Black Flag were just some of his contributions to this.
One of the veterans of Punk Rock has done it again with his new band OFF! You can watch Keith’s interview with Ian Harrower about the music and life in the South Bay. How bands like Black Flag and the Circles Jerks started and where that led him to starting OFF!