The singer for the punk supergroup--if such a thing can exist--sticks to the least confining labels.
Keith Morris is no stranger to an aggressive soundscape. “I live under flight paths of emergency helicopters,” he says from his home in Los Feliz near the corner of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, “one of busiest intersections in Los Angeles.” He has a movie theater between him and the traffic, but there’s a fire station around the corner. “There’s always something going on, but the energy is not a positive energy.”
Not surprisingly, Morris’ music has been a sonic translation of that landscape, whether in punk bands Black Flag or The Circle Jerks. He’s now 59 and has yet another hard band, OFF!, with guitarist Dimitri Coats, bassist Steven McDonald from Redd Kross, and on the tour that brings them to Siberia Sunday, drummer Dale Crover from The Melvins sitting in for Rocket from the Crypt’s Mario Rubalcaba.
In conversation, he can’t suppress his wiry energy. He patiently admires The Gang of Four’s Andy Gill and tells the story of getting so drunk on hurricanes on his first trip to New Orleans in the early ‘80s that the drummer had to sing at the show that night. But he sounds like he could shed that patience in a moment and become the attack weapon he has always been on record—easily the sonic equal of any guitarist he’s played with. OFF! is a pure blast of punk energy that communicates clearly, intensely and quickly, dispensing with 17 songs in less than a half-hour on the group’s third album, Wasted Years.
Where he lives feeds Morris’ animus, from the culture to the traffic and everything connected to it. “I walk quite a bit for health reasons and it’s my form of protest,” he says. “I’m not going to stand in front of the Exxon oil refinery or chain myself to the fence because I’m not going to get thrown in jail and go through all that rigamarole. The way I”m going to protest is, I keep my driving to a minimum. I try to walk everywhere I go.”
Morris describes himself as a 17-year-old among 14- and 15-year-olds “that call themselves adults,” and he still holds to punk’s laissez-faire, “take me as I am” ethos. Should you watch your language around kids? They’re going to hear it anyway. The car he barely drives? A piece of crap. “My ego’s not that big that I have to pull up in a bright, shiny car like Hey, look at me. Fuck that. If I’ve got to impress you with the car that I drive, go fuck yourself.”
He’s around kids these days not because he has any of his own, but because the other members of OFF! are dads. Their home lives mean that OFF! can’t be the road warriors that Morris’ previous bands were, and they’re not going to tour in a van with no heat or AC for months at a time as was once the norm. “One of the guys in the band, his son starts kindergarten in a few weeks and he wants to be there.”
Talk of playing punk rock makes Morris itchy.
“I’m going to ditch the genre,” he says. “You pick up the guitar and you do whatever you’re going to do with it. What if you do Chuck Berry? What if you do John Fahey? What if you just strum and be folky and be light and be merry? What if you’re angry and you’re in your garage with whatever guitar and amplification you have? Whether you’re surrounded by other musicians or not musicians. There are a lot of non-musicians who’ve made great music. A great example would be Brian Eno. Or Pink Flag by a band called Wire. They created their own sound; they created their own vibe. Before I’m a hard rock or hardcore or a punk rock or a thrasher or a this or that, I’m a human being. Before I’m a Republican or a Democrat I’m a human being.”
When he and Greg Ginn started Black Flag, Morris says, “The only map we had was a handful of his riffs.” Morris began writing lyrics to go with a few that Ginn had, and they went through bass players and drummers until they finally found the lineup that clicked. They had no notion of what they wanted to be. “The whole vibe was freedom, an angry freedom.”
Today, families and responsibilities make it hard to be that free. OFF! can’t book a gig for tomorrow while a gig tonight and crash in someone’s basement like they once did. Morris will schlep gear if he has to, but he’s old enough to hope for people to handle that at the venue so he doesn’t have to. Fortunately, OFF! has played a lot of festival dates where stages have backlines so most bands only need to show up with guitars, cymbals and a snare.
When Morris tells old war stories, there’s a lot of fondness in his voice for driving from winter cold into summer heat with leftover pasta under a seat in the van, or practicing before and after shows in San Francisco, setting up, tearing down and moving the gear at least five times in the process. Musically, OFF! is in that tradition, but he’s not so committed to familiar ways that he’ll do the same old things blindly. When OFF! was looking for a label, Epitaph Records was interested. On paper, Epitaph made a lot of sense. It had a history of releasing L.A. punk music, and the label is owned by Brett Gurewitz from Bad Religion. “Bad Religion was like a baby brother band. Wherever we played, they played.”
But when another member of OFF! asked about what Epitaph would do to promote the band, the answer sounded familiar. “The first words out of his mouth were, You need to have Keith contact Kevin Lyman, who’s one of the guys who started the Warped Tour. That was not what we wanted to hear,” Morris says. Playing with bands who’d learned from records he played on and turned the music into a reproducible style didn’t appeal to anybody in OFF! “We wanted to do the opposite of that.” Instead, they’ve played on less likely bills with The Cure and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
“As a hardcore band, these are the bands you don’t play with,” he says. “Fuck that. Nobody’s going to tell us who were supposed to play with. We go out and play these festivals and play with all these cool bands. They’re great bands. We’re going to some really amazing places. We’re having the time of our lives.”