Off! singer Keith Morris talks about playing punk in his fifties
If you’ve seen the Red Hot Chili Peppers play lately, you’ve seen singer Anthony Kiedis wearing a hat emblazoned with the logo Off!. The name refers to the fine punk band headed up by Keith Morris. We recently called Morris, who previously sang with the Circle Jerks and Black Flag, at his L.A. home for an article we’re writing for a weekly paper. Here’s more of our conversation.
Talk about what first drew you to punk rock?
We listened to quite a few different types of music. To say “you’re punk rock so that must mean you listen to punk” is wrong. We pretty much tripped and fell and dusted our shoulders off and picked ourselves up. We were doing it. We didn’t know what we were doing, and we didn’t care. We were just excited. We were learning songs and playing parties in people’s basements. We were glad to be doing it. We didn’t know what it was. We didn’t know that we were creating what we were creating and that we were starting a genre of music. We didn’t pay attention to any of that. We were playing a party in a living room on Friday night and we didn’t have time be sitting around thinking about what we were creating.
Did the social surroundings have something to do with the type of music you were playing?
We were in [Hermosa Beach], a nice little laid back town on the ocean. Granted, there were some aggro characters in our town—the guys who were surfing and the guys who were riding their skateboards. During the winter, when it was too cold to surf, they would put on all their wool and go in the mountains and ski. There was an athleticism, but not your typical jock mentality. It’s not like, “I’m doing this because this is where the hot chicks are.” It was a very gungho, barfly, Kamikaze attitude. It’s like “There it is; let’s do it.” Let’s not stand here and fold our arms and think about the different ways to do it. You just did it. If you wiped out or scraped your knees or sprained your wrist, so be it. That was part of our mentality even though we weren’t those guys. We did some of that stuff. We loved bodysurfing and I body-boarded for a while. I surfed long enough to realize that I’m not into getting up at four in the morning when it’s black out to put on a wetsuit and go out in 30 degree water. I’d rather get another couple of hours of sleep and then go to school. That being where we’re from, that’s one of the things we brought to the party when we started playing Hollywood. They were living their lives based on what was coming out of London: Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned. It leaned more toward fashion. We were hand- me-downs. Like Mike Watt [of Firehose and the Minutemen fame] says, we were flying the flannel. That’s what we were about. We brought a new flavor to the party and a whole new party favor to the situation.
Why did you only play with Black Flag for a year?
It had stopped being fun and we had stopped playing shows and we were spending more time in the rehearsal space than anywhere else. We knew those songs. We were playing 16 songs and working another four. They were burned out on me because I liked to party. I had developed a couple of habits that weren’t good and were ruining my life. I learned later on that one of the guys was trying to force me out of the band anyway. I have no regrets. I left when I left and was fortunate to start up with a whole new band.
The transition to the Circle Jerks seems like it was pretty smooth.
It was a very smooth transition and we started playing to fairly large crowds, plus all of the people who had gathered into our cult were familiar with [guitarist] Greg [Hetson], who was in Red Kross. Part of it was easy. We were also moving into a situation where we’re getting banned from the clubs as fast as we could play them because of all of the extracurricular activities. We had these more more athletic kids coming from the beach, the Valley and the Inland Empire and a lot of the Hollywood people were pretty bummed out. We couldn’t worry about that.
When you’re in a band, it’s like your baby or your child. Sometimes, you don’t know any better. You don’t have the wherewithal to put your foot down and get real about your life.
The Circle Jerks disbanded in 1989. What brought the band back together in 1994?
I don’t pay attention to the make-ups and break-ups. We had a member who made a conscious decision to join another band and make that band into his full-time band. That should have been when the band was over. When you’re in a band, it’s like your baby or your child. Sometimes, you don’t know any better. You don’t have the wherewithal to put your foot down and get real about your life.
When you were working on a new Circle Jerks album, how did Off! form?
We were not that far away from recording a new Circle Jerks record. One of the guys had said we needed to make the record before he left for Warped Tour. We had no problem with that. At that point, we had 8 or 9, maybe even 10 songs. Dmitri [Coats], who I started off with who was supposed to produce the album, said we had to write some songs. We didn’t have enough material. The other guys were hemming and hawing and came up with their excuses and fired him. In the process, I quit and when I had my epiphany and collected my thoughts and calmed down and didn’t want to smash a television set over the guy who was getting ready to go on the Warped tour’s head, I realized that they all played in other bands. Why would I quit a band that I started and walk away from it? I’ll just start another band. It’s been very successful. We’ve been extremely busy. I’ve never been this busy. We just get in the van and go to all these other cities and see what awaits us out there. That might mean playing for five people in a metal airplane hanger in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 120 degrees. It might mean fighting with rednecks from Alabama who are beating up the kids in front of the stage. I got my face punched in after I chased a couple of guys and told them, “Don’t fuck with these kids.” Of course, one of the guys took a swing at me. A roadie was standing right in front of me. Rather than try to fend off the blow, I got punched in the face.
Talk about that hat that Anthony Kiedis has been wearing.
Anthony got that hat from [Chili Pepper guitarist] Josh Klinghoffer. He’s the new boy on the block. He happens to be a friend. I’ve known Josh for 15 years. I knew him when he was 16 years old and just old enough to drive a car. It’s not like we’re paying someone. I know them since the beginning of the Chili Peppers. Flea was in a band with [guitarist] Hillel [Slovak]. Flea wanted to play in Black Flag when [bassist] Kira [Roessler] left. Flea played in Fear and the Circle Jerks. He played in Public Image Ltd for 15 minutes. He auditioned and the guys wanted him. He told them he didn’t intend to join the band . . . he just wanted to pass the audition.
Why are the Off! songs so short?
Well, we have all of these people out there with this attention deficit program in their heads. They get on the Internet and all this information is there for them. They’re bouncing around and doing all this kind of stuff.
Talk about what Mario Rubalcaba brings to the band.
He brings that certain physicality. Because he’s a Latino, he brings that Latin rumba, mumba, macarena, sexy danciness to the music. I’m not opposed to that because I’ve seen so many crashers and bashers who don’t know how to swing and they don’t really know how to rock. They just know to beat shit up. He’s not one of those drummers and he’s got a real hot girlfriend.
How are you still playing music now that you’re in your fifties?
Maybe because I’m stupid and I don’t know any better. Maybe because it’s all I know. I cite this as one of my main reasons: going back to the Warped Tour. We see and hear all of these bands and the majority of them shouldn’t exist . . . the world is cluttered with all of this mediocrity and I’m not some great guy who should be pointing fingers and saying this is crap. What I might think is crap might be some guy’s diamond ring or his girlfriend. There’s a beauty to this scenario. There are a zillion bands out there and anyone can record an album if they have a computer. We’re flooded with a lot of people with the wherewithal to make music on their computer. A lot of the stuff is beyond mediocre or shouldn’t exist in the first place, but there are gems.
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