Keith Morris and Steven McDonald Explain Off!'s Rise From The Ashes of The Circle Jerks.

Categories: Interviews
OFF-Band-Press-Photo.jpg
Off!
From the Raymond Pettibon album art, which invokes his classic album covers for his brother Greg Ginn's band, Black Flag, to the thundering downstrokes, rubbery machine gun rhythms and brash spirit, Off! is a time machine to the early days of West Coast punk. And the band boasts two illustrious alumni of that era: Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald and singer Keith Morris, who was the founding singer of hardcore legends Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. 

In attempting to bridge the 15-year gap since the last Circle Jerks album, a kerfuffle broke out between producer Dmitri Coats and guitarist Greg Hetson over the quality of his contributions. The resultant tension ended the recording sessions, and broke up the band. But it was a creative destruction; it set up the creation of Off!, with Coats, McDonald, Morris and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, Pinback) deciding to join forces. 

In December of last year they released the 16-song, 18-minute album, The First Four EPs. In anticipation of the band's performance at Sons of Hermann Hall tonight, we spoke with Morris and McDonald separately by phone in their Los Angeles-area homes, where McDonald waxed poetic about the old days and Morris laid a Cleveland Steamer on the Circle Jerks' corpse.

Steven, I understand you first met Keith as a tween?
McDonald: Me and my older brother Jeff, we did Redd Kross together, and when we were starting our band, we weren't called Redd Kross yet. I was 11 and he was 14. There was a show in a neighboring town, Redondo Beach, with a band called Rhino 39. They were headlining a moose lodge, so we went to see Rhino 39 at the moose lodge in Redondo Beach, and there was this really obnoxious band opening for them called Black Flag. They must've had their Nervous Breakdown EP out, and there was a Hermosa Beach address on the back. So from there I reached out to them, and they were freaked out that not only were we so young but we were only a couple miles away from them, and they invited us to come down to their rehearsal space, which was this busted-out old church [out of which Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn started seminal hardcore label SST Records]. We kind of hung out with them, and we watched them rehearse. When they were done rehearsing, they handed us their instruments and basically said, "Let's hear what you guys can do." It was like an audition to hang out with them.

How do you look back at that time, which obviously proved to be a very impactful one on American underground music? And your band in particular, Redd Kross, along with the Adolescents and the Descendants, helped forge the template for pop-punk, which influences countless bands even today.
McDonald: Well, it's like it was just my experience. I was just really excited to be into something and to be very passionate about it. And it probably never really surprised me that it became influential because I when I discovered it I was like, "Oh, this is good stuff." But at the same time, everybody in their own little world probably has their own equivalent of that. And for whatever reason, that little scene that happened in that moment really sparked something and is remembered as special. So it's surprising, but I also feel like I lucked into it too. Just inheriting a certain geography. But, at the same time, me and my brother were real outsiders and weirdos for doing what we wanted. And I got beat up in junior high and stuff for being into punk rock. Like I said, we inherited the geography but it might have had an impact on us too, because there was a beachy vibe to what we were doing. We were just really big fans of '60s beach culture. Like in Redd Kross for instance, our first batch of songs included a song about Annette Funicello. And we liked that kind of '60s take on dance music and we were inspired by the Ramones who had their own sort of equivalent of that. But we put more of a southern California spin on it. Also, we're from the same town as the Beach Boys, Hawthorne.

How'd you get hooked up with Off!?
McDonald: Well, we've known Keith for 30 years. But Keith went off and did Circle Jerks with Ron and we went our way. And so there were probably a couple decades where we didn't see each other except just randomly, and we didn't keep up... so I go to SXSW and Keith was scouting for V2 at the time. And I had done some of that work too, so it was just kind of like, "Wow, we have all been through so many different phases," and then to reconnect with someone from that long ago was particularly fun and fascinating for me, because I was so young when I knew Keith. A lot has been written about that time, and people remember it their own way, but I remember it through - literally - the eyes of a child which I think is a pretty unique perspective, but my brain wasn't even fully cooked. So much was going on around me I didn't understand. It was fun for me just to shoot the shit and talk about old times, get an "adult" perspective and get reacquainted with these people that had a huge influence on me. And there was maybe that the Circle Jerks had some beef that was a million years old. So it's always good when water is way beyond the bridge. Some said that a lot of the Circle Jerks songs were composed of Black Flag and Redd Kross riffs, so there was beef back in the day. We just started chatting a lot. It was really good to see him, and I invited him to do this thing on this Turbonegro album I was producing. Then Keith was working on a new Circle Jerks album that Dmitri was producing - and a lot has been written about this - but that fell apart and Dmitri was relieved of his duties and Keith decided, "Well fuck that, I'm going to start a new band with Dmitri." So it was their brainchild, and then they put together their dream rhythm section. I guess me and Mario were on the top of the list. They reached out, and it was like, "That sounds like a lot of fun, let's do it. But we're all grown ups here and I have a lot of other responsibilities." And it was like we're going to be very casual and see what happens. So that's how the whole thing has been and we've just gotten overwhelmingly positive response. So it's merited us doing things like touring and it's been fun.

I understand you've done a full circuit of European Festivals. It's got to be a positive thing for a band that's so fresh out of the box - though obviously you've been around the block before.
McDonald: All the more reason why we know how unique it is. We've been around long enough to know these kind of opportunities don't just fall on your lap easily or often. We did Coachella and we did Pitchfork in Chicago we did a whole European tour in August doing festivals and our own shows. We've done quite a bit and done quite a few live shows now. And we're starting to get a lot of accomplishment under our belt. [Punk rock] is something that I've moved on from in a lot of ways, but it's in my DNA. And when they approached me they were talking about making music that was trying to reinvoke the spirit of that church where Keith and I met. I was very moved about what they were doing. The other cool thing about that time was that all those bands were really different too. All the bands we'd play with the one thing they all related on, we were all freaks, misfits and outsiders. But musically it wasn't that Redd Kross sounded like Black Flag, it was that we were inspired by their energy and so I felt like you want to do a modern take or take a stab at invoking that sprit, I think I would know how to do that. And that's how that kind of happened. We got in the room and we did it very well. I've been around long enough to know that it's rare when there's a chemistry. It's also really rare when you get paid for doing something you know you really do well and that you enjoy. So I'm always game to find more ways for that combination to happen.

What are you thoughts on those early days of American hardcore, Keith?
Keith Morris:
I liken it to something that's been going on since the beginning of time. We don't like you. We don't want to be like you. So this is what we're going to do. Of course, we didn't know we were doing anything that would be as earth-moving as it was/is. A lot of us just did it because we didn't know any better. We were doing it out of necessity. We were doing it because we didn't know any better. Me, Greg Ginn, Chuck Dukowski and Robo Valverde didn't sit down in a room look at each other and say we're tweeting something here that nobody has ever created. We're creating something here that's going to set a blueprint and we're eventually going to jump in a van and go driving from city to city creating a map for all these bands that are still using the same map. We didn't know we were doing that. We were just a bunch of guys who wanted to make a bunch of noise.

So how did making a Circle Jerks album lead to starting Off!?
Morris:
My other band went to [Epitaph label chief/Bad Religion guitarist] Brett Gurewitz to see if he would produce our band and in that process Brett Gurewitz said pretty much the same thing that Rick Rubin told Metallica - go back and listen to your first couple records. That's what you need to do. That's what everybody remembers. They don't remember your last record, because the last record was really mediocre. He didn't say that but that's what he was implying, and he didn't even need to imply that. We knew that. Anyways, Brett made a suggestion and nobody was even really contributing. Well, early on everybody was contributing. One of the things that I really appreciate about Dmitri in the producer role was the fact that he would say this song is not good enough to be on a Circle Jerks album. Because he didn't listen to the last two or thee Circle Jerks albums, he was listening to the first two or three albums. And he would tell the guys in the band, "We've got to do something else. We need to write some more songs." All of a sudden, the guitar player [Greg Hetson] makes the comment, "I'm getting ready to go out on tour [with his other band] Bad Religion." 

Dmitri and I found ourselves in a very desperate kind of situation. We were rubbing nickels. He's got a wife and a kid. And all of his bills. He was counting on being paid as the producer of this album and now he and I are writing songs in my living room because nobody else - maybe they wanted to participate, but they didn't want to participate because Dmitri was part of it. Because Dmitri had the balls to say "Your songs suck." He wouldn't say it like that. That's how I would say it. And that's why I wholeheartedly invited Dmitri into the picture because I knew that he's a great songwriter because I worked with him when I was working at V2 Records. I worded with his band the Burning Brides and I loved them. So I knew what Dmirti was capable of doing. And the other guys just hemmed and hawed and came up with whatever excuses. Now, granted, I'm still friends with a couple of the guys in the band. They're my bros, but it's like, hey, when we're talking about what went down, I don't have to paint a pretty here's Bambi, Dumbo, and Walt Disney white limo scenario where there's a happy ending. Our happy ending is that we're still friends.

I want to thank them for allowing me to be in my living room at 11 a.m. on a Monday morning talking to you because of something else that I'm doing. That's because they weren't willing to see it through and they did everything they could to sabotage the process. Consequently, we don't really exist as a band anymore. Maybe somewhere down the road we'll all meet in a room and tell a few jokes and everybody will be dropping their pills and drinking their drinks or smoking whatever it is they're smoking and maybe the lightbulb will go off over our heads and we'll say maybe we can get in a room and bang out some new songs or something like that. But, at this time, I'm pretty much doing what all the other guys that are in the band are - off doing other things.

Well, the new album sounds great, and you certainly sound reinvigorated.
Morris:
That's what it's all about. I can't get up there and just go through the motions. With my last band, it seemed like that's what we were doing and that would've been a good excuse to ditch out on that. Pull up to the road stop and while everyone is gassing up just walk off and buy the ticket for the bus.

Off!, Cerebral Ballzy, Retox performs tonight at Sons of Hermann Hall.

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Sons of Hermann Hall

3414 Elm St., Dallas, TX

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