Where He Needs To Be

Legendary punk frontman Keith Morris seems revived by OFF!

It's 2012, and famously dreadlocked punk-rock frontman Keith Morris hasn't slowed down one bit. And he still has a lot to say.

"I've never had a schedule this full and busy in all of my years of doing this," Morris said during a recent phone interview. "I'm (almost) 57, and it feels great."

What's keeping Morris so busy is the recent popularity of his blazing new hardcore band, OFF! Forget the dreaded term "supergroup"; OFF! is a powerhouse containing four able-minded gentlemen with their own punk pedigrees. The group not only features the ex-lead singer of the trailblazing hardcore pioneers Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, but also Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) on bass, Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From the Crypt/Hot Snakes) behind the drums, and Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) on guitar.

OFF!, along with the reunited hardcore veterans Negative Approach and three other bands, will be playing at The Rock on Saturday, Sept. 15.

It may be run of the mill now, but once upon a time, punk rock was dangerous, and no band epitomized danger more than Hermosa Beach, Calif.'s Black Flag. Formed in 1976 by guitar-player Greg Ginn, Black Flag set the stage for American hardcore, beefing up the tones of punk rock and writing songs about rage, alienation and police brutality. Their concerts were as chaotic as they are mythical; legions of Los Angeles police officers arriving in full riot gear looking to break up the show and bust a few heads were not an uncommon occurrence. Keith Morris was the first of several singers—the most famous, of course, being Black Flag's longest-lasting frontman, the jack-of-all trades Henry Rollins.

Morris left the band because of creative differences with Ginn. According to Morris, "The guys in Black Flag were really into practicing, like all the time. I had other things to do, like alcohol and drugs."

Soon after leaving Black Flag, Morris formed the Circle Jerks, taking Greg Hetson, the guitar-player from Red Cross, with him. (Hetson's old band was forced to change the spelling to Redd Kross due to a threatened lawsuit by the humanitarian institution.) For more than two decades, the Circle Jerks pummeled slam-dancing audiences with their fast, fun and whiplash-inducing anthems. Morris, almost always with a Budweiser firmly gripped in his hand, was a consummate showman, barking out lyrics in a machine-gun staccato one second, and stopping the song to scold a rowdy audience the next.

Hetson soon started pulling double duty by joining up with fellow SoCal band Bad Religion. Morris sobered up, and by the dawn of the '90s, the band went on hiatus, swimming to the surface here and there with the occasional live reunion.

It was out of the ashes of a proposed new Circle Jerks album in 2009 that OFF! came into being. After enlisting Dimitri Coats to produce and help write the new album, Morris found himself at odds with the rest of the band. Finding the new material not up to snuff, Coats firmly told the band: "These songs aren't good enough to be on a Circle Jerks album." With egos and tempers running hot, the other members decided to end the project. While still trying to chip away at what he and Coats had already worked on, a revelation came to Morris on a hot summer night: While Coats was playing guitar, he hit a certain chord that sent Keith into something he hadn't felt in a long time.

"What he played took me back to where I came from and where I wanted to be again," Morris said, in his laid-back, hint-of-the-beach tone. "Sometimes, bands don't go where they need to be; they get stuck and continue to do the same thing." At the end of the night, Morris gave Coats some homework: Nervous Breakdown, the first Black Flag EP.

Soon after, a mold was formed, and Morris and Coats recruited McDonald and Rubalcaba to help flesh it out.

"These guys know their stuff, and there are a lot of different influences going on," Morris says before rattling off numerous bands: "The Saints. The Damned. The Kinks. Kiss. Hawkwind."

OFF! made their live debut at the South by Southwest Music festival in Austin, Texas, and afterward went straight to work on an EP. That EP, along with three others, was released by Vice Records, the often controversial and polarizing Vice magazine's record label, in late 2010. When asked about the band's decision to sign with Vice, Morris said, "Yeah, we got some flack from those with less-than-open minds. But you know what? Vice magazine isn't just a trendy, hipster magazine. They have some of the best photojournalists working for them; the articles are always genuinely interesting; and all you need to do is flip past the first few fashion ads to discover that. I don't understand that mindset. I want my world to be wide-open."

Featuring cover art by the reclusive Raymond Pettibon, the artist who lent his stark handiwork to the majority of Black Flag's releases and fliers, the collection, titled simply First Four EPs, is a blistering mash of urgent fury and pure "piss-off" attitude. With each song clocking in around the minute mark, their point is made quickly and sharply. You wouldn't be in the wrong to think that Morris hasn't sounded this alert and alive since the Circle Jerks were pissed off at the denizens of "Beverly Hills" or advocating a "Coup d'Etat."

OFF! released a full-length, self-titled album this year, again with cover art by Pettibon. Tracks like "I Got News for You," "Toxic Box" and "Borrow and Bomb" are short, sizzling and intense; you get the feeling that if any of these tracks went past 1:50, the band would self-annihilate.

"Jet Black Girls" is a particularly resonating number. "It's an ode to the girls that hung out at the old punk club in Hollywood, The Masque," Morris explains. "It's about that whole scene. And, you know, smoking 'coco puffs' with Derf Scratch, the bass player from Fear."

Asked if he had any memories of Tucson, Morris said, "Yeah. ... It involved three trailers out in the middle of the desert, a certain substance I was looking for, and making the show just on time."