"Maybe Jesus wanted it to happen," says Keith Morris, explaining how his new band, OFF!, was formed.
Off! With Steel Tigers of Death, Deadkill. Neumos, 925 E. Pike St., 709-9442, neumos.com. $12. All ages. 7 p.m., Sun., April 24.
He's kidding, of course. But somehow a simple question about his band's formation spiraled into a half-dozen tangents—Morris is a notorious talker—ranging from creative ways to answer a journalist's dull question to the awfulness of the Japanese tsunami to the humorlessness of religious pamphlets. The latter brought Morris' monologue to our local Mars Hill Church and their concept of Jesus as a tough guy, before ultimately swinging back full circle with Morris claiming he is anything but a follower, which is what really led him to form this new band and to the recording of his most powerful music in years.
"Ultimately, I was being forced into a situation by a bunch of other guys," he says. "And I don't like being put into that kind of position."
The "other guys" would be his longtime bandmates in the Circle Jerks, the legendary hardcore band Morris formed in 1979 after leaving Black Flag, the also-legendary hardcore band he co-founded in 1976 with fellow Hermosa Beach, Calif., native Greg Ginn. According to Morris, his Circle Jerks bandmates were dissatisfied with his choice to hire Dimitri Coats, a guitarist for hard-rock band Burning Brides, as producer. "They said, 'Well, he's not punk-rock,' " says Morris. "Well, what the fuck is punk rock, anyway?"
After some finger-pointing and shouting, his old bandmates gave him an ultimatum—they would be firing Coats—which left Morris flabbergasted, since the Circle Jerks was his band to begin with. "I mean, what're they gonna do, go hire another singer? You fucking morons! You assholes!" he says.
Unlike his bandmates, Morris liked what Coats wanted to do—strip the Circle Jerks' music back to the raw brutality of their early-'80s recordings, Group Sex and Wild in the Streets. Coats was encouraging Morris to go back and listen to those albums, but after the breakup fiasco, Morris had little interest in revisiting that part of his past. After a night of listening to Link Wray and the Ramones in Morris' living room, he instructed Coats to go home and listen to the first Black Flag EP, 1977's four-song, five-minute assault, Nervous Breakdown. The next day, Coats picked up his guitar and started jamming. He played all down strokes, fast, angry, and aggressive like a knife to the chest—in short, the style of playing that Ginn had pioneered in Black Flag.
"I'm like, 'Yes! That's where I wanna be right now!' " says Morris. "This is my chance to relive some of my old glory from Black Flag. It's like, imagine if I had been allowed to bring some of my musical inspiration to Black Flag."
Morris loved being in Black Flag. As Michael Azerrad chronicled in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life, the group not only pioneered hardcore punk, it also pioneered the DIY approach to indie rock. But it was Ginn's band, and everyone played by Ginn's rules. Morris needed his own outlet, which is partly why he quit to form the Circle Jerks. He also quit because he was an admitted "alcoholic and a cokehead," which was the cause of much dysfunction within the group. But there was a desperation in the music he made with Black Flag; each song was played as if it was absolutely necessary. There were things about life in this society that needed to be said but weren't, so they said them. And it wouldn't have been possible without Ginn's guitar—sharp, aggressive chords that Morris says were the musical equivalent of screaming "Fuck! You! Now!"
At 55, Morris was at a point when he needed to hear that sound again. Coats delivered on guitar, and the songs came pouring out. Soon they were joined by Red Kross bassist Steven McDonald and Rocket From the Crypt/Earthless drummer Mario Rubalcaba. Together they recorded a batch of songs that amount to some of the most vital punk rock made by anyone in a long time. Released in December 2010 as a set of four 7-inch singles, OFF!'s debut, The First Four EPs, reignites the spirit of American hardcore but somehow resists becoming a nostalgia trip. The songs come fast and furious, with Morris ranting and raving breathlessly about everything from our elitist government ("I Don't Belong") to the stupidity of people who spout opinions without really knowing what they're talking about ("Full of Shit").
Much like Black Flag's Nervous Breakdown, The First Four EPs is a rough, dirty record, sounding as if it had been recorded on cassette in a single, sweaty L.A. afternoon. This brings it a fervor that might have been lost on a more polished recording. Still, it seems no amount of studio wizardry could've diluted Morris' rage. If he was pissed off in his 20s, he's seriously pissed off now. On "Upside Down," he sings "You wonder why I'm always SCREAMING!", and the effect is profound when you consider he's now middle-aged—three decades spent screaming his head off, and shit is still fucked up in the world.
Morris says he's often asked why he's still so angry. As an explanation, he tells of his apartment on one of the busiest corners in L.A. All day long, in their cars, people are constantly cutting each other off in the intersection, blaring their horns, giving each other the finger, and shouting obscenities. People drive cars that cost a fortune down a street where the homeless beg for spare change. Amid all this urban chaos, a man appears on that corner every Friday to jump up and down while holding up a sign that says "Peace."
"I'm an advocate of that guy," says Morris. "I love that he's out there doing that. I wish I could be out there with him. But I'm a pessimist. I don't see the light at the end of this tunnel. My lyrics are observations. I just have to call it like I see it."