With very little prompting, Keith Morris has a lot to say about Canada.
“I love your country!” he exclaims over the phone, as he and his beloved band OFF! prepare for a tour that brings them to Montreal and Toronto this weekend. “I love Vancouver. Calgary is pretty interesting. I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time in Edmonton, of all places. The flatlands of Edmonton, y’know? ... Montreal and Toronto are two of my favourite cities in the world. I’m very fortunate. I’ve got one of the greatest jobs in the world. All I have to do is get into a vehicle and fly somewhere and I get to see all of these beautiful cities. Heck, I’m 56 years old; my adventure’s just getting started! I’m in a new band and I get to go to all of these places!”
An original member of influential punk bands Black Flag and Circle Jerks, Morris started OFF! with guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides), bassist Steven Shane McDonald (Redd Kross) and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From the Crypt/Hot Snakes), and in 2010 they blew everyone’s minds with their acclaimed First Four EPs. This past May, OFF! released an excellent, self-titled full-length on Vice Records and they’ve just been having a ball in general, writing fast, economical punk songs and not fussing over them too much.
It’s quite a contrast from how things ended with Circle Jerks, which Morris founded in 1979. The band has taken a few breaks since it formed, and it all but collapsed in 2010 after a reunion record, overseen by Coats, went awry.
“My former band had the knack to ruin things, just make terrible decisions,” Morris explains. “Everything started to go south. It’s like, I’m 56 years old, why do I want to stick around for all of these terrible decisions that are being made? They all affect me. It’s like I’m losing sleep at night. I’m not supposed to lose sleep over my band, over creativity. I’m supposed to worry about it a bit here and there and be frustrated, depressed, angry and energetic because those are part of the ingredients that go in the pot to create all of this stuff.
“So, all of a sudden it’s ‘Keith, we’re making a decision and we know that you’re gonna quit the band but we’re not working with Dimitri anymore,’” he continues. “And I told them, ‘Yes, you’re 100 per cent correct. I’m no longer a member of this.’ And I was fuming. I was boiling. If any of them had been standing in the room, I probably would’ve tried to attack them. Granted, there was one of them I wouldn’t have tried to attack because he would’ve folded me in half and tied me into a pretzel and rolled me down the nearest hill.”
When Morris collected himself, he realized he didn’t really need to quit Circle Jerks since all of its other members were so busy in other musical ventures that Morris was often waiting on them to return home. So instead, when things came to a head, it turned into this liberating moment where Morris felt compelled to start a new band called OFF! with people as dedicated to his songs as he was.
“Granted, I’m in a band with three dads and they have those responsibilities and I fully back that, and one of them plays in four other bands," Morris explains. "But he understands the importance of this band and makes more than enough time for us to be able to do what we’re doing, like tour with the Refused and play Montreal and Toronto. I’m going to places and doing things that I wouldn’t have done with my other band. You and I would not be having this conversation if I was still in my other band.”
One of the reasons why fans have so embraced OFF! is because the "supergroup" has its footing in the pioneering hardcore punk of the 1970s that Morris himself was a part of establishing. In fact, when he and the much younger Coats first began collaborating, Morris was so taken by Coats’s primitive guitar tone (elicited from a cheap Hagstrom guitar and a single-speaker Marshall practice amp that Morris found at a yard sale), he suggested that Coats go listen to Black Flag’s debut release, the 1978 EP Nervous Breakdown, for inspiration.
“There’s a dirty, impure, metallic quality to the sound of the guitar,” Morris says, by way of describing his band’s sonic realm. “It’s not one of these overthought, ‘I’m gonna play through this and run it through that.’ We stumbled upon it.
“As a band, when you go to record, you plug in your equipment and you start playing,” he continues emphatically. “And that is what we do. It’s not about, ‘Well, I gotta take two weeks to figure out if I like that sound,’ like Metallica and their drum sound. Y’know, Lars Ulrich probably has the worst drum sound that anybody’s ever come up with.”
Another connection to the past exists in OFF!’s album artwork and iconography, which has all been designed by noted graphic illustrator Raymond Pettibon. The man behind the classic Black Flag logo and album covers, Pettibon has also worked with the likes of Minutemen, Sonic Youth and Foo Fighters.
“Well, he’s my friend and we’re all on the same wavelength and appreciate the same things,” Morris says of Pettibon. “He obviously chooses to work with people of high calibre. Now granted, I’m not a big fan of the Foo Fighters. I certainly appreciate Dave Grohl when he was a member of Scream and Nirvana. But I’ve known Raymond since junior high school, since he was about 13 years old. His sister is one of the reasons why I play music today and I go really far back with him. His aesthetic fits perfectly with what we’re doing.”
What OFF! is doing is writing great songs that are catchy, funny and angry, and often seem to be close to calls to arms. Morris is an opinionated, clever, wise man by now, and he has a point of view that doesn’t pussyfoot around the darker sides of humankind, particularly in his own country.
“It’s all just part of the American folk music,” he says simply. “I was reading about Woody Guthrie this morning and he was certainly an acoustic folk artist who got into the protest for the common, working man. That’s basically how I look at myself – it’s all about the protest. Maybe that one kid hears something and it creates some kind of machinery inside his head and maybe they do something really good.
“Because the worlds starts with you. We can all sit around and complain and write the editor and call into the radio station and do all of the online protest but, the fact of the matter is, the world starts at your feet. If you’re a good person and you make your world good, hopefully it spreads to the next person and hopefully that person does the same thing.”
OFF! is on tour right now with the reunited Refused, which brings them to Montreal on July 21 and to Toronto for a two-night stand on July 22 and 23.
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on Jul 20, 2012