By Bill Adams
Some bands just can’t recognize an opportunity when it’s staring them in the face, and no singer is more aware of that fact than Keith Morris. For the last three decades, Morris has fronted punk rock stalwarts the Circle Jerks and both revelled in the praise and weathered the storms of critical disapproval with them but, when work began on a new album in late 2009, Morris became dissatisfied with how the sessions were going. He had written some new songs with [Burning Brides singer/guitarist and proposed producer for the new Circle Jerks album] Dmitri Coats but, when the rest of his other band turned those songs down, Morris boldly elected to put together OFF! – a new band with something to prove.
“I should thank the guys in my other band for making OFF! what it is and providing us with the opportunity that they did,” jokes singer Keith Morris wryly as he lays out the story of how OFF! came to be. “Brett Gurewitz had signed the Circle Jerks to Epitaph, and he said that we needed to listen to our first couple of records to try and recapture that kind of urgency, that kind of excitement and that kind of vibe. He wanted to see us get more electric stop being a bunch of burned out old punk rockers. I knew that; I needed to be taken back somewhere and, in our songwriting process, Dmitri busted out the time machine in the shape of a Hagstrom, half-wood, half-plastic guitar that wouldn’t stay in tune, run through a single-speaker Marshall practice combo.”
“One day he started whamming and jamming and, to me, I thought he’d tapped into just the thing we needed,” continues the singer excitedly. “He found something we were doing a long time ago – he found something when he was listening to the first couple of releases by my other band and I said, ‘Okay! Now we’re fuckin’ talking! Now we’re going to where we need to go!’ So he and I went off for coffee and a burrito and I explained to him, ‘Tonight … go and listen to the first Black Flag EP.’ He sort of shied away from the idea and said he’d heard it before and said he knew all about it, but the truth is that he never paid attention to it; he’d heard bands play “Nervous Breakdown,” which is like the most popular song off that first EP, but I told him to just listen to it and pay special attention to the second side. He came back the next day and it was like some kind of springboard; it was just one song after another! He listened to that EP and came back with, like, five songs and he and I just kept working like that.”
That initial inspiration lit the fuse but, according to Morris, it was when his other band missed their opportunity to work with the duo that the charge went off. “While we were working on the songs, I told him that we needed to have a Plan B if what we were doing didn’t fly with my other band so we compiled a list of people we wanted to play with,” explains the singer. “The list had two columns, ‘bass’ and ‘drums,’ and the musicians at the top of each list were the ones that were so excited about the situation that we didn’t have to go any further; Mario [ex-Rocket From The Crypt/Hot Snakes drummer Mario Rubalcaba –ed] ended up calling me back on the tip of a friend who had promoted one of his other band’s shows in Eagle Rock and, when I told him that Dmitri and I were starting a band, all he said was, ‘You tell me where to be, and I’ll drive down’ without having heard the music. Meanwhile, I had been tugging on Steven’s shirt tail to see if he was interested, but he didn’t seem all that excited about it until he found out that Mario was playing drums. At that point, the two guys he was playing with told him to just go play with us, and he’d be an idiot if he didn’t. He and I ran into each other a couple of weeks later and I gave him a CD with three guitar riffs on it that Dmitri had come up with in my living room. Again, it was just that crappy Hagstrom and that little Marshall speaker and it was pretty wild, but Steven obviously felt the vibe and called me a couple of days later saying, ‘Just tell me when we’re going to get together to rehearse.’”
Since those humble beginnings, OFF! has made the scenes take notice as they’ve crashed onto the punk and hardcore beachheads and retaining their old-school practices and doing things their own way, unapologetically. The band raised both eyebrows and intrigue when they appeared on Last Call with Carson Daly and made the most of their short-and-fast style by playing their first EP (four songs) in its’ entirety in under four minutes. The band has seen its’ debut seven-inch become sold out before it was even available on the strength of pre-orders alone, and the full First Four EPs have been incredibly well-received as well.
It’s easy enough to understand why listeners have gotten into OFF in listening to the First Four EPs, the vintage vibes first honed by SST’s original roster of artists springs out big as life from the music and slaps listeners right in the face right away, and remains the driving force behind all four EPs; the urgency of that first song becomes the rule that endures consistently here, is the driving force behind every moment and the adrenaline generated every step of the way proves to be infectious as all four members of the band just pour themselves into every micro-tone of every song. Selections including (but certainly not limited to) “Upside Down,” “Now I’m Pissed,” “Panic Attack,” “Crawl,” “Blast” and “Peace In Hermosa” will all just burn new paths through the minds of listeners as Morris, Coats, McDonald and Rubalcaba ignore every single “novel improvement” made to hardcore since 1984 and just play their music old-school in that adrenaline-fuelled and plainspoken, reactionary songwriting is the rule (check out lines like “Your high social caste/Privileged friends/You lure me in/But I can’t be your friend/Hit on Miss Liberty/Under the cherry tree/Drunk on hypocrisy/I’m standing in the shadows/And I’m pissing in the punchbowl/I don’t belong” from “I Don’t Belong”) and artifice-free passion is the norm.
While every song is short (the longest in the set’s entire run-time is “Poison City,” which clocks in at a minute and thirty-three seconds) and fast, no listener runs the risk of inadvertently blinking and missing anything; no one who starts listening to the First Four EPs will be able to do anything other than flip/change the vinyl while they listen, they’ll be held as frozen as Pettibon’s pictures are, captivated by the music. It is raw and impossible to turn away from. Such a sound as that on the First Four EPs is not something a bunch of clever professionals could just phone in ad it could not be faked. This is the kind of punk rock that makes a fan for life because the sentiments are real, relatable, accessible (for the right kind of mind) and genuine; no punk will be able to miss any of that and, contrary to the fate that has dogged so many other great punk bands, no one who has heard the First Four EP has missed it.
“I’m really getting off on the wordplay of OFF!,” admits Morris with a chuckle. “There are so many things that just fit so well with it! Like, today’s Friday – you’ve worked all week, you’ve done your job, here we are on Friday at five o’clock in the evening, time to get OFF!. We’re gonna go partying, we’re gonna get OFF!. The boss says, ‘No, you’ve got a couple of more hours of work, I came up with a couple of things’ and then it’s like ‘Get the fuck OFF! my back! Where do you get OFF! telling me that I have to work a couple of extra hours and I’m not going to get paid any bonus time? Now I’m really going to go OFF!’”
In addition to the Morris’ obviously improved morale, the band has used the excitement that has been generated around the band as legitimate fuel to keep building on their foundations and, while at least some of the touring will be limited by family obligations, OFF plans on taking as many opportunities as they can to solidify their presence. “The touring plans are being drawn up right now for our first tour, and they’ve got about four different routes,” says Morris in a tone that is equal parts confident and ambitious. “We played at SXSW in March and did five or six sets there. We didn’t really play shows there, we were playing parties; you might play a showcase for South By Southwest where they lump you in with a bunch of other bands, but we played some parties for some important people there. Then we head Northeast; eventually, I know we’re going to be playing at North By Northeast in Toronto this year. We’ve already gone over some of the other places we’re going to go too; we were going to head south through New Orleans and Alabama and Mississippi and Florida and the Carolinas and Virginia and then come back through Arkansas and Texas and maybe a date in Arizona, but our booking agent and manager came up with a different strategy. I wasn’t happy with it, but I’m going along with it because I’ve always been one to go against the flow; I’ve always been the one to hit the breaks and be the pessimist but, this time, I’m just going with the flow of the universe and wherever it takes me.
“It’s almost like I’m going back to where I started from and just seeing where it leads,” continues the singer. “We’re being bombarded with offers to play in Europe which has never really happened before, and there are a few question marks, but I love that; those surprises are part of the adventure. One of the things that’s happening with this band is that we’ve been getting a lot of calls from promoters to go to places like Australia. I’ve never been to Australia. In all the years I’ve played music, I’ve never been to Japan or New Zealand or China or the Philippines or Italy or Spain, but those are the offers on the table now.
“All the other bands I’ve been in, some of the offers came in but nobody put their foot down and said they wanted to make it a reality,” says Morris flatly, firmly and scornfully. “There was always some limp-wristed, limp-dicked, bullshit excuse attached which ultimately caused none of those things to happen. I say that there’s only one way to find out what’s going to happen and that’s by going and trying to make things happen; make it a happening! Turn it into a party! That’s one of the reasons we signed with Vice in the first place – people always point fingers at them and call them these hipster trendsetters but the fact of the matter is that the people at Vice are about the party – and we want to go to the party!”
The First Four EPs is out now on Vice.
Bill Adams is the editor in chief of groundcontrolmag.com