OFF! is a hardcore supergroup with members from Black Flag and the Circle Jerks (Keith Morris, vox), Redd Kross (Steven Shane McDonald, bass), Burning Brides (Dimitri Coats, guitar), and Rocket From the Crypt and Hot Snakes (Mario Rubalcaba, drums). After four EPs, the band finally released its first full-length, OFF!, on May 8th.
Recently, Consequence of Sound spoke with Morris about the band, its formation, and how they don’t have the time for songs filled with pomp and circumstance. We also chatted about riding the party train that was the Circle Jerks, checking egos at the studio door, what it means to sell out, and how much he loves the Dream Syndicate’s Days of Wine and Roses.
I used to believe that if a punk band was around long enough, they simply became a rock band. You seemed to have proven me wrong.
We could just as easily be a rock band, because the guys in this band, they love… two of them, I think maybe three of them, were members of the KISS Army.
Nice! So I guess when you say “three of them,” that means you weren’t one of them.
I’m not one of them. I’ve probably seen more KISS shows than all three of them put together. I’m a fan, but a faraway fan, a fair-weather fan.
Yeah, I caught them on the ’95 reunion, when the four originals got back together.
Yeah, and they’ve since gotten rid of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. Which is typical. It’s like Black Sabbath is gonna tour without Bill Ward. I’m not going. I saw Black Sabbath on the Master of Reality tour and Volume Four. So, I don’t need to go see the Rick Rubin-produced Black Sabbath.
Did you ever catch them with Dio?
No, no, no. I’m not a fan of Dio. Dio was in a band called Elf, which was like a rock & roll band. That was cool. But getting back to all of our rock & roll heroes, Dimitri’s guitar god is Billy Gibbons. So, I guess it doesn’t get any bluesier, more rock & roll than that.
But I can’t imagine you guys breaking out “La Grange” during a set.
That would never happen. That would not happen, no.
Talk to me about how OFF! came to be; it’s my understanding that it came out of a failed Circle Jerks reformation?
Failure after failure. Bad decision after bad decision led to the firing of one of my favorite guitar players [Greg Hetson]. One of the other guitar players that I’ve played in a band with for over thirty years, who is a full-time member of another band called Bad Religion, and I just had enough. Here we are, like two weeks away from recording a new album for us. When I say “us,” I mean the other band. Plan A, we’ll call them Plan A. We’re two weeks away from getting ready to record an album, and they decided, “No, we don’t want to work with Dimitri.” Because Dimitri was going to produce the album. And, in my mind, Dimitri was the only one who was going to get us in the studio. Dimitri was the only one who was going to really make it happen. He was making things happen, and consequently, because of that, he’s “overstepping his bounds,” he’s “arrogant,” he’s “egotistical.” He’s doing all of these things that should have been done in the first place. And because they were being done in the way that they were being done, the other guys didn’t want to work with him, and that’s fine. I couldn’t be happier.
Well, that sounds like a clash of egos. How did you manage to get around that with OFF!? You’re in a supergroup with members of some of the most influential punk acts ever.
Well, there’s some egos. But we actually know… you know in Japan, you can’t enter a house without taking your shoes off. And at the ABC studios where we rehearse, you can’t enter the rehearsal space with your ego stuck in your head. So, consequently, because of our lineage, a couple of the guys, the newest members of the band, which would be Stephen McDonald and Mario Rubalcaba… we call him Mario Speedwagon. That seems to be a really great nickname for him. He doesn’t like any of his other nicknames. John Reis from Rocket From the Crypt, in Mario’s stint with Rocket From the Crypt, Reis called him Ruby Mars. That was his moniker in Rocket From the Crypt. Mario doesn’t like that, so sometimes we’ll call him Mario Speedwagon. And he’s the biggest guy in the band, so if he wanted to punch somebody in the face, he could (laughs). Those fuckin’ drummers. Throwin’ their weight around; they all want to be front men. He fronts his own band called Spider Fever, who are going to play some shows with us here on the West Coast. That was my idea to have Mario do double-duty; let’s see how he holds up.
There’s this thing where they say that everybody’s on the same page. And that cliché applies to us. Here’s another part of our situation: All of these guys have played in other bands; all of these guys play in other bands. All of these guys, with the exception of myself, are parents. And, consequently, they can’t spread themselves out thin; they’ve got a lot of stuff goin’ on. When we get together, we don’t know the next time that we’re going to get together. I mean, we do, but there’s going to be some kind of a break in between, so you better go out and do what you need to get done. The same applies for this band. We get in the room; it’s very compact. All the fat’s trimmed, and we’re running a marathon, and we gotta run as fast as we can.
Well, the new album comes in at a whopping 960 seconds, or 16 minutes.
You’ve really been doing your homework. You busted out your calculator? Or your abacus?
Abacus, my man. I’m just a few years younger than you (*well, more than a few). But 16 songs in as many minutes. Why the brevity?
The situation with that is that we live in times where the average attention span is a little bit larger than an ashtray or a garbage compactor or a blue recycle bin, an empty bottle.
You can get everything out before anyone realizes they’re not paying attention anymore?
We understand that we can only grab somebody’s attention for so long, so we need to put as much into as little space as possible. And I don’t mean everybody playing on top of everybody else’s parts. The guys in my band, they like Van Halen and a couple of them like Rush.
David Lee Roth Van Halen or Sammy Hagar?
No, when we’re talking about these bands, we’re not talking about the vocalists. We’re talking about the music and the guitar player and the drummer; and everybody’s playing a zillion notes. And a lot of it’s just meaningless. A lot of it’s just showboating. A lot of it’s just Las Vegas glitz and glamor and hambone, and we don’t have time for that. It’s great that you listen to that music. I’m not putting it down, because I have bits and pieces of that. I do own the first Rush album. I own a couple of Van Halen singles. But there’s no room for that; there’s no time for that. That’s not our mentality.
If you include all the material from this full-length, and then all four of your first four EPs, that is still just barely a half hour, a little over. During your live sets, is there any consideration to playing material from any of the other bands or covers, or do you just play the 30 minutes and that’s it?
I’ve had the same inquiry a couple of dozen times. Ya know, “When ya gonna cover Black Flag? When are you gonna play Nervous Breakdown?”
I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you, if you were insulted by that question.
I’m not insulted in the least, because it comes with the territory, and the people that will be listening or reading or paying attention to what you’re going to present to them, and what I’m telling you [is you] deserve to have that answered because they might not have read anything else where I might’ve said this. The people that pay attention to you might not necessarily pay attention to somebody else. So, if the question’s asked, like my dad says, “No question is too stupid or dumb.” If you have a question to ask, you ask it.
My answer to your inquiry is that I love the Circle Jerks, and I love Black Flag. And my band that I’m in with Dimitri, Stephen McDonald, Mario Speedwagon, borrows, lifts, steals, takes… Did I say borrow? Did I say swipe? Here’s the bottom line, it’s music, and it’s all been played somewhere else, by somebody else, and even before them, somebody else played it before them. And even before the person that played it before them, somebody else played it. We’re going all the way back to the guy that’s pulled a branch off of a tree and he’s banging the bottom of the tree. And he’s pissing people off, and they’re going, “Ooga! Booga wooga!” And it’s irritating people. This music is irritating, I know that. But the fact of the matter is, all the notes, there’s only so many things you can play on the guitar; there’s only so many notes you can play on the piano. The orchestra, they can only play so many notes. It’s all been played before, and all you can do is put your personality into it.
Like I said, I love Black Flag, and I love the Circle Jerks. I might not particularly care for some of the members that were in the bands, but that’s a story for another day. The fact of the matter is, no, we’re not going to be playing any Black Flag songs, and we’re not going to be playing any Circle Jerks songs. And there will be people that listen to OFF!, and they’ll go, “They took that bit from the Circle Jerks,” [or] “it sounds a lot like Black Flag during this period. Greg Ginn was doing this, and Greg Hetson was doing that.” All that’s fine and wonderful and part of the fun of listening to music. One of my favorite bands, one of my favorite artists, one of my favorite characters is a guy named Robert Pollard, who’s in a band called Guided by Voices. Part of the fun of listening to all of the music that this guy has created… the guy has made enough records to last him for the rest of his life.