A band that was born spontaneously out of an aborted Circle Jerks recording session, OFF! has blown down sonic doors with its resurgent brand of early ’80s SoCal hardcore since forming in 2010. The tireless punk vets, led by hardcore hero Keith Morris and former Burning Brides frontman Dimitri Coats alongside drummer Mario Rubalcaba and bassist Steve McDonald, have retooled breakneck, bite-sized hardcore for a new generation of fans.
And while their latest effort, Wasted Years, continues to carry on with peerless aggression, it also finds the band taking some noticeable steps outside the formula. We talked with Coats prior to the new record’s release about the science behind writing a good punk song, staving off the hardcore revival tag, and the importance of breaking out of your comfort zone.
It’s easy to get the impression that when you guys hit the studio, it’s a pretty quick process. Is that fair to say, or are we just led to believe that because the songs are so short and to the point?
Yeah. It all happens extremely fast, but we never rehearse. Before a tour, it just doesn’t happen. The only time we really spend on these songs is when we’re learning them to record. In this situation, we recorded in our practice space. It was pretty intense. We recorded 19 songs in two days. Basically, Keith and I write the songs together and then present them to the band. Then they play along, and we all work on making it sound cohesive. Once we get through the songs a few times without fucking them up, we’re gonna hit the record button. Right there. We’ll do two or three passes when it still feels fresh and not everyone totally knows what they’re doing. There’s no luxury in finding any sort of perfection in what we’re doing.
The band really seems to thrive on that sense of immediacy and urgency.
It’s all part of our plan of attack. We want to create that same kind of urgency that was naturally there back when those early hardcore bands were in their prime. An album-making situation for the Circle Jerks would be they’d have a buddy who snuck them into a studio in the middle of the night, and they had just a few hours to make an entire record. We just need that kind of a deadline or else shit’s just not gonna get done, or at least it won’t get done in the right way.
It’s been said that punk rock songs are deceptively simple. Is that true in OFF’s case? Is there more to crafting the songs than meets the eye?
Well, I look at any form of songwriting as an art form. I have a more traditional approach to songwriting. For me, we have to have a strong chorus, a strong verse, and if we can get a bridge in there sometimes, then that’s good, too. I think the music [that OFF! makes] is sophisticated for the genre. Keith’s lyrics are borderline poetic at times, just in the way that he uses alliteration and ties images together, and how he can be both cryptic and very direct. It’s a balancing act keeping things intelligent and dumbed down.
You want to have these classic choruses that everyone can relate to. It’s like, “Ok, we know the chorus is going to be four syllables, so what are we trying to say? You’re fucked in the head, you’re frustrated, you’re onstage, and the kids are clamoring for your mic, Keith. They’re grabbing at it, and they all want to sing the chorus. Here it comes. What’s it going to be?” [Adopts Keith Morris’s voice] “Panic Attack.” “There you go, dude. That’s exactly what the fucking chorus is, and it’s the name of the goddamn song. Great job. Now let’s go get a burrito.”
Photo by Meghan Brosnan
But there’s no set way. Keith’s given me a box full of newspapers with circled headlines from throughout the years and said, “Take these home and see what you can do.” I’ll come back with something, and he’ll tweak it out and make it more how he would present it. There have been times where he’s come out of his room with his micro cassette recorder with the last thing that [Gun Club singer/guitarist] Jeffery Lee Pierce ever wrote, and I’ll have to pull a riff out of it. He left me a piece of paper once that just said, “I can’t stop thinking black thoughts.” I came back the next day and was like, “I wrote a song,” just off of that piece of paper. We do a lot of writing in front of one another. It’s always great when we can knock a song out in an hour. Like, “Oh, ok. ‘Upside Down’. Great.”
You don’t come from the purist hardcore background that the other guys in the band do. Was there any sort of learning curve in going from Burning Brides to writing for OFF!?
It was definitely a new frontier for me, and that’s sort of what caused the music to seem authentic. It really was a guy picking up a guitar who never played [hardcore] before. Keith wanted to write songs with me, and I was like, “Ok.” We were originally trying to do a Circle Jerks record, but that didn’t work out. But in that process, Keith came to me and was like, “Look, I like your songwriting, and I love Burning Brides. I just think if you learn how to downstroke today, I think we can do this.” So, I tried it. It was like we set the controls for 1983, but it went way further back. I started playing way more like [Black Flag guitarist Greg] Ginn, and I didn’t even know it. For me, I was coming more from a heavy place, like Black Sabbath. [Burning Brides] were more in the early ’90s style. With OFF! it’s like that musicality and those riffs were put through a blender.
Was it at all difficult to pare things down to just a handful of chords?
It was limiting. I felt boxed in, but being that confined, there was this attack that came out of my guitar playing that really inspired Keith and I to start writing. I also produce the records, so I would push Keith to go back and listen to the stuff he was singing about back in those days. I wanted him to hear what he was singing about and how he was singing about it. It just all kind of came out. There’s just a dumbed-down, ’90s approach to what I’m doing that I think gives our music a freshness.
How familiar were you with Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and other bands from that early hardcore scene coming into playing with OFF!? Were you a fan?
I brought no baggage into this. I had no idea that I was playing like Black Flag. I didn’t really have a connection to any of that music. I own those records, ya know, but it wasn’t really where I came from. It’s sort of like I can appreciate The Clash when I put them on, but it’s not a big part of who I am musically. I actually just got back from Seattle where I was recording with two of the guys from Soundgarden. For me, recording with those dudes, in Seattle, that was a highlight for me.
OFF! is different. Keith is one of my best friends. He was the DJ at my wedding, so OFF! comes more from a place of friendship. I want to put him in a position where he can kick-start his career again. This band did that for pretty much all of us. We were kind of all in no-man’s-land. Mario had a 9-5 job in a skateboard distribution warehouse. Keith and I were broke trying to make a Circle Jerks record. Steve was going to become an A&R guy. Everyone had one foot out the door.
Knowing that, it must be exciting that time has sort of caught up with the style of music you guys play. Thirty years ago, hardcore was pretty marginalized, but today generations of younger fans really seem to embrace what you guys are doing in a big way.
In some ways, yeah. But in others, it feels like sometimes we’re handicapped. When we go on the road, it’s not like we can pick from the well of bands who were around at that time to come out and play with us. It’s not like, “Oh, let’s call up D.R.I. or D.O.A.” There’s just not a scene anymore. Circle Jerks in their peak were playing in some cases to a couple thousand people. These big punk shows would draw thousands of people if you could stack up five bands on a bill. We try to align ourselves with younger bands who are relevant and doing stuff now, and there’s still some badass bands from back in the day like Negative Approach who are still around, but really it feels like we’re floating around in our own world.
We’re not out touring as some revival act. We’re creating new material. We’re a rock band, and that’s it. There’s a certain approach that we miss from this kind of music, and that’s why we’re doing it. It informs the kind of music we’re writing and also how we hit the stage. I was doing an interview just before this with a guy that saw us at SXSW, and he was like, “I’ve never seen anything like that.” And we’re older guys. So, I don’t know. I think it really is just a matter of four guys that like each other who are doing something that’s special to a certain amount of people and, for some reason, young people, too. I guess it’s a classic sound that we sort of landed on accidentally that’s exciting to younger kids and brings back a lot of good memories for people who saw it the first time around.
Wasted Years sounds like it’s stretching beyond that classic sound, at least in some places. There’s a slower, heavier lean in places, and yet it still sounds like OFF! How deliberate of a shift was that?
This record had a concept to it, even before we started writing. We knew the subject matter was going to be a little bit darker. We knew the album cover was going to be black, with the logo in white for the first time. We wanted to track it like a demo, and ironically it ended up being our biggest-sounding record sonically. I had a few talks with Keith when we were writing, where I said, “We have to get out of our comfort zone. I don’t want to make the same record every time. We have to, have to, give ourselves the opportunity to branch out and explore all of these other styles of music that we’re into. We have to attempt to push the genre in a different direction.”
Bands like Fucked Up are doing this cool hybrid of indie rock and hardcore, and that’s interesting to us. If you look at our record collections and the stuff we listen to as a band, it’s like, “Why can’t we have a little bit of Blue Oyster Cult seep through or the Melvins? Why can’t we incorporate some of the hardcore that Mario used to skate to?” I was listening to a lot of Bad Brains and Void and was like, “Listen to how bold that is. Listen to those changes. Listen to how chaotic it is.” There was a lot of talking ourselves into stepping out of our comfort zone. And looking ahead, we already have ideas for the next album. We know what the album art for the next album will be already.
What about musically? Are you thinking about where you want to take your sound moving forward, or is everyone’s attention just on Wasted Years for now?
Oh, totally. That one is going to be a real departure. Sometimes having a vision for things, it sort of kick-starts how you go about approaching the material. It gives you a clear direction. It gives you a map, a compass, and a knife, and drops you out in the middle of the woods. Now that we have a sound that we like and a practice space that we sunk some money into, I think we’re going to try something a little bit different.
Rather than bombarding ourselves with 19 songs in two days, I think the next album is going to go in a slightly more experimental direction. We’ll try and break it out a bit. Maybe Mario can come up one weekend and we’ll focus on just two songs. Then maybe a month or two later, we’ll work on another two songs. That might be the approach, just doing it as we go. We’ll see how long that can go on for, and at the end of it all, it’ll be like, “Hey, label. We have an album.”