Avoiding the punk rock marathon: An interview with Keith Morris of Off! | Bleader

Avoiding the punk rock marathon: An interview with Keith Morris of Off!


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I remember a long time ago reading an account of the old LA punk scene that said that when Keith Morris quit as the lead singer of Black Flag he basically took the band's sense of humor with him. Morris's pure not-giving-a-fuck attitude helped make the Circle Jerks one of the best bands of their era, and it's a big part of what's allowed him to continue being a punk idol decades after many of his contemporaries have faded into irrelevance.

Recently Morris interrupted work on what was to be the first Circle Jerks record since 1995 to assemble a new group, Off!, whose bursts of loud-fast-rules hardcore easily stand up to anything he did in the 80s. You can catch them Saturday at the Pitchfork Music Festival (see our guide here if you haven't already) and Sunday at Reggie's Rock Club.

A while back I got the chance to talk to Morris on the phone about collecting records and why Off! is different from all the punk bands on the nostalgia circuit.

Miles Raymer: You know, you're pretty famous for your record collecting. Why are you so into accumulating music?

Keith Morris: Well, that's a really easy one to answer: because I am a fan of music. I have been listening to music since I was maybe four or five years old. We started off listening to AM radio in the car. We'd be listening to, I don't know, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and oh, all sorts of people. Mamas & Papas, the Turtles, and Loving Spoonful, and the Royal Guardsmen singing "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron." You know, all sorts of fun stuff. It was a big cross section.

We had a couple of AM radio stations here in LA. One was KLRA, which was the dirtier, darker—that was for all the low riders and all the hot chicano mamas, and all the soul brothers and soul sisters. They would be the ones to play Otis Redding and Stax‚ as opposed to KHJ, which would be the lighter, more friendlier—Paul Revere & the Raiders, and Dusty Springfield, and Motown as opposed to Stax. So it would be the Supremes and the Temptations. And I just grew up loving music.

I thought at one point that I was going to be a bass player. I had just seen Black Sabbath, and Geezer Butler playing one of the clear plastic basses, you know, the same guitar that Greg Ginn played in Black Flag, only four strings instead of six. See, the bass is the party instrument. You know, you want to get the party going, you want to get the low end going. You want people to start moving and bumping and grinding and kung fu fighting, and all sorts of wild wacky stuff like that, you get the low end going. The low end gets going and that's when your other low end starts going.

So when did you realize that you were more of a collector than other people? You know, some people are happy with owning 10 or 20 records and they can be cool with that. And then there are other people that are a little more obsessive.

Well, here's another piece to this puzzle, and that is for years and years I was the first guy at the mirror, at the plate, to huff up the white powder and pound it down with a half a keg of beer, and so I was blowing a lot of money on all of that useless, worthless, uh, whatever you want to call it. And now, I guess my addiction is vinyl. I don't really consider myself a collector just because I've got a bunch of records. I consider myself—I guess we're called record nerds? You know, or vinyl geeks or whatever you want to call us.

My favorite thing when I go into a record store is to hear something new. Like maybe the person behind the counter will be playing a local band. And you'll just go, wow, OK, who is that? You turned me on to this. This is fantastic. I also DJ quite a bit and I work in a few record stores. And one of the prevailing mentalities, one of the prevalent mentalities is that, um, I'm cooler than thou because listen to what I'm playing—you don't have that in your collection.

Yeah, there's a lot of people that seem motivated by that, like it's collecting as a competition.

Yeah, and it's like, I'm not gonna get caught up in that. You know, whenever I play music for people I want to just play the best music that I can play. I want to keep it interesting. You know, maybe play something new and it might interest somebody.

You know, the danger of going to record stores on tour is you blow your per diem, or your budget that you have saved up for touring for things like food and such—it's pretty easy to find yourself spending it all on records instead.

Well, there's also the on-off switch. Where it take a lot of, you know, uh, what's the word that I want to use? Discipline. You know, I am not far from Amoeba Records, which is one of the greatest record stores in the world. And I have actually gone in there a couple of times and not bought anything.

Like, I was working at a record company called V2, and part of the job was to find new bands. So I would read about a band in a fanzine, or somebody would tell me about a band. And all of a sudden I would compile a list of 300 bands that I wanted to hear. Now, when I first started to go to work at the company, I had to learn some computer skills, because that is just part of the deal. I basically live in a cave, so when it comes to modern technology I'm lagging very far behind. But in my computer skills, I learned to surf MySpace. I learned this while I was working at the record company. So I compile a list of about 300 bands that I want to listen to and I realize that I cant go to the record store and buy 300 CDs. That would be beyond geekdom. That would be being a complete, utter, motherfucking idiot.

So you're obviously not a hardcore purist, like a vinyl purist?

I'm in it for the music. You know, and you accuse me of being a collector, and I probably have some really amazing records in my collection, and I've also got a lot of, like, 99-cent thrift-store, like, hidden pleasures, or secret songs—bands that you don't want anybody to listen to because they're not cool. You know, and it's like on my radio show, I'm getting ready to do one of these guilty-pleasure shows where it is going to come off as, like, classic rock. I mean, it is what it is. And you make of it whatever you want to make of it.

Am I really supposed to be like—am I supposed to shudder and take a couple of steps back from this? And go, Do I really like this? And it's like, I grew up listening to that. Yeah, of course I like it. A lot of that stuff was the soundtrack to part of my youth. And partying and jumping off roofs and skinny dipping with 40 kids in a swimming pool at the high school graduation party. You know? Throwing the keg into the swimming pool. Setting the front lawn on fire. And having an egg fight amongst 40 people. And all sorts of fun stuff like that. So maybe‚ like, when the punk-rock thing came up, and I—I hate using that description. But when that came up, it was, like, not cool to like Pink Floyd because Johnny Rotten had a T-shirt that said, oh I fucking hate Pink Floyd. Or whatever, you know? And I saw Pink Floyd. They were pretty fucking happening when I saw 'em. It was like, really interesting. And so, consequently, a lot of the records and CDs in the collection went the way of the recycling bin.

I've always found that being too concerned about what other people think about your music tastes is kind of a waste of energy.

Well, that's a really great way of putting it. But a lot of us, we're, um—some of us are a little bit more scrutinized than others.

Sure, yeah.

You know, and a lot of people, a lot of people hang from the words that you say and the bands that you say you like. I mean, one of the things that I am discovering on Facebook—a lot of crybabies and whiners, a lot of bitchers and moaners, and fuck them. Like, you know, on the Off! page, I'm the guy that pretty much writes back to everybody. It's like, well, you're the lead singer, and you've been doing this for years, and you're a big rock star, I would think that you would pay some kid in your neighborhood to come in and answer all of these questions for you. You know, because that's what the Red Hot Chili Peppers do, that's what Radiohead does—they've got some 14-year-old girl that answers all their fans. It's like, gee, I don't want anybody talking for me or speaking for me. I'm quite capable of doing that myself. Not that big of a pain in the ass. But it gets to the point where the beef is just so thick that it's like, I'm sorry, I delete you. If this was a perfect world, you would be gone.

But you know, it's just like, this is America. You get to say what you want to say. You don't dig it I would think that, maybe, rather than going on and on about how it's not cool for a band like Off! to play at Coachella, or "you guys aren't this" or "you guys aren't that" because you're doing something else. Because we're trying to keep it—we're trying to mix it up, we're trying to keep it entertaining. We're trying to make it different. You know, that's why we want to play with bands like Deerhunter and Neon Indian. We don't necessarily . . . maybe we rock, but maybe we come from different places. But who wants to go to what I call the punk-rock marathon? Where it's like five bands all doing the same thing. That's a pretty boring scenario. So I gotta, like, try to hush up a lot of the people, and maybe try to put them in their place, or set them straight or what have you. And sometimes it's a bit time consuming, and sometimes it's just not even worth . . . some of these people are not worth convincing.

I've gone to a few shows where it's sort of, you know, older punk bands reuniting, and it's been such a popular thing over the past few years and it seems like a lot of the people—the type of people who are attracted to that sort of thing—are the type that want the band to be sort of exactly like they were and to never change, and to just sort of stick to this picture of what they have, the idea of punk rock that they have in their own heads and, you know, it kind of seems pretty limiting to someone who wants to make new music or try new things.

Well, Miles, that's part of the scenario. But there are a lot of new people out there who didn't experience it or don't know what it's about. Or, like, we blew up on Pitchfork, and there were a lot of people, like a lot of the die-hard people were like, well, they're not cool because they like these bands, and so why do they like you, why are they saying great things about you? And it's like, can't you just get with the program? Can't you just be down with the music? Can't you just celebrate the fact that, you know, it is what it is? And go along with it.

And the fact of the matter is, this is America, and we have certain freedoms. Nobody is forcing you to read these things. Nobody's forcing you to listen to this. I mean, that's the reason that we play with Thee Oh Sees or Nobunny, you know, or No Age. They actually considered themselves a punk band but there was like—they're like an intellectual thinking man's kind of band. Like they're not going to allow themselves to be boxed in like that. Which I totally appreciate and I love them for that, I totally applaud them for that. And they're great guys.

We want to hang out with like-minded people. We want the party to be as festive as possible. And we want—we don't want everybody that's walking to the front door to be wearing some kind of uniform. Just like you would expect if you were going to see the ghost of Sid Vicious and him playing a bunch of covers and playing some Sex Pistols songs or what have you. You know, just exactly what you would imagine at a show like that. You know, all of the spiky hair. And the guy with the chain with the lock on his chest, and he's got a pierced ear and he's got a pin in it and he's wearing the leather jacket that's got whatever bands he's listening to painted on the back of it. And he's wearing his motorcycle boots and all of that. You know that uniform—that's a tired uniform. And that wasn't what all of that music was supposed to be about in the first place. A lot of these people lost sight of that.

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