Keith Morris needs a chair. The 55-year-old OFF! front man just ripped through an in-store performance at Atlanta’s Criminal Records. His energy level while performing isn’t be much diminished from his years in Black Flag and the Circle Jerks; the difference is that now he needs a minute or two to recuperate. The other members of the band, including Morris’s collaborator Dmitri Coats, are milling around, moving equipment, and signing copies of OFF!’s debut release, First Four EPs. Morris drains half a bottle of water and warily takes in his immediate surroundings, as if he expects to be assaulted by an unseen assailant. Finding none, he waves me back. In repose, he’s still radiating enough energy to power a small city. I have prepared questions, but I abandon them almost immediately. Morris is ready to talk, and the man needs little, if any prompting.
Can I use the term punk in the interview? Are you still comfortable with that?
You can use whatever adjectives or descriptions you want to use. As you can see, I’m not really a part of that. I’m not with that. I have people that rag on me because I try to distance myself from that, but that’s all I’ve done all my life. All of these people need to be more creative when it comes to describing a band. How about fun? How about urgent? That’s good. How about right now?
What’s your take on…
I’m not dissing them.
I grew up with all that. It doesn’t mean that I have to be there. But we get accused because we’re playing with TV on the Radio or we’re playing with the Kills or we’re playing at Coachella with Kanye West and PJ Harvey, Duran Duran, and the Strokes. That’s not cool.
That’s always been the problem with the punk scene, though.
That’s right. It’s a fucking head-trip. I was a part of it just to rail against everything. I wanted to be angry and explode. We weren’t punks. Greg Ginn and I weren’t punks. We were nerds. We were goofballs. All of those guys. The guys in the Circle Jerks. The guys in this band. People will call us punk rock, but I don’t adhere to that. It’s just a label, like hardcore. There are a lot of great bands. I’m not dissing them. We, and especially myself, at this point in our lives, and I’m sure Steven (Shane McDonald, bassist for OFF! and Redd Kross) could back me on this, are ready to move on. For years all we did was the punk rock marathon. You showed up and you played with four or five like-minded bands, and that gets really boring after a while. Give me some more color. It’s not just about black and leather and all that kind of stuff.
Do you think that with the state of the economy and the political landscape, fans are going to be looking for music that espouses the values of hardcore and punk?
We’re angry. We’re not punk. There’s all sorts of stuff to be angry about. There’s a lot of people that are thinking the same things that we’re thinking, but aren’t able to express them.
This is a lot like 1979 again.
It’s Reaganomics and all that wonderful crap, all of the political situations. There are lies and back-stabbing b.s. The list goes on and on and on. Everything this nation is a part of has been set up for the few and not the many. We’re just working class. That’s where I come from; that’s what I know.
How do you think punk will be different the second time around?
Do you think maybe if Katy Perry speeds her music up and spikes her hair?
I don’t really think so, no.
It’s never gone away, this thing that you call punk. It’s Marlon Brando riding up on his motorcycle with the statue that he swiped out of a sporting goods store or somebody’s mantel that says “Second Place: We try harder.” The music has never left. It has its dips, and its lulls, and its valleys. Maybe the time is right. I don’t really sit around and think about all this strategically — we’re going to do this to get to there. Dmitri (Coats), our guitar player, he does. He thinks about stuff like that. That’s OK. He’s never been in the situation. He’s played with a bunch of people. He’s played in another band, a fairly popular band, but they weren’t loved by the public; they were loved by other musicians.
That’s the case a lot of the time.
We’re here, and the reason we’re doing this is because we’re musicians. This is how we earn our living. This is how we pay our rent. There are certain things we do that are cool, and there are certain things that we do that don’t really jive with all the other jive turkeys, the jive-ass motherfuckers. But that’s OK; you live and you learn, and you move on to the next experience.
We were just at SXSW, and we played with Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. If we were to stick by the rulebook, the PR rulebook, a band like us wouldn’t be able to do that. That would be selling out.
But isn’t it kind of like you’re sticking to the rulebook by not sticking to the rulebook?
I’m 55 years old. I’ve played enough music. I’ve done enough touring and traveling and played to enough people that I should be able to go out and do what I want to do. I got in an argument with a guy because he said I was very condescending when I pointed that a part of our crowd is just a bunch of nitwits and meatheads. He didn’t like that I said it, but I’ve been doing it for enough years; there’s always that segment in the crowd. They’re there just to fuck shit up. They don’t understand that if you throw the brick through the Bank of America, five thousand dollar plate glass window, the hard-working people that deposit their money in the bank because they want a safe place to keep it, they’re the ones that pay for that. The bank doesn’t pay for that. Going to a heavy metal show, there’s always going to be the speed freaks out in the parking lot, breaking bottles. There are always those people. Not being condescending, but being brutally frank, there are always those types of people. I’m sure there was a fight when Britney Spears played the Atlanta Hawks arena.
You tell people in your ad to turn off the Internet. Is it realistic to speak out against the medium that might break your band?
We could do word of mouth. We could go back before we had the Internet. The idea was that if you turned off your computer and went to buy a record at a record store, you might hear something new and exciting. Now, though, we’re so dependent on the Internet that it’s only realistic to turn off the Internet for an hour or two hours out of your life and go somewhere and hang out with your friends. We have a whole a generation of people who sit in front the Internet constantly. They need to get out and live their lives. Rather than watching a band play live on YouTube, shut it off and go see the band, hang out with some people and become part of the adventure. Go on a safari. When I started playing in bands there wasn’t any Internet or cell phones or walkie-talkies or twitter, twat, tweet or whatever.
Technology doesn’t work in reverse, though.
All we can do is take advantage of it. We can’t go to every show and pass out fliers like we did when I was in Black Flag. We can’t get on the phone and call 200 people and hope each one of them calls 200 people.
Was this band really born out of frustration?
This band was born because Dmitri and I were working on another project, and I had been a member of this project for like 30 years. It started to become very ridiculous. I’m tired of the horrendous decisions being made that affect my very life. In the process, Dmitri and I looked at each other and decided that something had to change. I told Dmitri that what we were working on was going to blow up in our faces, and when the time came, we were going to run with it.
How hard was it, though? Thirty years is a long time.
For about three or four days, I was scared. This is all I’ve done for my entire life. This is all I know. It’s in my blood. It’s in my psyche. I told myself I had to make the leap. I had to run. I had to jump. I had to go for it. That’s what you saw up there. You heard the music. That’s what we’re doing.
At this point, Stephen McDonald comes in and says he can’t believe that Morris is hiding in the back of the record store “playing the rock star” when a 10-year-old is waiting for his autograph. Morris retorts that the store doesn’t have a curfew, and McDonald apologizes once he sees we’re doing an interview. I can see immediately that Morris took some part of the comment to heart. He doesn’t want to be seen as the rock star. He asks if we can be done, and hurries off to find the kid and sign an autograph.