The Legendary Keith Morris

“Keith Morris: Punk Legend Keeping it Real”

By Katy Dang

Rocker Magazine |  July 29, 2012 

Keith Morris has been a mainstay of the Los Angeles punk scene since its very beginning. As the first vocalist for Black Flag in the late 70’s, he was an integral component of the sound that so many have copied over the course of the ensuing decades. Snarling and sarcastic, his delivery’s biting whine made him the very real everyman that punks in outlying areas could identify with and relate to. With his next band, Circle Jerks, Morris continued to be the voice of frustration and fury, penning such classics as “World Up My Ass” and “Don’t Care.” In the ensuing years, he has been a consistent resource of the docu-punk landscape, where his analysis always cuts to the core.           
Now fronting OFF!, Morris has joined with Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) on guitar, Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) on bass and Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From the Crypt and Earthless) on drums to get back to the roots of the genre. Fast and furious, OFF! Is cutting through the shit and yelling it like it is. No one else could do it quite like he does.
Rocker got to talk to the man with the voice and hear what he has to say.                                                                          
Rocker: In your video for “Borrow and Bomb” you touch on the conundrum, or the fact of the matter, of aging punk rockers still into the music at more advanced ages. What are the audiences like at an OFF! show?
Keith Morris: We get all of the old school characters, the guys that want to stand at the back and have their drinks with their girlfriends or their wives or all of their friends, and we have a whole new rash of these young kids who weren’t there when it happened the first time or the second time around and so we have this really great mixture between the new and the old and that keeps things interesting, keeps us on our feet.
Rocker: Do the groups interact much?
Keith: The older people certainly aren’t going to mix it up and get out there in the slam pit or the mosh pit or the pogo pit or the pit of death or the circle dance or whatever you want to call it, but it is definitely an interesting and fun mix and we thoroughly enjoy it. We look forward to every opportunity we get to play, because we’re not really a full time band. We have 3 dads in the band so whenever we have the opportunity to get together we try to pack as much action and energy and excitement into it as possible, so that’s part of our make-up. I guess it’s what makes us who we are.
Rocker: OFF! has just exploded and really taken off. People–you included–seem really stoked about it. It’s something that has really tapped into a need that was out there.
Keith: We’re in a time when there are a zillion bands. Everybody’s in a band; everybody and their brother and their dog and their goldfish. You go to the park and the squirrels and the chipmunks: they’re all in bands. We have all of these bands that everybody is ranting and raving about: the Kings of Leon and the TV on the Radio and the Arcade Fire and I’m not dissing any of those bands because they all have their time and place, they all have their special qualities. We are the guys that, when we come to the party, we add some excitement, we add some adventure. We can throw around some red and some yellow and some green as opposed to just some white and black. We are the vertical to their horizontal.
Rocker: You bring a lot of anger and pessimism to the table. Where does your negativity come from and how does that fit in, or does it still not?
Keith: I live in a neighborhood where there is a lot of commotion. There’s a lot of things going on. It’s one of the busiest intersections in the world, and there is always a lot of really negative energy taking place and I kind of feed off of that. It’s great to want to sing about the little stream that runs down the hill and the little children holding hands with lollipops and skipping, and little Bambi sipping water on the stream and the trees are green and the flowers are pink and yellow and red and the world is beautiful and all that’s wonderful. I like all of that stuff but that’s not how my world is. The intersection is dangerous, and there is always some kind of shitty horrible vibe happening or somebody cutting somebody off or somebody honking their horn, brakes screeching. I also live right around the corner from a fire station so there’s always the paramedics and the fire trucks and the emergency sirens going off and then right around 3:30, 4 o’clock when everybody’s getting off of work it’s bumper to bumper and everybody’s honking their horns and everybody’s hot and the weather is steamy and that is kind of frying people’s brains. Everybody wants to get out of their car and strangle each other.
Rocker: So your direct environment influences your songwriting. How is that different from the other bands you have been in? Are you pissed off about the same things or different things?
Keith: In Black Flag there was a lot of frustration because we were just the nerdy guys that would go to the party and the girls wouldn’t talk to us. While in high school, in physical education class, if we were playing football and they were choosing teams we would always be the last guys to be picked. All of that leads to frustration. Being picked on by all of the jock bullies and then all of a sudden being in a band and being able to plug in and being able to turn up the volume and it’s so loud that you are making people hold their ears and you’re giving them headaches and all of this kind of wonderful stuff. So that was kind of our way of getting back at all of the people that picked on us and bullied us and pushed us around when we were growing up.
Rocker: There is a signature sound that comes from a band that Keith Morris is fronting. Of course it’s your voice, but there’s also a sensibility that is angry and negative but also really personal. You’re singing about things that are actually happening to you, and maybe you’re hurt but you’re definitely pissed off about it. So how has that changed from being a pissed off kid throughout these last decades to coming into OFF!, which suddenly seems really new and fresh again?
Keith: I grew up at the beach, so I grew up with a certain mentality. We grew up around all of these world-class skateboarders and surfers and that was also part of the mentality; the “Go for it, let’s just jump on it and see where it takes you.” Where are we going with this? We don’t know. We’re just going to go along. Here’s the map to the road but we don’t know where the road totally leads.
Getting back to my voice and the personal quality to some of these songs, first off let me start with Black Flag: that was out of frustration, out of anger. With Black Flag we would play, and we would just be excited to play. It would be loud, and it would be exciting, and it would be a big flash, just a big ball of energy; we didn’t care about who was there, and we didn’t care if they were killing each other or if they were poking each others’ eyes out, and if it were Hell’s Angels beating up the drug dealers,, beating up the surfers, beating up the jocks, we didn’t care about that. We were just excited to be there. But the Circle Jerks we were more concerned with adding some sarcasm, adding some humor. If Black Flag was the big black negative thing, the Circle Jerks were the Saturday morning cartoon. What we were doing was adding “Banana Splits” to the scenario. Of course, when you think “Banana Splits” one of the first things you think of is The Dickies, and we can blame them and The Descendents for all of these boy bands out there on the Warped Tour. All those Alternative Press kids, they need to show some roots; they need to bow down to the people they need to bow down to, and that doesn’t mean Green Day.
So now the Circle Jerks show up to the party and want to get laid. They want to toss some Spanish Fly in the punch, they want to make sure everybody’s got a smile on their face and everybody’s jumping around and everybody’s being energetic: a lot of the same things that were happening in Black Flag but the Circle Jerks mix was let’s have a good time. And now OFF! combines the two.
Rocker: By design, or by circumstance?
Keith: I’ve always adhered to a “play it as it lays” type of mentality, which could be very lazy, very nonchalant, but the fact of the matter is that when you’re in a band, and you’re playing with the type of characters that I’m playing with, the really great musicians that I’m playing with, you don’t tell them what to play. You don’t tell them what to do. You’re playing with these great musicians because of their musical instincts. The guys in my band, they don’t take a right turn when they’re supposed to take a left; they know to take the left. There’s some kind of mental thread going through what we’re doing and it’s just like nobody makes a mistake. When Dimitri and I put the band together we didn’t sit down and go, “This is what we’re going to do; this is what we are going to be; this is who we are.” We get in a room and we let it happen and you get to hear the results.
Rocker: Tell me your thoughts about the Goldenvoice 30th Anniversary event that you played at last December.
Keith: I love the majority of those characters. I’ve grown up with all of those bands, everybody from Bad Religion and Social Distortion to X, whose first 2 albums I think are some of the greatest albums to ever come out of Los Angeles – and there have been some pretty amazing records that have come out of Los Angeles! We have the Beach Boys, Love and The Byrds up in Laurel Canyon, and The Doors in Laurel Canyon and Spirit in Topanga Canyon. Gary Tovar, who I’ve known since the very beginning of Goldenvoice, he’s a big fan of OFF!, he’s a big fan of the Circle Jerks, he’s a big fan of Black Flag. It was just a great get together.
As for what I did with Chuck Dukowski, Billy Stevensen—and I call him Billy because I’ve known Billy since he was 13 years old. You know, a lot of these guys I’ve known for years and years and years. The same thing with Steven McDonald; I’ve known Steven since he was 11 years old. I’ve certainly contributed to a lot these guys delinquency and that’s the way that it is. “Keith what are you listening to?” Okay Billy, here’s what you need to listen to: Listen to Ted Nugent’s first solo album. Listen to Cheap Trick’s In Color and In Black and White. Listen to Aerosmith’s, Toys in the Attic. Listen to anything by the MC5 or Iggy and the Stooges, listen to Black Sabbath, listen to Grand Funk, listen to Black Oak Arkansas… Listen to anything loud and exciting and vibrant and that’s a good place to start. Then Steven Egerton, who is a member of ALL and The Descendents, the 4 of us got together. We only played 4 or 5 songs and we really had a great time and I’m sure that the people that were there did, too. There were a few people upset that we didn’t play more, but it had only been something we thought about doing for maybe 2 or 3 weeks before. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it off.

Rocker: There was so much excitement built up around the shows and then the rumors that Black Flag would be playing on Sunday…
Keith: But we’re not Black Flag because it’s not Black Flag without Greg Ginn. The problem with Greg Ginn is that—I’m sure that you’ve heard some of the stories— as a musician and as an artist he is incredible. There are all of these people running around that can’t touch him. But as a human being we can’t give him the props. He’s just not a very good businessman.
Rocker: Greg’s bother Raymond Pettibon has done a lot of the art for your bands over the years. What does his art mean to you?
Keith: It’s not so much his art and what it means to me but what Raymond means to me. Raymond is like a younger brother. Raymond was one of my party buddies. We all grew up in the same community and we all rubbed elbows and we all hung out.
Rocker: So, we’re all getting older, but we’re still rocking. How have the punk rockers so far avoided the traps that the hippies and other subcultures have fallen into so deeply? What makes us different?
Keith: When you’re talking about people in bands, you’re talking about rock musicians, and rockers and the all-night vampires, all of those people. You’re talking about one of the lowest life forms on earth. Some of us manage to take a few steps away from the tide pool. Some of us are able to learn from our own mistakes. The way that I stay sober, I don’t go to meetings, I don’t adhere to the 12 steps program or the 18 steps or how many ever steps it takes for you to walk away from that. I am constantly surrounded by people who make complete idiots out of themselves and I look at these people and go, “I don’t want to be like that.”
The survival thing – maybe this is a ridiculous way to describe it – but maybe it’s just stupidity. Maybe we don’t know any better. Maybe it’s all we know. And maybe because it’s all we know, in certain parts of our knowledge we adhere to certain things and sometimes we don’t. If I had continued on the crash course that I was on we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I would have left this place probably 22, 23 years ago. But I had the wherewithal to be able to put my foot down and say no more and use all of these other people as examples as to what not to do. A lot of my musical heroes—Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Darby Crash—they’re all people that are no longer here because maybe they had a built in self-destruct mechanism, maybe they had that switch in them that they didn’t know how to flick it off. Maybe what happened with me was I found my switch and I was able to shut it off.
As for continuing to play music, I look at the musical landscape and see a lot of stuff that isn’t deserving of anybody giving it any kind of attention, getting a ton of attention. I’m not going to say who deserves it and who doesn’t deserve it, but part of my deal is as long as I still have an ounce of energy, I think part of my make-up is kind of a hateful, spiteful kind of thing, which maybe that’s not a good fuel, maybe we should be looking for more beauty in the world, but I always tend to look at all of the negative things, or be attracted to evil things and really crappy things that are going on—but there are all of these bands out there that are calling themselves something that they are not and they need to be put in their place.
Rocker: How does that happen?
Keith: The way for that to happen is that you just have to be real. You have to be true to what you’re about.