Uprising from the Ashes

Today, punk rock is a far more refined animal than the raging anti-authoritarian beast that was loosed on the late-’70s streets. It’s a lucky thing, then, that Los Angeles’ OFF! keeps some of those old hardcore standbys alive: sub-two-minute song lengths, frenetic onstage behavior and a snarling attitude that appeals to just as many as it pisses off. But what else would you expect with Keith Morris, the notoriously neurotic former Black Flag and Circle Jerks frontman, at the helm?

Backed by Steven Shane McDonald of fellow punk legends Redd Kross (bass), Dimitri Coats of Burning Brides (guitar) and Mario Rubalcaba of Rocket from the Crypt (drums), OFF! might seem like just another supergroup, but Morris has legitimate venom in his veins. The band actually sprang from the ashes of a disastrous attempt to record a “final” Circle Jerks album, which royally pissed off the band’s other members.

So OFF!’s music is volatile and vituperative. Bracing and full of bile. Fiery and frequently off-putting. Those qualities set it apart from everything else out there, making the band’s visit to Jacksonville Beach a must-see. Coats chatted about Morris’ staying power, bringing geek back to punk and the raging bonfire that is OFF!

Folio Weekly: Give us the lowdown on how OFF! came together in 2009.

Dimitri Coats: Keith and I have been friends for years, and I convinced him that Circle Jerks should make a new record, pitching myself as the producer. But the whole thing imploded. Keith and I, though, had started writing songs together and were really into the material. So we decided that it shouldn’t go to waste, and formed a band.

F.W.: It still feels like the Keith Morris show, though. Was that always the point?

D.C.: Keith is the president and the star, but I like to think of myself as the evil dictator behind the curtain pulling the levers. Keith writes the lyrics, but I wear a lot of hats: I manage the band, I produced the record, I designed the logo, I suggested the name OFF!, I write all the music. … Somebody needed to take the wheel of this thing, for better or for worse.

F.W.: Did you make a conscious effort to keep the songs so short and hard-hitting?

D.C.: That came from a certain urgency we were after. We touched on something that woke up the sleeping giant of Keith, reminding him of his early days in Black Flag. It wasn’t intentional, though; it was very organic, and we just kept fanning the flames, letting it turn into a raging bonfire.

F.W.: The punk community can be notoriously critical of reunions and retreads, and Keith’s pissed off more than his fair share of fans in the past. How would you judge the reception to OFF! so far?

D.C.: Punk and hardcore have moved away from what made it fun in the first place. When Keith was in Black Flag, it was more like a party band with a mid-tempo beat — it wasn’t about coming onstage and ripping someone’s face off. It wasn’t a meathead/jock/circle pit thing, where everybody was trying to beat each other up. It was about having a good time with all kinds of freaks in a more artsy scene. We’re just bringing back the geek element of punk. [Our music’s] still an assault, but we pride ourselves on having actual songs that you can dance to.

F.W.: Celebrated punk artist Raymond Pettibon’s drawings on the cover certainly hark back to Black Flag’s early days.

D.C.: It’s a nod to Keith’s past. We knew we were touching on something that evoked that era, so it made sense for Raymond to help us tell the visual side of the story. He was the best person for matching the music’s dark, sarcastic humor.

F.W.: Which is immediately evident in even your shortest songs.

D.C.: It would’ve been easy to go on the Warped Tour’s old-guy stage, but we wanted to be taken seriously as a new band. We’re still pissed off about the way things are set up in the world. But this is a way for us to shake off a lot of cobwebs caused by mental problems. We’re adults now, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re still pretty damaged people. OFF! is a great outlet to exorcise those dark thoughts.

F.W.: Does OFF! have a long-term plan? Or are you just living in the moment?

D.C.: We have a vision for two more records. Keith is 57 years old, so how active the band remains is really dependent on his health. But for a guy his age with diabetes, he’s never let us down. It’s incredible. This band has re-energized him, giving him another reason to live and stay healthy, because the music demands a certain kind of physicality and commitment.

Nick McG