The way Keith Morris holds a microphone is not designed for comfort. He grabs it with one or both hands, elbows locked at rigid angles, and lunges with each syllable as he shouts with epic fury. The eyes bulge, his knees buckle. At 55, the delivery of this punk-rock originator has only intensified with age.
In a small rehearsal room on the outskirts of Eagle Rock, Morris is pacing the floor impatiently, much as he did as the founding singer for Black Flag, then for three decades with the Circle Jerks, and now in a new band with an abrupt name — Off! “I can’t stop! I can’t stop! I can’t stop thinking black thoughts,” Morris rages, his floor-length dreads looped and tied behind his head. “How far will I fall before I hit the bottom?”
Like the rest of Off!'s material, the song is barely a minute in length, with a sound authentic to his roots in the first wave of SoCal hard core: rapid beats and panicked down-stroke guitar riffs. Standing amid the instruments and shredded amplifiers, Morris is joined by guitarist Dimitri Coats, bassist Steven McDonald and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (a.k.a. Ruby Mars), rehearsing for a gig at the Sunset Boulevard art gallery of Shepard Fairey, just days away. The band’s first national tour delivers the group to Coachella on Sunday.
“I’m very angry. I’m very upset,” Morris says of the band’s music, speaking in a rasp both warm and emphatic. “And rather than go out and smash a window or try to gather all the little kids in my neighborhood and overturn a police car and set it on fire, I’d rather channel my energy through the lyrics. This is my outlet so I don’t blow my brains out or kill somebody.”
The band has only existed for about a year, but the hard-core quartet has already won excited raves from indie rock tastemakers, with Pitchfork calling Off! “not just refreshing, but totally necessary.”
Off! was an accidental creation, or “Plan B,” as Morris remembers it, emerging from the wreckage of what was supposed to be the Circle Jerks’ first new album in 15 years. Coats was going to produce that album, but the project broke down amid disagreements over songwriting and Coats’ role. When Morris was told by the band that they were firing Coats, Morris quit and Off! was born. (The Circle Jerks have since performed together but remain mostly on hiatus.)
To complete the new quartet, Morris and Coats recruited from among their favorite players, first inviting McDonald of Redd Kross, then Rubalcaba, a veteran of Rocket From the Crypt. The connection was immediate. “It doesn’t come the second time you jam together,” explains Rubalcaba of their sound and chemistry. “It happens within the first five or 10 minutes.”
The debut album was released initially in December on Vice Music as a vinyl box set of 7-inch discs collected as “The First Four EPs” (playfully echoing the early Black Flag collection “The First Four Years”). “We seem to have touched a nerve with people who were there back in the day, and kids who wished they were,” says Coats.
Part of the band’s mission, Morris says, is returning the idea of “punk” to its uncompromising roots, and rescuing it from generations of interchangeable, sound-alike acts with the same factory-made hooks and haircuts. As a genre, punk slowly had become commercialized, marginalized, anesthetized since its 1970s birth, he says.
“They’re calling themselves something that they’re not, and they know nothing about, they weren’t there,” says Morris. “They might have read about it or seen a film, maybe walked into the store and saw it at the mall.”
McDonald grew up in that original Los Angeles punk scene, initially as the 11-year-old bassist in Redd Kross (with older brother Jeff), when he first met Morris. “It was a very surreal experience being a child in that,” McDonald says. “It’s fun for me, not just walking down memory lane, but owning a piece of my heritage in a weird sort of way.”
The band’s birthright is further illustrated with cover art by Raymond Pettibon, whose provocative drawings on the original Black Flag albums helped set an obsessive and darkly comic tone for the band. Morris had mostly lost touch with Pettibon, now an internationally acclaimed artist, but in recent years reestablished their friendship, which dates back to adolescence in Hermosa Beach.
The artist is now the band’s “fifth member,” who calls Off! a “boy band” in his liner notes for “The First Four EPs.” In the corner of their rehearsal space is a wall-size Pettibon painting re-creating his cover art, wrapped safely in plastic. “We call it Keith’s medical insurance,” McDonald says.
The first Off! shows have been in non-traditional venues, and the late-February gig at Fairey’s Subliminal Projects gallery is no different, set to ignite on a small stage in the outdoor parking lot. Opening is Pettibon’s experimental band, the Nichemakers. The problem is the rainstorm.
Outside the gallery is an overflowing line of people getting wet. Inside, the walls are covered with vintage punk fliers and photographs of X, the Germs and Dead Kennedys. But as McDonald observes the rain-soaked stage area from the street, things look grim. Morris walks up to the van, standing beneath an umbrella. “I don’t see this happening,” he says.
“I feel like our punkness is being tested,” McDonald laments. “We’re fair-weather punks.”
Soon he is on the phone, texting and talking to local clubs, looking for a backup venue. They find one in the nearby Echoplex, where Sebadoh is headlining. Coats sends out a message through Twitter: “Parking lot party tonight got rained out. Moving show to Echoplex FREE ALL AGES after Sebadoh. 12 midnight. Spread the word!”
A few hours later, Off! performed for a few hundred fans, a mosh pit unleashed. The band wound down in a dressing room vacated by Sebadoh, eating leftover chips and salsa. It had been another crazy night. Pettibon dropped in, and Morris asked him: “When are we going to do this again, Raymond?”
Pettibon shifted around, looking at the floor, then deadpanned: “Have your manager call my manager.”