‘Wasted Years’ marks a hard-core high for L.A.'s Off!
In a dark little room called the Whiskey Kitchen, the four rockers who collectively call themselves Off! are nearly done with basic tracks for a new album, “Wasted Years.” Most of it has been recorded to tape on this Sunday before Christmas, and the sound is raw and snarling, and growing heavier with each take.
Crowded into one corner with his amplifier is Dimitri Coats, shaking his auburn curls and slashing at a white electric guitar in a Circle Jerks T-shirt. Most of the songs are done in one or two passes, but they’re about to make a rare third try on the song “Meet Your God.” “We’ve done the majority of our critical listening in the moment,” says Coats, who also produces the band’s albums.
Sitting nearby is singer Keith Morris, calling up lyrics on his laptop, a cap pulled tightly over his dreadlocks. “We just let certain things fly and let it be the way that it is. Wait till you start hearing my vocals,” he says with a laugh, “when I’m going for the falsetto.”
Morris won’t record his vocals until the next day but is here to fine-tune his phrasing, singing with the band between takes. At the mixing board is engineer Jon Gilbert, in sunglasses and a bright red shirt bearing the (unrelated) Off! bug spray logo.
To bassist Steven McDonald, Gilbert looks like a crass record company exec. “I like the punk rock A&R guy,” McDonald says. “‘We took it to the pit focus groups! It didn’t test well!’”
“Wasted Years” was finally released earlier this month from Vice Records, and first-week sales landed the new album at No. 67 in Billboard’s pop album chart, sky-high by hard-core standards. (More than half the sales were vinyl LPs.) Off! performs a hometown show Wednesday night at the Roxy.
“We’re fortunate that we get to write what we want to write, we get to play what we want to play,” says Morris, 58, a punk rock originator best known before Off! as the sneering, sardonic singer for the Circle Jerks and Black Flag. “There’s nobody standing over us. We’re just four guys that get in a room and we just go. There’s something really cool about that.”
“Right when we get to that point where we can get through it once or twice — that’s when we hit record,” Coats says later of the sessions. “It gives it that sound of being really close to the edge of not exactly knowing what we’re doing. From the beginning, that’s always been a mission statement of ours — to trim the fat, don’t over-think it.”
The album’s 16 songs build on the original hard-core sound that Off! captured on its 2010 debut, “The First Four EPs,” while somehow sounding fresh and urgent in a digital age. From the beginning, the band found an excited audience of punks and tastemakers, praised by Pitchfork and the New York Times alike.
The plan for “Wasted Years” was to create the unpolished feeling of a demo recording, but the final album ended up Off!'s darkest and heaviest, with matching cover artwork again from Raymond Pettibon. Coats calls it “an exorcism of anger and depression, and not as much of a punk party. It’s more of a hard-core record for us.”
It opens with an almost comical bass note from McDonald that hangs in the air like a throbbing question mark then kicks into “Void You Out,” erupting with a nervous guitar riff and a violent beat from Mario Rubalcaba as Morris roars: “Break you down! Grind you up! Void you out, from the land of the free!”
McDonald hears something else in the new album, recognizing the confidence and drive that he remembers emerging at certain moments in the careers of such major rock acts as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.
“We’re nowhere near their commercial success, but there’s some serious talent in the group to acknowledge,” says McDonald, also well known as a member of Redd Kross. “These classic bands that I grew up listening to, their third album — when it’s a really great band — they just start cooking. Luckily with our band, we’ve produced records like they used to do it back in the day.”
For Morris, even the title of “Wasted Years” echoes his personal punk history, beginning with his co-writing Black Flag’s one-minute loser anthem “Wasted,” released in 1978. It also follows his experience touring last year with Flag, a gathering of former Black Flag members Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena and Bill Stevenson (with Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton).
“I try to keep the two separated,” Morris says of Flag and Off! “There were a few things that happened with Flag that shouldn’t have happened, which was fuel and fire and inspiring. We were bros back in the day, and all of a sudden it got ugly.”
A lawsuit filed by Black Flag co-founder Greg Ginn against Flag recently reached a settlement agreement, allowing Flag to continue. But Morris is focused on Off!, which he has described repeatedly as the most satisfying experience of his career. The growing personal and professional connections within Off! can also be heard in the music, says McDonald.
“There’s more trust and more comfort. We’ve been through a bunch of stuff and struggled too with how to make this work at this stage of life, which has its own complications,” says McDonald, who has a young son. “Those things might seem kind of Oprah and not very rock ‘n’ roll, but that’s one of the reasons a band gets better.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Roxy Theatre
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