Even at 55, frontman Keith Morris is a legend in the punk rock scene. At 25, he and guitarist Greg Ginn founded Black Flag, possibly the most important American punk band after The Ramones. He later went on to work with Circle Jerks, whose 1981 debut Group Sex rocked the hardcore punk scene.
Last year, he returned to the scene with the veritable supergroup OFF!. Their first album, a collection of early vinyl releases entitled The First Four EPs is an attack on the senses in every possible way. That’s a compliment, I swear. But the man is a force of nature. Onstage he goes wild, despite being older than my father and wrestling with diabetes. He gives history lessons in between songs. It’s captivating, really.
Last week, my good friend and photographer Jonathan Popham accompanied me to Atlanta venue The Drunken Unicorn, where OFF! absolutely slayed, and afterwards we had the opportunity to talk with Morris about the new record, touring and bands he’s currently digging. Read on.
Keith Morris: So where are you guys from?
Eric Brown: We’re from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. It’s about an hour away.
KM: Oh, that’s not bad. Pop in a few CDs and you’re there.
Jonathan Popham: Well, probably a few more if they’re punk CDs.
KM: Yeah, but that’s not all there is to listen to. Just because you’re going to see that type of band doesn’t mean you have to listen to that type of music. Personally, I don’t listen to too much of that music.
JP: What do you listen to?
KM: We’ll, we’re in Georgia. What’s one of the biggest bands to come out of Georgia?
EB: The Allman Brothers. From Macon.
KM:That’s right. There’s also another great band from Athens: R.E.M. I listen to both of those bands a lot. There’s the Marshall Tucker Band too, but I don’t listen to too much of them.
EB: So how has the tour been going so far?
KM: Well, this is actually the first date of the proper tour [with supporting act Trash Talk]. We played six shows at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and it was pretty much bumper to bumper. It was a clusterf**k. And plus, we’re driving a van that’s also pulling a trailer. If you’re driving just a van with your equipment in the back, you can maneuver around quite easily and find places to park, but in Austin during SXSW, if you’re in a van with a trailer it’s like you’re in the ninth inning and you’ve been missing fast balls all night.
EB: One big thing I wanted to talk about was that you started your career with Black Flag in the late ’70s, when it was harder to get recording time, harder to promote your band. But now it’s easier to record and get your music out there anywhere online, legally or not.
KM: Everybody wants it for free. So how can we earn a living if this is the line of work we choose to do? If we’re that stupid, why do we do this? When we first started, if you were playing a show, you’d get on the phone and call ten of your friends, tell them about it and hope that each of them would tell ten of their friends too. You hoped it would spread out that way, but it didn’t always work that way. I remember there were certain nights… I remember a Clash concert at the Santa Monica Civic. As soon as The Clash stopped performing, we raced out to the parking lot and put flyers on all of the car windows. There were 4000 people in the building, and we were passing out flyers to people as they came out. And that’s how we had to do it. You know, our form of advertising was going out with the wheat past and spending three hours at four in the morning plastering sides of buildings, power boxes and telephone poles.
I remember one night, another one of my compadres in crime, he and I were flyering on Sunset Boulevard and we were stapling to palm trees. And each time we would put up a flyer, this guy in a pickup truck would come around and tear them down. We looked back and we though that the guy probably had a gun, and even if we tried, it’d be like fighting a guy who had been smoking angel dust, so why bother?
EB: Yeah, and now you can just post things right online to advertise. How has that affected what you do and the punk scene in general?
KM: Well, recently we were part of a campaign to just turn your Internet off. Turn it off, and go out and do something. Go to a record store rather than listen to it on your computer. The beauty of a record store is that you might go in and they’ll be playing something very interesting that you haven’t heard before, and you might want to find out more about that. You might want to buy it. Maybe the guy behind the counter will play something that you’ve never heard before and you’ll be like, “Wow, this is great! Who is this?”
At this point, the show’s promoter drops in, and we all discuss that night’s concert and a bunch of bands. I’ll spare you, but we ultimately ended up here:
KM: You know, we were offered a couple of dates on a Dinosaur Jr. tour. That’s the kind of thing we want to do, because I’m 55 years old, and after 30 years I’ve already played a lot of places like this. In all my years, I’ve only played in headlining bands. We do a 30-minute set, and that’s much more an opening band thing. Of course, not that opening bands get offered too much money… But we’ve been asked to play with Dinosaur Jr., Queens of the Stone Age. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are thinking about asking us. And we’re gonna play with them all, and the punk rock kids will f**king hate us, but I’m 55 years old. I’m gonna have some fun, and I’m gonna see my friends and I’m gonna listen to some decent music. It’s not gonna be the punk rock marathon every night. It’s boring. It’s like watching a kid finger paint. You have red and green and purple and yellow and blue, but you just end up with brown.
JP: In that sense, how do you think the scene has progressed since the ’70s?
KM: Well, it’s certainly been commercialized. It’s certainly more accessible because of the Internet. But we didn’t have any of that. We had to go out there and get our asses kicked and have bricks thrown at us by drunk bikers. You know, I’ve had my nose broken two nights in a row, and I’ve been kicked in the jaw and threatened with knives. It’s like, that’s living life. I can honestly say I’ve lived a f**cking great adventure.