An Interview with Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks & OFF!

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Keith Morris (OFF!, Circle Jerks, Black Flag) - THE THANKS LIST

This is one for the Punk fans and a pretty special one in general. In the late 70s and early 80s, a new genre washed across the musical landscape. A few people were initially responsible for what came to be known as “Hardcore Punk,” one of these people was Keith Morris.

With Black Flag, Keith Morris and his bandmates kicked off a genre. With the Circle Jerks and later Off! and Flag, Keith Morris has built up a legacy that is truly hard for anyone to match. Simply put, some of the finest Punk Rock records of all time have been crafted by the hand of and fronted by Keith. If you would like to learn more about the Circle Jerks, you can head here, and if you would like to check into Off!, then I will direct you here.

Today, I’ve got the one and only Keith Morris with us. We talk about his early love for AM radio, the formation and early days of Black Flag, the legacy of the Circle Jerks, where things stand with Off!, and a whole lot more. You’re going to want to strap in for this one. It’s one hell of a ride. Dig in.

Andrew:
Keith, thank you for taking the time to speak with us here. It’s been such an odd time. How are you holding up during this seemingly ever raging dumpster fire?

Keith:
We’re in crazy times, and a large portion of the 90 mile per hour rolling garbage container engulfed in flames that’s heading over a cliff could’ve been avoided by leaving educated people and organizations that deal with health issues in place. Now, of course, I’m referring to this COVID-19 situation that the world’s going through. I guess it would be safe to say that we can toss our last political comedy/drama/horror show into the mix. As for how I’m doing through all of this, I’ve got so much stuff happening that I’m a little duck that sees something that looks delicious in the water below me, so I dive down and get what’s for lunch and get to the surface and shake off all the water and keep paddling along.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about your background, your musical origins, so to speak. How did it all begin for you?

Keith:
My music adventure had roots with the AM radio sounds in our family’s VW “Bug.” Everyone from The Bee Gees and The Supremes to The Monkees and Lovin’ Spoonful, along with The Association and Sonny and Cher. So many incredible sounds, songs, and voices. I was always interested in amplified music whether I listened to AM or FM radio, the record player at home, a portable cassette deck, whatever the guys were playing at the local record stores, or seeing bands play live in venues or on TV. My favorites were part of the “British Invasion,” being The Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, Animals, Beatles, Hollies, Yardbirds, and a few others. I also dug many bands who were involved in the “Riot on the Sunset Strip”…The Seeds, Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Love, Standells, The Mothers Of Invention, Spirit and Canned Heat, to name a few. It was all the boy on a downhill slide from there.

Andrew:
Let’s dive right in and talk about Black Flag. You formed the band with Greg Ginn, right? Tell us more about how the band came together and what you remember from those early days. 

Keith:
When Greg Ginn and I decided to start a band, the idea to do this came to us the night he and I attended a Journey and Thin Lizzy concert, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, in June of 1976. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing or the fact that we were taking part in creating a genre of music. Our first attempt at coming up with our sounds was him playing a handful of guitar riffs through a small amp that I’d also plug my microphone and vocalize through. Both of us were using the same amp until I purchased a Peavey P.A. with two tall skinny speaker cabinets that I would later give to Greg instead of the money I owed him. He went on to play his guitar through this P.A. rig. He and I didn’t know any musicians we thought would want to play with us, so we asked a couple of friends who owned a drum kit and bass gear but hadn’t done any time in any band situation. This was a first for them as it was for us. And it was chaotic! Originally, we called ourselves Panic, but not until Chuck Dukowski joined as our bassist did we become Black Flag. In 3 years, we’d go through 4 bass players and two drummers at four practice spaces. B.F. was naïve when it came to stepping up and approaching club owners for shows, so we ended up playing anywhere we were asked to play or could finagle our way into, which equated to a basement, picnic in a park, a couple of living rooms, an office space, a garage that opened up to a driveway in a backyard, a teen center, on a stage in a church and a meeting space for veterans of foreign wars that also served alcoholic beverages.

“The first three vocalists of the first four years of Black Flag: Ron Reyes, Dez Cadena, and yours truly.” | Photo by Spot

Andrew:
Black Flag and your next band, the Circle Jerks, were part of the first early wave of American Hardcore Punk. What do you remember about the Punk scene back then? What was it like coming up around that time?

Keith:
Things were moving fast, and neither band paid any attention to being a part of any scene as we just wanted to play and make new friends. Both bands lived 20 miles away from the “Hollywood Scene,” so we had to get added to bills to infiltrate their clique. Yes, we hung out with punkers and art school people, fashion folks and future teachers, politicians, authoritative characters, surfers and skaters, but none of this mattered because we fed off of their energy, and this electric juice was abundant. For the most part, even though there were negative people involved, there was enough positivity because of the creativity to get past this. AND the bands, mother fuckin’ Jesus Christ and all of the Saturday morning cartoon characters…X, Alley Cats, Flesh Eaters, Eyes, Bags, Dickies, Plugz, Weirdos, F-Word, Screamers, Germs, Controllers, Fear y mas RULED! This roster holds up against all the others! We not only had to be on our toes but had to play to the best of our abilities, or we’d get crushed, and where’s the fun in that?    

Andrew;
Ultimately, you left Black Flag. What went into the decision to leave the band when you did? Looking back, what are your thoughts and feelings regarding Nervous Breakdown? What is its legacy? 

Keith:
My decision to leave Black Flag was based on a few things that were happening at the time, being my friendship with Ginn completely disintegrating due to his newly found ego and going on a power trip. My drug and beer abuse, Chuck Dukowski’s firm hand in creating a relentless practice schedule, we weren’t playing gigs, I was losing all of the arguments we got involved in, AND I wasn’t having fun! I would learn much later that Ginn wanted to fire me but didn’t have enough hair on his nuts to give the other founding member a “Pink Slip.” My thoughts of Nervous Breakdown are that I’m incredibly proud of that EP and the other songs from that recording session. Bryan Migdol, who was our drummer at that time, wasn’t really into what we were doing but played his brains out. We couldn’t ask for anything more than his incredible performance; he gets an “A”! Everybody attacked those songs as if the Russians had launched every nuclear missile in their arsenal at Los Angeles, and there wasn’t going to be a next day. We receive outstanding accolades to this day. For its legacy, we know now that along with The Middle Class, D.O.A., Bad Brains, and a couple of other bands helped create a blueprint for a new genre of music that was beyond our mentality at that point in our careers. What makes me proud is the number of friends who say their kids go apeshit over BF, CJs, and OFF! This banter makes me feel as if I’m the guy standing on the highest heap of garbage at the landfill with my fist in the air screaming…FUCK YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!

Andrew:
Moving on to the Circle Jerks. The band started in 1980, right? Tell us more about how the band came about. After leaving Black Flag, what were your goals for the Circle Jerks? As time went on, how did that change? What are some of your favorite moments with the Circle Jerks during their 80s heyday?

Keith:
I think the Circle Jerks started in 1980, but it could’ve been late ’79, my mind’s cloudy over this as I was blind in a beer haze and a storm of Coca leaf powder. I’d exited BF a few weeks earlier, and Red Cross had a drummer audition in which Lucky Lehrer tried out. Both Jeffrey and Steven McDonald were not moved by Lucky being overqualified and his Jazz style of playing. Greg Hetson was bummed at their decision not to want to add Lucky to RC and wanted to start another band. The McDonald brothers told Hetson that RC was breaking up, as it turns out. All 3 of us ran into each other in front of the Whisky A Go-Go, and the light bulb flashed above our heads, “Let’s start a band!” I met Roger Rogerson a week later in front of the Anti Club down on Melrose Ave; when he offered me a tug off his quart of Budweiser, he was in! We had no goals as the way we moved through all of this was to play it as it was laid—no plans, except to learn songs and get out and make noise. My favorite moments at the beginning of the CJs took place at The Fleetwood, down at King Harbor, in Redondo Beach. This was for the filming of The Decline Of Western Civilization and The Gears, Gun Club, Urinals, Fear, and Alice Bag Band. What a night! There were many more outstanding events, but I’m not going there as I feel as if I’m writing a book. 

Behind My Damage: An Interview with Keith Morris – SLUG Magazine

Andrew:
The Circle Jerks released their last album, Oddities, Abnormalities, and Curiosities, back in 1995. The band has reunited on and off since that time. Any chance we ever see some new material from the Circle Jerks again? Are there more reunions in the cards?

Keith:
The first thing is that particular recording had absolutely no reason to be released. AAC was our Great Rock And Roll Swindle, only it wasn’t even close to being great, and if anything, it might’ve been just OK. I’m in a band, OFF! as there was a battle of egos and some seriously stupid shit that went down, which helped create my new musical situation. There won’t be any new CJs material unless Greg and Zander lose their current complacent headspaces. Greg spent so many Summers playing the Warp Tour that it was easy for him to fall into being comfortable with a “Radio friendly,” commercial type Punk vibe as this was the only thing he heard for months at a time. I will not have anything to do with that! We will play 37 songs, give or take 2 or 5, over the course of 7 months, when loud music venues and festivals are allowed to move forward. Wear your masks and allow people some space until this crud that’s killed over half a million people in the USA gets flattened!

Andrew:
Since 2010, you’ve been performing with Off! Tell us how Off! came together. The band’s last record was Wasted Years which was released in 2014. What is the status of Off!?

Keith:
I explained what happened in my last answer but left out that Dimitri, who plays guitar in OFF! and I had written 16 songs towards what was supposed to be a new CJs album. Things fell apart when Hetson told me that they didn’t want to work with Dimitri, who was going to produce our recording. The lopsided conversation was Hetson reading from a list of egotistical excuses. It was about a bunch of old guys not wanting to take direction from someone younger than them. I had been looking for something to happen that would allow me to say, “See you later!” as I was tired of their bullshit, and they provided me a reason. When I say we, I mean Dimitri and I found ourselves in a band with really outstanding players. Still, unfortunately, when surrounded by musicians of this caliber, they’re playing in 7 or 8 other bands. They would be called “Musical Mercenaries,” when we needed them to record 25 songs. It was like pulling wisdom teeth, removing a brain tumor, asking for blood, stool, urine, semen samples, and nasal and throat swabs, and having root canal surgery. We felt like we were being tossed scraps and if there were “12 Things To Do Today,” OFF! was number 14. We found ourselves stuck without any forward progress with a mutiny by our rhythm section, AND then the plague hit. Dimitri and I are finally experiencing significant progress with not only a new drummer and bassist, but they’ve sparked an entirely new story for the script to our movie and add a unique, enthusiastic vibe. OFF! will be playing live dates once the CJs’ 7 month “Greg, Keith And Zander’s 401K Plan” tour is over. 

Andrew:
You’re also a member of FLAG, with Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, Bill Stevenson, and Stephen Egerton. Right now, you guys are only a touring group. I think many of us would love to see you guys head into the studio. Any chance of that ever happening? I know things between FLAG and “Black Flag” have been tense at times. How are things between the two camps these days?

Keith:
FLAG was sued by Ginn, and one of the last things we agreed to was not being able to use the name FLAG for anything but touring. Between The Descendents, CJs, OFF! and Billy Stevenson producing bands at his studio, we can only get together every few years when scheduling allows us to, so songwriting and recording is just not logistical. We have been offered a handful of shows, but our resident senior citizen has told us that he can only be away from home for 2 or 3 days at the most. This means we would have to do “Fly-Outs.” When there are seven guys flying around from 5 different places, it gets complicated and expensive. We don’t talk to or deal with the other camp, so things aren’t really things. We were involved in some uncool legal shit with Ginn, and his lawyer threatened us with, “I’m going to make this lawsuit cost you $500,000.00 before we even reach the halfway point”. So, I think I can honestly speak for all of us who were being sued by them and say, “What’s there to talk about?”

Keith Morris on the Anger and 'Wasted Years' Behind Off!'s New Record -  Rolling Stone

Andrew:
Let’s talk about the idea of “being punk.” You’re about as OG as it gets, so what does Punk mean to you? Is it a genre? A way of life or an aesthetic? 

Keith:
OG as in old and gray? Punk means that I can fly across the sky, completely nude, with a full erection, standing on my winged Unicorn, shouting into a megaphone that everyone should take the rest of the day off and go home and pleasure themselves. Of course, the cops have nothing better to do than to use us as target practice, which forces Taffy the Unicorn to drop me off at my apartment. I race up the stairs to the second-story balcony so I can proudly display my boner that goes off like a Roman candle. As this turns into a 15 minute 4th of July fireworks display, it’s right about this time when the police say “Enough is enough” and call in the military helicopters firing small missiles. Of course, my balcony’s completely destroyed, and my head gets blown off, flies through a basketball hoop, and rolls down the sidewalk. All the kids in the neighborhood yell, “That’s punk rock!” My adult neighbors tell them, “That’s Keith, and he’s just a freak!” Fuck aesthetics, genres, and a way of life as punk equates to FREEDOM! I was laughed out of line at the Sid Vicious look-a-like competition.

Andrew:
These days, we are more or less dominated by the never-ending barrage of social media. How has this affected music as an art form? Is an artist’s ability to get their music out there hindered by all this, or helped?

Keith:
It seems as every twelfth person I meet is either writing a book, movie script, poetry, an actor/actress, in a band or going to rob a liquor store or create some mischief. When it comes to music, there are so many sites; it would take way too much time or be a daily job to keep up with them. Now take these sites, and count the bands and singer/songwriters, and we are moving into the millions. Do you have time to sift through all of this? I know I don’t, so I’ll occasionally get tipped to some happening music on Facebook that either leads me to YouTube or the “Browse” section on iTunes. Does this scenario help or hinder? I know that I love finding that precious stone under the rubble.

Andrew:
One disturbing fact I’ve learned recently is that streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music don’t pay or don’t pay nearly enough. What are your thoughts on that? What can we as fans do to help support the artists we love better?

Keith:
I’m not moved in any direction with these services, as I don’t spend time in their streams. I’m a member of a couple of bands that know better than to expect anything but pennies from them, as we’re not “Hit Makers.” As for the fans, you should be finding different avenues to listen to your favorite bands. Purchase the hard copies of their recordings, or even better yet, once the quarantine’s lifted, go out and witness your favorite bands in a live situation! Buy a tee-shirt or CD or whatever you choose at the merch booth, as this is how the majority of bands feed themselves and pay their bills!

OFF! Announce New Album and Film Watermelon | Pitchfork

Andrew:
In a world that’s been so confined by the constraints of big business and the alienation caused due to the internet age, how do artists find their footing these days? What advice would you have for younger artists?

Keith:
Touring, touring, and then go back out and play more shows. This is how you develop “Live Legs” and show the world what you’re about. It’s what you do to establish a fan base. Avoid “Big Business” until it’s necessary, except Facebook and Instagram, who are unfortunately vital in letting the world know that you exist as an artist or band.

Andrew:
As an artist, who are some of your biggest influences? Who are the obvious ones, and maybe some not-so-obvious ones? 

Keith:
The people I find inspirational will be lumped into categories starting with songwriters…Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter (Mott The Hoople), Strummer and Jones, Lennon and McCartney, David Bowie, Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices, Boston Spaceships), Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Jeffrey Lee Pierce (The Gun Club), Jimi Hendrix, Jagger, and Richards. Movie directors…Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Federico Fellini, John Carpenter, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, and Alex Cox. I also have artists such as Jack Kirby, Frank Frazetta, Peter Max, Paul Gauguin, Raymond Pettibon, Wally Wood, Rick Griffin, John Van Hamersveld, and Rollo Castillo as influences. And finally, some of my biggest influences are friends, relatives, and my mom and dad.

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Cassettes? CDs? Or are you all digital? Regardless of format, where do you like to shop for music?

Keith:
I have around 4 thousand albums, maybe three hundred cassettes, 12 hundred CDs, and five hundred 7″ singles and EPs. I would rather own physical copies of music because I enjoy seeing the artwork, photos, and credits for the music I’m listening to. Nothing pleases me more than being able to shop for music. Some of my favorite record stores are Rockaway Records in Silver Lake, Permanent Records in Los Angeles at two different locations, Jacknife Records in Atwater Village, and Amoeba Records in the beautiful city of Hollywood. Seeing as all of these shops are closed due to the plague; unfortunately, my last few purchases have been either eBay or Amazon. I’ve had to break my boycott of Amazon due to not being able to buy in person. I’ll go back to the boycott when the vinyl stores reopen after everybody’s vaccinated!   

Keith Morris: No slowing down for punk rock godfather - Tahoe Onstage |  Lake Tahoe music concerts and sports

Andrew:
What are some of your favorite albums and why? Ones that really mean the most you.

Keith:
My favorite albums could fill a book, so I’m not going anywhere near there! My good pal, Pete “The social butterfly of Hollywood” Weiss, who plays drums in Thelonious Monster, and lives across the street from me, explained how all the earliest albums in our youth could never be knocked off their pedestals by any modern music because those recordings had such an impact and probably helped shape our psyches. And I wholeheartedly agree with him. Some of my first and favorite albums:

1. The Beatles- Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band…The first album I owned was purchased for me by my best friend, Chuck Underwood, with a $50 bill that his dad had stashed in the bottom of a fruit bowl. Not the Fab Four’s best, which is Revolver, but a great recording nonetheless. An excellent headphone album!

2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience- Are You Experienced?…This was the first record I purchased with my allowance money and was a groundbreaking, life-changing slab of vinyl that turned everything upside down. Hendrix’s vibe was otherworldly, and he seemed to be from some far-away place where humans don’t exist. His band certainly stepped up to the challenge of accompanying him on his journey. As any great person makes the people around them better, so did Jimi Hendrix.

3. Led Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin…I remember the day I bought this, and I was scrambling to figure out what was so cool about this album, and then I realized it was the various guitar sounds and the weight of the drums. When it comes to LZ, everybody will have their favorite album, but my recommendation is that they started with their best effort, and you’d follow them chronologically, first to last. Also, “Communication Breakdown” was, is, will always be a template for Punk Rock.

4. David Bowie- The Man Who Sold The World…I purchased TMWSTW for its comic book cover and immediately fell in love with what is DB’s heaviest and most hard-rocking album. Lyrically, he deals with his sexuality and mental state and throws in a Vietnam War protest song, along with a tune that leans towards science fiction. This is my favorite Bowie recording based on guitarist Mick Ronson’s performances.  

5. Alice Cooper- Love It To Death…This is hands down what I think is their best, due to 3 songs, “Caught In A Dream,” “Long Way To Go,” and “The Ballad Of Dwight Fry.” LITD is also the start of a run of records that would eventually have them as one of the biggest live Rock bands on the planet. 

6. Chuck Berry- Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade…At one point, I realized both The Beatles and Rolling Stones worshipped at the altar of Chuck Berry, as he pretty much created the blueprint for Rock ‘N’ Roll guitarists. There were others, including Johnny Thunders and Angus Young. Side 3 didn’t leave my turntable for over a month. The CJs also had his request to play with us in St. Louis, and as he was going, he asked the venue owner to let us know that he thought we were one of the greatest Rock bands he had ever witnessed. This was the best compliment the CJs were ever going to receive.   

Andrew:
Outside of music, what are some of your greatest passions? How do those passions inform your music, if at all? 

Keith:
I enjoy reading, but my problem is I move through the lines at a three-legged dog’s pace. The reason being is there might be a word or sentence that jumps out at me and sparks a few other words or sentences that turn into lyrics. I try and read the L.A. Times every morning, starting with the sports section, as I’m a fan of all L.A. teams. This section’s also great because it deals with winners and losers, and this pretty much is what love is about. I went through an odd relationship with a girl, and I call her a girl as she’d lied to me about her age, and I’d find out at the very end that she was about five years removed from high school. I went somewhere I wasn’t supposed to go, and it turned into a ridiculous scenario. I walked away feeling like a complete schlub, and what better place to go for ideas and lyrical inspiration? When I get into reading books, my heroes are Terry Southern, Jules Verne, Kurt Vonnegut, HG Wells, Tom Robbins, JG Ballard, Charles Bukowski, Phillip K Dick, and William Burroughs. Don’t get me started on movies, TV series, AND food!

Andrew:
Last question: You’ve been at it for over 40 years. You’ve been a member of several amazing Punk Rock bands. So, as a veteran of the “scene,” what would be your advice for bands/artists who have just decided to take the plunge?

Keith:
I’ve had to be a frontman of various musical organizations, as an occupation, for over 40 years, which is 39 years too long! I’ve managed to take a minimal amount of talent and turn it into a source of income. My advice is, “DON’T DO IT!” Just kidding! Be yourself and add as much of your personality as possible. If you’re a frozen fish fillet or a heel of an old shoe as a person, you better be a great musician. Do not move forward thinking that there’s going to be a “Big Payoff” because you’d be lying to yourself and doing it for the wrong reasons. You’re better off playing the Lotto. Most importantly, it is to have fun and don’t give up your day job.

Q&A: Keith Morris (Black Flag/Circle Jerks) on His New Memoir | Decibel  Magazine

Interested in learning more about the work of the Circle Jerks? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island and works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night.
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