EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Keith Morris of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, OFF!

OFF!/Katie Hovland

LOS ANGELES, January 20, 2014 — Keith Morris started with Greg Ginn the iconic Hermosa Beach punk band, Black Flag in 1976. Morris recorded the Nervous Breakdown E.P. in 1978 and left the band in 1979. He went on to form other great punk bands including his current band, Off!, and Circle Jerks. Wells On Music spoke to Keith Morris last June regarding his career in music and his reincarnated version of Black Flag, which is simply called, FLAG.

Scroll below the video to read the interview.
Kevin Wells: What band made you want to sing in a band?

Keith Morris: There was never really any one band or one vocalist or one person. It was kind of a combination of a lot of the music I had been listening to and a few of the front men, anybody from Ray Davies of the Kinks to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and the Stooges. Then just certain characters that were part of my life, like my dad. One of my all-time favorite heroes is a guy named John Jenkar, he was one of my art instructors when I was in high school.

The reason I would site my dad as a major influence is the fact he wanted me to be a certain way and I didn’t want to be that way. It was the typical us versus them, us versus all of the authoritative figures. No, I don’t want to be like you. No, I don’t want to do the same things you do. I don’t want to dress like you. I don’t want to be like you. I don’t want to listen to the music you listen to, even though my dad listened to jazz, which is totally cool. He pretty much hated everything I listened to and all of my friends. That would be a major source of influence.

KW: How did you come to start Black Flag with Greg Ginn?

KM: Greg, who is the guitar player and one of the major song writers, one of the major driving forces behind Black Flag, we were friends through him coming into a record store with his younger sister. His younger sister was going out with the guy that owned the record store. The guy that owned the record store, at the time, was into sappy, limp, lifeless, like Laurel Canyon folk. He thought the greatest thing going on at the time was Lindsey Buckingham – Stevie Nicks album. He was a big of stuff like Joni Mitchell. I’m not dissing that stuff because it all has its time and its place. You’re gonna hear it somewhere or keep your fingers crossed, you won’t hear it.

Basically, the majority of the stuff that he was playing in the store was not stuff that interested me. So she would come along, she would bring Greg along with her. She would take off with the guy who owned the record store. They’d be gone anywhere from half an hour to two hours. I would watch the store and of course the music that was being played, either on the turntable or the cassette deck, completely changed. I would play anything from Uriah Heep to the MC5 to Deep Purple to Alice Cooper, Blue Öyster Cult. And he would appreciate that and that’s how we became friends.

Further down the road, he said that he had a handful of songs. “Let’s get in a room and let’s blast ‘em out. Let’s start a band.” I was totally down and when I heard the songs, I was floored. I was hammered and nailed to the wall. It was very exciting. It was something that I didn’t expect from him, knowing that he was a big fan of the Grateful Dead.

KW: Why did you leave Black Flag?

KM: To me, it had come to a point where all we were doing was rehearsing. We weren’t really going out and playing any shows. I was an alcohol addict and a cocaine addict and I wanted to have some fun. I wanted to party. I wanted to go out there and hang out with a bunch of people. I was going to get kicked out of the band. Greg was gonna kick me out of the band and I quit before he had the chance to tell me I was no longer in the band. The reason I split was I wasn’t having fun. There were constant arguments. All of the power in the band had shifted.

When Chuck Dukowski came into the band, he brought with him a work ethic. That work ethic was cool because that’s when we turned into a band. Now, all of a sudden, we’re rehearsing three to six hours a night, but we’re not going out and playing any shows. We basically started playing to please ourselves. We were rehearsing and playing in the practice space just to have something to do.

KW: Why weren’t you playing shows?

KW: Well, they would eventually start playing a ton of shows. Once they got their shit together and figured out how to go about booking shows, booking shows in succession. Then you would have Chuck Dukowski running Global, which was SST’s booking agency. I left at a really good time because later on I would be told that the guys in the band liked me and wanted me to stay in the band, but Greg Ginn didn’t. So, I was gonna get fired, like I said, I split before I got fired.

KW: How soon after you left did you start Circle Jerks?

KM: It wasn’t very long afterwards. I think we would have been rehearsing maybe a month after I was out of Black Flag. We had a few songs. Things got ugly. We came out playing. We were told a bunch of different things by a bunch of different people. We had a lot of people that were part of the Church scene that really disliked us and hated us. But hey, we were gonna get in a van, we were gonna go out and we were gonna play. And that’s what I wanted to do.

KW: Will the Circle Jerks get back together to either tour or release new music?

KM: The thing with the Circle Jerks, and I’ll leave it at this, when I left the Circle Jerks, I did not close the door all the way. They did some stuff that was not cool and rather than me becoming a hater and disser because I love all of the guys, we’ll just leave it at what it is. I will take this opportunity to thank them for allowing me to become a member of OFF!

KW: Why did you decide to get FLAG together?

KM: We’re having an amazing time. We all get along great. We all get along like brothers. If there were any head trips, it’s the kind of head trips you would have if you were like grumpy, grouchy old men. It’s not that big of a deal. We’re having a blast. We’re playing a bunch of shows. People are totally digging it.

Now, of course there’s the Black Flag camp, all of those diehard people that are like, “Well, if Greg Ginn’s not involved, FLAG’s just a cover band,” you know? And it’s like, for all of those people that say that kind of a thing, they can stay home and play with themselves. We lived those songs. We learned those songs. We played those songs, you know, we ran from the police. We bummed out an entire community. We had people trying to run us out of Hermosa Beach. Any of the nay-sayers or the detractors or the opponents, if they’re not into what we’re doing, that’s fine. I’m 58 years old. I don’t have time to worry about what some, like, know-it-all, somebody that wasn’t there, but yet knows all about everything that goes on. You know, didn’t witness it in the beginning, that didn’t live in the church. You know, didn’t get beat up by the gorillas at the Standard Oil refinery.

KW: Did you ever consider trying to reunite with Greg Ginn?

KM: Never. Never a consideration. We’re all the guys that won’t play with Greg Ginn just because of his business practices, just because of the way he has treated the majority of us, just some of the things he has said about us. You know, I don’t want to say anything bad about Greg Ginn because he’s a great guitar player. He wrote some amazing songs. He was the mastermind of what I consider to be as good as, if not better than, the majority of the bands that are out there. At a certain point, certain people latch onto certain things and the headtrippin’, the skullduggery, the egotistical, “I’m better than you,” all of that kind of stuff? Later on to that. Who needs that? Who needs to be around that?

We go out, we play, we play to the best of our abilities. We show absolutely no disrespect to anything that has gone on in Black Flag. We were all members, with the exception of Stephen. Stephen is a Descendent and the Descendents, when you look at the SST roster of bands, they’re the second biggest selling band on SST Records after Black Flag.

KW: Will FLAG release any original material?

KM: I can’t tell you. That’s not for me to say yes or no right now. As a band, as this group of guys, we’re in our infancy. We’re maybe just now starting to learn to walk. We’re having a great time and all of the people that are showing up seem to go apes**t and have a great time.

KW: Is OFF! going to continue as a band?

KM: OFF! is my main band, just as Descendents are Billy Stevenson and Stephen Egerton’s main band, just like CD6 is Chuck Dukowski’s main band, just like the Misfits are Dezo’s main band. Our problem with our scheduling is we can’t go out and do what Black Flag is doing, that is, get in a van and go from city to city, you know, go out and do two or three week tours, four week long tours. We can’t do that because one of the guys in our band is a stay at home daddy. He’s got kids to raise. More power to him

KW: What do you think of the new Black Flag songs that have been released?

KM: I’m not the guy to ask about that because I really don’t care. I’ve heard some of it and you know, it is what it is. The people that love it, more power to ‘em. The people that don’t like it, hey, there’s other stuff to listen to. I can’t be concerned with that.

KW: What is your opinion on the state of punk rock in general today?

KM: I really don’t pay attention because I listen to a lot of different types of music and I go to a lot of different types of venues. What my idea of a punk rock band might not necessarily be your idea of a punk rock band or your readers’ or listeners’ or your viewers’ idea of a punk rock band. See, because for me, I ‘m not going to adhere to the list of this is what you have to do, this is what you have to be, this is what you have to look like, this is what you have to do, these are the instruments you have to play, this is the music you have to play.

We didn’t get into playing playing music to be lumped into any category or put in any kind of a box or to be told what to do. We, and for me, punk rock, hardcore, grindcore, pu**ycore, treecore, freewaycore, helicoptercore, police carcore [sirens can be heard in the background], whatever, any of it, it all equates to freedom. And there should be no rules. So, toss out the dress code, open your mind.

I got involved on a thread on Facebook where someone was talking about the West Memphis 3 benefit album that Henry Rollins put together. Somebody posted Ryan Adams’ version of Nervous Breakdown. See, a great song should be open to interpretation. Of course there were all of the haters, all of the dissers, all of the dislikers, all of the nay-sayers, all of those people jumping in, “This isn’t cool,” or “this isn’t punk rock.” Well, it has to do with freedom. Anybody should be able to interpret a song however they choose to interpret it. I told one of my friends when Henry was putting together that recording, if you notice and if you listen and you pay attention, the one standout track, the one track that’s completely different from all of the other stuff that was happening on the album was Ryan Adams. It was completely different. It came from a completely different place.

You had Lemmy [Motorhead] and you had Cedric Bixler from Mars Volta and you had Iggy [Pop], you had Hank Williams III, you had the guy from Clutch. You had all the people that you would normally associate with the hard edged music playing hard edged music. The only reach was Ryan Adams. It’s like, hey, how come Patti Smith wasn’t asked to perform a track? How come Michael Stype from R.E.M. wasn’t asked to perform a track? Why wasn’t Los Lobos or the Blasters? You know, the music of Black Flag is far more reaching than a lot of people think.

KW: What is next for FLAG?

KM: Right now, we’re still booking FLAG shows – Australia, possibly South America. There will be some OFF! shows down in South America, but the fact of the matter is, right now is FLAG time. While in all of this FLAG cavalcade of fun, Dmitri and I are writing a new OFF! record.

KW: Will OFF! be entering the studio this year?

KM: Yes, I do believe it will be this year. We’ve also got a new Descendents record coming up. I don’t know when it’s coming out. I try not to keep my nose in their business, but I love Billy like a younger brother. I’ve known Billy since he was eight year old. He and I go way back and he keeps letting me know that I’m the oldest guy that he knows.

KW: Is there anything else you want people to know about you or your various bands?
KM: Don’t believe all the stories that you hear or read. You can discount a lot of the rumors. I don’t own a mansion in Beverly Hills. I do not own a multi-bedroom with rumpus room filled with pool tables and wall sized flat screen televisions and I don’t rent it out. Just in case anyone is wondering, I don’t rent it out for adult film shoots or rap videos.

Kevin J. Wells is the Sports Editor at Communities Digital News. He also writes about Major League Baseball, punk rock music, and food. Follow him on Twitter @WellsOnBaseball

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