GET…. OFF!

Keith
Morris and cohort Dimitri Coats spill the beans on what exactly went into
assembling their punk supergroup.

 

BY JOHN B. MOORE

 

Depending on how you look at it, Dimitri Coats had either
scored one of the most enviable gigs out there for a producer, or stepped into
a role even Sisyphus would pity: agreeing to produce the next Circle Jerks record.

 

For Coats – singer with Burning Brides – the job of helping put
together the first Circle
Jerks record in 15 years became the punk rock equivalent of rolling that bolder
up the hill just to watch it roll back down again. Coats, along with Circle
Jerks frontman Keith Morris – punk rock royalty who also sang for Black Flag in
the beginning – realized early on that the reunion was a lost cause and ended
up finding a pretty solid Plan B: starting their own band.

 

With a few quickie demos, the two went about tracking down
their dream line up of drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Earthless/Hot Snakes/Rocket
From the Crypt) and bassist Steven McDonald (another member of punk rock
royalty, a founding member of Redd Kross). The LA-based punk/hardcore group was
christened OFF! and have just put out their first effort, a four EP box set –
16 songs total) on Vice Records.

 

Morris and Coats were kind enough to take a call recently to
talk about OFF! and the aborted Circle Jerks album. Despite the fact that
Morris’ phone repeatedly kept dying, the two managed to share a lot about the
project.

 

***

 

BLURT: I
know you were working with Keith and the Circle Jerks, producing their record.
Is that where the beginnings of OFF! actually started?

COATS: It probably goes a bit deeper than that. Keith and I
have been friends for quite a few years – about 10. He was a big fan of Burning
Brides and always really supportive of what we were doing. We hit it off right
away. He’s the kind of guy (that) if he likes your band, he’s at the club early
helping you load the gear in; he’ll help you sell your t-shirts while you’re
playing. That’s just the way he always was with us. He was the DJ at my
wedding, so we’re pretty tight. So I was attempting to do the impossible, which
was produce a new Circle Jerks record. Right off the bat, it just seemed like
it wasn’t going to happen. It was tough to get those guys to write together,
which was my intention originally and eventually Keith and I started writing
together, just the two of us, when the other guys wouldn’t show up. It was
explosive! Where we naturally went together was a darker place, more like early
Black Flag, and that excited him.

 

(Morris
calls in.)

 

COATS: Join the party. I’m talking about how we first formed
and first started writing together and going back to our friendship and how
this all kind of happened. We were talking about how we started going into a
bit of a darker record then the one we were working on at the time and how that
excited you.

MORRIS: Right on. Did you tell him that you wanted to kill
three other guys? Now I’m going to jump in. Rather than write music we were
thinking of ways to try and kill people. Kill other musicians… At one point we
got the word that we were on our own and the other guys that were supposed to
participate were too good to participate or they didn’t like the material that
was being created or they were upset that they weren’t playing more of a roll
in the creativity. The word had gone out that you could participate, everything
was going on in my living room, but no one showed up.

 

Did you
realize pretty early on in the process that they weren’t interested and that
you should focus on something else or did you think they would eventually come
around?

COATS: It wasn’t like they didn’t like the songs that we
were creating. We created songs because Keith didn’t want to sing on anything
being created by the other guys, so we started writing songs.

MORRIS: Because you forced me to write lyrics to songs that
I would have listened to maybe once or twice, then tossed out the window. But
you said, “You need to pay closer attention to these songs because they could
become something.” But the fact of the matter is this was probably about a
third of the way through our process. I’d been dealing with these guys for
years and I knew that it was very pedestrian, very mediocre. There was a
mentality that, “We’re so cool that we can write whatever we want to write and
everyone will be excited about it because we are who we are and we can get away
with whatever we want to get away with.” Fuck that mentality.

COATS: I think instead of trying to deal with pieces of
ideas or waiting for something to happen, Keith and I realized when we started
writing together there was a spark and it was something – in our minds – that
was greater than what we were trying to achieve with the other project. (The
Circle Jerks) project obviously fell apart and something far beyond our comprehension
was born as a result of it. I don’t think wither one of us could have imagined
this band on paper. So The Circle Jerks record was necessary because it led to
OFF!

 

So safe
to say, you’re not going back to finish the Circle Jerks record?

MORRIS: The scenario with me, if I ever work together with
those guys in a creative mode again, they would have to get down on their hands
and knees in front of Dimitri’s house in Glendale
and apologize and wash his dishes, mow his lawn and empty his trash. They pretty
much just sabotaged the whole scenario. I was pretty upset.

COATS: We had a deadline. Bad Religion had a new album
coming out and we had a deadline and there weren’t enough songs and the ones we
had just weren’t up to par. At that point it looked like it was going to happen
and let me tell you this, Hetson was really excited about what we were doing… (Editor’s note: Circle Jerks’ guitarist Greg
Hetson also plays in Bad Religion and thanks to the incestuous nature of the LA
punk scene, was also a member of Steven McDonald’s band Redd Kross.)

MORRIS: Let’s move forward about three or four weeks after
(OFF!) recorded our first batch of songs. 
I took them and played them to (Brett) Gurewitz (Epitaph Records founder
and another member of Bad Religion) and he was like, “Whatever you guys want to
do, I’ll do it.” The money situation was good, but it wasn’t even an issue. The
scenario with Brett is that he’s my friend, I’ve known him for years. The fact
of the matter is, Brett was almost as excited as Dimitri and I were. In the
process we continued our writing, but found ourselves in a situation where we
thought, what else is out there for us?  Epitaph
is a great label, a great fit and makes perfect sense, but the fact of the
matter is we’re looking at a bunch of records being released by Epitaph and all
of a sudden we’re just a little black orphan. It’s like Brett could be doing
back flips and somersaults, but when the Social Distortion record comes out (on
Epitaph), everyone is going to work on the fucking Social Distortion record
because it’s going to sell like a zillion copies. We gotta go out and beat
ourselves up playing wherever we can. We thought, if we’re going to do all the
work we need to do, we might as well be playing before people we’ve never
played in front of and that’s the reason why we went with Vice (Records).

 

Did you
consider any other labels besides Epitaph and Vice?

MORRIS: Well we thought, like, United Artists, Warner Bros.,
Columbia, we
wanted to be member of the Columbia Record Club, we were thinking SST, you know
all of them. Sub Pop, Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles. We had a list of,
like, 800 record labels and we whittled it down to two.

COATS: It came down to, what
kind of band did we want to be
? I asked Keith, “Name the type of festivals
you want to play and the type of fantasy bills you want to be a part of.” It
was obvious that we wanted to play against the roots of punk’s strength that
are a part of Keith. Why can’t we play All Tomorrow’s Parties and why can’t we
do a show with Fucked Up and Deerhunter and Neon Indian? Who cares?

 

So when
did Mario and Steven come into the band?

MORRIS: Mario plays in another band called Earthless and
they played at a local venue and after the show my friend ran into Mario and
told him that he was to get in touch with me at his leisure and I got a call
from Mario like three or four days later. I didn’t have to get into any
details…

COATS: We’d played together before, so I had a history with
him.

MORRIS: The situation was that Mario knew both Dimitri and
I, so it was kind of a no-brainer. Mario said, “I’m in,” without even hearing
any of the music. So now we have our dream…

 

(Morris drops off the
call at this point.)

 

COATS: I think that’s his phone dying. Mario and I played
when Burning Brides was on tour with Queens of
the Stone Age. There were a few shows that our drummer couldn’t do, so Mario
filled in for him.  

 

Did you
think of Mario right away for this band?

COATS: Mario and Steven were absolute number one choices. We
thought we’d reach out to those guys first and luckily they both said yes.
There were never any auditions. We never even talked to anyone else about this.
We were just lucky that our dream band came about exactly as we had envisioned
it.

 

(Morris
calls back in)

 

Have
you or Keith worked with Steven before?

MORRIS: My history with Steven goes way back to when he was
11-years-old and he was deciding to be in a band with his brother. They showed
up to a Black Flag rehearsal at The Church – there’s a lot of history in The
Church going back to Black Flag, The Descendents and the Blacks. Jim Lindberg
from Pennywise worked at the dairy across the street, so he sold us beer and
cigarettes. Redd Kross (McDonald’s band
with his brother Jeff and Hetson)
was like Black Flag’s brother band. You
have a lot of bands that always have those who play with them: Black Flag had
the Descendents, Black Flag had Redd Kross, Black Flag had the Minutemen. Steven
and I go all the way back to the ‘70s.

       The situation
with Steven is I ran into him at a Jay Reatard show and he was there with two
of his friends. I said, “Steven, I’m starting a band with Dimitri,” and he just
wasn’t that interested. He had something else he wanted to do, smoke pot, drink
some beers, party with his friends, just something else he had to do. I said, “Mario
Rubalcaba is playing drums.”  And the two
guys he was with almost started pummeling him, saying, “You have to do this band!”
A week and a half later I saw him at another show and he said he was going to
take a cig break, so I went to my car and got him a CD. He called me two days
later and wanted to know when we were going to start rehearsing.

 

(Morris’
phone dies again.)

 

COATS: I’ve heard these stories a million times. I can
finish what he starts.

 

So what
was that first rehearsal like? Was it awkward at all?

COATS: No. You hear these stories about what Led Zeppelin
sounded like when they were first getting together and it really was like “Holy
Shit!” We kind of showed (Rubalcaba and McDonald) the songs on the spot and
they had not heard Keith sing on anything yet, so when we started playing
really loud with Keith on vocals it was really exciting. It still sounds pretty
much the same way (on the EPs) it did that first time. Obviously being in a
band together and playing shows you build confidence and realize people are
into this and you change and you record and you release music, but just that
initial vibe and sound we arrived at that first time hasn’t changed a whole
lot. We were excited and committing to the music physically – I was running
around the room.     

 

(Morris
calls back in a third time.)

 

Did you
start recording right away?

COATS: We pretty much recorded the first and second EPs back
in January, in one day, before we even played a show. And the third and fourth
EPs were recorded in one day in the summer, after we had been a band, played a
few shows and signed to Vice.

 

I
thought it was interesting that you decided to release a series of four song,
7-inch EPs right off the bat rather than a traditional full length. Where did
that idea come from?

MORRIS: Well, the whole thing with vinyl is it’s just more
special than a CD or an MP3. You can actually hold it in your hands and see
some artwork and who wrote what, who produced what, where it was recorded. You
can see some lyrics. We got into this thing where everybody was recording CDs,
like that was the only format and the CD holds 72 minutes of music and you’ve
got some cruddy band recording 72 minutes of music and you’re like, “Are you
kidding? Give me a break.” All of a sudden songs are 16 minutes long.    

 

(Morris’
phone dies yet again.)

 

So when
you and Keith were writing, how did you get in that frame of mind.

COATS: We’d both drink a ton of coffee and get jacked up,
then start listening to all these old bands that inspired him, LA hardcore, and
I’ll put on a few records that get me fired up and ask him about certain things
and let him DJ, then we get to the point where I’m too wired on coffee and
inspired by what we’re listening to and I’ll just grab the guitar and start
hammering on the thing until he has nothing to say anymore. So he sort of
produces my guitar playing and the tables are turned and he’ll say, “What are
you feeling should be sung over this chord progression, these riffs?” And maybe
I’ll give him a phrasing or he comes up with something and then it’s time to
work on the lyrics. I’m pretty hard on him, the same way he lashes out on me
when I’m playing guitar, I do the same to him. We’re making sure that we have
strong choruses. It’s a really great collaboration that I cherish. It’s not
always easy, but the results are usually pretty spectacular. We’re the best of
friends.

 

Did you
guys draw from any current events/situations when it came time for writing the
lyrics?

COATS:  Yeah, Keith is
politically minded and reads the papers a lot. Usually they’ll be newspapers
all on the floor and he’ll write in all capital letters, in Sharpies on the
actual newspaper article that he’s reading. He’s always angry about something
that’s going on in the world.

 

Your
first live show was at SXSW. Is touring something you guys want to do?

COATS: Yes, we definitely do. We want to go to a lot of
places that Keith has never been, like overseas and a lot of bigger situations
he’s never been a part of. I’ve had the chance to open for some bigger bands
and, say, play a hockey arena. He’s said he’d like to experience a lot of these
different things. Thankfully we’ve been invited to play a lot of festivals over
the past year, so our experience has been not one of having to get in a van
night after night, but we hope to do that. It’s been sort of backwards for us.
We’ve been invited to play these super cool festivals and be a part of these
great bills.

       I’m looking
forward to really existing as a band and playing Cleveland one night and driving to the next
town.

 

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