Today, after eight years of struggle and conflict, OFF! release their magnum opus: Free LSD. Their fourth album, out via Fat Possum, finds the band expanding beyond the self-imposed limits of their first three records and finds them branching out into jazz, noise, experimental, and electronic music all while keeping that cracking, roaring, smashing OFF! sound as the chassis. No BS, the record is a thrill ride.
But, it came with a price. The original vision of the album collapsed after a failed Kickstarer campaign. The band's original lineup fractured during recording. At various points, a member or two was ready to throw in the towel. But despite the chaos and destruction, Free LSD made it to term and was birthed in all its freaky, far-out glory.
Punknews' John Gentile spoke to singer Keith Morris and guitarist Dimitri Coats about the whole trip. You can read the interview below.
The Death and Rebirth and Death and Rebirth of OFF!
I still remember it like it was yesterday. I’ll bet you do, too. May 1, 2019.
OFF!, the band that was improbably born out of the demise of the ennui of Circle Jerks, the band that, against all odds, release some of the greatest punk rock of the 2010s, the band that underscored just how frikkin iconic and vital Keith Morris is, was making moves to release their magnum opus.
While their first three albums where wham-bam-slam immediate classics, they had a vision to move beyond their own self-defined black and white lines. They wanted to make an album that took them over the rainbow. And, to make it even more epic, they wanted to make a feature length film that was OFF!-the-wall bonkers.
All they needed for the album AND the movie was a measly $175,000. Most people can’t even get craft services for $175,000 so the fact that they were going to make a movie AND an album was amazing. So, they opened a kickstarter. But, they weren’t even asking for donations. All the punk rockers had to do, essentially, was pre-order the album and maybe buy a poster, or even lyrics handwritten by Keith, and everyone would get something cool and the greatest comeback story in punk would be cemented in the halls of history.
The kickstarter opened and it shot to $50,000. Nice! Then up to $75,000! Great! Then it got to $150,000! Oh boy, we’re gonna make it!…
And then, it stalled. Surely, the final week, OFF! Would have no problem making that last $25,000 and funding their massive project. And the clock ticked. And somebody threw in fifty bucks. And the clock ticked. And someone else threw in a tenner.
And it was one day before go-time. And then an hour. And then a minute. And then on May 1… the kickstarter closed… at $151,597…. $23,403 under the funding goal. That’s right, one of the greatest victory stories in punk rock was shot down over the price of a used minivan. That fact of the matter is, the punk community let OFF! Down.
For comparison, at that same time, a band that dressed up like Harry Potter and sang songs about Harry Potter asked for $10,000 for an album about how “cool” Harry Potter is and ended up raking in $55,000. Oh, the indignity. The shame.
“I wanted to be angry and I wanted to wig out and scream and yell and throw things around and drive my car 150 miles per hour to the nearest freeway and just ram into a cop car and die a fiery death!” Morris says with increasing intensity. And then, in a calmer tone, “But I didn’t. I also have the wherewithal to understand that we are on the Internet and all sort of fun, wacky, silly ass, stupid shit happens on there. We had people chiming in, ‘well, they just made a movie where everyone filmed everything on a cellphone, so why do you need this kind of money?!’ Dude, just get the fuck out of here! Go play with yourself! Go hang with your parents! We’re making a real fucking movie with a camera crew with people that have to dress everybody and people that are recording this on full blown recording equipment. We’re making a full blown movie! We are not making some fucking, schlocky twelve-dollar budget movie! We have real actors and real actresses. Everybody needs to get paid! People aren’t doing this out of the kindness of their heart!”
Guitarist Dimitri Coats adds, “I was let down, but I’m used to that. I don’t expect much. We just do what we do. If people want to hear and see it, that’s great. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. I’ve always been in the clubs and I define success by other things. I don’t define it by how much people chipped in for a movie. What do our fans care about a movie? In all fairness to them, they want to hear music and maybe see us live. It didn’t stop us. I said to myself, ‘We are going to do what we are going to do.’”
Despite the implosion, Morris and Coats went back to the drawing board and figured out a way forward from the wreckage. At the time, Morris had been co-hosting a podcast with Pete Weiss of Thelonious Monster called Blowmind. The podcast investigated, or just kind of bullshitted about, various conspiracy theories. Some of the episodes were heavy duty and on the paranoid/intense angle, such as the episode discussing chem-trails and whether they are used to keep the American population docile. Other episodes were decidedly more lighthearted- Bigfoot, that wacky ape! Is he real and if so, what’s he up to now? Does he wear shoes?
Coats says, “Keith was talking passionately about the things he does on his podcast. He was really going on fire. I said, ‘Keith you’re as passionate about this stuff as you are about current events!’ He just got this big smile. We started watching this weird stuff and went down a rabbit hole and came up with the fun stuff that made the album.”
With the flame of inspiration burning high, Morris and Coats worked, and re-worked, and re-re-worked, and revised, and reverse worked, and re-re-re-re-worked the script for the movie that would become Free LSD. They went through a lot of drafts before the final project came to be the monster that it is. (More on that in a minute). Of course, the new album of the same name, serves as the soundtrack and features the band expanding past the format of the first three OFF! Lps. (Or first compilation and two albums if you want to be picky about it).
“I remember having a conversation with Raymond Pettibon back in 2012 about [our third LP] Wasted Years having the logo in white for the first time and the background being black and the subject matter being kind of dark,” Coats says. “The album after that was always intended to be full color artwork and us taking a complete turn in turns of style and pulling out all the stops. We didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we wanted it to be like our Sgt. Pepper. Experimental, psychedelic.”
Morris continues, “We are hoping there is enough fun and sarcasm, but we are talking about some serious issues. What are the spherical objects in the sky that are shining and moving? What are the unexplainable lights in the sky? Are they real or are we just being lied to? The highway that passes through the middle of America that the majority of Americans don’t know about. Are we just being lied to? Are they being fabricated? Is the yeti a character that we need to deal with? What about the Clintons and how they ran things in Arkansas for 16 years? Are these things really happening? Looking up at the sky and seeing all of the white stripes in the sky. Why would our fucking government do this to us?! Do they just think we are a bunch of idiots and we are a bunch of morons and we would just shrug our shoulders? Our government is fucking evil. They are some of the nastiest fucking people on the planet!”
With that fire, Morris and Coats built the skeleton of what would be Free LSD. An album that was distinctly OFF!, but side stepped them falling into predictability. Counter-intuitively, punk bands often fall prey to predictability and routine, and from the collapse of the Watermelon movie, the pair had found a certain sound and vision.
And then, things collapsed again. In fairly quick succession, the OFF! rhythm section- Jeff McDonald on bass, Mario Rubalcaba on drums- left the band. It was a surprise hit to fans and was somewhat disappointing. When OFF! First formed, one of the main “selling points” was that it was two first wave punkers- Keith and Steven- with two 90s hard rockers -Dimitri, Mario- kicking out tunes that could have followed “Fix Me” and “Wasted.” And now, 50% of that magic was gone- just as the group was dusting itself off from a disaster.
“Dimitri and I experienced so many fucking detours and bumps in the road when it came to not only recording the new record but also making the movie,” Morris says. “It was at a certain point Dimitri said, ‘look we gotta do this!’ We purposely took at… at one point we purposefully tool two years to write the record that’s a lot of years to write a record!…and we took two years to allow Steven McDonald to go play with the Melvins and the Dale Crover band to play in Redd Kross and we respect all of that and we love all of that, but at a certain point it’s time for Keith and Dimitri to have a part of that! Mario went out and played with Earthless and Rocket from the Crypt that’s his priory. ‘Go out and do this! We will take our time writing these songs creating the music and writing the lyrics and doing any of the things we needed to do to let these outside musical influences to happen!’”
Morris continues, “We watched documentary after documentary about all of the subject material for the album. We purposefully took our time to allow our other bandmates to earn a living- they’ve got mouths to feed and keep a roof over their head and buy clothes and all that fun stuff. But, at one point it was time for us to earn our living and it was not what we expected. It was not what we wanted. At one point, we were actually be slighted by one of the members of the original band and it’s like, ‘what the fuck did we do to deserve to be shown this lack of respect? What did we fucking do? Whose toes did we step on?!’ We actually had one of the guys say, ‘I’m not reading the script until we have the money to make the movie!’ Between Dimitri and I, we felt that we were being thrown scraps. ‘Let’s get together this week, and work every day, and five or six or eight or ten hours or whatever we can get!’ It was like, ‘I can work today because we’ve got a PTA meeting’ or ‘because my wife is getting a manicure and I have to watch the kids.’ It was fucking left and right and all sort of bs. It got to the point where we had actually recorded the majority of this record three times! That’s why it has taken what is it six years eight years, fifteen years, I don’t know, to make!”
Morris goes on, “At one point, I had Dimitri telling me, ‘I’m not doing this anymore!’ and I’m like, ‘we spent too much time and too much effort writing these songs, writing the script- Dimitri rewrote this script depending which guys were going to be in this lineup of the band! He had rewritten the script a minimum of twelve times. It just got to be the point, ‘no, we are going to do this! I’m going to take matters into my own hands! I fired one of the guys. I was like, ‘I’ve had it!’ I’m getting all of these fucking lectures from one of the members of the band wherein being told, ‘this is the way it is supposed to be.’ We can’t have all of this bickering and fighting and going back and forth, I don’t have time for that! I’m 64 years old and I’m dealing with teenage bandmate problems! Fuck that, who needs that?!”
And so, OFF! Collapsed again. And again, a certain cycle repeated in Morris’ life. If we look back in time, after Black Flag released the iconic, seismic Nervous Breakdown EP, Morris either quit or was fired from the band because he wanted to go out play live while the other members just wanted to practice and practice and practice. So, in a sort of retaliation, he formed Circle Jerks, which again, slapped the so-Cal punk scene upside its head with its angry/funny/kickass tuneage. But then, years later, when Keith wanted to record a new Circle Jerks album, none of the other members really showed to work on the new record and the band collapsed. So, in a sort of retaliation, he formed OFF!, which, against the odds, slapped the entire music community upside its head with its simplified, punchy, crazy good attack. How could these punk veterans (and as a few would say “has beens”) put out the best punk album of the year? What a comeback!
And then, yet again, just as Morris wants to work on new material and go on the road, he is greeted again, with disinterest. Yet again, this cycle repeated itself.
This pattern reminds me of another artist I hold in very high regard. David Bowie died and resurrected himself, maybe six times, throughout his career. Like the Greek phoenix, just as he burns up, those ashes plant the fuel that allowed Bowie to be reborn into something else new and great, that, at the same time, was distinctly Bowie. I make the Bowie/Keith comparison to Morris. He gets weirded out by it.
He says, “I love the fact that you place me next to David Bowie, who is one of the most important musical characters in my life, but I ain’t no fucking David Bowie! I would be the guy who would be the guy who would shine Bowie’s shoes! All this ‘I’m a phoenix rising from the ashes and death and destruction, and I love that you would use that analogy, but, I’m not that great! I’m just a guy in a band. I’ve got bills to pay. I’m not some ultra-mega-overly creative person. I’m nowhere near the importance of David Bowie. There are people out there who would seem to think that. I love all of those people. But the fact of the matter is, I’m just trying to survive and a certain point I’m not going to put up with bullshit. Enough is enough! I don’t know how to explain this. Maybe I’m just a motherfucking failure idiot and this is just going to be a recurring daymare/nightmare headache and hemorrhoids. I don’t know how to else to do it!”
And just as OFF! Was formed from the friendship of Morris and Coats, OFF! was re-formed by the same friendship. After suffering numerous blows, the pair regroup and swore that they would finish this long gestating, long exploding project.
What is interesting about the friendship of Morris and Coats is how different they are. You all know that Morris is a never-ending string of fire crackers, constantly popping and exploding while Morris will make a negative comment about the universe only to tag it with a joke only to stack a joke on top of that jack only to find wordplay in that joke and thereby comment on the wordplay only to paint the whole thing with self-deprecation… all in the span of say, 15 seconds. By contrast, Coats, well, he’s mister surfer guy (even if he doesn’t surf). His tone has that easy going So-Cal draw “Alllll riiiiighhht.” He speaks slowly and always has a sort of relaxed vibe.
“Keith and I are just die-hard underdogs,” Coats says. “We have a strength in our friendship. We really do like each other. We like hanging out. We would just go shopping for records and eat food. I just like him as a person. People expect Keith to be Keith Morris of Black Flag and Circle Jerks, but, if you get to know him, you learn his well runs very deep. He knows all about art and movies and pop culture and he has a vibrant and creative mind. He always wants to reach further than he has in the past.”
Coats continues, “I’m not very punk. When I met Keith, I didn’t know who he was. I think he thought that was greatest thing in the world. He was convinced that the song ‘Glass Slipper’ on the first Burning brides album was written being hugely influenced by Black Flag. It was really just me trying to write a song like the Saints! I had heard about Black Flag, but I couldn’t pick out Keith vs. Ron vs. Dez vs. Henry. I remember, when I wrote ‘Darkness’ on the first record, Keith got so excited! [In scarily perfect Keith Morris voice] ‘You…You need to record that and then we’re going for a walk!’ So I record it and hes’ walking really fast and he says ‘that… that last riff that you were playing… that’s where I come from in Black Flag. That’s Nervous Breakdown territory!’ and I was like, ‘ok,’ because for me it was about just learning how to downstroke and it was about playing Black Sabbath in a faster speed. He could tell something wasn’t clicking in my brain and he is like, ‘you know Nervous Breakdown, right?’ And I said, ‘is that on the album with the scissors?’ and he had the biggest smile and he said, ‘you mean you can’t sing me Nervous Breakdown right now?’ and it was the greatest thing that happened because he realized that we invented an accidental time machine that spoke to his roots and it was completely by accident.”
Morris comments on the pair’s friendship, “We’re freaks. We get along. We are able to scream and yell at each other and throw stuff! We were working on the OFF! record and I’m in the living room and he’s in the dining room and he said something that pissed me off and I threw my drink at him but I purposefully didn’t hit him but I stormed out and I had to walk around the block a couple of times just to cool off. We’re really good really good friends. We have scenarios and we have situations and we have times when we can’t stand each other. That’s good. That’s good for our writing process. It keeps us thinking. It keeps us angry. It gives us something to laugh about later on.”
That friendship, as fueled by the destruction of OFF! Mark one, was the fuel that kept OFF! Burning and allowed them to complete their nearly insurmountable third record. Out of the blue, Metallica reached out to the band and asked them if they could record a track from the Black Album… but they didn’t have a bassist or a drummer!
Thinking outside of the box, the band went looking for non-punk musicians. Coats pulled in bassist Autry Fullbright from …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead. “He was a really big OFF! fan and he’d come running up and say how much he loved the band,” Coats says. ‘He’d wear an OFF! hat in Trail of the dead photo shoots and he just looked so cool. The first practice I knew it was right. It just sounded amazing. Autry asked me if he should ask Justin Brown to drum and I was like, ‘wow, that would be something!’”
“Justin played with fucking with Herbie Hancock!” Morris exclaims. “Our drummer is a jazzbo. Our drummer plays fucking jazz. He’s not a punk drummer. But he loves the Bad Brains. His main source of income is with a guy he tours with called Thundercat. Thundercat and his brother were the rhythm section for the Suicidal tendencies band for a couple of years. Justin sees one of his main sources of income has that link, so he thinks, ‘Well, I’m going to play with these guys. I’m going to listen to Suicidal tendencies and I’m going to listen to Black Flag and Bad Brains I’ve got to expand my musical horizon!”
With the band reformed, Morris and Coats set to re-re-re-record what became Free LSD. Coats says, “We purposefully limited ourselves early on and that’s partially represented by the black and white scheme and we made three good records that sit well together. For this project, we wanted to go balls to the wall and challenge ourselves and go in the opposite direction of everything we would have done the past.”
He continues, “We didn’t listen to punk rock for this record. If you were to go over to Keith’s house, he would be listening to some prog band or some free jazz. We thought we were going to get into some Hawkwind territory, but then I got influenced by people who were involved in the industrial world, like Henry Barnes and Eric Wood. I started buying all these crude synthesizers and plugging them together and turning knobs with no instruments and that’s a lot of what is layered throughout the record. We’ve gone to a place that would have been impossible with the old lineup. I’m not saying that version of the album wouldn’t haven’t been good, it would have been great, but it wouldn’t have been Free LSD. The record is a non-stop journey from beginning to end. It’s meant to be an album experience. In this world, where everything is so disposable and people’s attention spans are quite limited, we wanted to try and present a situation where you have to go on this ride. We’re album people and we made an album that we are very proud of.”
Now, in “feature” pieces, you’re supposed to be objective about the art at hand and describe it without passing judgment so it seems like you’re giving a true portrait of the art and events surrounding it, as opposed to just fan-zining out. Well, I don’t care. Free LSD is just too good for me to play coy. It’s a ripper. It’s an ass kicker. It smashes the room up. Even though the cover now has color and suggests the band is getting trippier- which they are- it’s not trippy in the Lucy-in-the-sky-with-diamonds sense. It's a chaotic, wild, flailing smash that often breaks down into, dare I say, Throbbing Gristle style noise theatrics? But at the core, is that fanatic OFF! first wave hardcore frantic smash. It is the perfect melding of the old and the new and it is great and if you don’t think so you are stupid.
The lyrics are all over the place with crazy sci-fi theories and monsters and paranoid delusions. All of that goes into play for the Free LSD movie, expected out next year. As to the plot, well, um, Coats describes it thusly:
“The film explains why we have to make this album. There are two alien species. One that wants us to make the album because it leads to an awakening of human consciousness and the other alien race is sort of the dominant Illuminati one-world -order that controls everything and throughout human existence has kept the human race the from its natural ability to frog hop between different dimensions. So, um, yeah, um, it’s a pretty crazy thing…”
Coats adds, “We wanted to do everthing you’re not supposed to do as a punk band… and maybe that’s more punk… I honestly don’t know…. I’m the last person to ask!”
Meanwhile, Morris reflects on finally, after a thousand and one hurdles, after collapsing and rebuilding and collapsing and rebuilding and crossing the sea and climbing the mountain, finally, finally, finally, having completed OFF!’s grandiose vision and statement, “I’m going to be 67 years old in two weeks… no, not two weeks, in a week and a couple of days. I’m getting ready to leave for Australia on Wednesday with the Circle Jerks. As long as I’m able to do it, I’ll do it. There are some things that are happening that really bum me out- is it a race to the finish? Is it even a race? I don’t know. I’m just enjoying myself and I do find myself in a lot of the same situations that I found myself in 40 years ago, 15 years ago, 30 years ago. But, it is what it is. I have always had a glimmer of optimism attached. No matter how shitty the situation is, I ask, is there really a light at the end of the tunnel? I think I can see it. I think I can see it.”