Songwriter Interviews

Keith Morris of Black Flag and OFF!

by Dan MacIntosh

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Keith Morris is one of those pioneering Los Angeles musicians. He was the frontman for two pivotal bands: Black Flag and Circle Jerks. In 2010, he formed the underground all star band OFF! with Dimitri Coats from the Burning Brides, Steven McDonald from Redd Kross, and Mario Rubalcaba of Rocket From The Crypt.

Keith has been in the punk rock scene from the very beginning, so long that he doesn't even call it punk rock, as we learned in our talk. At 56, he continues to write and perform music for social outcasts, a throwback to when there was no "pop" in the music.

From the confines of his trailer at the FYF festival, we spoke with Keith about his influence and what he thinks of the music. He got fired up a few times, mostly when the topic of Barack Obama came up, but also in speaking about his fallen friend Jeffrey Lee Pierce, who was a mainstay on the scene with Keith, performing in the band The Gun Club. Pierce died in 1996 at age 37; the OFF! song about him appears on their 2010 collection The First Four EPs.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I want to start by talking about the song you did about Jeffrey Lee Pierce ("Jeffrey Lee Pierce"). You knew the guy and you knew his music.

Keith Morris: Well, he was my roommate at one point.

Songfacts: So what prompted you to put that relationship into a song?

Keith: Well, before he died, he and I were going to start a band. He was playing songs, and I recorded some of his musical ideas on one of those little microcassettes. He was pushing all the buttons and flipping the switch on his self-destruct mechanism, the built-in self-destruct mechanism. We tried to save his life, me and a friend, Mike Martt, who's in a band called Tex and the Horseheads and Thelonious Monsters. So we got him into the hospital and he was really upset because he wanted to go back to Japan.

But getting back to the music, he was playing all of these songs, and he played the music, the main riff for his song, and he said, "Keith, you're going to write lyrics about Deborah Harry." Because he was the president of the Blondie fan club. And I was like, "Well, no, Jeffrey. You're a big fan." I like Blondie and I like a lot of their songs, but I'm not going to write lyrics about Deborah Harry. That's just not going to happen.

Songfacts: That'd be a stretch for the inspiration.

Keith: Yeah. And he passed away and I had the music. So we listened to the song that is the basic riff for "Jeffrey Lee Pierce." And I just figured I'm going to write a eulogy for one of my best friends. And then I talked about being over here at Chinatown.

Songfacts: That must bring back a lot of memories for you.

Keith: Well, we spent a lot of time at the Hong Kong Café - I saw his original band Creeping Ritual. There was Madam Wong's, which was where all the pop bands and the new wave bands played. And then there was the Hong Kong Café, where we would see Fear, we would see the Mau-Maus, or we would see the Controllers, or the Bags, or the Mutants from San Francisco, or the Avengers from San Francisco, or the Zeroes or the Flesheaters. All these amazing bands. Some of Black Flag's earliest shows were at the Hong Kong Café.

But Jeffrey Lee Pierce, he was a fan of all of these bands, he was just part of the scene. We'd smoke and we'd drink and we'd do drugs and we'd carry on like a bunch of crazy goofballs.

Songfacts: But how much has he influenced the music that you do? I mean, do you think about him when you create music, as an inspiration, or do you think of him more as like a peer and a friend?

Keith: All of those combined. But the fact is that he created a genre of music. While I was in Black Flag, we didn't know that we were starting or creating a template for a lot of bands. We didn't know that we started hardcore along with Middle Class and the Germs, and the Bad Brains, and Minor Threat and all of these bands. We just played music. And I'm sure that he did the same thing. He brought in blues, he brought in Howling Wolf and he brought in Robert Johnson and he created this country blues punk rock vibe. He not only influenced people like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but also the Cramps. We're talking about two major acts. This is a whole new thing.

Songfacts: How does it feel to be singing punk rock at this age? Do you still feel the punk rock as you did when you were a kid?

Keith: Well, I don't call it punk rock.

Songfacts: No? What do you call it?

Keith: I'm 56 years old. I'm just angry.

Songfacts: (laughs)

Keith: Yeah, I'm just bummed out.

Songfacts: Are you still angry?

Keith: Well, it's easy to be angry, because I donated $500 to Barack Obama. That's like, well, when are you going to step up and really do something? When are you going to step up and show some balls?

Songfacts: So what do you call what you do? You say you don't call it punk rock, what do you call it? Angry music?

Keith: Very angry, yes. But it's also a dark party, we want everybody to have a good time. Just because our lyrics are dark and we're upset doesn't mean that you have to have that mentality. You can jump up and down, you can get loose. Even though we play extremely fast music, you can still shake your ass to it, you can still dance to it. And that's one of our secret weapons.

Songfacts: One of the songs you wrote was "I Don't Belong." Is that a political statement? Do you kind of feel like you don't belong in the political climate as it stands, or is that more of like a societal context?

Keith: Well, it's both. You know, there's certain places you can go and there's certain places you can't go. There's certain places where you go and you have to stand in line and it's like maybe they might let you in. And in that situation, I'm not going there. I'm not going to stand in line with a bunch of people. A lot of these clubs would equate to a political situation, too. It's like the republicans and the democrats, they don't really care about you, but they love you when you're donating money, and you're buying into whatever bullshit they're whipping out on you. But the same thing about going to a club where they'll make you stand out front to make it look like something is going on, and there's really nothing going on.

Songfacts: You said that you gave to Barack's campaign. Are you now gun shy when it comes to giving to political campaigns?

Keith: I will no longer contribute to any political situation.

Songfacts: So you were that let-down that it changed you forever?

Keith: Well, my cause now is American Indians.

Songfacts: Do you have Indian blood?

Keith: I'm part Seminole, which is Florida Indian. One of my relatives was married to one of the Seminole chiefs.

Songfacts: No kidding. I didn't know that.

Keith: Yeah, so Burt Reynolds is maybe a cousin, you know, long lost cousin or whatever. Yeah. Council for Indian Nation, donate money so there's electricity and there's water and there's blankets and towels and there's food for the kids, and they might build a playground for the kids so they might have a place where they can go after school.

Songfacts: Do you think that cause is going to make it into your music?

Keith: I don't know if it has anything to do with music. It might. I'm going along with the flow of the universe.

Songfacts: Tell me a little bit about how you write songs for OFF!. Do you write the songs for the band or is it a collaborative effort?

Keith: Well, Dimitri (Coats) and I, he'll just start playing guitar and I'll make suggestions - maybe we need to cut that in half or you need to be a little bit more aggressive and maybe let's turn that around and see how it sounds...

Songfacts: So he's the primary musical creator, and then you add the lyrics to the songs?

Keith: Well, my situation is that I have a say in the music, and then when it comes to lyrics, a lot of it is what we will call the D. Boon method. D. Boon was a member of the Minutemen. And what would happen with them is D. Boon would come up with an idea and he'd just scribble something down on a piece of paper - that could be three or four words, twelve words - and turn it into lyrics. And you just jump on it and go from there.

We spoke with Keith Morris on September 4, 2011. Get more at offofficial.com.
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