Off!: Still ‘Wasted’ after all these years

Hardcore torchbearer returns with the Melvins’ Dale Crover in-tow

Speaking over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Keith Morris is still reeling from a whirlwind “mini world tour” in July that found his band Off! playing shows in Milton Kings, U.K., and Mexico City. The latter show, he recalls, caused the promoter to “lose it,” when fewer than 40 advance tickets were sold. By show time, however, his stress was alleviated when nearly 330 people lined up at the door to buy tickets. “I guess he didn’t know there’s still a punk rock ethic where you don’t pay the extra $15 in Ticketmaster charges,” Morris says in his unmistakably pinched Southern California drawl. “You buy tickets at the venue, or wait until the night of the show and keep your fingers crossed that it didn’t sell out.”

Every music promoter knows that the rule with presales at hardcore punk shows is similar to counting the number of cockroaches in your home: For every one that you see scurrying across the floor, there are 10 more hiding in the walls.

“How dare you compare our fans to cockroaches?!” Morris raises his voice in mock outrage at the suggestion. “Those creepy crawly little insects are probably 100 times smarter than most of the human race,” he continues. “When we’ve all killed each other off with guns and someone finally drops an atomic bomb on us, cockroaches will still be here. They’ll wear our clothes, drive our cars, and they’ll go on the David Letterman show and make jokes about humans.”

Morris, who turns 59 in September, has a colorful, unrelenting sense of humor. As he mulls the name of this publication he asks, “Creative Loafing: So does that mean you’re just lounging around, taking it easy and having artistic thoughts at your own leisurely pace?”

As a co-founder and original singer for L.A.’s late-’70s seminal hardcore band Black Flag, and later frontman for the Circle Jerks, Morris is a quintessential character in the development of American hardcore. He’s on par with the likes of Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, Glenn Danzig of the Misfits and Samhain, and fellow ex-Black Flag singer Henry Rollins. His opinions are strong, but he’s far less didactic than his like-minded peers.

Our interview’s allotted 20 minutes turn into an hour of free-range conversation meandering through topics ranging from dietary strategies for beating diabetes to which members of the Beatles put out the best solo records (he’s a McCartney fan). Morris talks about pretty much everything but Wasted Years (Vice Records), his recently released second proper album with Off! “I don’t sit around listening to the record all that much,” he says. “Consequently I get into trouble with the rest of the guys when they want to add songs to our set list.”

But a lot of people are listening to the record. The week of its April 8 U.S. release date, Wasted Years was the number two highest-selling record on Billboard’s Vinyl Albums chart (second to a reissue of the Format’s Dog Problems). And as the group embarks on a cross-country tour with a different drummer in tow, all eyes are on Off!.

Off!’s First Four EPs arrived as a 7-inch box set in 2010. Two years later, the group’s self-titled LP was released. Throughout both, songs such as “I Don’t Belong,” “Jeffrey Lee Pierce,” “Darkness,” and “King Kong Brigade” spell out the trajectory for a band dedicated to the full-throttle SoCal hardcore formula that was set in motion by Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” 7-inch in 1978.

Burning Brides’ snarling guitarist Dimitri Coats, Redd Kross’ thundering bassist Steven McDonald, and former Hot Snakes/Rocket From the Crypt drummer Mario Rubalcaba create the lighting-fast backdrop that Morris’ voice demands with Off! The songs burst with pure, teeth-gnashing energy, but they don’t throw any surprise punches. After all these years, the same societal and politically oppressive forces that pushed Morris to scream the lyrics to “Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” or the early-’80s Circle Jerks anthem, “I’ve Got the World up My Ass,” still drive his confrontational tirades as they bristle on the brink of total freakout.

On Wasted Years, songs such as “Void You Out,” “Red, White, and Black,” and “Death Trip on the Party Train” summon the timeless blast of raw power and aggression that has guided Morris’ presence both on stage and on record from the beginning of his career. And with each new release, Off! seems to be growing more comfortable with its dynamic, while staying true to its late ’70s hardcore form.

While booking an August U.S. tour supporting Wasted Years, the group learned that the drummer, Rubalcaba, had to sit this one out. In his stead, Melvins’ drummer Dale Crover is taking his place.

It’s just a temporary gig for Crover, but he’s open to whatever may develop from his time on the road with Off! “Mostly, this whole thing came about because Mario Rubalcaba is in multiple bands, which is usually the case with drummers who are any good,” Crover says. “He already had something booked. These guys are all adults and understand how it works. They wanted to do this tour, and the timing was perfect for me.”

Off!’s rapid-fire numbers, which generally clock in between a minute to two minutes long, are a drastic change of pace from the Melvins’ penchant for slower and more complex arrangements. But Crover welcomes the challenge and explains that, deep down, they’re all coming from a similar place. “Style-wise, these songs are really fun to play, and ultimately the Melvins and Off! have some of the same influences — Black Flag being the biggest one,” Crover says. “When I joined the Melvins we were all really into Black Flag’s album My War — especially side two, the slower side that the hardcore punks didn’t like because the band was doing something different. I loved that record, although I recently heard Keith say ‘Oh, fuck that record, man,’” he laughs.

Regardless of which era of Black Flag records they’re drawing inspiration from, Crover has brought an energizing presence to Off!. The only person who seems to be more stoked about it than Crover himself is Morris. “Dale is a stud prince rocker,” he says. “He’s a real person, and a great drummer, not just a dude in a band, and that’s something all of us in this band aspire to.”

His furious drumming style and barely contained ferocity may be just what the band needs to push its legacy one step further — even if it’s only for one summer tour. And that’s something on which humans and cockroaches can agree.