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Embracing The Flow

15 January 2013 | 5:01 am | Steve Bell

"If we’d have been doing this 25 years ago maybe we wouldn’t be getting the praise that we’re getting now."

They don't come much more hardcore than Keith Morris. From co-founding the seminal Black Flag and snarling the vocals to their Nervous Breakdown debut EP in 1978 through to starting the equally important Circle Jerks in '79 and staying with them up until just a couple of years ago, Morris' manic howls have pretty much defined the genre. Now, having reached an age where nobody would begrudge him finally slowing down, he's taken the typically contrary route and ramped things up again. A few years back he enlisted a group of highly-credentialed friends – Steven McDonald from Redd Kross, ex-Burning Brides guitarist Dimitri Coats and punk skinsman extraordinaire Mario Rubalcaba – and formed new outfit OFF!, birthed from the same spirit and intensity that has characterised his entire career.

There's nothing refined or restrained about this band. It's a handful of veteran musicians laying down the bedrock on which the dreadlocked frontman can spew forth his magic. Morris is as wise as he is wizened, but in his music he's still angry – the righteous indignation still burning strong – and OFF!'s self-titled debut is a burst of pure energy: the sixteen songs combined don't quite reach sixteen minutes in total. He spits and snarls throughout with the tenacity of a man half his age, and his life experience only seems to add gravitas and import to the concepts that he's throwing out there with such youthful abandon.

Morris is clearly loving this career resurgence, and doesn't seem slightly overwhelmed by the positive critical reception and attention that the new outfit is receiving – to him it just seems a natural extension of all that's come before.

“I think this could possibly be the best band that I've played in,” he admits happily. “I didn't see it coming at all. I'm a firm believer that you just do what you do and you go with it – that's been my modus operandi from the very beginning. When I first started playing music we didn't know what we were doing – we didn't know that we were creating a genre of music and that it would take us where it's taken us – the whole idea was just, 'Let's just do this, we're having fun. Let's just see where it takes us and just go with it. Play the cards as they're laid'. A lot of this stuff you have no control over – you can try to force certain situations and there's certain things that you can make happen, but a lot of it happens on its own. As hippy, dippy and trippy as this sounds there's a certain flow to the universe, and for years and years I would be the guy who would oppose the flow – I would go against it – but now I've just realised that you can only argue and fight and whine and complain about so much stuff and then you've just got to toss your arms up in the air and let it go.”

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The template for OFF!'s sound was always going to be pretty straightforward given the people involved, and Morris once more surrendered to fate and the designs of the universe.

“We've been very fortunate because this has been all organic,” he continues. “We had a rehearsal, and the first rehearsal was very heavy – when I say 'heavy', I mean heavy in a Led Zeppelin kind of way – and I wanted it to be more hardcore and more erratic and more noisy in a Black Flag kind of way. So I was a bit disappointed in the first rehearsal, but I had my epiphany and my moment of clarity when it dawned on me that when you play with musicians of this calibre and think of all of the stuff that they've done – I mean Steven's played with Sparks, he's played with Beck, he plays in Redd Kross! Mario's played in Rocket From The Crypt and The Black Heart Procession! His list of bands that he's played with goes on for a mile – so when you're playing with musicians that have the instincts that they have you don't force things, you just let things take their course. You let these guys make the decisions that they're going to make, because they make really good decisions – they don't make bad decisions. I had to align myself with that fact.

“And I think that we're extremely lucky that we happen to be doing what we're doing at the time that we're doing it. If we'd have been doing this twenty-five years ago maybe we wouldn't be getting the praise that we're getting now. Maybe we're part of a musical landscape that's very horizontal, and if you're looking at a painting of a desert we're going to bring in some redwoods, and we're going to erect six or seven totem poles.”

OFF! have been touring solidly since the album dropped and are on the verge of their second Australian sojourn in just over a year, but Morris is no stranger to hard work – in the early days of his career there was no touring circuit at all to speak of in America, and it was his bands Black Flag and Circle Jerks who along with similarly-minded acts such as Hüsker Dü and The Minutemen basically invented the DIY method of travelling around the States to play shows and gain new fans.

“My touring with Black Flag was basically on weekends, we'd drive up to San Francisco every three or four months and play a couple of shows and drive back – that was my touring with Black Flag,” Morris recalls. “I didn't really get in the van too much, not like [later Black Flag vocalist] Henry Rollins. But with the Circle Jerks we pretty much went out around the same time that Black Flag did – we'd go out for four months at a time. This was at a time when there were no all ages shows unless someone rented a VFW hall or a Moose Lodge or somebody was smart enough at a local bar to do an early show for the kids in evening, before the alcoholics all come in and start getting drunk so the venue can pay their bills and profit from the booze sales. So if we were out for four months, thirty of the shows might have two gigs a day which was totally draining and totally debilitating and just a grind. We'd come back and be home for two weeks, and then be back on the road for another two months. We were working our asses off and we weren't getting paid very well, some of these shows would be only pay a few hundred dollars. I wouldn't change anything though – I could go down a whole list of things that I'd want to change but I can't go back and change them so why would I go down a list of things that I'd want to change?”


WHEN & WHERE: Sunday 20 January, Big Day Out, Gold Coast Parklands; Monday 21, The Zoo

Wednesday 23 January, Corner Hotel; Saturday 26, Big Day Out, Flemington Racecourse

Monday 28 January, Big Day Out, Claremont Showground