KEITH MORRIS & DIMITRI COATS: OFF! – FREE LSD
A decade after their eponymous debut studio album, the hardcore punk supergroup release their new record, ‘Free LSD’, with a fresh direction and lineup change that takes them beyond their stereotypical black-and-white image. As well as seeing Raymond Pettibon’s artwork released on a coloured sleeve for the first time, the album deals with serious sci-fi subject matter like UFOs and conspiracies – drawing from Keith’s podcast on the subject – spewed through the spectrum of more expansive influences via noise feedback, electronics and metalhead rhythms to refresh their canvas. The album is also accompanied by an upcoming sci-fi feature film, written and directed by the band and premiered at this year’s Slamdance film festival. Before their London show on their European tour, I spoke to band founders, frontman Keith Morris and guitarist Dimitri Coats, about making their new album and film, covering a Metallica song for Metallica, cosmic influences and close encounters of the third (or fifth) kind – both human and alien – and how Keith doesn’t want to be the ‘nervous breakdown’ guy anymore.
How does this album differ to your previous releases?
D: We weren’t trying to communicate with extraterrestrial life prior to this album. We took a note from Sun Ra: we put our antenna out to the cosmos and we were very open to receiving music from an intergalactic source.
K: Dude you are such a fucking liar! We were trapped in a submarine under the polar ice cap and there was nowhere to go. We consciously made an effort; we looked at each other and thought, “Hey! Let’s try something new.” If you’ve noticed our album covers, the first three are black and white. That gets boring after a while. If you look at the new album cover, the unidentified flying object is passing off all of these different coloured lines or the different coloured lights in the sky. We love Stiff Little Fingers, we love The Damned, we love The Ramones, we love Black Flag…I kind of love the Circle Jerks. It was time to go someplace else. Can we? We know that we have roots amongst all of this and we normally have certain records that we go to for inspiration. This time around it was like, “Let’s listen to some different stuff.” [Dimitri’s] a closet industrial noise freak.
D: I’ve come out of the closet. I’m really excited because I’m gonna get a tour: right around [Hackney] is where Throbbing Gristle used to live. I’m excited for my friend to show me the history around here.
K: What you need to do, because he’s wearing a Bastard Noise T-shirt, is ask him what his favourite Bastard Noise song is. You see these kids wearing a Motörhead T-shirt or a Black Sabbath T-shirt or a Dead Kennedys T-shirt and they’ve never even listed to the music so he could be pulling your leg. But actually he had me listening to this stuff. I know about these bands and I have some of their records in my record library, but they’re not records that I zoom in on – it’s a special taste. You don’t eat McDonalds three times a day: you only eat McDonalds once a day. You have two other meals, so make it interesting. We went to outer space with Sun Ra; in the process our drummer [Justin Brown] had played with Herbie Hancock and I had witnessed Miles Davis play with Herbie Hancock in The Headhunters backing him in his band. Being a punk rock guy, a heavy metal guy and a hard rock guy, why do [I] listen to Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis? Well, maybe because they’re frontline jazz musicians.
You used to have a jazz drummer in Circle Jerks?
K: Yeah, that would be Lucky. We don’t talk about Lucky because [he’s] on television and a multimillionaire; his ego trip far surpasses his talents.
D: Ooh. Ouch.
K: No, it’s the truth. Zander [Schloss] and Greg [Hetson] played with him in his home studio and were horrified.
Why did you do a cover of Metallica’s ‘Holier Than Thou’?
K: They came to us and asked us to perform a song for their ‘The Black Album’ tribute – it was a big fundraiser. I listened to the album: their biggest hits are on that record, like ‘Enter Sandman’ and a lot of stuff that was on the radio. That’s not where I want to hear Metallica; I don’t want to hear those songs. I want to hear stuff off of ‘Ride The Lightning’ and ‘Kill ‘Em All’ and ‘Master of Puppets’ – that’s the Metallica that I know. But they asked us to perform a track so we listened to the album. And Autry [Fulbright], Dimitri and I, all three of us, zoomed in on one song and that was ‘Holier Than Thou’. So it was unanimous that we were going to cover this. We didn’t have a drummer at the time and it made perfect sense: let’s use Justin, who Autry worked with in Thundercat. Autry said I’ll ask Justin if he wants to play with us and we recorded the track. All of the guys in Metallica were beyond stoked. They were excited like, “This is really cool. Thank you guys.”
What about the religious theme in the video?
D: Autry had the idea of us being the church band that mistakenly got booked. Then our director Chris Grismer took that idea and developed it. It really is the song that brought the band together.
K: If you listen to the lyrics it’s basically, “Hey, don’t bog me down in your religious garbage. You know I got stuff to do; I’m a good human being and I don’t need to get caught up in all of that.”
D: And all you altar boys better be real careful in those Catholic churches!
K: If you watch the video, we were very fortunate: some of the actors and actresses that showed up to be in the video are also in our new movie.
How did the film come about and the theme with the psychedelic drugs and sci-fi?
D: I was growing tired of the black-and-white punk rock world that Keith described earlier where I would try to write certain riffs and he would start yelling at me, “We can’t do that. We don’t do that in this genre. You can only play like this. This is our target: we have to head for the bullseye.” [It] just felt so restrictive. I fooled Keith into experimenting and thinking outside the box by convincing him that our next record should be a soundtrack for this crazy sci-fi film that I wanted to make. Then he just took the ball and ran with it, especially when we drew inspiration from a podcast that he has in real life called ‘Blowmind Show’, in which he touches on a lot of things that are alternative media. It’s heavy into the idea that aliens and UFOs exist and so we had fun with that topic. What it allowed us to do is every time we hit a creative fork in the road, if we would normally go right, we would go left. Starting with how I tune my guitars, to the lyrical subject matter to the artwork being colour for the first time…everything was a conscious decision to push our creativity into a new direction. Because, much like The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper thinking, ‘Let’s filter our songwriting through these other people. We won’t be the Beatles anymore. We’ll be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ it did wonders. So we were really fortunate in that our psychedelic window that we were looking through took us into a completely new territory.
Drugs can be a major part of the creative process, what’s your personal experience of this?
D: I’m a big fan of marijuana. I could not have been more high when I wrote the music for this album. And I could not have been more high when I wrote the script for the movie, with headphones on listening to noise, experimental music, post-industrial…whatever you want to call it. I just went into another world. Yeah, it’s always been a creative friend. It’s really the only drug that I allow myself because I find that if I start dabbling in other things, I start making bad decisions and I don’t associate weed with anything else. I don’t get stoned and suddenly think, “Let’s get a bag of coke. Where’s the party?” It’s a sacred herb to me.
So what about in the film?
D: It’s not a drug at all – it’s an antidote. The music is the drug. The antidote holds the key to an alternate dimension in which the band exists. The film takes place between two different realities: one where we are ‘off’ and one where we are not necessarily musicians and we certainly don’t know each other. Our music holds the key to an awakening of human consciousness. There are two rival alien species: one which desperately needs us to make the album and one which is trying to prevent us from making the album.
K: And it’s a love story.
Can you talk about some of the album tracks and how those relate to scenes in the film?
D: There’s a whole bunch of songs from the album that are featured in the film, some of which we perform; others that just create a score for the action that’s taking place. Certain characters have lines in the film that are lyrics from the record. They are completely joined, but the songs don’t necessarily point directly to the movie and the movie doesn’t necessarily point directly to the album. Although the album is featured in the film; literally, it does hold the key to releasing the human species from the clutches of this evil alien race, which is kind of like the all controlling Illuminati.
With your lyrics, Keith, how did they relate to real life?
K: When we first started working on the album, Dimitri asked me, “What are you gonna sing about?” I was a bit stumped. He said, “Because you’re always singing about politics; you’re always singing about social climate situations. A great place for you to start is a place that you’re going to be able to get the majority of your lyrics. You’ve already written a ton of lyrics – they’re buried in your podcast. So you need to go back and listen to episodes of your podcast. You need to go and pull the most important episodes.” That’s what turned into the lyrical content. We got into some documentaries; we went deep: a lot of these conspiracy theorists, they’ll go to Google and look at the very first thing when they type in whatever conspiracy they’re concerned with, they’re thinking about or delving into, and they’re not really delving into it, they’re not really going past the first couple of posts; they need to go deeper into it. One of my best friends, Pete Weiss, and [I] have a podcast called ‘Blowmind Show’ with Pete and Keith. All we did was talk all of these different conspiracies. Do UFOs exist? Does Bigfoot exist and who killed JFK? And what about the missing 411? Why are they finding these naked kids sitting on rocks with all of their clothes perfectly folded next to them out on a mountain range; how did they get there? All sorts of really oddball stuff; we went deep and discovered some of the stuff that was going on outside of Las Vegas in Nevada and went to a place called the Archer Farms La Mesa which is a big, big military, industrial complex.
D: Watch this [shows video of a UFO]! This is my house. Look at this fucking thing! Look at that, that’s not a star; look at it move in my backyard [in Claremont, California]. There’s this one documentary that we were very inspired by called ‘Unacknowledged’. The follow up to ‘Unacknowledged’ is ‘Close Encounters of The Fifth Kind’ of Dr. Steven Greer. It’s all about being open to this idea that aliens exist and inviting them in and, when you do that, you’ll start to have these experiences. While we were working on all this stuff, I started to really become more tuned into what was happening; I started to have some of these encounters and that’s from that time and I saw other things. It’s another reason we love this project so much. There is comedy to what we do but there’s also legitimate passion behind why we went into that direction and we believe…
K: ….very seriously.
“Our music holds the key to an awakening of human consciousness. There are two rival alien species: one which desperately needs us to make the album and one which is trying to prevent us from making the album.”
How did you enjoy doing the acting and directing?
D: I’ve had some acting experience, which is why I felt comfortable directing, but there were a bunch of non-actors that we pulled in from our music world and beyond. Keith is the lead in the film and there were people who pulled me aside and said, “Hey, are you sure you know what you’re doing? He’s never acted before, you have him as the lead role in your movie.” It’s a gruelling experience to make a film: sometimes you’re up all night and then all of a sudden you have to switch gears and you’re filming in the daytime. I just had this feeling [Keith’s] gonna shine and he really did – he’s fucking awesome in this film.
K: It still doesn’t mean that I’m your friend because you’re saying these nice things about me. In the beginning, [we] threw ideas around as to, “Have you seen ‘The Monkees’ Head’? Have you seen Frank Zappa’s ‘200 Motels’? Have you seen any of these movies involving other rockstars or rock musicians?” Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. Of course, there’s the two [The] Who concept movies: ‘Tommy’ and ‘Quadrophenia’. All of these movies: they’re all fun; some of them are very serious. Some of them have extremely talented and established actors. We didn’t: our things a lot of fun. It’s ridiculous. One of my mantras, one of my thoughts towards what we were doing is ultimately when we show the movie, I want to be able to see people talking amongst themselves as they’re leaving the building. I want to see somebody scratching their head going. “What the fuck? Who allowed these guys to make this movie? What did I just see? What did we just watch?” Just as serious as it is, it’s also very playful. Some of it’s very heavy handed and some of it’s very light-hearted. It goes in a lot of directions.
Can you tell me about your label Fat Possum records?
D: Great label. Who wouldn’t want to be on a label that has everything from Royal Trucks to Townes Van Zandt…and Al Green.
K: Don’t forget they’re based in Mississippi and their whole foundation of that record label was all of the guys that nobody wanted and had never got a D-model Ford. Who’s the guy that’s missing a couple of fingers? He plays with a Ford knife. He’s really great. But there’s so many.
D: We’re label mates with Spiritualized; it’s a really eclectic roster.
K: We’re label mates with Iggy Pop.
D: That’s something we were looking for because we knew that this album was us stepping outside of the punk rock genre and we wanted to be taken seriously as a band that can do something. Like having a drummer who plays with Thundercat and toured with Herbie Hancock coming in: taking what was already really adventurous material that we had written and elevating it to this other place, doing things that no rock drummer would ever think to do. It’s a big reason why the sound is so adventurous. We played into that: we created these four interludes ‘F’, ‘L’, ‘S’, ‘D’ that are free jazz, punk noise. We have John Wall from Clay Hammer on saxophone. We’re really trying to expand.
I’ve always felt like OFF! was a quickfire challenge in terms of where I came from versus what I was allowed to do. If I was used to painting with oil paints, it was like somebody coming along and going, “Here’s a sheet of paper and a Sharpie. That’s all you get.” Okay, you can make good art like that, but now we get to re-approach what we do with all the paints at our disposal; anything we wanna try or use. It’s creatively a triumph for the kind of band that we are.
You had a lineup change in 2021 with the departure of Steven Shane McDonald and Mario Rubalcaba. How did that come about and bring new life to the band?
D: Everybody’s gone on to do other things. It’s not like we wanted the original lineup to fall apart: we tried for a couple of years to do what we’re doing now with them. But we were just stalled out on the side of the road with a flat tyre and no one was helping us, and it became very clear that their priorities were not in line with where we needed to go. We had to make a change in order to survive and move forward – it’s as simple as that. We don’t have any hard feelings towards them. Sometimes things happen for a reason and I really, really believe that this album and all that we have going on right now would not be quite as special if it weren’t with Autry and Justin. They breathed new life into us and helped us reinvent ourselves.
K: We hit a wall. We were more than accommodating. One of the reasons it took so long for us to get to where we are was because we kept stumbling and fumbling over the hurdles. Dimitri rewrote the script to the movie probably a minimum 12 times – it could have been even more – because we went through four different lineup changes. Mario saying, ‘I can’t do this because I’m not an actor.’ So we get Dale Crover from the Melvins and he’s a great drummer. We record with Dale; we’ve recorded like 23 songs with [him] and the majority of them were pretty happening. Some of them we would have had to have gone back and re-recorded. But then Mario hears what we’re doing and it’s like, ‘Oh, no. I‘ve got to be a part of this because you guys have come up with stuff; nobody else is doing anything like this.’ So now [Dimitri’s] got to rewrite the script including Mario, who was in the original script but said [he] can’t act – it just kept going back and forth.
We actually took our time working on the material for the album to allow the two original members of the band to go out and play with all of their other bands; we were more than accommodating. It was like, “Please go out and do what you need to do. You’ve got kids, families, wives, dogs and houses and you got to pay your bills.” We don’t have any money: Dimitri and I are eating soup. Our ‘Per Diem’ was a meal a day and we purposely set out on this path to allow those guys to go out and do what they needed to do and get it out of their systems so at the end of the two years, it would be our turn: “Guys, this is what we’re doing. Guys, we want your full attention on this.” And we couldn’t get it because they were still playing shows. We wanted two months in the studio to be able to record all of this different stuff and be creative as a band, rather than just Dimitri and I having written all of the songs. There was gonna be more to this; there was gonna be more creativity and it didn’t happen. It was like, ‘I can’t be in the studio today. Because I’ve got PTA; I can’t be in the studio today because I’ve gotta take my son to school and I gotta pick him up at the end of the day; I can’t be in the studio today because my wife’s tonsils need to be removed,’ or whatever. Whatever the excuses; all of a sudden there were more excuses happening.
“We were just stalled out on the side of the road with a flat tyre and no one was helping us…we had to make a change in order to survive and move forward – it’s as simple as that.”
D: There was an actual excuse, “It’s my dog’s birthday.” Do you remember that one?
K: That would have been the same kind of an excuse that Greg Hetson would have used. Remember all of those excuses that he pulled up? “I ordered a brand new computer, it’s sitting in the post office in Long Beach and they’re the most corrupt post office in the world because all the people that work there steal everything out of the back.’ “Okay, go get your computer.”
D: Anybody who’s ever been in a band, no matter how successful or how good or bad it was, knows how difficult it is to keep a band together, even under the best circumstances. That’s my friend Kevin right there [points]. He was in a band called Dandelion with his brother – these are brothers. Now you would think brothers can work it out but we know because of The Kinks, Oasis and Black Rose, that it’s fucking impossible. So even best of friends…we’re best of friends and dude, I could tell you stories of [Keith]: we’re trying to work on a song and he stands up and throws a fucking drink across the room and storms out. I wasn’t that worried about it. He came back and we continued working on the song – it ended up being a good tune.
K: We hit a lot of bumps in the road and, like I’ve said, we were more than accommodating. We were expecting something that was not going to happen and, at a certain point, Dimitri looked at me and said, “I’m not doing this anymore. I don’t want to be in a band with guys that don’t want to participate and be a part of it.” I had to do something that I did not wanna do; I’m still hurt from it and I will hurt from it for a while because he was like my younger brother, but it had to be done in order to save the band.
D: Also I’m gonna say something very important, which is Keith is a living legend, but with that comes this sort of…
D:…pressure of being this certain person. He’s always got to be the nervous breakdown guy. People are more than one thing – he doesn’t even really listen to punk rock. If you go to his house, he’s playing all kinds of fucking music, everything from Ornette Coleman to Ravi Shankar…you name it. He’s a real fan and very knowledgeable person when it comes to pop culture and art. I know from being his friend that he’s always wanted to do more than just be Keith Morris from Black Flag and Circle Jerks and yet there’s this pressure. One of the biggest accomplishments of this project is we’ve been able to shine a different light on that and I think it’s his finest moment. I think a lot of people would agree with me and that’s saying a lot because he’s done some fucking amazing shit in the past.
“Keith is a living legend, but with that comes this sort of pressure…he’s always got to be the nervous breakdown guy. People are more than one thing – he doesn’t even really listen to punk rock.”
And the anger is still there…
K: There’s too much stuff to be angry about; if you’re not angry about some of the shit that’s happening in the world, you don’t fucking live in the world. All we want to do is just be good people. We want to be able to walk our streets, enjoy our friendships, have a good time and we don’t want to be fucked with. It’s like every time you turn around, you’re getting fucked with. Our governments – the British government and the government of the United States of America – and all of the politicians…there’s probably six politicians between both countries that should live and be able to say the things that they do and all the rest of them should be fucking shot and dumped into the oceans. We could chop them up and use them as shark bait.
OFF’s new studio album, ‘Free LSD’, is out now. Their Record Store Day release, ‘FLSD EP’, is out on April 22.
Photos © Anna Marchesani/Nocturna Photography.
© Ayisha Khan.