He was a hardcore legend, the co-founder of two of the form's biggest bands, but Keith Morris languished on the shelf for nearly a dozen years, wasting away instead of making music. He was in Black Flag long before Henry Rollins; he was a Circle Jerk since the end of the '70s. Diabetes had sidelined him, though, as had the loyalties of guitarist and collaborator Greg Hetson to the bigger Bad Religion.
But in 2009, the 58-year-old pioneer reemerged with new charisma. He's since recorded, toured and performed as though he's racing against the decade he wasted and the time he has left. In only five years, his new outfit, Off!, has released four EPs and two albums of blistering four-on-the-floor ferocity and non-stop provocation. Off! has become the third great hardcore act of his career.
When Morris returned to music after his extended break, it was to rebuild Circle Jerks. Their comeback album collapsed in discord, but the dreadlocked, wise-cracking, voluble force of nature didn't consider quitting again. He left instead with the album's producer and guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides) in tow. They recruited a couple of ringers for the rhythm section: Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald and Rocket from the Crypt/Hot Snakes drummer Mario Rubalcaba.
When Rubalcaba had to miss this leg of Off!'s tour, the remaining trio recruited Dale Crover, a legend in his own right as Nirvana's first drummer and a longtime member of the Melvins. Their slower, methodically heavy style would deeply inform Nirvana and, subsequently, grunge. With Off!, he picks up the pace.
Together, Morris and Crover are like a late-night talk show tandem with the garrulous Morris holding court as Crover adds sidekick quips. We caught them in San Antonio, the night after Crover's first show in El Paso.
KEITH MORRIS: We're sitting in the breakfast buffet room of the Sleep Inn.
DALE CROVER: But we slept in and missed all the breakfast.
KM: We always miss out on the breakfast unless we have an early van call. What's your favorite part of free breakfast?
DC: The "free" part.
KM: The bummer for me is that I love all that food but I'm a diabetic, so my choices are limited. If there is no sugar-free syrup, I'm watching everybody else make and eat waffles, thinking to myself, "God, I wish I could have one of those."
DC: You should carry your own syrup around.
They digress before discussing Crover's surprise arrival in the band. Morris is the only member of Off! that doesn't have a family, so he has less obligations in this third act of his career. Still, he's compelled to accommodate the scheduling needs of the other members. While filming the video for their new song "Red, White and Black" with actors David Foley and Brian Posehn, Off! stumbled into a stand-in for Rubalcaba.
KM: Dale has always been on my drummer's wish list. So the day we're filming the "Red, White and Black" video, Dimitri takes it upon himself to get overly friendly—typical Dimitri. He's got this man-boy musician's crush, knowing that Dale was the original drummer in Nirvana. Nirvana is one of Dimitri's favorite bands, so he took it upon himself to ask Dale out on a date.
DC: Dimitri said, "What's up with the Melvins? What are you guys doing the rest of the year?" We're on a little bit of a break. This came at a really good time. I'm free until October.
KM: These things work out in our flow of the universe. The stars are aligned, and Mercury is not in retrograde. Buzzo [Buzz Osborne, the other half of the Melvins] is out doing a solo acoustic thing. He's out seeing the world, from what I see. They're going to every town in the U.S. that has a place he can buy hamburgers.
DC: We met Keith almost 20 years ago to the day in L.A. at Cole Rehearsal Studios. We were rehearsing there, getting ready to go record the Stoner Witch album. We met you in the hallway.
KM: Somewhere in the conversation I had with Buzz, I had volunteered to lend vocals. I'm the guy who doesn't get asked to participate in other people's records very often, probably due to the fact of "He's who he is." A lot of people place me on such a high perch; they think they can't just go up to Keith Morris because of all the stuff he's done and ask him if he'd like to sing vocals or backing vocals or provide handclaps.
DC: I don't know why we didn't have you do it. Maybe Buzz didn't think you were serious. I know we talked recently about doing a song with you, a Captain Beefheart song.
KM: We went back and forth, but the scheduling was just herky-jerky. Sometimes, when you bring in a new member, you have somebody new traveling with you. You have to learn about their personality, but Dale is very easy-going with a lot of humor.
DC: They were OK when I told them I like to ride in the van nude.
KM: We have no problem with that as long as he's wrapped in a blanket. Do whatever you want under the blanket.
When the Melvins and Black Flag began playing music, few expected to make a living from it, though they've mostly managed to do that. I read them a quote from singer/songwriter Tom Russell, then being pursued by major labels. An A&R executive asked him, "Don't you want your music heard by as many people as possible?" He replied, "No. I only want certain people to hear it—people who will appreciate it."
KM: Why put yourself in a box? Why limit yourself? It's a great big world out there. It's a very selfish mentality: "Music is only for us. We don't want anybody else to listen to it. It's not for them." We play a pretty irritating form of music to begin with, so we already eliminated a large part of our musical listening population.
DC: It's there for anybody. It's not commercial mainstream music, yet anybody can go into a store and buy it. We want everybody to like it. With Weird Al atop the charts, anything's possible. Not that everything should be reduced to that, but there's Al Yankovic atop the charts. It's a total game-changer.
INDY: Dale, you've talked about Nirvana's strong similarity with the Melvins but that Kurt introduced a pop element. In the end, he wound up selling records to the people who tortured him in high school. Isn't that the fear?
DC: They were the boss. They could've dictated whatever they wanted. Unfortunately, it was ... (Pauses.) Musically, of course, those guys came on at the right time with something that was different from everybody else. But just with their management and being on a major label, they operated their band no differently than Guns N' Roses
They weren't taking orders from the man; they were the man. They could've done whatever they wanted to do. I just think the Melvins would've done things a lot differently. But they were young, and it was certainly a complete surprise.
KM: They got swooshed right up, like a wave hitting the sand.
DC: You could kind of see it coming. I knew those guys a little bit right before they got signed. I remember talking to Kurt and saying, "Wow, you guys have labels that are interested in you guys." They were touring with Sonic Youth, and they just had Goo sell about 100,000. "Damn, you guys might be able to sell even double that." Then they just exploded.
KM: So are we to partially blame it all on Sonic Youth?
This article appeared in print with the headline "On! the record"