Interview: OFF! On Making an Experimental Album and Never Giving Up

OFF! vocalist Keith Morris and guitarist Dimitri Coats are back at again, with their latest album, the adventurous and unexpected Free LSD, out now via Fat Possum. Their follow-up to 2014’s Wasted Years features an entirely new rhythm section with bassist Autry Fulbright II and drummer Justin Brown. To add to the excitementof the record and new lineup, the beloved hardcore punk band are also releasing a film of the same name, which marks Coats’ first foray into writing and directing a feature film.

The comedic sci-fi (soon-to-be-cult-classic) movie allowed the band to get weirder and more experimental musically. One can only listen to the album to understand it fully, what with its free jazz musical interludes, electronic flourishes, and truly epic feel. Snippets of the film are already available in the form of two wild music videos for “War Above Los Angeles” and “Kill to Be Heard,” the latter commencing with a thoroughly entertaining drum-off between Dead Kennedys’ D.H. Peligro and The Germs’ Don Bolles. Read on for the comprehensive and intriguing story behind the album and film.

I’ve been listening to the record and hearing about the film and just have so many things to get to. What came first, the idea for the record or the film?

Well, I remember talking to (artist) Raymond Pettibon back in 2012 about two albums, and how the artwork would relate to those albums and how they would differ. And we talked about what was to become Wasted Years, and the first two releases had been his artwork against the white background. And I said, “Raymond, this next one is going to be our logo in white and your artwork against a black background, and we’re going to record it demo-style, in our rehearsal space. It’s going to have darker subject matter and be just a little more brutal musically. And the record after that, we’re going to completely change direction and make our Sgt. Pepper’s, and we’re going to do everything we’ve never done before. And we want your artwork to be full color for that.” 

And little did I know that that would become Free LSD, and it would take many more years than I had anticipated for it to see the light of day. (Laughs) And then the idea for the movie happened in 2016. I sort of tricked Keith into being willing to experiment musically in ways he’d never allowed us to before by thinking of the album to a soundtrack of a weird sci-fi film that I came up with. And taking inspiration again from Sgt. Pepper, we figured, OK, if we filtered our creative process through this lens, maybe we can get some different results. And much in the same way that The Beatles became another band, they became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, and I think that freed them up to write songs differently. 

We started out trying to figure out how to change what we’d done in the past. We didn’t want to abandon what we were known for, so the songs are still in the same vein in terms of the themes, us versus them, and what the fuck aren’t you telling us, and we deserve to know, and pull back the curtain; we want the truth. That’s all still there. It’s just really not dealing with news that you would find in regular newspapers. Are there even newspapers anymore? I don’t even know. (Laughter) 

We went down a few rabbit holes, and Keith has an interest in—He had or still has a podcast called Blowmind Show, and he’s pretty passionate about shining a light on some of that stuff, and he just gets a kick out of it. So, I encouraged him to approach the lyrics from that (perspective). And I just started tuning my guitar differently, and every time we were faced with a creative decision, we challenged ourselves to go in a direction we’d never been before. It was really inspiring, and we have been accused of building a time machine back to the early-’80s, and I would compare this record to switching the dials on that time machine to the future for Free LSD.

That’s so interesting that you mentioned your lyrics have an “us vs. them” theme, and that definitely comes through, but I feel like some of the lyrics, even if people didn’t know there was the sci-fi aspect, some still do resonate, like it could be somewhat relevant to today…

Yeah, I think it’s important to keep things a little bit cryptic and allow people to personalize it. Not everything has to be so spelled out and labeled. And for us, the album is related to a feature film we recently shot of the same name, Free LSD, and it was an incredible experience. Seventeen days of shooting, and we called on a lot of incredibly talented people to come on board and do us favors and things like that, and we got it done. 

So, the movie explains through science fiction why this album is so important. It’s about the band existing between two different dimensions, one where we are members of OFF! and another dimension where we don’t know each other, and we’re not even necessarily musicians. And there’s a struggle between a dominant evil alien species that sort of has kept human consciousness in slavery, and there’s the good minority alien race that’s in hiding and is trying to cause an uprising and, Keith and the rest of us play a really important part of that. And us making this new album really holds the key to freeing the human mind from the clutches of the evil alien species. 

The release date for the album is coming up, but when will people be able to see the film?

We’re getting ready to submit to festivals, so it will premier sometime early next year, and then it will come out, I’m assuming, later next year on streaming platforms and things like that. 

This is your first foray into directing and writing?

Yes. I executive produced and conceptualized the majority of our music videos, and so it just seemed like this is where I needed to go with it. Our videos just kept getting crazier and more elaborate. And we just have been toying around with the idea of making a feature film for years. It’s just a very difficult thing to accomplish. So, it took us a while to figure it out, but we finally did. 

Was it exciting but daunting?

(Laughter) Yeah, it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever attempted. But I would do it all over again, and it’s something that I would like to continue doing. When I was younger, in my early 20s, I studied acting in NYC; I went to a school called Juilliard, and I studied theater, and I quit after two years to pursue music. And luckily, that worked out, but I feel like filmmaking encompasses everything I’ve ever set out to do in my life. 

I have an interest in photography and storytelling; I understand acting pretty well. Being a director, you have to wear a lot of hats. A big part of your job is to oversee a lot of different departments and do damage control. You have to have a vision for all these things, and you have to have answers for everything. So, having managed OFF! since the first record and also managing Circle Jerks and FLAG, and having written all the OFF! songs with Keith and produced the records, I’m used to wearing a lot of hats, and that’s exactly what filmmaking is all about. So, all of these experiences prepared me for that undertaking. 

You said you first had an idea for a film in 2016? 

Yeah. I think that’s when I came up with the idea for the film, and I met Jonathan P. Shaw, who is one of David Lynch’s editors; he cut Blue Velvet; he edited all the original Twin Peaks that David Lynch directed, including Twin Peaks: The Return that came out in 2017. He was the first person I pulled in. I didn’t expect him to want to do it. I just wanted to meet him and see if he’d mentor me, and I pitched him the film, and he said, “I’m going to edit your movie.” So, he is currently editing the film. And I should see a first assembly by the end of the week, and then I have to go in and do my director’s cut and get it ready to submit to festivals. 

So, yeah, this has all taken a while, partly because we got stranded for a while. We lost our original rhythm section, and we had to form a new version of the band. And as those things happened, I would rewrite the script, and it was a little bit like starting over. But I can’t imagine it any other way now. Autry and Justin have really helped us take this whole thing into a different direction. Especially the album. Justin is one of the best drummers in the world. He comes from jazz; he’s toured with Herbie Hancock; he’s Thundercat’s drummer, and he took material that was already very adventurous for Keith and me and just raised the bar and brought a level of energy and urgency that just took us to a different place.

So, they came on last year?

Well, the first thing that happened was Metallica asked us to cover a song from The Black Album for a charity album that ended up becoming The Metallica Blacklist. And we chose “Holier Than Thou,” and we already had Autry, but we didn’t have a drummer, and Autry knew Justin, and he said, “I can ask Justin Brown.” And the next thing you know, he’s coming in, and we’re bonding about all sorts of things, like our love for Sun Ra and the idea that you can make music to communicate with extraterrestrial life. And he had never had the opportunity to play in an aggressive band like ours. The timing was just right, and he’s a really, really great person, and those two guys really got us excited about moving forward. We realized, wow, we can go full-tilt with this line-up.

Have you played live together yet?

Yeah, we played a secret show in Austin, Texas, last summer at a museum. We played six songs off the new album. And the first three shows we’re going to play with a full set, where we’ll probably play every song off the new album and some old songs as well, will be coming up in early October. So that’ll be our big premier of the new lineup and the album live. 

Yeah, so that’s shortly after the album comes out. So, you have that, and then you have the North American tour. You were talking about how the addition of Autry and Justin helped musically, but there definitely is a different feel on this one. Was it all a conscious decision?

The material was all written before Autry and Justin joined the band. So, Keith and I already knew we wanted to do something very adventurous and different, and we wanted to challenge ourselves to venture into uncharted territory. So, everything we did creatively was with that in mind. And then when we finally rounded out the lineup with Autry and Justin, we were able to take the blueprints of what was set up to be the album and bring it to fruition in a way we would never have been able to with any other lineup. Because most of the people we know and cross paths with are from the rock world and 

Justin just comes from a different place, so the choices that he makes, it’s a different style. He’s doing things as a drummer on that record that very few rock drummers would think to do or be able to do. It’s an assault. And his technical abilities and his ability to just live in the moment and do whatever comes to mind is incredible. It’s almost like there’s a direct connection from his mind and spirit to his hands and feet. (Laughs) He’s pushing the envelope at all times, and he’s never playing anything the same way twice, and he really forces us to be better musicians and to stay on our toes and be open to where he might take us. 

It doesn’t really change what I play. It just forces me to listen in a way I normally I wouldn’t. I’ve played with some amazing rock drummers, but I very rarely have to wonder where I am or what’s going on. With Justin, he’s constantly experimenting as he’s going along and expressing himself on impulse, so if I get too wrapped up in what he’s doing, I might get lost. It’s almost like he’s the lead instrument, and Autry and I are holding down the foundation of the song. 

So, it’s not so much that I’m going to change what I’m doing, but I just have to be alert because he can bend time in a way that’s deceiving. It’s just musicianship on an incredible level. And then with the electronics that I do, that is where the real improv comes into play because I just have a table full of effects. I laid that stuff down on the record, and I also do it live, and that stuff has a mind of its own. It doesn’t even have an input. I’m not plugging an instrument into any of that stuff. It’s just crude synthesizers and effects that I’ve plugged in various ways to create a wall of sound and that is best demonstrated on the album with the lettered interludes “F” “L” “S” “D.” 

We spent a day in the studio just improvising that stuff. I had themes prepared, but then we also brought in Jon Wahl from the band Claw Hammer to play saxophone. That was an incredible experience and really added depth to what was already a pretty adventurous record.

About that, adding the “F” “L” “S” “D” interludes, what brought that to mind to add those in?

I had already been into bands like Throbbing Gristle, and I’d already collected records by Sun Ra, so there is a certain kind of freedom and experimentation that plays into both of those worlds. And I thought it’d be an interesting idea to marry the two, that sort of early industrial genre that became what is now known as noise, everything from SPK to Bastard Noise. And that was a big influence on me personally when it came to Free LSD and I thought it would be really interesting to combine that with free jazz which a lot of people who don’t understand it might think of that as noise. 

Just a freakout, spazzy, squawky saxophone with crazy drums. It’s not for everybody, but I found a symmetry between the two, and I wanted to play around with it, especially since we had Justin on drums, I thought, “Wow, this could be really interesting to explore.” And the album is called Free LSD, right, so it sort of alludes to the idea that there’s going to be some psychedelia. And so, we always knew that we wanted the album to be one experience from beginning to end without stopping. And those lettered interludes we sort of think of it as splitting up the album, taking a break from the songs; maybe it’s our version of what Bad Brains did with inserting reggae in certain places on their records. 

That’s so interesting what you said about the album being one experience because I was going to say I’m sure if you make an album you want people to listen to it from start to finish, but I feel like this one just has that constant through line. This one just feels like a total experience. 

Yeah, that’s what it’s designed to be. It’s meant to—people’s attention spans are so short these days, the idea of the album is perhaps becoming more lost. And we’re record collectors, especially Keith and I, we still buy vinyl first and foremost. And we’re people who will sit down and listen to an album from start to finish. It should be an experience. The best albums are. We wanted to celebrate that and make an album that really demands the listener to pay attention and go on a journey.

Yeah, this one really has an epic feel. 

Well, thank you. That’s what we set out to do. That’s the whole point. And I think when people see the film it’ll deepen their experience with the album. It’s a giant art project. It’s a tip of the hat to albums and movies that were of the same name and connected. Like when we were younger The Who’s Tommy or The Who’s Quadrophenia or Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Ramones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. We wanted to do something really bold, and it made sense for us to make a movie, based on all the videos we made over the years, and we decided to have fun with it and use the movie as an excuse to get weird musically. 

(Laughs) Yeah. But you say fun. It looks like you were having a lot of fun, so that’s cool.

Oh yeah. I absolutely love this process so much. Working with Keith, we spent a lot of time on it, and it took a while to really figure out specifically what direction we wanted to go in and how we wanted to approach this, and once we got into the groove, it was just like, “Wow, this is so cool.” If I handed my guitar to someone, they’d be like, “What the hell do I do with this?”  I came up with a different language with these weird tunings. For me, it’s the most satisfying album I’ve ever made in my career. And for Keith, I think he’d say the same thing. 

Not to take anything away from the legendary stuff he’s done in the past, it’s just that for someone his age towards the end of his career, for him to step out and be a part of a record like this is just completely unexpected. And he just sounds amazing, and it totally makes sense. Even though it’s very different, it feels right, so I think we were able to stay true to what people have always liked about our band, but just pull out all the stops and give people a completely new experience. 

It’s a good thing we did this because it’s just very artistically satisfying. Instead of making another record that would be good but wouldn’t be that much different from the other three records we made, it’s not something we wanted to do. And there’s a feeling that comes along with just jumping off a cliff and not knowing what to expect. You have to be willing to fail before you can reach certain heights. There was a lot of trial and error and us taking the time to really dial in on what we wanted to do, and it’s the kind of album I can listen to it now and fully appreciate it in a way that’s really interesting, especially because of Justin’s drumming. 

I can listen to it and discover new things about it that I hadn’t heard before each time I listen to it. There’s a lot going on. Part of our story is, you’re never too old to try new things and reach for the stars. I think Keith and I have always gotten a kick out of being written off a little bit. And when we feel like that, it inspires us to do our best work.

When was that? You heard stuff?

Usually you come out with a band, and you make a splash, and then you make another record and, “Well, it wasn’t as good as the first one.” Then you make another record and people are like, “OK, it’s good, but it’s kind of like the other two.” But this album really forces people to pay attention. It cannot be ignored. It just has too much going on. It’s not something you can easily put your finger on. It’s pulling from so many different places, and Keith and I, we don’t sit around listening to punk rock music or hardcore music. 

We have influences that are very broad. And I know that Keith always had a desire to break away from being Keith Morris of Black Flag or Keith Morris of Circle Jerks. The punk rock Keith Morris. He’s more than that. His knowledge of music and his taste are all over the place, and I think that’s why he’s especially proud of this release, because it’s bringing in so much more color and influences that I’m not even sure he allowed himself to explore over the majority of his career. Unless he did some weird offshoot like Midget Handjob or something like that. 

He always had that—He just seems like such a fun, open person. 

Our collaboration comes from friendship. So, we’re like brothers. We would hang out even if we weren’t in a band together. That’s how all this started. We were just friends, and OFF! was an accident. We did not set out to form this band. And I think that’s what makes it special: It’s two guys that would’ve hung out together after school and traded records. We’re buddies. We care about each other, and we trust each other. There’s truth to where we’re coming from. We want to have fun. We want to kick ass. And we’re always trying to think about the audience when we’re writing songs. 

When we’re trying to write lyrics for the chorus of a song, we think about it. We think about being on the stage. I’m like, Keith, “Imagine sticking the mic out into the crowd and all these kids are trying to grab it and sing the chorus. What is the line? It’s gotta be really good.” (Laughs) My favorite time is the creative process. I’m sure once we’re out there playing shows, I’ll enjoy all that, but my favorite times are just hanging out with Keith and coming up with all this stuff. 

So, your origin story, coming together, you were producing, or going to…

Yeah, I was attempting to produce a Circle Jerks record. And Keith wasn’t really into the songs they were coming up with, and one day he just said, “Pick up the guitar. What would you do?” And I said, “I’m not in the band. I’m not picking up the guitar.” And he’s like, “I really like your songwriting.” He was a fan of my first band Burning Brides. That’s how we met, through the record label that signed us. 

So, I started coming up with stuff in front of him and he would immediately say, “You can only downstroke with your right hand.” I’d never done that before, and all this stuff started coming out of me. And we realized we were onto something. I don’t come from punk or hardcore, so for me there was a certain level of not knowing what I was doing that I think worked really well and gave it an authentic feel. And then those songs that were intended for the Circle Jerks ended up becoming OFF! songs because the whole thing fell apart. There was some drama that happened, and he quit and he said, “I quit the Circle Jerks, and you and I are going to form a band.” And I said, “No we’re not.” Because that didn’t make sense to me. I felt like I didn’t belong. He said, “Nobody’s going to care about that. These songs are so good; it’s not going to matter.” And he was right. People loved it right out of the gate. You can only do that once. You can only not know what you’re doing one time. And that was that first record. 

And now I feel like we’ve come full circle, in the sense that we didn’t really know what the hell we were doing with Free LSD so we just opened ourselves up to the impossibilities and luckily the results are very satisfying. And by the way, the same thing applies to the film. I’d never written a script before; I never directed a feature film before. But I knew it was a punk rock movie to some extent, and I wanted to go into it with some naïveté because I only get to do that once, so we went into it with that spirit, and I think it shows.

What’s out already looks amazing.

Oh yeah, those two videos, that’s all footage from the movie and taken way out of context. I didn’t really want to make music videos with that footage. It was kind of putting the cart before the horse, but we needed videos; we didn’t have the time or the resources to make standalone videos for the songs, so I just said fuck it; we have some incredible footage; let’s just use it. And it’s good because it builds anticipation for the project as a whole.

That’s the other thing, Justin couldn’t make it for the filming…

Yeah. Acting isn’t for everybody. And it might’ve been a combination of him not wanting to act and him having prior commitments that conflicted with our shooting schedule. We had one window where we could shoot this movie because of Keith’s schedule with Circle Jerks. We got very lucky because D.H. Peligro, Dead Kennedys’ drummer, goes way back with Keith. He has that history. He’s a legendary punk drummer, but he’s also an actor. It’s another interest of his. He was phenomenal as our movie drummer, so it worked out great.   

One other thing is you have the album out on Fat Possum. You did the reissues with them. Was there any question about who’d put out the album?

We talked to a couple of other labels, but Fat Possum made the most sense. I’m a big fan. I’ve spent money on that label. I bought every single Townes Van Zandt reissue they put out. Blaze Foley. All that great blues stuff. Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside. And then they have an eclectic roster. Everything from Wavves and Royal Trux to Iggy and the Stooges and X and Spiritualized, so we figured that was the right place for us because this new album blurs the boundaries. You can call it a punk rock record, and you’d be correct but it’s way more than that. 

And like you said, punk and hardcore wasn’t your initial musical taste. What got you into that?

Forming OFF! with Keith. That’s what got me into it. I was in a band called Burning Brides before this. I was just more into rock music. I had punk rock records. I had records in my collection that could be considered hardcore and stuff like that. But to me, it’s just all rock music. The Ramones and The Saints and The Stooges, Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, Black Sabbath. There’s something punk about all that stuff to me. I’ve never been one to declare that I’m part of a certain scene. I just love art. I love music. I love movies. And I draw inspiration from all different sorts of things. 

I owned Black Flag records before I met Keith, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you which singer was Keith versus Dez (Cadena) or Ron Reyes. It was something I knew was important and I bought a couple of those records and checked it out and I was like, wow, that’s crazy. But it didn’t define my life the way it has with so many people who are fans of whatever Keith is doing. My contribution is, I’m a songwriter. I’m a bit of a chameleon. I feel like I could write songs with Lana Del Rey if she asked me to. I feel like I could produce an album for Black Sabbath that would be pretty good. (Laughs) 

I think what I’ve done with Keith and OFF! I’m coming at it more as a film director, where he’s the star and I’m just trying to create a world where he can shine. That’s all I’m doing. I figured out what makes him so great, and I just went in that direction and encouraged to be the Keith that everybody is blown away by. My role is more of a creative one, and I just enjoy steering the ship. 

What got you into producing?

I think it just goes hand in hand with songwriting. When you write songs as you go along, it’s a craft and you have to have an instinct for what makes a good song, and once you know that it sort of plays into what makes a great album because an album is made up of songs. It’s about having a vision for each song and then a vision for those songs as a whole when presented as a record. And I guess I’ve produced or co-produced every record I’ve ever put out. It wasn’t always intentional; it just ended up that way. I fight hard for my ideas, and I’ve found myself in many situations where people also believe in those ideas or that vision and wanna support that, so that’s usually the role of a producer.

One thing I have to say is, I can’t believe you guys have been around this long… It doesn’t seem like it.

I came across a photo of myself from 2010, an OFF! photo from that time, and I look like a baby. I don’t know what happened. I’m, like, a suburban dad now. I used to be fun, and I thought the world was full of possibilities. (Laughs) Now I don’t know. We’ll see where it all goes. I always look forward to stuff. I’m excited where filmmaking might lead me. That’s a really exciting new chapter. It’s something I definitely want to explore, and then the rest of it just depends on Keith and how much longer he wants to do this. 

And just that the last album was more than a few years ago; it could be an every once-in-a-while thing…

Yeah. We needed to take some time off. We needed to step away. We had put out three records back-to-back and hit the road like we were in our 20s. I went through some personal stuff; I went through a really bad divorce where kids were involved, and then our band fell apart, and we had to put together a new lineup, and we were looking at this massive project we didn’t wanna give up on. 

At times it felt like we were in a nightmare. Just because we kept feeling like we were getting stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire or something. It’s those times that really define people. How we deal with the hard times is really what dictates who we are. And Keith and I are really good about propping each other up. If one of us is down, feels like giving up, the other one will say, “We’re doing this. Do not lose faith. It’s not only going to be all right; it’s going to be better than it was before had this not happened.” And sometimes you can’t see in the moment when something horrifying is happening until later and you look back, and you say if that horrible thing hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be where we are now. It’s actually a blessing in disguise.” 

Get the album here. 

Photos courtesy of Greg Jacobs 

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