Remember classic first wave American hardcore, with its rugged thundering downstrokes, bullying rhythms, and charged rhetoric? The genre is now experiencing resurgent interest, which makes this a fine time for Off! the newest bug-spray-monikered band from founding Black Flag singer Keith Morris.
The dreadlocked belter, who left Black Flag after the Southern California band's debut EP, Nervous Breakdown, went on to form the Circle Jerks, who would release some of the great late '70s/early '80s punk albums, featuring classic anthems "Coup d'État" and "World Up My Ass."
But the Circle Jerks eventually burnt out, releasing only one album in the past 25 years. They were finally working on a comeback recording — with a label deal from Epitaph in hand — when it all fell apart in the studio thanks to conflicts between bandmembers and producer Dmitri Coats.
"One of the things that I really appreciate about Dmitri in the producer role was the fact that he would say 'this song is not good enough to be on a Circle Jerks album,'" says Morris of the producer who would go on to play guitar in Off! It was a change, he says, from the mindset where "we could get away writing whatever we wanted to write, and our fans would love it because it's been so long since we put out a record."
After Coats challenged guitarist Greg Hetson's songs, things ended up going south. Suddenly the recording needed to be done quickly before Hetson headed out on tour with his other band, Bad Religion. But when the bandleader and producer called a songwriting session, nobody showed up.
So Coats and Morris started writing the songs themselves. When the rest of the band called Morris and told him they'd fired Coats, Morris balked and Off! was born.
"When we were writing those songs, the idea and intent was to go back to a time when it was more energetic, a little more youthful, more aggressive and angry," says Morris. "In my last band everything started to get tired. Everything started to get 'same old same old' boring."
Soon, the singer was assembling a star-studded rhythm section, recruiting bassist Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Earthless, Rocket From the Crypt) to complete his new band. The sound of their 16-song/18-minute debut, First Four EPs, is vintage hardcore from the 63-second, surf-inflected menace of "Now I'm Pissed" to the bracing belligerence of "Fuck People" and the bruising, high-throttle anxiety of "Panic Attack," in which Morris screeches "make it go away!"
"When we make a statement like 'Fuck People' or 'Full of Shit,' I sometimes find myself asking myself, 'Why would you make a statement like that? Then I realize that I'm not afraid to make a statement like that because there are a lot of people out there that WANT to make those type of statements," says Morris. "I'm just a mirror of the times that I'm in. We are feeling very alienated, frustrated and hopeless. It's like, let's just stir this pot up, let it boil, and see what happens."
"We have to continue to move forward," adds Morris, "and just do what we're doing. And that's to do what we did in the beginning."