OFF! has never followed the rules of punk rock orthodoxy. The band is fronted by the frontman of two of the four Mount Rushmore hardcore bands (Keith Morris and Black Flag/Circle Jerks if you just arrived from another galaxy) but was created with the intent of kicking the old gift horse right in the mouth.
Even when you consider their penchant for rule-breaking the band’s sensational 2022 album (and forthcoming film) Free LSD is beyond and above what anyone expected. The music is a daring combination of Sun Ra-inspired jazz freakouts, electronic noise and conspiracy theories that never – not even for a second – loses the jet engine propulsion of the best hardcore. The album is also just chapter one: Free LSD is the soundtrack for a film that, according to IMDB, is about “an elderly sex shop owner’s attraction to a younger woman leads him to an erectile dysfunction doctor whose treatment reveals an alluring but treacherous alternate reality.” Frontman Morris and guitarist Dimitri Coats (formerly of Burning Brides) talked to Decibel from the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah about Free LSD, their world-shifting new rhythm section and more.
When did you start kicking around ideas for this album?
DIMITRI COATS: We always knew this record would be very different. I remember hanging out with Keith and (artist) Raymond Pettibon before we recorded Wasted Years, saying the next record we did was going to be different. We already knew we wanted the artwork in color because it was going to be our Sgt. Pepper.
KEITH MORRIS: The seeds were planted for this project back then (in 2014). We had to get through the cycle of that record and then take a break because we can’t stand to be around each other (laughs). We took a few months off and then started tossing around ideas about what we’d do with this recording. We’re now here in Utah promoting the Free LSD movie. We’re with all these movie people and these people know the music already – we’re extremely lucky that all of this is rolling out this way. There will be another year or two of us working and getting to present this music.
When did the actual work on Free LSD begin? Did the pandemic factor into it?
COATS: We wrote these songs in 2018. They were meant to be recorded with our original lineup but it was difficult to get things to land simultaneously. We wanted this to be our Purple Rain or Tommy or 200 Motels. The concept was always that the album and the film would be joined. I tricked the guys into experimenting by having them think of a soundtrack for a weird sci-fi film. Things felt more black and white before – there were more rules than I expected coming from outside into the punk rock world. It made sense to use the film as a way to think outside the box. Then the pandemic pressed pause on the world and we found our new lineup.
MORRIS: We loved working with our old members. They are undeniably great musicians. But there were so many scheduling problems. We’d start to gain some momentum and then hit the brakes. There was too much other stuff flying around and it became ridiculous. Then we were introduced to Justin Brown (drummer) and Autry Fulbright II (bass). We still have scheduling problems because we are playing with one of the greatest drummers in the world. But we are having a blast.
I wanted an OFF! headphone album. We needed to get out of the box because punk rock hardcore can be a box. Open your mind and free your mind and go to some other places. Dimitri mentioned Sgt. Pepper. It’s the first album I ever owned. Sgt. Pepper was some of the greatest music ever – I could hear it going over my head when I was getting stoned as a kid. We had all of these other influences. As we got deeper into things, we listened to more music outside of punk. At a certain point, we wanted to go someplace else.
New Rhythm Section
How did Autry and Justin join the band?
COATS: Autry was in …And You Will Know Us by the Trail Of Dead. We connected later. He was one of the nicest people I met in the music world and was good about keeping in touch. He always seemed to have a presence. I just called him up and see if he would come and try some OFF! material. He came in and we went through some songs cold and it felt right immediately.
Autry works with a management company that manages (jazz bassist) Thundercat and (record producer and DJ) Flying Lotus. When Metallica asked if we wanted to be on their charity album (Blacklist) we didn’t have a drummer. Autry said he could ask Justin Brown. I immediately thought it could be interesting. When we made lists of who we wanted in the band a lot of Mars Volta drummers were on the list.
We wanted to bring in something from the jazz world and introduce it to this material. We started throwing around names like Sun Ra. Sun Ra really believes his music was being transported into the cosmos and that he was communicating with extraterrestrials. Justin had never played aggressive music before and he felt like it was a missing feather in his cap. As soon as we played the Metallica song as a band there was undeniable chemistry. There was a feeling. We asked him on the spot if he wanted to be in the band.
I could listen to just the drums on an isolation track. There is so much going on with the percussion but the groove never falters. I can’t think of many people who can do that.
COATS: Keith and I have played with some of the best drummers in the world. None of them approach this music like Justin. He is the lead instrument and he is driving the train. You are either on it or not and if you aren’t on with your seat belt fastened you will get lost. It’s almost like Autry and I hold down the metronome and Justin skates around the groove and tugs and pulls. He never repeats himself. He will serve the song but he is always full of surprises. He breathes his style of drumming. It elevated the material to a different place.
MORRIS: Justin said, “don’t expect me to ever play these songs the same way.” The way he plays keeps us on our toes. We have to stay on top of what we play. It’s not like a regular rock band where everyone plays along. He knows where he needs to hit and the attacks on the songs. He knows there are certain thing that needs to be hit. Between all of that is like rolling down a hill or hang-gliding without wings.
COATS: Even though Justin is a sophisticated musician who has toured with Herbie Hancock I feel like he plays punk rock drums here. This is a full-force pure expression. Just because he has incredible technical chops doesn’t mean it isn’t hardcore.
In the jazz world drummers leading a band isn’t unusual. Art Blakey led the famous Jazz Messengers.
COATS When I lived in London in the late 80s I went to see Art Blakey and met him after. He was one of the people who caught my ear. He was a band leader and lots of people came up through him and became legends.
The Free LSD songs came together in 2018 – did the new members change the material?
COATS: The songs didn’t change at all. It was just a matter of how those guys interpreted the material. The real wild card was the experimental, industrial free jazz turns we added to the album. I have a table full of crude electronics I experiment with and that’s where the band has no clue where we are going. We set a whole day for experiments when we did the record. We had five or six channels just filled with weirdness panned differently. Adding that to the album moved things in a different direction because no one was expecting it. I’m very proud of the noise stuff and it also lends itself to the film. It gives the album some psychedelia.
“We Went Down Crazy YouTube Rabbit Holes”
What process do you have to get words and music working together?
COATS: We hang out and start talking. We go record shopping and play the records we bought. It’s like hanging out with a friend after school listening to Sabbath. We pushed ourselves to listen to different things on this album. We tried to get inspired and fired up and then I would grab a guitar and play through a tiny amp. I tug and pull at different riffs until something starts to form and there are enough changes for verses, choruses and bridges. I record ideas on my phone and that’s the foundation for vocal phrasing. A lot of times the vocals start with patterns and gibberish.
MORRIS: Dimitri asked me what subject material we could use besides what we’ve dealt with in the past. Where are we going to go? I thought we could write love songs but that’s been done (laughs). He said I had a treasure trove filled with lyrical ideas on a podcast I did with Pete Weiss (Blowmind Show) who drummed in Thelonious Monster. We did 50 episodes on conspiracy theories like Bigfoot, missing children and who killed JFK. Do UFOs exist or is it a figment of our imagination? There was so much to pick through. Dimitri encouraged me to listen to every episode we recorded and pick out what slapped me in the face.
COATS: We watched these crazy movies and went down crazy YouTube rabbit holes. There were a lot of documentaries on UFOs and aliens. That also tied into what we wanted the movie to be about.
When I read the lyrics I kept thinking of MK-Ultra (an illegal CIA program that used LSD and other drugs without consent to develop procedures for interrogations).
MORRIS: It was one of the things. We also spent some time with Walt Disney conspiracies and the weird energy at Disney World in Florida. We spent time with the jet propulsion labs in Pasadena. We also spent time with L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology – all of these conspiracy theories.
COATS: The challenge in changing directions lyrically was still needing to hit the us vs. them storyline. When the chorus hits when you hold your microphone out it has to be powerful enough that people want to try to sing it.
Despite all the experiments the album never loses its innate hardcore goodness. Most of the songs are two to three minutes long.
COATS: It’s the way we threaded everything. We knew we wanted the record to be a nonstop experience where you don’t know where songs end or begin. It takes listeners on a journey. That was a process and we got a lot of it in mixing. That’s one of the record’s greatest assets – it’s an experience.
And you can still have that experience in roughly a half-hour.
COATS: it’s 38 minutes and we still manage to get 16 songs in there.
“The Metal World Started Embracing Us”
There is a band called Agoraphobic Nosebleed that has an album called Altered States of America with 100 plus songs in roughly 20 minutes.
MORRIS: Wow. Isn’t that the same vibe as Anal Cunt?
Well, one of the guys involved (Scott Hull) was in both bands.
MORRIS: Wow (laughs).
COATS: When this album came up the metal world started embracing us. I never thought of this as metal. I certainly don’t mind listening to certain black metal. I come from more metal than punk. But people say “Kill To Be Heard” sounds like black metal. I thought it was one of the poppier songs on the album! It’s Justin’s choice of drumming that evokes that – the blast beats. I can’t imagine any other drummer sounding like he did.
Are people coming to the movie through the music or the other way?
COATS: The film is in its early stages. Most people are starting to see it for the first time. It’s a huge deal to get a finished film out there. We are sitting where we want to be. The idea of the film has always been to bring more attention to the music. The only difference is that Keith isn’t riding around on a purple motorcycle (laughs).
Lots of people are talking about OFF! Knowing that, where does the band go? The options seem limitless between film and music,
COATS: I just love hanging out with this guy and creating. We’ll see where things go. If it makes sense to record more music and play more shows we’ll do it. We can all make more money doing our other things. We don’t get rich from this. We do it because it is stimulating creatively in ways that nothing else is. This is all about friendship. We fell into it by accident and realized we could collaborate in a special way. He is the star quarterback and I am the coach helping him score touchdowns.
MORRIS: We are playing with an extremely popular drummer. He plays with like twenty different jazz people. He has many tours, often in Europe. So there is room for me to do other things. But we have a great rapport with the band and the people in it. This is the most important thing to me because there is so much attached to this project.
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