CIRCLE JERKS – interview by mike bushman
In my little 15 year old, mid-80’s, mid-west world, music was rather hard to come by. MTV was only a couple of years old and championing Twisted Sister as extreme underground music. I knew punk existed, I just had no real outlet of exposure to it in rural Wisconsin. Then two bands were placed in my hands with a disclaimer, “Here, this is ‘punk rock’.” The Ramones (“A Rocket to Russia” vinyl) along with their greatest hits “Mania” tape and a dub tape that had the Circle Jerks “Group Sex” on one side, and “Wild in the Streets” on the other. I had found punk rock. And got it. I won’t say I then became the crusty patch wearin’, liberty spike sportin’ punk rawker (I’m a metal head at heart), but as a music geek, I went on to embrace, enjoy, jam and slam to pretty much any and every punk band that was worth checking out. I still have my beaten and torn, but still occasionally worn 7 Seconds “Walk together, Talk together” T-shirt. But it always came back to: The Ramones and The Circle Jerks. You can debate the validity of other bands that may have preceded them, but punk will always be defined to each individual, by the bands that first opened their eyes and ears to a disenfranchised world that made it “ok” to be an outsider. A freethinker. A punk.
And years later, I actually get the chance to talk to thee fucking Keith Morris, singer of the Circle Jerks. One down and none to go in the world of punk rock since me and Joey never seemed to cross paths. Thanks to Keith for taking the time to share some insight into his world as of late. And also allowing me to notch one more off my life’s ‘to do’ list.
What does one ask Keith Morris that hasn’t already been asked?
That’s a tough one. For one thing, I grew up listening to a lot of different music. So to like, peg me as a ‘punk rock guy’ would be completely false. I am working at a record company and we’re listening to all different kinds of music, and believe me, some of the last music I want to listen to is punk rock. Having played punk rock music, or what people would label punk rock music or hardcore or what have you, for about the last 22 years. It would be real easy NOT to want to listen to that kind of music. But I love it. I went through a period where I was like the hermit in the cave. It’s like, “I never want to hear this stuff ever again.” And all of a sudden, here’s The Distillers. And here’s Hot Water Music. Alkaline Trio. I can rattle off a few names off the top of my head, but it’s just, there’s so much great music out there. I grew up listening to AM radio. My grandparents listened to country music. Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Bob Willis and The Texas Playboys. My mom listened to AM radio so we were constantly being exposed to bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I can remember the first time I heard “Happy Jack” by The Who on KHJ. And the first time I heard “Summertime Blues” by Blue Cheer… I got in a lot of trouble for that…
What do you mean, “You got in a lot of trouble for that.”?
My grandparents used to have a thing where if my sister and I had misbehaved, for our punishment, we were placed in a car parked out front of their house. They would roll the windows down of course to allow us to breathe and get a good fresh oxygen supply going in there. But at the time, you could turn on the car radio. You didn’t need to have the car turned on in order to turn on the car radio.
So you just killed the battery?
No only did we kill the battery, but we killed all the upholstery inside the car, because the car came on the radio, and my sister and I started jumping around inside the car. And because of the leaping about, it caused all the springs underneath the upholstery in the seats, to come busting up through the leather. My grandparents didn’t take to kindly to that. We weren’t able to sit for about two to three weeks.
So you were almost one of those ‘seek and destroy’ based punks from the start huh?
Well, I was kind of like Dennis the Menace. He means well.
What’s the current buzz in your life? What would interest those long time fans of yours? What are you up to?
I’m actually doing quite a bit because I’m working at a record company. I work for V2 Records. We’ve been trying to sign some bands. We tried to sign The Explosion from Boston, speaking of a great punk rock band. We have a straight up 70’s kinda hard rock band from New Zealand called The Datsuns. Right before I joined the company, we signed a band from Philadelphia called The Burning Brides who are like a three piece that sound a bit like Nirvana, but they also sound like Blue Cheer. They are highly influenced by bands like Black Flag, Misfits. They are actually a really cool band and they are on tour with The Division of Laura Lee. So we go out and we listen to bands. We see bands. We’re listening to music here all the time.
What do you do at the label? What does Keith Morris handle?
I work with one my friends who is head of A&R on the west coast. I just basically call him on his shit. If he like puts something in and he’s really diggin it, if I’m not into it, I kinda question why, and what he plans to do with it and where he wants to go with it. I quiz him. At the same time, I’m learning about the music business. He’s worked with a lot of really cool people. He’s worked with Beck. He worked with Eminem for awhile when he at Interscope. He worked with Rob Zombie. He’s worked with The Crystal Method. He’s worked with a band called Whiskey Town. We love music. We seem to agree on about 75-80% of everything we listen to. It’s cool. I’ve also been performing Black Flag songs with Henry Rollins band. We raised money for The West Memphis Three. Anybody who is not familiar with The West Memphis Three, they need to find out. Because that was a situation that was totally uncool and shouldn’t happen here. (www.wm3.org for more info). We raised about $10,000 for their defense fund. I also have a project called Midget Handjob. We don’t even rehearse. We just got through playing a clean needle exchange benefit with Elliot Smith, Nebula, who are like one of my favorite stoner type bands. A band called The Tide, who are like a local Silverlake band. They are like a spin-off of Beachwood Sparks who I’m a fan of. But the Midget Handjob, musically, I think there were about 13 of us on stage. Ranging from tape loops to a gentleman who was playing the saw. We had pots and pans and bongos. Saxophones and guitars.
How often does Midget Handjob play? When can people go see that?
There was a point in time where we were playing a couple of times a month, but it’s slowed down. It’s just kind of a free music thing. Somebody likened it the Sun Ra Orchestra. When I listen to our CD, I hear bits and pieces of Roxy Music. Credence Clearwater. It’s eclectic, but without it being World Beat. I’m not a fan of World Beat.
Being someone who has been in the industry so long, and especially associated with the ‘punk’ movement, which is generally thought of as a ‘youth’ subculture, how do you feel age is affecting punks in general, and your life in particular. Is it harder to be ‘punk’ the older you get?
What is ‘punk’? I’m just a regular guy and I’m angry about a lot of things. And if you listen to a lot of punk rock, you’ll notice there is a lot of hateful, spiteful connotations. We have a really lousy government so it’s really easy to be upset with them. We have a really lousy police force, it’s easy to be upset with them. We have a lousy judicial system, it’s easy to be upset with them. If you lived in Southern California and you participate in driving everyday, it’s real easy to be upset with all the other drivers on the road. Road rage.
So you are associating ‘punk’ with an upset, disenfranchised state of mind?
See a lot of people equate it with spiky hair and fashion.
I guess I was coming more from ‘punk’ being associated with a youth culture, but more and more as punks are growing older and not giving up the idealism. Not necessarily the dress code…
What about the kid in school who’s always being picked on. He can be angry with all the other people around him. When I’m asked about Black Flag, and what are the reasons we started Black Flag, I felt that it was kind of our way of getting back at the community where we grew up. It was like our way of blowing things up without breaking windows and slashing tires and throwing bricks through people’s windshields or setting fire to buildings. It was a form of therapy I guess.
Aside from any loyalties you may owe to record labels that have put out your records, what label(s) do you think are really making a difference in the world?
I don’t know if they are making a difference, because there are so many labels out there. I was really into Man’s Ruin for awhile, but they went under. I like Birdbrain. I like some stuff on Vagrant. There are just so many labels. What you have to take into consideration at one point in time, we had SST, which laid the blueprint and built the foundation for these indie labels. Not to take anything away from the major labels, because there is some great bands on the major labels as well.
What does Keith Morris fear?
I fear spiders and snakes. And sharp objects. And insane girlfriends.
You’ve had a lot of problems with that?
A couple of times, yeah.
So to catch people up with the Keith Morris world of the last six months…
Best movie you’ve seen in the last six months?
Donny Darko. It’s kind of like an average normal American family and it just turns into a dark… creepy… you can relate to everybody that’s in the movie. It’s a brilliant movie.
Best new band you’ve heard in the last six months?
I can’t answer that. Because, I’ve seen… I’m going to see a band called The Kinnison tonight. We saw The Explosion about a month ago. I saw a really great female vocalist the other night. Her name is Miranda Lee Richards. I am just constantly hearing new great things.
Most rocked album/band in the last six months?
The Soundtrack of Our Lives. They are a Swedish band. They are very very classic rock. That’s the beauty of their thing. They do it so well.
Most watched TV show in the last six months?
I try not to watch TV, but if I do, lately I’ve been watching a lot of National Football League games. I’m a Raiders fan.
Most played video game in the last six months?
It’s too addicting. It’s like a drug. If I have like a spare half hour somewhere, maybe once a month, if that. I just don’t have the time.
What’s the biggest lie you’ve heard in the last six months?
It would probably have to be something coming out of George Bush’s mouth. I couldn’t believe what I read in the newspaper today. What he said. The University of Michigan is trying to put in some affirmative action, where they are going to allow more minorities in their university. And apparently, George Bush seemed to think they are not letting enough White people, Caucasians, into their university. I couldn’t believe that. What a fucking idiot. Let’s just do whatever we can to ruin education in the country.
Best gig in the last six months?
I would say Circle Jerks live at the Aragon Ballroom in Cleveland. The big room holds about 2000 people, and the smaller room holds about 600 people. It was just wall-to-wall people. It was a blast. It was a small stage, no barricade. Everybody was pretty much well behaved and having a good time and drinking and jumping around. Except for the one idiot in front, who, the whole time, just stood there and flipped us off. And I wanted to know why. If you don’t like us, why are you here? Nobody’s holding a gun to your head. Nobody’s tied you down and told you that you had to stay.
Best conversation you’ve had in the last six months (with who?)
I have some pretty cool conversation with my friend John Sidell here at V2. We are always talking about music. Occasionally we are talking about movies. There’s always something going on here that’s pretty stimulating.
Best idea you’ve had in the last six months?
(laughs. A lot). That would have to be answered with just a giant question mark. That’s like several dozen question marks rising up out of the skull. I had a New Year’s resolution where I was going to be more aggressive. Try and go out and get more things that I wanted. Not in a materialistic way. And try to be a little bit more gentler and kind to fellow drivers rather than calling them “Mother fucking pricks. Get out of my way. If I had a gun I’d blow your brains out.”