Keith Morris (Black Flag / Circle Jerks / OFF!)

  • Marygrace Waller posted
  • Interviews
Keith Morris

Keith Morris - Black Flag / Circle Jerks / OFF!

  • 23rd February 2024
  • Los Angeles
  • Marygrace Waller

Keith Morris is punk rock royalty. In 1976, he founded Black Flag with Greg Ginn and a few years later, he formed the Circle Jerks. In recent years he spends the majority of his time split between the Circle Jerks and OFF!, which he founded in 2009. Marygrace Waller sat down with Keith Morris a few weeks ago to discuss the origins of South Bay punk and specifically, the abandoned church in Hermosa Beach that fostered the birth of South Bay punk. They also discussed Morris’ friendship with Jeffrey Lee Pierce and what’s to come for the Circle Jerks.

Keith Morris

Marygrace Waller: What year did you guys first start practicing and then move in?

Keith Morris: “Well, we moved around so much that I couldn’t really give you any kind of dates. Before we had a drummer and a bass player, Greg Ginn and I rehearsed in his living room. And what we did was he had a guitar amp with a couple of speakers and he plugged in and played through his amp and I plugged into the amp and I sang through his amp. It was the blind leading the blind. We were just stumbling and fumbling around. We had no idea what we were going to do. We hadn’t even asked anybody else to play with us yet. Eventually, we would find a drummer, who was Brian Migdol, who was the younger brother of my best friend in my Junior year in high school, and then we had three different bass players leading up to Chuck Dukowski, who was the bass player while I was a member of the band and I believe I was only in the band for about three years and over the course of that time, we had two drummers and four bass players. So, there was a revolving door when it came to the musicians who played with us– or the non musicians who played with us.”

MW: So the church was used primarily as a practice space, were there any shows that ever happened there?

KM: “We had a couple of parties in the church. We played at Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach and after we got through playing, it was still late afternoon, it was probably about five in the afternoon and we invited everybody to come back to the church. We were just gonna have a party and we set up all of our gear and we played until one of Robo’s cymbals fell over and severed the vocal cord. Everybody was still hanging out, everybody was doing whatever they were doing, there just wasn’t any live music. In The Decline of Western Civilization, I was already out of the band and Penelope Spheeris does an interview with basically Greg and Chuck in the basement of the church, which was Ron Reyes’ living space. We had a couple of parties there. There’s a photo in Flipside Magazine where one of the Flipside photographers took a photo of, I believe Ron was singing, and Chuck and Greg were playing, and I was playing drums. What this was, was a precursor to the guy who was going to replace me when I left Black Flag. The first vocalist after I left was Ron Reyes, and he only lasted six months. And then we had Dez Cadena, he and I are still good friends, he replaced Ron, and then eventually it would be Henry Rollins, but Henry Rollins had absolutely nothing to do with the church. Now, the church was open to the public, even though there were some businesses in the church, basically like arts and crafts. And Greg Ginn had a space on the very Western side of the church that overlooked the ocean where he had his electronics business. SST was originally ham radio operators. He had a couple of things that he was doing, one was called an attenuator and he would actually use an attenuator while he was playing guitar, I don’t remember what it did for the sound. We were still feeling our way through it. We hadn’t recorded the Nervous Breakdown EP yet. That wouldn’t happen until Chuck joined the band. Like I said, we had three bass players before Chuck joined the band. When Chuck joined the band, he stressed upon us that we were going to start rehearsing on a regular basis because we weren’t ready to play, we weren’t ready to go out and play live because we didn’t have a set. We had probably 14 or 15 songs. When I left, we were only playing 16 songs when we played live. So our set could be if you sneeze, or you cough, or you step out into the lobby, or wherever you would go to smoke a cigarette, if you blinked your eyes, if you took a sip off of your drink, you’d miss like three quarters of our set.”

MW: Can you paint a picture of walking through the door into the church? What you’d see or who you’d see.

KM: “The picture that I would paint is we’re in Hermosa Beach, the weather’s beautiful. Beautiful skies, it’s sunny, it’s nice, it’s warm. We would walk up to the church, we would walk up a couple of steps, we would open the big blue door. The group of people that were attending church there decided that they needed to move, maybe the rent was too expensive, what have you. So, when it became vacant, all of a sudden, somebody had the brilliant idea to turn it into an arts colony. And what I mean by that is there are different rooms in the church, and one of the rooms was a guy that worked in metal sculpture. One of the rooms was the person that was making pottery. Of course there were a couple of painters, fine art. And then there was Greg Ginn and SST at the very back of the church. And the whole idea was that the front doors were open for anybody that wanted to come in there because the artists wanted people coming in there to see what they were creating. My mom actually went there a couple of times a week because she made friends with the guy who was in charge. I eventually, at one point, lived in the church. I lived on the far Northwest corner in a two story loft and I was there probably for maybe five months, six months. My rent was like 75 dollars a month. You have to understand, the church is open to anybody that wants to come in. So when all of the oddball, weird characters, all of the disgruntled youth in the South Bay found out that there was a band rehearsing in the janitor supply closet, they started to come and hang out.”

MW: Before punk was ever a thing, what was going on in the South Bay musically? I know jazz was a thing and then was much else happening?

KM: “Well, when you say jazz, yes, we had the lighthouse cafe and anybody worth their weight in salt, even the biggest names in jazz played there. Elvin Jones, I’m sure John Coltrane played there, maybe his wife played there, Ornette Coleman, Ahmad Jamal, the list goes on and on. When you’re a jazz musician, you want to play, and you play to any of the venues that are available to you. Plus, Howard Rumsey, who owned the Lighthouse, he was a big deal in the jazz world. I worked right across the street from the lighthouse and during the summer, the top of the door would swing open, and so they would open it, and I was about as far as it is from here to room 106 there in the apartment building [about 25 yards], and we could listen to jazz. In all of the years that I lived in Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, I never ever stepped foot in The Lighthouse, and I can’t tell you why. Maybe it’s because my dad loved jazz and at the time, I didn’t like my dad. It’s like, I don’t want to listen to what you’re listening to, like, “What are you listening to? Oh, that band’s called Sham 69 they’re terrible. I’m going to the Newport Jazz Festival and there will be no music like this being played.” Musically the South Bay was, at that time, the same as it was up here in Hollywood. We’re in Los Angeles, we’re in one of the major music hubs in the world, but Southern California was pretty much a wasteland when it came to original music. There was a time when the only cool bands that were doing anything original were like the Runaways and the Quick. Black Flag was highly influenced by a band from Detroit called the Dogs. There was the Pop. There was the Imperial Dogs, which was Don Waller, who used to write for the L.A. Times, Don Waller’s band. They actually wrote a song that the Blue Öyster Cult covered and did an amazing job, “This Ain’t The Summer of Love.” There were the Weasels and maybe a couple of dozen other bands, but for the most part, on a Friday or Saturday night in the South Bay where we lived, the best you were going to get was a top 40 band playing the Doobie Brothers or Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles, all of the stuff that did not interest us in the least bit.”

Circle Jerks

MW: As far as the quote unquote scene goes, how was it distributed? Later on, I know things became more male-dominated. Was it kind of that way from the beginning or did that happen over time?

KM: “The male domination pretty much started right off the bat. I mean, we were inclusive because we were happy to be doing what we were doing and we didn’t care who was part of our scene, part of our church scene, if you could even call it that. It wasn’t like we were in the hundreds. We’re talking a couple of dozen people and the only time the church went off was whenever we’d throw parties. And then all of a sudden we would have Darby Crash and a couple of his friends, Hudley and Al from Flipside, the guys from the Gears would show up. So there were people coming along with them or they were inviting their friends. So we’d have a party and there could be 100 people there.”

MW: Was there any difference between the South Bay and L. A. proper?

KM: “Like, like us versus them? No, not that. But, how did they dress and what were we wearing? We, in Black Flag, always looked like we could have been the road crew for Peter Frampton or Humble Pie or Ten Years After. We always looked like we just walked out of the Salvation Army or the nearest Goodwill store, whereas the Hollywood punks were more focused on like, “So what are the punk rock bands wearing in London?” You know, the creepers and the boots and the dyed hair and leather jackets. And we looked like where we grew up, we grew up around surfers and skateboarders and skiers. Those people were more zoomed in on what was going on in the UK. Looking like the Sex Pistols or looking like damaged models and we didn’t look like any of them. So in the very beginning there was a bit of a divide and those people didn’t know what to make of us and that changed at a party. We’d all gone to see somebody at the Whiskey a Go Go or the Starwood, one of those two places and somebody decided that they were going to have a party in their apartment over on Fountain. And Phast Phreddie Patterson, who is from Torrance, who is also part of the South Bay, he was the guy that’s picking out the songs. He’s not playing a complete album. He’s like actually DJing, like picking a song and then playing the next song after that. And he did it for like about an hour and a half and when he was done spinning vinyl, Chuck Dukowski whipped out a copy of the Nervous Breakdown EP, and he crouched down by the turntable and put it on, and when it started blasting out of the speakers, everybody in the room, their jaws dropped to the floor, and the puzzled look on their faces was, “Who is this?” We explained to them, “Well, that’s us. That’s what we recorded.” And then they’re all looking at us like “You guys weren’t supposed to record anything like that. We don’t expect anything like that from you.” And that was the night that our position shifted, now we’re accepted by these people because this is what we do.”

MW: So, where does Spot fit into this picture?

KM: “My very first impression of Spot was he is a super freak. Here’s this guy, one day I would see him, he would be rollerskating in his cutoff Levi hot pants and he would be playing the flute and he would be skating around in circles, up and down on the strand in front of my dad’s store. My dad’s store was on Pier Avenue. We were not even half a block away from the beach, including the strand itself. And he would be skating around, my mom worked with him at the South Bay Easy Reader, which, at that time was our free weekly paper. Spot was a photographer for them. And he was also a staff music critic. So he played music. And when I didn’t see him skating around playing flute, I saw him skating around taking photos of what was going on on the strand. So if you go to any of his books, you’ll see girls in bikinis or one piece swimsuits. This was during the summertime, all the kids are outta school, so they’re on their bikes, or they’re skating or on their skateboards. And he’s documenting what’s going on at this time.”

MW: Back to the church, where do the Last fit into the story? Because I know that Joe Nolte also lived at the church.

KM: “The Last were extremely important in the history of music in the South Bay because for Black Flag or even Panic, they were one of the only bands playing original music. I’d said earlier that if we were to go out on Friday or Saturday night and go to a bar expecting to hear some music, we were going to be hearing a top 40 band. The Last were not a top 40 band, and the Last were a huge influence on Black Flag because here we are seeing an original band that, granted, they were highly influenced by rockabilly, they were highly influenced by bands like the Beatles and some of the British Invasion bands, the poppier bands. They had an energy that wasn’t like all of the other bands in the South Bay. They had a punk rock energy, an extremely energetic vibe going on. So we look to them as kind of our saviors. There was a point in time when LA and Hollywood was just a wasteland when it came to original, electrified music.”

MW: Were there any other forms of art that played a big role in influencing you or any of the bands you were in? Like, film, TV, music?

KM: “We worked with a guy who not only came up with the name Black Flag, but came up with the four black bars, the waving flag, Raymond Pettibon, and his artwork was highly influential on what we were doing. What we were doing influenced some of his artwork, just as some of his artwork influenced what we were doing. He is one of the iconic artists of our time and he also played bass.”

MW: If it weren’t for what was happening at the time, if it weren’t for the church, do you think things would have been the same? Do you think that helped facilitate the development of things?

KM: “Well, the church itself, and because of the little scene that we had, certainly the church played a role in influencing all of these other people to become what they became.”

MW: I was watching an interview of yours and you made this really interesting connection between the Motels and Concrete Blonde. So I was gonna ask about the Gun Club, and I’m wondering if there are any other bands that you would compare them to.

KM: “Jeffrey was one of my best friends. Jeffrey and I lived together for about a year. We were brothers. At one point, after the Gun Club had broken up, he and I were going to start a band. This was maybe about seven months before he died… It was just a pipe dream because he would eventually piss his mom off to the point where it’s like “You can’t stay here. You got to go live with your dad up in Utah, up in Salt Lake City. That’s where he died. But Jeffrey had this ability, he had this musical vocabulary where he did something that nobody else did. He did something that was the blueprint for a bunch of other bands like Blood on the Saddle and the Hickoids. I could rattle off at least a dozen other bands that were highly influenced by Jeffrey including the Bad Seeds and the Scientists, some of the stuff that Kid Congo did later on. He just had this thing going on where he was able to pull from a couple of different genres of music. He loved punk rock. He loved all of the South Bay bands. He loved the Alley Cats, he loved Redd Kross, he loved Black Flag, he loved the circle jerks. So he has this affection for punk rock. He also loves the blues. He also loves country music. He and I went and saw George Jones down in Beverly Hills and it was ridiculous. We were out of our minds, we were drunk, I’d huffed up a gram of cocaine by myself. I was out of my mind, and here we are at this theater down off of Wilshire Boulevard, watching and listening to George Jones. I mean, it don’t get no more country than George Jones.”

MW: Do you know when your new album is coming out? You’re in the recording process right now, right?

KM: “We’re just chipping away. We’re in no hurry because this is the first record that we’ve worked on in 28 years so it’s not like there are all of these people out there like, “when’s your record coming out?” We’re really dying to hear your new record.” Because the Circle Jerks have a new found popularity, there are all of these younger people who are curious to see and hear what it’s about because they’ve read about it or maybe one of their friends have told them about it or maybe their parents have told them about it, but there there’s this whole new wave of fans that they want to know more. They want to hear more. They weren’t there in the beginning and it’s a whole new thing for them.”


The Circle Jerks are currently on tour with Descendents and Adolescents.