If Off! sounds pissed off in a way that you don’t hear much on the Warped Tour these days, that’s no accident. As has been well-documented, the explosive, straight-from-the-old-school SoCal quartet was—like the classic punk-rock acts of the late ’70s and early ’80—born out of boiling anger and raging frustration. Or, more specifically, a botched Circle Jerks recording session overseen by Burning Brides singer-guitarist Dimitri Coats.
In what’s already become part of Off! lore, Coats had been called in to produce the Jerks, only to discover that the L.A. punk-rock icons—fronted by singer Keith Morris—weren’t producing much of anything. Funnily enough, Coats was proving to be something of a writing machine at the time, cranking out a steady stream of overamped, stripped-raw, vicious hardcore songs at home. Pretty quickly, Morris began to get more excited about the guitarist’s stuff than what the Circle Jerks were bringing to the table.
Eventually, the band—in a decision seemingly led by guitarist Greg Hetson—would fire Coats, leading Morris to quit. In hindsight, Coats admits that being sacked probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Even before the Jerks were done, it was obvious he and Morris were onto something. That much was clear when Hetson took Coats aside in the middle of the Jerks fiasco.
Reached in Los Angeles, Coats explains: “Two weeks before he [Hetson] fired me, he gave me a hug in his kitchen, looked me in the eye, and said, ”˜I knew the songs would be good, but not that good.’ That came after Keith and I played him six songs that we’d been working on because no one else was coming up with material that Keith liked.”
From there, things got ugly.
“The other two guys in the Circle Jerks realized that the strongest material was coming from Keith and me,” Coats continues. “They convinced Hetson that it wasn’t going to turn out a true Circle Jerks album, but instead that they might as well have hired an outside songwriter. And that I had completely overstepped my role as a producer and was trying to take control of the band. The people behind the scenes, who have worked with the Circle Jerks for years, were like, ”˜Why don’t you just put Dimitri in the band, call it the fucking Circle Jerks, and be done with it?’ ”
Instead, he got the call telling him that his services were no longer required, at which point Off! was born.
“Keith literally came driving over to my house and sat down with me and my wife. I was upset—I’d put a lot of time into the project—but he said, ”˜You know what? Fuck those guys. I’m quitting the project, and we’re going to take these songs and form a band. Now, who are your favourite drummers and bass players?’ ”
Coats and Morris would quickly enlist timekeeper Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From the Crypt) and L.A. pop-punk legend Steve McDonald, and then get right down to business. The newly minted quartet began cranking out a series of EPs, sparking no shortage of blog hype, and subsequent live shows—and excellent word of mouth—helped establish Off! as one of the must-see acts of last year.
The big attraction? That would be a strain of punk rock that drags the genre right back to its primal, punishing beginnings, back when no one gave a shit about radio airplay or getting on music television. Think D.O.A.’s Triumph of the Ignoroids EP. Think the Germs’ (GI). Think Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown EP, which, as even casual students of ancient punk history know, featured Morris on lead vocals.
Off!’s initial releases were reissued this February as a single album titled First Four EPs. Featuring 17 tracks, none of which clocks in at over a minute and a half, the release is landscape-scorching, the shocking thing about that being that Coats wasn’t exactly a disciple of the genre in his younger years.
“I’m very open about the fact that I never grew up shaving my head and being in circle pits,” he says. “I have nothing to prove other than the fact that I’m playing with my family. I mean, he [Morris] was the DJ at my wedding and he’s very close with my children, to where he’s Uncle Keith. All that matters to me is that the music we’re doing, and the live show, speaks for itself.”
Indeed, things are going so well that Coats is happy to report that Off! is actually paying the bills today. That’s doubly gratifying, considering that when the group was put together, he and Morris were so broke that, in the middle of epic songwriting sessions, they’d pool their money to scrape up enough to buy a cheeseburger for lunch. And that, if you really think about it, is pretty old-fucking-school punk rock.