Music News

Steve McDonald and Keith Morris Are Still Kicking Up a Punk Rock Ruckus with OFF!

When is a new band not such a new band? Well, in the case of incendiary hardcore revivalists OFF!, it certainly makes a difference that two of the members have known each other for nire than 30 years.

Bassist Steve McDonald first met singer Keith Morris when he was in sixth grade. McDonald had different friends from the average tween's: At age 12, he was playing bass in a punk band called Red Cross, whose first gig found the group opening for one of Southern California's most infamous punk outfits.

"Our first show was opening for Black Flag at an eighth-grade graduation party," McDonald says in a recent telephone interview. "And we got them the gig! I was in sixth grade. It was our drummer's eighth grade, not mine!"

Morris, then Black Flag's singer, took Red Cross under his wing, and the young band — founded by Steve McDonald and his brother Jeff McDonald — regularly practiced at the same former church in the South Bay area of Los Angeles where Black Flag lived on the cheap. In time, Red Cross evolved into pop-culture obsessed rockers Redd Kross, and Morris went on to front hardcore icons the Circle Jerks.

All these years later, McDonald and Morris are not just good friends, they've been touring and recording with OFF! and have developed a rep as one of the most intense and exciting acts on the American punk scene.

OFF! came together in 2009 when Morris' plans to make a new Circle Jerks album acrimoniously fell apart and he and Dimitri Coats, the Burning Brides guitarist who had been tapped to produce, opted to use the songs they'd written for the project for a new band. When Morris went looking for a bass player, he kept his old friend in mind.

"[Morris and Coats] just kind of chose their dream team for the rhythm section," McDonald says. "I know that sounds really cocky of me to say it that way, but both [drummer] Mario Rubalcaba and myself were their first choice. And it worked out! It was good A&R on their part."

The short bursts of guitar-fueled rage that make up OFF!'s excellent new album, Wasted Years, recall Black Flag's formative days, but with greater muscle and maturity. And while McDonald soon outgrew hardcore and even played in a HC spoof band called Anarchy 6, he still likes hearing and playing the good stuff.

"I never stopped loving that first Black Flag EP, or all the early Black Flag things," McDonald says. "We continued to play with Black Flag throughout their history, so that's something that's always been dear to my heart. And when Keith came to me and said, 'I'm putting this band together with Dimitri,' he gave me a CD and he said they were demos. I put it in my CD player and it was just Dimitri playing these wild riffs with what turns out to be his little mini-Marshall amplifier with, like, a two-inch speaker. And it was definitely harkening back to the time when I met Keith. And I just thought, 'Duh! I know this, I get this. This is exciting, I would be into doing this.'"

McDonald is still stoked to be playing punk rock, though he's happy fans are somewhat better-behaved than they were in the early '80s. "For me, it's fun to play for a wild, rowdy crowd that's having a good time, but I've never wanted it to be a violent trip. I've never wanted it to be about getting your aggressions out on one another," McDonald says. "It's great when a crowd is really expressive, but I for one have always loved a pogo pit much more than the circle pit, if that means anything."

And he's happy to be sharing a stage with Morris, who is both a friend and an inspiration. "Keith is very insightful," McDonald says. "And it's a pleasure for me to support his platform. I don't know if I would get behind some of his politics — sometimes it's a little conspiracy-theory for my taste — but in general, he's a solid, great guy, and it's something I'm proud to be part of, supporting his agenda."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Deming
Contact: Mark Deming