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Rock Around the World

The Circle Jerks' Keith Morris

Santa Monica, CA
by Emery Columna

Keith Morris' speaking voice is like Peter Coyote's voice at 45-50Hz -- a very pleasant, raspy sort of voice you don't mind hearing in the afternoon.

After listening to the album the day before, I decided that it was in my best interest to be early for my 1:30PM interview with Keith at the Polygram building in Santa Monica. I didn't want to piss off Mr. Morris by getting tied up in a midday traffic jam on the The journey from Echo Park to Polygram found me in the vicinity around 12:45PM, leaving just enough time to get a tasty burrito at this place across the street in a little strip mall at the corner of Sepulveda and Little Santa Monica.

I go upstairs, sign in, and wait until Jolyn comes out to show me to the conference room where I wait for Morris to finish up a phone interview. The first thing he does after shaking my hand firmly is offer me some lunch! Already satisfied, I suggest only coffee to help me digest my burrito. Morris asks me if I mind if he smokes. "Please do," I say, and with that he scours the politically correct conference room for an ashtray and finds a spent coffee cup. Imagine my delight (not to mention my surprise) in being treated so cordially by one of L.A.'s premier punk frontmen!

Morris has dreadlocks that extend well down his back. For our interview, his locks were tucked back in a ponytail and his shrewd, piercing eyes were filtered by a pair of metal glasses; wisely, on his part, to soften the intensity of his gaze, from which he relents only to blow smoke this way or that, or to track down a thought, or to find an expression for a point he is trying to punctuate. Make no mistake, Keith Morris has not come to hide. Years as a frontman in an in-your-face genre have obviously made it easy for him to maintain eye contact.

I really like "Shining Through The Door" (off the new album). How did that song come about?

Well, the reason we did that song was, I looked at that as kind of a gospel, spiritually uplifting kind of tune in our hard, dark, rugged, lame political times . . . I just said we need something -- as negative as part of it is -- there's the uplifting bit that brings you out of it, that [says] we all have the power to rise above all the b.s. that's going on. That's pretty much what that song is about. We like to include songs like that. If you listen to it, the tempo is completely different from everything else on the record; it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb, and you just have to do something like that every now and then.

I got some visions while listening to the song and you tell me if --
Was that the song that you chose for your Internet song?

It's going on, it's going on, definitely. See, because that song really is not representative of us, like, musically. It's like we kind of like step out of our mode. I mean there is a bit of aggressiveness there, and it is pumping along, but it's not like just the wild, loose, free flowing, let-it-fly-in-every-direction kind of stuff that we like to do.

But I liked it 'cause it stuck out. You've had this whole intensity going on in the album and then this comes along with this bounce to it. I got a Clash feel; I felt like I could almost hear Mick Jones on vocals doing it. (But I like your voice better).

Well, thank you for the compliment, [aside:] as artist in question here slips interviewer Emery a ten-dollar bill. [laughter]

The Circle Jerks started in 1980. What was the scene like for your music back then?

Well, what happened back then was that there were a lot of clubs, and the L.A. punk rock thing was in full swing, so that we were accepted with wide open arms -- it was real easy for us to get shows, and we played a lot. It was a big party , is what it was. Back then the mentality -- the musicians that we ran with, all the different bands -- the mentality was "let's just do this and see where it takes us", rather than having any premeditated, thought-out plan as to: Well, we'll do this, and then we'll sign with these people, and then we'll do this, and then we'll go out on tour and we'll go from A to B to C to D to E, F, none of the above. But we were basically out of a school of do-it-yourself, just play it as it lays, let it fly, see if it sticks, and go with it.

A lot of people ask us what it's like to be associated with a major label, you know, to be part of this giant corporation; and the way that we look at it is just the opportunity to go a little bit further than where we've been before, having more people do things for us that would not normally happen for us -- this being a perfect example: being on the Internet. Fifteen years ago we would have never thought about being on the Internet because we wouldn't have even been thinking about computers.

Who was influential/instrumental in the development of The Circle Jerks' music and for you personally. Whose music did you listen to to keep you going?

I liked the British Invasion because . . . I was fortunate to grow up during the 60s, listen to a lot of music during the 60s, and I got to see and listen to the bands during the 70s, etc. . . . and I'm really fond of . . . The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Animals. But I'm also fond of some of the L.A. garage bands like The Seeds, The Standells, Love, The Doors. In fact, one of my early musical experiences was in a garage that was adjacent to another garage in Manhattan Beach. There was a hole punched through the two walls that separated the two garages and The Doors were in the garage -- this just happened to be on a Sunday afternoon and I was with a couple of friends doing whatever we were doing -- building models, oiling the wheels of our bikes, tightening the wheels on our skateboards or what have you -- and, all of a sudden, there's this loud noise coming from next door and we were hearing like organ and drums; and we peeked through the hole and it was The Doors practicing to go play somewhere, which was for me . . . totally amazing.

So they "broke on through to the other side"?

They broke -- they "Shined on Through". [laughter]

So you grew up in Manhattan Beach, then?

I grew up in Hermosa Beach, which is the next beach further south, and we just did what the typical beach kids would do: play volleyball, surf, skate, go to school, cause problems, do homework.

Did you just fall into Punk, as opposed to becoming a Blues singer? Why Punk?

It wasn't premeditated, it was almost as if there was a flow to things. This was like towards the end of the 70s, and we were just -- the people that I hung out with -- I worked in a record store where all the owner played would be -- [clears throat] artist clears throat so vocals on tape interview sound clear and crisp. [laughter] -- the owner of the store, all he would play would be Genesis, Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell, Poco, Bruce Springsteen -- I wasn't opposed to it, it's just that I was not wholeheartedly enjoying it. And I -- every opportunity, if he left the store -- would throw on Ted Nugent, Iggy and The Stooges, Black Oak Arkansas, Aerosmith, something loud, something more rocking and constantly get reprimanded when he would come back . He'd just rip it off the turntable and say you can't play that when I'm here.

Was it a chain store or a Mom and Pop kind of store?

It was a Mom and Pop kind of store -- just a turntable and a cassette player. But we got fed up with all the music -- well, not all the music. During the 80s there was always this hatred of the music of the 70s. There's a song on the new Mike Martt album about protesting against the 70s and what a lot of people don't realize is that there were some amazing albums, some great music made in the 70s. It's just that we had so much music pushed down our throats . . . so much bad music, mediocre music, or so much music that was formulaic. You know, bands would stick with that formula that got them their success, and they wouldn't venture out of their realm.

Frampton Comes Alive . . . was pretty much what ruined modern music. That's when all the big major record companies realized that they could sell lots of records, tons of records and make mountains of cash.

So that, in your mind, was the beginning of the music marketing wheel.


On the song "Dog" there's a line: "It's important to have little things like that to compare your life with." Where do you get the examples?

It basically -- just things that happen -- National Enquirer-type headlines, or something that's tucked away in the very back pages of the L.A. Times. It also springs from a Swedish movie where the little boy walks through all these different predicaments that he gets in, and he always keeps asking himself, or telling himself -- the way that he gets through all these scenarios (like his mother's dying of cancer and he's being shipped off to live with his uncle and he doesn't like his uncle, and he's discovering his sexuality at a real young age -- but he keeps telling himself that it's important to have or hold onto, or think of or use all these examples to get himself through these situations.

It's like things could be worse. One of the things that always happens to me whenever I get depressed, rather than laying there, or sitting there or dwelling upon it I will go downtown L.A., or walk down or ride my bike down to Hollywood Boulevard and see the runaways or (when I say the runaways I don't mean the female, the all girl band -- I mean all the kids that have migrated out here for whatever reasons) wandering the streets; or just taking a look at the homeless and saying the worst thing that could happen to me could never be as bad as what's happening to these people. So I'm very fortunate. Yeah, so I can't pay my rent on time, or they're gonna shut my phone off --these are not big deals. There are much larger issues to address.

You've gained some perspective since 1980; is "Dog" one of those introspective songs for you?

It's introspective but it's also [outrospective] because a lot of times you have to go off and do some soul searching if you're having problems or things aren't going right you just need to go off to a place where you can let the dust settle, collect your thoughts and that can get a little bit serious, and you need something to kind of lighten it up so you need to go out and have some fun but also at the same time while you're thinking about your scenario, it's good to be able to see some of the things that are going on around you -- so you're not locked into one groove, so you don't become like: me, me, me, I, I, I, me before you, you don't get greedy, you don't become self-centered. And being able to see these other situations or be in them or rub up against them, a lot of times is enlightening and it's also grounding -- helps center you, helps stabilize you.

Do you find living in Silverlake helps keep you that way?

I tend to find, because I'm in Silverlake -- I'm right in between downtown L.A. and Hollywood -- it balances out there.

A lot of musicians and artist types live in Silverlake.

Well that's where the swingers' society is. It's my way of describing the group of people that live there. It's kind of cliquish, but it's interesting. I hold the music scene in Silverlake in very high regard because everybody -- you can go to a show and Beck will be there and members of Ludifisk, and Possum Dixon and Glue -- and the bands stick together. It's not like they're backstabbing -- me before you, "I've gotta get the golden ring, I've gotta get the big payoff", or "I've got more money than you", or "my car is larger than yours". There's a real, good camaraderie amongst the people that live there and the musicians and the artists. It's very friendly.

So, does Bad Religion find it difficult for Greg Hetson to be jamming with you guys?

Well, they might, just like we might find it difficult at times for him to be playing with them, but that's what schedules are about. We can't say Greg, you can't play with Bad Religion cause that's what he's been doing for the last 6, 7 years.

Let's talk about Zander (Schloss): he's played with Theolonius Monster . . ..

He's played with Theolonius Monster, he's done session work, he writes music for movies, soundtracks, he's also in a band called Sweet and Low Orchestra. We don't do the Circle Jerks 24 hours a day, seven days a week,52 weeks out of the year, 365 days, etc, etc, etc. We have to be able to take a few steps back from it and let it kind of run itself at times.

All these different scenarios must affect your vocal approach.

Well what it does is, I take a look at these other musical things going on and it kind of makes me wonder: well, gee, they're busy doing these other projects and it's like I don't get a chance to do this and it's like this mounting, building, boiling pot kind of thing where when it is time to do The Circle Jerks it's time to explode. You can hear a lot of that on the record.

What has been your most memorable experience on the road in the clubs playing with the Circle Jerks?

A funny moment -- wasn't necessarily musical -- but we were playing this club in Connecticut and about three fourths of the way through the set this big, buxom, beautiful (she probably was a stripper or a porno actress) jumped up on stage and started to attack me! It was all in fun, but apparently she was serious and was trying to remove my clothes; and apparently she wanted to have sex right there on the spot in front of all these people and it's like, okay, whatever; but I said, "Honey, it's Circle Jerks time -- we still gotta play, we've got a few more songs we've got to play." Then I looked at her and asked her if she hadn't mistaken me for some rock star like Axl Rose or something like that. That was kind of a funny experience.

As for just like one of those musical moments where you don't know if you'll ever recapture that thing that happened at that time: We did a show at The Music Machine -- that's no longer here; I guess it was on Pico -- and the opening band was Spinal Tap, the second band was Slayer, then we played, and The Blasters were the headlining band; and at that time we had Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing bass with us and Chuck Biscuits (who was playing drums in Danzig) was playing drums with us and we just had one of those nights where we could not be touched. It was just flat-out, non-stop, let it fly, let it go, ....just wail."

Perfect chemistry.

Yeah, everything fell right in place. People were just in awe. I mean friends in other bands came up to us. They couldn't believe it. The Blasters were really upset because they said, "Now we can't go on because of what you just did!"

What do you do to keep your voice in shape?

Well, I don't really do anything. I don't really take care of myself, I mean I don't eat -- I try to eat properly and I try to get a lot of rest. I smoke, I drink coffee -- that's not good, but when we go out on the road I'll lose my voice after the first week. I'll lose my voice for a couple of shows, but we're not one of these bands where we cancel shows because I've lost my voice. I manage to do what I have to do, say what I have to say -- scream or yell, I just find it. I mean, it's not a pretty thing, but then I don't see our music as being anything soft and smooth and soothing. The music's not very relaxing.

Do you watch the O.J. Simpson trial at all?

Bits and pieces; I find it kind of boring.

Here's an off-the-wall question: Let's say the O.J. Simpson trial were a baseball game. What would the score be?

[Pregnant pause] That is an off-the-wall question and it's difficult to answer because I don't know if he's guilty or not, because little things keep popping up -- and it's gonna end up being a mistrial no matter how hard Judge Ito tries -- it's gonna be a mistrial which means he's gonna be off and . . . How about goose eggs? [laughter] I think it's a waste of time. They're blowing a lot of dough on this that doesn't necessarily need to be spent. If it were the average person, they would have been convicted or let go. The average guy doesn't slice somebody from ear to ear." All the way to the bone.

The average person stabs somebody.

There's been talk of The Clash getting back together...

Well, they've got some serious problems, the first being that their drummer cannot get into the U.S. because he was convicted of murder over in England.

On the theme of bands that were very influential on a large-scale level, is it possible to recapture that mercurial, intense rise that The Clash had?

I can't say yes or no. All I can say is that I'm a huge fan of The Clash; I thought that their first three albums were amazing. Their overall body of work is -- for the 70s and the 80s -- stands up there against anybody. You know, I would almost put Strummer and Jones in the same category that I would put Jagger and Richards, Lennon and McCartney, Townshend. I would put them right up there .. . . I don't know if they could recapture it. They've had so many problems; I've heard so many varying stories as to different problems that they've had, and their last couple of albums were pretty horrendous, I mean there were a couple of albums that for me were unlistenable and they were in a situation where they were signed for like seven or eight albums and it got to the point where they were putting out material to get out of their contract -- which I think was unfair to the people that believed in them. So I don't know if they could get back together and recapture what they had.

What is the scene like for you today? Is it still a party thing or is it more . . .

It's more organized; there's more business attached to it and that can be kind of detrimental because you start dwelling upon how many people were here tonight or "how many t-shirts did we sell?", and "what does the record company think of us?". and "does the promoter want us back?"; and a lot of times you've gotta let that stuff go and just do what you do. That's really a simple kind of slogan -- you know, the Nike slogan: "Just do it".

Do you find your fan base is the same people from the 80s, glad to see you on a major label? They know your body of work; what does your fan base seem like to you when they come up to you after a show?

A lot of new fans, younger kids, a lot energy which is great 'cause we feed off the energy of the crowd -- if the crowd's just gonna stand there, then it's real difficult to get out there and chisel away on their heads. A lot of the old fans are embracing us with open arms, which is a great thing. It all remains to be seen because we never were like a popular band, we've never sold more than sixty, seventy thousand copies of an album. Over the years, the sales have gone up, so it all remains to be seen what happens now. I mean, now that we have this big, major label behind us and we have this big push behind us, we have this machinery behind us, the opportunity's there, the door's open, it's just a matter of taking a step through the door and see what happens, see what's on the other side.

We've been getting a lot of cries of "sell-out" from the real true diehard punk-rock people, but I think that that's kind of self-centered and selfish. I think that there are a lot of great messages in what we say, and it should be open to whoever wants to listen to it, whoever wants to be a part of it. There shouldn't be this rule that says you look this way so you don't belong, or you do this so you shouldn't be here; well. you're this way so . . . it's not right for you to be paying attention to this.

So you defy that attitude.

Yes, very much so.

You don't sound like sell-outs. I don't care who's putting you out; you don't sound like sell-outs.

We couldn't sell out; they couldn't give us enough money to sell-out. I think that the key word is to be true to yourself, which has to do with integrity -- our record doesn't sound like a record that you would hear on a major label, and I think that that can be our saving grace. We could have made a slick sounding album, we could have made a radio-friendly sounding album, we could have done all the things that our record company people told us to do, but we've been around long enough, we've written enough music, we've played enough, we've seen enough things, we've done enough travelling...we just know what we have to do.

Looking to your release date, is there a planned tour to support your major label debut?

Our tour starts July 27th, and we'll do the West Coast first. We'll probably do seven or eight dates on the West Coast starting in San Diego and working our way up into Vancouver, and then we'll start working our way towards the midwest and then back east. And our tour is seven weeks long. We'll come back -- hopefully we'll only be back for maybe two or three weeks -- and we'll go out on another tour with hopefully a major band. We normally go out and headline, so all the responsibility falls on us to draw the people; and we normally play clubs that hold anywhere from 500 to 800 people, and maybe we might do movie theaters or little halls -- maybe a thousand, 1,500, 2,000 people, depending on what city we're at; and we would like to move up to a larger level -- go out with bands that draw 10,000 people. We were slated to play the 4:00 slot at the Lalapalooza on the East Coast, which meant we would have been on the second stage the same time Sinead O'Conner would have been on the main stage. The problem that arose was that we were told that we were too old to be on a tour of that nature -- [building sarcasm] they were afraid that there would be health problems -- that we would be old and [crickety] our [arthritis] would set in and somebody would have a heart attack on stage during the day; and now, all that remains is to go out and prove them wrong, which is a bit of a motivation, but that's not the reason why we're doing what we're doing.

Maybe you'll get to open up for Bon Jovi, your Mercury labelmates.

That would be kind of interesting, but I don't think that we would be welcome. There's like a large gap in between the two bands and I don't think this record company could build a large enough bridge to pull us together. [laughter]

"If you had your way, who would you like to go on tour with, who would you like to open up for?"

I'd like to do a tour with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Blue Cheer, Steppenwolf, . . . John Spencer Blues Explosion, and the headlining band can be the L.A. Philharmonic; and we could do a show at the Hollywood Bowl, and we could put soap suds in the fountain in front of the stage -- just regular white lights -- there would be like red lights, green lights in the pools; we could toilet paper all the trees on the outside of the Bowl. What I would do for the first 15 rows would be to bus in people from skid row.

Do you play a lot of benefits?

We always play benefits. The last benefit we did was a Christmastime benefit for the homeless children -- the orphanage in downtown L.A. We've played benefits ranging from Young Republicans at one of the colleges down in Fullerton -- which was actually a fluke and has been something -- this has been a stigma that has kind of followed us throughout the years because a lot of people don't understand our sense of humor, but we're very, very anti-Republican and you wouldn't get that message in a lot of the songs that we write, because a lot of the songs that we've written in the past . . . people have failed to latch on to our sarcasm and humor and have thought that the meaning of the songs were like straightforward and this is what we're about -- "Making the bombs", "Killing for Jesus", "Coup d'etat", "Living In The USA". And we played the show down in Orange County, and the only way that the show was gonna go off was if one of the student organizations on the campus sponsored the show; and the bands that played that night were The Dickies -- they were all punk rock bands -- I think The Vandals played, and the only organization on the campus that would do the show was the Young Republican Society, and we said hey, what the fuck, let's do it anyways. So that's followed us for years, people have thought that we were just blatant Republicans.

We at one point --it was Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and a couple of us spoke out for Ronald Reagan because Jimmy Carter had just given up the Panama Canal, which we thought at the time seemed to be a pretty big mistake because the Panama Canal was one way of policing drug traffic and we were kind losing a foothold down there. So we spoke out for Ronald Reagan, which of course was a big mistake, but you say what you're going to say , you do what you do and you live with the consequences; you have to answer for it later on -- and we answered for it in a big way.

Where do you guys stand on drugs?

We're anti-drugs, we did enough drugs early on to cover us for the rest of our lives, and a few other people along with us. As for our stand on drugs, the stance we take is you do what you do, hopefully we're setting an example, but you have your lives to live, you're gonna go out and do your experimentation, you're gonna do whatever you're gonna do -- and hopefully, it doesn't kill you.

What final advice would you like to leave for the International Internet world, any sage sayings?

Just be strong, do what you want to do as long as you don't fuck with anybody else, stay true to yourself and I believe that our most important message is just have fun, be observant, listen to things, pay attention, absorb as much as you can -- be a good person, do what you feel you have to do to make your world right.

Finishing my set list of questions, we got up from the conference table and made our way to the window, informally chatting as we surveyed the 405 freeway, from our ten-story perch, snaking its way past the Getty Center, traffic wriggling toward the afternoon ritual of a bumper-to-bumper jam.

It's nice to see that you've not lost the sound of the pavement from inside your ears.

Oh I can hear the pavement cracking. And if I listen closely, I can still hear the sound of the ants -- and I don't mean just the two-legged ones.

A lot of cats, once they get a major label deal want to stay up here at the ten-story level and get away from the pavement.

Oh I know, they want the house on the hill (gesturing toward the Getty Center).

Morris lingers as we move the conversation through the conference room into the employee snack bar, oblivious to the coming and going of Mercury staffers. Then it hits him. Hunger. Morris had ordered lunch an hour ago and had abated his appetite with this interview. As the conversation trickled down, Morris' thoughts turned to more immediate needs. It's time for him to eat and to mail out unmarked packages of the new album to his grass roots following. Morris' concern for his fans extends to taking the time to strip down the effect of a diehard punk fan club getting mail from a major label, which Morris anticipates would offend some fans and result in the music not being heard.

The handshake is firm, the gaze sincere as Morris sees me off with an advance vinyl copy of Oddities, Abnormalities, and Curosities.