Circle Jerks' Keith Morris
punk legend talks new music, the L.A. scene, and life now with adult
the founding vocalist of both Black Flag and the Circle
Jerks, Keith Morris is a legend of American hardcore
punk. His bratty Californian notes and shouts have driven such dandy
classics as "Nervous Breakdown," "Fix Me," "Deny
Everything," "Wonderful" and, of course his most
popular composition, "
And The Bill Collectors Won't Stop
that?" [you're asking me].
I'm responding to you in this next part] I FOOLED you! (which I
didn't, incidentally) That last one isn't a punk song at all! It's
by Keith's spoken word/lots of jazzy instruments project Midget
Keith is much more than a punk guy hero and spoken word speaker
(By the way, am I crazy or does Black Flag seem to be creating spoken
word artists left and right here? I'm of course specifically referring
to Ron Reyes' gripping docudrama, "We Were Arrested The Other
Night At Blackie's
."). Keith is also an adult diabetic.
It may not be as noteworthy as his music, but it IS more life-threatening.
But he's got it under control -- read below and you'll see how...
questions are in bold; his answers are in plain text.
Yes, this is
is Mark Prindle!
Oh hey, Mark!
Do you have
time right now?
Yeah, I do.
Actually, could you call me back at a different phone number?
(a different phone number).
call right now.
Oh, it's been
a really hectic today. It's President's Day, so we figured it'd
be a laidback kinda day, but it's been hectic.
Oh, you know,
it's a record company. We've got all kinds of things going on all
the time. We had a band come in today, one where getting ready to
sign, called the Icarus Line. Great band. Like Stooges meet
I feel like I've heard that name somewhere, the Icarus Line.
Do you ever
read Kerrang or the NME? They're big in both of those magazines.
They've got a good thing going on in Europe, so that'll make things
easy for us over there.
do you do at the label?
All sorts of
different things. I send out mailings, talk to bands, go watch bands,
listen to bands, comb through record stores looking for certain
CDs. If I read about something cool, I try to track it down. I talk
to managers, talk to lawyers, talk to club owners, talk to booking
agents, talk to promoters
I said, it's pretty busy. We've got a lot going on.
that work, do you still have time for the Circle Jerks?
Oh, yeah! They
encourage me to go out and play because I do the same thing that
I'd be doing here. Talking to all the same sorts of people.
sense. Who exactly is in the line-up now?
We have Greg
Hetson on guitar -
Is he still
in that other band?
Yes. He's still
in that other band. We'll just call them "The Other Band."
And we've got Zander Schloss playing bass and a guy named Kevin
Fitzpatrick on drums.
Has he been
in any bands we might have heard of?
Fibbers, Further and Shadowland.
heard of all of those bands! I don't think I've actually heard any
of them though.
Fibbers are a great band. Like if Sonic Youth were to play country
like that, it makes me think of Thin White Rope.
With a female
vocalist and more of a country flavor. Thin White Rope are a little
it look like you might be recording another studio album? Or just
touring for right now?
working on new songs; that's what we're telling everybody. But it's
difficult when everybody's working day jobs and we have a member
that's playing in another band - "The Other Band."
have time for short tours at least. Weren't you in Las Vegas a couple
of weeks ago?
We played San
Francisco, Sacramento, L.A. and then we went to Las Vegas for this
big punk rock bowling tournament.
with you the whole time?
Yes, we played
with GBH on all those dates. It was basically their tour; they added
us to it. It was a great thing. We get along with them very well
and have for a long time. They are a really cool band.
the Circle Jerks back together, does that mean that Midget Handjob
is an ongoing experience that will never be over. What happens is
we're not really a band. Somebody will call me and ask us to play
and I'll make 20 phone calls and whoever shows up plays as part
of the performance. When I say I make 20 phone calls, I mean 20
different people. We have two sax players, two guitar players, two
percussionists, a violin player, a keyboardist and we have a gentleman
playing a saw.
that project get started? I bought the CD not knowing what to expect.
I thought maybe it would sound like the last Circle Jerks reunion
album, but it's more like - I mean it's basically spoken word with
is spoken word. What happened was I came down with diabetes and
I couldn't muster up the energy to go out and do the punk rock thang
so I did this other thang instead. And it blossomed into this thing
all the punk rock kids hate!
us thinking, "Wow, the punk rock kids will love it 'cause they
love Keith Morris." And we ended up becoming the worst-selling
band in Epitaph history.
word-of-mouth that fast?
Well, 500 people
paid for it and then our web site - or, first the Epitaph web site
- got flooded with all these people that hated it. "Well, Lagwagon
is cool and you guys are terrible! What is this crap? What is this
shit? And why did Epitaph let somebody record this?" But Epitaph
thought it was great! They can't wait for us to do another one!
band ever play any live shows?
We did a U.S.
tour for three weeks. And some nights we played in front of six
people, other nights - one night we played in front of 600 people.
was the audience reaction? Did they know what to expect?
of the people that saw it - See, we get a lot of people in the crowd
to participate in our percussion thin. We throw out pots and pans
and stuff we find at Home Depot and stuff we find at hardware stores.
I would say the majority of the people who came to the shows loved
ever release any records? I remember hearing "Sha La La"
on that Ramones tribute ("Gabba Gabba Hey" on Triple X),
but then I never heard from you again.
recorded three songs that made it out for public consumption. One
was on the Ramones tribute - not the new one!
No, I know!
I have 19 Ramones tribute albums.
was for an Alice Cooper tribute album.
song did you do?
of Dwight Fry."
that's a great song! What was the third one?
The third was
an original we wrote for a movie soundtrack. It was the final song
in "Roadside Prophets" with John Doe and Adam from
Was it Adam? One of the Beastie Boys.
see it, but I saw a trailer for it.
It was a pretty
I have to
admit I haven't even seen Suburbia! I saw Repo Man
though, at least.
I have only
seen Suburbia once. Believe it or not, I just picked up a
copy at a Goodwill store yesterday for a dollar. So I'll be watching
Suburbia again soon.
One I HAVE
seen about nineteen times though is The Decline of Western Civilization.
Was that an accurate representation of that scene? Or no
I've heard different opinions.
Some of those
punk rock kids they interviewed were a little over the top, but
the thing historically is - the L.A./Hollywood punk scene was basically
based on English fashion. But we had nothing to do with that. Black
Flag and the Circle Jerks were so far from that. We looked like
the kid who worked at the gas station or submarine shop. And when
I say "submarine shop," I mean sandwiches.
Philly cheese steaks. Mmm, I'm getting hungry! We were like the
boy next door. The one your mom would want your sister to marry.
The one your mom would want you to be like.
than a Darby Crash.
Or Stiv Bators or Sid Vicious.
movie change the scene out there at all?
For us, it
was kind of a business card. When people around the country finally
saw it, we started doing a lot of touring. Like when our first record
came out, people on the east coast went nuts over it, so a promoter
called us and said, "I want you to play some shows over here
- DC, NYC, NJ."
an instant hit over there?
One of our
first east coast shows was Irving Plaza with the Stimulators. And
it went off; it was nuts. It was pretty insane. And we played in
Washington DC at the 9:30 club, and sold out the place. Minor Threat
were the opening band.
get along with them?
Yeah, we got
along very much, even to this day!
wasn't any scene rivalry or anything like that?
We were never
really into that. For us, it was let's go play and have fun.
you come to form Black Flag? How did you know those guys?
Greg Ginn and
I grew up in same town. I was working in a record store, and the
owner was madly in love with Greg's younger sister, Erica. Which
he had every reason to be in love with her. She was a beautiful,
beautiful girl. And she would come into the store to visit the owner,
and sometimes Greg would come along with her, and we kinda hit it
off 'cause of our similar music tastes.
Black Oak Arkansas,
Black Sabbath, Ted Nugent, the MC5, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy. The first
show we went to together was, believe it or not, Thin Lizzy on the
Jailbreak tour. Opening for Journey.
Journey. Journey were huge here in America.
did Thin Lizzy get over here? I have a few of their albums, but
the only ones I ever hear on the radio are "Jailbreak"
and "The Boys Are Back In Town."
were both on that album. That was biggest album for Thin Lizzy,
then they kinda fizzled. They toured a couple more albums, but that
was about it.
Flag really big while you were still in the band? Or did that build
up over time with the other three singers?
When we started
Black Flag, we couldn't buy a gig. We were playing parties, neighborhood
gatherings, wherever we could play. Nobody knew who we were! So
we'd play people's basements, backyards, garages, living rooms.
We played a 6th grade graduation with Red Kross. All the kids got
jacked up on coffee. I remember they were walking one girl around
pouring water down her throat because she'd drank three pots of
you big when you left? At least locally?
When I left
Black Flag, we were drawing only 200-300 people, and playing wherever
we could get a chance. Like once we played a little coffeehouse.
We were supposed to play two nights, but after the first night,
everyone went insane and started breaking things. There were coffee
cups flying through the air, salt and pepper shakers -- and the
woman said, "There's no way I can let you play tomorrow night."
And that was just forty people.
who did a lot of damage.
Yeah. And it
wasn't our fault, except the music - it got them really excited.
No, late '77,
Oh! So you
were really one of the first punk bands altogether!
No no no no
no no no -- I consider the first generation of L.A. punks to be
bands like The Seeds, The Music Explosion -- you know, Riot on Sunset
-- I didn't realize you just meant L.A. punks.
No, The Creation
were English psychedelia.
I just meant -- I mean I know you were a fan because you covered
their song on your live album.
the Doors be considered part of that first L.A. punk scene?
The Doors could've been part of that.
So who was
the second generation?
the Weirdos, the Germs, the Bags, the Plugz, the Flesh Eaters, X.
you form around the same time as those bands?
No, we were
So did you
leave Black Flag just because you wanted to be in a band with Keith?
Excuse me, I mean Greg Hetson?
No, I had worn
out my welcome in Black Flag. I got tired of the fact that it had
become all business and work-like. The fun had evaporated and disappeared.
The Circle Jerks were easy because Red Kross were practicing the
same place we were -- The Church in Hermosa Beach. Greg Hetson was
fed up with Red Kross, and they'd just rehearsed an amazing drummer
that the guys in Red Cross didn't like. So we met in the hallway
and I said, "Let's take this over to my garage and see what
Was it hard
for the Circle Jerks to get shows in the beginning?
No. By then,
the hardcore thing was starting to take off, so it was no problem
getting shows. Plus, Black Flag was banned in all these different
clubs and we weren't, because they didn't know who we were.
continue to follow Black Flag's music after you left, or no?
Yeah, I went
and saw Black Flag a couple of times. I even played some shows with
them when Ron Reyes quit. He was the singer after I left. He was
Chavo. When he left, they had some shows booked, and they asked
if I could help out, so I did that. I played with them at the Fleetwood
in Redondo Beach and up in San Francisco at Mabuhay Gardens.
(the third singer) joined, was he just the singer at first? And
then decided to play second guitar later?
Yeah, Dez was
the singer first and then he started playing second guitar. He's
now playing guitar with The Misfits.
Marky Ramone is playing with them too, isn't he?
WAS; I don't know if he is still. See, part of their set was --
they opened with old Misfits songs, then they did Black Flag material,
then they played Ramones songs, and then newer Misfits songs.
believe I didn't go see them. I'm in New York! I totally blew that
one. So was there any trouble when you left Black Flag and took
your songs with you? Or did they not really care?
There was some
bad blood over me taking songs from them. We stole songs from a
bunch of people.
It's just that when I started the Circle Jerks, I said, "Is
there any music you guys wrote in other bands? I wrote lyrics in
Black Flag and can use them however I want to." But that's
all - I find it basically complimentary. Like we're using it because
we think it's a great song. Of course, they didn't seem to take
it that way. But that was many many many many many years back.
happened to the original Circle Jerks drummer, Lucky Lehrer?
Lucky was going
to law school, and we had an opportunity to go to England to record
an album. That deal fell through, but not before we kicked Lucky
out of the band. And I honestly have no idea what he's doing now.
He's probably not in any bands; he played me some session work he'd
done with a singer/songwriter guy.
happened to the rhythm section between Golden Shower Of Hits
. Didn't they all die in a bus crash?
all drove off a cliff somewhere, right? No, weren't they thrown
off the ferris wheel at the county fair? Maybe it was the roller
coaster. Maybe they leapt out of the little rolling seats.
What a tragedy!
We've had so
many people play with us, it's hard to keep up with them.
you find out that you have adult diabetes?
I came down
with a cold and it lasted eight weeks. I thought I had pneumonia,
so I finally went to a doctor. I had lost 45 pounds by that point,
and my friends all said, "Man, you have cancer." But I
felt great; then I got this cold.
So I went to
a doctor, and he says, "Well it's a possibility that the pain
in your chest is tuberculosis, or HIV turning into AIDS. We need
to take a blood panel to see what's going on." And I was like,
"you've given me all this depressing news. Would it be okay
if I came back in a few days for that?" And he said that was
Then the next
day, I tripped in the street and broke a rib in my back. So I went
to my chiropractor. He drew blood and said everything was fine --
no hepatitis, no HIV, my liver was fine, kidneys fine -- except
my glucose level was about 345 and your normal level is between
70 an 120. So he said, "Look, you're a diabetic -- go to a
doctor and get it taken care of."
life-threatening? What did you do, have an operation?
No, you don't
have an operation with diabetes. You learn to control your food
intake and cut down on things you're consuming. Cut your carbohydrate
intake in half, eat more vegetables - way more leafy green vegetables.
For a diabetic, that's about the best thing you could eat. Heh,
I'm talking about healthy food and I've got this big bag of popcorn
in front of me.
condition affect how you're able to perform at all?
As long as
I eat a couple hours before I perform, I'm fine. I've learned when
to eat and when not to eat. It's really great because you get in
tune with your body and all the things that are going on.
But I thought
I read somewhere that you had some kind of operation.
Yeah, I did.
I had an emergency appendectomy. And while they were inside with
the camera - that's how they do it these days, the put a camera
inside you - they noticed that I had a herniated navel so they worked
on that also.
Do you still
have kids recognizing you and running up to meet you because they've
just gotten into the Circle Jerks, and stuff like that?
I've been accosted
and accused of being Henry Rollins!
And I've also
been accused of being the lead singer for a band called -- I think
they're the WORST!
It just comes
with the territory.
So how did
Henry Rollins get you involved in the Black Flag tribute album for
the Memphis Three?
He called and
asked! He also sent me the HBO documentaries. Both of them -- Paradise
Lost and Paradise Lost 2. And I watched them, and there
was no way that I couldn't be involved in that, 'cause that whole
situation is wrong. That's not supposed to happen here in the U.S.
with the judicial system we have. But I guess it can happen in Tennessee,
where the governor covers his ears, shakes his head and says, "I
refuse to hear anything more about this."
So this is like
a very scary time to -- or if not scary, at
least strange time to be an American. And I was just wondering how
you feel about the great job that George W. Bush is doing, especially
how his fantastic foreign policy is making us a favorite among all
the other countries in the world.
Well, I believe
that it's inevitable that we're going to war because our president
and all those around him want to go to war. They have their reasons
to get rid of the evil regime over there, but what's sad is that
there aren't enough people over there to get rid of the evil regime
It comes down
to three letters -- O-I-L. A lot of people don't know that the first
flight out of the U.S. after 9/11 was carrying the Bin Laden family,
who were over here negotiating with the Bush family.
been working together for a long time, haven't they?
Yep. The Bush
family is all about the oil.
millions of people were protesting yesterday.
a great thing. Let's hope they keep on protesting!
still writing a lot?
for magazine called Destroy All Monthly. I write a column
where I pick shows for the punk rock kids and alternative kids.
I put in my 2 cents worth and let everybody know what I like and
stuff do you like?
I can hang
with the Queens of the Stone Age, and a band called Granddaddy.
And there's a band in New York right now that I like a lot called
the Heroine Sheiks.
I love the
great. Their singer used to be in The Cows.
Did you like the Cows?
I loved the
I heard that the Heroine Sheiks might have broken up.
too bad. They're a great band. Let's see ... what else - I don't
know, there's just a lot of bands I'm listening to. Take into consideration
that I'm at a record label so I listen to different bands all the
time. I probably listened to twenty different bands today!
have you been with the label?
I've been here
just over 7 months. [spoken loudly enough for his boss to hear]
And I still haven't gotten a raise!
are tough economic times.
to his boss] And I still haven't been promoted! I still haven't
been promoted to Vice-President or President and that's not gonna
happen, but that's okay because it's a cool company and all the
people are really, really cool people.
do you have on the label?
have some amazing bands. We've got the White Stripes, we've got
the Burning Brides, Cornershop, Mercury Rev --
I didn't know you have Mercury Rev. I like that band a lot!
We've got the
just the other day was telling me I need to hear them.
You need to
SEE them. Their record is a good record, but they're a live band.
You have to see them live. They're this young New Zealand band --
these pretty boys who rock all over the place. They've taken a page
from the MC5 performance book.
Do you still
talk to many of the people from the old early-'80s hardcore scene?
I run into
a lot of the old hardcore people from just hanging out. I talk to
Exene all the time. I ran into Alice Bag from the Bags the other
night. She has a new band called The Stay-At-Home Mom.
I was sick
for about three days last week. I came down with food poisoning
and I thought it was the flu. Another thing about diabetes is you're
real susceptible to everything else that's going around. Like if
you're at party with 60 people and five of them are kinda on the
cusp of getting something, chances are you're gonna have it too.
But you have to deal with it twice as long as they do.
Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 -- adult
onset due to
. I had stopped exercising for a couple of months
and my diet got really bad, so I only have myself to blame. Plus,
I was stressing out, and that's the number one factor in becoming
an adult diabetic. Or at least that's what they told me at the hospital,
so you have to take that with a grain of salt. No two diabetics
So is this
still life-threatening, or do you just have to take care of yourself?
You just have
to monitor how you're doing. And the way you do that is by doing
your blood count like three or four times a day. At one point, my
fingers were black and blue -- they get bruised from pricking yourself
with a little -- well, not a little -- it's actually a pretty big
needle. Just not a long needle. A big fat blunt kind of needle.
Then you put a drop of blood on a blotter, put the blotter in a
machine that counts the glucose in the blood and lets you know where
you're at. Normal is 70-120, and after eating, you're maybe, depending
on how well your pancreas is pumping out insulin and the strength
of the insulin, maybe 200, 225. Depending on what you eat also --
the amount of food, amount of carbohydrates and sugar.
So how often
do you have to do this?
to do a blood count 3-4 times a day, seven days a week. But I've
gotten really lazy; I haven't done that in three or four months.
But I know when I need to eat. I know when I'm suffering hypoglycemia.
I never suffer hyperglycemia, which is too MUCH sugar in the blood.
Sometimes I don't have enough though.
See, it's kind
of a contradiction. Your brain runs on sugar, but you can't have
too much or too little. What they're afraid of with either of these
is you could go into a coma. I've been as low as 22, and the doctor
said, "First of all, you weren't supposed to walk in here.
Second, you're not supposed to be sitting here fully erect conversing
with me. You're not supposed to be as coherent as you are. You were
supposed to have come in here on a stretcher." Then he immediately
got a big tall glass of bottled water, dumped a couple packs of
sugar in it, and that got me back up. Then they proceeded to cut
my side open!
My one and
only diabetic screwup. When I'm administering my insulin, twice
a day, I keep it refrigerated. I keep mine in my vegetable drawer.
So you have
your insulin syringe, you pull out the amount of insulin you have
to give yourself, you swab off the bottle with an alcohol swab,
swab off an area of your skin, then stick yourself, inject the insulin,
withdraw the syringe and wipe yourself off again with the alcohol
swab. So you're using the alcohol swab 3 times. Somewhere in the
process this one time, I didn't swab something. And I developed
an abscess on my side that grew to about the size of a baby's fist.
So they cut it out.
you react when you found out you had diabetes?
When I found
out, I was really depressed. In tears. Cuz I'm scared of needles.
But I've been using them now for about 2 years, and the needle you
use is such a fine, short needle that its like a pinch, it's really
not that bad. So you get used to it.
varying stories -- some people think you need to take insulin the
rest of your life, but that's not necessarily true. If you can get
your diet in order -- it doesn't mean that you have to completely
stop eating sugar, you can still eat sugar. You don't have to drive
yourself crazy -- potatoes are actually worse for you than chocolate
And now that
we're completely off the topic of music
yes. So the Circle Jerks. Do you rehearse together a lot?
maybe four or five times before we go tour. If we don't know the
songs by now, we're never gonna know them.
I know I've
taken up a lot of your time, so I just have a couple more questions.
The first is -- I know that the recent passing of Dee Dee Ramone
and Joe Strummer must have affected you
Well, I loved
the Ramones and I really love the Clash. I consider the songwriting
team of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones to be comparable to Lennon/McCartney
and Richards/Jagger. I'd place them up there with Ray Davies and
And I was also
paid one of the greatest compliments that I've ever been paid by
anybody about my music from Joe Strummer. One night when I was tending
bar, I mixed a drink for him and he told me that he thought that
my body of work with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks was among his
favorites -- that he considered it outstanding. When you get a compliment
like that from somebody of that stature, it really hits home. There
are times when you're crushed and wondering, "Why am I writing
this? Is anybody listening?" But you just go out and do it,
and take it as it comes along.
my final question. Did you realize at the time, in Black Flag and
all the way through your initial run with the Circle Jerks, that
you were part of something that would still be remembered so fondly
and discovered and loved by new young fans 20 years later?
It NEVER dawned
on me. I'm just now coming to that realization. Like I'm actually
right now helping to organize a Circle Jerks tribute album. A guy
called me and said, "Hey, a lot of bands at my label are going
to record these songs to help pay your hospital bills." Then
he started naming bands and I said, "Hold on, I've been in
the music business for twenty years now and I've made some pretty
good connections. Let me get in touch with some of the people I
So I've gotten
Queens of the Stone Age, Kim Deal from The Breeders, Los Lobos --
I've talked to both Cesar and David Hidalgo and both said they'd
be more than honored. We've gotten Mudhoney, Fu Manchu with Fishbone,
Superchunk with Jane Wiedlin.
We got this
band from Austin, Texas called the Lord High Fixers. A couple of
guys in the band used to be in a band called Poison 13, and one
of those guys used to be in one of Austin's greatest punk bands
-- a band called the Big Boys.
Who from the Big Boys is in the band?
Tim Kerr. Also
from Austin, we've got Sixteen Deluxe, which is one of Gibby Haynes
from the Butthole Surfers' favorite bands. They're a psychedelic
band, which I think is totally cool.
When the kid
from the label started rattling off all these punk rock bands, I
was like, "Who wants to hear a bunch of punk rock bands doing
punk rock songs?" I tried getting Wayne Coyne from the Flaming
Lips, but he's too busy. Same thing with Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse.
A lot of these bands just have really busy schedules. I talked to
Bob Pollard from Guided By Voices. Just all the bands I love, you
know? I want to hear bands I love playing my songs! Nashville Pussy
is another band we've lined up. And we're gonna be talking to Slayer.
- they didn't cover any of your songs on that hardcore CD they made
a few years ago, right?
I don't think
so. I think they covered like the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat.
Yeah, I think
they covered TSOL as well.
Do you have
any idea when the tribute might be out?
Oh, we've still
got a long ways to go.
anything else you'd like to mention that we haven't covered?
be doing an X song for an X tribute album. We're just trying to
figure out who, which gal out there I'll be doing the duet with.
Even though the song I wanna do isn't much of a duet. The female
part is just singing, "Like a woman!"
Wait - I know that song, but I'm blanking on which one it is.
Corner" from the Wild Gift album.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me!