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OFF! is on again, with new record and feature film

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

Dimitri Coats, a self-confessed late bloomer, is making up for lost time.

The guitarist, songwriter and filmmaker didn’t step onstage with his first band, Burning Brides, until he was 29. At 40, he and punk rock legend Keith Morris formed OFF! The band’s bruising and adventurous new record “Free LSD” — also the soundtrack to the feature film of the same name Coats wrote and directed — drops September 30.

“I’m just happy that we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and people get to hear and see this crazy thing we’ve been working on for years,” said the five-year Claremont resident, now 52, of both the record and the film, which will be released next year.

The record version of “Free LSD” — most of which was written by Coats and Morris here in Claremont — is the band’s first release since 2014. Striking videos for the first two singles, “War Above Los Angeles” (https://youtu.be/LBWUgluGdTw) and “Kill To Be Heard,” (https://youtu.be/I613dabsscU) are out now.

Over the past eight years there were false starts, opportunities dashed, obstacles overcome, and, oh yeah, a pandemic.

After original drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket From the Crypt, Hot Snakes) and fellow punk royal and bassist Steven McDonald (Redd Kross) departed, OFF! gained a new rhythm section in bassist Autry Fulbright II (And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead) and well-known jazz drummer Justin Brown (Thundercat).

After all the delays, when it came time to record the process could not have been more fluid. The revitalized band tracked the record’s first 14 songs live over two days. The remaining six followed shortly thereafter.

“So, the urgency and the energy are all there,” Coats said of the fast-track recordings.

“Free LSD” does not disappoint. It once again melds Coats’ punishing riffs and Morris’ timeless, singular vocals and lyrics, a songwriting partnership whose output that has endeared OFF! to fans of heavy music around the globe (check out the comments for the video of “War Over Los Angeles” for evidence of the band’s international fan base), with a new layer of experimental noise and vaguely Eastern modalities. Its 20 songs are woven together by Sun Ra-reminiscent free jazz, and noise-laden experimental interludes. It’s high concept stuff, and it represents a big swing for songwriters Coats and Morris.

“I think underneath it all the songs are going to deliver in the way that OFF! fans expect,” Coats said. “I don’t think we’re going to alienate anybody. I think it’s the heaviest and most brutal record we’ve made. It’s just dressed up for a different event.”

“Free LSD” is certainly brutal, but there’s much more going on here. It alternates between cinematic passages invoking widescreen landscapes of jagged beauty, to the intense, slightly off-kilter riffage and dynamic rhythmic shifts fans have come to expect from OFF! Riding above it all is Morris’ distinctive vocal and his apocalyptic lyrics railing against various scenes of hostile interstellar doom.

And though the textures are certainly more complex and varied, it’s not that far removed from Morris’ performance on Black Flag’s now classic 1978 debut EP, “Nervous Breakdown.” The snotty, assertive, sometimes playful phrasing is still there, as is the aggression, but so is the now 67-year-old singer’s world-weary lived experience. It’s a stunningly vital display of urgent rock ‘n’ roll singing, and it might just be his finest hour.

Morris is a living legend in punk rock circles. But Coats says he’s so much more than the guy who has fronted three (!) of the most important bands in American punk rock history, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and now OFF!

“As you get to know Keith, you realize he’s a very deep person and his tastes are vast; he’s very well-versed in film and pop culture and has tastes in music that are all over the map,” Coats said. “I know from being his friend that he’s always wanted to do more than what he’s been allowed to do in the past.

“So, I’m very proud to stand by his side with this project and take these huge risks.”

Claremont resident Dimitri Coats and his band Off! have a new record coming out in September called “Free LSD” which is the soundtrack to a feature film written and directed by Coats which will be released later this year. COURIER photo Steven Felschundneff

The duo approached “Free LSD” by clearing the table and disregarding expectations. It was liberating. Coats compared it to moving from black and white to color. They were free to bring in heretofore untapped influences and see where they led.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of anything musically that really pushed the boundaries the way this album does,” Coats said. “It’s something I’m really excited for people to hear.”

Coats’ ferocious riffs — double-tracked guitars equal parts anger and intricate, minor chord delicacy — have always been the musical half of OFF!’s formidable propellant, with Morris’ vocals riding on top cutting through the mix like a flag planted in enemy territory.

“Free LSD” certainly breaks new ground, but it does so by building on top of the band’s established foundation of massive guitars, severe rhythms, and short bursts of melodious anger. It’s innovative but familiar: a rare trick.

“We’re not the Ramones,” Coats said. “We’re capable of setting the controls for other galaxies.”

Coats has hinted “Free LSD” may be OFF!’s final record. Morris’ age could certainly be a concern, but the singer has spent the better part of this summer touring the U.S. and Europe with Circle Jerks, so it would seem he’s up to the rigors of the road.

Still, I asked Coats if he would like to give the COURIER a scoop.

“No, it’s nothing like that,” he said. “I’m just not sure how much longer Keith wants to be in a touring band.”

Regardless, Coats remains loyal to his friend Morris and OFF! however long the partnership may continue. And with “Free LSD” opening new sonic doors, it would seem a fertile period awaits.

“I just told [Morris], ‘Look, I’ll do this band as long as you can do it or want to do it. Even if it turns out that you don’t want to perform anymore but you still want to make music. We could still write and record and not play shows.’

“This may be the last record. It may not be.”

OFF!, it would seem, is at a crossroads.

“Keith is a senior citizen now,” he said. “He’s not Mick Jagger. I don’t know if he wants to do this into his 80s or whatever. And I think there are other projects he wants to explore that possibly have nothing to do with music. And the same goes for me. I want to see where filmmaking takes me, because it’s something that I feel called to.”

Morris is also the lead actor in the “Free LSD” film, which also features bona fide movie star and  OFF! fan Jack Black; James Duval (Independence Day, Donnie Darko); actor, comedian and writer Dana Gould; musician (The Jesus Lizard, Scratch Acid) and actor David Yow; musician (Flesh Eaters), writer and actor (Lethal Weapon, No Way Out) Chris D.; musician (Dead Kennedys) D.H. Peligro; and actor, author, magician, and songwriter (Possum Dixon) Rob Zabrecky.

Every creative move he’s made has led him to this moment, Coats said.

Filmmaking “really does incorporate every journey that’s brought me here: it’s storytelling, it’s acting, it’s photography, it’s music.

“I just feel like I’m built for it.”

Pre-order discount copies of OFF!’s “Free LSD” record at https://offband.lnk.to/FreeLSD.

The band will tour the U.S. in support of “Free LSD” beginning October 24 in Phoenix and concluding December 17 at Los Angeles’ Lodge Room. Tickets are at https://www.offofficial.com/live.

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