OFF!’s Cosmic Comeback

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The man at the microphone is a sad wreck, slouched beneath a scruffy, colorless beard and filthy trucker’s cap, his stomach bulging beneath a loud Hawaiian shirt. His light blue slacks look like they date back to the Reagan era, and on the wall beside him is a collage of flying saucers, Bigfoot, Area 51, grain silos, pyramids, the Loch Ness Monster and other conspiracy obsessions. Then a sign lights up to announce: “On the Air.”

It’s after midnight in Los Angeles as he leans over a laptop and says in a familiar, distinctive rasp: “Welcome back to another episode of Blowmind Show. I’m Keith, your host. My guest tonight is Jack Rogers. Jack was abducted and left with an implant in his leg.”

The host is unrecognizable as Keith Morris, fiery dreadlocked singer for the hardcore supergroup OFF! and founding frontman for first-wave American punk bands Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. In this small apartment, a movie camera crew is inches away from Morris, capturing the unfolding scene for Free LSD, a rock ‘n’ roll sci-fi comedy film starring OFF!

“That was great, dude,” OFF! guitarist Dimitri Coats says from beside the camera, in a T-shirt and tangle of auburn hair, giving Morris a quiet round of applause. “Let’s do another.”

Keith Morris OFF!
Keith Morris of OFF! performs onstage at the Roxy Theatre in a scene from “Free LSD,” a rock ‘n’ roll sci-fi comedy about the L.A. punk band OFF!

Coats is the writer and director of Free LSD, and midway into this monthlong production, he’s guiding cast and crew toward fulfilling a dream that he and Morris have struggled to make happen for the last six years. Today’s online debut of the frantic music video for “War Above Los Angeles” is a first glimpse of the band’s upcoming film and album of the same name. Powered by the classic, driving OFF! sound, the coming record has newly added elements of noise, saxophone and free jazz across 20 songs and interludes.

The album is set for a Sept. 30 release and will be OFF!’s first collection of new material since 2014’s Wasted Years. It’ll also feature a full North American tour beginning on Oct. 24.

There was sporadic touring in the intervening years, an earlier attempt at a film, and the exit of two original band members. Morris and Coats both describe the final album, which includes wild instrumental transitions, as the best recording of their careers.

“They’re companion pieces,” Coats says of the film and record. “All I hope for is that the movie delivers on the same level as the album.”

 

OFF! reemerged last year with a new lineup (featuring bassist Autry Fulbright II and drummer Justin Brown) and a cover of “Holier Than Thou” for the high-profile tribute album, The Metallica Blacklist. OFF! returned to the studio earlier this year to record Free LSD, and over the summer began shooting their indie film.

“First off, it’s a science fiction movie that involves the band OFF! and there’s a love story attached to it,” Morris says. “I’m chosen to save the world, but I can’t save the world unless I have my fellow bandmates together. We’re the Fantastic Four. We are the X-Men. We are the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. We are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

The scene with Morris leading a podcast is based on a real-life program he co-hosted for 50 episodes with his friend Pete Weiss (drummer for Thelonious Monster) that dealt with aliens, the sinking of Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle, among many other far out conspiracy theories. Some episodes could last many hours.

“We talked about the grays and the greens,” Morris explains. “The grays being the senior aliens, the greens being the younger, more obnoxious punk-rock anarchy let’s-fuck-shit-up-type scenarios.”

When writing songs together for the album and movie, Coats encouraged Morris to draw on the subject matter of his real Blowmind podcast, and deliver the lyrics with as much panic and rage as their three previous releases. Coats had already decided to expand his sound to include wild noise experiments amid his slippery, cutting riffs, and Morris wanted to meet the challenge by finding new territory for his lyrics and vocal performances.

“Thinking of the record as this backdrop to a film really freed us up,” Coats says of the new songs. “It allowed us to throw a lot of curveballs and challenge ourselves to get into a zone creatively that I don’t think would’ve been possible otherwise.

“The themes are still Us vs. Them, we deserve more, stop keeping the truth from us. That’s all still there. Even though we’re singing about aliens, it’s like, ‘Hey, tell us the fucking truth! Stop feeding us lies! if aliens exist, we wanna know!’”

A large helping of the album will be heard in the movie, plus one track, “Keep Your Mouth Shut,” that won’t appear on the Free LSD record.

In the film, Morris’s character is the owner of an adult specialty shop, selling books, video, and sex toys. “We also have jerk-off booths in the back,” Morris says. “We also have an area where there are private dances. There is a dancer pole. There’s also clothes, like frilly little things that people wear to excite everybody.”

OFF!
OFF! band members Autry Fulbright II (left) and Dimitri Coats (center) and Dead Kennedys drummer DH Peligro have an otherworldly experience on the set of the movie “Free LSD,” a rock ‘n’ roll sci-fi comedy about the L.A. punk band OFF! (Credit: Steve Appleford)

But his character is not happy. As his bearded, downcast alter ego in the film, Morris has little in his life beyond conspiracy obsessions to excite him. Then a young woman in pink hair shows up at the counter and flirts with him. Her name is Cici, and when a relationship unexpectedly begins, he’s unable to perform sexually and grows deeply depressed. He turns to the Boner Doctor he sees advertised on TV and bus benches, and whose remedy involves opening up human brain power to 100 percent of its potential — and traveling to parallel universes, communicating with aliens and bees.

Earlier in the day, OFF! and the cast film various scenes in an all-white, otherworldly “Harvest Room,” a place where alien races and humans cross paths en route to other dimensions. In several scenes shot, band members wear white beekeeper suits, staring blankly ahead, facing versions of themselves or the menacing Wrongdoers.

Standing off-camera, Coats looks toward a trio of Wrongdoers and coaches the actors in white. “Stone cold, stone cold … Try not to blink. A little bit more sinister — like ‘I’m going to eat you for breakfast.’ And action!”

The inspiration for making a movie is rooted in OFF!’s tradition of hilarious, dark, ambitious music videos. Previous music videos have included repeat appearances by comedy icons Jack Black and Dave Foley.

“We’ve put a lot of work into our music videos over the years,” Coats says. “We’re sort of known for hitting a certain mark and a certain tone with the epic and goofy nature of what we’ve rolled out over the years. I felt a responsibility to that heritage.”

David Yow, former singer for the Jesus Lizard, has a key role as the Boner Doctor, a congenial TV pitchman in a white coat and sworn enemy of erectile dysfunction. He’s also involved in the film’s multi-dimensional battle between alien races. “Yow’s character is really like the Professor X of the movie,” Coats explains.

Aside from Yow and the band, the cast includes a deep bench of other current or former musicians, including DH Peligro of Dead Kennedys, Don Bolles of the Germs, Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks, Davey Havok of AFI and Rob Zabrecky. OFF!’s Brown was on tour with Thundercat and unavailable during the film shoot, so Peligro took his place in the cast.

In the just-released music video, there are moments of dangerous tension amid the insanity, including Chris D. (of early L.A. punk act Flesh Eaters), who makes a jarring impression as a stone-cold villain known as Wrongdoer 1, facing down a shotgun-wielding Fulbright.

“It’s like real horror movie type stuff, like blood and pink and exploding heads and people getting shot, all sorts of fun stuff. Oh man, we’ve shot some scenes that are ridiculous,” he says, pointing to a scene of a drum battle between Peligro and Bolles. “Don Bolles is just ridiculously funny.”

The long delay between the film’s conception years ago and now has had its benefits, giving Coats time to rewrite and improve his script. After funding finally materialized and casting was complete, Coats began the intense work of directing his first feature film. Among his partners is producer Kurt Kittleson, whose projects include work with Paul Schrader and David Lynch.

“Dimitri is such a professional. He prepared like crazy,” Kittleson says. “We rehearsed for two weeks before we did the film, and he was full on.”

Shooting began after that rehearsal, mingling professional actors with non-actors. Actress Chelsea Debo, who plays the mysterious love interest, Cici, shares many scenes with Morris in his first starring role.

“I was nervous in the beginning just because he hasn’t done much acting, but he’s blown me away,” Debo says. “We haven’t really had a good cult classic since the ‘90s. It’s like one of those movies that you watch 40 times stoned, and each time you watch it, you figure out a new clue. We’re a bit Lynchian in that way.”

The music video for “War Above Los Angeles” includes a bizarre clip of one of Yow’s favorite scenes, where he has Morris in the examination chair and the Boner Doctor shape-shifts back and forth into the much sexier Cici in bra and panties.

Cece OFF!
(Credit: Steve Appleford)

“Our faces were two inches apart and I’m trying to be seductive,” Yow says of filming the scene with Morris, grinning. “I love the idea that when the movie comes out, there’s not a single fan of American independent punk rock music who ever expected to see that. It was really uncomfortable and very funny.”

Chloe Dykstra, who co-starred in OFF!’s video for “Holier Than Thou,” (and whose father won an Oscar for special effects on the original Star Wars in 1977) appears as another woman with possible alien connections.

“It’s a very sort of trippy culty science fiction, chaotic adventure, starring a punk band,” Dykstra says. “How do I explain it? It’s like a circus in a script.”

Aside from Morris, Coats and Fulbright also appear on screen as an alternate reality version of themselves — exploring the grim possibilities of their lives if things had gone differently. The alternative Fulbright is a robe-wearing member of a religious cult, and Coats is the sleazy, fast-talking president of Monolith Records, complete with thick mustache, gold chains and Boston accent.

“In my 20-plus years of crossing paths with all these music industry executives and powerful people, it’s the greatest hits of all those scumbags rolled up into one,” Coats says of his character.

Morris describes him as “the sleaziest, scuziest motherfuckin’ A&R guy.” Coats studied Method acting for two years at Julliard before he shifted into music, so once he gets into costume, he stays in character between scenes, even while directing.

“It’s been a lot of fun to just embody your worst self,” he says.

Keith’s alter ego as a sad failure makes for a surprisingly touching presence from the punk vet. “I’ve grown to really like that character,” Coats says. “It’s about the band OFF! existing in their normal reality, but about those same people existing in an alternate reality and ending up as these characters that are completely unfulfilled. In Keith’s case, he’s someone who never followed his dreams and ended up a schlub.

“It’s designed to be a very fun and entertaining and complex movie, but let’s get real here – it’s intended to be a midnight movie, a cult film,” Coats continues, mentioning previous underground classics like Evil Dead, 200 Motels and the Ramones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

OFF!
Dimitri Coats of OFF! performs onstage at the Roxy Theatre in a scene from “Free LSD,” a rock ‘n’ roll sci-fi comedy about the L.A. punk band OFF! Behind him is David Yow (best known as singer from the Jesus Lizard) in character as The Boner Doctor. (Credit: Steve Appleford)

 

The project is also in the tradition of 1984’s Repo Man, which marked a rare early film appearance by Morris — briefly seen performing with a lounge lizard version of the Circle Jerks in mismatched tuxedos. The cast also included Zander Schloss, who later joined the band on bass and is in Free LSD. Even with all its notoriety, Morris didn’t see the entire film for years, until his mom urged him to see it.

“My mom said, ‘Keith, it’s my favorite movie,’” the singer remembers. “I’m scratching my head. ‘How could this oddball movie be your favorite movie?’ And she said ‘It’s a religious movie. You’re following Otto as he’s searching for something, and he doesn’t find it until the very end of the movie. The guy that works in the parking lot where all of the cars that have been repossessed, he’s giving out his words of wisdom. And at the end of the movie, he and Otto are in the radioactive car going to heaven.’ So it took my mom to explain it to me. [Laughs.] Thank you, mom.”

In Free LSD, comedian-writer-actor Dana Gould appears as a nervous podcast guest with a personal story of alien abduction. While waiting to shoot his scene with Morris, he described a real kinship between musicians and comics of a particular breed.

“Certain kinds of comics are like punk,” Gould says. “We have a lot of aggression, but the only people we hurt are ourselves. I don’t like bands that aren’t funny.”

Morris says there is a deeper message too, about the power of choosing the right path. “There’s hope after all, even for the meek and the less unfortunate,” he explains. “The whole idea is, when you’re at the high dive, you don’t look down, you just jump. You just go for it. The LSD doesn’t just stand for lysergic mind-expanding colorful drugs: Love Shines Down, which we need more of going on in this world, because this world sucks.”

Shooting on the film wrapped on July 18, and Free LSD is currently being edited with plans for a roll out at film festivals before a wider release. After this fall’s tour, OFF!’s future is unknown. Coats is interested in more filmmaking, and Morris is open to other new projects. If this ends up being the final word from OFF!, Coats says he’ll be satisfied to have it end on this high note.

“Keith and I have struggled for years now to get this particular project off the ground,” he says. “It’s been exhausting and also extremely rewarding. There’s something to be said for going out strong and going out with our chins high up in the air. I’d be very proud if this was our final bow.”

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