The Circle Jerks occupy an odd place in the annals of punk-rock history. Formed in 1979 in an abandoned Baptist church in Hermosa Beach, California, the band became one of the most influential groups from the early hardcore era. However, after an unhappy experience with a major label, the band was largely sidelined during punk’s rebirth in the 1990s. When they tried to resurface and make a record in 2009, producer Dimitri Coats was fired and lead singer Keith Morris followed him to form the band OFF! instead.
While the Circle Jerks are now on indefinite hiatus, the new documentary My Career as a Jerk takes an in-depth look at the lopsided history of the iconic California band. Morris called into Rolling Stone recently to talk about the movie and his experience being a Jerk.
In the exclusive clip featured on Rollingstone.com, it looks like the Circle Jerks started to gel around the time you wrote “Back Against the Wall.“ Is that how it all started, when everything came together?
Well, there are a couple of varying stories. My initial first contact with [drummer] Lucky Lehrer was in the basement of the church where a couple of guys in Black Flag lived. Redd Kross were auditioning drummers and Greg [Hetson] pulled Lucky in; they rehearsed and auditioned. I was listening out in the hallway and I thought it sounded really cool. But the McDonald brothers weren’t happy, so when Greg and Lucky came out in the hallway, I saw the disappointment on their faces. At that point, I had already quit Black Flag – like maybe a week and a half, two weeks earlier. I’m standing there and I’m looking at them. The first thought that came to my mind was, “I’m looking at a guitarist, and I’m looking at a drummer. I’m a vocalist. Hey, all we need is to find a bass player and we could be a band.”
Now, the other story is that those two guys had been talking about starting a band when the McDonald brothers said they weren’t interested in playing with Lucky, and we were all hanging out in front of Whisky a Go Go.
One of the things going on at that time: it was like being part of a giant party, being part of a giant fiesta. So there were all sorts of party favors: there was a lot of white drugs, some guys were smoking pot, a lot of alcohol. So a lot of that area starts getting fuzzy and black, so details are hard to come by. Anyways, there are a couple of varying stories about how we started as a band. I guess that in and of itself is kind of interesting because there always seemed to be a couple of camps within the band, you know: different agendas.
I‘ve heard a lot about that church in Hermosa Beach, California. We see it in the film. What was it like there? Is that where everybody sort of hung out and congregated? What were you doing there?
The church would have been our community youth center for the wayward youth, for the runaways, for the kids that got picked on in school, the kids that were fed up with all of the jocks, all of the nerds. In the church itself would be the Black Flag rehearsal space. I had a room where I lived. My roommate was this 16-year-old kid who had run away from his parents. He needed a place to live. He gave me 25 bucks. I said, “You got a sleeping bag. You could sleep on the floor.”
One of the larger rooms was the SST electronic space, which was Greg Ginn’s ham radio operation. In the basement of the church, that was where [Black Flag lead singer] Ron Reyes lived. He lived in, like, a cupboard. And Redd Kross rehearsed in the big room that was attached to his little space. The main floor, basically, would be if you walked into a church. Where you would see the pulpit and there was a stage. Of course, all the rows of seats were missing, but that’s where we’d party. We could have anywhere from a couple of dozen people to a couple of hundred people show up. And we were very fortunate that we were able to get away with these parties.
We were also under constant scrutiny by the Hermosa Beach Police Department. We always had that kind of sword hanging over our heads. I guess the way that they looked at us, we were the thorn in their side. We were all going to grow up to be terrorists and drug dealers.
And they had broken up a bunch shows, both with Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, I guess because of the fights and dancing or whatever went on that they didn’t like. Was it hard to play shows at that time? Were you banned from a lot of places?
We were banned from different clubs and because of that, we needed to go out and find our own venues. We were looking at elks lodges, moose lodges, rotary clubs. We were playing in people’s backyards, people’s living rooms, basements – anywhere we could find a place to play.
We had a modus operandi and that was, “We just wanna play. We’ll go play where anyone will allow us to play. We don’t care who’s there: all ages, bikers, drug dealers, surfers, cheerleaders, members of the football team, crudballs, scuzzies.”
In the documentary, it seems that the band missed out on an opportunity to become more popular. There is a sense that the band didn’t catch a break. Were some people frustrated with that?
The fact of the matter is: there’s so many bands out there, it’s hard to keep up with them. The machinery works in strange ways. When the major label machinery kicks in, you’re going up to the top of the mountain. If they choose to put their time, effort and energy behind you, you’re gonna become kings of the hill.
Early on, we were just happy to be able to be doing what we were doing, making just enough money to eke out an existence. And then we did all of this work and of course, during certain periods, it wasn’t paying the bills. And a lot of us had day jobs, what you call day jobs. We were never really fazed by watching other bands rocket past us and go for the big-ultra-mega major-label thing. We had our opportunity. We went for it. It was completely disastrous.
Live and learn, get on with it. You’ve chosen to do this. Now you’ve gotta do it whatever ways you could. We didn’t really sit around creating strategies, or marketing, or anything like that. We were too busy just being the goofballs we were and are.
I guess there is a sense in the film that there was all of this money floating around in the Nineties, especially with punk bands like Green Day and Nirvana, and you guys were there from the beginning and weren‘t a part of that. I just wonder if looking back, you can see what went wrong, or what you would have done differently.
The situation with that is that… it doesn’t always turn out the way you would like it. A perfect example would be all of us sitting down with Mercury Records trying to figure out the first single to the album. And everybody agreed on what song we were gonna use for the single, and then one person at the record label was like, “I don’t like that song. Why don’t you use this song?” There are all these things that you have no control over. You try to control as many things as you can. Sometimes guys in bands, they don’t even care. It’s just like, “Gimme my paycheck. Everything’s cool. And I’m gonna head over and snort some blow over at the exotic stripper club.”
A lot of this stuff is out of our control. We learned to just be humble about it and just say, “You know what, we are just gonna allow this to take us wherever it takes us.” That’s always been part of our mentality: let’s just play this as it lays.
Just before drummer Roger Rogerson‘s overdose in 1996, he tried to get the band back together. That was pretty shocking because he hadn‘t been involved in it for so long. And then he was just gone. What was the reaction from the band when that happened?
Greg and I were not going to get back together with Lucky and Roger. Their mentality of us getting back together and making a record and being as big as Nirvana or Green Day… I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s so mind-bogglingly surreal.
You have two guys that left the band and went on to do other things that didn’t have anything to do with music. Then, all of a sudden, 18 years later, 20 years later, they decide that it’s our time. We’re gonna get back together and we’re gonna do this. We’re gonna be huge, and everything is gonna be great. We’re sitting at this meeting, and Greg and I are looking at each other and we’re holding back the laughter.
Greg and I had been continually playing music, going out and touring. Lucky went on to be… his dad had owned three of the largest eyeglass frame-manufacturing factories, so he did that. Roger, he drove away in our van. Many, many, many, many years ago, when Chuck Biscuits and Earl Liberty was still in the band, he drove off to the center of America and didn’t even bother to say, “Hey guys, I’m taking the van,” or “Hey guys, it’s been fun,” or what-have-you. He drove off and pretty much left a bitter taste in our mouths.
At one point in the documentary, Lucky Lehrer talks about coming down from Northern California and seeing slam-dancing and not even knowing what that was. Is that when all that started, mosh pits and slam dancing?
Well, Lucky came down from further up in California. Here in Southern California, I guess besides Florida, we’re probably the swimming pool capital of the world. And with a swimming pool, there’s all sorts of things, little events that take place. You have a diving board so you’re diving into the water. You’re draining the pool and skateboarding in the pool. We have that. It’s like in our DNA, being from where we are. And you bring that to a highly volatile rock concert and, all of a sudden, all these extra activities are happening.
Stage-diving is basically a guy diving off of a diving board into a pool. Ok, and you call it the mosh pit but it’s not a mosh pit. That’s an East Coast term. That’s for people on the East Coast. On the West Coast it’s a slam pit. You watch the guy dancing with his arm and his leg up and it’s basically, when you look at that image, it’s a guy riding a skateboard.
That’s where we come from. That’s what we did. That’s what some of us still do: Tony Alva, Christian Hosoi, Duane Peters, Jay Adams, Suicidal Tendencies. You got Tony Alva and all of his skate crew showing up at these shows and they’re in the slam pit, skating without skateboards. They’re stage-diving without swimming pools.
That is where all of that started. With these guys, and they’re like, “Let’s not stand around and become furniture. Let’s get in and be a part of this.”
All four members seem very reminiscent and attached to this band. In the film, you mention that the door is closed but not locked on reuniting with the Circle Jerks. I was wondering what you see as the most likely situation of you getting back together with those three individuals. In what capacity do you think that might happen in the future?
I can’t really answer that with any kind of concrete statement because I’m in a new band [OFF!], and my new band has become pretty popular and we’ve made strides that we didn’t think we were gonna make. When we started the new band, we didn’t think it was gonna become what it is as quickly as it did.
I’m having an insanely amazing time. I’m having the time of my life. It’s like I’ve been invited to a whole new party. And why would I wanna mess this up? Why would I wanna create jealousy among the guys that I’m playing with now because I’m doing something with my other band?
There’s a time and place for everything and there’s a possibility that somewhere down the road, those guys might say, “Hey Keith, we made a mistake. We apologize for the way that we went about doing what we did, the way that we went about firing Dmitri.”
I’m wholeheartedly backing what I’m doing right now… I have a new opportunity. I’ve been going all over the world. With the Circle Jerks, we couldn’t even grab our asses with our own hands, we couldn’t even reach around and grab ourselves. We couldn’t get it together to go to Europe and go to Australia or go to Japan. I’m going to all of these places. What reason would I not want to do that?