Circle Jerks: Zander Schloss (left), Greg Hetson, Keith Morris, and Joey Castillo. Photo by Atiba Jefferson

Southern California hardcore punk icons Circle Jerks are celebrating the 40th anniversaries of their first two albums, Group Sex and Wild In the Streets — both albums were recently reissued by Trust Records.

On Friday, July 22, the group’s current tour with 7 Seconds and Negative Approach stops at the Masquerade, marking the Circle Jerks first Atlanta show in over 16 years. Before heading out, vocalist Keith Morris took a few minutes to talk about revisiting the songs, drummer Joey Castillo playing them even fast, and what’s in store with his other band, Off!

Chad Radford: Have you had any new realizations about the Circle Jerks songs now that you’re singing them again after so many years?

Sometimes I question some of the lyrics. Why did I write that?

I wrote “Paid Vacation” about Vietnam. When I graduated from high school, I was almost 17 and-a-half. You don’t get drafted until you’re 18. I’d go to parties and at the end of the night the police would be outside questioning all the guys: “How old are you? Have you registered for the draft? I had a handful of friends spend the weekend in jail because they hadn’t registered. 

When they filled out your paperwork in jail they automatically registered you for the draft. 

I had a few friends that went to Canada. I had a few friends that actually went to Vietnam. I was fortunate because the draft ended maybe six months after I graduated.

One day, my dad said: “You’re not going to Vietnam, are you?” My dad was a staunch Republican. I don’t know if he was “a bomb those fuckers into oblivion” Republican, but he was a Republican on a business level. We didn’t converse much. He was basically telling me, “If I was your age, I wouldn’t register for the draft. I wouldn’t go to Vietnam.” Maybe my dad had the wherewithal to understand what was going on at the time. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s a Republican or a Democrat in office. I think there’s a scenario where the incoming president gets pulled aside by all of the military and mighty industrialists who say, “You’re gonna continue doing what your predecessor did, who continued doing what the president before him did, just like the president before him. You’re gonna keep greasing our wheels. You’re gonna keep making us bigger and fatter and even more horrible than what we are right now. If you go against us, we, along with the CIA, will do to you the same thing that we did to JFK. 

So, I look at “Paid Vacation” and think to myself, that is still as relevant today as it was when I wrote it. 

The last time that you and I spoke was when I was writing a story about Bob Glassley (R.I.P.) who had recently revived his old band the Cheifs, with an all new lineup.

Yes, that’s when they came out here and played some shows. It was great seeing Bob. And that band was great. No one can ever take anything away from them. They had their shit together, musically speaking, and it was totally happening.

You know, Bob apologized to me, and I said, “Bob, it is not necessary.”

Why did he apologize to you?

At one point there was competition between our bands. I know there’s not supposed to be competition amongst us. We’re all supposed to be supportive of each other, unless you’re a dick. We could say it was a friendly competition, but at times it was a competition. And he apologized to me stating: “We were all friends. We were all growing up together. We were all drinking beer together, going to shows, and hanging out. For us to be snobby and say, “We were here before you. We should be playing before the headliners instead of you. And just all of that kind of stuff. … It never mattered to me. We’re just supposed to be alive and excited about it, and we’re supposed to be happy that we’re playing, and we don’t care where we are on the bill.

Just hanging out with Bob was great.

But he apologized and was so cool about the whole thing, and it was totally unnecessary. We were younger, and we were all aggressive and overly excited about some of these things.

What has playing with drummer Joey Castillo brought out of the Circle Jerks? 

We wouldn’t be the band that we’re supposed to be if we didn’t have him adding his energy. He wants to play the songs even faster than what we’re playing them, and it’s like, come on Joey! We’re older guys!

Sometimes I find myself trying to catch up with my lyrics, which I don’t mind because it’s like a train coming down the tracks and it’s rambling and shaking and it’s gonna jump the rails. There should be a sense of danger with punk rock. There’s chaos, and that’s good.

Our bass player Zander will say, “This song has to groove, the bass and the kick pedal need to be doing the same thing.” But I’m like, “You figure that out.” I can’t worry about stuff like that. I’m 66 years old, and I’m gonna have points in the set where I need to take a break to catch my breath and have a couple of swigs of water.

Joey brings something that’s much needed, and he loves us! He grew up with us, he’s in South Bay, a couple of cities east of where Greg Hetson grew up in Hawthorne. He knows our songs better than we do. 

He asked, “Do you want me to play the song the way that Lucky Lehrer played it on the first album, or do you want me to play it how Kevin Fitzgerald played it? It’s like, wow, thank you for doing your homework.

At this point, you’ve also logged a ton of hours playing shows with Negative Approach on this tour.

Yeah, and the John Brannon scenario: He comes out on stage, and all he wants to do is sandblast your face off, and make your ears bleed. They do an amazing version of Sham 69’s “Borstal Breakout.”

I saw the show at the 40 Watt in Athens — and I’ve seen Negative Approach every chance that I get — his scowl, when he looks at the crowd … Who know what kind of primal rage he’s gonna bring out of the person standing next to you? But at the end of the night, when he is at the merch table, he’s like the nicest guy on the planet.

He’s working class sweetheart. And when they come out on these tours — they’ve also toured with Off! — they, they can’t be a nicer group of guys. They can’t be more appreciative. Their whole outlook is like: We are honored to be able to do this, and it keeps us busy. We’re working and we’re doing something that we wanna do.

What’s the latest with Off!?

Off! is releasing our new album in September. We’ve recorded all of the songs, and for me it sounds amazing. We’re stepping out of our punk rock and hardcore box to do something different that’s gonna make the cavemen of our genre say, “I don’t like this. They’re not supposed to do this.”

Are you taking a more avant-garde approach with the songs?

We listened to a lot of Throbbing Gristle, Hunting Lodge, Can, Einstürzende Neubauten, Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, Miles Davis. We spent time with a character named Enid Snarb who was in Bastard Noise and Man Is the Bastard. He turned us on to some of George Harrison’s work after he visited India.

Our engineer mixer guy worked with Kyuss and he mixed over half of Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating In Space. We went to a lot of different places, rather than the Bad Brains, Blue Öyster Cult, and Stiff Little Fingers.

Autry Fulbright is playing bass, and he co-manages Thundercat. Our drummer Justin Brown plays drums with Thundercat, so now we’ve got a jazz drummer playing rock, and you’ll hear it. There are times when he’s all over the place, and we really have to pay attention to what he’s doing to play what we’re playing. 

If your mind is free enough, and you’re able to see all of the different colors that we’re using, you’ll get it. There’ll be a lot of people that don’t, but we have no control over that.

What’s the label experience like now that Circle Jerks are working with Trust Records vs. what you experienced with record labels in the ‘80s?

The scenario with Trust is that we love them. Have you seen the Group Sex reissue?

Yes, I have a copy that came with the zine signed by you and Greg.

They’re willing to go to that length, where a lot of record labels won’t. Their sales pitch was: “We’re willing to bet that your royalties from all of the recorded work with all of those labels is probably so minimal that you could hold it in one hand. We want to change that.” They gave us an advance that was beyond ridiculous for a band of our stature.

They’ve been on time and they’ve done everything. The Wild In the Streets reissue is just as cool as the Group Sex reissue, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re playing shows. It was originally to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Group Sex. Now we’re also celebrating the 40th anniversary of Wild In the Streets

As for all the labels we were on in the ‘80s, it was all a crapshoot. We weren’t getting hit up by any major labels, and being opportunistic, when somebody makes you an offer you could sit around with your thumb up your ass waiting to hear what the other offers will be. But your thumb could be up your ass for quite a while. We dealt with some really cool people and we dealt with some really horrible people. I could get into details, but I won’t because I don’t believe that any of these labels exist anymore.

This interview originally appeared in the March issue of Record Plug Magazine.

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