With a new lineup in place and functioning like a well-oiled machine, OFF! is back on the road supporting the group’s first album in eight years, Free LSD (Fat Possum Records).
With Free LSD, Circle Jerks’ frontman Keith Morris, guitar player Dimitri Coats, bass player and Atlanta expat Autry Fulbright II (…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of the Dead), and drummer Justin Brown (Herbie Hancock, Thundercat) have crafted a vibrant and essential art-punk rumination on the end times.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Keith Morris while he was passing through town with the Circle Jerks. This is what he had to say about the new album:
“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.”
Bob Mould is on the road for this “Solo Electric: Distortion and Blue Hearts Tour.” Before playing at City Winery on October 12, Mould took a few minutes to talk about returning to life in America after spending some time in Berlin, experiencing socio-political deja vu, and to reflect on his years with Sugar and Hüsker Dü.
Your current tour is titled the “Solo Electric: Distortion and Blue Hearts,” which sounds pretty straight forward. Are you playing a pretty comprehensive setlist?
Blue Hearts was the fifth album for Merge Records that was recorded with the same rhythm section—Jason Narducy on bass and Jon Wurster on drums—and with the same engineer, Beau Sorenson. Blue Hearts came out in September 2020. Obviously nobody was touring at that point.
In October of 2020, the Distortion box sets started coming out on Demon Records in the UK. It was a 30-year career retrospective that took from the first solo album, Workbook, all the way through Sunshine Rock, which was the fourth solo album with Merge. In the fall of 2021, myself, Jon, and Jason did a pretty quick North American tour. Since then, I’ve mostly been doing solo electric stuff, touching on everything from Hüsker Dü and Sugar and the solo albums up to Blue Hearts.
The expense of touring is pretty high right now, and tours are still getting canceled left and right because people are getting sick. So for the time being, the solo electric thing is the easiest way for me to tour.
Most of the press that Blue Hearts has received hangs on it being about your return to the States after living in Berlin for a few years, and getting an eyeful of how much things had changed in a very short time.
The first half of Blue Hearts feels like a return to Hüsker Dü songwriting form.
Yeah, I felt like the fall of 2019 was a lot like the fall of 1983. The country was pretty unhinged, and sadly it seems to have gotten worse.
Staying in the fall of 2019, I’d been spending a lot of time in Germany. I was aware of what was happening in America, but when you come back to the US and you’re surrounded by 24-hour news cycles, and just all of the insanity that is America when things get like this, it felt very similar to my state of mind and my state of being, and how I saw the world back in 1983. It made me think about what I was doing back then, what the environment was like at the time. Most importantly, I was thinking about how I approached my work and the messages at that time, and how little resources a band like Hüsker Dü had in 1983.
The songs on Blue Hearts are more influenced by the reflection of those times and how it seemed like it was deja vu all over again.
The songwriting was pretty direct, pretty political, pretty economical. The record is pretty fast and furious, so it got me thinking about how limited resources in 1983 led me to write and record—making it brief. Not dragging it out, not hiring an orchestra from Prague. Just the three of us in a room banging this stuff out?
So 1983 was the Ronald Reagan era and 2020 was the Trump era. What differentiates these times?
Through the ‘80s, we saw the ascent of Reagan, the Hollywood celebrity but, unlike Trump, Reagan was the governor of California. He had knowledge of how the political system worked. But televangelism was huge then—the moral majority. It was the beginning of HIV/AIDS, the cutting of mental health services in cities. That specific … Tony Fauci at NIH. It’s frightening to me some of the callbacks, whether it’s COVID or evangelicals, and all the sway that they hold over the Republican party. These are all things that I’ve seen before. It didn’t go well last time, and we’ve lost a million people to COVID in America.
At my advanced age, I did not think I would have to go through this yet one more time.
Did these songs come out of you pretty quickly?
Yeah. When I settled back in at the end of 2019, it did not take a lot of effort to look around and write what I know, write what I see. The song “American Crisis” had been kicking around for a couple years. That was the first track anybody heard off the album, but I actually wrote the music and the words for that in Berlin. Those lyrics took five minutes to write. There’s nothing sophisticated about it at all.
The remainder of the record; some of the music had been written in Berlin, but a lot of the words, and most of the music was written pretty quickly at the end of 2019. I went out and did about three weeks of solo touring at the beginning of 2020, tried out a bunch of the songs, and then we recorded the album in February of 2020, and had it wrapped up by the middle of March. That was when everything shut down.
“American Crisis” is the first song that you wrote for this album?
Yeah, that’s the North Star of the record. I had that one already put together in Berlin, probably later in 2018, and I just sort of followed the motif. The rest of the stuff came pretty easily.
“Next Generation” sounds like classic Bob Mold to me. Of course, I see what sets it apart from some of your other eras of songwriting.In terms of the strength of the song, though, I want to place it alongside something like Hüsker Dü’s “Sorry Somehow,” or maybe even “Hoover Dam” by Sugar. When you’re putting demos together, do you have a sense of when you’ve got a hit on your hands?
To me, that one falls closer to the mid-to-late ‘80s stuff I was writing. As a writer, I sort of look at it and go, “Oh, that would’ve been a Flip Your Wig song.”
When I’m working on stuff, I sort of know. I mean, I have x number of ways and x number of styles in which I write. I sort of know when a song is coming in that first 15 minutes if it’s going to either be a type A or a type X song. Then, it’s just a matter of wrapping it up and tucking in all the corners. I’ve got different styles of pop songs, punk songs, folk songs, songs with strings, songs that lean more on keyboards.
It’s sort of like, you get a couple free throws, you’ve rehearsed your free throws. You know how many dribbles you have, and where you’re gonna toss the ball.
Does it feel like there’s an uptick in interest in your songwriting right now?
I think people are still interested in what I do, both the work that I’ve done and the work I’m doing now. There are a lot of people that won’t be there in the future when another album comes out. In terms of politically charged punk music right now, a lot of the things that are coming out of the UK—a band like Idles being the main one that most people know, or Fontaines DC and stuff like that.
I’ve been a bit surprised that art in America hasn’t been as reactive as I thought it would be. Perhaps I’m not seeing it. Maybe it’s further underground than where I hang out, but for music specifically, it feels like more stuff has come out of the UK lately that is addressing the socio-political divisions we’re going through.
Maybe it’s because I’m in Georgia, but Mercyland recently released their long lost record, We Never Lost A Single Game. That’s been the subject of many conversations recently, and I’ve had more people talk with me about Sugar and Hüsker Dü this year than maybe ever before. Maybe that’s because people are talking about Mercyland’s record, which brings Sugar, Bob Mould, and Hüsker Dü into the conversation. Also, September was the 30th anniversary of Copper Blue.
That’s right! Hopefully I get to spend some time with David [Barbe] while I’m in town.
I think Copper Blue is just such a very disciplined, but really exciting pop record. I’m always happy that people have good things to say about it, and that every now and then it takes on a new life.
It’s tight and concise in ways that were very different from Hüsker Dü.
Oh … Hüsker Do was like a bunch of planes trying to take off the same way all at once. That was a completely different beast. Hüsker Dü was so loose and constantly rushing forward in the tempo. That was what people loved about that band. For me, discipline came my way when I started working with my recently deceased colleague Anton Fier, who played drums on both Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain. Working with Anton was where I learned how to study things. He was an amazing drummer. He was a real stickler for time and keeping things pretty strict. Sugar was the next iteration of the rhythm section, and we brought that discipline to the studio. Live, sugar was pretty wild.
What really set Hüsker Dü apart from many of the other bands of the era, like Black Flag, T.S.O.L., X, etc. was the savage tone of the guitar.
It was. And with Hüsker, with Sugar, and with Jon and Jason, it’s the power trio. The guitar tone has to cover a lot of ground and fill in a lot of spaces. That’s something that Pete Townsend had to do with the Who, and something Hendrix had to do. It’s a certain style of playing where you have to be a really good rhythm player, but also be able to sneak lead guitar in there as well, and as you said, it was a unique tone that was necessary given that it was the only guitar. The tone that I’ll be using on these solo shows is not very far away from that tone. So calling it the Distortion and Blue Hearts tour is a pretty literal description of what’s on tour right now.
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Looking back over the 42+ years that have passed since he co-founded one of Los Angeles’ seminal and most formidable punk bands, T.S.O.L., vocalist Jack Grisham doesn’t miss a beat when insisting that he is not a good singer.
“I do it, but it’s very uncomfortable,” Grisham says in a matter-of-fact tone. “I sound like me, and I am what I am. But when I got into punk rock, I never actually thought about singing. You just kind of screamed it. Next thing I know, I’m still doing it, still making records. … I like a lot of soul and pop music, and I like melodic punk,” he adds. “When I’m listening to punk it’s Generation X or the Jam, things that a lot of people don’t even consider punk. … Those guys could sing!”
Despite his detached self-criticism, Grisham is an iconic vocalist of Southern California’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s punk, death rock, and hardcore scenes. T.S.O.L. forged its fiery and confrontational sound and image amid the epicenter of LA’s early ’80s punk scene, alongside Black Flag, Fear, Cheifs, and the Circle Jerks. Blasts of Marxist and anarchist political leanings punctuate the full-on contempt in Grisham’s unrestrained voice, and the blistering tones and melodies summoned by guitar player Ron Emory.
In the beginning, Grisham’s short-lived band Vicious Circle developed a reputation for stirring up an atmosphere primed for violent altercations with brutal, shotgun-style blasts of jagged punk songs bearing titles such as “I Want to Die,” “Love Of Hate,” and “Complete Kaos.”
But with the arrival of T.S.O.L.’s self-titled EP for Posh Boy in 1981, followed that same year by their debut album, Dance With Me (Frontier), lyrical poetry and haunted tones blended with a punk charge, giving rise to a proto-goth etherealism.
This year, a new documentary film, titled Ignore Heroeswill chronicle the group’s early days, its triumphs, stumbles, and resurrection. Grisham, who directed the film, says it’s not your typical rock doc, and feels more like “a fucked up Ted Talk,” featuring stand-up, live interviews with people who were either with the band, who paid the band, or who tried to kill the band. … And some animation.
“No famous rock guys, no one saying we influenced them,” Grisham says.
In the meantime, T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty) is in the van, traveling across the country, powering through a career-spanning setlist touching on everything from 1982’s “Weathered Statues” 7-inch, to songs from their latest album, 2017’s The Trigger Complex.
“Before the pandemic cut our legs out from underneath us, we were playing 90 shows a year — a lot of shows,” Grisham says. “Now, we’re like those guys who play pro ball for 20 years, they make every game, and never have a problem till they slow down. Now, it’s like every injury, every fall we’ve ever taken is catching up,” he laughs.
Grisham, now 60 years old, says it was drummer and vocalist Grant Hart of Minneapolis’ avant-garde punk trio Hüsker Dü who inspired him to delve deeper into writing lyrics.
“I still have the rhyming book that Grant gave me,” Grisham says. “I’m not that much of an aware kind of guy, I just go around doing whatever, without paying attention to much of anything. Grant was the one who asked me, ‘Have you ever looked at this book?’ It’s just a little thesaurus-type of thing that’s filled with rhyming words — probably something that he got in high school.”
Couching Hart’s knack for crafting gut-wrenching melodies around simple, powerful punk charges reveals previously hidden layers of depth within T.S.O.L.’s litany of classic numbers.
T.S.O.L. emerged at the dawn of the 1980s, in Huntington Beach. Grisham, along with guitarist Ron Emory, bass player Mike Roche, and drummer and former Vicious Circle cohort Todd Barnes bridged SoCal punk with the emerging hardcore scene by way of dark imagery, and a full-throttle guitar assault in songs such as “Superficial Love,” “Abolish Government,” “Sounds Of Laughter,” “Wash Away,” and “Code Blue.”
The latter number, which appears on 1981’s Dance with Me, is a necrophiliac love song blasting lyrics that feel tailor-made for scaring concerned parents in the Reagan era into sending their disaffected teens straight to the nearest psychiatrist — “And I don’t even care how she died. But I like it better if she smells of formaldehyde!”
“We always did whatever we wanted to do,” Grisham says. “There were times when I haven’t seen Ron or Mike in over a year, and I won’t see them until I walk onto the stage at the show and say ‘what do you want to play?’ … We’ll do that,” Grisham says. “T.S.O.L. was in Penelope Spheeris’ film Suburbia, and we played two songs — “Wash Away” and Darker My Love.” “‘Darker My Love’ wasn’t even recorded yet,” Grisham adds. “I said we wrote this one last week, let’s do it!”
While lyrics in other songs such as “President Reagan can shove it!” from “Superficial Love” place T.S.O.L’s mystique firmly in the 1980s, having songs such as “Sounds Of Laughter,” featured in the recent HBO documentary, Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off, helps bolster ongoing interest in the group with younger listeners.
“There’s always something like the Tony Hawk documentary happening for us, and there is a huge age gap with the people who come see us,” Grisham says. “We see little kids in the audience all the way up to somebody’s grandfather hanging out, and it’s because we’ve been playing for such a long time. If you were 30 years old when T.S.O.L. started in 1980, you’re 72 now,” he laughs. “If you were 40 years old back then, you are 82 now!”
On stage, it’s the physicality of performing their songs that propels each one forward. “Fuck You Tough Guy” from 2003’ Divided We Stand, is one song that Grisham says is among their most exhilarating numbers to perform.
“To move to those sounds … I play that song like I’m a fan and not a creator,” he says. “The bass starts moving, and I feel like I’m a kid listening to this band play, and I’m just dancing along to the music.”
Since 1999, original T.S.O.L.’s members Grisham, Emory, and Roche have remained in place, restoring order after a long stint beginning in 1983, during which Grisham left the band, and vocalist Joe Wood took lead the group. Eventually, the Wood-led T.S.O.L. saw a total turnover leaving none of the band’s original personnel in the group, as they adopted a prosaic blues-rock and hair metal plod. Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler famously sported a T.S.O.L. T-shirt in the 1988 video for “Sweet Child O Mine,” raising their profile with MTV viewers.
After leaving T.S.O.L., Grisham released a synth-driven six-song EP under the name Cathedral of Tears, and later fronted the sophomoric hard rock band Tender Fury. Later, he rebounded with the more pop punk-oriented sound of his band the Joykiller, and he explored blue-eyed soul and alt. rock with the short-lived group the Manic Low.
In his 2011 memoir, titled An American Demon, Grisham offers a brutal, true-life account of the depravity and extreme violence that surrounded the group’s defining years — much of it at his own hands. “When the book was finished, I really didn’t want to publish it, because it is so brutal,” Grisham says. “It is an absolutely true book, and I’m glad it’s out there.”
Keyboard player Greg Kuehn joined T.S.O.L. and added opulent piano flourishes to the songs on 1982’s Beneath the Shadows LP.
Drummer Todd Barnes died in 1999 after suffering a brain aneurysm related to excessive drug abuse.
All of the original members of T.S.O.L. have battled substance-abuse issues over the years, but post reformation, they have all cleaned up and remain sober.
The group’s current drummer Antonio Val Hernandez joined T.S.O.L. in 2017. As the story goes, he was a mail delivery carrier in bass player Mike Roche’s neighborhood. He was a fan of T.S.O.L., and one day looked in the window and saw a T.S.O.L. photograph. He realized that he was delivering mail to the same Mike Roche. Soon, they became friends, and after some convincing, he became T.S.O.L.’s new drummer.
With post-production work on Ignore Heroes wrapping up soon, and T.S.O.L. playing shows across the country, Grisham is also staying busy with a new book.
Maturity may be a bad word when mentioned in the same breath as punk rock, but for Grisham, if anything has changed over the years, he says he’s more aware of how his words and actions are perceived, and how they affect others.
“It’s kind of trippy, man, but I’m just more aware these days — I’m less willing to be hurtful to people, inflict damage.”
Still, T.S.O.L’s extremely catchy punk melodies still rage today with just as much urgency as the day they were penned.
In 2020, Field Day’s Opposite Land EP raised the bar high for Doug Carrion and Peter Cortner’s modern take on a classic hardcore charge. Together, they pulled off the unlikely feat of reinventing the disaffected ethos of their brief but defining tenure with D.C. hardcore outfit Dag Nasty for 1987’s Wig Out At Denko’s and 1988’s Field Day LP.
With their latest offering, the four-song “Why?” 7-inch (Unity Worldwide/Sense of Place Records), the group wields an even sharper edge.
Field Day’s emergence was a postmodern reference to a reference — a triumph that dug deep into the past to find wholly new levels of fertile creative soil in which to grow. The short, sharp blasts they delivered with Opposite Land’s cuts “One Song,” “Stolen Words,” “Speak The Truth,” and “Waiting For A Miracle” laid the blueprint for a new, no-nonsense aesthetic, and proved there was more music and chemistry left to explore within vocalist Cortner and singer and bass player Carrion’s dynamic.
“Why?’s” opening salvo expands upon the speed and velocity of Field Day’s previous efforts, while coalescing around a searing guitar lead and the lyrics: “You’re living in a world built on fiction. What’s the reason? I wonder why you never realized. It’s up to you, but you keep living a lie. Did you ever stop to ask the question: How did you get so disconnected?”
This open-ended indictment underscores the crucial power of PMA to find balance amid an era in which technology has gone awry and social unrest percolates under the shadow of an oppressive virus. It could mean anything, or it could mean something very specific — it’s about what the listener brings to the music.
The increased focus on display between Cortner, Carrion, guitarist Shay Mehrdad, and drummer Kevin Avery simply and powerfully ignites the group’s melodic tension, and amplifies Field Day’s search for answers while placing the human experience under the microscope.
A hidden A-side track and the B-side cuts “Alive” and “Audience Of One” tighten the melodic songwriting made sharp by Mehrdad’s high-octane guitar shredding.
Across the board, the group has stepped up the intensity of every element in the music. And with production by Carrion and mixing courtesy of Cameron Webb (Pennywise, Motörhead, Ignite), these four songs are louder and strike with a greater sense of urgency.
“Field Day revels in a real-time musical confrontation of emotions — a trait that’s extended since Cortner and Carrion’s days with Dag Nasty, and Carrion’s formative years spent playing with the Descendents. Their veracity hits hard with “Audience Of One.” The song kicks off with a thunderous drum roll, signaling a heart-pounding finale. The fiery guitar tones, sprinting rhythm, and the lyrical query: “You always tell yourself what you want to believe, but when will you accept that you’re an audience of one?” brings the record’s prompt to a fine point: Look deep within yourself to find the power to rise above apathy.
Field Day has already proven their skills by releasing a handful of powerful and direct offerings. The four songs on the “Why?” 7-inch carry the pace to a higher level. Each number is bristling with rejuvenated and undeniably electric energy. It’s one thing to create something new from a decades-old chapter in Dag Nasty’s discography. It’s an entirely different thing to find new relevance, and outshine the past by creating vital new music. With “Why?,” Field Day revives classic punk and hardcore’s base emotions, while asking the hard questions, and always keeping their gaze fixed on what lies ahead.
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