Monday, October 17, 2011

OFF!'s Dimitri Coats: The Cream Interview

Posted By on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 4:27 PM

When penning this week's Scene music feature previewing tonight's OFF! show at Exit/In, I led by rattling off some aesthetic but non-musical comparisons between OFF! and singer Keith Morris' earlier band, Black Flag. When doing so, I neglected to mention that the band's artwork is done by old-school Black Flag and SST house artists Raymond Pettibon. Kind of a fail, right? Well, to make up for it I'm posting the band's video for "Black Thoughts" (above). It features Pettibon painting in action. Now, one thing I did remember to do when preparing that aforementioned feature was interview the band's guitarist Dimitri Coats (also of Burning Brides). In between telling me the story of the band's formation, what their fights are like, what it's like to be dubbed a "supergroup," etc., he was tending to his fussy 8-month-old. It was adorable. And totally punk. OFF! plays — or more slays — Exit/In tonight, and you'd be a damn fool to miss it. Read the full Coats Q&A below.

Nashville Cream: Are you guys in rehearsal or something right now?

Dimitri Coats: No, we're just running around like freaks all stressed out trying to get ready for tour. We leave tomorrow. We're going down through the South and eventually going to end up in Nashville, I think, is it the 17th?

NC: Yeah, after next weekend.

DC: Yeah.

NC: I'm sure most of you guys have played [Exit/In] before in some band or another, do you recall?

DC: Umm, I don't remember. I'll know once I walk in there if I've played there or not [laughs].

NC: Is this going to be the longest tour you guys have done so far?

DC: No, not even close.

NC: Oh really?

DC: Yeah. We just got back from Europe, and we were there for almost the entire month of August.

NC: Oh wow, how did that go?

DC: It was sick, really good. We played a bunch of festivals — like Reading, Leeds, XOYO Festival. We were supposed to play Pukkelpop, but there was that crazy tragedy.

NC: Yeah, that storm.

DC: Yeah, but we did a bunch of shows in between, headlining shows, co-headlining shows with Fucked Up. It was really good.

NC: I just saw you guys fairly recently at Pitchfork, and I remember you did a club show after the festival. Is that kind of the norm, to headline a club show in each city?

DC: Yeah, I mean we're always going to try to play to our own fans and if we can do all ages and set a cheap ticket price, that's our scene. That's what we're looking to do ultimately. But it's great to be invited to play with a bunch of hip bands and, you know, be considered something other than a throwback punk band, which is I guess how we could have been perceived. But luckily we were really cautious about wanting to cross over and reach a different audience.

NC: Right, and that's actually something I really want to talk about, because there's a real freshness to the band. I first saw you guys at South By this year. I caught you guys, like, every day. When a band gets tagged as a "supergroup," there's usually some expectation of nostalgia. But the first thing I noticed is that you guys didn't play any old songs by bands that any of you had been in, and, more importantly, that you really didn't need to. I think it actually would have taken away from what was going on to have done that. But still, the kind of formula, or idiom, of playing hardcore punk — it's still very much directly in that vein. Would you say that the style you guys write and play in just kind of timeless?

DC: Well I think everybody in the band would agree that we're just an intense rock band, and we're probably more influenced by classic rock than anything else, you know? Definitely our approach and the way we present ourselves is a nod at Keith [Morris]'s early roots, but I write all the songs with him and I didn't come from hardcore. So I'm drawing off of my record collection, which is very similar to Keith's, and I realized pretty early on — even before I met Keith, you know, from touring with people like Mike Watt — that my influences are the same influences that those guys had when they were inventing what became Southern California hardcore.

So we'd be more likely to throw on a Blue Oyster Cult record for inspiration than, you know, Minor Threat. Although we love that stuff, it's just coming from a different place. A lot of people compare us to early Black Flag, and obviously we have that singer, but I'm writing the riffs, and I can tell you first hand that I didn't grow up listening to any of that stuff. So I think, for me, it's more like Black Sabbath sped up really fast. In that sense it is fresh because I've never played in this style until I started writing with Keith, you know? So there's like a really naive approach on my part. The other guys definitely have their roots deeper in that ground.

NC: Having never played in the style, are you having fun? How's it different?

DC: It's like going from driving a car to putting on a helmet and jumping on a motorcycle. It's a totally different experience, it's really exciting. You have to really be on your toes, you know? [Laughs] It's like, "Fasten your seat belts, here we go! Zero to 60 in one second!"

NC: Have there been any kind of crazy crowd incidents, or any kind of "punk rock moments" yet?

DC: You know, yeah, these crowds can get really wild. They like to get up on the stage with you and, you know, beat each other up in the pits and all that. But yeah, if they're packed in close enough together it's fun. I can just run off the stage and just jump right on top of them and do a solo and they'll hold me up. For an older dude I didn't think I'd be doing much of that anymore, but here I am.

NC: How old are you now? If you don't mind me asking.

DC: I'm 41, and I'm the second youngest in the band [laughs].

NC: Do you guys kind of embrace the "supergroup" tag?

DC: You know, I've come to embrace it because it's all anybody uses to describe us. So it's like, "All right fine, we're a supergroup. All right fine, we're a hardcore punk rock band." We don't really think about it. I mean, I guess on paper it looks that way, but we're all just friends, you know, and we didn't put much thought behind it [like saying], "Oh wait until the curtain's revealed and people realize who's stepping on the stage!" It was nothing like that at all.

It's kind of funny, actually, because it immediately puts this pressure on you to be something great. Luckily we delivered, so it really, right off the bat, makes everything heightened if people perceive it that way. It certainly was not what we set out to do [laughs], we just wanted to play parties [laughs] and maybe release a couple 7-inches locally. We never envisioned any of this stuff happening until people heard the music and started seeing us live and then we realized pretty quickly that it was starting to mean something to all sorts of people, not just people who are fans of the punk genre, but beyond.

NC: A lot of times with "supergroups" there is this sort of perceived element of a blind date between musicians or something. But you guys seem to have this almost brotherly chemistry. What would you say it is that unites you? How long have you guys known each other?

DC: I've known Mario [Rubalcaba] for almost 10 years. He filled in on drums when my other band, Burning Brides, was touring with Queens of the Stone Age on the Songs for the Deaf Tour, and he was filling in for our drummer who was oddly enough playing in the Hot Snakes. Mario ended up playing in the Hot Snakes, but at that time he was in Rocket From the Crypt. And I just fell in love with his drumming and (with) him as a person, and hoped that I would get to play with him more some day. So he was my choice, and then Keith goes way back with Steven [Shane McDonald] — Black Flag and Red Cross, obviously having cut their teeth together early on. I always admired his bass playing, so when [Keith] threw his name at the top of the list I was like, "Absolutely." There weren't auditions or any other phone calls. Those were our first choices and they both said yes.

NC: Was it obvious right away when you first got together in a room and played — was it kind of an obvious chemistry?

DC: Yeah, Keith described it as "Led Zeppelin playing Black Flag" — that was the vibe. I mean, you know, those guys are incredible musicians. They picked put he songs really fast — I remember we played, I think it was "Darkness," and Steven just put down his bass and he was like, '"Well that's classic." It's just one of those rare experiences, this is the second band I've ever been in, so I guess I'm really fortunate, you know, to have ended up in this situation. It was totally accidental, and that might be why it seems so honest.

NC: Right, it seems like a real band and not a supergroup.

DC: Yeah, I think if we got together and said, "Hey, I know! Let's form a band that's sort of like this or that combined with this." You know, it would have been a lot more contrived. When I was writing what ended up being the first two EPs, I didn't even know I was in a band with Keith yet.

NC: Were you just writing for yourself? Or was is for the Circle Jerks record you were producing at the time?

DC: The Circle Jerks record wasn't really going too well. Keith wasn't very inspired by what they were coming up with. And he just, one day, put the guitar in my hands and we were in his living room, just the two of us, and he's like, "Hey what would you do?" I started playing and he's like, "No no no no, all down strokes." So I had to kind of get used to that for a second and then that brought something out of me, and all these ideas started coming out of the guitar and Keith was seriously scribbling on newspapers. He had like a shopping bag full of other pieces of paper that he had been writing lyrics down on for years, and we started putting those all down on the floor. He would tell me, "That riff sucks, but that one's pretty good." Then I would start working on the good riff, then two other riffs would spawn from that, and I would just keep playing until he couldn't say anything anymore. We started figuring out what the vocal was all about, and I would get tell him, "Those lyrics suck, but that one's good; that's the chorus." It was very much an explosive, creative partnership that we realized what special from the very beginning. And it was cool because we were such good friends going into this. He was the DJ at my wedding. He was one of the first people to hold my children — he's, like, Uncle Keith to them. So there really is a brotherly, family vibe to all this.

NC: And the way you're explaining it, it sounds like the communication creatively is pretty direct. I mean, the music is pretty direct too, is it a reflection of that?

DC: Oh yeah, yeah. It's intense, man. We get in fights. Keith and I got into a fight in Germany in Berlin right in front of Fucked Up. Keith didn't realize that — we were already kind of [?] bummed out at each other for whatever reason, something small. And we played this great show and he just walked right up stairs to the top of the dressing room, like way up there. The crowd's wanting an encore, and in Europe you really need to do an encore, you know, it's just the way it goes. They'll be really insulted if you don't, and it wasn't like a few people were clapping, it was like the place was really expecting it. So I went upstairs and I was like,"Alright dude, so what, are you done?" And he didn't like the way I said it to him, and he says, "Well you can go back down there with your acoustic guitar and, you know, play your fucking wanky shit." And I just said, "Fuck you!" and he goes, "No, fuck you and your fucking ego!" And I go, "My ego?!" I was like, "Look in the fucking mirror, asshole!" And this was in front of the band Fucked Up, and they're just going like, "Holy shit," but it's the real deal. Then, two hours later, we're walking down the street getting a falafel or whatever. It's all good.

NC: Well did you guys end up going back out and doing the encore?

DC: Oh yeah, yep. I went downstairs and was like — Steven and Mario were down there and the crowd's still cheering — and I said, "You know, I just got in this fight with him and I don't think he's coming down." Then he comes down really pissed off and goes, "Alright, so what fucking songs are we playing?" It was intense, man.

NC: One question I definitely have, going back to the whole way this started working on the Circle Jerks record — even it if it was the same material executed this way and it would have come out under the Circle Jerks name, do you think it would have even garnered the same attention as OFF! has? Or did starting as a new band breathe a sort of vitality into it?

DC: Yeah, I think this is a lot more exciting and definitely — just my input alone, wanting to pull everything into a darker direction — how it ended up maybe sounding more like early Black Flag accidentally. I come from more of a metal background as opposed to a punk background, and like I said before, it was like learning how to play guitar for the first time for me again. So I don't think that that kind of, you know, inspiration just comes off of trees and you pick the fruit and eat it and you're off to the races. I just don't think that these songs would have come across the same way if Greg Hetson was playing guitar. Also, those guys were trying to twist those songs around because they wanted to put their stamp on it, and there was nothing that needed to be changed with them. So I think they would have fucked them up, and honestly this band just kicks way more ass and everybody knows it.

NC: Yeah, I think it's great. When did you kind of realize that it was going to become such a full time commitment?

DC: Well, I guess when, you know, somebody like Danny Goldberg calls you up to manage your band, or when you have offers both from Vice and Epitaph or, you know, when you see big rock stars wearing your hat or T-shirt all the time or when you get Best New Music in Pitchfork or when you play your first show in LA and there's 1,200 people there. You know, shit like that.

NC: I was just wondering if you could talk about the lyrics and sort of what the manifesto is, so to speak. Like when Keith introduces the song, "Fuck People," and rants about people taking too many items to the express line at the grocery store or something like that. It was very much kind of thos, like, the not-in-my-backyard sort of gripes that, you know, but with a punk rock feel.

DC: Yep. That's the image that I have too, man. He's one of my best friends, but, you know, once you get him going he'll keep talking and it's a little bit of a malfunction. He's a brilliant guy in a lot of ways, and within all those rants, there are real gems of brilliance that we take and use for a lot of the subject matter in the songs. He just needs a little bit of editing once in a while because there's no one like him, and he's got a lot of great stuff to say.

NC: What else is kind of on the horizon as far as releases go, and how long do you see this band continuing on for?

DC: Well you know, I was just talking to Third Man yesterday, and there might be a little something planned for next year — can't really say too much about it. ... So there might be something fun to explore with them. We're going to put out a new album in May 2012 with Vice, and you know, just a lot more touring. We're talking about going to Japan and South America, hitting a bunch of places in Europe that we missed, there's places in the States — we haven't even been through the Midwest yet.

NC: Yeah, I know this is your first show here, this one coming up.

DC: Yeah, we're hitting a bunch of markets we've missed. So it's exciting.

NC: Has it been a challenge to balance everyone's respective other bands?

DC: I think this is everyone's first priority. There really haven't been any conflicts in terms of scheduling outside of OFF!. It's just more that we all have families with kids and it's hard to leave home for a month. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and a boy who's eight months. There's too much excitement and momentum for anybody to do anything else right now. I mean Mario plays in a couple other bands, Keith is technically still a member of the Circle Jerks, but this is what we're doing, this comes first.

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