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Interview: OFF! - New Zealand Summer Shows

Interview: OFF! - New Zealand Summer Shows

Ciara Bernstein (No Brainers, Half/Time) / Photo credit: Jeff Forney / Wednesday 27th December, 2023 9:18AM

Hold on tight folks, OFF! (the iconic LA punk band), is set to storm our shores in less than a month. In advance of this, I had the sick opportunity to talk with Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides), the group's guitarist and one of the main creative forces behind their latest album Free LSD, an audacious musical evolution that has propelled OFF! into uncharted territory. As they gear up for their New Zealand tour, Coats shares insights into the creative process, the unconventional origins of the all-band, and the long-awaited marriage of their album and feature film. Get ready for an intimate exploration of OFF!'s musical universe, where punk meets the avant-garde, and innovation takes centre stage.


Saturday 6th January - Meow, Wellington w/ Displeasure*
Sunday 7th January - F#ck! OFF! Holiday in the sun, Yot Club, Raglan w/ Grown Downz, Cindy, Two Skinner, No Brainers, The Clap, Sonomass
Monday 8th January - Whammy Bar, Auckland w/ Dick Move

Tickets available HERE via UTR
*Tickets available via

Ciara Bernstein: With this new album (Free LSD), you took a lot of chances musically, and I'm really excited to talk about that because man you did! How have you maintained that driving punk sound while it is also a jazz, psych, prog album? How can that all fit in one sentence?

Dimitri Coats: We sort of tricked or lied to Keith (Morris, OFF! singer legendarily of Black Flag, Circle Jerks) into getting weird by getting him to understand that the album is the soundtrack to this sci-fi film we're going to make. So it looked like we had to sort of abandon all these punk rock rules that he put on us for three albums.

He would say things to me back in the day, like “we can't have a riff like that.” Everything just felt very black and white. I remember talking to Raymond Pettibon years ago, just before we went in to record Wasted Years, and already having a vision for what became Free LSD and telling him that the artwork for that album is going to be colour for the first time, and we're gonna like try to make our Sgt Pepper’s. We're gonna do everything we're not supposed to do.

Knowing that, I think Keith just surrendered to the creative process, it was almost like a challenge. Every creative fork in the road that we stumbled upon was like “okay well, we would normally go here, so let's go the opposite way.” I tuned my guitars differently, I pulled out riffs that he would have never gone for back in the day.

Even the lyrical subject matter, Keith was used to writing about current events and political kind of stuff. We didn't necessarily stray from that, but we pulled back the curtain and went into some really strange rabbit holes and got into some controversial territory at the risk of seeming like we'd lost our minds or something.

I heard in an interview recently, you were talking about how you bonded with Justin (Brown, drummer in OFF!) over Sun Ra and the idea of using music to communicate with extraterrestrials. That's such an interesting concept to be bringing it into a space like punk.

Usually Keith is screaming about the government and it's us versus us versus them. This is really no different in the sense that like, hey we believe in aliens, and you have information that you won't share with us! You know, we want the truth! It still resonates in a similar way.

One of the first meetings you had with Justin Brown was when you were getting ready for the Metallica 'Holier Than Thou' cover, is that right?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We didn't have a drummer when we were asked. Autry (Fulbright II, OFF! bassist) was friends with Justin who comes from the jazz world, he's toured with Herbie Hancock, he plays drums in Thundercat, he’s never played in a band like this. I've been on the road with Thundercat helping more on the management side of things, and Autry was the one who suggested it. He asked Justin who was like, “Oh my God, yes”, it was something that I guess was missing from his career.

Thundercat’s real name is Steven and when he and his brother, Ronald Bruner Jr were young, they were the rhythm section of Suicidal Tendencies. Justin was like “I want to do something crazy like that.” It was perfect because now we're bringing in even more outside influences to accentuate this already adventurous music.

Those guys helped save and reinvent our band. As things would play out (and we knew this day was coming), Justin had committed to playing live with us for, you know, a good portion of a year, and then he had to go back and get busy with Thundercat. And so Mario (Rubalcaba, OFF! original drummer) has actually come back into the fold and he will be drumming with us on this tour. It's really interesting to hear his interpretations of the songs because he's a fan of the album. He's a fan of what Justin did and he's serving the album, but he does it in his groovy way and it's super cool.

Way back when you first started working with Keith, you thought you were just going to be producing a Circle Jerks album, but instead you started composing for OFF! That must have been a wild moment to pivot from producing to being in a band?

When Keith and I first started becoming friends, we had no idea that we would end up in a band together. I was just a rhythm guitar player, rock guitar player. Then we accidentally started writing songs together and that became OFF! I still feel like a total imposter cause I just don't come from that world. But I feel like I can write for the occasion. I would say I'm more Black Sabbath than I am Black Flag. But those worlds are pretty related. I mean, punk rock and metal. It's like one molecule removed from each other.

I think it can be quite easy to pigeonhole OFF! into being an early '80s hardcore band, but I like the way that you have pushed your way out of those boundaries and made space for other influences.

Thanks, I'm glad you get what we're trying to do here. I don't know if we alienated some people. If we did, then maybe that's a victory in and of itself. Keith and I, we like all different kinds of music. Keith has always had his ear to the ground and he's hungry to learn about stuff. So we put a lot more of our influences into the pot and stirred it, not really knowing what was going to happen. It seems like we've done something a little bit different and we're very proud of having stuck to the vision, because we could have fallen flat on our faces. It could have been a disaster.

It took a while to get this whole project off the ground. The album is completely attached to a feature film of the same name Free LSD, that closed Slamdance Film Festival earlier this year, but the film was really far from done. People liked it, but we knew we had a long way to go. This whole year we've been finishing the film and it's finally done and it will come out next year.

That's a big reason why this project took so long, like why we took so long between albums. We really wanted the film and the album to be joined at the hip. Like how The Wall has an album and a film, or The Who Tommy or you know Purple Rain, something like that. If you're a fan of Free LSD the album and you see the film, there are just so many Easter eggs and vice versa. It's something that was incredibly difficult to pull off, especially the film side of it. It’s a real deal movie. It’s somewhere between Harold and Maude meets The Matrix. Everybody was telling us “you’ve gotta make the next Repo Man.” You know, I feel like, I feel like we've done that.

Stylistically OFF! have always nodded to the past, and now Free LSD has done a 180 degree spin in that it's looking to the future. Even in terms of production, the last album Wasted Years in 2014, was recorded all analogue, produced by you. Now looking at Free LSD, the production is far more modern. How did this change come about and how did it feel?

I’ve produced all the OFF! records. I'm not an engineer, but I'm a part of everything right from when we're getting the sounds through to the mixing and the mastering. That's what a producer does. It's the same as a director in a film, I'm not the cinematographer. I'm not the production designer, but I'm kind of overseeing all the departments. Making a record is a much simpler version of that.

For the first three records I let Steven (McDonald) dictate the recording process, so he recorded those albums. But we kind of did it all together. I fought really hard for Wasted Years. I wanted to record it in our practice space. I wanted to record it on tape. I wanted the whole thing to be analogue from beginning to end. That required Steven to build out his studio with help from this guy, Jon Gilbert, who is the guy that got the mix credit on the record.

We wanted it to be almost like glorified demos. The way we've approached our recording process, is to just be somewhat rehearsed, but not overly rehearsed. We’re still kind of learning what's going on, and it can fall apart at any moment. That's when we hit record and we'll do three or four takes of a song and then listen. Sometimes it's like, yeah, that's the one, or we might try to beat it. We move pretty quickly in terms of basic tracks. But this process was different. For the first three records I think I was really serving Keith's past and really focusing on what makes him so great. Trying to figure out why he is so special. Why he is such a legend.

Then with Free LSD it was like “okay, dude, I've been your co-pilot. Let's go to the future. Come with me. Trust me, dude. I know it's going to feel weird, you're going to feel uncomfortable, but let's try to break some new ground. Let's take some fucking chances and be as bold as we can”.

In the interludes 'F', 'L', 'S', 'D', you really build visualisations of the future through soundscapes. I can only imagine your pedal board has quadrupled in size for this album. Are there any particular pieces of gear that have inspired you?

Yeah, so I do have a whole table of electronics and the band kind of hates me for it when we tour, especially if we're flying. It's just all these crude circuit bent synthesisers that are patched in with different effects. I have my own little mixer that I run stereo out into a stereo volume pedal that I can control with my foot, so that I can have this whole wall of sound happening that I can fade out as we're starting the song.

When we were recording the album, I just set a whole day aside for those improvs, those free jazz and industrial freak outs. We brought in John Wall from Clawhammer, who's a really talented saxophone player, and I would just set up these themes and then we would just improvise on them. It's not like I'm hitting a note on a keyboard and “okay that's C,” it's all knobs and levers and I have to kind of do it all by ear.

I have things panned a certain way and I'm pulling channels in and out, and that's what became 'F', 'L', 'S', 'D'. And I think those instrumentals are what really pull the album into a completely unexpected direction.

Ciara: Those oscillators and things that you're composing with, are they circuit-bent by yourself?

No, no. I have few friends that mentored me into this when Keith and I knew we wanted to do something different and that we wanted to leave the world of stringed instruments. I started asking around, thinking maybe we're going to go into this Hawkwind direction, we just didn't really know how we wanted to do it.

I started meeting people like Henry Barnes from Man Is the Bastard, which then became Bastard Noise. He also has a project called Amps for Christ and he is somebody that is extremely influential in that world, because he was one of the first people in that scene to start building his own electronics.

Then he turned me on to this guy W.T. Nelson, who was also briefly in Man is the Bastard and Bastard Noise. He, along with Eric Wood, made this Bastard Noise record called Rogue Astronaut, which is a masterpiece of what's become the noise genre. It's a beautiful album, very diverse. W.T. was inspired by Henry Barnes and he started a company called Trogotronic. If you start getting into the noise world and start looking at the liner notes, so many people thank him because so many people buy his shit and use it. They make these synthesisers that are crude, but they're purposefully crude to make these extreme sounds. He's fashioned the knobs and the buttons specifically for performance to really make it fun and get into some wild territory. The Trogotronic stuff is my main go-to.

In fact, what's really cool is that W.T. is also a really brilliant graphic designer. He designed a lot of the album artwork for Bastard Noise. So I asked him to lay out the album design, the art already done by Raymond (Pettibon). If you have the vinyl of Free LSD and you open that gatefold, he designed that. What's really cool about it is how fucking deep it gets. If you shut the lights off, there are these hidden elements printed in the gatefold that glow. One of these hidden elements is a schematic to build one of these Trogotronic devices, it’s called The Antidote. It goes deep.

I also want to bring up one other person who really played a big part in encouraging me into this direction. Skott Rusch from a band called Hunting Lodge, along with Throbbing Gristle and SPK, were these bands that influenced what became the noise genre today. I've been very lucky in that I had some of the most influential legendary people in that scene personally pushing me forward and encouraging me to get weird. What's really cool about it is that when I was working on the film, I would record some of these noise experiments separate from OFF! In the heads and tails of the songs, I knew I wanted to use these because I knew I wanted to thread songs together on this continuous journey, this non-stop experience.

Then when we were editing the film, the editor was saying that a scene could really use some score, and I mentioned that I’d recorded all these electronic things at home. He told me to play them and he and the producer were like “are you fucking kidding me?! This is a legitimate, unique score.” So we started putting the stuff in these scenes and the whole thing would come alive. That's when I really realised, wow, this world of power electronics that I've gotten into could really take me into a direction where it could be very useful for scoring film.


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