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Q&A: Steven McDonald of OFF!

OFF! may be a relatively new band, but the members have all had plenty of legitimate experience in the hardcore and alternative rock scenes.

Vocalist Keith Morris hails from Black Flag and Circle Jerks, guitarist Dimitri Coats comes from Burning Brides, bassist Steven McDonald started with Redd Kross and drummer Mario Rubalcaba played with Earthless and Hot Snakes. Together, the four combine to create OFF!’s brand of high-energy, confrontational rock.

Diversions staff writer Anna Norris got the chance to talk to McDonald before he left to join the rest of the band on tour.

Diversions: Members of OFF! have been around the hardcore and alternative scene since the ’70s. What are the biggest ways you’ve seen the scene change?

Steven McDonald: Well with the general underground music scene, I think obviously the Internet’s had a huge impact in recent years for artists trying to get recognized. That’s put a lot of power in the individual’s hands. I tend to try to be very open-minded to new music and be open to what the kids are doing.

I was thinking about this the other day — as far as individual experiences go, Keith and I have both been doing this since the late ’70s, so 30-plus years.

Dimitri actually didn’t start until later, so he’s probably been doing it about 10 years, and I think Mario has been doing it for another 15-plus years.

So collectively, we’re starting to border on a century’s worth of experience, collectively, which I think is an interesting fact about our band.

When I look at it that way, I think with each new generation the influences that started the movement become a little more diluted.

People who were coming up in the late ’50s might say that the early punk rock that I was getting into in the late ’70s was really missing the point. I try to realize each new generation has their own way of expressing their form of rebellion.

And in that sense, things haven’t really changed. As long as people are still questioning authority and being honest, then that’s all that matters to me.

Dive: There’s a lot of political and civil unrest that comes through in your music. How do you keep from becoming desensitized?

SM: Well that’s Keith. He is our resident voice of the outsider. Keith talks about OFF! being somewhat of a cathartic experience for him.

He’s not the kind of person who drinks into oblivion to deal with the insanity of the world — he’s not much on vices. But what he does do is kind of throws it back at society.

How do you stay so angry? That’s pretty easy, just look at the paper and there’s plenty to be angry about. But how do you find the venue in which to vent all that built-up steam and pressure? Most of that is just pushed inward, and squashed to pretend like it’s all cool.

But that usually doesn’t work because you end up having a panic attack or something worse. So I think Keith’s found a healthy way to deal with it, and he just throws it back at us. And that’s cool, because he’s speaking for a lot of people.

Dive: Dimitri Coats refers to OFF! a lot as a “dark party.” Is that an accurate description?

SM: He uses that a lot. I’m not exactly sure what “dark culture” is, I’ve heard that expression thrown around in the last six months or so, but maybe I’m late to the dark party.

I think it’s just basically acknowledging the seedy underbelly of stuff rather than just a party. And when people head down a dark road they can get gothic and mopey, and we’re here to turn the energy up, to create more of a party when dealing with these topics.

Dive: You call Raymond Pettibon (artist and creator of Sonic Youth’s Goo cover) your unofficial fifth member. How does his artwork fit in with your music?

SM: When I go back to our combined experience of navigating the underground scene, Raymond is the brother of Greg Ginn, the guitar player of Black Flag. There was this scene in Hermosa Beach, in the late ’70s, a very small group of musicians.

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The core of that scene was Black Flag in the early stages. Raymond was a key element of that. He became the fine artist of the group.
All of his artwork was very much a part of giving us a visual voice, and he wrote text too, so he gave us a literal voice as well.

He’s the one who came up with the name Black Flag. He did all the early record covers and singles and all the flyer art. I think we also all felt vindicated by Raymond, because he’s the one, who more than any of us, found mainstream acceptance.

He’s now a world-class artist getting collected by major museums. I think we all sort of consider him a hero, so when we started this project, Keith reached out to him and told him he was thinking about doing a new band. Raymond was totally on board with it and told him, “Whatever you need, I’m there.”

For Keith and myself it’s important because it’s a big part of art-rock heritage, Raymond’s legacy.

Dive: You’re playing at SXSW this year, where you first debuted your live show last year. What are you looking forward to at the festival this time around?

SM: I’m looking forward to all the events, but on I think on the last night Vice Records does this sort of infamous afterparty.

It starts at 1 a.m., and it’s a really cool show. It’s Thee Oh Sees, OFF! and Odd Future, which is this really cool hip-hip collective. It should go until the sun comes up, and I think it’ll be a interesting way to put a cap on this entire experience.

That’s what I’m mostly looking forward to.

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