Dimitri Coats is not a punk, but he plays one on record. As the frontman for the L.A. band Burning Brides, Coats was known for dreamy, classically-mined alt rock that took cues from Dinosaur Jr. and the Cure. But he’s gained much greater recognition in the past few years for channeling the spirit of rage-filled hardcore punk in the group OFF!
It all started when Coats’ friend, punk rock icon Keith Morris asked him to produce a new album with the Circle Jerks. When the writing sessions stalled, Morris pushed his friend to write new material on his own. This led to the formation of an alt-punk supergroup of sorts, with Coats slinging corroded riffs reminiscent of Morris’ old band Black Flag atop a steady thump courtesy of Steve McDonald (Redd Kross )and Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt). With an average tempo of blistering and an average song running for just 60 seconds, OFF! are a whirlwind of frustrated rants, flying elbows and spray-paint-the-walls energy. Hive talked to Coats about the motivating power of deadlines, the skill involved in writing a 45-second song and OFF!’s role in the future of hardcore music.
OFF! spent a lot of time on the road in 2011. How long before you were off the road did you start working on the album?
I will tell you that at one point I asked the label after we had been touring for a while when they ideally would want a new record and when they said, “Early May.” I asked what the deadline was to hand in everything and they said “February 26.” And I think I asked that question [in] mid-December. [Laughs.] So we had about a month and a half to write everything. We put ourselves in that situation on purpose because we’re looking for a certain kind of intensity that we can’t really achieve any other way.
So by kind of giving yourself this tight deadline, it gives you this sense of urgency.
Yeah. And not just to get it done, but to create a mood that we’re looking for. A sort of angry, frustrating foundation on which we can write.
That urgency, that need to get the music out there to connect with people, it seems like the central part of your music.
That’s a big part of it, just to trim the fat and get to the essence of what it is that makes the song good. And also, we want the records to sound like demos. You just can’t over think this kind of music. But you know, there are a few messages in there, especially when he rants off about the government, that people can agree with and not agree with.
It’s funny because on this one you have even more songs that are under a minute long. So you’re getting less refined as you go along as opposed to more refined, which is what most bands do.
It’s not intentional. I don’t know why the songs are so short. They just … they don’t feel that short when we’re playing them. Or when I listen to them. They feel right on the money. But I guess they’re really short.
Not in a bad way, though.
“I have a really naïve approach to this kind of music and I sort of felt — and still feel, to a certain extent — that I’m kind of an impostor.”
My attention span isn’t very long, maybe Keith is the same way.
What is the secret, when you’re writing a minute-long song, to making that feel complete?
Something that everybody needs to understand is this: Just because a song is short doesn’t mean that it was any less difficult to write. You still have to come up with subject matter, great riffs, and the song has to move around. There have to be different parts. Personally, I’m more old-fashioned of a songwriter than people may think. My favorite band is the Beatles. And I’m just trying to write a good tune. Just because it’s a punk song doesn’t mean it can’t be catchy, y’know? I mean, look at the Ramones. Look at the Misfits. Look at the Damned. Those are good fucking tunes. We’re just compressing them and chipping away the fat.
How long does it take to write a 45 second-long song?
It really depends on if the planets are aligned that day for us. The really good ones can happen in a couple of hours. We tend to listen to music before I pick up a guitar and he picks up a pen. And it just came right out. “Wiped Out” was written in less that two hours, I’d say. Lyrics, everything.
Watch the video for “Wiped Out” here:
I often feel very limited because the way it works is I start playing in front of Keith. I write most of the stuff in front of him on the guitar. I’ll come up with a riff, then I’ll change to another riff, and just kind of go where I feel like it’s going — or where it wants to go. And he’ll say something like [puts on a nasal Keith Morris voice] “that second riff — that’s pretty happening. But the other ones … it’s just … mediocre.” Or he’ll say something like “maybe you can get away with that in your other band, but that’s not where we need to go with this band.” So I come up with all these — what I think are pretty fuckin’ heavy, cool riffs all the time that I can’t use because it’s sort off the grid in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.
It’s off Off!’s grid.
It’s just not quite hardcore punk enough?
Yeah, but I think as we move forward, like with this record, I can hear a little bit more of my personality creeping in and I think that a lot of the stuff that happened on the first record was very accidental. Because I don’t come from hardcore, and I remember the day when Keith just told me, “Okay, put down the guitar, we’re going for a walk” and he explained to me that whatever I was playing up there in his living room was starting to affect him in a really great way, it was starting to remind him of his roots in Black Flag and I wasn’t even trying to do that, y’know? It was a combination of being around him and playing a bunch of music that inspired him back in the day, switching my guitar playing to a more intense attack, and also just pulling something out in him, making him listen to a lot of his early music. We just kind of accidentally built a time machine.
But I didn’t know the Black Flag catalog as I do now. And I was, in a roundabout way, going to that same territory, which was really exciting to Keith. As we move along we’re going to start becoming more of our own thing. Not that we were ripping off things before, but there was more of a nod to the past. I hear things on this new record that was like “Wow, y’know, I can’t believe I got away with that!” [Laughs.] Because it feels like there are more moments that feel experimental for us. Like “King Kong Brigade” or “Wrong,” and that’s exciting for me. It would be great to break new ground at some point, and not just be looked at like “Oh, this band, it’s like a lost gem from 1978!” Bands like Fucked Up are heralded for pushing hardcore into a new direction. They sort of sound like an indie rock band with a hardcore singer, and that’s interesting. And if what we’re doing is important to the genre, which everybody says it is, then I hope we can challenge ourselves in the future.
The debut from OFF! is out now via Vice. They will be on tour all summer.