Published: 19-Oct-2009 18:33
As a journalist it's easy to get complacent about interviews. Every so often however, you get the chance to talk to someone whose helped shape music as it stands today. In terms of punk, there are few current musicians that can realistically hold that title. When talking to influential artists like Rancid vocalist Tim Armstrong and guitarist Lars Frederiksen, it's easy to spot why they've had a long career. Their lives revolve around one thing: punk rock.
You'd be forgiven for thinking the band had thrown in the towel recently though. After a tradition of releasing albums within a few years of each other, the six year break between their last album, Indestructible and 2009's Let The Dominoes Fall would be enough to make anyone wonder. The truth is though, they were simply giving themselves time to branch out. According to Armstrong, the question of breaking up was never really on the cards.
"The reason we're doing this is we're like brothers," he says.
In fact, even during the band's hiatus - during which Armstrong released a second album with the Transplants and a solo album, A Poet's Life, and Frederickson released his second album with the Bastards', Viking - Armstrong explains the side projects were really nothing more than a way to hang out with the Rancid crew.
"These guys are all supported, Matt [Freeman, bass] plays with the Transplants and Lars came out on tour," he says.
Frederiksen is quick to agree.
"We all wrote the Bastards' songs together and [Armstrong] produced the record," he says.
Realistically, as far as Frederiksen is concerned, all the side projects came down to one thing.
"For me it was just another way for us to hang out. It was just expressed in another way," he continues, passionately. "The one thing I can tell from my own personal experience the only band I want to tour and make records with is Rancid.
"I love it so much. It's my life. I love what I do, I love the people and I love the relationships I've cultivated."
Rancid today, it seems, is handling the success better than Armstrong's early band, Operation Ivy. After its formation in 1987, the band experienced whirlwind success which led to its demise a few short years later. In fact, the life of Operation Ivy was later chronicled in the Rancid song 'Journey To The End Of The East Bay'.
After 18 years with Rancid, being regarded as punk rock royalty, Armstrong has obviously learned how to make the line "Too much attention unavoidably destroyed us" no longer relevant. It was simple apparently; he just needed to work out why he was in the band in the first place.
"We love to hang out together," he says. "I'm still the godfather to Matt Freeman's son Otto - he's still my boy. Lars is my homie too. You don't break the band up because of outside issues," he emphasises.
"You keep the crew together. Maybe you slow down, maybe you don't tour, and maybe you don't make a record for six years. You don't break the crew up. That's what that line means to me. If there's too much attention or you're not having a good time at that moment - you keep the big picture in mind. As artists you want to keep going, this is what you love to do. I love to play music."
Not that the beginning of Rancid was quite so easy. Armstrong, who battled alcoholism after the demise of Operation Ivy, explains he was given an ultimatum before Rancid officially began. One that worked out for the best for him.
"After Op Ivy I drank pretty hard for a couple of years," he explains. "[When] I wanted to start a band with Matt, who I've known since we were in first grade, [he told me], 'just get sober for a year, we can still write songs, but I don't really want to start a band with you 'til you get a year sober.'"
So that's exactly what he did, and a year later Rancid officially began. Though Freeman took the tough love approach in this instance, Armstrong says that's exactly what he needed.
"That's how Matt Freeman is," he says. "He's a tough guy. All the while he was still my best friend. All the while we hung out."
Armstrong also admits there were few people willing to be as good a friend as Freeman in the state he was in at the time.
"I went to like, five detox places," he explains. "I had no money, no place to live and I'd check into a place for like, four days. And he was the one picking me up. He was my best friend you know. He was my only friend. I had friends but he was a real friend."
By now it's pretty obvious having real friends around is what Rancid is all about. So, when original drummer Brett Reed left the band in 2006, the future of the group could have been in doubt. Instead, Armstrong explains, they made the obvious choice and simply enlisted a long time friend of the band in his place.
Let The Dominoes Fall is ex the Used drummer, Branden Steineckert's first album with the band. According to Armstrong, so far he's been "amazing".
"The rad thing about it is we've always had this chemistry," he explains. "When Brandon joined, it's as if the chemistry exploded - really the whole thing came into fruition."
Frederiksen agrees and cuts in.
"It's as if now Brandon's been in the band the whole time."
While it's easy to imagine a new member could struggle to fit into a band that's been together as long as Rancid, Frederiksen says it wasn't the case with Steineckert. In fact, he suggests the transition was "as easy as breathing or walking".
Armstrong explains Steineckert was, "always our homie", and always believed he fit well with the Rancid punk ethos.
"He was always the one rocking the punk rock shirts. Nothing against the Used, but we felt like he was more into the same things as we were."
Frederiksen explains Rancid offered Steineckert the position almost immediately after he was kicked out of the Used. And he accepted almost instantly.
"He was like, 'I was rehearsing yesterday to your guys' fifth record with my iPod, so I'm down, and I'm ready."
It's obvious a true love of music and punk is a prerequisite for this band. Luckily, according to Frederiksen, Steineckert definitely fit the bill.
"He's a real drummer," he emphasises. "He loves to play music. So do we, big time. It's a great fit."
While, after 18 years together, the band's influences and techniques are bound to have evolved, on Let The Dominoes Fall, the band have kept long time producer Brett Gurewitz (Bad Religion) onboard, and insist it's still undeniably punk rock.
As Armstrong explains however, the genre can be interpreted a number of ways. Which is pretty much why he loves it so much, and why the 90s punk bands seem to have such longevity.
"I think punk rock is the coolest form of music," he states with the conviction of someone worth listening to.
"In my opinion it's the real rock and roll. I think that's what people want," he says. We've obviously hit a nerve; he launches into a passionate tirade.
"They wanted it with Elvis Presley, shaking his pelvis. That was punk back then. They want that good, aggressive, explosive music, you know. It can come in all different forms and different genres, but I think that's the one common denominator with punk rock. It's the only genre where you can really hear a punk band taking a reggae approach, a punk band taking a soul approach or a punk band taking a ska approach. It's got so much room to manoeuvre in. It's not like some 12x12 cell where you're trapped, you know what I mean?"
"That's why it's still relevant," agrees Frederiksen. In fact, Frederiksen believes it always will be relevant. For a pretty simple reason really.
"There's always going to be some kid somewhere who's disenfranchised, or an outsider, or feels like he doesn't belong," he says.
It's not surprising by now these two are firmly against the worn out claim that punk rock is dead. In fact, Armstrong is passionate about the idea. He talks of the scene in LA, which he describes as a lively one, complete with backyard house parties every weekend.
"I dare someone to go into one of those house parties and tell them that punk rock's dead," he emphasises'. "In South Central, grab the mic at a backyard party. 'Stop the show everybody! Newsflash! Punk rock died with the Sex Pistols. Go home. What you're experiencing right now, it's not punk rock'," he laughs. He pauses for a moment before launching into another tirade.
"Who are they? Who's playing god to say what is and what isn't punk rock? It isn't me. I'm an observer and a fan. And even though I'm in a band, and we're punk rock till the day I die, I am the last one to tell someone that what they're doing ain't punk. I do my thing, this is our deal, and we're doing what we want to do, so for us that's punk rock.
"I just love punk rock you know," he adds, as if it wasn't obvious by now.
Frederiksen, though quiet during Armstrong's spiel, agrees.
"Me too," he says, before pausing and suggesting there's really nothing more to say.
"Thanks for talking to us," he laughs.
There's just one more thing though. The band are about to tour with Rise Against in support of the new album, but what's on the cards for them in the more distant future?
"I have musical ideas, but nothing I can tell you about right now," Armstrong laughs. Regardless of what's happening with the band, Frederiksen is adamant there's still plenty to come.
"The journey ain't over yet," Armstrong adamantly adds. "The journey will not end in the East Bay."
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