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Rancid

by Margo Tiffen

(Originally published as the cover story for RUDE International Fall issue 1998)


Tim and Lars

Rancid is, without a doubt, the biggest punk band of the '90s. With four albums released between 1993 and 1998, co-headlining stints on two of the summer seasons largest festivals, Lollapalooza in 1996 and the Warped Tour in 1998, a slot on the Tibetan Freedom Festival in 1997, and heavy radio and MTV airplay of singles off three of their albums, they still remain one of the most universally loved bands of the underground scene. What may be less obvious is that they are also the defining punk band of the decade. Rancid's records at once seem a reflection of the times, as much as they also manage to affect the course of punk with every new release.

Rancid's newest addition to the punk rock canon, the hefty 22-song Life Won't Wait, is an album so diverse that it is studiedly universal. Comprised of sessions recorded in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, and Jamaica over the course of a year, Life Won't Wait is an incredibly current album, one heavily representative of the dynamics of the musical scenes that Rancid are immersed in. The album features guests as divergent as Vic Ruggiero and Dave Hillyard of the Slackers, Marky Ramone, Greg Lee and Alex Desert of Hepcat, Jamaican dancehall legend Buju Banton, Lynval Golding, Neville Staples and Roddy Byers of the Specials, Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Roger Miret of Agnostic Front.

In general, the musical genres of punk, ska, Oi!, reggae, and hardcore; each with their own distinctive sub-genres and spinoffs, can only be properly lumped into an overall subculture when pitted against the stronghold of the mainstream. These individual styles have enjoyed fruitful marriages in the past, at times. Yet each has, for the most part, maintained strong, undiluted bloodlines over the decades.

It is only now, for a variety of reasons including the breakdown of communication barriers due to technological advancement, and the many grey areas in between, that interplay between these scenes has begun to increase. The lines are becoming more blurred than ever before. It is no secret that each genre finds its roots in similar soil; reggae is an offshoot of ska, punk is a descendant of rock and roll, as Oi! and hardcore are variations of punk, but at no other time in the last two decades has there been such a unified underground. Until now, there has not been a band so representative of, or an album that so sonically articulates, that unity than Rancid and Life Won't Wait.

The release of the new album marks the end of a two-year hiatus for the band. Although the past years haven't exactly been calm for Rancid, things are starting to come fast and furious again, which is fine by them. Rancid kicked off the release of the record with a string of last minute, unannounced warm up shows on the East coast, giving some of their fans the ability to see them in the more intimate setting of a club rather than the stadium festival atmosphere of the Warped Tour. In the few days between the warm up shows and the start of the Warped Tour, I flew out to Los Angeles to catch the band in the lull before the storm.

L.A. is home base for Rancid. Epitaph Records has its headquarters there, as does Hellcat Records, singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong's imprint label. Armstrong has set up residence with his wife Brody in a house not far from Epitaph. His home studio, Bloodclot Studios, is built in the basement.

Although Rancid's other lead singer/guitarist Lars Frederiksen and his wife Megan live in San Francisco, they came up to LA so that Frederiksen could prepare for the tour and so the whole crew could spend some time together.

In the morning, Brody and Megan picked me up at my hotel and we headed out to Rancid's rehearsal space, about a half hour outside of L.A. Believe it or not, the band gets nervous if people watch them while they rehearse. So to kill some time, we emptied our pockets of quarters playing video games in the outside hallway, waiting for the band to take a break. Eventually Armstrong came out and invited me into the rehearsal space, a spacious room filled with equipment and instruments.

Vic Ruggiero, vocalist for The Slackers, was on one end of the room, playing around on a keyboard. The band was sprawled out across two couches in another corner, surrounding a low table littered with CDs, wrappers, soda cans, and other miscellaneous items on which I set my tape recorder.

Bassist Matt Freeman and Armstrong were the most outspoken on this particular day, and conducted the better part of the interview with me. Freeman is a solid guy, very down-to-earth and articulate. Armstrong, however, is a bit harder to pin down. His infamous spiderweb scalp tattoo was covered by a bandana and baseball cap, leaving his most noticeable feature his expressive blue eyes. At times, he came across as almost painfully shy and reserved, yet moments later, he'd be the loudest one in the group. When I played back the tape, there were sections in which he spoke so quietly, it hardly registered, though he was sitting next to me. There are other times where he's talking so animatedly, he's the only one you can hear.

I'd met Frederiksen a few times previously over the years, and each time he'd been very talkative and friendly, but on the day of the interview, he seemed distracted and a bit distant. Brett Reed, Rancid's drummer, spent the first half of the interview quietly lying on the floor. When he got up and joined in the conversation, however, he was probably the most entertaining.

Reed's got a dry, sarcastic wit that doesn't come across as overbearing, he's just incredibly honest. They all are. The only defining element that runs through the entire group's personality is their sincerity.

As people, they're self-assured, as a band, they're humble. In conversation, it's quite obvious that they spend a lot of time together. They play off each other easily and even in the atmosphere of a question and answer interview, the conversation is never stilted. They move smoothly from more serious discussion of their career and the new album, to current projects like the Silencers, to horror movies, Steven King, children's television programs from the 70s, conspiracy theory and Masons, all in the course of an hour.

Rancid has had its share of detractors over the years. With the rise of Epitaph Records practically overnight from a small indie label to something strongly resembling a major, Rancid, along with the rest of the punk scene, found itself going through some heavy growing pains. Armstrong and Freeman had laid their foundations in 1987 with the band they formed together, legendary ska-punk misfits Operation Ivy. Operation Ivy broke up in 1989, largely based on the band's discomfort with their success. The band was a vital part of the East Bay underground scene that centered around the Gilman Street Project. When Operation Ivy disbanded, Armstrong, who had been struggling with addiction and depression, found himself with nothing better to do than fall deeper into his problems.

"Rancid was actually formed to give me something to do. Me and Matt to play again. We started it after I OD'd like three times, in the hospital, I was a mess." Armstrong recounts. "So, that was basically a way to get me going. Brad, Matt and I. Once I had a place to live... I was having a hard time keeping it together. That's all I wanted to do, my sights were set really low. Just to play some parties, squats in Oakland or punk rock houses in West Oakland, Gilman Street. We just started out telling people, yeah, don't get your hopes up, it's not Operation Ivy. Or I would tell people that."

Armstrong and Freeman formed Rancid in September of 1991, recruiting Armstrong's roommate, Reed, as their drummer. The trio released its first single on the Berkeley-based Lookout! Records in 1992, but they signed to Epitaph Records soon after.

"Lookout! was more on Green Day's dick at the time. Laurence Livermore told me, in retrospect, he wished he'd signed us, but... at the time they were all about MTV, Green Day bein' jackassy." Armstrong explains. "I had no idea we were gonna sign to Epitaph. Brett [Gurewitz, president of Epitaph Records] heard the tape, he heard the demo. He said it was the best thing he'd heard in three years, which was a nice thing to say."

Rancid released their self-titled debut on Epitaph Records in 1993. At the time, Epitaph was a small indie label owned and run by Gurewitz, guitarist for the seminal California politico-punk outfit Bad Religion. With the addition of Frederiksen as a second singer/guitarist in 1993, and the release of the band's 23-song sophomore album Let's Go in 1994, Rancid's career was gathering momentum. Punk had begun to make a "comeback" upon the mainstream consciousness, to the derision of public media and punk purists alike.

In 1994, Rancid's Gilman Street contemporaries Green Day and the Offspring found themselves in the Top 40 practically overnight. Green Day's breakthrough MTV buzzbin hit "Longview", followed by the Offspring's meteoric rise to the limelight with their single, "Come Out and Play" focused national music media's attention squarely on the Berkeley/Gilman Street scene. The Offspring, an Epitaph band at the time, were the first punk band to sell a million albums on an independent label. Rancid themselves were caught up in the whirlwind, when their single and video for "Salvation" charted soon after.

Rancid headed off for a worldwide tour and on arriving home, for a brief period, they considered signing to a major. They ended up staying with Epitaph, a decision that, they say, has given them the freedom and the support to succeed beyond their expectations. Armstrong explains, "We're in a position of making records at Epitaph, doing 'em one at a time. All these bands owe like seven records to their record label. It's fucking scary. We don't have that shit loomin' over us. If no one buys this record, well alright, we'll do another one. If Epitaph doesn't want to do this record, we'll go put it out on Lookout!, you know what I mean? That takes a lot of pressure off of us."

Rancid's next release, 1995's ...And Out Come The Wolves, was an accomplished album. Its first single, "Time Bomb", kicked down the door to make way for the rise of ska-punk and third wave ska in the mainstream, for better or worse. One of the highlights of the album was a guest appearance by punk oldtimer and poet Jim Carroll, whose line in "Junkie Man" became the album's title.

The band met Carroll when they were recording the last of the vocals for the record in New York. Carroll was doing an interview upstairs from them, and word came that he wanted to meet them. Freeman recounts, "We asked him, 'do you want to sing on the record?' He's like 'yeah', so he comes down right after the interview, hears the song once - boom - there's the lyrics. Goes in, does it, we watch his video premiere on MTV for "The People Who Died" and then he left. The whole thing took place in half an hour."

"Like everything, it was an accident," Armstrong adds, "The whole band is an accident. I'm serious. All this shit's an accident. Runnin' into Buju Banton was an accident, runnin' into Jim Carroll was an accident. We didn't go down to Jamaica to meet Buju. We ended up at his house, but we didn't plan any of it." Oddly enough, Buju Banton's line in "Life Won't Wait" became the title for that album as well.

Rancid's members share a common obsession with conspiracy theory and a great affinity for horror movies. Coupled with the fact that they have all gone through varying bouts of drug and alcohol addiction and depression, these influences give Life Won't Wait a very dark, haunting edge. As much as the album contains punk rock love ballads and hopeful, anthemic tracks, there is a deep paranoia running through, an Armageddon-like feel to many of the songs, especially the more heavily political ones.

There is a deeply personal element to that dark side. Rancid stands apart from other bands who generally find themselves bandmates because of musical commonalities and who sometimes, in light of hardship, stay together for the sake of the band and the music. Rancid say they exist as a band and make music because they need it to keep them alive.

At some point or another during the interview, each band member separately put forth the assertion that either the music itself, Rancid as an entity, or the individual members of the band had saved their lives. This love and respect for each other allows them to give each other enough room to create their own strikingly individual sounds in the symbiotic whole.

The content of this album, both musically and lyrically, is no surprise looking back at Rancid's many endeavors and projects during the better part of the last two years. While most people take breaks to rest and go on vacation, Rancid's individual members have spent their free time doing what they love most -- making music. They each, in their own way, have taken the opportunity to use their influence and ability to help out those around them. The fruit of those projects has been some of the highest quality music coming out of the scene today.

In the last year, Lars Frederiksen has produced two exceptional Oi! releases, the Dropkick Murphy's Do or Die and the Business' The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth. Rancid has guested their talents to standout tracks on a variety of recent albums from the Specials, Agnostic Front, The Stubborn All Stars, Buju Banton, and Dr. Israel.

Matt Freeman's signature growling bass line showed up on X frontwoman Exene Cervenka and drummer DJ Bonebreak's sideproject band Auntie Christ. Tim Armstrong filled his spare time during Rancid's hiatus harvesting the cream of the crop of American ska, punk, and Oi! bands: the U.S. Bombs, the Gadgits, the Pietasters, The Slackers, the Dropkick Murphys and Hepcat, and planting them all lovingly on Hellcat Records.

Although the band itself may be an accident, there really is no accident to Rancid's success. As an individual band, and as members of a cultural community, they understand the importance of supporting a scene from the bottom up. Of showing respect for those who have come before, remembering the people who helped them out when they were down. Among the few who are lucky enough to find themselves in such a position to reciprocate, Rancid stands out as a band that holds that top priority. It's the truth of their conviction, the truth of their actions that come across so honestly in their music.

On Life Won't Wait, Rancid finally come fully into their own and manage to produce a stellar album that encompasses ska, reggae, dub, r&b, blues harmonica, acoustic piano, straight up rock and roll and the howling undertones of street punk and hardcore. All this in the broad sweep of a quintessentially punk album.

There are throwbacks to artists ranging from the Pogues to Lee "Scratch" Perry, and yet each one is treated with respect, not only by Rancid's technical execution of the styles, but the way in which they make them their own -- throw their individual twist on it. So many other bands get by on the gist of an idea, a hint of innate understanding and expression, yet end up mostly apeing what's already been done. Rancid start off with a solid understanding of the history of punk music, its place in society, the vital importance of respect and unity, and force it even further than its gone before. They take their cue from the artists whom they most admire, pay more than due respect, and move on, taking something old and making it current and new by adding their own genius to the mix.

 

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