Here Come the Punks
Thinking of getting married? Then Rancid may be the band for you.
By James Mayo
Fans of Rancid feel that the group is one of the last real punk bands, while detractors accuse the quartet of being a band of poseurs. But no one ever called the combo a wedding band until this summer, when Rancid members did the unthinkable: They performed at a wedding.
Fortunately, the gig turned out to be a pretty hip one -- a reception for attendees of a traditional Tibetan ceremony during which Dechen Wangdu married Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. "Adam calls up and goes, 'Hey, I'm getting married. Would you guys play my wedding? You're Dechen's favorite band, and it would be a surprise,'" says Rancid bassist Matt Freeman. "And they've been really nice to us; we've known them for a while. So we were like, 'Sure.'
"It's at this place in New York City, and we show up and set up, and she still doesn't know about it," Freeman continues. "We're all dressed up in sharkskin suits -- we looked cool -- and there's all these Tibetan people and all of Mr. Yauch's family. And we played our set. I knew the Beastie Boys would be cool with it, but you had all these older people there, too, and we didn't know if they were going to throw shit or what. But they were really into it. It was pretty fucking cool."
So, too, is Life Won't Wait, the latest CD by Freeman, guitarist/vocalist Tim Armstrong, guitarist Lars Frederiksen and drummer Brett Reed. The disc's typically Rancid mix of often-political punk and ska has given critics who see Rancid as little more than a Clash tribute act plenty of ammo -- a fact that amuses Freeman. ("We've been compared to the Clash for four years," he says. "Now I feel odd when someone doesn't bring it up in an interview. I'm like, 'You didn't ask about the Clash. You want to hear about that, you know.'") But a closer listen reveals that the album is Rancid's most varied, wide-ranging and professional effort to date. Indeed, Life is so polished that some longtime followers may be put off by it.
"I think we probably have alienated some people," Freeman acknowledges. "But you can't please all the people all the time -- and I think people really underestimate music fans. Punk-rock fans, especially, are wicked smart; they know a lot. And I think we've built up a track record of always trying something different. So I think people who follow us knew that this record was going to be different.
"No one wants to alienate their fans. But at the same time, you have to be honest with yourself and honest with them, too. I mean, if we put out something like our self-titled record and we weren't feeling it but we did it because we'd been hearing that's what people wanted to hear, that wouldn't be very honest -- and I think people would be just as pissed off. I think people appreciate honesty."
Freeman and Armstrong have been trying to infuse their music with this quality since 1987, when they joined with vocalist Jesse Michaels and drummer Dave Mello to form Operation Ivy, an outfit that exhibited the same Clash/Specials influences that Rancid continues to draw upon. The band put out an EP, Hectic, in 1988 on Lookout Records (later to be closely associated with Green Day) and delivered the full-length Energy the next year. But soon after the album hit stores, the band splintered, with Michaels going off to become a Buddhist monk.
Rather than follow Michaels to the monastery, Freeman and Armstrong recruited drummer Reed and declared themselves Rancid. Their debut, an EP dubbed I'm Not the Only One, was issued in 1992, and shortly after 1993's Rancid appeared, guitarist Frederiksen joined the lineup. "Radio," a single from the band's next album, 1994's Let's Go, was co-written by Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong, establishing a connection that made Rancid the flavor of the week after Green Day's Dookie became one of the biggest smashes of that year. A&R scouts came calling in huge numbers, and Madonna went so far as to send the boys a nude photo of herself (from her notorious book Sex) in an effort to convince them to sign with her company, Maverick. The situation was so absurd, Freeman says, "that at times we just felt like it was us four in the fucking jungle behind enemy lines, like a fucking war movie. We had this major label [Epic] offer us, like, $1.5 million, which I'd never, ever thought was possible in my lifetime.
"I don't think we could have got through it if we had some sort of ego thing or if everyone was out for himself. You had these people saying, 'Take the money' or 'Don't take the money.' Everyone had an opinion. But we all stuck together on it, and that brought us pretty close." He adds, "As long as you're friends, and as long as you're close to each other, all this other crazy stuff that happens doesn't really make a difference."
In the end the band decided to make ...And Out Come the Wolves, its 1995 followup to Let's Go, for Epitaph, the recording home of such groups as NOFX and Bad Religion. The firm allowed the players to assemble Life Won't Wait at their own pace. "We'd never really stopped before," Freeman says. "We'd record, tour, record, tour. But this time we took some time off and reflected and lived our lives a little bit."
They also traveled anywhere inspiration took them; portions of Life were cut in Brooklyn, New Orleans, San Francisco and the famed Penthouse studio in Kingston, Jamaica, where the Rancid ones laid down tracks with dancehall toaster Buju Banton. The result of the Banton collaboration is the scorching title track, which features a bouncing ska beat, some vintage Hammond B-3 and shouted lines (such as "The conscience of the public cannot be put to sleep") that build toward an urgent call-up chorus: "The vision is a new world order/Come along/And tell your sister and your brother." Agnostic Front's Roger Miret, Dr. Israel and members of Hepcat also appear on the CD, but Freeman denies that he and his mates "sat down with a legal pad and said, 'Okay, let's make a list of people we know we can get, the people we want to get and the people we might get.'" In the case of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Dickey Barrett, Freeman says that Armstrong "called him and said, 'Hey, do you want to come sing on our song?' And he was like, 'Okay.'"
Barrett eventually contributed his deep, gruff vocals to "Cash, Culture and Violence," a song whose spontaneous birth mirrors the methods used at Stax Records, a soul imprint whose music Freeman loves. "We'd go in there -- me and Brett and Tim and Lars -- and we'd set up and go, 'Okay, we're going to do the basics,'" Freeman notes. "And Tim would literally go, 'Here's the song,' and we'd mess around and say, 'Let's put a bridge here and a break there.' Then we'd cut it and maybe do it again -- and that was it. I was always told, 'We're going to the next song, so we'll come back to this one,' because we'd do all these songs in a row. But it got to the point where we'd never come back at all."
This approach gives Life a vibrancy that comes through clearly no matter what style the band is using. Rancid hasn't totally abandoned punk pedagogy, as tracks such as "1998" (an homage to Sid Vicious) and "Bloodclot" attest. But the disc also spotlights Caribbean riddims associated with dancehall reggae and the Two-Tone ska movement, as well as surprising nods to other genres. Take "Backslide," which blends Memphis horns with punk snarl and sardonic lyrical questions such as "Have you ever been haunted by your past/And it will never let you go?"
The group's political sentiments are up front but seldom didactic. "We've never been a band to preach about anything," Freeman says. "We've been pretty much like, 'This is how we feel about something' or 'This is something we've seen,' and we just sort of put it out there. I think people are pretty smart; they're going to figure out what it means to them or how they're going to use that information."
"Wrongful Suspicion," in which Rancid is joined by members of the Slackers and the Stubborn All-Stars, is typical. Between a chorus that asks, "What can we do/What can we do...down at the statehouse?" Armstrong catalogues injustices ranging from jailing innocents to flying the Confederate flag. "Warsaw," meanwhile, blames bully-like American policies for crushing the dream of a working-class utopia in post-martial-law Poland.
That such radical thinking is being sold as a commodity in the capitalist marketplace is an irony that's not lost on Freeman. Still, he believes that political punk and old-fashioned commerce can work hand in hand under the right circumstances. "You need to take that do-it-yourself ethic and apply it to everything you do," he says. "Just keep control, know what's going on around you, and make your own decisions."
The men of Rancid have done their best to maintain this balance while participating in mega-events such as last summer's Vans Warped tour and the previous year's Lollapalooza festival. ("We went on every day at 3:45," Freeman says about the latter. "You just had your routine.") But what about Rancid's future as a wedding band?
"Maybe we'd do it for a friend," Freeman says. "But that was probably the first and last wedding we'll ever play."