Pretty in punk
Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen steps forward
BY MATT ASHARE
In retrospect, it was a little incongruous: a full-scale punk-rock revival in the midst of what by almost all accounts were good times for the American people, even for scrappy little punks like Rancid and Green Day, who were finally being given a real chance to compete in the major-label leagues. Not the “good times” of the Reagan/Bush ’80s, when the rich got richer, the national debt got bigger, jobs at the low end of the ladder were scarce, and punk rock’s us-against-them mentality fit like a glove on the hands of a generation who were sick of reaching out for more than just a little lip service from an establishment that seemed to answer, in the words of one punk compilation, “Let them eat jellybeans.” Of course, it was never quite as simple as all that. It never is. And that was the beauty of punk rock: in its primal simplicity, it simplified, boiling all kinds of bitter bottled-up mixed emotions down to one sweetly straightforward solution — loud and fast rebel rock and roll.
So what, in an era when the worst thing Washington could find to talk about was the first president in decades who was getting laid regularly, brought punk rock back? The simplest answer is that it never really went away. It festered like a mutating virus in streets and suburbs from coast to coast, passing from one graduating underclass to the next, until kids like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Rancid’s Tim Armstrong (no relation) caught it and brought it back to some segment of the masses. And if sometimes the punk of the ’90s seemed more like a fashion statement than a political one, well, it’s worth remembering that Malcolm McLaren launched the Sex Pistols as a subsidiary of his clothing store.
Nobody in the ’90s looked prettier in punk than Lars Frederiksen, a junior member in Rancid when “Salvation” hit the airwaves in ’94. He’d joined the band as a second-guitarist shortly after the release of their homonymous Epitaph debut the year before, and with his spiky mohawk and scrappy stickered leather jacket, he fit right in. As the band grew, so did his role. Tim Armstrong and bassist Matt Freeman had, with the addition of drummer Brett Reed, built Rancid on the wreckage of Operation Ivy, a now seminal East Bay ska-punk band who’d fired up the Berkeley and Oakland scene from 1987 through 1989 before packing it in. But by 1995’s defiant . . . And Out Come the Wolves, a disc that came out on the indie punk powerhouse Epitaph after much speculation about whether or not Rancid would take the major-label bait that had been tossed their way, Frederiksen had full co-writing credits with Armstrong and Freeman. And on 1998’s Life Won’t Wait, the last Rancid disc that came out on Epitaph before Armstrong formed his own Hellcat imprint, Frederiksen had become the band’s second vocalist and Armstrong’s main songwriting partner.
So it’s easy to see how he might get the itch to step out and front a band of his own. These things happen, even among the best of friends. But there don’t appear to be any hard feelings in the Rancid camp about the new Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards, an album that’ll be out on Hellcat this Tuesday, just a few days after Frederiksen and his Bastards support fellow Hellcat recording artists and Boston home-town punk favorites Dropkick Murphys at their big two-show Avalon blowout this Saturday (March 17). In fact, the disc seems to be a simple extension of the Rancid rebel-rock franchise. Not only did Armstrong co-write and produce the disc, but as Frederiksen explains over the phone from his East Bay home, it was Armstrong who inspired the whole project.
“That’s the thing about it . . . it was actually Tim’s idea for me to do this. Where I grew up is this place called Campbell, California, and it was this small little town by San José. So I would tell these stories about where I grew up, and Tim was always very fascinated by them. We wrote songs together about Campbell in Rancid, but he was like, ‘Man, you got so many of these great stories; you didn’t sing that much on the last record; so let’s do a record.’ Tim’s my mentor, my best friend, my songwriting partner, my producer, my record label. I’m the luckiest guy when it comes to that shit. I know the motherfucker’s got my back until the day I die.”
Armstrong isn’t a full-time Bastard, so he won’t be touring with the band. But Frederiksen’s still managed to keep it all in, or at least close to, the Rancid family. “Let me just tell you a little something about how much nepotism happens in Rancid. Everyone who knows us knows that we have a very strong family environment with us — family meaning Matt, Brett, Tim, and Lars. With the Bastards it’s as simple as this: Scott Ables, the drummer, was in a band called Hepcat, who were on Hellcat, and he was also Brett’s drum tech. Big Jay Bastard, the bassist, was in a band called the Roughnecks and he’s Matt and Tim’s guitar guy. So I only had to look behind me to get the rhythm section. Then we got this kid the Unknown Bastard, who wears like a ski mask and wants to keep identity confidential. I found him in Campbell. And Craig, the new guitarist, plays in a band called the Forgotten, so we call him Craig Forgotten — number one because he plays in the Forgotten, number two because we forgot to put him on the record.”
The Bastards may be a step forward for Frederiksen as a band leader, but as with Rancid, the band’s songs and sound reach back into the punk past and grab hold of the rebel riffs and righteousness of the Clash circa ’77/’78. Rancid have never made any bones about that — they’re Clash fans through and through, and as Freeman once told me, “If we’re going to be compared to someone, I can’t imagine anyone better than the Clash.” Call it a healthy symptom of punk’s evolving role as a kind of postmodern folk form that bands like Rancid are happy to channel their own turbulent feelings into the same reservoir of riffs and signifiers that have kept punk sounding like punk for almost three decades now. It’s not all that different from the way contemporary rockabilly bands rely on the same 1-4-5 progressions and double-string bends that Eddie Cochran buttered his bread with.
If anything, though, Frederiksen’s album is a more streamlined distillation of a certain kind of Clash city rock. Gone are the occasional ska-na-na excursions that remain a part of the Rancid game plan. Instead, Frederiksen sticks to the kind of straight-ahead, driving, old-school punk that the Clash laid the foundation for in songs like “Hate & War,” “Last Gang in Town,” and “Janie Jones” before hardcore came along and turned it into a speed trap. Against a backdrop of garageland guitars, the album opens with a Kosmo Vinyl–style carnival-barker introduction of the Bastards before kicking into “Dead American,” a song peppered with seemingly anachronistic references to “mustard gas” and “napalm” and sung with a sneer that can’t help bringing to mind “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” The next tune, “6 foot 5,” begins with Frederiksen shouting about someone “Going to California back in 1973” over the kind of souped up 1-4-5 progression the Clash saved for B-sides. And the Bastards’ overdriven cover of “To Have and Have Not” sounds more like the Clash’s cover of “I Fought the Law” than it does the Billy Bragg original. It also features one of Frederiksen’s best vocals, as he rasps “Just because you’re better than me/Doesn’t mean I’m lazy/Just because I dress like this/Doesn’t mean I’m a communist” with the same spent fury that used to make Joe Strummer sound as if he were spitting out his last righteous words in the face of a losing battle.
For Frederiksen, though, the album was a nostalgia trip in more ways than one. Aside from the music that drew him to punk as a kid, most of the songs he wrote with Armstrong for the disc were inspired by his misspent youth in Campbell. One’s called “Campbell California”; two others — “Skunx” and “Subterranean” — detail experiences he had running with a gang of punks called the Skunx. “It’s funny: Tim and I joke sometimes that every one of these songs could have been called ‘Campbell’ or ‘Skunx.’ Even the cover tunes. It’s all very autobiographical. It’s something we’ve always done in Rancid, too, for no other reason than that’s just the way we write songs.
“The thing about the Skunx is it started in the early ’80s and it’s still going on today. It’s all punk-rockers or just crazy fucking kids. When I grew up, it wasn’t like you were going to go shoot somebody. I did have guns pulled in my face. But it was basically, if you had a problem with somebody, you went and either kicked ass or got your ass kicked and that was the end of it. There was no ‘You’re a pussy because you got your ass kicked.’ You went and got beat or you beat. And that’s how it was. That’s the way that I still am. I’m a nice motherfucker, but if you cross me, I’ll come get you. I don’t care what the fuck I do or what band I’m in, I will come and get you. That part of me will never leave. That’s what I’m trying to say in ‘Skunx’ — ‘You’ll never take the gang out of me.’ It’s not like you hit a certain age and you’re walking down the street and you find something and all of a sudden your life has changed. No matter what has happened to us in Rancid, we’re always going to be a fucking punk band.”
And Frederiksen will be back to full-time active duty in Rancid once he’s done touring behind the Bastards album. The band have already signed on to be one of the big draws at this summer’s Warped Tour, where they’ll have a chance to preach their particular brand of punk activism to a willing audience. And, as Frederiksen acknowledges, it certainly won’t hurt that there’s a Republican named Bush in the White House, that the rich are getting set to get richer, and that jellybeans may be on the menu again in the not so distant future.
Issue Date: March 15 - 22, 2001