With the cover story of our August 1998 issue (121), we offered a deep dive into the career of legendary punk outfit Rancid. The article provides a window into the lives of band members Lars Frederiksen, Tim Armstrong, Matt Freeman and Brett Reed, coming into their own as key figures in a pivotal moment in punk history. What emerges from the story is the group’s humility, their commitment to living the DIY ethos and their passion for music. The content has been modified and adjusted to meet the standards of Alternative Press’ digital platform.
The first thing Lars Frederiksen shows me when he arrives at the San Francisco International Airport is a hardcover book called Alien Agenda. While sliding its silver-metallic cover out of the side pocket of a black travel bag, the 26-year-old singer/guitarist for Rancid waxes philosophical about life on other planets, UFOs and conspiracy theories. I ask him whether he really believes that man landed on the moon.
“Yeah, I believe that,” he replies, excited to speak on the subject. “But I also believe that some of us are actually alien hybrids.” He slants his eyebrows to compose a sinister stare and then runs off. By the time our rows are called for boarding, Frederiksen has returned with a handful of supermarket tabloids and a satisfied grin. “This is the real news,” he says. “Or, it could just be that I’m over-influenced by Men In Black.”
When Rancid formed as a trio in 1991, Frederiksen was already the only 20-year-old kid in America who could boast a six-month guitar stint with the legendary U.K. Subs. What the Subs didn’t know by the time young Lars arrived in Britain was that he was already three years deep into an alcohol and narcotics problem that—along with the obvious generation gap—he cites as the main reason behind the brevity of his stay.
“I was pretty much still using a lot of drugs at the time,” he recalls. “I was totally out of it, just trying to score whatever I could get my hands on, as long as I could get high.” Shortly after coming home from London, Frederiksen joined a local punk band called Cajones, but they, too, found his incompetence impossible to deal with. “They kicked me out because I was a waste case with no place to live. I’d show up drunk with like three strings on my guitar.”
He eventually managed to put together a band called Slip, which, in 1992, scored a local gig with Rancid at the oft-fabled Gilman Street Project—the Bay Area punk club that played host to early shows by bands such as Green Day, Samiam and Rancid’s precursor, Operation Ivy. Frederiksen recalls striking up a conversation with Tim Armstrong that obviously left a positive impression on both of them.
“Sometime after that night, Slip was supposed to go down to L.A. to play this show. Ten minutes before we were supposed to leave, our bass player calls me up and says, ‘Hey, I’m quitting the band. I’ve fallen in love, and I’m moving to Sacramento.’ Tim called me like 10 minutes later and pretty much said, ‘What’s happening? Do you want to play in our band or what?’ Coincidence? I don’t know,” he postulates. “But I was like, ‘Fuck yeah! Where do I sign up?’”
By all accounts, Let’s Go—Frederiksen’s first record with the band—was a major turning point in Rancid’s evolution: The now-trademark guitar/vocal interplay between him and Armstrong was introduced to more fanfare than criticism. “Salvation,” the album single and video, was gaining MTV and commercial-radio airplay. Punk was breaking, and Rancid were riding the crest of a wave they didn’t even know they had caught. By year’s end, Frederiksen would be stable, sober and playing guitar for a punk-rock band that had just sold nearly 200,000 copies of an album they recorded in six days.
“When I first moved here from Campbell, Tim gave me a place to stay and let me sleep on his floor. He actually loaned me $100 to get my first place to live up there.” He pauses and then exhales. “Tim basically saved my life, for Christ’s sake.”
Later that night, I walk out of my hotel room to find Armstrong with his finger on the trigger of a mini-camcorder. I wave into the camera while he runs past me to get a shot of my descent on the stairs. Matt Freeman, who’s waiting for us at the bottom, recognizes my look of discomfort. “Tim has everything on tape,” he says. Armstrong runs outside to get a shot of us walking through the hotel doors.
Once we’re outside, it dawns on all of us that the weather at Snoqualmie Pass is freezing. Armstrong wears only a pair of torn-knee jeans, a Minor Threat T-shirt and a bomber jacket with the logo for the defunct New York punk band Born Against scrawled on the back in white paint marker. He puts down the camcorder and sticks his hands in his pockets. His pockets come out of the holes in his pants.
Meanwhile, three young kids in baggy jeans and Green Day T-shirts are lingering around the area, preparing to approach him. After some prodding, the oldest-looking one says, “Hey. You’re that dude in Rancid, right?” Tim nods his head. “Can we get your autograph?”
Armstrong complies, but instead of just signing his name and sending the fans on their way, he goes on to ask for their names and tries to spark up some friendly conversation. Intimidated and somewhat starstruck, the kids answer Armstrong’s questions in broken sentences and with somewhat puzzled looks on their faces that seem to ask, “Shouldn’t we be the ones asking the questions?”
Armstrong is easily the most curious and inquisitive member of Rancid. Even when being recorded, he displays an uncanny ability to turn any question back at his interviewer—not because he’s overtly elusive or uncooperative, but because he’s actually sincere in his attempt to learn about other people. Indeed, after spending an hour-and-a-half in the hotel’s pancake house, we’ve managed to talk about my family, my career and my life. And whenever he becomes the topic of discussion, Armstrong will reach over a half-filled glass of orange juice to turn off the tape recorder. “I like it better when we talk without it.” He smirks, then adds, “This is the best interview I’ve ever done!” It only occurs to me later that he may have been talking about his interview with me.
Freeman is probably a good person to shed some light on the subject. Born and raised in Albany, California, a working-class suburb located between Berkeley and El Cerrito, Freeman met Armstrong when the pair were only 5 years old. They played in Little League together. They went to high school together. And, of course, they got into punk rock together when Armstrong’s older brother let them into his massive record collection. (“He wasn’t really a punk,” the junior Armstrong recalls of his sibling. “He was more like a Ramones song come to life.”)
In 1987, Armstrong and Freeman, then both 21, formed Operation Ivy—the influential ska-punk band that undoubtedly inspired everyone from No Doubt to the Suicide Machines to, well, Rancid. It’s quite a feat considering that Operation Ivy’s two-year career was limited to one full-length, 1989’s appropriately titled Energy, and only one cross-country jaunt—performed in a 1969 Chrysler Newport that Freeman bought from his grandmother’s neighbor for $900.“The trunk was huge,” Freeman says, arms outstretched to illustrate. “You could easily fit two guitars, a 15-inch bass speaker and the Roland Jazz Chorus that Tim had in there. We had never done anything like that before, so we didn’t know.”
On his final night in New York City, Armstrong and I head over to the East Village for a show. We’re carded at the door, and since neither of us knows how to drive, neither of us has a driver’s license. I manage to pull a passport out of my bag, but Armstrong is still without ID. The bouncer stares at him a bit and then asks, “You’re not a cop, are you?” The spiderweb tattoo that covers Armstrong’s entire head more than likely gives reason to believe that he isn’t, so we’re let in. And then, at the risk of sounding totally un-punk, I finally get the nerve to ask: Why did you tattoo your entire head?
“I just wanted to do something crazy,” he replies, grimacing. “I’m a fucking freak. I’m fucked up, and I’m crazy. And this is my way of acting that out.”
And perhaps that’s the universal attraction of Rancid. Some might say that by definition, you could never sell more than a million copies of a “true” punk record, and to some extent, there’s truth in that statement. But Rancid tap into the very human feeling of alienation—to which, certainly, more than a million Americans can relate. And perhaps those of us who choose to keep our scalps free from needle guns enjoy taking the liberty of living vicariously through Armstrong and his crew. After all, even though we can’t all be punk, it’s probably safe to assume that we’ve all felt like alien-human hybrids at one time or another.
“Sure, I have this tattoo on my head for the rest of my life,” Armstrong deadpans in conclusion. “But I’ve always felt like I had a tattoo on my head—even when I didn’t.”