"Tim saw something in me, I don't know what, but he gave me a shot," says Rob Aston, front man for the Transplants, in a recent powwow at his band's label, Epitaph Records his home away from home in Silver Lake. "Seriously, I never thought I'd be doing some shit like this." Aston is referring to Tim Armstrong, the guitarist/singer behind Rancid and the man who transformed Aston from roadie to rock star when the seasoned hell-raiser asked the novice vocalist to put lyrics to beats he'd cooked up on a new Pro Tools rig.
Other than manning the merch table and doing general stagehand work for the likes of AFI and Rancid, young Aston, who'd just moved from Fresno to L.A., had no musical experience whatsoever. With his shaved head, excessive ink and homeboyish-speak, he's obviously a down-with-it kinda dude, but Armstrong had never heard him on the mic, so his request for Aston's services seemed to come out of left field. Or did it?
Armstrong had been concocting all-over-the-map stuff in his studio at the time, with rock-steady, drum & bass and trancey elements steering his knob play, having been inspired by his visit to several electronic- and industrial-music clubs in the U.K. a few years back. Though Aston hung out with the pit-diving posse, he made it no secret that his true love was hip-hop, a sensibility Armstrong was interested in exploring.
"I wrote some shit and then went into the studio, and it was my first time with headphones on," says the 26-year-old Aston. "I've got Tim Armstrong in front of me, Lars Frederiksen on my left. I mean, I've looked up to these guys forever. It was kind of nerve-racking, but they were real supportive."
The collaboration flamed for two years, yielding a freaked-out punk hybrid where raps and rants are one and the same, and dance-drum rhythms ravage just as hard as guitar riffs. Still, the pair felt something was missing. Enter Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. Though his band is known for its bratty bubblegum-style pop rock, within the punk community there's no disputing that the wiry tat rat whacks harder than most.
Barker, on the phone while taking a break from recording the new Blink record, says he was sold from the get-go. "They gave me total freedom to do whatever beats I wanted, and that was really cool," he says. "Not that I don't have that with Blink or Boxcar Racer [182's darker-themed side project], but it doesn't call for it. With the Transplants I get to explore my angrier side."
Barker was able not only to match the techno tempos of the early recordings but to add a new organic ferocity to the music as well. The band released their self-titled disc on Armstrong's Epitaph imprint, Hellcat Records, last year to much critical acclaim. And punk purists be damned, the hodgepodge approach kicks ass. From Wu Tang Clan to the Sex Pistols to Beastie Boys to Suicidal Tendencies, the rhythmically intense influences come at ya and don't quit, in hellacious highlights like the pissed-off party brawl "Tall Cans in the Air" and the buoyant yet brutal "Diamonds and Guns."
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While there's a definite groove to the record, in a live setting the maelstrom of sound takes on an even heavier tempestuousness, with guests such as Armstrong's Rancid cohort Lars Frederiksen and Tim's wife Brody Armstrong (both on the record) jumping onstage to add to the exuberant assault. At least that's what it was like when the group played a couple of sweaty Roxy dates last summer opening for the Distillers (Brody's band). This time out they'll be playing with the Foo Fighters in much bigger venues, but that shouldn't weaken their ability to incite an adrenaline-charged free-for-all.
With additional East Coast headlining dates booked, the group plan to write new material on the tour bus for possible release next year. In the meantime, Travis is busy polishing parts for his TRL-bound Blink tracks, while the elusive Armstrong is immersed in the new Rancid disc the "mad scientist," as Aston calls him, holed up in his home studio in search of more harmonious alchemy.
And the new kid on the block? He's working on his own project, too. "It's going to be more a straight-up hip-hop record," he says. "But I'm treating it like I do the Transplants: Anything goes. As long as I'm happy and the people in the studio are happy, I don't give a fuck about anything else."
The Transplants and the Foo Fighters play at Universal Amphitheater, Thursday and Friday, April 17 and 18.