When the East Bay’s Tim Armstrong moved to L.A. back in ’96, not long after his band Rancid’s career skyrocketed with the platinum-certified . And Out Come The Wolves, he wasn’t “going Hollywood” like many rock dudes do after getting a taste of success and sunshine-drenched excess; quite the opposite
“I was living in this punk-rock house at the time and I started drinking [again],” recalls the 43-year-old punk stalwart. “Everyone thought I should get away from the influences there, so I came to L.A. to get sober and to start Hellcat Records with Bret.”
Bret is Bret Gurewitz, Bad Religion’s original guitarist and the founder of Epitaph Records. The two had met at Armstrong’s home away from home, famed Bay-area punk-music hub Gilman Street, several years prior. They’ve maintained a strong personal and creative bond ever since.
We catch up to the usually media-shy Armstrong at Hellcat’s HQ — the converted train station in Silver Lake that also houses Epitaph and Anti Records — on a very big day for the Rancid frontman. He and his mates have just completed their seventh album and first together in six years called Let the Dominoes Fall. It will be out June 2 on Hellcat, as all Rancid records have been since 2000. (Previous CDs were on Epitaph, and their last was put out in conjunction with Warner Bros.) Since then, Armstrong has been busy producing other artists — his work with Pink on her hit “Trouble” garnered a Grammy — and with his label, discovering newbies and putting out side projects: two with The Transplants (Armstrong’s groove-heavy effort with Travis Barker); his ’07 solo release, A Poet’s Life; and stuff from his bandmate Lars Frederiksen, with his backing group, the Bastards.
Hellcat has a distinctly So Cal flavor, with a roster that includes local reggae ragers The Aggrolites, OC punkettes Civet, Wilmington’s Left Alone, and Echo Park’s own Society’s Parasites. “A lot of the bands we sign are young kids in their early 20s from here who’ve been doing it all their lives,” says Armstrong. “They’re way under the radar. They’re not even playing clubs, a lot of them. Just playing house parties in the neighborhood for their friends, which is a pretty great reason to play music.”
It’s not unlike how Armstrong himself got into it. Raised along with two brothers in the same Albany, California, home where his mom also grew up, he formed his first bands with childhood friend and current bassist Matt Freeman while both were in high school. Gilman Street, was only minutes away from his residence and soon after it opened, Armstrong and Freeman’s ska-influenced punk outfit Op Ivy became its hottest ticket, attracting fans of brash, boot-stomping rock from throughout Northern Cal, including a particularly avid follower (and non-relation) from Berkeley by the name of Billie Joe Armstrong.
The East Bay may be in his blood, but Armstrong is very much a Silver Lake/Echo Park figure these days. “It reminds me a lot of home,” he says. His band mates still live up North, and though he’s been clean for years, he never chose to move back. Armstrong recalls a funny anecdote about his departed pal Joe Strummer (whose final work with The Mescaleros was released through Hellcat). Strummer had invited him to a party in Bel Air, and Armstrong replied, “I don’t know, I don’t go west of Vermont, man.” Tim did end up going and Strummer repeated the Vermont line all night, telling everyone that it was “a special occasion” that Armstrong was on that side of town. And it was.
His present life here definitely informs Let The Dominoes Fall and shows him and his crew — which now includes drummer Branden Steineckert (formerly of The Used) — at their most insightful and ripe. There’s an exhilarating old-school opener (“East Bay Night”) and a tragic So Cal tale (“L.A. River”), plus some cuts about the battered economy and the Iraq war (one called “Civilian Ways,” inspired by Armstrong’s brother who fought in Iraq, is particularly powerful).
“Times are tough right now,” says Armstrong. “We all come from working-class backgrounds and we’ve always rooted for the underdog. Rancid records have always been about what’s happening at the time, and this one really reflects that.”
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It’s all very mixed thematically, but it’s got the balls you want from Rancid sonically (and more): the signature ska-spiked bounce (the legendary Booker T of the MGs fame, even plays organ on a track); brutal, layered riffs; and Armstrong’s infectious, instantly recognizable pitch and cadence.
Gaining mainstream success in the punk world can be dubious. For better or worse, some become part of the pop machine (Green Day) while others become nostalgia acts. Armstrong and his band are neither. Having his own label has given him the freedom to write, record, release, market and merchandise what he wants, when he wants, the way he wants. And really, what’s more punk rock than that?