Rancid: SPIN’s 1995 Cover Story, In Punk We Trust

Rancid: SPIN’s 1995 Cover Story, In Punk We Trust

This story originally appeared in the October 1995 issue of SPIN. As Rancid's Let's Go hits its 25th anniversary, we’re republishing it here.

Meet Lars Frederiksen. Frederiksen pays what you might call careful attention to form. If Frederiksen were into rockabilly, he'd sport a Gene Vincent quiff and own every record Ray Campi ever recorded. If he were a mod, he would be an expert Vespa mechanic. If he were a Goth, you'd be blinded by the incandescence of his powdered visage.

But Frederiksen is none of those things. He is a Berkeley punk musician and in open pasture, his safety-orange mohawk makes this brilliantly clear at a distance of more than a mile.

You've probably seen Frederiksen, 23, playing guitar in the videos of his spirit of '77 band Rancid, or maybe flipping through the crates in the punk-rock section of your local record store. If you've ever listened to a Rancid song on the radio, or perhaps caught the Buzz Bin clip for "Salvation," you've heard those punk-rock records made flesh and blood and bone: the hoary Oi! football chants, the overdriven Gibsons, the pure, sloppy drive of it all, filtered through the same blue-collar Cali breeding that produced Green Day and the Offspring.

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If you ask Frederiksen, he'll tell you straight out: Punk rock is his ethnic group, his culture, his sexual proclivity, something he is as powerless to control as his melanin count or the incessant pumping of his adrenal glands.

"Punk rock is my race, man," he says, pulling up his shirt to reveal his extravagantly tattooed torso. "It's the color of my skin."

Frederiksen may not be the soul of Rancid—that would be Tim Armstrong. the glaringly mohawked principal songwriter—but he is something like the group's conscience, the punkest of the punk. When Frederiksen was 12, older kids in his South Bay hometown of Campbell, California, persuaded him to help out a drummer whose drum kit kept sliding across the ground at a backyard punk show. Little Lars's ears rang for a week after he served as human ballast throughout the entire Necros set, curled up inside the kick drum. Later, at 18, he toured as a guitarist with the spiky British hardcore band U.K. Subs. Onstage, he spits as much as an elderly Hindu chewing betel nut.

Frederiksen shares a tiny back house with a couple of skinheads in north Berkeley, a leaning Sheetrock thing that looks as if it's held together by the sheer mass of punk-rock flyers stapled to the walls. The four members of Rancid slouch around the living room waiting for something to happen, though nobody's quite sure what. Rancid's rousing third album, ...And Out Come the Wolves, on the West Coast independent label Epitaph, also home to their pals the Offspring, is mastered and in the can; the Rancid tour doesn't begin for months; the Armstrong-directed video won't be shot for weeks. Drummer Brett Reed, 23, pets Barney, the white, fluffy house dog. Armstrong, 29, makes a pot of coffee. Bass player Matt Freeman, 29. slouches into a dog-eaten easy chair and flips through an old-car magazine put out by a Nova collectors' club.

In his poster-encrusted bedroom, Frederiksen stands on the thin mattress that lies on the floor and pulls out a handful of dog-eared family photographs. In each of the pictures, taken between ages 8 and 12, Frederiksen crouches forward, snarling, two fingers extended in sort of a Cockney "fuck you," an homage to the street kid on the cover of the very first Oi! compilation LP. He walks over to his closet and gestures like Vanna White at a rack of his corroded punk tees, unwashed and stinky for maximum authenticity.

"I used to tear the little crocodiles off the lzod Lacoste shirts my mom would get me," he says, "and pretend that they were the Fred Perry shirts that English skinheads used to wear."

Today, Frederiksen wants to show me his record collection—vinyl only, of course—crates and crates of Exploited and Sham 69 and Blitz records, all neatly alphabetized and protected from the elements by thick plastic sleeves. Here is Johnny Thunders, here are the Subhumans, here is G.B.H.'s entire catalog. One bin holds a remarkable assortment of reggae and ska records, Bob Marley conspicuous by his absence. Another bin contains all the Oil records any skinhead could want. Aside from a stack of Frederiksen-produced CDs by the San Francisco-based political-punk band Swinging Utters, there seems to be nothing in the room less than a decade old.

"Do you have any Skrewdriver?" I ask, referring to the ultra-racist British skinhead band.

"I do," Frederiksen says, "and I'll tell you why. I have it because a friend of mine wanted to get it out of his life. He wanted to sell it. But if he sold it, some idiot out there would have bought it, so I took it off his hands and out of circulation. I believe in knowing your enemy. Still, I'm ashamed to keep Skrewdriver so near to my Desmond Dekker records. To me, reggae is a synonym for life."

So is family. A half hour later, Tim Armstrong shows up with his brother Jeff, a pale, long-haired accountant vaguely resembling Wayne's World's Garth. Jeff drives all of us to a gym in west Oakland, where he plays his regular Thursday night basketball game with his colleagues from the California Department of Transportation. When Rancid is in town, Armstrong and Frederiksen are fixtures at the overheated gym, cheering on Jeff's squad from the bench. The transportation workers are accustomed to the unruly looking pair—nobody so much as glances at the mohawked duo, except sometimes to wave "hi."

Jeff, who is about eight years older than his brother, essentially took care of Tim during his troubled late teens. He let him crash at his place in Richmond, California, when things got bad at home; he provided guidance when their alcoholic father was barely able to guide himself. When Tim didn't want to be a drunk anymore, he turned to Jeff for support. Tim is devoted to Jeff. Lars is devoted to Tim, which means he is also devoted to Jeff. As Sammy Davis, Jr. might have said, there's a lot of love in this room tonight.

A long-limbed, goofy-faced engineer on the opposing team—clearly the Hakeem Olajuwon of the CalTrans Thursday night league—dominates the second game. Jeff is the kind of player who notches more assists than points scored, but near the end of the game, he screws up his face, and somehow an all-elbows jump shot from the corner finds its way into the basket. Armstrong and Frederiksen shout themselves hoarse with joy.

After hoops, Jeff drops us off at Frederiksen's pad, and we hunker down for the evening. Frederiksen flips through a stack of videotapes In his living room. One of his roommate's Buns of Steel exercise tapes is briefly considered, and the compilation of New York hardcore bands looks tempting, but Armstrong's never seen Backdraft, so Backdraft it is. Before Kurt Russell saves the first baby from the flames, Armstrong is curled up asleep on the couch, smiling sweetly as an infant. A soft child's snore escapes from his lips. Frederiksen tenderly picks up the mohawk-concealing watchcap that has fallen from Armstrong's head and folds it in two before laying it on the armrest of the sofa.

"What do you think Rancid does on a big Thursday night?" Frederiksen asks. "Hang around with actress-models and sniff cocaine?"

***

On a July morning, Rancid perch on their amplifiers in the band's west Oakland rehearsal studio, tucked into a grimy industrial neighborhood a few blocks from where the 880 freeway collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The practice room is tidier than you might expect. Boxes of tour T-shirts are stacked neatly in a corner; a framed photograph of the Clash hangs on a rear wall.

You've got to hand it to Rancid—they've got this punk rock down cold. The ringing guitar chords, the anthemic sing-along choruses, the look. Armstrong even directed a video last year, for the Rancid song "Nihilism," that had the bleached-out high-contrast look of a badly photocopied punk flyer. If there were some latter-day Jon Landau out there, looking for a punk-rock Springsteen, he could do worse.

Onstage at the KROQ Weenie Roast in mid-June, sandwiched between a lackluster set from Rage Against the Machine and a slick poet-grunge revue from Hole, Rancid drove the crowd nuts; Freeman's double-time walking bass lines pumped the groove, Reed's rudimentary but powerful drumming grounded the beat, and Frederiksen and Armstrong, punk rock's new poster boys, traded vocals and guitar.

At the midpoint of "Salvation," Armstrong gathered himself after a verse, stepped to the lip of the stage, and hocked a big, sticky gob into the audience, almost shuddering with the pleasure of the exertion. He twirled and danced, sneaking glimpses of his face blown up 30 feet high on the giant video screen at the rear of the stage, suspenders drooping so low you feared he might trip, the studded belt of his bondage pants sagging to about the halfway point on the oversize boxers he wears underneath.

If you didn't know that Armstrong essentially writes all the Rancid songs, you might take him for the band's mascot rather than its leader. He's almost angelic, with a sweet, quavering vulnerability as palpable from 100 yards back as it is from three feet away at a stage-less squat gig. It's easy to bellow about smashing the state; what's difficult is reaching that secret place inside, the core of love and doubt and hurt that throbs at the heart of the best rock'n'roll. And though Armstrong's a little embarrassed by it, as a video director he's obviously aware that it's more than just his rock'n'roll heart that landed him here: The camera loves his face.

"It's a limited fuckin' thing that I do," says Armstrong, "and nobody knows that better than me, but I do it really, really well because it's what I love more than anything."

Rancid's music can resemble late-'70s English punk rock more than a little—the Los Angeles Times described the Weenie Roast set as "Clash-mania"—and much of Rancid's new album could have fit right into the playlist of a 1978 John Peel show. But '90s California thrash is not '70s English punk, and no comparison irks Rancid more.

"The Clash were a great band, and I love them dearly," Armstrong says, leaning on a stack of Marshalls back at the rehearsal studio, "but, dude, we've created our own fuckin' thing. For one thing, we don't have a guy who sings nigh like that, and for another, we did two records of pure, fuckin' California thrash. And we grew up listening to Bad Religion, not soul music and English pub rock, or whatever Joe Strummer was inspired by. I think the attitude and spirit may be similar, and Rancid and the Clash may have had similar working-class upbringings, but that's where it ends."

"Most of the people who go to shows," says Freeman, "aren't thinking about our influences, or whether the lyrics are written in trochaic spondees. They're thinking about maybe going into the mosh pit, or staying away from the crazy-looking fat guy, or whether or not they're having fun."

"There was one historical period when the Clash happened," sneers Frederiksen, "and another where Green Day, Rancid, and the Offspring happened. And the people who think we're just copying the old stuff are the guys driving fuckin' BMWs with anarchy stickers on the bumpers."

The BMWs were thick on the ground during a major-label bidding war for Rancid during which Madonna famously messengered the band a nude photo of herself—"It was just a picture from her Sex book," Freeman says, "but we appreciated the sentiment"—and Michael Goldstone, the A&R rep who inked Pearl Jam to Epic, dyed his hair blue in anticipation of a $1.5 million signing. This is not a favorite topic of the band.

Armstrong looks down and fidgets with his belt buckle. "First one major label was interested, then more came to see us play, and by the end of the Offspring tour, it was so fucking crazy."

"You've got to understand," pleads Freeman. "By the end of that tour, we'd been on the road from June to November, and when we finally got home there were all these guys hovering around. It was like being in the twilight zone. You had the Offspring going crazy, which nobody expected, and Epitaph turning from a company with like six people and two phones to what it is now really fucking quickly. We start getting attention. Green Day, who used to play half their shows with us, starts ruling the planet. We were like an hour from signing with Epic."

"I couldn't blame the other labels for trying," notes Brett Gurewitz, the president-owner of Epitaph, speaking from the label's new headquarters, a converted streetcar terminal in Los Angeles's Silver Lake district. "Rancid has more raw songwriting talent than any band in America. And they're my homeboys. Epitaph is a more nurturing place for them than the majors, a better place to make music. The fact is, I let them know I could sell more Rancid records than any major label. Nobody could have sold more Offspring records than we did."

"So what happened was that Brett flew up," Armstrong continues, "had lunch with me and Matt, and told us that no matter what happened, he loved us. He loved us! Suddenly, staying on Epitaph seemed to be the right thing to do. Brett loved us, and that's what it fucking came down to."

***

Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman grew up a few blocks apart in Albany, California, a mile-square town on Berkeley's northern edge. Albany has become the kind of place where the local multiplex screens subtitled French films and serves cappuccino at the concession stand, but it used to be a respectably blue-collar Oakland suburb.

Armstrong lived with his mother, his brother Jeff, and his chronically unemployed father in a house his mom inherited from her parents. Freeman's dad was a Berkeley cop whose job included policing the antiwar demonstrations of the '60s. Armstrong and Freeman used to look at Mr. Freeman's dented billy club and wonder how many hippie skulls it had bashed. Mostly the two hung out at Albany's 7-Eleven, where Jeff slung Slurpees for almost ten years, and where they were introduced to the local punk scene by the kids who loitered outside.

When Freeman and Armstrong were attending Albany High School, they started a band called Operation Ivy with their friend Jesse, playing Oakland garages and keg parties held in squats. Though the band sometimes sounded more ska than punk, Operation Ivy was in many ways the defining band of the scene that coalesced around the collectively run 924 Gilman Street Theatre in an industrial district of west Berkeley, a scene that also nurtured such bands as Crimpshrine, Neurosis, Isocracy, and Green Day.

"In '87," recalls Armstrong, "we were playing a gig with NOFX at Barrington Hall, which was a famous dorm at UC Berkeley whore the Dead Kennedys played, and this kid goes up to me before the show and says, 'I can't get in, it's sold out, and I want to see you play. We have the same last name.' Whatever. But I snuck this kid in the back, through the kitchen, and that was probably the first time I met Billie Joe of Green Day.

"But Operation Ivy got too popular. We started playing Gilman Street when it was still a fuckin' warehouse, and we played three or four house parties a week. For the first time there was a band selling out Gilman Street, and that was us. We didn't have any tools to deal with being popular. It was kind of weird."

"That's the great thing about the East Bay," Freeman says. "You can't get away with being a fuckin' rock star. People would break you in two."

After Operation Ivy, Freeman and Armstrong bounced together from band to band, none of them lasting more than a few months. Armstrong, a drunk since his early teens, bounced in and out of detox. In 1991, he hit bottom.

"I'd OD'd three times that year," he says quietly, curling himself into a tight fetal position. "I had no place to live, and I spent all my money on alcohol and drugs. Matt loved me, but I couldn't stay with him any more. My mom wouldn't let me sleep in her basement any more. My brother Jeff loves me so much, but I couldn't stay at his house any more. I slept in my girlfriend's shack, but I couldn't ... nowhere. I had burned all my fuckin' bridges. The people who love me were like, 'Dude, it's not fuckin' cute anymore.' And that was it. Dude, it was hopeless. So I moved into a Salvation Army shelter for a few weeks to get myself together, and when I got out, that's when Rancid happened."

He straightens his neck and gazes at Freeman with pure, puppy dog affection.

"When I was living at the Salvation Army," he continues, "they would drive me into these communities I'd never been to in my life, and we'd pick up furniture at these beautiful houses. This furniture was the nicest shit I'd over seen in my life—and they were giving it away. The whole thing was so lame; that's what 'Salvation' is about. Maybe something beautiful comes out of all the horrible shit that happened to me. But dude—I had to go through it. I didn't go through any 12-step thing. I didn't go to rehab. I just know right then the drug thing was over."

When Rancid first formed, beginning as a trio without Frederiksen, it played the same small keg parties and all-ages shows it had as Operation Ivy. Armstrong bused tables in pizza places up and down Telegraph Avenue; Freeman worked as a deliveryman, taking special pride in blocking in BMWs with his van. The co-op that ran 924 Gilman Street agreed to let the band rehearse at the club for free if they would swab the place down after Gilman's regular weekend gigs. The stench in the women's bathroom on a Sunday morning was bad enough to make Freeman lose his breakfast at least once. Rancid had to clean that up, too.

Frederiksen's mom is under the weather, so he grabs Freeman and his '63 Nova and heads south to Campbell, where Mrs. Frederiksen still lives in the apartment Lars grew up in. Campbell is a dreary expanse of housing estates and luxury" condos, a suburban nowheresville that could just as well be outside San Diego or Portland. We cruise by one of the many Togo's fast-food restaurants that employed Frederiksen during his teens, and it's as if Frederiksen has his sub-shop headset back around his ears. "Hello, I'm Lars," he intones, "how can I help you today?"

The spell is quickly broken by some cute townies killing time in front of the local library, and the invisible headset vanishes as suddenly as it appeared. "Whoa!" marvels Frederiksen. "Girls with pierced eyebrows! In Campbell! There never were girls like that when I went to high school. They're waving to us—let's go over and talk to them."

Freeman downshifts, but continues on. "Let's not," he sighs. "At best, they recognize the Nova from MTV."

Broken but unbowed by Freeman's reasoned analysis, Frederiksen takes a deep breath, and begins narrating our spin through town.

"This is the first elementary school I got thrown out of. There used to be some bushes over there in that park; we'd drink behind those, though we got busted once or twice....This is the bridge to the junior high school; I got suspended for pissing off it once when I thought nobody was looking. The place over there on the left, the dairy, that was the only place that would sell us beer when we were underage.... There's Food Villa—my friends broke in and took liquor and stuff, and they left graffiti that made everybody think it was satanists."

Freeman takes a right a little too quickly, and the Nova screeches around a corner. "Here's famous Campbell High," announces Frederiksen. "There's not one yearbook picture of me, I'm proud to say. We used to drink on that baseball field. in the third-base dugout."

"It's probably a good thing you're sober now," I say. "Do you have any memories of this town that don't involve drinking?"

Freeman swings the Nova left, past a bottle-strewn vacant lot. We roll down a wide avenue lined on both sides with low, window-barred bungalows that are set back from the street as if cowering from It. The sunset paints the Campbell sky the vivid color of raspberry sherbet; this could be the road to the end of the world.

"This is the single most historic spot in Campbell," Frederiksen says, gesturing widely, as the car noses back toward Mom's. "This is where I caught the 60 bus out of this place."

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