Some critics suggest that 1991 was the year that punk broke through to the mainstream thanks to the commercial success of Seattle grunge band Nirvana (as suggested by the title of the documentary "1991: The Year Punk Broke" featuring Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and the Ramones), but actually the genre's big breakthrough happened a few years later in 1994 when genuine punk bands like Green Day and the Offspring topped the charts. Rancid was one of several bands that thrived thanks to a surge of interest in punk music during this period, releasing the album … And Out Come the Wolves in 1995, which became certified Platinum thanks to the singles "Roots Radicals," "Time Bomb," and "Ruby Soho."
While most successful punk bands quickly attract ridicule for abandoning their underground roots—as if punk credibility and mainstream success are somehow mutually exclusive—Rancid singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong never really suffered such criticism. Part of that has to do with the fact that Rancid turned down offers to sign with major record companies and released all of their records on an independent label, but the main reason is because Armstrong's music always embodies the true spirit of punk, whether he's writing songs for pop/R&B singer Pink, producing reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, or working with his numerous side projects like Transplants, Devils Brigade, or Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards.
"Punk rock is rebel music," says Armstrong. "So is reggae music. They both go against the norm and make their own rules. I've always loved music like punk, rock and roll, and ska, which to me has a similar sound to punk. I love bands like the Specials, the Ramones and The Who."
Armstrong's two older brothers helped Tim develop his musical tastes at an early age. "One of my brothers was into more arty stuff like Lou Reed, Elvis Costello and reggae," Armstrong recalls. "My other brother loved Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. I loved it all. The one group that they both agreed on was the Ramones. That was like our family band because everyone loved them. We got into the Ramones when their first album came out, so I was there watching the first wave of punk as it happened."
Shortly afterwards, Armstrong started playing guitar. His first instrument was an acoustic guitar, but because he is left-handed he initially struggled with it. "I started playing it right-handed, which was backwards for me," he explains. "Then I figured out that left-handed was the way I should play it, so I figured out a way to flip the guitar over. After I did that, I immediately knew how to play, as if I always knew how to play guitar. I was playing within a week."
Soon Armstrong got his first electric—a Seville Stratocaster copy—and started jamming with his brother Greg. "We would play for hours and hours, just me and him in the basement," says Armstrong. "He was the drummer so he would let me take the lead. Even though he's four years older than me, he instinctively knew to let me be the boss. I still consider Greg the best bandmate I ever had."
"Punk rock is rebel music. So is reggae music. They both go against the norm and make their own rules."
About nine years later in 1987, Armstrong recorded his first album with Operation Ivy; his childhood friend Matt Freeman played bass. Although Operation Ivy remained together only two years, the band and its distinctive ska-punk sound played a significant, influential role in Berkeley, California's burgeoning Gilman Street punk movement, inspiring bands like Green Day and Sublime.
After Operation Ivy broke up, Armstrong was considering his next move when a friend offered him valuable advice: "A good friend of mine who had been in bands for a long time asked me who my two closest friends were. He then told me that was who I should start a band with. It didn't matter how good they were or if they had any chops. It was more about getting together with homies that I wanted to hang out with. I thought about it and realized that I already had Matt, who happens to have chops and is an incredible bass player, and Brett (Reed), who played drums. Lars (Frederiksen) joined about a year later, and we clicked immediately."
Armstrong says that Rancid played "everywhere—every punk rock house party and at Gilman Street" for about a year before the band even got paid. In 1992, Rancid released a self-titled EP on Lookout! Records, which caught the attention of Brett Gurewitz who signed Rancid to his label, Epitaph Records. Rancid's debut album came out in May 1993.
While Rancid's second album, Let's Go, was a moderate success, peaking at number 97 on the Billboard 200 album chart, … And Out Come the Wolves made the band a fixture of modern rock radio. The band toured extensively from late 1995 through early 1997, when they entered the studio to record Life Won't Wait. Although the album didn't sell as well as its predecessor, it was well received critically. Rancid expanded its sound considerably beyond the hardcore punk and punk-ska styles of their previous efforts, exploring roots reggae, rockabilly, hip-hop and dub.
The expanded sound of Life Won't Wait reflected Armstrong's growing ambitions. After the album came out, he formed Hellcat Records as a subsidiary of Epitaph. In addition to releasing subsequent Rancid albums, the label was home to Armstrong signings that included the Dropkick Murphys, Tiger Army and Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. The label also gave Armstrong an outlet for releasing albums by his numerous side projects, which include Devils Bridgade, Transplants and Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards.
"Brett (Gurewitz) thought it would be a good idea for us to start a label together," says Armstrong. "I was always telling him about bands that I had heard of, and Brett and I always got along very well. I felt it was the right thing to do at the time, so I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. It was a very big step for me. Los Angeles is a very musical city."
The move to Los Angeles also put Armstrong in close company with other artists he normally wouldn't have worked with in the Bay Area. In addition to collaborating with Gwen Stefani on her first solo album, Armstrong started working with Pink, writing and producing several songs for her Try This album.
The move to Los Angeles also put Armstrong in close company with other artists he normally wouldn't have worked with in the Bay Area. It was then that Armstrong started working with Pink, writing and producing several songs for her Try This album.
"A good friend of mine who
had been in bands for a
long time asked me who my
two closest friends were. He
then told me that was who I
should start a band with."
"I've always been a songwriter, but this was the first time I wrote songs for other people," Armstrong recalls. "Pink came to a Transplants video shoot, and I gave her a song that I wrote for her even though I didn't know her before that. Sometimes I write songs that I think would be cool for someone else to do. We went to my studio and I played her song after song, and she picked the ones she liked. We recorded ‘Trouble' on a tour bus with an AKG C 12 mic and a Demeter preamp. The signal was a little too hot, but she was feeling good and just killed it. We went back to my studio and tried to beat that take but we couldn't, so that demo take stayed on the album."
Armstrong says that similar circumstances led to his recent work with Jimmy Cliff. Originally he was supposed to collaborate with Cliff on just one song for Cliff's upcoming album, but the two hit it off so well that he ended up producing the entire thing. The Sacred Fire EP, which was released in November, provides a taste of what's to come from their collaboration.
"I pulled together a band of punk rock kids that love reggae," says Armstrong. "We all hit it off with Jimmy big time. He loved our whole energy and the sound that we were putting down. We did a lot of the record live, which is how he used to make records when he was a young guy. There's a certain energy when you have a band playing together with the singer. When you're playing live on the floor, no one tries to overplay or hot dog to try to jump out. They're all in the pocket."
Although Armstrong produced Cliff's album, he couldn't resist the temptation to play guitar with the band as well. Recently the musical instrument industry recognized Armstrong's talents on the guitar by introducing a pair of signature instruments—the Gretsch G5191BK Tim Armstrong Electromatic and the Fender Tim Armstrong Hellcat Acoustic. Both instruments are based on old, battered vintage instruments that have been Armstrong's favorite axes for decades.
"The Gretsch is a replica of my old Country Club model," he says. "I played Gretsch guitars for a long time before the people at Gretsch got in contact with me. They wanted to reissue the '70s Country Club that I play, which they stopped making in 1981. I've always loved that guitar because I play a lot of clean-sounding punk guitar, and it always sounds very full-bodied. Even when I play it through a distorted Mesa Boogie, you can still hear every note in a chord. It's always been my favorite guitar."
The G5191BK Tim Armstrong Electromatic offers many of the same features as Armstrong's main guitar, including a flat black finish, a harpshaped tailpiece, and a pair of Gretsch Filter'Tron humbucking pickups. Even more importantly, it features the 17" body, parallel tone bars, and internal sound post that give his Country Club its distinct, piano-like tone.
After Gretsch completed his signature model, Fender asked Armstrong if he was also interested in allowing them to make an acoustic similar to the old '60s Fender F-Series acoustic that he's owned since 1986. "Matt Freeman bought that guitar for me," says Armstrong. "A few months later I left the East Bay and took a Greyhound bus by myself to New York City. All I brought was my backpack and that guitar. I was in a fanzine shop on St. Mark's Place and saw an ad for Gilman Street announcing that it was going to be opening up. I wondered what I was doing in New York and took the bus back home. Matt and I started Operation Ivy shortly after that. That guitar has been with me on every tour since then. I still have it and write a lot of songs with it. It's my baby. The fact that Fender made a copy of it is really cool to me."
While Armstrong has made a lot of new acquaintances during the various twists and turns of his career, his devotion to things that have been there since the beginning—whether it's his bandmates or his trusty guitars—proves that you don't have to leave your closest things behind in order to be successful. In fact, Armstrong himself would argue that his devotion to the things he loves from his favorite styles of music to the instruments that continue to inspire his creativity are the reason for his success in the first place.
To listen to the Tim Armstrong interview in its entirety, visit atguitarcenter.com/podcast