Rancid: The Sweet Smell of Success

The punk band matches wits with the corporate rock machine

Rancid, group portrait, Amsterdam , Netherlands, 1995. Credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty

TIM ARMSTRONG IS RESTING his head in his arms on a tabletop in a back corner of the Bottom Line, a sedate New York showcase club. This is an impressive feat, more formidable a task for Armstrong than for most, since the lead singer and guitarist of Rancid sports a pink-porcupine mohawk. Its 6-inch tines bravely defy gravity ("Knox gelatin: Boil it and stir in an ice cube," he later reveals), and tonight they're looking particularly sharp and pointy.

It's late Wednesday evening, and Rancid are watching an almost-somebody female folk singer with a little-girl voice; her tepid set culminates in a smirking cover of David Bowie's "All the Young Dudes." Armstrong has dozed off.

Drummer Brett Reed and bassist Matt Freeman – together they look like the Laurel and Hardy of greasers – are getting fidgety, having learned too late that there's no smoking allowed in the club. Only Rancid's guitarist Lars Frederiksen feigns interest, his broad, smiling face bright and wide-eyed. It seems Frederiksen took a hearty nap back at the hotel right before the show. He's also got a mohawk, though his is flame colored and shaped like a scrub brush.

Rancid are here to see X, the legendary Los Angeles punk group, perform a semiacoustic set. Rancid love X. (Freeman has a mammoth tribute to X tattooed on his upper right arm.) X play an intense but mellow hourlong set that, as good as it is, has more to do with honky-tonk than with punk. But the members of Rancid, classic-punk die-hards, are thrilled. Afterward, out on the sidewalk, everybody agrees the show was perfect. Freeman proudly confides that Rancid once got to meet the headliners backstage after an X show. "Yeah, but Matt got star struck when he met John Doe," says Armstrong with a sly grin. "He was speechless."

In the damp, acrid New York summer air, the tendrils of Armstrong's mohawk suddenly appear much wispier and more fragile. They're drooping a little. He begins fumbling with the Master lock on the chain around his neck, then with his beeper. Sometime during the last year, being punk got more complicated than it used to be. Especially if, like Armstrong – who's now dashing across the street to a phone booth – you're the leader of the world's third-biggest punk band.

FIRST IT WAS GREEN DAY, THEN THE OFFSPRING. Last year the sale of 15 million or so albums was all it really took to throw California's vibrant, cozy underground punk scene into permanent disarray. "It was like a war started," says Freeman, "and we didn't have any aircraft carriers."

Particularly affected was the East Bay scene centered on Gilman Street, in Berkeley. That nonprofit, all-volunteer club provided bands such as Green Day and Rancid – and before that, Rancid's precursor Operation Ivy – with a supportive environment and a chance to play when the options were limited. For Reed, who previously had been hanging out in the San Francisco scene, Gilman Street was a revelation. "At Gilman you didn't have to be a fucking hard-core street kid," he says. "You could have fun at shows instead of having to deal with the whole violence thing."

Long known as a breeding ground for the most radically left faction of California punk, the East Bay has since become a shrine for greedy major-label A&R representatives. "We were the perfect target to get caught in that cross fire," says Freeman, 29. "I mean, [Green Day's] Billie Joe is running around saying how much Operation Ivy influenced them, and Green Day are from our hometown, and then Offspring are on our label." Sure enough, industry bottom feeders started showing up at Rancid gigs in the weeks after the Offspring followed Green Day into the megarock stratosphere. "They just started coming out to shows," says Frederiksen. "We didn't ask them to."

By December 1994, Rancid were considering a $1.5 million deal with Epic Records, plus a $500,000 publishing contract. Then the coterie of managers and booking agents surrounding the band started howling. "We got made to feel," says Freeman, "that we were evil for even talking to these fucking people." The title of Rancid's new album, ... And Out Come the Wolves, is in part a reference to the bizarre interlude (the phrase itself was taken from an impromptu rant by Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll that graces one of the album's tracks).

In the end, Rancid decided to stick with Epitaph, the Los Angeles independent label that also distributes the Offspring and on-deck punk superstars like NOFX and Pennywise. Despite Rancid's vow that they never agreed to go with the Epic offer, the rumor was reported as fact in publications as prominent as the Los Angeles Times. Their own label even congratulated them prematurely on their newfound mainstream success. "Ever since I started playing punk rock, people have said major labels are shit," says Armstrong. "But I have to be shown: When I was a kid, people would tell me, 'Oh, don't fucking drink, man, it's bad for you,' or 'Don't do drugs.' But I gotta have my ass kicked before I'm gonna really believe any of that. I'm just so fucking glad we stayed on Epitaph."

JOHN'S PIZZERIA, A WEST VILLAGE landmark near Electric Lady studios, where the vocals for Wolves were recorded, is the next afternoon's destination. The band members straddle a cafeteria-style table, quiet and sullen till multiple pies (garlic and pepperoni) are washed down with icy pitchers of Coke.

"Staying on Epitaph put so much fire in us, man," says Armstrong. "We went into this record caring about fucking nothing except the songs. And I love it because I think there's an urgency there." Freeman adds, "During all the bullshit, we developed a Rancid motto: The only people that are happy with us are us."

Buddies since high school, Armstrong and Freeman were, from 1987 to 1989, one-half of Operation Ivy – the band that put Gilman Street on the map. "They were so exciting and had so much energy that I knew if I ever put out a record that Operation Ivy would be it," says Lawrence Livermore, owner of Lookout! Records. True to his word, Lookout! opened shop in January 1988 with the release of four 7-inch singles by the top Gilman acts – Operation Ivy, Isocracy, Crimp Shrine and Corrupted Morals.

Back then, Armstrong went by the name Lint, a punk-rock moniker that perfectly summed up his diminutive opinion of himself. Unfortunately, Operation Ivy, who distinguished themselves with a seamless mix of hard-driving punk and Jamaican ska, succumbed to the pressures of local success and played their final show the night their first album was released. "People got a little jealous," says Armstrong. "We all started off playing shows in garages and back yards, and then we just got huge – but a lot of the other Gilman Street bands stayed at this one level."

Operation Ivy stoked inexplicably deep punk passions. Armstrong remembers being approached one night before a sold-out show by a 15-year-old kid. "I can't get in," the young punk told him, "but I love you guys, and we have the same last name." Without pause, Armstrong led him through the kitchen. Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong (no relation) still mentions that night as one the most important of his life.

After Operation Ivy broke up, Armstrong and Freeman launched a few more short-lived bands. Frustrated, Freeman joined a group called MDC – Millions of Dead Cops – a decision the tough-talking bassist admits had as much to with riling his father, a Berkeley cop, as anything. Armstrong was an MDC roadie until his own drinking prevented him from maintaining even the most basic work schedule. "When I drink, I'm worse than my dad," says Armstrong, who once overdosed on a combination of bourbon and Valium.

After five trips to a detox facility in nearby Richmond, Calif., a routine later documented in Let's Go's "7 Years Down," Armstrong was forced to take a job with the Salvation Army collecting clothing and furniture (see the same album's "Salvation"). Sober only two weeks, Armstrong alerted Freeman that he wanted to regroup. "Whether we played together or not, he was still my friend," says Freeman, who by then worked at a truck-rental company. "Then, as fate sort of handed it, me and Tim got Rancid together."

Armstrong's street clothes – blue-green bondage pants, cherry-red combat boots, a white muscle T-shirt and a shredded jean jacket held together by safety pins – scream London 1977. But unlike the average zonked-out anarchist, Armstrong exudes a distinctly Brandoesque magnetism. Dark, gentle, brooding, Rancid's leader and main lyricist cuts a rangy, handsome profile. He talks as if he's got marbles in his mouth and walks with a slacker's slump; but when he speaks, his eyes glow, and he chooses words with the utmost care.

Armstrong, 29, was born the youngest of three brothers in Albany, Calif., a pleasant, sleepy lower middle-class town just north of Berkeley. Although his family lived in a decent old house that Armstrong's mother inherited from her father, they were poor. His father, a maintenance man, nursed an acute drinking problem that soon rendered his mother, an employee at a local cookie factory, the family's sole breadwinner. "Mom's a real hard worker," Armstrong says. "Even though we had no money, she was too proud to go on welfare. And she'd try to take us nice places like the Oakland Zoo."

Armstrong formed his first band with his older brother Greg, a hard-drinking punk fan who today is a career sergeant in the U.S. Army. His older brothers' record collections – which, Armstrong says, included "rad shit" by the Ramones, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys and the Circle Jerks – provided him with a thorough punk education, though one of his all-time favorite bands is the Specials, the British ska outfit.

It's not surprising that Armstrong found his perfect band mates in the members of Rancid. Like him, Freeman grew up in Albany and was raised by a single parent – in his case, his father. Reed spent his childhood being shuffled between his divorced parents' respective households. Frederiksen's mother was born in Denmark and emigrated to the U.S. as a nanny, minding the children of well-to-do New Yorkers (she once worked for Gene Kelly). He was raised in Campbell, Calif., a small town outside San Jose with a large Mexican-American population. His father, too, was absent.

Frederiksen's older brother had a friend who wore "this huge, red mohawk with leopard-skin sides." Young Lars had found a role model. Records by punk bands like Crass, Discharge and the Sub-humans primed Frederiksen, a high school dropout, in the ways of the world. "I was 11 years old, and these bands were screaming like it's fuckin' Armageddon," he says, admitting that punk rock scared him at first. "But at the same time I was taking in all this stuff about nuclear war and who's president and who Margaret Thatcher is and what a totalitarian system is." Today he's the member of Rancid with the greatest number of tattoos.

While the band members are the first to admit that the band is primarily about music and having fun, there's no denying its nearly evangelical socialist fervor. "I believe in the American dream – and I also believe in unions, just trying to get a better life for the working man," says Frederiksen, whose current reading includes Secrets, Lies and Democracy by Noam Chomsky. "Chomsky says that Thomas Jefferson was almost like a Marxist," he says.

Armstrong mentions in passing that the last book he read was "something by Trotsky." In the name of their common cause, Armstrong, Frederiksen and Reed have all vowed to abstain from alcohol since the band began. "We run Rancid like communists," says Frederiksen. "Everybody has a job to do."

"These guys aren't some pampered suburban kids," confirms Livermore. "They've got a really scrappy kind of ethos where they support each other because, as they've often said, 'We don't know how to do anything else.' "

WHEN FREEMAN AND ARMSTRONG recruited Reed, 23, for their new band, Reed hardly knew how to play. "I had just bought a used kit from some junkie in San Francisco," says the tall, gaunt drummer. By then a Gilman Street regular, Reed hit it off with Armstrong immediately. Within a month, Rancid had played their first show, as a three-piece. Lookout! Records agreed to release the band's first 7-inch. In April 1993, Epitaph issued the band's debut album.

"I didn't even have to hear anything," says Brett Gurewitz, Epitaph's owner. "I told Tim that I was such a fan of Operation Ivy and his songwriting that whatever his next project was, I would love to do it."

Soon after, the band temporarily recruited Green Day's Billie Joe as a second guitarist for a few rehearsals and one show at Gilman Street. Impressed with the new, meatier sound, Rancid invited Frederiksen to come aboard. He had toured briefly with the U.K. Subs before joining another Gilman band. One practice session later, Frederiksen nearly lost his new job while taking in a Green Day show with his new band mates. The guitarist got plastered, urinated on the floor and then began saluting fellow patrons with his genitals. Armstrong had to beg Freeman to let him remain. "I'm in this band on a technicality," Frederiksen says.

Since last year, Epitaph has reportedly sold more than 400,000 copies of Rancid's second album, Let's Go, a major factor in the band's sticking out another round. "The reason we went on Epitaph in the first place is Brett Gurewitz really loved us," Armstrong says. "Rancid is the greatest rock & roll band I've ever had the experience of working with," says Gurewitz. When Rancid returned to the fold, the entire Epitaph staff flew up from Los Angeles to celebrate.

These days the worst flak Rancid get is from critics claiming the band gulls its audience with an alleged imitation of the British punk style of playing developed in the late '70s by the Clash. Of course, Armstrong's squeaky bark of a voice is faintly reminiscent of Joe Strummer's. But in filtering the Clash's knack for punchy, melodic songwriting through a distinctly East Bay hardcore sensibility, Armstrong's band has arguably done the music one better. Bonuses abound in Rancid's music: For one, Armstrong and Frederiksen act as dueling lead singers, trading off lyrics in almost every song.

On "Roots Radicals," a song from … And Out Come the Wolves that was also released as a single last January, Frederiksen takes the first verse, in which he describes a bus ride up to Berkeley from Campbell; Armstrong sings the second, a recollection of his own trip south from Albany. Virtually every song on Wolves comes with its own vignette. "Olympia, WA" documents Armstrong's stormy relationship with Tobi of the riot-grrrl band Bikini Kill. "I kind of fell in love with her, then we had an argument, and now we're just friends," he says. "Maxwell Murder" addresses a kid who sells drugs right outside the Berkeley crash pad where Armstrong and Reed still live. "He's got the cure for people, man – and it's just so in my face," Armstrong says. And the reggae-rhythmed "Time Bomb" toasts a snazzy-dressing friend ("Black coat, white shoes, black hat") who used to rescue Armstrong from detox.

A few of Wolves' tracks, like "Daly City Train," mark a return to the punk-ska experiments initiated by Operation Ivy. Frederiksen, the band's resident punk scholar, says the hybrid is natural, explaining that the original punks were black: "Without Jamaican culture, there'd be no such thing as skinheads." Armstrong adds: "I always thought ska could be incorporated into punk rock if you had the right attitude. It's so infectious, it just drives me crazy." While the infatuation was rarely indulged on Rancid's first two albums, Armstrong notes that "Adina," the first song on Rancid's first album, works just as well with a ska beat as with its usual hardcore tempo.

EVENE THOUGH TIM ARMSTRONG is eating his roasted chicken with his fingers, he draws little attention at Orso, a tony mid-Manhattan trattoria. The rest of his band has flown home, but Armstrong has decided to stick around for a Friday-night dinner. Armstrong loves New York's energy and says that he and Frederiksen have seriously entertained moving East. He has even found a local hangout: ABC No Rio, the East Village dive that most closely approximates Gilman's setup. But with the city also comes an all-too-familiar sense of menace. "The other night I was hanging out with a bunch of my friends, and they're all on heroin," says Armstrong. "They all put out cigarettes on their arms." He unfolds his left arm to reveal two red welts the size of dimes: "They called me a pussy – so I had to do it, too." His voice has gotten gruffer and louder. "A couple of my friends also smoke crack," he says. Now a few heads turn in the restaurant. But Armstrong simply pauses, gulps his cappuccino, then adds, "I get a wild energy when I hang out with junkies."

This brief reflective moment ends in a flash. Armstrong's beeper is beckoning again. He asks the waitress the way to a pay phone. He's expecting a call from a prominent R&B video director whom he'd like for Rancid's next clip.

Being open to new experiences has already brought Rancid further from its Telegraph roots they could have imagined. In summer 1993, the band was touring in a windowless Econoline van. A year later, they were having bagels with Madonna, who had hoped to sign them to her Maverick label.

But for all the tastes of stardom, Armstrong remains a punk idealist, eager for Rancid to prove themselves again on tour this fall. "So much love goes into these shows," he says, having returned to his seat. "All it takes is going to some little city in Texas where this kid has been preparing for this one night for the last month – with the fliers and getting money for a PA and getting the stage right and getting enough microphones and usually not even breaking even. So you go, and you play fucking hard. And you better fucking not be a crybaby, because these are friends that you'll probably be friends with for life, these kids who put on the shows. You don't want to fuck them over."