Rancid Bassist Matt Freeman Talks Devil's Brigade Project, Kids Songs, and Op Ivy Reunion

Categories: Q&A
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Matt Freeman has been a force in East Bay punk for more than two decades.
Just when it seemed like almost everyone in the big-time East Bay punk band Rancid has had a side project of their own except for bassist Matt Freeman, the 44-year-old bassist is today releasing Devil's Brigade, a long-in-the-works collection of rockabilly-country-punk on which Freeman plays upright bass. With a little help from fellow Rancid members Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen, and drumming by X's DJ Bonebreak, Devil's Brigade melds old-timey vibes -- lyrics about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge and being a union man, and the dusty, percussive slaps of Freeman's upright -- with the anthemic, superheated punk that Rancid made its name on. Freeman recently spoke to us from his home in Berkeley about how the Devil's Brigade project came to be, which Ramones songs his young sons like, the fate of legendary Berkeley venue 924 Gilman (where several of Freeman's bands began), and whether fans of the pre-Rancid legends Operation Ivy can ever hope to see the band reunited. Devil's Brigade comes out today on Epitaph Records, and the touring band comes to Slim's in S.F. on October 16.

How did Devil's Brigade get started? Where did the initial musical ideas, like playing with an upright bass, come from? 

Matt Freeman: We started writing some of those songs 10 years ago, just me and Tim. I was trying to play upright back then, and we were like 'Oh, let's have some fun and write these psychobilly/punk songs.' We ended up doing a demo of them and it turned out pretty well. The plan was [that] I could do this band Devil's Brigade and maybe take it on the road someday with other musicians, and it'd be something different -- sort of like what Lars [Frederiksen] did with the Bastards or Tim [Armstrong] with the Transplants. So we recorded the songs, [and] it came out pretty well. I ended up putting them out on some EPs and a couple Give 'Em The Boot compilations on Hellcat [Records]. I never really got around to getting the other half [of the songs] done with the other band. Rancid is sort of taking a break right now, because we just put out a record and did a bunch of touring, so it was time to do it.

How many of the songs are from the original demos and how many were written later for the record? 

It's about half and half. Tim had an idea to do a musical about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, "Halfway to Hell." The Halfway to Hell Club were these guys that would fall off the bridge, and they got caught in the steel net. That bridge is so awesome, and if you've lived here a long time, it's always there. It's huge, you can see it from anywhere, and so we started to write some songs for that. And we started listening to the older [Devil's Brigade] songs, and were like you know, these are pretty good, too. Let's just mix them up and we'll put that  idea [for a musical] aside for a while.

Tell me about playing upright bass. Do you play it the whole album? 

There are two songs where I play electric -- "Protest Song" and "My Own Man Now" -- just because it just worked. But 90 percent of the record I play upright, that was the idea. 

How does the upright bass change the sound or the way you put songs together? 

It's more of a rhythm thing,  it's physically harder to play. The strings are super-freakin' high, and you're slapping that thing, and acoustic instruments are pretty unforgiving.

So you picked up upright after you'd been playing electric bass for a while? 

I never played upright bass in school. I wanted to, but they said my hands were too small. 

Really? 

Yeah, the '70s, man, they had rules, I guess. I played trumpet instead [laughs]. And I played electric bass. Actually, Brett Gurewitz [of Epitaph Records and Bad Religion] gave me an upright as a gift. it was really cool. I got on it, and it was like freaking incomprehensible. Like, I know where to put my fingers, but it's not really making any sound! I just worked at it, and worked at it, and watched other people, and asked questions.

 A lot of the songs on Devil's Brigade seem to come from the perspective of being an adult -- being a working man, being a union man, having a family and kids. Did you mean to explore that point of view?

I don't know -- stuff just sort of comes out. I think as you get older you just evolve. I've got two children now, and it definitely makes me think of stuff differently. 

How old are your kids? Are they interested in music yet? Do they play music?

Five and three. Two boys. They like music a lot. They're pretty eclectic in their taste. There's a whole -- which I didn't know before I had children -- there's an entire industry out there of just music for kids. It's insane. But they do like Rancid a lot, they like the Clash, and all the stuff I listen to. They're really into the Aquabats. But they'll get stuck on things, and it's pretty cool. Like my little boy, my littlest one is really into the song "Rock and Roll Radio" right now, by the Ramones. And it's like, 'I wanna hear it again!' 'Okay.' 'Hear it again!' 'Okay.' [laughs]. And one of their favorite records is A Poet's Life -- Tim's solo record. They love that record. 

What about you? What are you listening to these days? 
 
Before we went through the record, I was listening to a lot of X again. In fact, that's why we called DJ [Bonebreak, to play drums on the Devil's Brigade album]. We were getting ready to [record] and I was listening to mostly Under the Big Black Sun, Wild Gift and Los Angeles -- the first three [X] records -- they're my favorite records. I was talking to Tim one day when we were talking about what drummer we're going to get, and I was like, 'Man, I've been listening to a lot of X, we gotta get somebody like DJ, he's so frickin' good.' And it was like, 'Well, why don't we call DJ and ask what he's doing?' I wonder how many times that happens to him. He's really good.

Are you worried about the trouble that 924 Gilman's having right now with the recent rent increase?

Not to sound jaded -- I don't want to get in trouble -- but I've heard that before. When we were there a lot, that seemed to be a common theme with that place. I think the spirit is there, I think that place is so special, I hope it stays open. I think it's important.

Will an Operation Ivy reunion ever happen? 

I can't see it happening. That was a great band, and I love that record. And it's real special, but I don't know. We like to move forward. We've all gone on with our lives.

What else are you working on? What are the future plans for Rancid? 

Rancid will do something at some point. I don't know what we'll do, we don't really have a master plan. But we all talk all the time. Rancid's never going to go away. Obviously, me and Tim have known each other since we were little kids, we've been through everything together. We're just not playing right now.

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