It’s taken nearly a decade, but Matt Freeman – one of the best bassists in punk rock – has finally gotten his pschobilly project Devil’s Brigade out of the studio.
Between breaks with his day job (Rancid) and other projects (touring with Social Distortion, recording with The Transplants, etc.) Freeman continued to plug away at the three-piece, centered around his stand up bass. The project was first teased on a Hellcat Records comp “Give ‘Em The Boot III” in 2002, when the band debuted its first single “Vampire Girl.”
The project – at one time a musical ode to a San Francisco monument – was put on the back burner for awhile, but thanks to a break in his schedule Freeman finally decided to revisit the trio, which now includes longtime buddy and band mate Time Armstrong (Operation Ivy, Rancid, The Transplants) and former X drummer DJ Bonebrake.
Freeman spoke recently about the long road Devil’s Brigade had to take before finally releasing a proper album, the legacy of Operation Ivy and working with your childhood friend.
After all these years, what finally made you guys decide to get back together and put out a proper album?
Well, we had this idea about 10 years ago and we recorded a bunch of stuff, me and Tim wrote the songs together and at the time Brett Reed, Rancid’s old drummer came down and played on it, and the idea was to get some road musicians together and take it on tour – sort of what Lars (Frederiksen, Rancid guitarist and front man for Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards) did. Things just sort of came up with Rancid, The Transplants and then in ’04 I was going to do it and Social Distortion asked me to be in the band for awhile and then I had kids and then I had this thing I had to have surgery for and it knocked me out for a year, then Rancid went on tour again… but now Rancid is taking a break, so I have time again. I’m pretty blessed to have so much freakin’ work.
I read something that said you had originally conceived this album as being a musical. Is that right?
Yeah, we started sort of with this idea; Tim had this idea of writing a musical about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. The title was going to be “Halfway to Hell.” When they were building the bridge in the 30’s, they had this net that went under the roadway when they were working on it because there was some ratio when they were working on these big steal project that you lose something like one man for every million dollars you spend, some weird stat like that. So when they fell they’d fall into this net and they’d call themselves the Halfway to Hell Club. So we started writing some songs about that like “Halfway to Hell” and “Gentlemen of the Road.” We thought, that’s a good idea and maybe we’ll do that again sometime, but we started listening to some of the other songs we had written and said “These are really good. Let’s do some of these.” So we just decided to mix it up a bit.
So the songs on this record, are they taken from the original demos or did you go into a studio and re-record them?
Yeah, they’re all new. We recorded them in two places. First we went into a studio in Los Angeles and got DJ Bonebrake, the drummer for X. The whole idea was that me and Tim were going to record these songs and we wanted a really great drummer and were thinking about who we should get. We were talking one day and I said “I’ve been listening to the first couple of X records, man, they’re so good. We gotta get someone like DJ to play on this record.” He was like “Dude, let’s just get DJ!” I’d played with him about 14 years ago on Auntie Christ, but we’d lost touch. But we called him up and he’s just one of the nicest guys on the planet. He comes in and he’s amazing. He comes in and he has this old ride cymbal and he says, “This is the one I played on the first X record. Do you think I should play it today?” And we’re like “YES, we’ll get it its own mic.” It was fun. It’s a cool sounding record because the basics are all Tim and DJ playing the songs together. I played an upright (bass), so I had to record those parts later. (Tim and DJ) just clicked like nobody’s business and I think it’s because we had been listening to X records for so long.
Besides you, Tim and DJ, did you have anyone sit in for any of the songs?
Um, well, DJ, Tim and me did most of it. DJ also played vibes on it and he did all of the percussion. Our co-producer Ryan Foltz is from Cleveland and in his studio we did all the vocals and put a few more guitars on and we had a piano player come in and (Ryan) played mandolin on “Bridge of Gold.” So we added more stuff when we were in Cleveland.
You’re planning to tour around this record, right?
The only thing we have booked now is I’m going to open up for the Street Dogs for two months. Basically that’s a tour that does the East and West coast on two different legs. I’m looking for other stuff, but we’ll start off in the states. It’s gonna be different, it’s middle bill and I’ve got two really good guys – Rob Milucky who used to be in The Hunns, Duane Peters old band, and Chris Arredondo who played drums in The Briggs – joining me.
You’ve had a lot of side projects outside of Rancid, but you and Tim have been playing together a very long time. Is it odd at all when you’re playing with another band and Tim is not on the stage with you?
Um yeah, actually it is. The bottom line is – and this includes Lars and Branden (Steineckert, Rancid’s drummer) too now – Rancid has this thing that we do and I can’t explain it. Tim and I have known each other since we were little kids. We grew up playing together and we just know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we trust each other completely. When we write together, no idea is a bad idea type of thing. I’ve played live with other bands and the first few times it’s a little strange. When I played with Social Distortion it was a little easier because they put me on the right side of the stage instead of the left side, but I found out that the hearing in my left ear was a lot better from all those years on the other side of the stage. It’s not weird like debilitating weird, shaking in the corner weird, it’s just different. Rancid has been around for so long and we’ve played so many shows together and we have so much fun up there. It’s different, but it is what it is.
I apologize for this next question, as I assume you have to answer it a lot. When you and Tim were in Operation Ivy, did you realize at the time that you were making music that would last so long or were you just kids out having a good time?
That band was definitely special, but we were just kids having a good time. We were young and we played a lot of shows and toured in a ’69 Chrysler… I think other people (thought we were going to be influential)… I remember we were on tour with this car and out in the desert somewhere and we were with Larry Livermore (owner of Lookout Records) and this car is overheating and I’m trying to put fluid in it without cracking the block and he’s just following me around going “You know, Operation Ivy is going to be one of those bands like the Dead Kennedys who get really influential after they break up.” And I’m like “Fuck off Larry, I’m busy right now. I have other problems.” The answer is no, but I hear that a lot and I’m really thankful. That was a really good band.
With Devil’s Brigade, do you have plans to do another album?
Well, yeah. Yes and no. We got this done and it took us this long to do it. I want to take it on tour and Rancid will do something new at some point. So yes I would like to do another record, but me and Armstrong will always be doing another record. These things sort of happen naturally. I know that sounds sort of hippie, but it will happen when it happens. I don’t have some grand plan for the next 10 years.
Have you and the band started talking about the new Rancid album yet?
No, not yet. We’re sort of taking a break. We just did the last one and I’m sort of focusing on this one.