Published Aug 22, 2010As endless bands slather their music in slapping bass and their heads in pompadours before gleaning any genuine comprehension of psychobilly's legacy, it's a relief that revered Rancid bassist Matt Freeman steps into the ring with these incapable contenders. Far from starry-eyed newbies, Freeman and crew (guitarist Tim Armstrong and X drummer DJ Bonebrake) have been at this for a decade, far longer than any of those Tiger Army clones squishing into creepers lately. At that, Devil's Brigade is competent and sturdy, poised to show us how psychobilly's really done. Featuring both recently penned tunes and songs in the works since their debut on Hellcat Records' 2002 compilation, Give 'Em The Boot III, Devil's Brigade's half-hour of violating rhythms, punked-up, countrified guitar and triplet-smashing drums is energized and innovative for such a rigid musical style. Taking his own approach to music he inherently knows ― not simply admires, but clearly understands ― Freeman's rumbling vocals lend Devil's Brigade a thick, menacing stance. This uncommon angle is fresh and decidedly captivating, as if a hoard of NYHC proponents discovered their twangier side, unleashing a fervent blast of beastly, shuffling groove without sacrificing Freeman's matchless, rambling bass style. Strong and merciless, instinctive yet wily, Devil's Brigade injects new life, creativity and enthusiasm into psychobilly's stagnating corpse.
Was there a great challenge in getting this together?
Freeman: Not really. Tim and I had the idea about ten years ago, recorded some songs and they ended up on the odd EP. The plan was that [this] was our project and I'd get a band and go on tour with it.
Things just started coming up. Rancid are always top priority and we've put out two records in the past ten years, toured and then I was in Social Distortion for a bit. Then I had that stupid lung cancer scare bullshit for 18 months and Rancid got going again. So after the last few years of that, we decided to take some time off and it was finally the right time to do this project.
It's an amusing diversion from Rancid then?
Yeah, it's a lot of fun. I did all the vocals, the upright bass and it was hard, but at the same time it was easy 'cause I was working with Tim and we've been working together for so fuckin' long. We know each other really well. It's a lot of fun to write songs with him and he helped me a lot on this.
Devil's Brigade have been going for a while without a full-length, but when you put it that way it makes sense.
It was pretty funny; it's a lot of work. We're taking this on tour opening for the Street Dogs for September/October, but we're not going to Canada yet. I'd love to, but you have that thing called "winter" that's no fun.
No, it's not a popular time to tour in Canada.
Actually, in 1995, I remember touring Canada in December; it was crazy.
That was with AFI, wasn't it? You learned a lesson then, didn't you?
Exactly! It was crazy. We played in Thunder Bay and the locals came up saying, "I can't believe you came here! Nobody comes here at this time!" We couldn't [believe it] either. It was [during] a snowstorm and people were really appreciative of it.
Getting back to this band, touring as the frontman will be different for you, won't it?
Yeah. Playing the upright bass and singing the whole set by myself should be interesting. In 2004, Lars [Frederiksen, Rancid guitarist] went out with the Bastards after we did Indestructible and my wife was pregnant with our first child, so I was home. I was like, "Okay, Devil's Brigade! I'm doing it!" I get the upright, practice everyday and then I get this call: "Do you want to come join Social Distortion?" "Sure! You want me there this afternoon?" I did that tour and then my first son was born, so it was an indulgence. I always knew I would go back to Rancid, so it was fun while it lasted. Being in that band, I learned a lot.
I'd imagine. Getting offered that is kind of being handed the Holy Grail to punk rockers.
Pretty much, yeah. I was honoured to be asked, honestly.
Seeing you play with them was interesting. You're normally like a lead bass player so you had to pare things back.
It was funny being in that band 'cause they made me a lot better bassist. I definitely have a style and Rancid have their thing, but Social D are a lot different. I learned a lot about tempos. It's unexplainable, but once I got it, I got it and it made me really get into the rhythm of the songs. I've been into that forever, but I had to re-approach things. Dynamics too, but you just learn from playing with other people.
Did you apply those lessons to Devil's Brigade?
I'd say so, but I think it's more subliminal than anything else. I don't know how to explain it. Music is one of those things where I get inspiration from everywhere ― all kinds of music, 'cause I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to music.
That's crucial for a career musician, isn't it? If you're not open, you grow stale.
Yeah, I'd say so and there's so much great music out there. When I was growing up, my mother played that friggin' Carole King record Tapestry over and over again. A couple of years ago, I was listening to the radio and one of the songs came on. I was like, "Oh my God! I've taken influence from that and I don't even know it!" It was in my subconscious! I also see great musicians everywhere.
This is the first experience for you playing full-on stand-up bass. How hard was that, 'cause you've noted that you had to practice it a lot?
Oh, I practice both, electric too, every day. That's just the way I am, but it's a totally different, physical way of playing. You have to be physically stronger. You're slapping and holding strings down, but they're super-high and the note spaces are different. You have to approach it like a totally new instrument. I have the ideas for the lines in my head, but you have to apply yourself in a different way. I also have a totally weird style of playing electric bass. My hands are small and my wrists are gnarled from breaking them as a kid so I do a lot of not normal things. I get the job done, but I'd make a lot of traditional jazz guys look at me in horror. Singing the songs while doing an opposite rhythm is challenging too, but I'm working on it. I love it. I was taking the upright on the road with Rancid for the last tour. I'm working hard on it.
It's interesting to see how supportive you all are of each other's ventures outside of Rancid.
They all turn into team efforts; it's been Team Devil's Brigade all summer. Me and Tim did this together, Lars sang on the record and Branden's [Steinecker, drummer] been supportive. It's on Hellcat, which I'm thankful for, 'cause they and Epitaph are really helping out. It was the same thing with the Transplants and the Bastards or Poet's Life: we help each other out. Rancid will always be the main thing though and we know that. I can understand doing something differently, but not running away from your band unless you hate them. These guys are my brothers; I'm thankful those guys have my back and it makes things fun.
It's like being comfortable enough in your relationship to let the other go out alone for a night.
Yeah, like with the Social D thing; they were so supportive about it. I played a joke on Lars when that went down. He was on tour with the Bastards and I called him up saying, "Well, Social D called and they want me to play bass for 'em." "Really?" "Yeah, but I told 'em, 'no, I don't wanna do that.'" There was silence and he was like, "You get on the phone right now and you fuckin' hope they take you back!" I laughed and said it was all good. He's easy to wind-up sometimes, but he was awesome and supportive. I was being mean getting him stressed out for no reason though. Tim's great too. He produced the record and he's behind it. I'm lucky to have him as a best friend and cheerleader/coach. He's so happy and encouraging about it.
What do you hope to achieve with Devil's Brigade?
Well, the record, but it's done now so I've got two guys to play in the band. I'm gonna take a three-piece out and just play shows when Rancid aren't playing or working on a record. With Rancid, we talk everyday and see each other all the time, but when we get a project ― record or tour ― that's it, everything else stops. When that's not happening, I'll take this out as much as I can.
Have fun when you can?
Yeah, Rancid's always the main thing and we've been fortunate in our career. I'm lucky to be able to play with such great people, but I want this to be simple: a three-piece having some fun. (Hellcat/Epitaph)