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Rancid is several weeks into a national tour, just about the time when the first wave of road-weariness sets in and bandmates are basically ready to throttle everyone in the van. Instead, bassist Matt Freeman is talking about the benefits of die-hard camaraderie. He credits Rancid's recent breakthrough -- the magazine covers, the hit album ... And Out Come the Wolves, the sell-out shows -- to solidarity in the face of some daunting obstacles, including drug abuse, childhood poverty, and ego inflation.
"For better or for worse, I was always taught -- maybe it's because I'm half Sicilian or whatever -- that family and friends come first," Freeman says. The 29-year-old has been portrayed as the anchor of the East Bay punk band, forsaking his own past vices for the cause of the group. "I read all this stuff that makes me look like a fuckin' saint or something," he grumbles. "Anyone that fuckin' knows me knows that I just do what I do; I don't think there's anything heroic about it."
Still, when Rancid singer/guitarist and longtime pal Tim Armstrong fell into a pit of alcohol and drugs a few years back, Freeman was there to pull him out. In 1991, two years after his ska-punk outfit Operation Ivy broke up, Armstrong hit rock bottom. "It wasn't like, have a few glasses of wine with dinner or whatever -- it was hard-core shit," Freeman remembers. "He was living in a Salvation Army shelter. I was fuckin' drivin' him around back and forth to the detox every day. He almost died a few times."
Armstrong supplies his own blunt account of his state of mind and body at the time on "Salvation," the powerful single from the band's second release, Let's Go. The lyrics also deal with the redemption that eventually arose from sinking so low. Once he sobered up for good with Freeman's help, Armstrong enlisted drummer Brett Reed and channeled all his energy and angst into Rancid.
Returning to the close-knit 924 Gilman scene, Rancid released a few songs on Berkeley's Lookout! Records, then signed with L.A.-based indie Epitaph, home of fellow California punks Offspring and Bad Religion. The notoriously hyper guitarist Lars Fredericksen, formerly with U.K. Subs, joined after the band recorded its self-titled debut. The high-speed, thrash-dominated Let's Go followed in 1994.
Looking back, Freeman says he knew Armstrong would clean up his act once he realized the music was at risk. "We always worked well together, but at that point, we couldn't even be in a band together," Freeman says. "But once he got sober and got that out of the way, look where we are. ... I can't even think of doing hard drugs anymore. I don't think we could physically do what we used to." Even so, Freeman says his band would never think about preaching the 12 steps.
"That's fucking bullshit," he argues. "It's everyone's decision. I had people when I was 16 telling me, 'Don't do this, don't do that.' You sort of have to do it yourself."
Instead, ... And Out Come the Wolves merely documents the former squalor and misery experienced by band members with 19 jacked-up vignettes that recall both the romanticized spirit of late-'70s Clash and the West Coast '80s hardcore of bands like Black Flag. Rancid has been repeatedly criticized for copping their hooks and attitude from the past, but Freeman makes no apologies.
"I'm proud of the record. Even if they panned it, I'd be fuckin' proud of it," he says. "You listen to some of those earlier [punk] records, and you wonder why the songs weren't radio hits. It's unbelievable. We always get compared to the Clash, but everyone's going to look for someone to compare to you. We could do way fucking worse than getting compared to the Clash -- we could be compared to the Bay City Rollers or something."
In any case, Rancid is now at the forefront of the so-called punk revival. After their good friends in Green Day went multiplatinum, and an opening slot with Offspring reaped them national press, a major label bidding war started. Right on the brink of signing the dotted line, they decided to stick with Epitaph instead.
"We looked at [the offers] -- when someone puts millions of dollars on the table, you gotta look at it," Freeman says. "But when it came down to it, everyone sort of freaked out and then came down to earth. It goes back to that whole thing about sticking with your friends."
Rancid plays Tues, Dec. 12, at the Fillmore in S.F. (the Mon, Dec. 11, show is sold out); call 346-6000.
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