Fortunately, the gig turned out to be a pretty hip one--a reception for attendees of a traditional Tibetan ceremony during which Dechen Wangdu married Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys. "Adam calls up and goes, 'Hey, I'm getting married. Would you guys play my wedding? You're Dechen's favorite band, and it would be a surprise,'" says Rancid bassist Matt Freeman. "And they've been really nice to us; we've known them for a while. So we were like, 'Sure.'
"It's at this place in New York City, and we show up and set up, and she still doesn't know about it," Freeman continues. "We're all dressed up in sharkskin suits--we looked cool--and there's all these Tibetan people and all of Mr. Yauch's family. And we played our set. I knew the Beastie Boys would be cool with it, but you had all these older people there, too, and we didn't know if they were going to throw shit or what. But they were really into it. It was pretty fucking cool."
So, too, is Life Won't Wait, the latest CD by Freeman, guitarist/vocalist Tim Armstrong, guitarist Lars Frederiksen and drummer Brett Reed. The disc's typically Rancid mix of often-political punk and ska has given critics who see Rancid as little more than a Clash tribute act plenty of ammo--a fact that amuses Freeman. ("We've been compared to the Clash for four years," he says. "Now I feel odd when someone doesn't bring it up in an interview. I'm like, 'You didn't ask about the Clash. You want to hear about that, you know.'") But a closer listen reveals that the album is Rancid's most varied, wide-ranging and professional effort to date. Indeed, Life is so polished that some longtime followers may be put off by it.
"I think we probably have alienated some people," Freeman acknowledges. "But you can't please all the people all the time--and I think people really underestimate music fans. Punk-rock fans, especially, are wicked smart; they know a lot. And I think we've built up a track record of always trying something different. So I think people who follow us knew that this record was going to be different.
"No one wants to alienate their fans. But at the same time, you have to be honest with yourself and honest with them, too. I mean, if we put out something like our self-titled record and we weren't feeling it but we did it because we'd been hearing that's what people wanted to hear, that wouldn't be very honest--and I think people would be just as pissed off. I think people appreciate honesty."
Freeman and Armstrong have been trying to infuse their music with this quality since 1987, when they joined with vocalist Jesse Michaels and drummer Dave Mello to form Operation Ivy, an outfit that exhibited the same Clash/Specials influences that Rancid continues to draw upon. The band put out an EP, Hectic, in 1988 on Lookout Records (later to be closely associated with Green Day) and delivered the full-length Energy the next year. But soon after the album hit stores, the band splintered, with Michaels going off to become a Buddhist monk.
Rather than follow Michaels to the monastery, Freeman and Armstrong recruited drummer Reed and declared themselves Rancid. Their debut, an EP dubbed I'm Not the Only One, was issued in 1992, and shortly after 1993's Rancid appeared, guitarist Frederiksen joined the lineup. "Radio," a single from the band's next album, 1994's Let's Go, was co-written by Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong, establishing a connection that made Rancid the flavor of the week after Green Day's Dookie became one of the biggest smashes of that year. A&R scouts came calling in huge numbers, and Madonna went so far as to send the boys a nude photo of herself (from her notorious book Sex) in an effort to convince them to sign with her company, Maverick. The situation was so absurd, Freeman says, "that at times we just felt like it was us four in the fucking jungle behind enemy lines, like a fucking war movie. We had this major label [Epic] offer us, like, $1.5 million, which I'd never, ever thought was possible in my lifetime.
"I don't think we could have got through it if we had some sort of ego thing or if everyone was out for himself. You had these people saying, 'Take the money' or 'Don't take the money.' Everyone had an opinion. But we all stuck together on it, and that brought us pretty close." He adds, "As long as you're friends, and as long as you're close to each other, all this other crazy stuff that happens doesn't really make a difference."