Tim Armstrong: Dear Guitar Hero

He’s a guitarist, label owner and producer who helped revive interest in American punk rock in the Nineties. But what Guitar World readers really want to know is…

Let the Dominoes Fall is your first album since 2003’s Indestructible. Why was now the right time to put out a new Rancid album? —Larry Tierney

We always do things that feel natural to us. We don’t force anything and we ain’t got no boss, so we do everything on our own time. We started writing songs at the end of winter 2007 with no real plan, and here we are in 2009 and the record’s ready. We all have different side projects as well. I wrote most of Rancid 5 on my own, but we didn’t want to do that this time. So we came to Utah [where drummer Branden Steineckert is based] to write the record as a crew. That’s kind of how we did the early records.

I was stoked to hear that Rancid was putting out a new album. Do you feel like taking that break with everyone doing their own side projects allowed you guys to come back to Rancid with new energy and excitement? —Alton Benes

Yeah, of course. But we were never separated. We’re always talking. I know bands always say that, but it’s the truth for us. I can’t go a couple of days without talking to those dudes. The great thing is that I live in L.A., Matt [Freeman, bass] lives in the East Bay, Lars [Frederiksen, guitar] lives in San Francisco and Branden lives in Utah, and when we write a record, the crew is back together and it’s exciting. That includes [Bad Religion guitarist/Epitaph Records owner/producer] Brett Gurewitz, who has been with us since the first record and he pretty much produced everything we’ve done. He suggested we go to Skywalker Sound in Northern California for three weeks in 2008 where we tracked most of the record. We were close to home so we had all of the crew and family there. It was a great time.

I just heard Rancid’s new single, “Last One to Die,” and it rocks! In the song it seems like you’re looking back over your career and taking stock of everything you’ve been through. Having survived this long, how has your attitude toward the scene and music business changed? —Victor Vega

Yeah, that song is saying we’re still here and we’re stronger than ever. I think that we’re fortunate to be able to tour without a record out or even have press. We’re fortunate that we have the best fans ever—they’re super loyal. And now we have a career doing what we love to do. I love to play music with those guys onstage. Making records is fun, but to play music and travel the world with my best friends…that’s a great job.

You’ve had an awesome career with Operation Ivy, Rancid, Transplants and your solo stuff. If you had to pick just one track from your career that’s most representative of your sound, what would it be and why? —Seymour Scagnetti

I’d have to say the first song on the new record, called “East Bay Night.” It’s basically about my heart being in the East Bay, where I grew up. I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen a lot of great places, but my favorite place will always be the Bay Area, particularly the East Bay. The song is tough, but it’s also catchy and it works well onstage. It’s also a song about who we are. We’re real, and we’re not faking anything when we’re playing. There may be some tough times in my life, but when I’m onstage with Rancid it’s all good.

I heard Rancid did cover songs at [pro skateboarder] Tony Hawk’s wedding. Is that true? Would you guys ever consider releasing a covers album? —Tim Booher

Yeah, we played Tony’s wedding out in Fiji. He’s a good dude, and we basically told him to write down some cover songs he would like us to do. It was awesome. As for the covers album, maybe. It’s not a bad idea.

I play a hollowbody and always have trouble with it feeding back when I crank my amp. Do you ever have this problem, and if so, how do you combat it? —Larry Dimmick

My guitar is a 1971 Gretsch Country Club hollowbody. I think mine is unique because it’s from the Baldwin era [Gretsch was sold to Baldwin, a leading piano manufacturer, in 1967]. The neck is connected to the body—it doesn’t hang over the body like it does on Gretsch models like the White Falcon. The guys at Gretsch told me that’s why my guitar doesn’t feed back as bad. I hear about people padding their guitars to prevent feedback, but fuck that. My guitar feeds back when I want it to. I’ve also turned off the front pickup, so the selector is basically an on/off switch. I play through a Mesa/Boogie Triple Rectifier, and I’ve got it overdriven like crazy. It doesn’t feed back while I’m playing, but when I stop I can just hit the on/off switch and silence the guitar. I don’t use a noise gate.

What are some of your musical inspirations outside of punk rock that may surprise people? —Freddy Newandyke

I read a lot, and one of my favorite writers is Stephen King. He said that to be a good writer, you have to read a lot. I’m with him, but I do the musical version of that. I’m always playing different kinds of music—I collect song books, and I’ll get anything from Brazilian jazz to Hank Williams. I also listen to a lot of Northern soul [a style of British dance music popularized in the late Sixties] like Frank Wilson and Dobie Gray. I also like Bruce Springsteen, and I love the Ramones, but I love Dee Dee [Ramone] in particular because his songs were so roughneck but very poppy. I will always love punk rock first and foremost and will always come back to the Ramones. They were my first true love. Everything gets compared to them and everything will fall short.

I’ve read that you’ve struggled with alcohol during your career. My bandmates are threatening to kick me out because I’m drinking too much. How’d you get yourself straightened out? —Marvin Nash

You’ve gotta quit for yourself. I’ve got a lot of friends that drink and do drugs, and I’ve got a lot of friends who don’t. After Operation Ivy, I started to drink a lot, but Matt Freeman was always there to help me out. What really helped was when he said he wouldn’t start Rancid with me unless I was sober. We were writing songs in the basement and he said to me, “I’ll always be your best friend, but I’ll only play in a band with you if you’re sober.” After my first year being sober, he told me, “Now we can do Rancid for real.” That’s how it happened. But he was a good friend and never turned his back on me. He gave me an incentive, and I think that’s what you need. You have to ask yourself if drinking is worth the price you’ll pay.

I am a huge Operation Ivy fan, and I have a two-part question. First, do you think that Operation Ivy will ever reunite? Second, how did you get such a raunchy guitar sound on those albums. It’s awesome! —Troy “K-10” Reissmann

I’m extremely proud of my work in Operation Ivy, and we did those 19 songs in one day. The energy was fucking crazy! Plus, we didn’t make a lot of mistakes, and we were together, so it was awesome. We played together from 1987 to 1989, and a reunion just seems weird to me. As an artist, I always want to move on to the new project. As for my guitar sound, it was similar to what I have now. I used a Mesa/Boogie combo, and I’ve always loved Mesa/Boogie—they overdrive without a pedal. I did use a pedal when we recorded the Hectic EP, but on the Energy record I used only the Mesa.

What is your opinion about [legendary NYC club] CBGB turning into a clothing store? —Nicholas Kanner

I just don’t want to forget what CBGB was: the birthplace of punk rock. The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell, Blondie…all of them came out of CBGB. Then you had Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Warzone, Sick of It All, Youth of Today, Madball, Gorilla Biscuits, Leeway, Crown of Thorns, H20… There is such a rich musical history from the place that birthed punk rock, and you always have to remember CBGB for that.

I love the way ska and reggae players use up-picking for the rhythm parts. When you were starting out was it difficult to get into that method of strumming? —Eddie Cabot

It came pretty easy, and we were playing it very early on. It goes back to what I said earlier about listening to music: if you listen to ska and reggae closely, it shouldn’t be a problem to figure it out. Listen to Lee Perry, Desmond Decker, the Two Tones, the Specials, Bad Manners, Selector… There are different ways to play the rhythm, but whatever way I play it, I always want to hear the note. You have to be careful about putting on too much distortion—you want it to be tough but not too distorted. When I play ska, I want my guitar to sound like a piano. On a song like “Timebomb,” I play super fast, but there isn’t too much gain, and to me it sounds more aggressive.

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