Rancid bassist and self-professed “bass junkie” Matt Freeman visited Fender headquarters on Thursday morning to check out the latest/greatest bass guitars and amps we have to offer. Although a bit distracted by a Hal Leonard Publication, The Fender Bass – An Illustrated History, Freeman cordially spared some time to chat with Fender News.
“I am going to read that entire book before I do anything else tonight, but for now let me put it out of sight and answer your questions,” he said.
FN: Well, for starters, you paused on a page with a photo of the Who’s John Entwistle. He’s one of your main influences right?
MF: Yes, I’d say he’s THE biggest influence for me. I had always been involved in music. I played the trumpet when I was kid and then got into guitar, but everyone was playing guitar so I kind of wanted to play something different. So then I got this Who record, Live at Leeds, which is this live concert they did in 1970 that came out as an EP. That record was awesome because on my Radio Shack stereo you could turn to one side and just hear the bass and once I heard that, I was like, “Wow, I want to do that.”
FN: So how did you go about trying to play like him?
MF: I had a bass teacher who knew a lot about the bass, and who showed me how things worked and what you could do with the instrument. I’d also study anything I could get my hands on. Back then it was mostly just records and technical magazines and whatever I could see by watching a movie like the Who’s Kids Are Alright. Then later in the ’80s, videotapes came out and you could get a videotape to watch.
FN: We know you are a big collector of bass gear, but what did it all start with?
MF: I went through a period where I collected quite a bit, but I’ve actually pared down my collection over the years. My first one was when I was 16 and it was a Fender Musicmaster. Since then, I’ve become a real big fan of ’70s Precision Bass guitars, so I have a couple of those. My main one is a ’77 P Bass that I don’t take on tour anymore, but it’s my favorite and I play that. I’m really into late 1960s Jazz Bass guitars, and mid-’70s Jazz Bass guitars. I don’t own any ’80s Fender instruments. I have a ’95 P Bass that I played with Rancid for quite a long time that is actually really good, but I’ve since retired it.
FN: You said the ’77 P Bass is your favorite. How long have you had it and what about it stands out to you?
MF: I bought it for $400 in 1987 and played it when I was in Operation Ivy and the beginning of Rancid. I just always kept it. It’s still my favorite and sounds really good, but I don’t take it on tour anymore. The frets are just really worn. The whole thing is really worn. It is sort of a time machine. It hasn’t really been worked on for a long time. It just is what it is and I don’t want to mess it up.
FN: So you’re in town to play a live show tonight at the Clubhouse with your trio Devil’s Brigade. How did this side project begin?
MF: Basically Tim Armstrong and I came up with this idea to do sort of a psychobilly punk rock band about 10 years ago when we recorded a bunch of songs. It just sort of got put off. I was going to get a side band together but something always came up – a Rancid tour, Transplants, Social Distortion. Then I got sick for a year and I couldn’t do anything, but now Rancid is going to take a break so this was finally the right time.
FN: Right, you had quite the scare with your lungs?
MF: I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005. I had quit smoking about 18 months before this diagnosis, but I smoked 20 years before that so it wasn’t a big surprise. I got a second opinion though. They had to go in and take some stuff out of my lungs and it ended up being benign tissue. Still, surgery was no freaking joke so I couldn’t really do anything for about a year. But it all worked out and I’ve been okay since. There was one time when Rancid played in Denver, the Mile High City, and I got sort of short of breath and it started to hurt. Other than that, I’ve been really lucky.
FN: We read that Devil’s Brigade’s eponymous album (which came out in August on Hellcat Records) was originally a concept album about the Golden Gate Bridge.
MF: Well, originally we wrote a bunch of songs 10 years ago, and then Tim had an idea of doing a musical about the Golden Gate Bridge so we started writing a bunch of songs for that. But we still felt the songs we had recorded 10 years ago were pretty good and felt that we should put those out. So we ended up taking the best out of all of them and making one big record.
FN: Obviously you guys are from the Bay Area, but what exactly about the bridge inspired you to want to write songs about it?
MF: We’ve lived there all of our lives and being in the East Bay you see that thing out there. It’s this huge thing and it’s always part of your life. And the way they built it was really neat – the middle of the Depression and there’s a big story behind it. Even when the earthquake happened in ’89 there were reports at first that the Golden Gate Bridge is falling down. It’s like, “No, it didn’t!” That thing is NOT falling down. So it was just always a big deal in our lives.
FN: During this process, did you uncover any interesting factoids about the bridge?
MF: I could tell you all kinds of technical specs. It’s got 80,000 miles of wire. All of those things are pencil-size wires that go into big wire cables that hold it up. It’s all 1930s technology. They didn’t have computers back then. These guys dealt with slide rules and pencils, which is pretty amazing.
FN: You and Tim have been writing together for ages, but what was the process like on Devil’s Brigade? Was it any different than working on a Rancid album?
MF: I think everything with us starts really organically. I was playing upright bass and a lot of psychobilly bands were around. So we just thought we’d write songs for fun. We throw around ideas and we have a really, I don’t want to say weird way of working, but we’ve been friends for so long that we just have a process we do. It’s hard to explain, but it’s pretty awesome in the sense that with us, no idea is a bad idea. We can just throw stuff out. We are so secure with each other creatively, we can try totally different things without feeling we are going to be an idiot or something. He’s super freaking talented and really creative. On this last record, we had DJ Bonebrake (of influential punk group X) playing drums. He’s just awesome, a great drummer. He also plays vibes and so Tim told him, “You have to bring those down; we’ll use them.” They ended up on the record and it sounds really good.
FN: As you mentioned, you play upright bass in Devil’s Brigade, but you also are the lead vocalist. Do you enjoy the challenge of doing something new?
MF: I do play electric on some of the songs, but yes, I’m singing and playing upright bass so it’s something different for me. But really, I love to play. It gives me an opportunity to go out and do something different and play live. We’ve been really lucky over the years to have really good fans who pretty much support anything we do – whether it be Lars Frederiksen and the Bastards, the Transplants, A Poet’s Life, this or whatever. I think our fans know that we really love doing it. But this was a big project for me. Lars and Tim sang on the record, Tim wrote it with me and produced it. It’s always a team thing – we are always involved in other people’s stuff. I’ve played on Transplants records and Lars’ record and vice versa. It’s sort of an outcropping and we’re really lucky that people support us in doing that.
To find out where you can catch the Devil’s Brigade live, featuring Freeman, Rob Milucky (The Grabbers) and Chris Arandero (The Breaks), visit here.