"Some of the best albums, I think, are sort of complete thoughts and we somehow managed to pull that off with this Only Crime record even though what a gnarly experience it was trying to get it done," Rankin says. "When somebody listens to it, they're not going to have any idea that was the case - the record's going to hit them in the face repeatedly and they're going to be stoked to go back for more."
During his 30-minute drive to work ("I'm on hands-free so it's legit"), Rankin spoke to Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about the new album, Bill Stevenson's surprising vocal range, and recording a new Good Riddance record in the fall.
So it seems like a lot of people are digging that first song ("Life Was Fair") off the new album.
Yeah I hope so. I've heard people say they like it, but most of them are my friends, so what are they going to say.
[Laughs] The last time we spoke, back in 2012, you mentioned how you were almost finished with this album. Why did it take so long to finish?
Yeah, a lot of things got in the way. We've got members living in different states, everybody's in different bands with really demanding schedules. So finding time to all get together, to write, to rehearse, and demo and stuff like that, had proven to be difficult. And our drummer Bill (Stevenson) had some health issues that kind of kept him out of the loop too. It was an extra bummer because not only could he not play drums or tour, but we use his studio to demo and rehearse at and we weren't able to do that either. So it was a bunch of different stuff, just one thing after another. But we kept chipping away at it and once it was finished, we had to find a label.
Which you found on Rise Records. How have they been?
They've been amazing. I mean, I've only been on one record label pretty much my whole life (Fat Wreck Chords). So I know that…it was cool they were so excited about it. Like, they loved the songs we sent them right away and then when we went to meet with Craig (Ericson, founder) from Rise, he was just so enthusiastic about it. It really was cool because we'd been going so long at it and it had dragged on and on and we were determined to get it done, but a lot of the spontaneity and joy of creating a new record, for me anyway, had a gone away – it had become this thing hanging over our heads. Having somebody from the outside be like, "No, these are rad songs – this is killer" made me realize I kind of lost perspective on it and made be excited again.
But don't you think it's better than rushing through an album?
I think there's a fine line. My experience with Good Riddance has always been you take six months to write an album and then you record it. Some of the best albums, I think, are sort of complete thoughts and we somehow managed to pull that off with this Only Crime record even though what a gnarly experience it was trying to get it done. When somebody listens to it, they're not going to have any idea that was the case – the record's going to hit them in the face repeatedly and they're going to be stoked to go back for more.
So what would the complete thought be for this record?
It's hard to say. Musically, it's a complete thought. You know, in our band, with all the guys from other bands that are pretty well-established, we tended to have songs that seemed conflicted or…it's hard to explain. Like, one song would kind of sound like one guy's band and another song would sound like another guy's band and this record is the most Only Crime-sounding…it's the sound we were shooting for from the beginning. We've pulled it off better than the previous two, although I think those records are great. This one takes it a step further towards as far as accomplishing what we originally set out to do and not be derivative of our other bands we're involved in.
We wanted to make something that was really, really heavy, but had absolutely no metal in it. We wanted something that was really dark and groove-oriented, influenced by jazz - like if John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman had played in Blag Flag or something like that.
Yeah, the sound seems more consistent throughout this album compared to the past couple. It also sounds a bit more experimental than the last one.
Yeah, we've always tried to do that because of the level of musicianship in the band – we didn't want to take the easy way out. Since we recorded our last album, we got a new guitar player (Matt Hoffman, Modern Life is War) and he brought a lot of new ideas and creativity and that pushed us even further – he actually joined the band back in 2007. He's a really meticulous songwriter and has some really outside-the-box arrangements that he plays. He and Bill connected right away as far as pushing our sound and pushing our arrangements towards the experimental side of the jazz influences…I think that lit a fire under the rest of us too. What's cool about being the guy who writes the lyrics is that Matt's riffs don't sound like anything I've really heard, but they also weren't too oblong to writes melodies or words around. I didn't have too tough of a time.
Who did those haunting female background vocals on "Drowning?"
I don't think that was female – I think that was Bill at the top of his range.
No way, really?
Yeah. I don't know for sure. I laid down, what do you call it, a ghost vocal? Like, I did that part when I did my lead vocals, but I'm pretty sure that's not me. I don't know man, I'd have to ask Bill, but what I think is it's him at the top of his range – he's got a great voice and a pretty high range. I could be wrong, but that's what I think…that's what I think went down.
The opening track on the album is the really good "We Are Divided." Do you really feel that way as a society? In the States, anyway.
I think so. But I would I caution anybody finding too much specificity in the lyrics of an Only Crime record – it is different than what I do otherwise. The whole point of Only Crime was not be overly political or not be overly idea-oriented in the lyrics. I wrote a lot of the lyrics just listening to music, just whatever popped into my head. I wanted to use the vocal more as an instrument aside from being a way to hammer home a certain idea. While I think the lyrics are good and hopefully not too pedestrian, they're open to a lot more interpretation than lyrics I've written for my other band.
That kind of leads into the next question. What do you get artistically from Only Crime that you don't from other projects like Good Riddance?
Only Crime has proven to be much more of a challenge because out of the five people in the band, I'm the least musically savvy. Whereas in Good Riddance, I think we're all on the same page, we all sort of came from the same background and learned the same stuff at the same time. I mean, all the guys in Good Riddance are great players, but we didn't all start out that way. In Only Crime, I'm just hanging on by the skin of my teeth to get through a song and figure out how to write melodies and lyrics over these oblong phrases and weird time signatures.
So that part of it is super challenging, but I think it's made me a better song writer and I've learned a lot. And it's a fun group…the fun dynamic between everybody and we all play off of that really well. But for me, it's a little challenging being in Only Crime because I'm trying to write lyrics for some of this crazy stuff. Like Good Riddance is not cake walk, but it has pretty standard time signatures and this, as I said, has more of a jazz idea and influence. And those guys don't care if I'm having a tough time, I just got to man up and figure it out. Especially on this album, which took those ideas further, I think it served us really well, but it was definitely something I had to overcome and I'm a better songwriter for it.
When you started Only Crime did you think you would do three albums?
I think we did. We had pretty high hopes when we started out. There was a reality check when we went out to play shows, with who showed up, but then we didn't care. We wanted to do it anyway because nobody else was doing anything like that and we were having fun hanging out and going out on tour. Going through the lineup changes was tough, back when Doni (Blair) left. You always hope that when you start a band that the original lineup stays together, but for most bands it doesn't happen that way. Everything happens for a reason, I guess and the guys we have now are great. So to answer your question, I thought we would have three albums…I thought we'd have more. It was an opened-ended project.
You recently released a video for "Life Was Fair." What made you go with the addiction theme? Was that what you were thinking about when you wrote it?
No, that was one of treatments offered up by the director. There was like two or three different treatments for the video and that was the one I thought was cool. Like I said, lyrically, these songs were written to be comprehensible and have a fluidity, but not to be about a specific thing. But like when I watch that video, it makes sense to me.
Yeah, it's a great video.
Yeah, it turned out awesome and is the first time Only Crime's done anything like that. And also, I guess none of us do drugs and are not much about that kind of lifestyle, so it jives with our sensibilities a bit.
Speaking of the differences of writing for your different bands, are you working on any new songs for Good Riddance?
We are. We hope to record an album in September.
Right on. Any details?
No, not really. Just that it's in the infancy stages. We have a pretty good amount of material written. About three years ago…four years ago, when I was writing stuff for my solo album (Farewell Catalonia), I ended up writing these punk songs. Good Riddance wasn't playing at the time and they weren't like fucked enough for Only Crime. So I went into the studio with a drummer and laid them down – I did all the guitar and bass and vocals. I ended up playing those songs for the guys in Good Riddance and they all dug them so a few of those will probably be on the record. Luke (Pabich) is working on some stuff and I'm writing when I have time so we'll have plenty of material by September.
So the vibe's pretty good in the band right now?
We started out wanting to play a few shows to see how it felt, but we dug it and it went really well. So we've been doing that for about a year and a half and then we realized that that novelty's going to wear off and at some point we were just going to become like a jukebox. So we either needed to stop for good or make something new. After talking about it and after kicking around some ideas – and after playing the guys those songs and we practiced them – that put everybody in the headspace and it got the juices flowing on the idea that we should start working on a new album.
I know you're a big fan of the Psychedelic Furs and I saw they're touring the States in the next couple of months. Are you going to try to catch any of their shows?
No, they're not coming to California, unfortunately. They actually played in Santa Cruz last year, which was great because normally I have to drive to San Francisco or somewhere in southern California. So they played in my hometown and my friend was the promoter – so not only did I get to just pop down to see them, but I also got in for free. It was awesome.
Do you hope you're still touring when you're their age? In your 50s?
I mean, that would be awesome, but I don't know if the kind of music I've chosen to play translates well to an aging body. The solo stuff…I think I could do forever. But especially with Only Crime, it's physically more taxing than Good Riddance. I don't know why I decided to start a more aggressive band when I got older. [Laughs] It's going to be tough for Only Crime to get onto the road so we'll do whatever we can to support this record and do right by the label because they've been so awesome. We've got a European tour booked and we're going to book some North American shows too, hopefully by the end of the summer.
What are else are you working on? You've done some production work in the past…
I haven't done any for a long time. It's just because the music industry is kind of in the garbage and most bands don't have the money. They can barely string enough money for studio time, then they have to pay an engineer and then they have to pay me? So, while I'd still love to do it, I just haven't had any opportunities.
How about another solo record?
Yeah…I've started to work on some new songs, but that's kind of lower on the list of priorities right now. I'm still trying to play as many of those shows as I can – I just did a few shows out here with Kevin Seconds and I'm playing Pouzza Fest in Montreal. I'm still playing a lot, but I'm getting sick of my songs and need new ones, for sure.
Would you ever go into politics?
Umm, people always ask me that. I guess so?
In what capacity could you see that happening?
I really have no idea. I know that's a lame answer for a guy known for being political on a record. It's just not something I've thought about. My path, while it's political, may be different from public office. But then again, I may change my mind. My friend Jessie is playing for a bunch of bands in East Bay and he's in the government, in the Green Party there. It's fucking rad seeing dudes from my same background, and sharing the same ideals, getting in politics...it's really inspiring. I wouldn't rule something like that out.
It just sucks twirling away in a country that doesn't have a free press and it sucks knowing that nobody's ever really going to know about your party or your platform. I guess that's the biggest bummer. I feel like my time is better spent working behind the scenes to get a more balanced view of the electoral landscape for Americans. I'm sick of talking about the elections every four years and realizing everybody still thinks there are only two parties. It's a bit of a bummer.
Are the issues pissing you off now and pushing you to write the same as they were 10 years ago?
Yeah, it's the same. It's when social justice and equality's being squashed. In my country, there's this right-wing war on women and minorities and the LGBT community and unions. I see this super unequal distribution of wealth and the majority of people feeling like they don't have a voice. I see how marginalized everybody is and how people seem to be okay with it – that really bothers me.
That and I'm guessing also the New Jersey Devils playoff hopes this year…
Yeah, I don't even want to talk about that, man…