by Interviews

Russ Rankin is the frontman of long-running Santa Cruz hardcore punk band Good Riddance and bicoastal supergroup Only Crime. He talked with Punknews staff writer Tyler Barrett while driving through the hills and backroads of central California about the new Good Riddance album (Thoughts and Prayers out now on Fat Wreck Chords), what it’s like as a punk rocker after 50, and how Gwen Stefani maybe did or didn’t steal the phrase “Tragic Kingdom” from a 1990 Good Riddance demo.

Congrats on the new record. I’ve been listening to it most of the week and digging it so far. How’s everything going on your end with the release? We’re good. It’s pretty easy. Fat Wreck does all the hard work once we record the album so right now we’re just figuring out which songs to put into our setlist for Europe and that’s pretty much it.

So you’re touring Europe and Canada to promote this new record, right? Is there any point for a band like Good Riddance to tour the US anymore or is time better spent abroad? I think the US can be tough. We obviously play California, northern and southern. We try to get back to the East Coast and play Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, and Boston, maybe. Even back in the height of our touring, Boston was always pretty challenging for us. But New York City is always good, Jersey’s usually good and Philadelphia has been hit or miss. But we try to do the East Coast. With a new album out, we’re going to try to play more places in the U.S. with little weekend things. But due to family commitments and all of us having real jobs now we can’t really hop in the van right now for six months like we used to. So it’s gonna be quick strikes. But we are planning maybe Great Lakes area, Texas, and Florida.

Was there ever a time at the height of Good Riddance before the music industry shrank that Good Riddance was a full-time job for any of you? From 1995 until about 2002 it was a full-time job for us. It was, “write a new album, record it, and then spend the rest of the year touring on it, then start over again.” In 2002, our guitar player decided he wanted to go back to school so we cut way back and that forced us to find other things to do. Then we did that record, My Republic, which we thought was pretty decent and no one really bought it and no one was coming to shows. So we were like, “Okay, I see what’s going on here.”

I agree, that was a really good record that I don’t think got the appreciation it deserved for whatever reason. Coming back after that in 2015 for Peace in our Time, did you feel like there was more pressure or less pressure after being away for close to a decade? There was no pressure, really. We decided to start playing again and after a year or two after that--maybe a year and a half--we were having a blast. Speaking for myself, five years away from it was good and the band’s place in punk rock history, modest as it may be, was pretty well cemented so there was nothing to prove. And being able to survive and be a human being apart from that band for five years was good for me. And so for me, when we started playing again, especially traveling and playing festivals, I really got a chance to just enjoy the opportunity rather than being concerned with the nuts and bolts of the business side of it or lapsing into imagined competitions in my head with bands I considered friends. So for me, it was just cool to be like, “Hey, we’re having a blast and we’re four really lucky dudes.” So after about a year and a half it was like, “Well, this is fun but most of these songs were written a long time ago.” And I’ve talked to other guys from bands that I know that have the same story and it’s like, if you’re used to creating music with a group of people and that group of people gets together again it’s just human nature to gravitate towards new material. I had written several songs during the years that we weren’t playing that weren’t like solo-guy songs, they were more like punk-band songs. I demoed them with a drummer and I played guitar and bass and sang and I played a couple of those songs for the guys and they dug them. And then Luke had been compiling riffs and ideas from the five years we didn’t play. So from my demo and Luke’s recordings we had a good starting point for Peace in Our Time. It came together relatively quickly after that.

Stylistically, did “Dry Season” [from Peace in Our Time] feel like a risk at all to you with the discordant screaming, or was it something you didn’t think twice about? That’s just Chuck…if Chuck doesn’t get to scream till his face turns red at least once or twice on a record he gets bummed out so that was just his time to shine [laughs].

If I can make a Public Enemy analogy, is Chuck the Flavor Flav to your Chuck D? There is kind of that…and we’ve talked about that because people give me a hard time because I don’t ever smile, I’m a serious dude and on stage I’m trying to be hard, trying to be all stern singing these political lyrics…and then off to my left is Chuck, like dancing around with drool coming out of his mouth [laughs]. So I think there kind of that dynamic but it’s something that’s just manifested from each of our personalities. But I know Chuck doesn’t wanna be known as a hype man and I don’t wanna be known as this super serious dude that never smiles so we’re trying to be conscious of that as we move forward with our live shows. Everybody loves Chuck, he puts on a great show and he’s really outgoing and gregarious, but I’d like to be a little bit more like that myself.

Let’s talk about the new record, Thoughts and Prayers. It’s twelve songs, 28 minutes out now on Fat Wreck Chords with Jason Livermore and Bill Stevenson turning the knobs. It also includes your first mostly Spanish song, “Lo Que Sucede” and “Who We Are,” which at 3:23 seems like maybe the longest ever Good Riddance song on a studio album. Maybe not the longest one ever but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. It’s that long intro that takes the right amount of time to resolve properly. It was actually gonna be longer…there’s an A and B part in the first verse and there’s the chorus and it goes one time through and there was gonna be two there. But Luke was finally just like, “Dude, that’s too long, it goes on forever, it’s too monotonous.” So we chopped it down, but it used to be even longer.

On first listen, Thoughts and Prayers sounds like trademark, vintage Good Riddance through and through. On closer listens, you do have the classic-sounding stuff like “Pox Americana”—which is a great title by the way—but also “No King But Caesar” which is almost as heavy and discordant as [Rankin’s other band] Only Crime. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got “No Safe Place,” which sounds almost like a straight up pop-punk song. Was that diversity organic or just coincidental…or…how did it come to be? Well this record came together pretty quickly. I got into this mode in 2017 where I was having a rough time in my personal life and I was making myself play guitar everyday. I’d make myself play for an hour everyday and sometimes more. For me, that’s usually what it takes to get the ball rolling. For whatever reason, I was particularly more inspired than usual and stuff kept coming, like ideas and riffs and then melodies started forming in my head. The first idea for “No Safe Place” was a verse melody that I gravitated towards and it ended up being not the way I wrote it initially on the record. It’s a little more spare. But I think the choruses just sound natural the way they are as full, heavy half-time choruses. And then with “No King But Caesar,” I had the into riff and--as with most days--I was just trying to be Greg Ginn. So I had the intro riff and I was like, “That sounds kinda heavy, it almost sounds like something Danzig would do.” And the fast part was two separate ideas and I just kind of married those two together to make an intro and a song.

Are there any Good Riddance songs that started out as Only Crime songs or vice versa? Yeah, there’s one of each of those, oddly enough. On the first Only Crime album there’s a song called “Fallen Idols” and that was gonna be a Good Riddance song but the guys in Good Riddance refused to play it. They said it sounded like Green Day. And then “Darkest Days” was gonna be an Only Crime song. But Only Crime passed. And Bill [Stevenson, drummer of Only Crime, Black Flag, and the Descendents and producer of many Good Riddance albums] still is like, “Man, we should have done ‘Darkest Days.’”

That’s one of my favorite Good Riddance songs. The chorus always reminded me of the Turtles’ “Happy Together” or Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreaming.” It’s basically us trying to sound like the Adolescents, which is all we’ve ever done [laughs].

Portions of the record are going to Second Harvest and Never Again MSD. Really cool you’re contributing in a very tangible way. I think many readers will already be familiar with Second Harvest but talk a little about Never Again MSD (Marjorie Stoneman Douglas). There are numerous organizations that are working toward gun control in our country. So there were really a lot of choices but in checking out their website and learning what they were all about it seemed like [Never Again MSD] was well thought out and easy to navigate and get involved. So it wasn’t that that one was better than others but it was finding a group you feel good about and then picking one of them.

Sounds like the new record was pretty personal in terms of your state of mind when writing it. Was that unique to this record or do they all reflect it in some way? There’s some on all. But since I’ve fallen into the role of primary songwriter I’ll get a song done and have a recorded demo on LogicPro and then go down to the rehearsal space and knock out some vocals and send it to the guys. I kept sending them these demos and I was like, “If any of you guys don’t like this just let me know,” and I just kept working and we eventually had enough material we ended up recording 17 songs. So there are five we’re saving that we’re gonna use for other stuff. The 12 strongest ones made it on the album by people’s votes and Bill as usual was really involved in that.

Tell me about the line on “Don’t Have Time” from Thoughts and Prayers, “Just what have we done? We killed a mother’s only son.” Killing a mother’s only son is mostly about war, and the reason we find ourselves engaged in these wars for decades at a time, invading and occupying countries that never posed a threat. And it’s about all the people that have been killed and chewed up and spat out in that effort only to line the pockets of war profiteers and further damage our standing in the world.

Pretty timeless theme, unfortunately…to bring it to the present, you’re a long-time Green Party supporter and said back in the Bush years that the Democratic Party is no better than Republican Party. Are there any current Democratic candidates you think would do a better job than Trump? I think that a basic amoeba could do a better job than Trump [laughs]. But among the Democrats, I like Bernie Sanders. What sort of sucks is a lot of his most popular ideas have been tentpoles of the Green Party platform for decades but nobody ever hears about it. Everybody acts like Bernie invented single-payer healthcare but the cool thing about Bernie Sanders is he’s been the same way since like the 70s. He’s not in the pockets of lobbyists the same way as some of the other candidates are.

What was it like being a political band on Fat at the height of the NOFX/Propagandhi feud? There was a feud? I didn’t even know about it, that’s how not in the middle of it I was. I remember Punk Voter and I remember some people who were Republican calling up Mike when Bush got re-elected and giving him a hard time.

People in the punk scene? Yeah. That was pretty rough.

Are there any bands you’ve developed a special camaraderie with over the years? Some of my favorite times were touring with Lifetime. They ended up being amazing dudes, plus I love that band so much it was great to see them play every night. We’ve toured a lot with Sick of it All, including just a few months ago in Spain. We get along great hanging out at the club before and after shows and I love that band too…their live performances are so inspiring. They’re not young men anymore but they haven’t slowed down at all. We have so much history with them and I consider them a band to be one that I’ve learned a lot from, as in how to really take it seriously in terms of a live show and how to prepare myself. They’re just great dudes.

I remember watching a straight edge documentary almost a decade ago in which you talked about--and I’m paraphrasing here--how it’s not so hard to be a punk rocker when you’re a teenager, but it gets quite a bit harder when you’re 28 or 29. Now at 51, tell me how you feel age affects the punk rock identity. I think it’s probably easier now at any age, just because of how available everything is and the availability to connect. I think the difficulty for me was finding like-minded people in your peer group. As a young person you’re naturally going to rebel against things and punk rock is a perfect landing spot for that. And it’s kickass. And then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, I’m married or I’ve got a kid or I’ve got this crazy job that doesn’t want me to have tattoos.” Society will do its best to kind of beat that out of you. So then it becomes a lot more covert where you’re the guy sneaking out on a Wednesday night to go see a band or something. A lot of our fans are older or at various stages of adulting which doesn’t permit the full-time rebellion with all its trappings in the way it did when we were younger. But it’s an ethereal thing that people keep in their hearts and their souls more than anything else.

I know when you formed Only Crime with Aaron Dalbec (from Bane), you wanted other band members who didn’t smoke and do drugs. Did you want Only Crime to be a straight edge band or what was the reason behind that? I just wanted to see what that was like. I only own this one thing. Only Crime was never gonna be a straight edge band but it was one of those things that just made life easier.

What does straight edge mean to you in terms of its application in your life? Initially it was the thing that allowed me to stay involved in this kinda music and scene without drinking. As a person who drank a lot when I was younger, I associated punk entirely with that culture of drugs, alcohol, and nihilism. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t that way. So when I sobered up I was worried I wasn’t gonna be able to be into punk anymore. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. Right around the time I got sober, I went to see No For An Answer, Verbal Assault and Insted at Gilman St. and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had at a show and it was 400-500 people going absolutely nuts and almost no one was fucked up. It was my gateway into still being able to get crazy and go to shows and enjoy aggressive music without feeling like I had to get fucked up first.

Has sharing the name of a Top 40 acoustic Green Day song ("Good Riddance (Time of Your Life") been a net negative or a net positive over the years? Hard to say, but I know exactly what you're talking about. One time in the early days of YouTube, I remember typing in "Good Riddance" and wading through page after page of just an angsty teenage guy on his bed with an acoustic guitar. And there wasn't even the band Green Day it was just all these dudes. They were all kinda the same age and had the same angst. Eventually you get to my band. It's interesting the way that goes…I don't know whether it's been a plus or minus.

You don't get too many fans who say, "Oh I discovered you through the Green Day song." Nope, I have not heard that one yet. Moreso people being like "I was looking for you and then I just gave up and now I'm a Green Day fan [laughs]."

I was doing a some deep research on Good Riddance and came across a 1990 demo called Santa Cruz Hardcore that had a song called "Tragic Kingdom." Was this a common phrase used by people in California or did you make it up? And if so, does Gwen Stefani owe you any royalties? That's something that Luke and I wrote together. The first time we got together, that was something he brought in terms of the music and I wrote the lyrics. I thought I was the first person to ever think of it, but now I'm quite sure I probably wasn't. It's not something I hear everyday, I just thought about Disneyland being cool when I was a kid and now…not so cool.

So you're 51 now, still vegan, still straight edge, still in good physical fitness. You've probably got at least another 50 years ahead of you. Tell me how you want to spend the next 50-ish years of your life? Hopefully watching and playing hockey and going out on the water. Hopefully not having to be so angry about the state of the world. It's hard to stay positive…

Any future Only Crime plans? You mentioned Good Riddance has the five songs ready to go but what's the status of Only Crime? I'm gonna be playing some solo shows in the fall opening up for the Dropkick Murphys, which should be interesting. I'm trying to play solo shows since I have that solo album [2012's Farewell Catalonia]. So I try and do that whenever I can. Still not sure if that's something worth doing. I haven't gotten enough feedback to know if it's good or not. Only Crime, we have a group text that's ongoing where everybody's trying to find time to write again, to get together. But we'll see.