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As Matt Freeman tells it, the origin of the project that became Devils Brigade couldn't have been more NorCal.
"Tim Armstrong had an idea like, 'Why don't we do a musical about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge?'" Freeman recalls of his longtime partner in storied Bay Area bands Operation Ivy and Rancid. Back in 2000, they'd thought about calling the musical The Halfway to Hell Club, about an unofficial union with a membership of workers who had fallen off the bridge during construction but were saved by a safety net.
The writing of songs about the bridge and cheating death and each musician's respective working-class heritage was a side project for the two East Bay residents. "We've been looking at that bridge our whole life," Freeman notes.
But it soon became obvious it "was gonna take longer than we thought," he says. Spare time was a luxury that neither Armstrong nor Freeman had very much of, but with Rancid drummer Brett Reed, they recorded some of the Halfway to Hell material as a psychobilly unit. Freeman took lead vocals and switched from electric to standup slap bass. They called themselves Devils Brigade—inspired perhaps by the 1968 war film? "Yeah, I think that's where I first heard it," Freeman says. "I think there are a lot of different meanings for it, but I thought it just sounded pretty cool."
The band's official debut was in 2002 with the single "Vampire Girl." They released a couple of EPs and wanted to hit the road, but that became a no-go. "Touring sort of took 10 years," Freeman says with a laugh. Why the big delay? "Every time it seemed I wanted to do it, something else would come up."
But the Brigade refused to die. A few years later, Freeman thought he'd caught a break when Rancid's Lars Frederiksen went on tour with his own side project, the Bastards. It was 2004. "I said, 'Okay, this is gonna be the summer of Devils Brigade.' And then I got this call from Social Distortion to come in and fill in and play with them for a while, so that sort of ended that. I did that for a little bit. Then I had my first kid."
On the verge of heading out on tour with the Transplants—another Rancid side project that also included Travis Barker of Blink-182—in 2005, Freeman "got this lung thing," he says. "Thought it was cancer. It wasn't, but I had to go through all these stupid operations. It sucked."
The problem turned out to be a mass of benign scar tissue in his lung. "It's what happens when you've smoked since you were a teenager," he says. "I got lucky."
When he got healthy again, Rancid went back out on what would be their last tour for a while. The band went on hiatus, and for once, Freeman had nothing to do. "Me and Tim were talking," Freeman recalls, "and he said, 'Why don't we do Devils Brigade and write more songs and put out a record?'"
All they lacked was a drummer. "We didn't really know who to get," Freeman says. "We were just talking one day, and I told him I'd been listening to a lot of X lately. Under the Big Black Sun is probably my favorite record of all time. And I said we gotta get somebody like DJ [Bonebrake], that old punk who can play rockabilly, too. And Armstrong says, 'Why don't we call DJ?' I'm like, 'That's a great idea.'" He laughs. "When we described the project to DJ, he said, 'Yeah, I'm playing that fast punk stuff better than I ever have in my life right now.'"
In 2010, with Bonebrake on drums, Devils Brigade finally went into the studio and recorded their first full-length self-titled CD.
Bonebrake, by the way, is not a member of the touring band. Neither, for that matter, is Armstrong. The road version of Devils Brigade is a trio consisting of Freeman with OC natives Rob Milucky from the Grabbers and the Cadillac Tramps' Jamie Reidling.
Now that Devils Brigade are finally playing club dates, does Freeman think there's some kind of future? "We'll see. We always get the question, 'What's next?' I don't know," he says. "It's taken awhile to get this record out, and right now, I'm just having fun touring it." Freeman stresses that Rancid are only taking a break and will most likely record and tour in the future.
"As long as Devils Brigade is fun and we can do it in between Rancid stuff, we'll see what happens," he says. "You never know."This article appeared in print as "About Damn Time: Why did it take Rancid side project Devils Brigade a decade to go on tour? The devil is in the details."