Psychobilly band Tiger Army has a unique perspective on contemporary Californian punk. When Nick 13 formed the band back in 1996 in Berkeley, the group was part of the famous Gilman Street scene — in fact playing its first show at the 924 Gilman venue that would also play a key role in the birth of Green Day, Operation Ivy, Rancid and many more.
Later, Tiger Army would relocate to Los Angeles, and cement itself as a key player in SoCal punk . As a result, the band has a solid, if underground, following up and down the state, as well as elsewhere in the country and indeed the world. That clear association with two key scenes has helped increase their visibility. Nick 13 is delighted that he was able to cut his teeth in such a furtive artistic environment.
“I can’t speak to the current Bay Area scene,” 13 says. “But in the ‘90s, it was very inclusive. There were very few bands doing what we did in the US underground. There was an open-mindedness at Gilman — people gave us a fair shake. At Gilman, I think we took it for granted at the time. The underground music scene was special. There were other different things going on in San Francisco at the same time at other places too. It was a great time for the music.”
Despite the warmth that 13 felt from Gilman St., Tiger Army needed something different. As soon as the band played in SoCal, where there were so many signs of an existing rockabilly thing going on, he knew that he was in the right place.
“In SoCal, there were so many signs of the influence of ‘50s roots — rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, and R&B intersecting with the original punk scene in the 1970s and early ‘80s,” 13 says. “In [X frontman] John Doe’s book, [LA punk band] the Blasters were playing with a few bands like that. Roots music was important to X and other bands in SoCal, so they were understanding of what we were doing.”
Nick 13 says that, 21 years ago, he couldn’t have imagined his band lasting over two decades (and counting), but then he couldn’t have pictured his life five years in advance. But he feels fortunate that he’s been able to keep playing music when trying to deal with an almost-nonexistent music industry. He’s also the only remaining original member of Tiger Army, though what the band has lacked in stability has been offset by a tremendous amount of talent coming in and out.
“Every player brings a unique energy to the table,” 13 says. “The current lineup is on par with the strongest if not the strongest. The players have amazing chemistry and ability.”
2016 saw the release of Tiger Army’s fifth full-length studio album, V…, a record that is arguably a little darker and more intense than previous efforts. 13 says that the sound has evolved, as he’s delved deeper into the music of his heroes.
“I’ve always had similar influences, but I’ve delved into deeper aspects,” he says. “What’s changed is the ability to, playing-wise, utilize those influences. For example, I’ve always loved early-1960s rock ’n’ roll. I’m still learning to sing and play like that.”
V… was also the Tiger Army’s debut release for Rise Records, and the first that the band hasn’t release on Hellcat, Tim Armstrong of Rancid’s label.
“With Rise, it’s great to work with passionate and knowledgable people,” 13 says. “Hellcat was a great home for many years. The thing is, there was a period of a few years between releases [nine years between V… and the previous Music from Regions Beyond], and there were changes for us. I’m not sure how active Hellcat currently is. It’s not quite the label it was in the 1990s and 2000’s.”
The nine years hasn’t dulled the enthusiasm that local audiences have for Tiger Army, particularly with the band’s most recent album being a riotous barnstormer of a record. This month, the band headlines three consecutive nights at the Observatory — the ninth year that they’ve been making an event out of multiple nights at the venue.
“SoCal has always been great for us in general, but Orange County in particular embraced Tiger Army,” 13 says. “It’s one of the places that we have the biggest audience. I always pick the openers. It’s always about juggling acts to see who’s available. It’s about who I think is cool, and what the audience will like — not always what people have heard. It might be a bit more underground, but something that the audience will enjoy.”
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Nick 13 says that, for those planning to come to two or even three of the Observatory shows, the sets will be mixed up sufficiently to keep things interesting.
“I have set lists on laptops going back years, for venues around SoCal,” he says. “It’s the ninth year of the event and I’ve been playing around SoCal for 17 years, so a lot of people have seen us 10 to 15-plus times. We’ll play songs that people haven’t heard us do, or at least they haven’t for a long time. A few songs are repeated, but there are a lot of deep cuts. We have to learn or relearn those songs. So we give people their money’s worth.”
When these shows, plus a couple more in Chicago and Mexico City, are done, Nick 13 will be working on a new Tiger Army album. It probably won’t be nine years between records this time but, if it was, their own army of loyal fans would likely still be waiting at the other end and, when they play three OC shows in 2026, the room will still be packed.
Tiger Army plays with The Blasters and Hillbilly Casino on Thursday, October 26, with Channel 3 and The Delta Bombers on Friday, October 27, and with The Zeros and Luis & the Wildfires on Saturday, October 28. Shows start at 8 p.m. each night, at The Observatory; 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana; 714-957-0600.