By Stephen Rafael
Upon moving to Los Angeles in 1999, Transplants singer Rob "SR" Aston never expected that he would spend the next 30 months locked away in Hellcat Records owner Tim Armstrong's basement studio, writing and recording an album with Armstrong and Blink-182/Box Car Racer's Travis Barker. Three years ago, all Aston wanted was help finding an apartment and maybe a new nickname.
"When I told Tim that I was moving to L.A. from Fresno," Aston remembers, "he pointed out some areas where he thought I should look for an apartment. Then, he played two songs for me that he made with ProTools in his home studio; they didn't have any lyrics and the music was crazy. Tim wanted me to write lyrics for them, and I was scared shitless because I had never written lyrics before. I wrote them, though, and Tim liked them, and we ended up working on the Transplants album for two-and-a-half years. Tim helped me out a lot --- he's really patient and supportive. He always stuck with me.
"The Transplants are my first-ever band. I've been involved with bands before --- I worked for A.F.I. for a couple of years, and then Rancid. But this is the first time I've ever actually been in a band. And it's a lot better being onstage than behind the stage. Also, Tim has called me 'SR' for years, even though I prefer 'Rob.' 'SR' is short for 'Skinhead Rob.' It's all good, though."
Like Aston, Transplants drummer Travis Barker befriended Tim Armstrong at the very outset of his career. In fact, the two originally met way before Barker joined Blink-182. Not surprisingly, it only took a few phone calls and an afternoon at Armstrong's house for Barker to become a Transplant.
"I first met Tim after I saw him play with Rancid when I was just a kid," Barker explains. "Anyways, the years went by, and I started doing my thing in different bands. Then, I got a phone call from the Vandals' [manager] Kris [Martinez], and she told me that Tim had been trying to get a hold of me. I called Tim and later went up to his house where the three of us hung out. Tim, Rob and [I] drove around L.A. in Tim's car, and we listened to what they had recorded. I told them that I really liked what they were doing, Tim asked me to join the Transplants and everything went from there."
While Barker, Aston and Armstrong cover many of the same subjects as Armstrong's other band, Rancid, the Transplants take a much different musical approach. Although both groups spend a lot of time talking tough about dead friends, hopeless junkies and other lost souls, the hip-hop flavored Transplants use loops, synthesizers and samplers. According to Barker and Aston, the whole point of forming the Transplants with Armstrong was to break away from Rancid's traditional old-school punk rock approach.
"Picture this," Barker says, taking a deep breath. "I grew up loving hip-hop and I still listen to it, even to this day. At the same time, I love punk rock. And the Transplants are all about loving different styles of music --- hip-hop, reggae, drum 'n' bass, punk --- and putting them together while keeping the chemistry right.
"The Transplants have no expectations to live up to, and we have no limitations either. Nobody can say, 'that doesn't sound like the Transplants' because nobody knows what the fucking Transplants are supposed to sound like. The whole thing was an experiment, and we were allowed to be creative and not worry about what anyone thinks. I think that one song on the album, 'One Seventeen,' is an amazing punk rock song. But do I think the whole album is all punk rock? God, I would hate it if it were."
"I love punk and everything," Aston reiterates, "but hip-hop has been my favorite form of music since I was 6-years-old. Even though I think that I brought a lot of the hip-hop feel to the Transplants, Tim and Travis are both big hip-hop fans, too. It's cool that Tim and Travis get to do a record like this one, because it is so different from Rancid, Blink and Box Car Racer. Both of those guys are so super-talented, and it really would be a waste if they didn't ever experiment and try to do other stuff."
For the moment, Barker and Aston are completely focused on successfully launching the Transplants and getting the word out about their new group and album. However, neither musician considers the Transplants to be a permanent creative home. After the Transplants, Barker will undoubtedly move on to yet another musical project, while Aston hopes to make a solo album for Armstrong on the Transplants' record label, Hellcat.
"I want to do as much studio stuff and play with as many bands as I can," Barker openly states. "I love being busy. If I weren't busy, I would hate to see what would happen to me. I would be a mess."
"I'd like to do a total hip-hop record for Hellcat," Aston concludes before taking off. "I already did a demo, and Tim and the people at his label really liked it. I don't care if my album sounds completely different than what Hellcat usually puts out, and nobody buys it. I'm going to do the album that I want to do. Fuck it."
Hot Water Music
By Matt Schild
The point at which water, or any liquid, boils is a function of temperature and atmospheric pressure. The more pressure it's under, the hotter it'll get before it makes the jump from its liquid state to that of a gas.
Sorry high-school chemistry teachers, but such facts usually seem as irrelevant to day-to-day life as, say, a detailed knowledge of Star Trek episodes or the Clippers' 1998 season. For normal people it's a who-cares issue. Of course, from time to time, it's surprising the cool ways your worthless education can be applied.
Take, for instance, Epitaph's Hot Water Music. The band could be a case study in chemistry as much as rock 'n' roll. Its latest album, Caution, certainly brings the heat: The Florida post-hardcore band returned to the drawing board following 2000's A Flight And A Crash and refocused its efforts to get a stripped-down, basic rock sound that takes the band's pummeling dynamics and grisly guitars and jettisons any superfluous bits and pieces to get a sound that's got emo-core power and rock's no-nonsense sensibility. With the upped presence of vocals, Caution strikes with a ferocity that's just barely held in check by its deceptive debt to pop concepts.
With such a flame that burns underneath the quartet (guitarist/singers Chuck Regan and Chris Wollard, bassist Jason Black and drummer George Rebelo), it ought to be vaporizing with Caution. Of course, there's a little matter of pressure. If the expectations put on Hot Water Music weren't enough (it's one of the elder statesmen of post-hardcore politics, and many fans found its last effort a bit disappointing), the atmosphere in which the album is released should do it. With bands such as Thursday and Saves the Day cracking into the mainstream, post-hardcore has become an unlikely champion in the punk scene. Don't think that anyone is more surprised than Black.
"If you had told me that a band like Thursday, who are great friends of ours, was going to be all over MTV, I would have laughed," Black admits. "Even right before it happened, it would have been like, 'Are you serious? There's no way that's going to get that big.' It's kind of weird."
Put the surprise aside. Post-hardcore has started to poke at mainstream ears. For Hot Water Music, it's a fortunate coincidence. There's few albums in the act's catalog that could inspire its legion of fans gleaned from the hardcore world and simultaneously woo more mainstream ears than Caution does. While it's certainly not a relaxed record by any means, it gives listeners some much needed breathing space, and lets the act show off its muscle-bound chops without having to get too rough.
It'll still leave some bruises, but this time around, instead of throwing down like a drunken frat boy in an out-of-control bar brawl, Hot Water Music attacks like a kung-fu master dropping foes with deadly efficiency. From the fierce pace and white-knuckle guitars of "I Was on a Mountain" to "Sweet Disasters," which melds post-hardcore dynamics with traditional American punk riffage, Caution is heavy without being heavy-handed, forward without being foreboding. It's as if, through all the chaos and angular guitar work, a sense of calm has finally settled on the act's songwriting.
"We worked really hard making it. We worked really hard putting it together, but none of it was stressful," Black says. "That's probably the first time we've done an entire album and only run into a few major problems."
Hot Water Music's knack for avoiding problems in the studio isn't just a stroke of luck. There's a few reasons things went off without much headache. First, it continued to build on the relationship it forged on Flight with producer Brian McTernan. Second, and more importantly, it's learned the lessons from its previous problems, and gone to pains to avoid them.
Rather than fight to expand its sound --- one that, incidentally has been one of the most influential post-hardcore noises this side of Fugazi --- as it did during its last phase of songwriting, Hot Water Music could simply focus on cranking out quality songs.
"A Flight And A Crash, in hindsight, is a growing pains record," Black says. "We didn't know when we were doing it. We knew it was really hard to get the songs out. We breached a seal as far as our songwriting by doing that record and opened the gate as far as this record. The quality of the songs in our eyes was much better from the get go. It was one of those lucky breaks. Because we killed ourselves on A Flight and a Crash we could cruise control through Caution and nail everything pretty easily."
Nail it HWM sure does. Its best record since the days when ska bands were still the hip thing, Caution gets hot --- high-pressurized, ready to boil, hot. Keep the steam valves firmly closed, otherwise you're bound to get scalded.