By Jesse Mayer - Photos by Estevan Oriol
Every once in awhile an artist seems to put their finger on the pulse of at least a certain slice of life in L.A. and then shouts it out to the rest of us. X did it with Under a Big Black Sun as did NWA's Straight Outta Compton. What I'm talkin' about has as much to do with a record's narrative as its sound. And vice versa. This is a thread that runs through Appetite For Destruction as much as it does in Life Won't Wait. The Transplants' self-titled Hellcat debut has this kinda vibe. The beats, the guns, tall cans and tall tales are an L.A. story. Released a couple of months back, this disc is receiving big airplay on commercial radio, which sort of surprises me. It also has drawn extreme fan/critcal reactions as far as being praised or trashed in the 'zines, Internet, and on the street. The biggest graphic in the CD's packaging says "Love Letters/Hate Letters" and sports the band's address. It appears their expectations were accurate. But, what was our expectation? Two thirds of the band (Rancid's Tim Armstrong and Blink-Boxcar drummer Travis Barker) are now as familiar as tattoos, spiked leather jackets, and hearing loss. The fly in the ointment is lead throat and lyricist Rob Aston. Who the hell is Rob Aston? Didn't he used to be in The Stooges?. No....never mind. This newcomer suddenly found himself in his very first band, backed by guys with crazy punk rock pedigrees. Since a lot of you might be wondering how that happened, I got on the phone with Skinhead Rob to get the lowdown on this Transplants thing.
SoundCheck Magazine: I'm really glad to have the chance to talk to you because pretty much everybody knows about Tim and Travis and you're the big mystery in this picture. The only thing I know about you is that you've been on the punk rock scene out there for a long time and you used to work at Kung Fu.
Rob Aston: [Laughs] That's not much to go on right there!
SCM: Not really. This is your first band, right?
RA: Yeah, this is my first time out. It's kind of crazy. I mean, I never had any plans of being in a band or I never wanted to really be in a band. I had a good time just working for bands and touring and that was cool with me. But then I was driving around with Tim and he said -- he pulled out this CD and there was some beats on it and he's like, Can you write lyrics to this. I have no idea why he asked me or whatever, but he did and I'm glad that he did.
SCM: Were you doing any lyric-writing before or spoken word or anything?
RA: Nothing at all.
SCM: He just did it? "Hey can you write lyrics to this" - basically.
RA: Yeah. He gave me a shot - I didn't want to fuck up a good opportunity. I don't know; it's kind of crazy. Here we are now, you know. I have no complaints, I'll tell you that much.
SCM: So you were touring with a lot of people, were you doing merch and crew and stuff like that?
RA: Yeah, merch and stage and you know, loading and driving and all the crap, you know.
SCM: Who had you been touring with?
RA: The first time I went out I went out with Down By Law then I worked for AFI for a couple of years and Rancid and I still actually work with Rancid, it's too much fun not to go on tour and stuff. I'll probably go work for them on the Warped Tour.
SCM: Oh they're playing this year?
RA: Yeah, they're doing the whole sha-bang. It's gonna be really interesting. It's going to be really cool. I can't wait. I love watching Rancid and be up there and watch them every night. That's the shit - to get paid for it.
SCM: Was it intimidating to get in a project with two guys who are so successful?
RA: Fuck yeah. I mean at first, it was just me and Tim. That was Transplants. We weren't going to make a record, we weren't going to be a band, we weren't going to play shows, no one was ever going to hear any of this stuff. It was just us in the studio fucking around trying to experiment and do something different and as we went, we got a little more serious with it and Tim says to me, Let's put out a record. We worked on it for like two years whenever Rancid had a break but it didn't sound quite full enough when it was done and Tim suggested let's get a live drummer, so we wanted the best so we called Travis and he came through, checked it out, did his part and here we are now. I mean, yeah, it's still kind of weird. I still get tripped out that I'm doing this - that I'm in a band at all, but let alone with Tim and Travis. It's a good thing. But I never, ever get any pressure from those guys about nothing. I put pressure on myself - I don't want to let them down in any way, because I've never done this before. I just kind of got thrown into it. I just try to put pressure on myself to always do better and do all I can; I don't want to let them down in any way, live or on the record or whatever.
SCM: You guys have played live out on the West Coast, right?
RA: Yeah, we've done nine shows. We went out with Pressure Point and The Distillers; like I said we only got through nine shows in California - funnest nine days ever for me, though. I can't wait to be out there and playing again.
SCM: Is there a chance of Transplants doing a proper tour?
RA: Yeah, we're actually, I guess we're going out with the Foo Fighters for like a a month-leg of their tour in like April or May.
SCM: Oh dude - you're going to be so put on the spot!
RA: Oh I'm so stoked though! It's going to be so rad. The shows will be crazy and the Foo Fighters are rad, you know. It's going to be really cool. We're all really excited about it.
SCM: When is that?
RA: I think our leg of it is like April/May.
SCM: Do you know what part of the country it is?
RA: I think it's the West and the Mid-West, but I'm not sure; it changes everyday. I'm just happy to be doing any of it.
SCM: Are you now doing any lyric writing for another disc?
RA: We're actually going to do another record, we're going to keep doing Transplants records, but I'm writing for my own record right now, The Skinhead Rob record it's going to come out, it's my solo hip-hop record, no punk rock, nothing, just a hip-hop record.
SCM: Yeah, I noticed that you scratch on a few tracks on this record.
RA: Yeah, just fucking around in the studio, nothing big.
SCM: Had you started doing that prior to this?
RA: No. We're just in there and Tim said, Do this. Do some scratching.
SCM: Have you ever heard of a band called Jaya The Cat?
RA: I have. I have never heard the music but I have heard of the band.
SCM: The reason I ask - go to their website and download some of their stuff. I think you'd really love them. Tim knows two of the guys in the band because he was way into them for a while. What the Transplants are doing is similar. Jaya's got more reggae and sort of dub involved but there's a really serious Clash influence - and I hear a Clash influence in you guys. Actually I hear Big Audio Dynamite. The two bands that I hear are Big Audio Dynamite and the Afrika Bombaataa Public Image stuff.
RA: [Laughs] Right!
SCM: Did you have that in mind?
RA: No, but that's rad. I take that as a compliment.
SCM: Oh yeah, definitely, there's a track there reminds me a lot of "World Destruction" in the vibe. I think, if I remember correctly, it might be "DJ DJ" reminds me a little of that.
RA: Definitely I take that as a compliment.
SCM: I wanted to ask you lyrically about some of the - there's a lot of drugs and a lot of violence and a lot of guns on this disc.
SCM: You laugh.
RA: I just write about shit that goes on, the shit that I know about. All the good and the bad and everything that comes along with being alive right now.
SCM: Do you have any personal gang involvement?
SCM: But you live in Southern California so...
RA: I live in L.A. I grew up in Fresno, California, Central Valley, and I moved down here like end of '99; I love it down here. I'm not fucking with any gangs.
SCM: The song "Tall Cans In The Air," in your bio you said, Don't jump to conclusions; it's by no means a happy, fun song. What are you referring to? The cost of that lifestyle.
RA: "Tall Cans" is like - if there's one song on the record that is a happy song, whatever, it's going to be "Tall Cans" just 'cause I wrote that song in mind with high school in mind. I remember being in high school and there'd be certain songs that are always on where everyone is always partying to and getting fucked up to - and that what I wrote "Tall Cans" in mind with. People can party to it and have a good time and get drunk and get in fights with each other, whatever, you know?
RA: It's a good-time song.
SCM: Yeah, well at one point in life getting fucked up and getting in fights is a good time - and then it starts to be a full-time thing and it's not such a good time anymore.
RA: Yeah, exactly, that song that's for the youngsters who probably shouldn't be drinking and legally can't but they do, so that's one for them.
SCM: So you're going to encourage it anyway. [Laughs]
RA: Yeah, exactly. They're going to do it anyway so I might as well give them a soundtrack to do it to.
SCM: Are you surprised that anything off of this - or "Diamonds and Guns" more specifically - is getting the kind of airplay it is?
RA: It's kind of crazy. Man, I mean....that wasn't even going to be the first single. There wasn't even really going to be a first single, I don't think. KROQ started playing "Diamonds and Guns" and it got a really good response and a whole bunch of other stations followed suit and here we are now. It's crazy, it's bizarre, still every time I hear it on the radio, it's weird to hear your own voice -- at least it is for me 'cause I'd never been in a band.
SCM: Who came up with the piano riff from that song? - 'cause it's brilliant.
RA: "Diamonds and Guns" - Dave and then Tim did the loop. Tim's crazy when it comes to Pro-Tools and all that shit, that's just crazy, that's fucking NASA, I have no knowledge when it comes to studio shit.
SCM: Dude, I don't either. All I do is go in, put on the headphones, and try to play my drum track from beginning to end without fucking it up too egregiously and believe me, it's really rare when I do that.
RA: That's what's so rad about working with Tim is 'cause he's like a mad scientist in there. He gets in there and gets his fuckin' hands dirty in the studio; he's nuts.
SCM: Travis got his tracks done really quick.
RA: Yeah, we gave him the CD and he took it home for a couple of days, checked it out, came in, and over the course of two days knocked his tracks out in like five hours or something crazy.
SCM: Did you guys tell him that you wanted him to try to duplicate the feel of a drum machine?
RA: No, going into it we knew he's the best - he's ridiculous, it's so good it's sickening. We knew whatever he was going to do was going to be great, so we just said, listen to this track, whatever you feel, just do and I couldn't be happier with it, you know. I love what he did.
SCM: What have you been listening to lately? What are you digging?
RA: Oh man, what I can't get out of my CD player and off my turntable is 50 Cent. Yeah, he's so good. When that record comes out next year, he's going to kill it. He's going to take the crown. No one's coming like him right now. Queens Of The Stone Age - Songs For The Deaf, that record. I think that was the best record of 2002 personally. I think that record killed it. Oh and The Best Of DJ Quick rules.
SCM: Was "Romper Stomper" inspired by the movie?
RA: Originally we had a clip, a sample of dialogue from the movie that was supposed to come in before that, but then it came down to time and shit and then we didn't want to get sued for using it without having proper clearance. We just didn't have the time for it.
SCM: Oh that would have been cool.
RA: Oh the sample was so good. It's kind of funny because I didn't write that song with the movie in mind but it kind of goes hand in hand with how they do each other dirty in the movie and betray each other and all that. I'm sure a lot of people get it fuckin' twisted and think that it's some Nazi skinhead thing or some bullshit like that, but that's not the case at all. "Romper Stomper" is just a fucking movie.
SCM: Do you feel like people are misunderstanding this record?
RA: No, I think it confuses a lot of people because it's not the norm. I don't know a band that sounds like us. We get the punk police, whatever, saying, Oh fuck that, it's not punk because this, that, or the other thing...I mean for the most part the response has been really good. To be honest with you, even if the response was 100 percent terrible, I really wouldn't give a fuck. I mean, I want to be successful and I want to sell records and I want to have billions of dollars and nice things, but - you can't miss what you never had.
SCM: Oh how "unpunk" of you to want to live well.
RA: I know, exactly. That's fine with me, I'm not a punk rocker.
SCM: "I really don't want to live in the gutter the rest of my life."
RA: Yeah, fuck that, you know I'm trying to have some this year.
SCM: Have you actually ever been a gutter punk?
RA: No. I'm not a punk rocker. I'm just Rob. I just do my thing. I'm not a punk rocker.
SCM: It's funny, I was just watching the Epitaph story the other night on DVD. I really, really loved it. I've got big respect for Brett.
RA: Oh he's a genius.
SCM: No doubt.
RA: He makes shit happen.
SCM: It's funny because the whole punk police thing that - everybody was out there trying to put out something that's good, like if you're into a real recording studio and make a good-sounding disc, then it's not punk because it doesn't sound like shit.
RA: Yeah, that never makes sense to me. I don't get it; I don't see where these fuckin' people come off thinking they're better someone else just because they're poor or whatever. There ain't nothing cool about being poor, you know.
SCM: Poverty is not a spiritual principle.
RA: It's garbage and I think that's where a lot of kids get fucked up today is that they don't understand that punk isn't necessarily a Mohawk and a leather jacket and some Creepers and some bondage pants. Sure it's the punk look or whatever, but to me I always thought punk rock was doing what you wanted and fuck everyone else, it's not what they think, you know. I don't know what the fuck's punk and what isn't punk. I don't give a shit! I just make records and if people buy them, great; if they don't, fuck them, who cares. You can always sell drugs.