Over the last twenty years, TIM ARMSTRONG has been a driving creative force behind one of modern punk's most seminal bands in Rancid, not to mention a founding member of the Transplants and a collaborative songwriter with other artists such as Gwen Stefani and Pink. He's also got one solo album under his belt (2007's A Poet's Life), an impending collaboration with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff and a label in Hellcat Records that continues to churn forward nearly fifteen years after its inception (he was also in a little band called Operation Ivy; perhaps you've heard of them). And speaking of Rancid and the Transplants, both bands are set to record their next albums—Rancid's eighth, the Transplants' third—in the coming months.
It's safe to say that Armstrong enjoys being busy, and amidst all of his other projects he's found time to create Tim Timebomb's Rock 'N Roll Theater, a musical web series that romantically pays homage to the host-driven anthology series prominent in the early days of television. The first episode, Dante, recently premiered on VEVO (the video channel's first-ever original series), with the clips garnering over one million combined views thus far. Dante stars Armstrong's Rancid bandmate Lars Frederiksen as the titular character, a cutthroat businessman who's likely literally cut a few throats to reach the top, and AFI's Davey Havok as the Devil, who takes Dante under his pink-suited wing and shows him that Hell has misconceptions.
Altpress.com recently caught up with Armstrong from northern California to talk about the conception of Tim Timebomb's Rock 'N Roll Theater, how he balances and separates his numerous projects and Davey Havok's personal wardrobe.
Interview: Bryne Yancey
What was the inspiration for doing Tim Timebomb's Rock N Roll Theater? Have you always wanted to be involved in filmmaking?
Yeah. You know, I've been making music videos for twenty years now; Tim Timebomb's Rock 'N Roll Theater is a musical show created by me but co-produced by my friend Dave Robertson, who I've worked with on dozens on music videos—everyone who works on Rock 'N Roll Theater has come from that kind of community, you know. Then in the first episode we've got Davey Havok from AFI who I've known since he was a teenager, Lars Frederiksen plays Dante and obviously he's my friend from Rancid, and the director, Kevin Kerslake, who's done many music videos and worked with us in Rancid but also did Nirvana's “Come As You Are” video and a lot of other videos over the years, and I've always loved what he's done and obviously my friend so, we just kind of pulled together this community of people. I wouldn't call us filmmakers so much as part of the music video community, you know? The only real difference is that it's scripted and has a narrative, so the singers, like Davey and Lars, they do some acting, so that was probably the biggest challenge.
But it's not too far from what I've been doing; I'm still working with the same people. Same studios, recording music, making videos, that's what I've been doing for a long time, it's just kind of in a more scripted format, and inspired by television from the late 50s and early 60s, where there'd be a host and a different story or narrative [in each episode], like Boris Karloff's Thriller, The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, so those were some of our influences and each episode of Rock 'N Roll Theater will have a different storyline and a different cast for the most part, but I'll [always] be the host.
How long has the series been in the works?
A couple years. We were bouncing the idea around for a couple years and it just seemed like the Internet was the perfect place to drop this because the whole thing was DIY—we did it ourselves, no outside investors, we called in a lot of favors, very, very DIY. It's why the internet is the great wide open, you know what I mean? We're ecstatic with how it's turned out so far. VEVO was the perfect home for us because we're their first scripted show—they're a [music] video channel—which is exciting, being first; it's always fun being first, you know what I mean? [Laughs.]
I know you write all the music for the series, but how much say did you have in the casting and direction?
I'm super-involved with the casting. Everybody's involved—the producer Dave, the director Kevin, we had Mary [Vernieu] help us out with casting and she's a great casting director. So we had some help but with the big roles, I was definitely involved with getting Lars and Davey in there, and Robert David Hall, who's a friend of mine that's an actor but also a singer—he's got a wonderful country voice that reminds me of Hank [Williams] Sr. And everybody on the show has gotta sing, right? That's them up there, they're singing. Everyone's gotta be singing for real—that's really them. No smoke and mirrors, you gotta have chops to be in Rock 'N Roll Theater. But it's fun; we're not super-serious and it's a world we created, we just like to have a good time. We use miniatures that look obviously fake, this weird projector which is obviously fake, sets that are built on a warehouse soundstage that are obviously fake, you know what I mean? It's just a fun, wild little universe we've created. And it's kind of like, that's our template and we've got the vibe—we've shot some more and now we can continue. The good news is it ain't going anywhere, we're gonna do more of these. Everyone's fired up; we love making them and fit it into our schedules because we're all busy but we're gonna keep making them. Rock 'N Roll Theater is not gonna die.
Regarding the first episode, was the character of Dante written with Lars in mind? How did he take to the material? Did he have any sort of acting experience prior to this? I really enjoyed his portrayal of the character.
Yeah, he's cool, right? He had such a great presence, and what's most important is that he's a great singer, and for the first song “We Did Alright,” you gotta have a very commanding performance and a great voice. And he's kind of a rough-and-tumble guy in real life, right, but he's also the sweetest person ever. We knew he would be able to play the role of Dante because he's got a big presence. He's been performing since he was a kid, on stages in punk rock shows. The craziest shows I've ever been in I've been with him, and he can handle himself anywhere, in any hemisphere. He's always in control, so we knew he'd be great and have a great time doing it. And Davey too, we knew he'd be great too as the Devil.
How did Davey get involved?
I've known Davey since he was a teenager playing shows at Gilman St. I invited them to play shows with us at Gilman St. way back, you know? So I've known him forever. So when we were putting it together I always had Davey in mind, I thought he'd be perfect for this. He was on tour with AFI when we were gonna shoot Dante during the winter, and we wrote everything really quickly—the music was recorded in five days, me and my friend John [Roecker] wrote the script in a weekend. We had a window to shoot and Davey was on tour with AFI and Green Day [at the time], but then Dante got pushed back another month and I saw Adam [Carson, AFI drummer] at a cafe and thought, “Oh shit, AFI is back in town. They're home.” So I called up Davey, told him about it and he was on board immediately for this crazy project—I didn't even get through the whole pitch and he was on board.
He was super-great when we went out and recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. We had all the music already recorded, so we went up and did Lars' [vocals for] “We Did Alright” and “Misconceptions Of Hell” with Davey and Lars sings the chorus with him on that. Kevin had a script when he was up there with me and went over the lines with Davey and Lars. They rehearsed their lines in the studio, and they do some pages of dialogue, you know what I mean? Davey had some suits that he wanted us to check out and his favorite was the pink one; that was his call. You can't say no to that suit, plus the cool thing is that if we ever have another Devil in Rock 'N Roll Theater, Davey's gonna get the call. We got our Devil.
How does the songwriting process differ for a project like this as opposed to stuff for Rancid or the Transplants? Did you write songs with specific musicians and vocalists in mind, or were they written around who was cast in those roles?
Lars was always an idea for “We Did Alright,” but the songs were little stories that moved the narrative along and I've always loved writing those kinds of songs, storytelling songs, so that works really well with the story we had—we wanted to do a modern-day take on Dante's Inferno, with crooks and greed and Wall Street and all that, so that was Dante. This scumbag, this bad guy. We had the story all planned out, then I went to work on the songs that helped carry the story. It happened really fast; I try not to think about stuff too much, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] I love just to charge. You work hard on it but you don't obsess over it or spend too much time on it.
What do you prefer, if anything, about using a more visual medium like a series to create art, as opposed to just music? I know you're a prolific songwriter, but there's certainly a different skill set required to help make something visually appealing as well.
Well, it's similar to what we do in a band, like a four-piece band, but now instead of a four-piece band it's like, a 400-piece band, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] So there's a lot more people involved and it's just a bigger production, but still a collaboration; I'm still collaborating with artists, musicicans and technical people, just more of them. I don't know if it's bigger, I mean, we just love doing this, it's fun, and not too serious and we wanna keep making them.
How many episodes of the series will there be? Can you drop any hints as to what sort of things we're going to see in future episodes?
We got a lot a songs, scripts and ideas on deck already, we're still trying to work it out but we'll keep you in the loop. My role will always be the host; that won't change. The MC of this crazy show.
Yeah, I think it's cool how you sort of insert yourself into these stories and move the narrative along without really participating in the narrative itself.
I always thought about those old shows like Thriller or The Twillight Zone, Boris Karloff or Rod Serling would be on set, you know what I mean? Actors didn't even know they were there, so I always thought that was fucking awesome, so that's how it opens up: I'm in Dante's office and that's totally paying tribute to some of our heroes from those old shows. We're gonna definitely keep doing that.
Are there any other big guest stars in the works that you can reveal for us?
It's in the works right now; we'll keep you in the loop, we're just waiting for everything to be locked down. It's all coming together right now. alt