By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
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By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
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Anyone who says punk is dead and has been replaced by pretty boys, pop punks, and the posthardcore set hasn't been keeping an eye on Hellcat Records. The Los Angeles-based indie label, founded by Rancid's Tim Armstrong and Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, continues to churn out quality releases and fuel the fire of punk's legacy as much today as when it began.
Gurewitz, who also owns sister label Epitaph Records and its offshoots, ANTI-, Burning Heart, and Fat Possum, formed the label with Armstrong in 1997, and the roster since then has included Rancid, Orange, Operation Ivy, Lars Fredriksen and the Bastards, Dropkick Murphys, and Union 13. Two more standouts from their stable are Boston's Street Dogs, fronted by ex-Dropkick Murphy Mike McColgan, and the Rancid-associated Devil's Brigade. Both bands have joined forces with New York hardcore band Sick of It All and Chicago-based Celtic punk band Flatfoot 56 to embark on a fall U.S. tour.
"I think it's the type of tour where the bands will be accessible," says McColgan in a recent call from his hometown. "We're not going to be hiding in some big tour bus, playing videogames and being distant from the people who paid their hard-earned money to come and see [us]."
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Since forming in 2002, McColgan and company have released five records, notably including their debut, Savin Hill; their acclaimed 2008 release, State of Grace; and their just-dropped self-titled record, which the frontman believes to be their most defining work. But he's quick to point out that they don't take the success they've earned for granted.
"We've shattered and surpassed every goal we had," he says in earnest. "Those goals were modest; we started just a punk band, and here we are, five records deep. Everything we do from this point on is [icing on the] cake."
But that attitude makes the Street Dogs' unapologetic, incisive songwriting no less charged or poignant.
"I don't think we've ever really given a fuck about what's hot and what's not," McColgan says. "We never want to do this music a disservice by singing about trite, insipid things, like, you know, socialite culture or lovey stuff. We want to sing about things of substance."
And sing about things of substance they do, in one anthemic cry to raise social awareness after another, like on "Up the Union." McColgan credits real life as his muse, drawing upon his experiences serving in the Gulf War and as a firefighter in Boston. "I think a lot of it is informed by those real-life experiences. And I don't think those life experiences make me a hero or better than anybody else. I agreed to do those things, and I did them, and I'm proud of them."
Psychobilly punk outfit Devil's Brigade, meanwhile, only just released its self-titled debut. But this band's first release — a side project fronted by Rancid bassist and vocalist Matt Freeman — has been a long time coming.
"We had this idea ten years ago to do it," he says. "And for whatever reason, we just never got it going. We did a demo, and we put some of those songs out, and we always meant to do a record and get a band together, but stuff just kept coming up. You know, Rancid works a lot, and all this other stuff."
But at last, Freeman and Armstrong set to work on writing the music and, along with DJ Bonebrake of the influential punk band X, went into the studio to record.
"Now was just the right time," Freeman says.
The resulting 12 tracks may seem to some a slight departure from what Freeman and Armstrong do with Rancid. But the Bay Area punk legend believes there are similarities as well.
"I mean, me and Tim wrote the songs together. So I think it's in the same vein as everything else we've done. It's good roots punk rock. It's not like I'm playing Buddhist chants or some shit [laughs]."
Though Armstrong won't be joining Freeman on tour, the show promises to be charged with energy.
"We haven't played yet," Freeman says with a laugh. "It's going to be me playing upright bass and singing, and Rob Melicki plays guitar [he used to play in the Huns]. And I got Chris Arandero from the Breaks. So it's going to be a three-piece. It'll be fun."
"They're gonna take no prisoners," contends McColgan. And of the Street Dogs' show, he promises, "There's an electricity and an energy that's shared between audience and band. It's really tough to explain. People just need to see it to believe it and to know what it is. It's special, and we're really grateful for it."