It’s no surprise that Transplants boasts a bevy of influences and musical soundscapes. Formed by friends Rob Aston and punk legend Tim Armstrong (both Operation Ivy and Rancid rank high on my personal Top 100 albums list released over the last 20 years) in 1999, the band quickly transformed from part-time side project to musical force. Add in the relentless energy and magical timing of rock drummer extraordinaire Travis Barker (see: Blink-182, Boxcar Racer), and you get an oddly satisfying mix of punk, hip hop, surf rock, and tales of urban mayhem and decay.
I spoke with Rob Aston – who blurs the line between hip hop, punk, and hardcore vocals like no one else – who was on the road playing the Van’s Warped Tour with the band.
Haunted Cities, released in June 2005, is the follow-up to Transplants’ self-titled 2002 debut.
Editor’s Note: “You know what I’m saying” is extracted from the record a goodly number of times in the hope of easing the visual flow.
Eric Berlin: How’s it going out there on the Warped Tour?
Rob Aston: We’re a week into it right now. Today we’re in New Mexico – it’s hotter than a motherfucker! But it’s all good, you know what I’m saying? The crowds are great, the bands are great, everyone’s great, you know?
And our record came out a couple of days ago, so people are starting to learn the new material we’re playing, so it’s a good time for sure.
I’ve got to ask what you guys do backstage or when you’re out on the road. I’m sure you’ve got some crazy stories lined up by now.
Well, we’ve got two buses: a stoner bus and a sober bus. On Tim [Armstrong’s] bus, which is the sober bus, the back lounge turns into a studio, and that’s rad because he’s always creating and always writing and coming up with songs. While we’re out here we get to utilize that time we have together, because we don’t always have time to get into the studio.
He’s usually working, and I’m usually in the back lounge on my bus hot boxing it with Travis [Barker]. We just hang out, you know what I’m saying?
I heard in an interview that you recorded the song, “Hit the Fence,” on the back of the bus during a tour with the Foo Fighters.
Yeah, it was crazy – it was a couple of years ago on the Foo Fighters tour. It was the same deal – Tim had a studio in the back lounge of his bus. We set up [Travis’] drums in the hallway of the bus. I had his kick drum, his snare drum, and his high hat, and I was down on my knees holding all of that shit together while he’s beating the fucking shit out of the drums!
It was just one of those things where it happened and it came together like that, and it ended up being one of my favorite songs. That was the first song that we recorded for that record, actually.
How’d you end up meeting Tim Armstrong and eventually forming Transplants?
I used to work for a band called AFI in the Bay Area. Rancid’s also from the Bay Area. So through mutual friends, I became friends with Tim and Lars and Bret and Matt and everybody, and when I moved down to LA – which is where Tim lives… I grew up in Fresno and moved down to Los Angeles around ’99.
Tim and I were already homies and I moved about a mile away from him. And, you know, we’d just be hanging out all the time. He got a Pro Tools rig for his home studio and he learned how to use it. He’d make tracks and shit, and he’d hit me up and I could write lyrics for these songs. I’d never done that shit before but I came up on Operation Ivy and Rancid and shit, besides the fact that this was my homie, you know?
What’s the song writing process like for you guys? How do you end up getting together to come up with new stuff?
It’s usually spontaneous. There’s never an agenda or list of songs for me to write or topics, you know? A lot of the time, Tim will come up with a skeleton of some music, maybe a chorus idea or something, or I’ll come up with a chorus and we’ll go from there. Travis will come up with a drumbeat, and Tim will write off of that. And we’ll base the rhythm off the music Travis has created… all kinds of shit. Anything goes with us. All of our ideas are accepted.
How do you deal with the busy schedules of Tim Armstrong and Travis Barker? You see those guys all over the place nowadays.
Yeah, it took us about two years to make this record. It definitely wasn’t two years of studio time, you know what I’m saying? Sometimes it would just be three days in the studio, and then we wouldn’t see each other for a month. Then we’d get back in for a couple of days, and a couple of weeks would go by and we’d be in Tim’s basement for a week.
We’d get together whenever we could, because everyone is busy. You know, I’ve been doing solo shit, Tim’s been doing Rancid stuff, Travis was in Blink  back then.
What do you think of your man Travis doing a reality show on MTV?
Oh, it’s all good! Because that’s him, you know what I’m saying? He’s the same dude on MTV as he is in everyday life. I like it for the fact that it shows that he’s a really good father. That’s my favorite part of it. I love watching him interacting with his kids. A lot dad’s can get some pointers from that dude, you know what I’m saying?
What kinds of personalities and influences do the three of you guys bring to the band to make is a whole?
All three of us lead three different lives and come from three different places, you know what I’m saying? So I think it’s just the combination of all of us, we’re all just honest with it.
I’m for sure going to tell you some honest shit when I’m spitting. And you know, it’s not going to always be everyone’s favorite subject or topic or language used in it, but I’m just going to be honest with you and tell you how I feel and tell you how it is.
Is that what you guys do with the music? Do you just try and keep it honest and keep it real, as opposed to saying, “Hey, we’re gonna give a message on this kind of topic in a song”?
Yeah, because when we record shit, we’ll go in there and depending on how we’re feeling that day, we’ll make a song about it, you know what I’m saying?
If I got into some fucked up shit the night before, I might want to talk about it. To a certain extent. I mean, I can’t talk about things and incriminate myself, but it’s a good way to get shit off my chest and it’s a good way for Tim to get shit off his chest. It’s like therapy.
Do you guys try and push punk rock to a new place, or is it more like, “This is just music – this is us.”
It’s just music, you know what I’m saying. There’s no label for it. We’ve always had trouble since the beginning when we started this band of people always asking, “How do you label you guys? What category do you fall into?” We don’t really fall into any category. It’s Transplants music. It’s not anything else because it’s everything and then some, you know what I’m saying? We do it because we love this shit.
How was it working with Paul Wall, who “chopped and screwed” your record?
That’s my homeboy right there! He chopped and screwed our whole record, and it sounds crazy. Ain’t nobody done that with a record, besides hip hop records or R&B on a mix tape or something. So a chopped and screwed record on a rock record or a punk rock record or whatever, doing it the right way and putting that shit out? That’s literally making some history right here.
But it makes sense for us to do that, you know what I’m saying? We get it, and Paul Wall gets it for sure. He killed it – I like the chopped and screwed version better than the regular version.
So are you guys going to eventually release two versions of the album?
Yeah, we’re going to release the chopped and screwed version in a couple of months, probably around September or October or something.
Let me get into a couple of the individual tracks on the new album. The first single is “Gangsters and Thugs” – is the message on that song to stay loyal to your friends and family no matter what?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s no matter what, whether it’s right or wrong or good or bad. And everything I’m talking about on that song is real, too: being in the hospital, being broke, selling dope, and this and that. It’s all about what’s going on with me and my friends, and it is what it is, you know?
My friends ain’t gonna judge me for who I am or how I get my money. If they do, they ain’t my friends, you know? And I ain’t gonna judge them.
I really dig the song, “Doomsday,” and feel it has a connection to “Down in Oakland” off your last album. What was going on when that song came together?
“Doomsday”? That track is crazy! That’s one of the craziest tracks we have, I think. It’s just way out, like some weird, crazy, jazz, dark, fucking… I don’t know, you know?
It’s another one that’s hard to label, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s super hard to label, definitely.
I’m just talking about: I’ll rob your ass, it’s doomsday, bitch!
Let me ask about your vocal style. It’s really unique. How’d you come up with it?
That’s just how it is. That’s just how I spit, you know?
You ever lose voice with that? You’ve got some scratch that you throw in there.
Yeah, I just lost my voice for a couple of days ago on this tour, but I got it back so we’re back on track now.
I also heard that you free-styled your way through the recording of “Madness.” Do you do that a lot in the studio?
On a couple songs, on a couple of versions here and there. Yeah, on “Madness,” I obviously went back and doubled it and stuff, but a lot of it was free-styled.
Sometimes I just get those headphones on, and stand in front of a mike, and I’ll just let the track go. And sometimes it’ll just work, you know? And sometimes it won’t, but on “Madness” it worked.
How do you feel about using music for advertising? The reason I ask is because the catchy hook from “Diamonds & Guns” has been used in a shampoo commercial.
Yeah, they still play that commercial everyday, all around the world, you know what I’m saying? And we’re cool with that – that’s advertising for us.
It helps sell our records, and we get paid every time that motherfucker goes on. And people get to hear our band.
People say, “Oh, you’re selling out.” Well, suck my dick, you know what I’m saying? We’ve got bills to pay like everyone else. There ain’t nothing wrong with getting your song on TV.
Speaking of paying the bills, what’s next for the Transplants?
Well, we’re on tour right now, then we’re going to head off for Reading and Leeds, and then we’re just going to fucking tour all year long. You know, get back in the studio. Like I said, Tim’s got his studio here on the back of the bus. Hopefully we’ll put a record out sooner than later.
Okay, I’m going to end with a tough question. If you put Transplants and Rancid and Blink and all your various bands to the side, what are your top five favorite bands of all time?
It’s a tough one, I know.
Pink Floyd, Pantera, UGK…
How many is that, three or four?
That’s three – you can throw you guys in there to round it out if you want.
Nah, fuck that dude!
Okay, go ahead.
Slayer… and fucking Cypress Hill.
That’s a nice mix right there. And you worked with those guys.
Yeah, Cypress Hill. Those guys are my homies, those guys are my family, you know what I’m saying? I mean, I grew up listening to those dudes. Now I get to work them? Shit…