Russ Rankin – ‘My solo songs still have a lot of the traditions of classic punk songwriting’

Words: Miljan Milekić

For years now, Russ Rankin has been a mainstay in the punk rock world. Known as the frontman of punk rock powerhouses Good Riddance, as well as a singer of the supergroup Only Crime, he built a reputation as a solid songwriter with lots to say. On January, 28th, he will be releasing his brand new solo album ‘Come Together, Fall Apart,’  a follow-up to his 2012’s debut ‘Farewell Catalonia,’ so the time couldn’t be more perfect to catch up with him. Check the interview below!

Russ Rankin / Photo: Lindsey McGuire

Hi Russ! First of all, thank you for doing this. So, how are you?
It’s definitely been strange, but I’m doing, everything considered. A lot of people are not doing as well as I am, so I’m pretty fortunate.

‘Come Together Fall Apart’ will be your first solo record after a decade. So, why now, and at what point did you know that pieces had come together?
Almost ten years. Yeah, wow. I wasn’t planning to do another solo album. The thing is, when my first album came out, I was pretty excited about it, but I didn’t have a booking agent, and I didn’t aggressively try to play a lot of solo shows. It became a thing that I would do once in a while if somebody approached me. I never really attacked it, and also, I never really seemed to be able to play enough shows to figure out if it was any good or not. I wasn’t sure if it was worth doing. Every few months, somebody would hit me up and go – “Hey, can you play a show here, or there?,” and I’d be like – “Sure, okay,” and then I wouldn’t play for several months.

I was actually starting to write and demo some new Good Riddance songs, this was probably springtime, when Stefan from SBÄM Records hit me up. He had told me that he was a huge fan of my first album. He loves Good Riddance. He said he really likes my songwriting and singing and asked if I would be interested in doing a solo album that he would put out on SBÄM Records. I wasn’t thinking about writing it, so I was like, – “Well, I’m not really sure,” but he was persistent, he made a really good pitch, and made it sound like it would be really cool. And I know of his label, I know that he does a great job and promotes really well. I know he’s a fan of music and would take it seriously. So eventually, he convinced me to do a solo album, and I was like – “Well, I guess I better write some songs.” So those songs were all written in a fairly short time. I basically just worked every day and hammered ’em out. So those songs were all written this spring. I was writing right up until almost June. And when I went to record in July, I was still polishing some stuff up.

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How different is the witting process for your solo records compared to the Good Riddance albums? Do you have a different approach, or do you simply write songs and later decide how they feel and where they belong?
Russ: Well, obviously there’s a tempo and energy shift, but I think my solo songs are still punk. I think they still have a lot of the traditions of classic punk songwriting. But for me as, as an acoustic player, I’m looking at my guitar, and I’m trying to play open chords, to play much simpler chord structures, and just lay a foundation for lyrics and vocal melody. So, the movements are not as busy as they would be in a Good Riddance song. Everything is played on the bottom four frets of the guitar with open chords, unless I’m using a capo. You know, slower songs and what’s best for my range, moving things up or down using the capo. So, the biggest difference is much fewer movements and using the open chords on an acoustic, rather than playing what we call Johnny Ramone chords, on an electric guitar.

In my opinion, songs on the record seem a bit more personal and a bit more introspective than what you do with Good Riddance. However, you kept the social and political edge you always had in your songwriting, even if not so straightforward. How challenging was it to strike a balance between the two on this record?
Russ: I think it was just a happy accident, more than anything else. There were a lot of personal songs on my first solo album, as well as this one, and I think it’s just the way that it played out. A song like ‘All Our Lives’ is much more political, but then, there are songs about either my own experiences or experiences of people that have been close to me. I lost both my parents in 2020, and it, obviously, made a huge impression on me. I wrote a song about that, which was really cathartic and not easy to write or record, but it was a good moment for me. And I think it turned out to be a pretty good song.

And, thinking about songs like ‘Statutes of Kilkenny,’ it’s, sort of, an outlier, but at the same time, it was an interesting thing to research. Being a person of Irish descent, I’m always fascinated with Irish history and all the conflicts. So that was pretty cool to read about this thing that happened so long ago and try to put it to music in a way that would be interesting and sound good. So, songs like ‘All Our Lives’ and ‘Statues of Kilkenny,’ I think, are still in the best traditions of resistance and radicalism and social change. Commenting on the state of the world, whereas most of the other songs are a little bit more introspective and based on things that have happened to me or people close to me.

You offered a first taste of the record with the release of ‘Babel.’ How happy are you with the reactions so far?
I’m not really sure. I haven’t seen any reviews or anything about it. I mean, the people in my life that I’ve played it for, who would be honest with me, have told me that they thought it was great.

So, you mentioned that after your first record, you didn’t have a chance to do a proper tour. Do you think it’ll be different with this record? Do you plan to push it a bit more and give it more attention than you did with the first record?
Russ: I definitely want to, but like I said, it’s hard. Good Riddance is a known quantity. We know that there are people out there who enjoy our music and who will come to see us play. And I didn’t do the solo shows enough to really get any sense of whether it is any good. The world doesn’t need one more punk singer going out and playing acoustic; nobody needs another one of those guys. So, I was sensitive to, is this really worth it? Is this worth going to see? Is it something that people will like? And I never really got a good enough sense.

Sometimes, I would play, and there would be a decent turnout, and I played shows to nobody. I played a bar, a restaurant, and there were people sitting at the bar with their back to me, and not a single person turned around. I played a whole set, talked between songs, and not a single person watched, and I packed up and left. I’ve had many more of those shows than really well-attended shows. So it’s hard for me to tell if it’s any good. But now I have a booking agent, and I want to do right by Stefan, for the investment that he made and the belief he has in the material. So, I definitely want to, at least, get out and play and see what happens. I’m definitely determined to play more and to try to tour more. And having a booking agent will help because she’ll kick me in the ass, and she’ll keep me busy.

Yeah, and pick the right places for you.
Russ: Yeah, hopefully. In September, I did a little tour around California with Trever [Keith] from Face to Face, and that was great. You know, Trever doesn’t have any solo stuff out, so he was mostly playing Face to Face songs, which is what people were showing up to see, but the response I got was pretty good on most of those shows. It gave me a good sense. I had been playing two or three songs off the new album every time I played. But it’s just a real hit and miss. It’s about building up an audience and getting a chance to play for people who are gonna be okay with not hearing any Good Riddance songs.

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Practically like a new start.
Russ: Yeah. And I think that my guitar playing has gotten better. Every show I played with Trever, it was cool, ‘cuz it was nine or ten shows in a row, and I could just feel myself getting more comfortable with it’s the whole thing. It’s a very different performance. It’s a different vibe than playing with a band, and I love it. I loved the more relaxed, back and forth conversations you can have with people there. I really enjoyed that. So, I need to stay busy and not take too much time off. I’m hoping to get over to Europe. Good Riddance schedule is my priority, but whenever Good Riddance is not doing anything, I’m hoping that I can get out and play.

And with the pandemic, even though the worst of it’s over, there’s still ongoing stuff. Now there’s a new variant. Things are constantly changing, which makes it difficult for people trying to book tours. Nobody knows what the facts on the ground are gonna be in six months, and typically, in a band or music, we’re booking six months out. So, with everything shifting, the best that we can do is to book shows and then hope that the conditions are right for those shows to actually happen and for people to be able to come out.

Yeah. I usually finish off interviews by asking the person I speak with about their plans and what’s next, but with the pandemic, it’s almost impossible to really plan things.
Russ: I mean, you can plan, for example, Good Riddance is supposed to be going to Europe in June and July. And it’s the same tour that we were supposed to do last year. So we’re planning on it, and it’s booked, but given the state of the world, we now are not as positive like we used to be. You know, you book a tour, and it’s going to happen for sure. And now, we booked it, and it’s ready to go, but at the same time, we totally understand that, with the way the world is, it may not happen. It’s definitely a strange way to operate. But, it’s not just bands – it affects everybody in almost every aspect of life. We don’t have it any worse than anybody else. And as far as me doing solo shows, it’s the same. I want to book and try to play things, but I’m also prepared for things to cancel.

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