Operation Ivy’s Tim Armstrong and Jesse Michaels launch new band, Bad Optix
Punk legends Bad Optix – featuring members of Rancid, Operation Ivy, The Bronx and more – have unleashed their debut single Raid.
"I know for a fact that without this I wouldn’t be alive,” says the frontman.
When punk rock first exploded in Los Angeles, its defining characteristic was violence. Fans were stabbed at concerts by early day groups such as The Dickies and X, while a reliably antagonistic police force, the LAPD, were on hand to break up concerts by Black Flag and Dead Kennedys, to name just two. Riots were commonplace; drugs were everywhere. In 1981 the filmmaker Penelope Spheeris unveiled The Decline Of Western Civilization, an often shockingly stark account of the city’s first-generation punk community. Prior to the film’s release, a trailer clip warned would be viewers to “see it in a theatre where you can’t get hurt.” The advice was only partial hyperbole.
This is worth mentioning because of all the punk bands to have emerged from Southern California in the past quarter of a century, none better represent the often unhinged chaos of the original scene than The Bronx. The fact that the band’s self-titled first album features a cover version of X’s Los Angeles – a morality tale set in a city where ‘the days change at night, change in an instant’ – is hardly an accident. Now aged 39, the band’s frontman, Matt Caughthran, is, of course, too young to have witnessed shows by the likes of Fear or Circle Jerks at the Starwood. But he does remember seeing the second-wave act Guttermouth and watching transfixed as punks battled Nazis in a crowd that was only minutes away from being set upon by the police. For a young man in the market for the hardest and purest kind of thrills, these experiences were like catnip.
More remarkable than their feral energy is the fact that The Bronx have maintained this sense of danger for 15 years, long past the point at which most punk bands have lost their edge, if indeed they ever had one. The fact that the band are deft enough to have recorded three albums as Mariachi El Bronx – a style of music first heard in the 18th Century in Western Mexico – certainly helps. Just as crucial is the fact that, for Matt Caughthran, music is nothing less than a matter of life and death.
The Bronx – Night Drop At The Glue Factory
Tell us about the Los Angeles of your youth.
“The Los Angeles of my youth was awesome, man. It was a great place to grow up. It wasn’t like a Hollywood type situation – I wasn’t living in the fast lane or anything, and I never had the world at my fingertips. It was a classic LA neighbourhood type vibe. I grew up in a Mexican neighbourhood where there was a big emphasis on family, and it was a cool place to grow up. There was a little bit of violence and there were a few gangs, but for the most part I was able to do what I wanted and stay away from that. I was a street-smart kid who kept his head on a swivel and who picked things up pretty quickly. And my parents were super cool; they guided me without controlling me. I was able to come and go as I wanted. I learned about life. It was an awesome way to grow up.”
Mexican-Americans have been getting a bad rap for the past couple of years. What’s your experience of that community?
“It’s a beautiful culture. It’s one that’s based on family, which is a good thing. But cultures are deep things, and you can’t just scratch the surface; you have to go below to learn about a different group of people. You have to care. I think the problem with the world today is that people don’t seem to want to care about much, and perhaps sometimes they don’t really have time to. But if you don’t care, you’re only selling yourself short. You’re missing out. There are so many great cultures in the world, and the Mexican culture is one of those. The best thing to do is to educate yourself and dive in.”
What were the musical awakenings of the young Matt Caughthran?
“Iron Maiden. Their  Powerslave record was a huge one for me, especially the song 2 Minutes To Midnight. Actually, that was the song that my mom didn’t want me to listen to, which was funny because we listened to everything. I was listening to Dio, I was listening to Sabbath, I was listening to all that stuff. But for some reason, she thought that 2 Minutes To Midnight was literally written by the Devil himself. So I loved Maiden, but as I got older and I got my head on, I realised that I needed something that was a bit more real life and little less fantasy. I needed something that was more direct. And that’s what I got from punk rock. When I heard Black Flag for the first time I thought, ‘Man, where has this been all of my life?’”
Iron Maiden – 2 Minutes To Midnight
The Bronx are perhaps the only LA punk band from the 21st century that recall the chaos of the original Hollywood scene. Is that what you were aiming for?
“One hundred percent, man. That’s where rock’n’roll lives; that’s where punk rock lives. It’s an energy. That sense of abandon and chaos is what I fell in love with, and it’s the chaos that still keeps me in it. That’s what I’m in love with. I’m in love with the madness of the music. I love the craziness of it. I love the action and the unpredictability. I love being able to let myself go in the music, and to inspire other people to let go. Those are the best moments, when you reach the point where no-one cares about anything except for the guitars and what’s coming out of the PA. It’s about letting off steam, and it’s an incredible thing.”
Tell us about the first time you picked up a microphone.
“I loved it straight away. It was with my high school band, Pocketful Of Lint, who I joined after the original singer was kicked out. I was always hanging around the practice space so it was kind of obvious that they’d ask me to sing. But I was super nervous, and super stiff at first, but I loved it. It was fun. I don’t think at first that I fell in love with singing – in fact, I don’t think I fell in love with singing until The Bronx made our second album. But it was something fun for me to do with my friends, and I felt that I was contributing. I went to a Christian school, and the first show we did was in front of about five or six hundred people, which was crazy. But we got up and played the damn thing and we had a blast. I knew then that this was something that I wanted to continue doing, even though I wasn’t sure how. But then not long after that I got kicked out of the band because I wasn’t Christian enough. I got wasted at a party, and so I was out of the band.”
You’ve said that you didn’t really consider music to be your vocation until the time of the second Bronx album, in 2006. Why is that?
“Because that was the time that I really started to put in the work. Before that, I hadn’t really worked that hard on music before. But when you put in a lot of effort, you start to take more pride in it and to take it more seriously. Before that, I had such a low self-esteem that I just assumed that the band was going to implode at any given moment, or that I was going to get kicked out, or that the band wasn’t really ever gonna do anything. I was always waiting for the window to close. But during the recording process for the second album, I realised that this was something that I could do for a long time, and so I began to gain confidence and to take it seriously. That was the point where I thought, ‘Hey, this is something that I want to do for the rest of my life – and I think I can do this for the rest of my life.’ In fact, the whole band realised this about themselves at the same time.”
The Bronx – White Guilt
How’s your self-esteem in 2018?
“It’s good. One of the things about being a musician is that it’s so all encompassing. This is basically all I do. So when I stretch out of my comfort zone to try other things – things like photography, or painting or something life that – that’s when my low self-esteem creeps back in and I start to think that maybe I don’t have the skills to do these things. But, in general, life is pretty good. We’ve been doing this thing for more than 15 years now… and it just feels good. I’m happy with where I’m at in my life right now.”
You’ve spoken about your own mental health, and about depression in the past. Is this the thing that plagues you?
“Oh yeah, 100 per cent. And you just never know when it’s gonna come up. When we recently came back from Australia everyone was super jet-lagged, and I could feel myself creeping down into that spot where I could tell I was low. It’s crazy how soul-destroying thoughts can creep into your brain, like, ‘What am I doing here? What am I doing with my life?’ It never really goes away and I’m aware that it’s always going to be around. But these days I have way much more control over it. I’ve got to a place where I can recognise what’s happening, and for me that’s an amazingly powerful thing. Because once it gets control of your mind, or when you no longer have control of your thoughts, that’s when things get really, really dark. For me, it’s always going to be an issue, as it is for a lot of people. But it’s about talking about it and communicating what’s going on. It’s about realising that no-one is perfect.”
Is one of the ways of dealing with these thoughts to remain aware that sometimes your mind is an unreliable narrator?
“100 percent. I remember going to seminars that deal with this kind of thing, and it’s amazing to learn that your brain isn’t always telling you what’s good for you. In fact, it can be the opposite. Your mind will sometimes tell you things that aren’t fucking true.”
One particular episode resulted in a panicked phone call to your bandmate Joby Ford. Tell us about that, please.
“I was messing around with a bunch of drugs. I had a couple of buddies over at the apartment, and one of them had a bunch of pills, but didn’t know what they were. At that time we were so high that we just started popping them. And it was a really dark thing; it was really, really bad. Before you know it, I’m laying in my bed after everyone had gone and I felt that my heart was growing and starting to beat out of my chest and getting faster and faster and faster. At the same time, I felt that my body was sinking into the bed. It felt like I couldn’t move my arms, and, basically, it felt like I was dying. I got super freaked out, so I called Joby and I called my brother and said, ‘Hey man, I’m overdosing and I don’t really know what to do right now.’ It was a super scary moment. Fortunately I was able to get to the hospital and from thereon out I was alright, thank God. They were able to fix me up, and I haven’t really gone down that road since.”
Do you mean you don’t take drugs any more?
“Well, not exactly. I’m always gonna be the kind of guy that partakes in a little bit of weirdness every now and again, but in a lot of ways I think it’s about how you approach drugs. At that point in my life I was approaching drugs from a dark place. I was in a bad, bad way. I never want to go down that road again. It’s crazy how fortunate I am. When I was young I did so many drugs, all the while thinking that I was invincible – and we all know that if you take that attitude, you can die. It’s that simple. But I have the band, and that is the thing that has literally saved my life. It’s given me a purpose, it’s given me something to do and a place that I can put my energies. I’m super thankful for that.”
The Bronx – History's Stranglers
If the band were to end, what would your life look like?
“My life would look a lot different if the band were to end now than it would look if the band had never existed. If it were to end now, I think I can look back on what we’ve accomplished with pride. I have my life rooted well enough that I could survive. But if the band had never existed, to be honest I don’t think that I would be alive. I never had the spirit or the soul to do something that I didn’t want to do, and the only thing I did want was to be a musician. It was the only thing that turned me on. Back then, I wouldn’t have been able to carry the burden of a meaningless existence. I know for a fact that without this I wouldn’t be alive.”
The Bronx has a sister band, Mariachi El Bronx. Which is the better band?
“It’s tough, but I’ve got to say that Mariachi El Bronx is the better band. It’s better musicianship, and technically it’s better songwriting. Also, with Mariachi we got to do things like [TV show] Late Night With David Letterman – so we’ve reached bigger heights with that band. But at the same time, there’s no Mariachi without the motherfucking Bronx. So The Bronx is the core. The Bronx is the reason. So I love them both. We’re having the best time at the moment doing Bronx stuff, but there’s talk of bringing Mariachi into the mix. So I know it’s coming back sooner or later. But for the moment we’re gonna stay aggressive and crazy and plugged in.”
Mariachi El Bronx play a radically different style of music from The Bronx. Was it satisfying to show people who think that punk bands can only make one kind of music that they were wrong?
“Are you kidding me? Hell yeah. It was the ultimate ‘Fuck you!’ When people heard about what we were doing they assumed it was going to be terrible, and even that it was borderline racist. They thought we were idiots who should stick to punk rock. But as the first Mariachi record began to take shape, we became increasingly aware that this was gonna blow some minds. And then we realised that the record was so good that we were gonna shove it up people’s asses. And that’s what it became. It was never intended to be that way – the music is made from love, we’re not a revenge band – but, at the same time, when people doubt you, it is great to be able to show them that they’re wrong. That was a great feeling, definitely one of the top 10 feelings of my life, for sure.”
Mariachi El Bronx – 48 Roses
When you’re onstage with The Bronx, are you in full command of what you’re doing? Because it doesn’t always seem that way.
“Yes and no. When the music’s going, I’m not in control. But when the music stops and I have those split seconds between songs, I’m able to snap out of it and I’m able to maintain some sense of control over the chaos. And I do love that. There’s nothing better than being able to turn a room upside down. But the thing about The Bronx that I think people love is that it’s as much of a release for us as it is for the people who have come to the show. So when the music is going, it’s really pouring through all of us. I’m really not thinking about what I’m doing, I’m just doing it.”
What does the future hold?
“Well, for one thing I’m gonna be 40 in a couple of months – you don’t have to print that, though – which is crazy. But I’ve got to be honest with you, life is great at the moment. Being in a band is hard – for anyone – and it’s getting increasingly hard to make a living in the music industry, but we have each other and we’re increasingly tight. All we want to do is to keep making records and to keep playing shows. I’ve also started a publishing company called Stolen Tuxedo, so I’m working on that in my spare time to build an outlet outside of the band. We all kind of have our things that go on outside of the band, and that’s healthy, and now I have mine. But the main thing is still the main thing, and that’s writing and playing shows and touring all over the world. And that’s what we do, and that’s what we’re gonna keep doing.”
Words: Ian Winwood
Photo: Jenn Five
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