For the origins of Transplants’ new record, In a Warzone, one has to flash back a few years to an accident that made international headlines. On September 19, 2008, a plane crashed during takeoff just before midnight at the airport in Columbia, South Carolina. The last word from the cockpit was that a tire had blown. The aircraft’s two pilots were killed, as were two passengers, Chris Baker and Che Still, both of whom were members of Transplants’ extended family.
There were also two survivors: former DJ AM (Michael Goldstein, who was famous for dating Nicole Richie) and Travis Barker (who is best known as the drummer for multiplatinum pop-punkers Blink-182 and, of course, Transplants). Barker suffered second- and third-degree burns to most of his body, leading to months of hospitalization.
Information travels faster than ever these days, and it didn’t take long for Rob Aston to get the bad news. Known to the Warped Tour crowd as Skinhead Rob, the Los Angeles–based rapper was close to Baker and Still, who worked as Barker’s bodyguard and personal assistant, respectively. He’s also best friends with Barker. That led to his spending countless hours at the hospital.
“I sat and slept in the hospital room with Trav, while he’s laying there with his skin literally melting and fucking peeling off of him,” Aston says, on the line from his home in the City of Angels. “It was fucking gnarly. But through it, he had a really positive attitude, to where he said that he still wanted to make music and play shows and travel. If that wasn’t inspiring, I don’t what is.”
Along with Rancid singer-guitarist Tim Armstrong, Aston and Barker make up Transplants, whose eponymous 2002 debut proved that punk rockers could reinvent themselves not only as loop-loving fusionists of hip-hop, electronica, reggae, and classic punk, but also as surprise hitmakers. Thanks only partly to its inclusion in a high-profile Garnier Fructis commercial, the album’s stupidly infectious first single, “Diamonds and Guns”, crashed the mainstream.
While details remain sketchy to this day, there was also, evidently, some backstage drama. Transplants abruptly cancelled all tour plans and disbanded just as their debut was starting to take off. The group then celebrated the release of its 2005 follow-up, Haunted Cities, by promptly going on hiatus.
Aston acknowledges that things haven’t always gone smoothly with the supergroup, and not just because two of its three members have major outside commitments. But at least one thing came out of the South Carolina plane crash: it made the members of Transplants sit up and realize that life is too short.
“Everyone kind of took a step back and we all took inventory on our lives,” Aston reveals. “It kind of sucks—not kind of sucks, but definitely sucks—that it took something as tragic as that to happen for us to get our shit together and get back in the studio. I mean, fuck—it’s actually kind of crazy.”
The initial return to action came with some trepidation.
“It was weird because years had passed where we didn’t work together,” Aston says. “At first, I think that all of us were kind of hesitant and worried about how it was going to work out, and if we still had the same chemistry. But to be honest, we went in there and it was like not a day had passed. The love was still there between all of us—it was like nothing had changed.”
Except that it had, because the love hasn’t always been there.
“In ’05, when we kind of split, there wasn’t a lot of communication,” Aston reports. “Me and Travis still talked all the time, but that was kind of it.”
When the lines of communication opened up, Transplants responded with their most stripped-down effort so far. Those who love the band for its willingness to experiment won’t be completely disappointed. The blazing funk jam “Something’s Different” is built around a scratchy piano loop and metallic-snap percussion, while “It’s a Problem” marinates surf music in purple drank and then drags it through the backstreets of Baghdad. Mostly, though, Transplants embrace their inner crust-punks, with four-on-the-floor scorchers like “In a Warzone”, “Completely Detach”, and “Exit the Wasteland” finding Armstrong, Aston, and Barker angrily raging against the machine.
“It’s more of a straightforward punk-rock record, and I think that’s the kind of music that we’re best at making,” Aston suggests. “The goal was to strip it all down, with the exception of a few tracks like ‘Something’s Different’ and ‘It’s a Problem’. There was no using a whole bunch of loops and samples this time around. I don’t really like making songs that you can’t play live with the band—I’d rather just be up there playing with no extra shit to worry about.”
That philosophy of keeping things uncomplicated doesn’t stop with music. Transplants, Aston suggests, are done worrying about the small stuff.
“You can’t change the past, but you can learn from your mistakes, learn from the mistakes of others, hopefully, and move on,” he offers. “Again, it sucks that it took the plane crash to make us realize that life’s too fucking short and you can’t waste time bickering over this or that and getting mad at someone over how things did or didn’t turn out. None of that stuff matters.”