|Category:||Article - Magazine||Publish date:||2/1/2013|
|Source:||Exclaim! Magazine, February 2013 (Canada)||With:||Brett Gurewitz, Greg Graffin, Greg Hetson, Jay Bentley|
Few bands have weathered as many storms as Bad Religion have: break-ups, drug addiction, a failed stint on a major label and the defection of one-half of the band's songwriting team, the group have seen it all. Yet over their 30-plus year career the Los Angeles punks have reached as many highs as lows, participating in L.A.'s influential hardcore scene, helping to bring the underground into the mainstream and then actually benefitting from punk's mid-'90s multi-platinum heights. Like a punk rock AC/DC, they've maintained razor sharp focus, rarely deviating from a script written when their key figures — singer Greg Graffin, guitarist Brett Gurewitz and bass player Jay Bentley — were 15, becoming a highly respected institution in the process. Sixteen albums deep, including last month's excellent True North, Bad Religion show no sign of letting up or calming down.
1964 to 1978
Brett Gurewitz is born in Los Angeles in 1962, and raised in a Jewish family in the San Fernando Valley. He discovers the Ramones via his local independent record store and sees them play at the Hollywood Palladium in 1978, attending the show by himself because no one else at his school has "gone punk." The gig inspires Gurewitz to seek out local shows, but there aren't any in the Valley. Armed with a driver's license, he sees the Germs at Flipper's Roller Rink in Hollywood. Greg Graffin is born in Wisconsin in 1964. Growing up he sings in the school chorus. At age 12, his parents divorce and he and his brother Grant move with his mother to the San Fernando Valley. He spends the school year in Southern California and summers in Wisconsin with his father, a pattern that continues throughout his teenage years. Graffin finds it difficult adjusting to his new home's life-style, and takes solace in the punk records he discovers while listening to legendary KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer on his show Rodney on the ROQ.
1979 to 1980
Graffin meets drummer Jay Ziskrout at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. They're introduced to Gurewitz through mutual friend Tom Clement. Gurewitz is already a member of a New Wave group called the Quarks. As the only punks at the school, there's an immediate sense that they should stick together. Gurewitz, who also owns a van, prefers punk and quickly ditches the Quarks and throws his lot in with Graffin and Ziskrout. The trio pen "Sensory Overlord," "World War III" and "Politics," all of which end up on the band's debut EP. Noticing a lack of bottom end to their sound, Graffin recruits schoolmate Jay Bentley. Born in Kansas, Bentley is Graffin's age and plays guitar, but not bass. Nevertheless all parties agree to the situation and Bentley buys a bass guitar from Sears. "It took minutes to learn to play," Bentley recalls to Goldmine Magazine in 1997. "Hey, these four strings are the top four strings on a guitar, cool. No chords, I get to play one string at a time; I can do this easy, all you've got to do is follow the guitar player."
The quartet first plays together in Graffin's parent's living room, before moving onto the living room at Ziskrout's. In a 2010 interview with Bad Religion fan site thebrpage.net, Bentley says this is where they came up with the name Bad Religion and the cross-buster logo that they use for the next 30 years. Despite Graffin's later reputation as a devout atheist, the name isn't meant as an attack on religion; rather it's meant to show that religion can be "any kind of social group that prescribes a certain way of thinking."
It's also the period in which Gurewitz receives his infamous nickname. "There was somebody at his house," says Bentley, "I want to say a nanny, and whenever we'd call his house and ask 'Is Brett there?' she'd say, "No, Mr. Brett no home' so we just started calling and asking, 'Is Mr. Brett there?'" The name sticks. After moving out of Ziskrout's parent's place, they try to make a go of it in Bentley's garage, but leave after the cops come by on the first day. They eventually settle into the Graffins' garage, which they dub the Hellhole, and make it their permanent rehearsal space. Graffin and Gurewitz quickly emerge as the band's songwriters, penning complete songs, both music and lyrics, separately, rarely collaborating. It's a method that continues to this day. "Mine [songs] tend to be a little more accessible and Greg's lyrics have been called obtuse," says Gurewitz. "He uses big words and obtuse concepts." Gurewitz tells Exclaim! in 2004 that the Adolescents' Blue and Kids of the Black Hole albums were his biggest influences as far as his writing style.
Bad Religion head into Studio 4 to record a demo. The tape they emerge with makes the rounds, eventually landing in the hands of Lucky Lehrer, drummer for Circle Jerks, an already established So-Cal hardcore band featuring former Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris and guitarist Greg Hetson, who also plays in Redd Kross. Lehrer plays the tape on Bingenheimer's show on KROQ, known for being friendly to local L.A. punk bands. They receive a positive reception. Two weeks later, the band book their first show at Joey Kills in Burbank, but the manager never shows and the gig is cancelled. Instead the band's first show is at a warehouse party outside Los Angeles opening for Social Distortion, at the time still in their infancy. With only half-a-dozen songs in their catalogue, they play the same set twice. In a 2010 interview with Spin, Jennifer Finch, a future member of L7 who attends the gig recalls, "I thought they sucked."
Bad Religion record a self-titled EP at a studio built in Ziskrout's drum teacher's garage in Westlake. The music is textbook L.A. hardcore, although elements of the band's more melodic sound are there, as is the band's ability to pen political songs that offer more than simple sloganeering. "We really sat around and talked about what kind of a band do we want to be," recalls Bentley. "We can be a band that just says 'Fuck you…' or we could be a band of some sort of relevance that could possibly write songs that last a lot longer than the band will. And we all thought that's a better idea." The record is mastered at Goldstar Recorders in Hollywood where future Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano works as a receptionist. She likes the band's music and suggests they use her boyfriend, one-time Sparks guitarist and future Concrete Blonde guitarist James Mankey, as producer on their next album. Gurewitz's dad lends his son $1,000 to cover the cost of pressing 500 copies, but the snare is mastered too high, causing the record to skip. They sell all 500 copies anyway. In the run-off groove, the band have "We're not Bad Religion" inscribed on side-A and "…You Are" on the flipside. They press up 1500 more copies, fixing the previous snare drum error. But they discover that the B-side's inscription now reads "Ellipsis you are."
The record is distributed by JEM Records, but Gurewitz creates Epitaph Records. "JEM had to buy the records from somebody," says Gurewitz of the label's humble origins. The name comes from the King Crimson lyric "Confusion will be my epitaph" from the song "Epitaph," after joking about the song with Graffin. In 1997 Graffin tells Goldmine, "Epitaph is, in a sense, a record of a lifetime; these grooves in the vinyl will be our epitaph." Epitaph eventually becomes one of the biggest independent labels in the industry, but at the time Gurewitz doesn't know the difference between major and independent labels, nor the politics that came with such designations. "I just knew that we were a garage band and nobody was going to put out our record," he'll tell Exclaim! in 2004. Both Graffin and Gurewitz take a crack at designing a logo for the fledgling label. "He was a better artist," Graffin tells Goldmine, "but I had good ideas." Graffin draws a cracked three-dimensional gravestone. Gurewitz suggests they turn the grave into the shape of an "E" and an iconic logo is born. The label is set up as a partnership between the four members with Gurewitz's father co-signing as an outside party. "It wasn't so much a partnership in a company, it was a partnership in the record," Gurewitz explains. "There was no record contract. The notion was that we would be selling records and the agreement was that we all had an equal share. It only came up later, the idea of putting out other bands."
The EP is a success and the money the band make allows Gurewitz to pay back the loan from his father while leaving enough for the quartet to head back to the studio. They take Napolitano up on her offer and hire Mankey to produce. He takes them into Track Records in Hollywood where the band spend four or five nights working from midnight until nine or ten in the morning. Then, with the record half done, drummer Ziskrout suddenly quits. "It was for some really stupid reason," Graffin tells Goldmine. ""Like, 'You guys don't listen to me enough, fuck you, I quit.'" Peter Finestone, a fellow punk who also grew up in the Valley, but went to a different high school than Gurewitz, Graffin and Bentley, gets word that Ziskrout is out. He makes the bold move of knocking on Graffin's door in an attempt to nab the empty drum seat. He gets the job without even auditioning. The band head back to the Hellhole to rehearse with their new drummer, then, over the course of a weekend, finish off the rest of the 14 tracks that will make up How Could Hell Be Any Worse? Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson contributes a guitar solo to "Part III." The band contribute alternate versions of "Drastic Action," "Slaves" and "Bad Religion" to the Public Service EP a compilation of Southern California hardcore bands, while "In the Night" finds its way onto BYO's Someone Got their Head Kicked In comp. The band initially press 6,000 copies of How Could Hell be Any Worse? It eventually sells 12,000 copies during the band's initial run. Epitaph's operations now constitute parts of both Graffin and Gurewitz's parent's houses where band members hand-stuff records, sometimes writing messages or autographing the sleeves. Despite the record's success, Bad Religion rarely play outside of Southern California. Bentley and Finestone are eager to tour, but Gurewitz and Graffin aren't. Complicating matters, Graffin continues to spend his summers back in Wisconsin with his father, effectively putting the band on hiatus for two months a year. Problems with Epitaph's partnership structure soon arise; Gurewitz asks his father to co-sign cheques under the guise of label business, but uses the money to buy drugs. On top of his duties with the band and Epitaph, Gurewitz takes a job at Chameleon Records to whom he licenses and represses How Could Hell Be Any Worse? without the rest of the band's knowledge. It will take four years for the band to regain control of the album. "That was a little bit of controversy in the band," Graffin tells Goldmine. Yet then and now he's remained incredibly diplomatic about the issue. "What the hell happened? Well [the money] was all gone. It's just the music, you don't want to fight about it, you don't want to get legal about it, you just kind of go, 'Whatever.'"
Graffin gets his hands on a Roland Juno-6 keyboard and starts writing what will become the next Bad Religion album. Finestone leaves the band to attend school in England, with Davey Goldman filling in. The keyboard ends up being a prevalent element on Into the Unknown. Bentley walks out after a day of recording. "The record was kind of backwards to me," Bentley tells Goldmine. "We did one song where I thought 'OK, let's go on to the next song.' But we spent the next eight hours doing overdubs, putting little bits and pieces on it. And I thought, 'Why are we doing this?'" Looking back years later Bentley describes the record's sound as similar to REM's Murmur, while Gurewitz points out the similarities between its proggy sound and fellow SoCal punks T.S.O.L.'s Beneath the Shadows, released the same year on Alternative Tentacles. "When I was making it I liked it," says Gurewitz. "At no time did I think that this was the biggest musical mistake that I will make in my life."
The album ships 10,000 units, few of which sell. Bentley tells Goldmine that the record was heavily bootlegged. "It's the only record that we shipped 10,000 of and had 11,000 returned," Gurewitz jokes to Exclaim! in 2004, claiming that even he doesn't have a copy of the record. "Not that I wanted one," he says today. Many in the scene pin the demise of the L.A. hardcore on the album, and therefore on Bad Religion, even if the scene was already starting to fall apart amid band break-ups and increasing violence at the shows.
"The demise of the scene in L.A. was happening anyway," says Gurewitz. "A lot of the bands were getting keyboards. We weren't that original for doing it. But rather than going New Wave with it, we went prog." The band have since mostly disowned the album, although it was finally re-issued on vinyl as part of the band's 30th anniversary vinyl box set. "I don't regret anything, but it was definitely a mistake," says Gurewitz. Despite its notoriety, it's the first record Gurewitz engineers. "I had a four-track recorder when I was a kid. I used to bounce tracks and create really interesting effects. I was always interested in recording from the very beginning." The band also contribute the piano ballad "Waiting for the Fire" and "Every Day" to the Sound of Young Hollywood Vol. 2: Destroy LA comp and yet another version of their song "Bad Religion" for the Smoke 7 Records comp, Buried Alive. The majority of the remaining copies of Into the Unknown are stored in the warehouse of Bomp Records, whose co-founder Suzy Shaw is dating Gurewitz. When their relationship sours, Bomp begins selling the records, again without the band's knowledge. The band dissolves and its members go their separate ways. Graffin moves to Madison, WI to attend college, while Gurewitz continues working at Chameleon after Epitaph goes bankrupt. Bentley forms Wasted Youth and is asked to join T.S.O.L. Before splitting, Bad Religion play one final show, with TSOL opening. Bentley agrees to perform with his old bandmates, meaning that he opens for himself.
1984 to 1985
While Bad Religion's members temporarily go their separate ways, the L.A. punk scene devolves into violent gatherings. "The audience for punk rock had basically dwindled to nothing," Hetson tells Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen for their history of L.A. punk, We Got the Neutron Bomb: the Untold Story of L.A. Punk. "In Los Angeles especially it was completely outta hand… the violence fed off the violence and people were afraid to go." Los Angeles police blame the bands for inciting the violence and aren't above using the newly acquired riot gear from the '84 Los Angeles Olympics to keep the punks in line. While working as a salesman with record importer and distributor Sounds Good, Gurewitz attends recording school and eventually sets up Westbeach Recorders with Donnell Cameron in West L.A. With no band of his own, Gurewitz didn't see the move as a DIY way to record his own music. Rather it was another way into the industry. "Music was my love and my passion," he says. "I just wanted to learn everything I could so that I had a chance of having a job someday that was to do with music. I was trying out recording to see if that might work out with me." He quietly sign bands using the Epitaph name, then licenses their records to a distributor. He also records a five-track 12-inch under the name Billy Pilgrim called The Seeing Eye Gods.
Bentley leaves T.S.O.L. after their old bass player returns, but forms Cathedral of Tears with T.S.O.L. singer Jack Grisham. Bentley quits Wasted Youth after a line-up change. After Cathedral of Tears falls apart, he sells his gear and becomes a machinist. Unable to afford tuition in Wisconsin, Graffin returns to L.A. and enrols at UCLA studying geology. The Circle Jerks take a year off, leaving Greg Hetson with a lot of time on his hands. He convinces Graffin to reform Bad Religion with Finestone back behind the drums and former Wasted Youth bassist Tim Gallegos rounding out the rhythm section. The reformed band start playing shows and record the Back to the Known EP, a play on the band's much maligned previous record. Both the EP's sound and its cover art are a throwback to the band's first EP. It's around this time that the band starts touring outside of Southern California, venturing into the northern part of the state as well as nearby Arizona and Nevada, borrowing the Circles Jerks van for short three or four day-long tours.
1986 to 1987
Graffin calls Bentley and asks him to re-join the band, reassuring the bassist that their current set lists ignore Into the Unknown, a record only half the band had played on. Bentley agrees to play one show, but enjoys himself so much that he re-joins the band. Bad Religion plays a ten-date East coast tour late in the year with Circle Jerks drummer Lucky Lehrer filling in for Finestone, who goes back to England for school. The West coasters have a hard time adapting to comparatively frigid temperatures. Gurewitz attends rehab and puts his drug habits behind him. Bentley and Graffin ask him to re-join the band several times, but the cloud of Into the Unknown continues to hang over the group. Gurewitz drops his apprehensions long enough to play one gig in San Francisco while Heston is on tour with the Circle Jerks. He too has such a blast that he agrees to stick around, quitting his job at Sounds Good. Re-energized, the band— Graffin, Gurewitz, Bentley, Hetson and Finestone — set to work on what will become their third full-length Suffer. Gurewitz fully revives Epitaph, hires Bentley and starts signing bands. They use space in Westbeach for the label's offices. L7's self-titled debut becomes the first album wholly distributed through the reconstituted label. In 1997 Graffin tells Goldmine that Gurewitz had carried the guilt of deceiving and stealing from his friends. "Part of what he wanted to do when he started Epitaph up again in 1987 was to make it up to us."
The reconstituted band release Suffer on Epitaph. The album is recorded by Gurewitz at his Westbeach studios, a pattern the band will follow for years to come. While their earlier work certainly sounded very much like the band we know today, Suffer solidifies the Bad Religion sound. It retains the blitzkrieg speed of L.A. hardcore coupled with more fully realized songwriting and thoughtful lyrical content backed by multi-part harmonies — credited as "oozin' aahs" in the liner notes — inspired by the Adolescents. "I wasn't trying to be punk anymore, I wanted to deliver a more honest representation of the lyrics, I had these ideas I wanted to communicate," Graffin tells Goldmine. "I think that simply has to do with trying not to write the same material over and over again, so you have to write different kinds of music," said Bentley in the same magazine. "If there was one band or musical person Bad Religion agreed on, it was Elvis Costello. After that, Brett really liked the Ramones, Greg really liked Todd Rundgren, and I really liked the Jam."
"All of these things that we came in with, we weren't embarrassed to work with," he says today. "This punk rock ideology was so close-minded. That you had to only listen to punk rock and we just knew then that we wanted to be more than this angry punk rock band that had a very limited worldview." The record sells about 4,000 copies, a significant number for a young independent label. In We've Got the Neutron Bomb, Graffin says, "By 1985, '86 there weren't any rock-media-defined punk rock bands left. That was the big picture context; it was also one of the reasons Bad Religion was hailed as fresh when Suffer album came out in '87 — hardly anybody else was playing melodic punk with a hardcore edge." The band embark on their first American tour. Despite well-attended gigs in L.A. and New York, they still end up $2,000 in the hole. "It was tough everywhere else," Gurewitz tells Exclaim! in 2004. The band regain control of How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and re-release it on vinyl. Graffin marries Greta Mauer, whom he meets at school. They'll have two children together before divorcing in 1996.
The band is contacted by a German promoter who offers to bring the group to Europe. Although they're sceptical about the likelihood of success on another continent after flopping at home, they take the promoter up on his offer, expecting a slog across the continent. Instead they're pleasantly stunned to find they already have an established following there. "Every single show was sold out ten times over with people in the street," Gurewitz tells Exclaim! in 2004. "It was insane." The band ignore most of the States on subsequent tours in the following years, instead focusing on Europe. Fourteen of the shows are filmed, and the footage is eventually released as the All Along the Way home video. While on the road, the band write at a furious pace. They head back to Westbeach and emerge with No Control. They initially press 12,000 copies; the album ends up selling 60,000, mirroring a growing interest in independent bands at similarly minded labels like Washington, DC's Dischord. In 2004 Gurewitz tells Exclaim! it's his favourite Bad Religion record. Gurewitz marries Maggie, with whom he has two kids, including a son Maxwell, named after the Beatles song "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."
The band continue their hectic recording and touring schedule, releasing Against the Grain in November. The album goes on to sell over 100,000 copies. It's around this time that critics start accusing the band of simply re-writing the same record, again and again, a critique that will dog the band for the rest of their career. You can't have a brand name or a band name, without some kind of factor of recognition," Graffin tells Chartattack in 2000. "I mean, there's no reason to have the name Bad Religion if it's not gonna sound like us." They embark on a proper U.S. tour for the first time since their initial trip in support of Suffer. It's a runaway success. E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan contacts the band and sets up a meeting at the Epitaph office. He wants to re-record Against the Grain for the band, on his own dime. They flatly refuse. "It was a monumental insult," Bentley tells Spin in 2010, "to three people who were working at a warehouse pushing out 100,000 units by hand and really had a lot of pride in their work." Graffin completes a masters degree in geology at UCLA but moves to Ithaca, NY to complete a PHD in evolutionary biology at Cornell. As part of his program, he teaches an undergraduate course in comparative anatomy until 2003. The All Along the Way video is released in Germany.
The rising interest in underground music including punk raises Bad Religion's profile, as does the placement of many SoCal punk band's music in surf and skateboard videos. As the first Iraq war gets underway, the band release a split seven-inch with historian and political critic Noam Chomsky, New World War #1 via Maximumrocknroll magazine in protest. Bad Religion's side includes two exclusive tracks, "Heaven is Falling" and "Fertile Crescent." The songs are included on the remastered version of Generator in 2004. Finestone leaves the band before they record Generator. His side project, the Fishermen, are offered a major label deal, but stipulate that he can't play in two bands. He's replaced in April by Encino native Bobby Schayer. In November, the band release 80-85, a compilation of the band's early recordings, comprised of How Could Hell Be Any Worse, the Bad Religion EP, Back to the Known EP and the three tracks included on the Public Service compilation on one CD. In total the album contains three different versions of the song "Bad Religion." Curiously, the tracks from Into the Unknown are absent from the comp. Greg Hetson, who wasn't actually a member of the band during the period covered, pens the liner notes. The All Along the Way video finally sees release Stateside. The band contribute a live cover of "We're A Happy Family" to the Ramones tribute album Gabba Gabba Hey.
1992 to 1993
In March, Generator is released, and ships 100,000 copies, a first for the band. With the interest in alternative and underground bands exploding, the band film their first music video for the track "Atomic Garden." Despite the fact that it's Gurewitz's label and Bentley is an employee, the band sign a 60-page contract with Epitaph. The band record Recipe for Hate, which is released in the fall of 1993 and marks a relative sonic shift for the band, boasting a cleaned-up sound, beefed up backing vocals and even a lap steel guitar on "Man With a Mission." Johnette Napolitano provides backing vocals on "Struck a Nerve" while Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder sings on "American Jesus" and "Watch it Die." "Eddie used to live in San Diego, and he always came to our shows," Bentley tells Goldmine. "Then all of a sudden he's in a huge band."
Big Bang, a home video filmed during the 1991 Against the Grain tour is released in Germany. The band continue to find success with their Epitaph releases, but all the members, including Gurewitz, feel they could reach more people by signing with a major. "I had legitimate concerns with Epitaph focusing on us," Graffin tells Spin in 2010. "When we put out Recipe for Hate, every single record that went out I touched with my hand," says Bentley. "We're doing as much as we can for three dudes in a warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard. So there was this thought, well maybe someone else could do better than us." The band sign with Atlantic, which re-releases Recipe for Hate, along with videos for "American Jesus" and "Struck a Nerve" which receive airplay on MTV. The album finds its way onto the Billboard Heatseekers chart, a first for the band, peaking at number 14. "All our lives we thought of being on a major label," Graffin tells Exclaim! in 2000. "It was amazing how few of them were interested in us. A lot of them assumed that we were doing fine on our own." There is the inevitable fan backlash. Most of the band takes it in stride, but as he told Exclaim! in 2000, Graffin thinks Gurewitz, who is still running Epitaph (by now is home to a number of successful groups like NOFX, Rancid, Pennywise, and the Offspring) takes it personally. "I got accused of selling out the punk scene," he says. "I didn't think I was selling it out. I thought I was helping people discover it."
1994 to 1995
Following the completion of touring duties for Recipe for Hate, the band start writing their follow-up, their first done wholly for Atlantic. In April they enter Rumbo Recorders, a studio owned by the Captain and Tenille. Alternative Press reports that band members actually met the Captain during the sessions. It's the first time they've recorded outside of Westbeach since Back to the Known. Andy Wallace, who mixed Nirvana's Nevermind, produces, marking the first time the band have used an outside producer since James Mankey worked with them on How Could Hell Be Any Worse? Legendary MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer provides the guitar solo on "Incomplete." Kramer subsequently releases several solo records on Epitaph. Rancid's Tim Armstrong sings on "Television." After the Atlantic slaps the band with the clichéd, "We don't hear a single" comment, they re-record "21st Century Digital Boy," a song that originally appeared on 1990's Against the Grain. The resulting record, Stranger than Fiction, is the band's most varied to date without losing the energy of their early Epitaph days. The record doubles what they were selling on Epitaph and goes gold (500,000 copies). It remains the band's best-selling album.
During this period, Epitaph continues to experiences exponential growth, a situation exacerbated by the release of the Offspring's Smash. The record goes on to sell 17 million copies, making it the biggest selling independent release of all time. But the label's success pulls Gurewitz in two different directions as he tries to balance his business responsibilities without short-changing his commitment to the band. At the same time, several major labels approach Gurewitz about selling the label or somehow partnering with them to help alleviate his workload. He opts to take out a mortgage on his house instead in order to pay to have more records pressed. Meanwhile, the guitarist finds he is growing apart from his fellow bandmates. "While the guys and I are quarrelling and getting on each other's nerves, I'm a multimillionaire overnight," he'll tell Spin in 2010. "I'm 32 years old and I just wrote my best record. The universe is telling me that this is a good time to exit."
Following completion of the album, it's announced that Gurewitz won't tour with the band. It's later revealed that the guitarist has actually quit following a fight with Bentley. Gurewitz plans to concentrate on Epitaph full-time. In 2010 Graffin tells Spin he felt abandoned by his friend. "I thought I was leaving the band because me and Jay got into a fight, but I was using that as an excuse," Gurewitz tells the same magazine in 2002. "Because I was too chicken-shit to say I had to leave to guide my record company through a really explosive period." Gurewitz plays his last show with the band July 30. Former Minor Threat and Dag Nasty guitarist Brian Baker steps in, turning down a job as touring guitarist with R.E.M., at the time one of the biggest bands going. Three singles are released from the album, including "21st Century Digital Boy" with accompanying music videos. The band cover "Silent Night" for the Atlantic holiday promotional compilation So This is Christmas. A live version had appeared on a regional cassette compilation the year prior. Gurewitz's daughter Frieda is born.
The success of the Offspring's Smash, puts a lot of pressure on Epitaph and Gurewitz in particular who finds it difficult to reconcile the label's massive success with his punk rock ideals. He succumbs to the stress and relapses into heroin and crack cocaine. "I just lost my way," he tells Spin in 2010. "I lost track of my values and wandered off my path in life. And being a drug addict already, I just did what came naturally." He and Maggie divorce and he begins a relationship with Gina Davis, an employee at Epitaph. The Stranger than Fiction track "Infected" is reportedly about their relationship. Epitaph releases All Ages, a compilation of the band's work while signed to the label, which includes live recordings of "Do What You Want" and "Fuck Armageddon…This is Hell."
1996 to 1997
The band enlist former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, hot off his stint recording Weezer's Blue Album, to man the boards for their next record. The resulting album, The Grey Race, is the first Bad Religion release since Back to the Known to not feature Gurewitz. Graffin records all the demos himself. Despite boasting material almost as strong as Stranger than Fiction, and radio and video support for first single "A Walk," the record is not as successful in North America, although the band continue to find success in Europe. Support at Atlantic starts to dry up. "Because we didn't sell 17 million records, they looked at us like 'You guys just didn't hit the ball,'" says Bentley. Meanwhile, as Epitaph's finances descend into disarray, and the Offspring defect to Columbia Records, Gurewitz forms Daredevils, with future Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski and Vandals drummer and future Nine Inch Nails and Guns N' Roses member Josh Freese. The band release a CD single, "Hate You" rumoured to be about Bentley, backed by "Rules, Hearts…" on Epitaph. It will be the group's only release. "We thought that we might someday record more, but we never played live or rehearsed." MVD releases The Riot live home video, featuring a poor quality footage from the band's 1988 Suffer tour. Bad Religion record some of the shows from The Grey Race tour, which are released as Tested, the band's first live album. Gurewitz overdoses at home and is arrested for felony possession after he's found with 14 balloons of heroin. He avoids jail and instead enters a rehab centre in Pasadena. It's his eighth stint in rehab. Greg Graffin releases his first solo album, American Lesion. Written during his divorce, the lyrics reflect the singer's personal turmoil, as opposed to the outward looking philosophy and politics of his Bad Religion contributions.
1998 to 2000
After Graffin single-handedly wrote The Grey Race, the band decide to take a more collaborative approach for their next album, but enter the studio with zero material. "We just walked into the studio saying 'Let's write it right now,'" Bentley tells Bad Religion fan site thebrpage.net in 2010. They opt to record a large portion of the album in Graffin's basement studio, Polypterus Studios, in Ithaca NY, eliminating the financial pressure of a bigger, more expensive studio. Featuring Third Rock from the Sun actress Kristen Johnston on the cover, the resulting record, No Substance, is the most alt-rock radio friendly offering to date, and receives a lukewarm reception. "I was fairly okay with it until the title," says Bentley. "And when it became No Substance I just gave up. 'That's not going to work.'" Some versions of the record came with a bonus nine-track CD which included several B-sides and live tracks. The vinyl version of the record includes the single edit of "Raise Your Voice," featuring Campino from German punk band Die Toten Hosen singing the song's verses as opposed to the CD version where he only sings during the chorus. The band spend the summer as one of the Warped Tour's headliners, a position they'll find themselves in plenty of times in the years to come.
In December Gurewitz, now clean, returns to Epitaph. "I had some struggles coming to terms with my own success and coping with the changes in my life," he tells Exclaim! in 2002. "On a personal level I handled them very poorly." After barely speaking with his former bandmates for six years, Graffin and Gurewitz begin to rebuild their relationship. Graffin eventually asks Gurewitz to co-write a song for the band's next record. "That was nice," says Gurewitz. "And then me and the whole band started talking again in '99." Bentley tells Spin in 2010 that prior to going back into the studio, Brett had called him and said, "Do you remember the Ramones' 11th album?" "No." "Me neither and I'm a huge Ramones fan. You guys need to make a great record." Gurewitz contributes "Believe It," foreshadowing a full-blown reunion. The band head to Hawaii to work with producer Todd Rundgren, a musical hero of Graffin's. "A lot of my musical identity came from Todd Rundgren," he tells Chartattack in 2000. "I was very intimidated my whole life to ever ask him. I had started demo tapes on this project, and our manager knew how much I admired him, so she sent them off to his manager, and eventually it got back to me that he had heard the material and liked it." Despite the admiration, the sessions shatter some of Graffin's illusions about his hero. "You work with a hero of yours, and he's the guy criticizing you; constructively, but you want to stand up for yourself, so you're fighting back and all of a sudden you're equals." They emerge with The New America, boasting a rawer production aesthetic than their more recent releases. Emphasizing the bigger pop hooks are keyboards, hearkening back to the Into the Unknown days. The record fares relatively better with fans and critics. The consensus seems to be that while it lacks the energetic fury of the band's best records, the songwriting is undeniably strong. Bentley is less than diplomatic about this period of the band's history. "Brian and I did all those interviews with No Substance and New America where we just kinda painted on a smile saying, 'This is great; this is the greatest record we've ever done,'" he told thebrpage.net. "And I said, 'This is just fucked. I'm just going to be honest from now on. I'm tired of pretending.'" Today he's a little more diplomatic. "You always start out thinking this will be okay and at some point you realize it's not. It misses the mark, it doesn't feel like what you wanted to do. It came out a little sideways." Rather than embark on their own headlining tour to support the record, the band agree to tour as openers for multi-platinum pop-punkers Blink-182. "New America" is included in the first part of the two-part final episode of Beverly Hills 90210. Graffin appears as a guest on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect alongside Star Trek: Next Generation star Marina Sirtis, author Christina Hoff Sommers and actress/comedienne Julie Brown. The topic of the episode in feminism. Graffin barely gets a chance to speak.
2001 to 2003
Gurewitz returns as a full-time member, co-writing with Graffin for the first time in years. "Sometimes when you have dear friends and you have a falling out you realize how much they meant to you," he says. Despite officially re-joining the band, Gurewitz only plays sporadic shows with them, mostly in Southern California. His return coincides with the end of the band's relationship with Atlantic. The band, naturally, sign with Epitaph. Being on a major label was "Sort of like taking drugs," says Bentley in an interview with yuppiepunk.org in 2010. "The first hour was cool, then you just want it to end."
"That was pretty tough," he says. "By the end of it, they were just like, 'We don't care that much about you, but we're not going to let you go,' because in a strange way, it's a good thing to have Bad Religion on the label because when we approach younger bands we can say, 'Hey Bad religion signed with us, so you know we're not bad guys.'" Bobby Schayer suffers from a chronic shoulder injury and has to leave the band. He is replaced by former Vandals and Suicidal Tendencies drummer Brooks Wackerman. The Process of Belief is released in January. In April Atlantic releases Punk Rock Songs, a reference to the track "Punk Rock Song" from The Grey Race, a compilation of tracks from the band's time on the label. In 2003 Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross, who will go on to win an Academy Award with Trent Reznor for his work on the soundtrack for The Social Network, recruits Gurewitz to join him and his brother Leopold in electro punk project Error. The group release an EP the following year and contribute a song to the Birthday Party tribute album Release the Rats: The Birthday Party as Heard Through the Meat Grinder of Three One G, in 2005 before going on hiatus. Graffin completes his dissertation, "Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology."
2004 to 2006
Although the band always had political overtones, the policies of George W. Bush inspire them to create their most directed attack yet. The Empire Strikes First takes aim at what the band perceive as America's misguided war on terrorism. "Our whole album is dedicated to getting Bush out of office," Gurewitz tells Exclaim! in 2004. It's the closest they've come to making a concept album and continues the faster-paced, aggressive return to form started on the Process of Belief. Along with taking part in a number of anti-Bush activities, the band contribute songs to two volumes of Fat Wreck Chords' Rock Against Bush compilations. They embark on an ambitious re-issue campaign of all their Epitaph releases, excluding Into the Unknown. Along with beefing up the sound quality, appropriate bonus tracks are appended to the albums. The title of the 80-85 compilation is changed to How Could Hell Be Any Worse? with the album art reverting to the one used on the band's first album. The track list remains the same as the one on 80-85. Gurewitz marries Davis just prior to the album's release. In 2006, Graffin releases his second solo album, Cold as the Clay, on Anti-, an Epitaph subsidiary for its non-punk releases. The record is produced by Gurewitz and showcases Graffin's long-running interest in American folk music. The same year he publishes Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant? which collects an email exchange with Christian history professor Preston James. His dissertation complete, Graffin now splits time between Ithaca and teaching at UCLA. In 2006, the band release the Live at the Palladium DVD, featuring footage from two shows at the Palladium in Hollywood from November 2004.
2007 to 2012
After handling the last two records themselves, the band enlist Joe Baressi for production duties on their next album. "I don't really have the ability anymore to do everything," says Gurewitz. "It would take too much out of me. And more goes into making records now than it used to." Baressi worked as an in-house producer and engineer at legendary Los Angeles studio Sound City, where he met Gurewitz, but the guitarist doesn't recall how the band came to hire him. They head into the studio together in January, after pushing the sessions back several times. New Maps of Hell, marks a hat-trick for the band in its post-Atlantic period, garnering positive reviews from critics and fans alike. In April of 2008 Graffin receives the Harvard Secular Society's Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, an award given to humanists or atheists who make a lasting contribution to American society. A deluxe edition of New Maps of Hell, featuring two double sided posters, live DVD and bonus acoustic CD, is released in July. In 2008 Graffin marries Allison Kleinheinz, with whom he lives in Ithaca, and on July 4, 2009 Gurewitz and Davis give birth to Nico Moon Celeste. Despite actually forming in late '79, Bad Religion celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2010, embarking on a an anniversary concert tour. The trek is documented on the 30 Years Live album. The band record The Dissent of Man, again enlisting Baressi, which is released in September. In December they release a 30th anniversary box set containing all of the band's record on vinyl, including Into the Unknown. It's the first official release of the album since it's initial pressing. "People had been asking us for many years if we were going to put it out again and the answer was always no," says Gurewitz. "But when we decided to do a box set, it seemed like a cool opportunity to press a few on vinyl and pop them in there for the diehard fans." He says there are absolutely no plans to reissue the album separately. In 2012, the band contribute a cover of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" to the Bob Dylan tribute album Chimes of Freedom. That same year rumours start spreading that Bad Religion might call it quits after Graffin announces from a stage in Boston that "after this year you probably won't be seeing much more of us. We're going to try one more album and then all join the navy, do honest work."
At the beginning of the year, Graffin quashes rumours that this would be the final album for the band in an interview with Billboard. "I always joke when I'm onstage, and sometimes my dry sense of humour doesn't translate with people who are in the audience." For his part, Gurewitz sees no end in sight. "I think that I would rather see the band go into a different mode rather than just saying 'We quit,'" although he admits that as non-touring member of the band, it's easy for him to take that stance. "I don't think they ever have to stop. I think at some point what they should probably do and look at touring as a sustainable resource. In the interest of keeping it going forever, instead of doing world tours, start playing special shows and fewer shows. Hitting the major markets fewer times. And when you do it, make an event out of it." The band's 16th full-length, True North, is released in January, again produced by Joe Baressi, marking another high point in Bad Religion's post-Atlantic career. It also contains a few surprises including Gurewitz's first-ever lead vocal on what he describes as the Daredevils-esque "Dharma and the Bomb." "We were setting out to sort of hit the reset button," says Gurewitz. "[We wanted to] make a record that was informed by the same philosophy that informed Suffer and No Control. A certain commitment to austerity in writing: economy, urgency, immediacy. Subtracting rather than adding and hopefully exposing the song in its rawest kernel. It helps make songwriting to continue to be enjoyable and a fun challenge." Bentley agrees. "Sometimes when you make a record you know that you've done something that you're super proud of. And this is one of them. It was one of those, just can't wait for other people to hear it."
Essential Bad Religion
No Control (Epitaph, 1989)
Everything you love of about Bad Religion was perfected here: lightning-fast rhythms, buzz-saw guitars, socially conscious lyrics and walls of oozin' aahs to make it all palatable to the masses. And for better or for worse, the band's brand of melodic punk set the template for every platinum punk record that followed its wake. Even Mr. Brett himself says this is his favourite Bad Religion album.
Stranger than Fiction (Atlantic, 1994)
While dozens of underground bands tried to make the transition to the big leagues in the '90s, few succeeded. Even fewer delivered a career high like this, blending the band's penchant for energetic melodic punk with enough sonic experimentation to buck the "all their albums sound the same" critique. With radio and MTV finding space for singles like "21st Century Digital Boy" and "Infected" it achieves a rare feat as a creative high point and the band's biggest seller.
The Empire Strikes First (Epitaph, 2004)
The Process of Belief features faster paced songs, but it's hard to deny the clear sense of purpose that ties this record together. Re-energized and re-engaged, Bad Religion set their sights on President Bush and fired on all cylinders delivering a late career peak that remains a touchstone for any band looking to use their music to tackle political issues without hackneyed sloganeering.
- Ian Gormely
Interview image(s) added: Bad Religion interview
German transcript updated: Bad Religion interview
Article image(s) added: Bad Times issue #7
Article image(s) added: Bad Times issue #8
Article image(s) added: Bad Times issue #9
Article image(s) added: Bad Times issue #6
English transcript updated: Bad Religion’s Brian Baker on touring in the 'Age of Unreason'
English transcript updated: Bad Religion revels in being ‘the thinking man’s punk band’
Interview image(s) added: Das Paradoxon des Punk
German transcript added: Das Paradoxon des Punk
Review image(s) added: Age Of Unreason
German transcript added: Age Of Unreason