Corporate Punk Still Rocks
After helping to create and shape the U.S. punk scene for nearly two decades, Bad Religion are raising one collective middle finger at the hardcore fundamentalists as well as at the hippies, and getting on with doing what they want to do. John Pecorelli joins the band in New York City for some laughs and lessons.
Sitting 27 floors above Manhattan in an Atlantic Records conference room, Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker looks over a Robert Plant/Jimmy Page press flier promoting the April release of the recent plod-rock collaboration. “What’s your favorite Led Zeppelin song?” the flier asks. Baker snickers, then answers caustically, “‘The Breakup Song’-- whichever song killed it!”
“Yeah, ‘In Through the Out Door’ was my favorite,” adds singer Greg Graffin.
It’s nice to see the old punk spirit alive somewhere. Fact is, the last few weeks have been rough ones for this genre’s ancien regime: the Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams, Christian Death’s Rozz Williams, MaximumRockNRoll founder/editor Tim Yohannon, L.A. concert promoter English Frank, the original drummer of the Chiefs (one of L.A.’s early punk bands) -- all dead. And no one knows how rough it’s been better than veteran punk band Bad Religion, now in their 18th year.
“It’s like all the old punks are just dying off. It’s weird; these are people we sort of grew up with, that we’re used to seeing around,” says drummer Bobby Schayer on a conference call along with guitarist Greg Hetson. “And it’s weird to think that 1980 was almost 20 years ago: that freaks the shit out of me. Now they say if a band is from 1985, it’s ‘old-school punk,’ and I’m thinking, Jeez! I remember Greg’s album [Hetson cofounded the Circle Jerks in 1980] actually causing tension in my family, Group Sex -- oh Jesus! I just found a tape with Circle Jerks on ‘Rodney On The ROQ’ [a seminal L.A. punk radio program hosted by Rodney Bingenheimer], which was the first time they ever played Bad Religion,” Schayer says.
“Yeah, I was the first person to introduce Bad Religion to the airwaves,” says Hetson. “Back then it was like a young punk band would come up to a band with a record out a say, ‘Hey, will you check out our demo?’ And the next thing they were on the radio. I don’t know if that happens anymore.”
“But I don’t know if we’re ‘punk’ anymore,” murmurs Schayer.
“Corporate punk, maybe,” Hetson offers. “Corporate punk still rocks!” And they laugh. Because when Bad Religion signed with Atlantic in 1996 for the underrated album The Gray Race, certain scenesters [sic] cried sellout. They’d heard it before (from Tim Yohannon, actually) for merely hiring a booking agent. And they’ll probably hear it again for headlining the Vans-sponsored Warped Tour this summer. But they honestly don’t care -- after after [sic] helping to create and shape the U.S. punk scene for nearly two decades, the members of Bad Religion are raising one collective middle finger at the hardcore fundamentalists.
Says Hetson, “Somewhere along the line, someone decided that there was a set of rules for what punk was, and what was the acceptable way to market it, and where to sell your stuff-and that goes totally against anything that I thought was punk. We make music -- we want our records in more stores; that’s what it’s all about. If you want to stay pure, then stay in the garage and never play in front of anyone.
“To me it’s punk to just do what you wanna do and not give a shit,” says Schayer.
Which is exactly what Bad Religion did for their powerful new record, No Substance. Not bothering with a producer, recording half the songs in Graffin’s home studio, and wearing their pre-80’s punk influences proudly on their T-shirt sleeves, Bad Religion have come up with their warmest-sounding disc in a decade. Warm but not fuzzy, that is. “The Biggest Killer in American History” strafes the U.S. broadcast media, while providing them a catchy, crushing theme song for trite sound-bite coverage of serial violence (while also indicting the inventor the hydrogen bomb). “Victims Of The Revolution” lends an emphatic ear to the social end product of broken homes, latchkey parenting and the breakdown of the American nuclear family. “The Hippy Killers” is nine-tenths pure nostalgia, celebrating one of punk’s earliest rally cries: Destroy the past, define yourself. But only until the song’s bitter final refrain, “Shoulder to shoulder, we formed as one, the next miserable generation. We were the hippy killers.”
With a relentless bead on social disease and human folly, No Substance ends up a gruesome conceptual piece that broad-paints American culture as a superficial “self-indulgent enterprise.” It’s tough to argue the point (especially given Graffin’s doctorate work at Cornell University), but Lordy, do these guys ever let their hair down?
“That’s why we have sporting events,” exclaims Baker. “We’ve always had good, relatively mindless non-participatory stuff like that. I’m a big fan of NASCAR, the smell of race gas-I’m remarkably uncomplicated.”
What? Stoic ol’ Bad Religion are into nitro-burnin’ funny cars?!
“No,” says Graffin, irritated. “We race motorcycles. We’ll be bringing our motorcycles on the Warped Tour. I’m hoping we can get people interested and go for a ride with the fans who have motorcycles. [NOFX’s] Eric Melvin helped sponsor a motorcycle team, you know-motorcycle racing is an extreme sport, and you meet a lot of the people who do that who are Bad Religion fans. This kind of music goes hand in hand with dangerous things. It’s my only drug.”
So the straight-edge rumors regarding Bad Religion are true?
“I would not say that,” Baker puts in quickly. (Old-schoolers will recall that Baker cofounded Minor Threat back in 1980, and cowrote the definitive tune “Straight Edge.”)
“When I heard that straight edge had evolved-I’d never taken drugs, but I still thought, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,’” says Graffin. “If I knew I could have started a gang with it, I still wouldn’t have done it.”
“I’m really sorry,” Baker says sheepishly. “It just kind of grew on its own.”
Later, Schayer and Hetson have a good laugh over it.
“Brian’s probably the most un-straight-edge person you’ll ever meet in your life!” Schayer says. “Maybe that misconception about us comes from the fact that we never really indulged the way people expect you to if you’re in a rock band. We always heard stories about Led Zeppelin and the Who throwing TVs out the windows of L.A. hotels and stuff, and we were always like, “Fuck those old hippies.”
While the new album is a nod to the bands that influenced Bad Religion -- Stiff Little Fingers, the Ramones, Sham 69, even the Who -- and while Hetson is taking his “punk karaoke” act on the Warped Tour (featuring a crew of all-star punk performers, including members of NOFX and Devo), there’s a glut of new bands for whom Bad Religion themselves are the seminal influence. Graffin, who always considered Bad Religion a hobby, considers imitation as a form of flattery.
“But if they don’t know who we are,” he says, “then it gets a little annoying.”
Bad Religion Versus England
The members of Bad Religion recently played a game of ice hockey against Canadian citizens in the city of Edmonton to raise money for the local food bank. The match ended in a tie. Bad Religion decided to take on England next-not for any charitable cause; just a case of good, old-fashioned verbal venting.
So what’s up with you guys and England? “All Fantastic Images” seems like a real dig at the place.
Graffin: We’re just fed up with it. They’re very self-important-and they’ve never been very kind to Bad Religion. There are a lot of English fans of Bad Religion, and we’d enjoy playing there-those fans are important to us. But the industry over there is really snobbish; we can’t get a gig. The promoters are all arrogant as hell-if you don’t have a fashion, they won’t really promote you.
Baker: Plus, I just kind of like the idea of having someplace that we hate. I mean, there’s not a lot of punk left in my day-to-day life. I think it’s a misconception that there’s anything about the English music scene that we’re supposed to follow. Most of the [bands] I like turned out to be Irish or Scottish.
Graffin: We’ve played in Scotland, and it’s wonderful. So it’s not the entire British protectorate that we’re attacking.
Baker: The ever-shrinking British protectorate. What do they have left? I think maybe a gas station in Fiminy. They should change the name to New Spain. I think what bugs me most is their insistence of using eight or nine syllables where one will do. “Overtaking.” No, “pass.” Ever single thing has to be more complicated than it really is. And don’t even get me started on “shh-edule.”
Graffin: And they have to say “innit” after every sentence to check that you actually understand what they were saying. Because you can’t understand what they’re saying.
Baker: When your teeth are in that condition it’s amazing you can get anything out at all.
You guys are ruthless.
Graffin: No, we’re talking “toothless.”
Baker: I just want to add that we’re not exactly pro-American, either.
Bad Religion Research Grant
Greg Graffin’s educational pursuits are well documented. The singer has an undergraduate degree in physical anthropology from UCLA, a master’s degree in geology from same, and is currently working on a Ph.D. from Cornell University in biology, specifically the organismic evolution. Long-time trumpeters of naturalism over supernaturalism in America, Bad Religion have recently decided to put their money where their mouth is and offer a research grant to fund field research.
Graffin explains, “We sent out circulars to all the universities offering between $3000 to $5000 for students who want to do field work in natural or cultural sciences. But it has to be field work: You have to go out into nature and observe. So far, there are probably on the order of 300 proposals.
“There are a lot of granting agencies that give money for scientific inquiry. But increasingly, there’s very little funding available for field-oriented projects. That’s because the ‘sexy sciences’ these days are genetics, DNA, and protein research that all takes place in laboratories. To me, that’s not nearly as educational as going out into nature and observing the environment. A trip through inner space-which is what you’re doing if you’re looking at molecules-doesn’t give you much of an understanding of the interactions of different species in our environment, which is ultimately what sustains us as people, the environmental theater.
“We’re going to give one award this year, and one award next year-hopefully it’ll become an annual award. We were surprised at how many universities took immediate interest in it because of this fact: There are a lot of people who want to do natural-history studies. I would love for Bad Religion to be one of the primary motivators of natural-history education-that’d be wonderful. People need to be educated to understand where we fit biologically. The reason we’re doing it is education-that’s what Bad Religion has been about since the beginning. We never pretended to have the answers, but we always asked questions. Hopefully, we’ve provoked people to come up with their own answers through observations.”