|Interview - Magazine
|The Big Takeover #40 (1997) (United States)
|An extensive interview with Greg Graffin. Jack and Greg talk about Greg's PhD, touring, Brett's departure, recording "Tested", and playing old songs.
No Dodo Here (PhD Still On Hold)
The more things stay the same, the more they change. When last we printed an interview with Bad Religion in issue 36, our third with them, we were in Hollywood, California, interrupting the quintet in the middle of recording their first LP for major label Atlantic Records, Stranger Than Fiction. We had a nice 40 minutes of stolen conversation with singer GREG GRAFFIN and guitarist BRETT GUREWITZ, the two songwriters in the group, in between overdubs.
And then, a bewildering series of events occurred. Gurewitz, who in that interview already seemed vaguely disenchanted with being part of the group, left the band he'd cofounded 14 years prior. A press release from Atlantic said he wanted to spend more time concentrating on the label he owns and runs, Epitaph Records. Certainly that was part of it, and with good reason. Almost immediately afterward, the label had the biggest indie label success in history when its LP by THE OFFSPRING Smash was indeed a smash, storming the charts and racking up multiplatinum sales.
With the rise of other bluechip punk acts such as PENNYWISE and RANCID and the huge sales of Bad Religion's pre-Atlantic catalog (the first six albums and two EPs, 1981-1993), the label became the hottest Property in indie rock history. lt made Gurewitz a wealthy man for his astute ability to sign and market supposedly "uncommercial" punk actst all without corporate meddling, bypassing the starmaking machine; even with all their sales, most people still can't name the singer in The Offspring!
But his departure left the rest of Bad Religion (Graffin, guitarist GREG HETSON, bassist JAY BENTLEY and drummer BOBBY SCHAYER) in a quandary. Gurewitz was a popular member of the group, having written so many incredible songs on each of their LPs including all four singles from Stranger Than Fiction, and his stellar guitar work would prove to be hard to replace, as well. The group chose punk veteran/legend BRIAN BAKER to fill the guitar slot and were thus able to tour Stranger Than Fiction capably.
With the release of their new The Gray Race, it is clear that Graffin has now fully taken over the songwriting resposibilities. The result is predictable: about half the songs on the new LP are of similar outstanding quality in comparison to the past---after all, Graffin has produced as many classics in the past as his former mate. But some weak cuts appear, and two recent b-sides better half of the album tracks (more on that below). The LP also suffered from merely proficient, sparkless production from RIC OCASEK of THE CARS fame, whereas with the exception of the slightly lumpen Generator (1992), all their albums had previously crackled.
One other change is the non-stop touring and TV appearances the band has engaged in since we last spoke with them. Such globetrotting and endless work has given the members less time off to pursue their own lives and left Graffin less time to observe a more normal, off-the-road life and to write songs about it. Most importantly, his career as a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct lecturer at Cornell University in lthaca, New York, has been temporarilyshelved, which we also discuss below.
Yet for all this change, one thing is an important constant. Even a lesser work such as The Gray Race blows away the best offering of any other current punk rock band, with few exceptions (such as Les Thugs, Frankie Stubbs' new band Jessie, Jack from T.S.O.L.'s new band the Joykiller, and a few other old vets of a similar age to Graffin), and Bad Religion remain one of the most exciting and intelligent groups in the United States, still clinging fiercely to punk's original (now seemingly lost) mandate to say something real and honest about people's lives and the world as it is now.
And we all must be grateful that the group survived the loss of such a key member (in fact, in terms of enjoyment of the group, the remaining members prefer the lineup now, suggesting that some tension existed prior to Gurewitz's split) and continues to write and play. They are particularly a juggernaut on stage!
One can only hope that life slows down for Bad Religion long enough for them to resume a more reasonable adult life, free of the endless travel and promotional obligations, even if it means fewer LPs and tours for the fans, since the toll of such a work, load has already led so many groups to premature graves. ln the meantime, look for a brand-new live LP recorded at various live shows in 1996, released on import but sold here at domestic price (the band is taking a big hit on its royalties to insure this).
We are proud to bring you this, our fourth generous interview with one of the hottest and most valuable bands in U.S. history. The conversation took place in Graffin's hotel room after sound check at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York. Also present were JASON HOMA, who took the photos, and my good friend ANANDA.
Thank you to JOHN DAVIDSON for the transcription and to KEN WEINSTEIN at Atlantic for his help setting this up.
JR: I'm amazed you can put your doctoral work off for so long while touring and recording with Bad Religion, considering how many years you've spent getting to the position you are now.
GREG: Hey, I'm just enjoying being able to read at all! When I was doing my doctoral work, I felt guilty reading anything else except doctoral work.
JR: So, essentialty, you've finished att the course work already, right?
GREG: Oh yeah, I'm done with basicatly all the requirements: The teaching requirement, the residency requirement, the coursework requirement. All I have left is to finish the thesis and take what they call the "A" exam, which is the exam where your committee sits in a room and they bombard you on the minutiae of the science in which you are pretending to be an expert in.
JR: That's the tripartite grilling?
GREG: It's more than three, it's five people. And they can ask you anything. They do put you through the wringer. You're supposed to be able to handle their questions with style and answer their questions with authority.
JR: When we last interviewed you, two years and three months ago, you said you were on "sabbatical." The thought occurred to me that you were in danger of losing some of that accumulated wisdom, that accumulated research that you'd made, that by the time you got to these last steps, you were gonna have to start over again.
GREG: Yeah, but luckily that's nothing that you lose. The doctor of philosophy degree is really just that: it gives you a new insight into the world. A lot of the minute details you do forget, but your perception of the world is forever changed. You should be able to be an expert on the field. It would not take me that much time to get back into it and to familiarize mysetf with the minutiae that I forgot.
JR: Welt, I don't remember much of the 16 economics courses I took...
GREG: (laughs) Well, maybe it was full of details then. I remember everything about some of the courses I took where the title was "The Principles of..." Courses that teach principles are often the ones that awaken you most.
JR: In many of your interviews, somebody always asks this sort of generic question; as in, how has your educational background impacted your lyrics? Since you were talking about your conception of your world changing, it seems like right from the first album and the first EP you were sort of on a similar plane to where you were after your education.
GREG: Yes, but I was better able to make sense of it after my education. All it does is open new doors. It allows you to ask new questions along the same Iines, unless your philosophy has totally changed. I have not had an awakening, I haven't been touched by God. Until now. (They laugh. Both took down at Ross Perot book on bed.)
JR: Wait, ROSS PEROT is coming over. He'll touch you. It's better than THE POPE.
GREG: I would not say Ross Perot is a god. In fact, he's beautifully human, and that's why I think he's a better candidate than these other ones.
JR: It's funny you say that. I watched a three-pan documentary on THOMAS EDISON recently on the History Channel. I was really struck by the comptetely unflattering bits about hirn It was very much a pro-Edison piece, he was indeed a genius and was one of the great men of alt time...
GREG:... but he was also a sonofabitch. Every great person in the world, I think, is a sonofabitch, because you cannot excel in things in a world that is set up to discriminate without being a sonofabitch and discriminating in some way. Those who do it best are probably the ones who have fucked the most people.
JR: Along those lines, they (the History Channel) were trying to give a portrait of just how driven he was in his work, so much so that he forgot he had a wife and children in the 1880s and completely neglected them. He was a horrible husband. Even by the time he was 65, around 1920, they showed his timecard with 114 hours one week when he was trying to perfect his original invention, the phonograph. At the age of 65! He would just sleep two hours, then clock right back in!
GREG: Well, I think that's being a sonofabitch. If you've got a family, and you devote 114 hours a week to something they aren't a part of... You've basicatly helped me to establish my point. That's a little extreme, and we all remember him for his achievements. If you want to get your name on the list of important people in history, you usually have to be focused on your own drive and not on the people around you.
JR: Are those some of the concepts you're sort of dancing around on the new album?
GREG: No, I don't think so. All of the concepts came from my head, so there's probably some linearity in my thinking, but I can't think of any in that respect.
JR: Well, certainly there's been a massive change in the band since last we sat down over microphone. When we last sat down, you were in the middle of finishing the recording of Stranger Than Fiction and beginning the mix. It probabty seems like about 30 years ago, doesn't it?
GREG: In a way, it does, because we're so deep into The Gray Race, touring on it. In other ways it seems like it was only yesterday, because we started traveling so much around that time and working so fervently in the band. Time has been sort of a blur. It's passed quickly, because we've been so busy.
JR: Is it safe to say you're getting fatigued at this point?
GREG: I think that's safe to say. I'm tired, man. This is no life for civilized people. To move on, to have no foundation, no place to spend a couple of months recuperating...just always moving. Even in our weeks off...We have a six-week break, but it's not a six-week break; we go and shoot a video. We go and have a TV show at CONAN O'BRIEN. Or we fty to do interviews in Europe. As many rewards that come from it, it's stilt pretty difficult.
JR: I said in my live review in my new issue that you've played New York so much, having not played there the first seven or eight years of your existence. You've played there more than some local bands have the last ten years.
GREG: Is that true?
JR: Uh huh. Some local bands don't play much. It just seems like I see you more often than my friends who live within 30 miles of me!
GREG: That's true. It's an experiment, really. Since that interview, we didn't know what it was like to travel and play everywhere and to do it full-time as a career. We're learning a lot, and after it's done we can look back and see what it got us and compare it to how it was before.
JR: It almost seems like you've arrived at the same point, judging from the interviews I read at the time, where R.E.M. was in the late '80s, whereas you've been around even longer than they were at that juncture. You can sort of see, if you read between the lines, a band that's about to take six years off from the live touring!
GREG: Did they really?
JR: From '89, the Green tour, until the
German transcript updated
English transcript added
English transcript added
Article added: Fracture #19
Interview image(s) added: Diplomatic Defense
Interview added: Diplomatic Defense
English transcript updated: Bad Religion, the ‘McCartney and Lennon of punk,’ to make Spokane debut
Interview added: Bad Religion, the ‘McCartney and Lennon of punk,’ to make Spokane debut
German transcript updated: Gähnend in die Punker-Rente