Brett September 27, 1996 (Matt Taylor and Mateo Rojas: A Conversation With Mr. Brett)
Entire contents copyright (C) 1998 Matt Taylor and Mateo Rojas. May not be reprinted or retransmitted in any form or on any media without express written permission of the authors. Any questions, email Matt Taylor at MATaylor@ix.netcom.com
A Conversation with Mr. Brett
by Matt Taylor and Mateo Rojas
9/27/96 at the Epitaph offices in Hollywood, California
In the years following Mr. Brett's departure from Bad Religion after the completion of Stranger than Fiction, relations between him and the rest of his former colleagues degenerated immensely. Specifically, there was no love lost between Brett and Jay; in fact, it was virtually common knowledge that the song "Hate You" by Brett's new band, The Daredevils, was specifically dedicated to Mr. Bentley. Even Greg G. and Brett had next to no communication of any kind. By Greg's own admission, his contact with Brett was limited to little more than discussion of which tracks to include on the All Ages compilation.
While lack of communication is one thing, open disparagement is another. Though neither Greg G. nor Brett seemed particularly interested in talking smack about the other's affairs, it was almost an eventuality. Epitaph and Brett were put under a press microscope like never before following the success of The Offspring and the punk revolution of the mid-'90s, and the subsequent continually unfolding soap opera of Brett and Epitaph: Brett leaving Bad Religion, The Offspring selling a bazillion copies, Brett's (allegedly) bitter divorce, The Offspring leaving Epitaph, Brett's new band, rumors of a financial takeover or sellout of Epitaph, etc. Similarly, Brett's leaving Bad Religion put the suddenly Billboard-popular band under a glaring, never wavering examination light. Stranger than Fiction was the band's best-selling record ever, due largely to two Brett-authored hit singles: "Infected" and the remake of "21st Century (Digital Boy)," both of which penetrated alternative rock radio and MTV, territory previously almost unknown to the band. (Brett maintains that the infamous Infected video depicting the band driving cars was shoved down their throats by the record label and has nothing to do with the song, which is about an abusive relationship.) Press constantly wanted to know how Greg G. and company could survive the departure of their "hit" songwriter.
The advent of the Internet meant every Bad Religion fan in the world was exposed to the increasingly frequent negative comments by Brett about Bad Religion, and by Bad Religion band members about Brett and his/Epitaph's business practices. Whether culled from a magazine report, taken in or out of context from an interview, or simply clipped from a supposedly personal e-mail response from one of the principals to a fan, Greg G. and Brett couldn't make even a vague comment about the other without it winding up as part of the daily Bad Religion Mailing List, sent to thousands of subscribers. By all outward appearances, the two were reaching a near feud.
On September 27, 1996, during the second U.S. leg of The Grey Race tour, my friend Mateo and I trekked from our home base in the San Francisco Bay Area, California down to the Los Angeles southland to see Greg G. and the boys perform two incredible shows. But this was not just a typical crusade of BR diehards out to see their favorite band; we had a mission to accomplish. A week before, I had laid the groundwork for an interview with Mr. Brett. While I claimed to be out to interview him on behalf of the Bad Religion Mailing List and the web site, my true reasons were purely selfish and personal; I wanted to have a meaningful conversation with a man I greatly admire and respect, whose music has moved me in ways intellectually and emotionally too significant to put into words. Sharing his comments with the rest of the fans was a secondary objective. And, though I had no interest in dredging up the entire soap opera, I was hoping for some kind of sign that he still respected Greg and that there might be a return to normalized relations. (And, eventually, a full-fledged return to him writing Bad Religion-caliber music, whether that would take place with his former bandmates or not.)
After six hours of late night I-5 mania we arrived at our crashpad in Irvine toward mid-day and I rang up Epitaph. When I called the office, I was in for the shock of my life. With no advance warning, I was put through to Brett, and who was in his office but none other than Greg Graffin! Apparently it was the first time they'd seen each other in at least a year. I talked to both of them as they joked around and told me they were friends again. Guess they got it worked out! Brett then invited us for an in-person interview, and we raced back up the 101 in 5 p.m. L.A. traffic to get there before he left for the Bad Religion show, operating as we were on essentially zero sleep (fuck Armageddon, that was hell).
Fortunately, we arrived with plenty of time to spare at the Epitaph offices, and although Greg had already left for the gig, Brett was ready to receive us. The Epitaph offices, not to understate the situation at all, are the coolest place on Earth. (For a punk fan, anyway.) Appropriately (?) located on sleazy Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, the gated building (with Brett's souped-up Camaro invariably out front to greet you) looks rad from the outside, but is a Gracelandish experience on the inside. The receptionist's desk is a giant car engine, which, legend has it, was built by the great Daredevil himself. The entire office is lined with priceless memorabilia from some of the greatest punk bands of all time, many of which just happen to be on the Epitaph label.
When Mateo and I were first introduced to Brett, he was busy sifting through (and laughing at) a list of ridiculous Bad Religion anagrams. That's right, anagrams. Apparently some sicko with a little too much time on their hands had rearranged the letters B-A-D R-E-L-I-G-I-O-N into a multitude of stimulating phrases, such as....
Brett Gurewitz: Libido Anger.
Matt & Mateo: Libido anger?
BG: Let's intersperse some of these anagrams in the interview. Confuse people.
M&M: Why not. So if I ask you what "Stranger than Fiction" is all about, you can say....
BG: Libido anger.
M&M: Seriously, let's start with that. One of my favorite songs, ever. "Stranger than Fiction." Can you tell us about it?
BG: I think the bridge sums up the theme of the song... "life is the crummiest book." It's basically about some of my heroes who were writers of fiction, who share in common the fact that they went crazy or killed themselves or something. So, the song is saying life is crazy. But it also poses the question: "Were these great minds?" They wrote fantastic fiction, and yet reality drove them over the brink. "Cockroach nape" refers to The Metamorphosis by Kafka, Wolfe looks back is Thomas Wolfe, not to be confused with Tom Wolfe. I hate Tom Wolfe. I think Thomas Wolfe is the greatest author ever born. He wrote his masterpiece when he was 24. It's about eight great geniuses who've cracked.
M&M: Who do you know who's cracked in the music industry?
BG: Clearly Brian Wilson. He's the second greatest genius in music.
M&M: Who's the first?
BG: John Lennon. But he's completely insane.
M&M: In your words, how did Bad Religion start?
BG: At the time, when I was 16, I was in a little cover band. We never played any shows...that was like 1978. We were playing stuff like Hang Onto Yourself by David Bowie....
M&M: What did your parents say about this?
BG: They used to say, "You should get some lessons." Of course, I never did.
M&M: Did you start with acoustic or electric?
BG: Electric. Fuck starting with acoustic. So then, anyway, that band blew up and we became punk rockers. At the time Jay and I were in 11th grade in high school and as far we knew we were the only punk rockers in school. One of my friends was named Tom Clement -- who, by the way, a song on the Suffer album is named after ("I Give You Nothing") -- Tom said to me, "Dude there's some 10th graders you should meet, and they're punk rockers too." And I was like, "Dude, no way," because it just didn't exist back then, especially in Woodland Hills. He introduced us, and he said, "Hey, you guys should be in a band. Brett plays guitar, and Jay drums." And I said, "Greg, can you sing?" And he said, "Yeah." And I said, "Jay, can you play bass?" And he said, "No, but I'll learn." And he bought a Sears bass for like $10, and we played. We were in the same high school, but Tom introduced us.
M&M: Did you start out playing all original songs?
BG: Yeah. The first songs we wrote were on the EP.
M&M: Did you come up with the crossbuster? (I like to call it the "anti-cross."--ed.)
BG: Yeah. We needed a logo... I used to do art, and I just drew it. We had the name Bad Religion, we just needed a logo.
M&M: How did your song writing evolve? What were you trying to do differently as you went along?
BG: I was trying to stretch, to get better. In the early days I was trying I was to emulate Darby Crash with the Germs...he wrote some intelligent stuff, and didn't shy away from the vocabulary, which I thought was cool. But maybe I went overboard with the 25 cent words. And then, I felt that maybe I was hiding behind the big words, and I needed to be a little more honest. Against the Grain was the last record I used a lot of big words on, and Bad Religion is famous for that. I had about half the song writing, usually, except for Recipe. If you notice, from Generator on, I stopped using the four syllable words. But I never used a thesaurus, by the way. I would never in my life use that to write a song, or a rhyming dictionary, or any of that shit. You have to think. On Recipe, I wrote five songs, and none of my songs have the big words...except perdition. But there's not many words that rhyme with mission, so there was an excuse for it. I decided, "I don't want to hide, I want to strip it down and get real." I had used the big words as a crutch, it became a style. And, then I started thinking to myself, "Fuck, all the great songs I love...even the great authors I love, like Hemmingway...they're not pretentiously written." Great art needs to connect, and I think Bad Religion always connects despite the big words, because there's something about the melodies and the way it washes over you, and there's another level where you can really try to get into it and understand it. But then again, if you can actually sing something to somebody that's just going to touch their soul, then that's even more effective. And to do that, if a word goes by and you're like, "What's that?," well... I had written three records like that, and from Generator on I tried to write prose. In Stranger than Fiction it really came alive, and I'm happy with my songwriting on that record.
M&M: Almost every Bad Religion fan out there disagrees with me about this, but I think Stranger than Fiction -- especially your writing on that album...
BG: It's the best songwriting of my life. Anyone who doesn't realize that is wrong. I know. I've written some great songs, I think "Anasthesia" is a great song, with great prose and allegory and a girl named Anasthesia, the girl is a metaphor for the drug and so forth, but with Stranger than Fiction... I attained it. And that's why I felt comfortable leaving at that time, because I was at the peak. It was a dignified time to stop. But you can hear the lyrics going there in some songs like "Generator," where it becomes prose. It still has meaning, it's still relevant, but I'm not writing about the green screen or the U.S. Government's got a bomb... it's been done by me, and a lot of other people. I don't know if there's a song on Stranger than Fiction I don't like. (I can name one: "Television." The rest are the greatest songs of your life, and how "Television" made it onto the album and "News from the Front" didn't is a complete mystery.--ed) I like them all, a lot. I really do.
M&M: Let's talk about a few of your songs that have really intrigued me. What about "Skyscraper?"
BG: It's the Tower of Babel, but from a different angle. In the bible, the moral of the story is the people were fucked. They were doing wrong things. They shouldn't be so prideful that they think they can build that tower and get there. The way I was looking at it was, God was fucked. People were trying to rise above their existence, they're trying to transcend themselves, to join together for once. Mankind is joining together as one to attain something, and God says, "How dare you," and fucks them up by changing all their languages so that they'd be condemned to have war for the rest of eternity. If it could have been true, it would have been the most fucked thing you could possibly do! It's like acting like a spoiled teenager. It's okay to read a bible, but you can't automatically interpret it a certain way. God acts like a spoiled brat a lot of times in the bible. It says some cool shit in the bible too, but that story really shows God as a man, and not as God.
M&M: "Better Off Dead" is another incredible song. I hear something deep, and I want to know what I am hearing. Sometimes I know what's going on in your songs, and sometimes I can tell there's a deeper current that's less concrete and more personal.
BG: That's how it should be. Comparing my old songwriting style to my new songwriting style, is like comparing journalism to prose. When you read fiction, you definitely get something from it. You might get more from it than reading journalism. And journalism is more of a discipline... it can be an art also, it is an art, but I'm not sure if it's art. And sometimes the message you can get from art is more powerful. It can affect you for the rest of your life. It can make you think, if you get it. If you get it by yourself, if you have that moment with that piece of art and you get it, you never forget that, whether it's a painting or any other form of art. For me music is more compelling than any other form of art. "I'm sorry about the world" is just about the feeling you have...it's almost literal...no it's not literal...I don't want to demean it by saying it's facetious, but it kind of is in a way. It's saying that we can't control the events in our lives. It's saying there are certain events we can control, but there are certain ones we cannot. An individual's will can only do so much to affect an individual's destiny, so one has to in a sense let go. Like the feeling of anger against injustices, in a way you have to let go. I have to understand what has nothing to do with me. Sometimes I'll take the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I have to get the weight of the world off my shoulders or I'll die, because it has nothing to do with me. I'm sorry about the song, I'm sorry about the world, the next time I create the universe I'll make sure you participate. "I didn't create the fucking universe," that's what it's saying. I didn't do this. I'm a cog. I'm a leaf in the torrential river of time. And I'm okay being that. I'm not going to try to control things I can't control, and please don't expect me to do that. The song is cathartic, and it makes you feel better. Sometimes songs can do that, and that's what it did for me. I really like that song.
M&M: How about "Hooray For Me?"
BG: There were some similar themes on that record. Each verse in that one has a different meaning, but it all adds up to one thing. Let me tell you about the first verse...it's a true story about my dad. My dad's dad died when he was 13, and his brother was one and his sister was two. That made him the man in the family. Yet he prevailed and overcame the odds and he got what he wanted out of life. He has four loving kids. And then it talks about the underground heroes of the tarmac, shooting smack...those were the people, while my dad was 13, who later became my heroes...Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginnsburg, Burroughs...those people were happening in the late 40s and early 50s when my dad was 13. So that was the parallel, and they influenced me to write. Those people, they invented a language, modern literature, way out there, revolutionary, unthinkable. Most people don't get it, but the song is really about having the courage to get what you want out of life, and not to take the traditional route because you're afraid you might fail. Not saying, "I'm going to go to elementary school, go to high school, go to college, get a diploma, and get a job as an accountant because that's safe." When I was 13 years old I saw an Elton John concert, it fucking changed my life. All I've ever cared about my whole life, well, the thing I've loved most, is music. The song's about encouraging people. If you love that woman, walk up and fucking tell her, because otherwise you'll never know. If you love music, do music, otherwise you'll lead a grey existence your whole life. You might only have one life. I'm not here to say that's true, but there's no guarantee anything will happen when you die, so don't waste it, it's the most precious thing there is. That's what the song is saying. "I was dreaming through the 'howzlife,' yawning, car black in the night, when she told me 'mad and meaningless as ever...' and a song came over the radio like a cemetery rhyme, for a million crying corpses in their tragedy of respectable existence..." That's mankind afraid to have the life they secretly want, that they keep from themselves. Maybe you want to be a rockstar, go buy a fucking guitar. Maybe you want to be a superhero, go buy a fucking cape. Do it, what the fuck, don't give a shit what people think, because we don't have a second chance and you're going to die. You could die tomorrow, you could die in an hour. "Sleeping with the stony faces on the riverbank...." The river is the greatest metaphor for time. Flat stones on the riverbank are the drones of humanity. Every word means something on that record, they're my favorite lyrics I've ever written.
M&M: When you wrote that song, did you hope you'd influence someone?
BG: I was just trying to write the greatest words I could. You can't think about other people when you write music. You shouldn't anyway when you do art. To do art, you do it to become more than you are. You do it to create something more than you are. I didn't realize that when I was 16...but maybe I did because I started Epitaph. Maybe I almost knew. But no, I hope people like it, I don't like being criticized any more than anyone else does, but it wasn't about that. Some of the songs I wrote, I don't even know how I wrote them. It has to be inspired, it has to come from somewhere.
M&M: When you wrote songs what kind of environment were you in?
BG: Well, most of Suffer and No Control, I wrote between recording sessions at Westbeach, where I worked 70 - 90 hours a week. 16 hour days, 7 days a week.
M&M: Is that where the money to publish the early records came from?
BG: Yeah, I borrowed money from Westbeach to pay for Epitaph, and I didn't take a salary for the first couple years or a royalty.
M&M: What was the breaking point for Epitaph?
BG: There was never a breaking point...it was very gradual. A milestone was Against the Grain, when we shipped 100,000 copies of a record for the first time. At the time there were two people working for Epitaph. Jay was one of them...he actually worked for the company for a very short time. In the early days, once in a while he'd help me lift boxes and shit. By the time Against the Grain came out we had NOFX on the label, Pennywise on the label...it was too much for just me, we hired more people. It's not like I go into a sensory deprivation tank or anything. It can be at my house, in a hotel room, on the bus... You write the best stuff after you've had some kind of trauma, a fight with a friend, or something bad happens. It doesn't have anything to do with what happens, it's just you need to do something artistic to feel better. At least, I've found this to be true.
M&M: Can you articulate a moment of great inspiration?
BG: Yeah, maybe. I had a germ of an idea of a song, and I took the Camaro to the desert, holed up in a bungalow, and holed up there until I finished writing "Infected." I wrote it on an acoustic guitar, in a bungalow in the desert, with no phones.
M&M: Why did you go there?
BG: I just had to get the fuck out of town.
M&M: Is "Infected" the work you're most proud of?
BG: No, not necessarily. But it's one of them. I can't name one specifically. I would say the songs on Stranger than Fiction. Although Stranger than Fiction as a whole isn't our greatest record, but it could have been. But it was my favorite writing. (For the record, I liked some of Greg's work every bit as much as Brett's on STF, specifically "The Handshake," "Leave Mine to Me", and "Inner Logic."--ed)
BG: Some of my favorite songs are...I like "Skyscraper," although that's supposed to be a slow song. You can hear on the piano, it's slow.
M&M: Did you write it on the piano?
BG: Yes, I write almost all my songs on the piano.
M&M: Do you record those sessions?
BG: No, I just write it and play it and pick it up. I'm very crude on the piano...I'll play you one on the piano later. But if you hear in "Skyscraper," [taps out the rhythm with his hands, more slowly than in the album version, while slowly singing the lyrics], it's supposed to be slower.
M&M: Speaking of "Skyscraper," I don't know why this is, but I think the final track on each of the last three or four albums was something really special. You've got "Skyscraper"; "Walk Away" on Against the Grain, which is never played live but was really amazing; "Only Entertainment," which was one of Greg's all-time bests from Generator; and as a journalist I really appreciated it...
BG: I think "Digital Boy" was the last on Stranger than Fiction....
M&M: Yeah, but that doesn't really count...if you look on the Japanese (or Australian) version of Stranger than Fiction you get "News From the Front," one of my favorite songs ever and I don't understand why it was never released in the U.S. in any form whatsoever.
BG: It got voted off the record. It's about AIDS. I can't remember the words, I don't have the Japanese version. I probably haven't heard that song in like four years...
M&M: One of the lines is, "Why do the troops despise the news from the front?" and when you hear that, you don't think about AIDS.
BG: It's about people. In other words, a few soldiers go off to the Persian Gulf and get a sniff of nerve gas, everyone's up in arms about it. But in our own country, we have a disease that's killing more people than that war or in the war in Central America, and people close their minds to it.
M&M: Do you speak often with metaphors in your writing?
BG: All the time. Although not so much in Suffer, a little. There are metaphors in the song "Suffer"..."an unturned stone, an undiscovered door leading to the gift of hope"...it's that feeling that I'm going to find a sign, it's around the corner, and everything will make sense, and no, it can't all be this random meaningless existence. And sometimes, you have a feeling you're so close, you can almost touch it, like it's an inch or a second away, that you can feel it.
M&M: Is Bad Religion saying in that song that this undiscovered door really is around the corner and is worth pursuing, or that it's a false hope?
BG: I don't know what the fuck I was saying back then. That was a long time again.
M&M: That song was co-written by you and Greg...
BG: I wrote those lines, which were basically taken from a Thomas Wolfe novel. It's a theme throughout Thomas Wolfe's writing. "The masses of humanity have always had to suffer," the suffering is not people starving, or dying, or the government coming down on you, it's the human condition of "why the fuck is this like this?"
M&M: What are your future plans with The Daredevils?
BG: I'm just writing. The plans are to write a good record. I'm not good at planning far into the future, I try to plan my week. I know I'm going to write good songs, and when it comes to me I'll write it down. I don't go, "I'm going to write for three hours a night...."
M&M: Have you ever had to pull over or something and write because something hit you?
BG: Oh totally, all the time.... I'll race home and write it down.
M&M: Do you write by hand or on the computer?
BG: Well I write on guitar... usually the melody comes with the words, or sometimes just the melody. I'll usually have the chorus, and the name of the song, then write the song, then fill in the verses. For me music is evocative, and it makes me feel something, so I'll have the music, and it will make me feel something, and then I'll try to express it in words. And it augments the song, because the words are bolstering the music. I'll come up with a line, and if it's clever I'll write it down and maybe save it and use it if something needs it later...but I'll never write a poem and then put a song to it.
M&M: "Man with a Mission." Is it about you?
BG: On the surface, it's a song condemning evangelists, the Billy Grahams, or the evangelical people who come to your home. On the other hand, there are kids are out there who are condemning me and it's saying, "Fuck you, who said I was supposed to be perfect? I'm not a preacher, everyone's a hypocrite, why are you holding me up on such a high pedestal?" People are saying I ruined punk rock; I don't have the power to do that! Even back then during Recipe for Hate, we were catching a lot of shit. They complained about the ticket prices, or said we're not really punk...hey, I'm on your side! That's the undercurrent. There's also another undercurrent, an undercurrent of destiny. It's just a feeling.
M&M: One of the interpretations was: Epitaph.
BG: It had nothing to do with that. Sometimes what you mean is the opposite of what you're saying. Clearly I am not...I can't fly you away. I can't condemn you to perdition. "Rescue me when I get too deep" is not talking about drowning in water, it's "I'm sorry if I am too pretentious in my lyrics."
M&M: What about, "Work for me, it'll serve you well?"
BG: Yeah, that had to do with Epitaph. That was a hint that the song was really about me, but it wasn't to say, that I'm really a man with a mission, that I'm really this guy. It was to say, "Don't make me this guy. Don't make me be this guy, that's not who I am."
M&M: When you played shows, did all the younger punk rock kids give you shit?
BG: Yeah, of course. They might be a vocal minority, but they're very vocal. We're in the age of the internet, and people can say things to you over the wire that they won't say to your face. They come right out and call you a piece of shit, and you get a thousand letters a month... I mean, Brett@epitaph.com, it's obvious. I try to respond to all of them. If they give me a phone number, I'll call them up and ask, "Why are you calling me a piece of shit?" Because I'm not. I don't feel that I've done anything wrong. I don't have the power to ruin punk rock. I put out that Offspring record, that was just a punk rock record. I didn't think the songs were good songs.
M&M: There's a whole litany of smack talked about you and Bad Religion on the Bad Religion Mailing List, everything from "it hasn't sounded the same since No Control" to...
BG: Well that's valid, that doesn't bother me. What bothers me is "You ruined punk rock." I didn't ruin punk rock, I helped punk rock. Punk rock in 1987 was virtually dead. It was not a dignified death, either. I love punk rock. If I put out a punk rock record, and 8 million people decide to like it, you think I have the power to do that? I didn't realize that could happen. That was outside the realm of my reality, that my little company could sell 8 million records.
M&M: What do you think Epitaph's role is now?
BG: Epitaph's role is to redefine the role of the record company with the artist. Musicians -- particularly rock and roll musicians throughout this century -- have been exploited and shit upon by business men. Yet, they're the ones who provide value in the partnership, not the businessmen. I've always known that. I vowed to make a record company that would change that, that would play the role of service provider to the artist, and enable the artist to be the principal director in the relationship, because they're creating the intellectual property and they're creating the value and they deserve respect and dignity. The record company should just make a fair margin for doing a service for them. That's what Epitaph does, and that's our reason for being. You talk to any of our artists, and you'll know we treat them that way. Of course that philosophy trickles down to how we treat employees. We sign on record deals, and they continue to come back.
M&M: So you don't sign extended deals?
BG: We wouldn't sign someone for seven years, fuck that!
M&M: Where do you see Epitaph five or ten years from now?
BG: I definitely want it to be a punk rock label...I don't know, I can't see that far ahead. I don't know what's going to happen in five or ten years!
M&M: Is this a ride that's in control?
BG: You can't plan something like this. Success comes from directions that are unexpected. If you try to make money, you won't make money. If you just try to be a good person and do the best at something, something good happens somewhere else. I didn't want to have a big record company, I just wanted to eke out a living with a modicum of dignity without having to work for the man. That's all I ever wanted. And be able to play music and be myself. I don't give a shit about money....I like power, but fuck it I don't need it. I can get my power out of the 451 (the engine in Brett's souped up Camaro).
M&M: Does that fast driving passion of yours have something to do with the name of the Daredevils.
BG: Yeah. I had a drag race on Sunset Boulevard, and I can't lose in that car. It's got 750 horsepower, it's a rocket. It's a dragster. It goes from 0 to 60 in three seconds.
M&M: Good lord! That's faster than motorcycles!
BG: Yeah, it beats Ninjas. It pops wheelies. So I won the drag race, and a cop saw it and pulled me over, but didn't give me a ticket. He liked the car so much, and he fucked with me a lot, but he just said, "Keep it under 100."
M&M: Who do you listen to these days?
BG: Johnny Bernette, Beach Boys, Descendents, Blur.... I like a lot of old rock. Elvis.
M&M: The Daredevils single has some provocative artwork. There's an illustration of a guy with a knife in his back, is that you?
BG: Yeah. It's really interesting, I have more knives in my back than in my kitchen. But I don't really want to discuss knives. But the worst part was, I wasn't looking when they were put in.
M&M: Considering what happened with the Offspring's departure to Sony, do you still have concerns about major labels poaching your talent?
BG: Yeah. I think there's enough bands for everyone, they should just leave me alone. On the other hand, bands should have freedom to decide what they want to do, which is why I don't sign long deals. So it's going to keep happening. But, what I expect is that someday, a band that is successful will leave a major label and come to me. And when that happens, it's all over. The game's all over for the major labels. Because their record on Epitaph would be bigger than the last one they did on the major label. It'll happen.
M&M: What do you think the radio's influence on an album's success is?
BG: MTV is more important. Radio has an effect. The only problem I have with MTV is that it really ruins rock and roll in a way because people see them too many times and get sick of them. MTV burns artists out. On the other hand, I believe the records I put out are better than 90% of what's on radio and MTV. So for me to say I don't want to improve radio and MTV... well, of course I want to hear my artists on the radio and MTV. Of course, some of my artists would prefer not to be on the radio. I never would make a group do anything. All I'm hear for is advice. They all have 100% creative control, and beyond creative control. They even have control over their marketing destiny. Anyway, if you just get a little radio, it's almost no effect. If you get tons of radio, it can have a significant effect. But if you get played on MTV, it's a magnitude more significant than any amount of radio play. Radio is at best a tertiary focus here. Retail is number one. My job is to help a group make the record they want to make and put it in the store. There are a lot of things we do here to let people know about records besides radio and MTV. But personally I would like to see only punk rock on MTV; I don't care for Salt N Peppa!
M&M: How many ska bands do you want to have on Epitaph?
BG: I'm actually starting up a ska label. It will be here, part of Epitaph, but a separate ska label.
M&M: Where did the name Mr. Brett come from?
BG: There's a story, but I don't feel like sharing it.
M&M: It seems that all the punkers think you have to be underground and broke and not sell any records and not be known to be a "good" punk band these days.
BG: They buy their Cokes at 7-11. And then they call me corporate. You buy Cokes at 7-11. You're fucking calling me corporate? I'm not corporate. You've seen this place, it's a small business. It may not be as small as the liquor store on the corner, but, if you've ever been to a record company...Comparing me to those people, I'm not corporate.
M&M: What in your mind constitutes selling out?
BG: Changing your music for money.
M&M: Do you think Bad Religion has sold out?
BG: No. I don't thing they've done that. That whole sellout thing is... I don't know... If you like Bad Religion's records, you like them. And, it's too fucking crazy to be complaining about Bad Religion or Rancid or any band being a sellout, when we're dropping bombs on Iraq and there's people starving in the streets. How can you fucking expend energy on this topic when there's unparalleled human misery going on right now? And these guys are on your side anyway! Whether you think these bands have sold out or not, they're extreme liberals! We've got Bob Dole running for president, and Newt Gingrich, and irrefutable proof that our own government brought crack into our own inner cities, and you're going to actually spend time talking about whether Bad Religion sold out or not? Are you a punk? If you really are, what the fuck do you give a shit about that for? Just go do something! If you really think you're political, get your priorities straight! It's like... Some people, all they give a shit about is animal testing. Or animal abuse. And they're lobbying to get rid of that, when there's child abuse going on. We've got bumper stickers that say, "Be kind to animals." Is this some kind of psychic trauma delusion? Women are being battered, and kids are being ass fucked by their priest and their father, and this is what you care about? You care about seals in the North Pole? I think seals are cute also, but I don't think worms are cute and worms are getting stepped on. I just can't fathom people caring that much about it, if these people are who they say they are. I was a punk rocker in 1982, and I didn't give a shit who the Sex Pistols were on, or that the Clash was on Epic or whoever. That wasn't what I was railing against. My life, my world was crazy. They were my voice. They were cool. I mean, think about it. Our government is killing human beings with crack. You realize our government is financing an entire war in Central America by keeping an entire class of people down by feeding them crack, which is going to kill more of them than will die in a fucking Contra war. And we're getting shit because a ticket costs $12 instead of $10, or $10 instead of $6. I was talking to Wayne Kramer, a good friend of mine who played guitar in the MC-5. The MC-5 was a band in the '60s that was a revolutionary, radical band. And he told me tickets back then were 5 or 6 bucks, and that was back in the '60s, when a Big Mac was 39 cents. Big Macs now are like a buck seventy-five right? Back then a movie was a dollar. Now it's 7 dollars, right? But rock and roll musicians, who have been shit upon for the last 50 years, still have to charge 5 or 6 dollars? Even their own fans are making them into second class citizens. Why the fuck is that? Not all cultures shit on their artists.
M&M: Not all Bad Religion fans feel that way.
BG: I know, it's a vocal minority. The problem is, with the power of the computer, you can just go out there and flame any list you want. If you're in a room, and one guy just starts screaming his opinion, over everyone else the whole time, that's not gonna fly, right? Everyone will say, "Shut up, give someone else a chance." But you can get a macro and send out your opinion 1,000 fucking times around the world, and you've created something that doesn't necessarily exist. If you're going to have a democratic discussion of 30 people, no one should have a megaphone. That's kind of what's happened.
M&M: Have you seen the Bad Religion web pages?
BG: Yeah, I look at them occasionally... I advocate them strongly, because it's the last bastion of freedom of speech. And the theme of our web site is basically freedom of press.
M&M: How do you determine what gets on the site? Do you ever think, "this goes to far" and not put it up?
BG: I'm probably not going to put up instructions on how to make a car bomb, but I might put up how to make a zip gun (a home-made gun). (Laughs) I'm not going to put up pornography that's degrading. I have my own moral code I guess. But I think freedom of speech is very important, and there are a lot of atrocities the U.S. government has committed that people don't know about. As a matter of fact, the things you read in the press aren't necessarily real. Shit gets written that's absolutely lies. People see something in the newspaper and think it's true. All the time, shit gets printed that's completely false. And in fact, if you read a newspaper in Paris or Hamburg (on the same story), they'll say the exact opposite.
M&M: So how should one approach the media, whether it's major press or an underground publication?
BG: Look at it with skepticism. Everything, trust me.
M&M: How do you personally sort through it?
BG: I just believe everything is bullshit.
M&M: So when you see a report like, "the U.S. government has been intentionally distributing crack into the streets" or some other atrocity, how do you decide whether or not to believe that?
BG: Well, first of all, they've been denying that for a number years. Second of all, you can't even buy a fucking Cuban cigar in this country. How are you going to get 100 million pounds of cocaine in since 1980? Give me a fucking break, it just makes sense. Certain things ring true. You have to read between the lines. You can't know, just like you can't know whether there's a god or not... It's like, it's very difficult to know anything, it's disturbing. The thing is to be skeptical. That's part of the message Bad Religion songs have given over the years. Have a skeptical mind.
M&M: Do you want to talk about your personal views about God and religion?
BG: Sure. (Laughs) I don't know. I don't know if there is one or isn't one. As a kid I was sure there wasn't one. So that represents a lot of spiritual growth for me to say I don't know. But how can you say for sure either way? Even if he comes down and talks to me, I might just think I'm schizophrenic, I still might not believe it. Plenty of people hear voices and see things. I've taken a number of hits of acid. I know reality has a tenuous grip. I know you're one molecule in your bloodstream away from seeing things that exactly aren't there, and yet they seem completely real to you. I have a friend who I knew and trusted and liked who said he saw a flying saucer. I don't believe him. I believe he saw it, I don't know what the fuck it was, I'm sorry. At least I know that I don't know. I don't really have a religion. But I won't say that there is no god. From what I can discern, the universe is nothing but a string of meaningless existential events. But I acknowledge that I'm not the authority on the topic. If there was a design, I realize I'm not clever enough to see it. I'm hoping against hope that there is a design because the opposite is absurd. Who wants to live in an absurd universe? I don't. But even if it is absurd, I'd rather hang around than die. I hope that it's not, but I'll probably never get to find out. I think the closest thing to religion is spirituality. Music can be a spiritual experience. If music is spirituality, than writing a song is like a prayer. Or a sacrifice. (laughs) People will misunderstand that, and think I'm religious now. That's another metaphor.
M&M: Do you see a point any time in the future when you could rejoin Bad Religion?
BG: No. But then again... Well, if I try and picture it I can't.
What happened after the interview ended was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. With only Mateo and I as his audience, Brett sang and played on piano two of my favorite songs, "Stranger than Fiction" and "Skyscraper." I always thought both, especially the latter, were under-recognized. And true to his word, when he played "Skyscraper" at its slower, originally-intended tempo, I gained a new appreciation for the song. Mateo and I sat enthralled, wishing Brett had allowed us to keep the tape recorder running. I only have the faded recorder in my mind to remind me of this intimate performance. Maybe someday, Brett will share this beautiful side of his artistry with more of his fans.
After the 3-hour-plus interview and ad hoc performance, lacking time even for photos, Brett rushed us to the Bad Religion show, where we briefly hung out backstage, then ran out to the pit to slam with everyone else to Bad Religion. (Brett stood discreetly back behind the crowd with a co-worker from Epitaph. Though I didn't ask, it seemed a near certainty this was the first time he'd seen the band live since he'd left.) I've seen well over a dozen Bad Religion shows now, but all since Brett left. I've never seen Bad Religion play with Mr. Brett as part of the line-up, but as I freshly remembered the beauty of Brett's private musical performance earlier that evening I began to grasp an inkling of what I had missed. Like a lock without a key, or a city with no door, Bad Religion minus Mr. Brett shall always be a band incomplete.
Throughout the interview, I was struck by how relaxed and at ease with himself, his employees, and his company he was. Brett was at home with Epitaph, and he was doing something he loved.
But, in retrospect, the one thing that was absolutely clear to me was that despite his comment about having peaked with Stranger than Fiction, about it having been the dignified time to leave, Brett hadn't lost his love of writing and playing music. An element of this was revealed when Bad Religion's post-Grey Race live album Tested was released. Sadly, Brett and Greg G.'s relationship deterioriated once again, with Brett being offended and hurt that so few of his songs had been selected for the album. Greg G. righteously responded that the decision was not Brett's to make, and that those just happened to be the songs the band enjoyed playing live. Was Brett's reaction a sign of how much he truly missed being part of Bad Religion? By leaving the band, Brett had given up his voice in its deicision making process, but conversely I strongly believe that Tested as an album was hurt by its lack of Brett material.
The return to bickering between the two former friends was just a prelude, the worst was yet to come. According to reports, in mid to late 1997, Brett revealed to his staff at Epitaph that he was battling a two year addiction to crack and/or heroin. (During the Sept. '96 interview while the tape recorder was off, I actually asked Brett directly about the drug issue, and he vehemently asserted that he'd been clean for many years. Interestingly enough, if the "two year addiction" is true, it would have predated said denial.) The details are fairly unclear, but it is generally known he wound up in rehab, where he is as of this writing in spring 1998.
Bad Religion has arguably flourished without Brett. Though I doubt the band will ever recapture the popularity of Stranger than Fiction, or will ever be as balanced (the prose of Brett's work, the reportorial qualities of Greg's work melded so well) without Brett, the creative flame burns as brightly as ever in Greg Graffin, and the band shows no signs of obsolescence. Meanwhile, Brett has had virtually no outlet for the music artistry that once filled his life. Though he was and hopefully, with a proper recovery from drug addiction, will one day again be an impressive, commanding business leader and a damn fine judge of kickass punk talent, it's apparent that making and playing music is his first and foremost passion, not promoting and distributing records. Maybe, without Bad Religion, it's really Mr. Brett who is incomplete. Whatever the case, I wish Brett Gurewitz a speedy recovery and a return to his art.
Entire contents copyright (C) 1998 Matt Taylor and Mateo Rojas. May not be reprinted or retransmitted in any form or on any media without express written permission of the authors. Any questions, email Matt Taylor at MATaylor@ix.netcom.com