|Category:||Interview - Internet||Publish date:||6/4/2004|
by Steve Tauschke
theage.com.au, June 4, 2004
Reuniting with Bad Religion, the Los Angeles politico-punk outfit he formed in 1980, was hardly a step fraught with uncertainty for guitarist Brett Gurewitz. After five years on the sidelines working as a producer, battling a drug addiction and establishing his record label Epitaph, many saw the move as a sweet homecoming."
It's one of those things - I never realised how much I missed writing and recording until I got back into doing it," says the punk impresario of his long-awaited 2001 return to the band. "I found the songwriting process to be just as comfortable as ever. The years I wasn't writing and playing I was definitely still working creatively in music, to the extent that when I got back with the guys I kind of wondered if I was going to be able to write again. But I was happily surprised."
Gurewitz's amicable split from Bad Religion in 1995 after seven albums, all on Epitaph, followed the success of the band's major-label debut, Stranger Than Fiction, and its breakthrough anthem, 21st Century (Digital Boy). Recruiting former Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker, the group carried on, releasing another four albums on Atlantic before finally reconvening with their founding guitarist, and Epitaph.
At 41, Gurewitz says his priorities in 2004 are somewhat different to when he formed the group as a disaffected 17-year-old in the heatbaked suburbs of LA's San Fernando Valley."
Back then my mission was to not get caught cutting class and to try to get laid if possible without running out of drugs at any time," he says with a laugh. "And to try to get to Hollywood to see the punk-rock shows, because we lived way out in the suburbs. I remember we saw Black Flag and the Germs play at Flipper's Roller Rink in Hollywood - that was one of the legendary shows. We also saw the Cramps in 1982 on Halloween night."
Renewing his association with Bad Religion has resulted in the band's 15th studio album (and the second since his return), The Empire Strikes First. Unlike much of the back catalogue, Empire and its predecessor, 2001's widely hailed return-to-form set The Process of Belief, were given the patience in the studio they demanded by Gurewitz and singer Greg Graffin, who share production credits."
The old Bad Religion records, we just threw them out there," says Gurewitz. "Sometimes we'd spend just 30 minutes writing a song, but I think the last couple of records, me and Greg really put a lot more into it, for better or worse, and I guess the fans will decide that. But I think we toil a bit more over it these days and try to raise the bar a little bit."
The renewed collaboration between Gurewitz and Graffin, his long-time songwriting partner and an outspoken "naturalist" with a PhD in evolutionary biology, is arguably the key to Bad Religion's longevity.
They rarely write tracks together, but they operate on a similarly organic creative plane.
"We both write in the Bad Religion style and grew up writing together, so our styles evolved simultaneously," says Gurewitz. "I can't really quantify for you why it is so, but we write better when we collaborate on an album, even though we don't collaborate on individual songs. I think partially it's because I'll hear what he's writing and it will inspire me and vice versa, and we go back and forth like that. Even though we don't write together, our styles are so close that most people can't tell the songs apart anyway. We work off each other's energy somehow. It's very bizarre."
Behind the apocalyptic riffs and punk manifestos, Bad Religion's material mostly has its genesis in the acoustic guitar and, occasionally, piano. To a legion of young fans they may be blazing punk saviours, but at the very heart of their output is folk inspiration.
"I can definitely see that," concedes Gurewitz. "Folk music, in a way, is a musical protest that grows out of local communities talking about community issues. It's a very grass-roots movement and shares much in common with the DIY ethic of the early punk-rock days in Los Angeles. You could break down a typical Bad Religion song to acoustic guitar and play it, and it wouldn't sound that different from a folk song."
Described as a "musical Molotov", The Empire Strikes First unleashes scathing diatribes on political and religious hypocrisy, with particular criticism levelled at the Bush Administration's pre-emptive war policy.
"It's very frightening and very saddening," says Gurewitz of the Iraq situation. "And it's frightening for the whole world, to be honest, because George W. Bush just seems like he's intent on kicking a hornet's nest. Every new decision he makes seems to put the world in worse place."
The creation of Epitaph in 1980 was Gurewitz's way of rallying against the establishment. With major labels refusing to sign punk bands in the late '70s, the label, which began as little more than a logo and a PO box, provided Bad Religion with a vital medium of expression. Ironically, Epitaph's spectacular success as an independent through the '90s - the current roster lists 84 bands - has restricted Gurewitz in regard to touring with Bad Religion, still one of the label's flagship acts. On top of that, he has an electronic project, Error, up and running, and also recently launched the Anti Records imprint, featuring his hero, Tom Waits.
"Basically, I've, returned to the band in the role of songwriter-producer-collaborator," says Gurewitz, "and it was kind of understood when I returned that I can't take 10 months a year off Epitaph, because I'm the chief executive there. I do play shows with them, but I just can't tour. I did a certain number of European shows last year and went to Japan, but, you know, writing, recording and mixing this record was about a five-month process for Bad Religion, and most of that takes my undivided attention.
"So the guys in the band understand and they're very sympathetic and they actually enjoy the working relationship, because they don't need three guitars on stage. Some of the fans have voiced their disappointment that they think it's bullshit that I don't tour, but everyone is entitled to their opinion, I guess."
The Empire Strikes First is out on Monday through Shock.
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