|Category:||Interview - Internet||Publish date:||1/1/2004|
Education, education, education
Inflammable Material catch up with the doctor of punk, Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin.
IM: So Greg what brings you to these parts – can’t you get enough of our wonderful cuisine?
GG: “That’s true. I’ve had a change of thought about your cooking since my mid 1990s ramblings.
IM: Last time I saw the band you were having a go at Eccles cakes.
GG: “That just shows you I was open to try some new cuisine over here, but that was unbelievably bad, one of the worst things I’ve ever tried, although I’ve just had some scones and clotted cream so i was very thankful for that – stick to the classics.”
IM: I’ve been lucky enough to have a sneak preview of The Empire Strikes First, and it’s a great album, are you happy with how the recording went.
GG: “When it comes to this stage in our career it become redundant for me to talk about how I feel that this is the best work we’ve ever done, so all I can do is look inward and I ask myself if I think I’ve achieved what I set out to do, and on this album I definitely believe that. Brett and I wanted to write a better album than The Process of Belief and we both concur that we’ve achieved it.”
IM: That’s a pretty tough ask isn’t it?
GG: “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
IM: Has writing with Brett again breathed new life into Bad Religion?
GG: “It has yeah. When he finally decided he wanted to come back in the band for Process of Belief I was a little bit nervous, but once we started writing it was so natural and the chemistry was so familiar that I realised, only then, that something had been missing for the last few albums.”
IM: You say that, and in some interviews you said that New America was a bit of a low point in the band’s career, do you still think that?
GG: “Although I was very happy with the writing I did during those years, I was collaborating with producers and collaborating with my song writing partner and so there was something missing, but I definitely think it was good writing. I’m happy and very content with those tunes and I don’t have any regrets as far as the songs are concerned.”
IF The last couple of years have obviously been pretty hectic and successful for you personally, what’s been the highlight, The Process of Belief and getting Brett back on board or finally receiving your doctorate?
GG: “Getting my Phd was a very important step. It’s a strange thing when you accomplish something like that after having been so successful in music and having toured the world many, many times, it’s like a small feather in my cap. Personally and creatively speaking it was a major step forward to be able to set a goal like that and to be able to finish it and be considered an academic and intellectual equal with the people who I look up to. It was a huge boost of confidence and I think it’s played a big role in my creativity. It’s made me more confident in my lyric writing and it’s made me less fearful of my creative directions – and I’m not going to change that.”
IM: You’re lyrics are obviously very thought provoking, have your studies given you inspiration to write more?
GG: “Yes it has, and it’s also been a source of challenge. You know, if you don’t put yourself out there, and you don’t put your reputation on the line, you never really know if you are passing muster or if you’re just spinning your wheels.”
IM: You say it’s a challenge, but that’s got to be the understatement of the year. How have you managed to balance both study and band?
GG: “When you’re doing a doctorate it’s a major test of your determination.”
IM: Was it hard to find the time to study?
GG: “The hard thing at that stage is not the studying, the hard thing when you’re at that level of academic work is you’re expected to already know everything you’re supposed to know. The hard thing is the synthesis, to be able to synthesise the information and to write it and put it into a document that you are willing and able to stand up in front of your academic peers and defend it. That’s the real test, you have to defend yourself.”
IM: Has your experience within the punk rock community been beneficial, as you’ve never been afraid to stand up and put forward your ideas?
GG: “Well that’s just it. My academic life was supported and bolstered by my music life but more importantly, at least for the purposes of our conversation here, my academic test and trials have really helped my musical world too. It’s always been that way ever since Suffer which really was the first album that I wrote when I started out in graduate school.”
IM: I’m particularly interested in this idea of naturalism, it’s something I’ve only heard about through your band, can you outline what it’s all about.
GG: “It’s a kind of belief system but it’s also a firm conviction that we can find the truth. It’s counter part is supernaturalism and is basically a discounting of the idea that there is such a thing as the supernatural. A naturalist believes that there is only a natural world and that the route that we find in life is through discovery and clarification and there’s no need for blind faith.”
IM: I take it The Cornell Evolution Project was the basis of this work?
GG: “That’s right, it will be an on-going study I hope, but was the foundation of my dissertation.”
IM: Is it right you’re going to be writing a book about these theories?
GG: “That’s my goal for the end of this year. We’re going to be writing a paper in the near future that will be published in Nature.
IM: Greg, I don’t know how you do it all?
GG:: “My mind is constantly active, I’m lucky I guess, or maybe unlucky as it’s not the best for inter-personal relationships.”
I’m about to ask the next question and the line goes dead – the battery on the mobile Greg is talking on has died. Skip two weeks and after a further aborted attempted at contacting Greg, I catch up with him in New York where he is getting in shape for the European tour.
IM: Hi Greg, It’s Jim in England here?
GG: “How’s it going, sorry we’ve crossed paths a few times recently.”
IM: I was going to say have you put a restraining order on me, you must think you’ve got a stalker?
GG: “What happened was that last time they told you to call this number when in fact I had actually been on my cell phone.”
IM: Yeah, and before that the mobile died on us – it’s amazing, we can put bombs down people’s chimneys but we can’t get the phones to work properly.
GG: “That’s right.”
IF How have things been, have you been busy.
GG: “Back when we talked at first it feels like the glory days, the halcyon easy days. It’s just compounded now because now I’m scrambling to get ready for this tour which is quite a large undertaking.
IM: Are you in rehearsals?
GG: “I’m doing my pre-tour warm ups which consist of about two hours of singing a day and a lot of strength training for my body.”
IM: Does it take it out of you physically getting out on the road?
GG: “Very much so. I realise that there are a lot of people doing this who are a lot younger than me. When I was young I didn’t rehearse at all or get into physical shape at all but I can’t do that any more. I’m pushing 40 and if I want to look like I did when I was 30 it takes a little bit of effort.”
IM: Can I ask you do you still enjoy life on the road or is it a necessary evil?
GG: “I’ve had to change my attitude and my whole outlook. Early on when I started touring it was exciting to get to know the tricks of the trade, the rules of the road, and just how to make it a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, but as I got older that lost its charm. Nowadays I’m just really enjoying it for the cultural experience. You’ll rarely find me with the tour entourage, I tend to travel at my own pace and tend to not go overnight on the tour bus, I stay in hotels. During the day I like to walk around the city and learn about the culture and I visit a lot of scholarly and academic spots. I don’t know, I’ve learned how to enjoy it.”
IM: That must be one of the real benefits of being in a touring band, having those opportunities. When you first started out you could never have believed you would be travelling to Europe, Japan, Australia?
GG: “No exactly, but I also don’t want to give a false impression. The only reason I’m able to do that is because I’ve distanced myself from the touring entourage. It’s not easy to take in the culture, you have to make it a commitment and it does take extra effort above that. You still have to do your job professionally and it takes a little more effort to enjoy the culture.”
IM: When I speak to other bands it does seem to be a case of play a gig, get in the van, drive to the venue, scoff down some food play again.
GG: “Pretty much, and when we have days like that – we do sometimes have five shows in a row before a day off – the way to make it culturally meaningful in those cases, well, for instance in Europe I take the trains instead of the tour bus. I wake up, have a leisurely morning and take the train in the afternoon and show up for sound check. You get a little flavour of the country and it makes it a little more tolerable.”
IM: Also by taking the public transport route it’s amazing what characters you meet, it’s like the SNFU song, Reality is a Ride on the Bus.
GG: “Exactly, it’s so true.”
IM: Are you amazed by the reaction to the band around the world. You’re coming over here and the sold out signs will be up around the venues, it must be pleasing to see?
GG: “It seems that way. That’s a privilege of course and obviously the most rewarding thing is the fact the fans are still very enthusiastic and very excited about what we have to say. I think we symbolise something, I think we’ve come to symbolise something in the punk world and I feel honoured that we get to take that position. We take that seriously and that’s why we are motivated to do our best each time.”
IM: Can you tell me a bit about the re-release of the back catalogue, why did you decide to do it?
GG: “I think the reason for the catalogue was more the fact that our catalogue is still selling, and is still as coveted, but there’s better facilities now and better mastering techniques that can make the discs sound more like the original analogue. If you listen to the early CDs – the first Bad Religion cds came out in a round 89 – and in through the early 90s the mastering technology was very primitive compared to today and I think it’s simply a matter of faster processors and faster computer chips. Now they can do much more sophisticated dithering and what not with the information so the CDs sound a lot more like the original analogue tape. I think people will find the catalogue now sounds more like the vinyl. We didn’t remix it, there was no remixing, it was just simply the two channel mastering, the way of transferring the analogue sound onto computer disc.”
IM: When we were talking before we talked about your doctorate, and I thought that despite what the masses out there think there are a lot of educated people in punk, and it’s possibly the most politically active form of music out there today, is that part of the reason you got into the scene?
GG: “I’m not sure about that. When I got into music I was only 15-years-old but I was raised in an academic family so it’s possible that my cultural environment helped to determine that I would be attracted to punk because of it’s political message. I can’t really distinguish whether I enthused my lyrics with politics because of my cultural environment or because I had an actual goal in mind when I started singing and writing songs, I’m not sure. I knew this, when I started I knew that I did not want to fall into the conventional trappings of rock stardom, I knew that was absolutely fulsome to me. Even at a young age I could see through the superficiality and I really respected artists for their work not for their image. So I knew that I wanted a band that was going to be something that I wouldn’t be embarrassed by when I got older. Now, when I’m looking back at the stuff I wrote when I was 16, I’d say about 50 per cent of it is embarrassing, so at least I can look at it as a glass half full and think that I succeeded in many songs.”
IM: Do you think in recent years the whole punk scene has become more diluted.
GG: “If you mean has the focus gotten away from the political and philosophical line definitely yeah. But I guess there has always been that element to it, especially in Southern California. In California in general we had Black Flag and The Dead Kennedys as very political and philosophical bands, but if you remember the Dead Kennedys infused healthy doses of satire into their political rantings so there was always a lighter side to punk. Even in the very early days there were bands like Red Kross and Wasted Youth who were almost jokes – I mean their songs are funny and light-hearted – and even though we don’t see a lot of that clever humour today, I can see where the light-hearted trend that eventually led to Blink 182 came from.”
IM: I always try to look at it in a positive way in that, yeah, it’s attracted a new audience, who in turn might get turned on to some of the more underground bands out there, or bands like yours who have played a major role in shaping the scene as it is today.
GG: “We definitely have gained a lot of fans because of the fact that some of those bands, Blink 182 and even some of the newer generation like Sum 41 and Good Charlotte, these bands have all cited Bad Religion as their influences. In their massive number of superficial fans there’s always that sub set who are more interested in the music and where it came from. They’ll dig deeper and find out what these influences sound like and discover Bad Religion. If we’re any example I think a lot of important punk bands have been discovered that way.”
IM: You’ve had some line-up changes over the years and I have a specific question about Greg Hetson – where does that guy get his energy from?
GG: “I don’t know, he’s always been blessed with having a very small stature and a high metabolism. He’s like a Mexican jumping bean on stage, but he’s always stayed in good shape.”
IM: But he can play as well, which is the other thing about Bad Religion.
GG: “We are fortunate in that respect. It’s like I’ve always said, it’s a family, we know each other’s every move and I’m very lucky to never have to worry about what’s coming off the stage as the accompaniment because it’s just that the synergy is quite remarkable. Not a night goes by without me thanking my lucky stars that I have those guys on stage with me.”
IM: And Brooks Wackerman has been a find too.
GG: “That’s true, the new spark plug indeed. That’s one big difference about today’s punk and the old punk, that is today’s punk you really need a very highly skilled percussionist, you can’t get by without a great drummer and I think we’ve got the best. It’s unbelievable how physical he is.”
IM: Just one last question about The Empire Strikes First, we can’t find the word dichotomy in there, where is it?
GG: “No there’s no dichotomy. Occasionally you have to leave it for the next album. If that becomes the only contentious part of the album I think we might have succeeded.”
IM: Last question, what does the future hold for you: band, biology or both?
GG: “I’d say all three Bs, side by side as I continue this crazy journey. I am hoping to write the book by next year when the touring’s a little less. It’s hopefully going to make some people angry at me, Darwin was certainly successful at it so why shouldn’t I.”
German transcript updated
English transcript added
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Interview added: Bad Religion, the ‘McCartney and Lennon of punk,’ to make Spokane debut
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