|Interview - Internet
Evolution of a punk-rock professor
by Michelle Castillo
dailybruin.com, February 28, 2007
Listen in on one of Greg Graffin’s lectures and you’ll encounter an eloquent, soft-spoken man. The life science professor might even crack a joke here or there, keeping his audience captivated as he delves into the mysteries of evolution, ecology and the diversity of life.
It’s hard to believe that this same man fronts Bad Religion, the band widely known as the “Godfathers of Punk.”
“I get a lot less sleep than most people,” Graffin said. “Of course, there are a lot of people – researchers on campus, who are living in their labs and accomplishing a great deal, and doctors who are always on call – these are people just as productive as me, except my other half of productivity goes into music and songwriting.”
The UCLA graduate decided to return to his alma mater to teach Life Science 1 while recording the as-yet-untitled 14th album with his band.
“I was surprised when they told me that our professor was also the lead singer of Bad Religion,” said Sophia Xie, a first-year cognitive science student. “I did some research on him and found out that he had very prominent degrees. It was surprising such an academically accomplished person was also the lead singer of a rock band.”
Bad Religion, which Graffin started when he was a student at El Camino High School, has become an integral part of the punk-music community, inspiring many bands in the genre that are around today.
“By the time I was 9, I knew I wanted to be a singer,” Graffin said. “I didn’t know how I was going to be a singer, but it was the punk music here in Los Angeles on KROQ in the very early days (that inspired me). By the time I was 15, I had met Brett (Gurewitz), my cowriter and partner, and I just started rehearsing in the Valley. We had no idea if we were going to be embraced by the punk scene.”
However, as punk music in Los Angeles trailed off during the 1980s, Graffin decided to pursue his other passion – the sciences. Without putting the band completely out of the picture, Graffin lived in university apartments on Veteran Avenue while he focused on his studies at UCLA, getting his bachelor’s in anthropology and master’s in geology.
“I guess you could say one aspect that was interesting in science that wasn’t addressed in my life was many of the larger questions,” Graffin said. “Many people are raised in a traditional religious environment; I was not raised in that environment. I had a lot of questions about origins. I was drawn immediately in high school to Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ as a pretty grand idea, and that drew me into paleontology and earth science.”
Graffin went on to get his Ph.D. in biology from Cornell University. At the same time, however, Bad Religion released the influential album “Suffer,” which reinvigorated the L.A. punk scene. Instead of picking one world over the other, Graffin pursued both, spending the academic year on campus and the summertime on tour in North America and Europe.
“I always put education high on my list of priorities because I always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if you can have a singer of your favorite band who also has something more to offer than looking cool – which I don’t – or dressing cool – which I don’t,’” Graffin said. “I believe thoughts and ideas are far more long-lived than fashion. Those are the things that I try to inspire young people to do, whether it is in the lecture hall or on stage on the Warped Tour.”
Many students find it hard to believe that the professor who teaches them about the variation between species is the same man who sings socially conscious punk songs.
“I looked up some videos of Bad Religion on YouTube, and it felt kind of strange,” said Patrick Wu, a first-year molecular, cell and developmental biology student. “I felt he was edited into the videos because he doesn’t really seem the rock-star type, because of what he lectures and the subject matter.”
However, it is the fusion of the worlds of science and music that inspires Graffin to write Bad Religion’s famous lyrical anthems.
“(In the song ‘God’s Love,’) I used a classic theme in songwriting – love – and applied it to some of the inconsistencies between theology and scientific worldview,” Graffin said. “I think that those kinds of things have become the hallmark of Bad Religion’s writing, and it’s also prevented us from being multiplatinum, because most people think it’s too cerebral. They don’t want to hear about any analytical things in their music; they just want to hear about the simple kind of love.”
Still to this day, Graffin refuses to make one career more of a priority than the other. Through both, he hopes to make the difference through the material he sings about in his songs and what he lectures about in classes.
“This is what I do, and this is something that as long as there is interest in what I have to say, I can do it until I’m old,” Graffin said. “I really believe in my heart that this is the best balance of being able to inspire someone. I feel very fortunate that in academia, and in the life sciences particularly, there are so many ideas that are still fresh and new that can still change our worldview. And, in music as well – it’s a great platform to share ideas.”
Graffin continues to inspire others to be what they want to be, whether it’s a scientist, musician, or even a fusion of both.
“He’s a baller,” Wu said. “If I could be a rock star and (have) a Ph.D., I would too.”
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