Greg Hetson interview
The Black Cat
11/7/99 -- about 8:15 - 8:45 PM
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In October of 1999, "Bad Religion Day" was declared an official holiday by TheBRPage webmaster, Roger Vulture. A date of November fifth was chosen because it marked the anniversary of the band's "Against The Grain" album, a legendary piece of punk rock history. The album is an unrelenting assault of blaring guitars, pounding drums and brilliantly written lyrics that blazed a trail on which legions of future punk rock bands would travel.
After learning about the holiday, I immediately developed a desire to celebrate it in a unique way. I learned that Bad Religion guitarist Greg Hetson would be making an appearance in Washington DC on November seventh. He was touring the East Coast in support of Punk Rock Karaoke, a group of musicians who play old fashioned punk rock songs while members of the audience take the stage and sing. Mr. Hetson, who has also picked up his trademark Gibson SG for punk icons The Circle Jerks and Red Kross, would be at The Black Cat just two days after Bad Religion Day. I wanted an interview with him.
I emailed Bad Religion's manager, Michele Caezan, asking for permission to talk to the guitarist. She wrote back, instructing me to look for him at the club on the night of the show. She wasn't sure if he'd be able to do the interview, but she seemed very optimistic about the possibility. I shared her optimism and wrote about the possibility of a Greg Hetson interview on the Bad Religion Mailing List. Several members wrote back with questions to ask. Fellow fans Jason Johnson and Behrang Talebi agreed to come along for the interview. The wheels were in motion and we had only to wait for the future to unfold.
On the night of November seventh, Jason and I drove into the ghetto-plagued wasteland that proudly serves as capital city to the good ol' US of A. Dodging potholes, stray bullets, and crack dealers, we eventually arrived at the Black Cat in Northwest and found Behrang waiting for us in front of the club with one of his friends.
After meeting, we talked about BR for a while and then Behrang and his friend went down the street to purchase a disposable camera [but they bought one without a flash!] at the 7-11. While Jason and I were waiting on the street, a bum approached us and introduced himself as "Blelvis, the black Elvis." He went on to tell us that he knew the words to every Elvis song in existence and that he knew everything about every Elvis movie ever made. He asked us to quiz him so that he could prove his merit. I told him that I knew very little about Elvis. He countered by challenging me to pick different words at random for him to somehow relate to "The King." My first word was "stenoscopic." He didn't know what it meant. My next word was "consternation." He didn't know what that meant either. My final word was "metamorphosis." Again, he didn't know the meaning. That'll teach him to panhandle outside of a BR regional convention!
He did his best to relate the words to Elvis and then he recited some Latin (though he admitted he couldn't translate it). When it came time for him to "ask for donations," I started to pull out a one dollar bill. "Two bucks would be nice," he responded. I gave it to him.
Behrang hadn't returned from the 7-11 yet, so we entered the club, still uncertain about whether we'd be able to do the interview. The very first person we ran into was Greg Hetson! (There were only about 15 people in the entire club at that time.) I walked up to him and introduced myself. I inquired as to whether we could ask him a few questions after the show. "Sure, no problem. Just look for me after the show, I'll be around," he answered. Jason and I both thought that this was very cool. We sat down at a table in the back of the club and waited for the show to begin.
About five minutes later, Hetson walked up to our table and sat down. "I'm not doing anything now. Do you want to interview me now?" "Sure!" we answered. I turned on my tape recorder and...
TOM HUFF: I guess I'll start with Punk Rock Karaoke. I read an interview with you a while back where you said you were doing something called 'Pogo-A-Gogo.' Is that pretty much how Punk Rock Karaoke started?
GREG HETSON: Yeah. A friend of ours at this restaurant wanted to do it for a New Years Eve party. So he gave me a call and he started calling around different people, putting together a band. So we decided to take it out on tour because it was so much fun.
TH: Who were the first members?
GH: Eric Melvin [NOFX guitarist], Derek [O'Brien, ex-Social Distortion drummer] on drums, Jennifer Finch from L7 on bass. Sometimes when we were in LA, Bob Mothersbaugh [of Devo] played with us.
TH: Porterhouse Records. How's that going?
GH: It's going slow.
TH: Are there going to be any upcoming releases?
GH: Probably next year, we'll be getting more active.
TH: Do you run that out of your house?
GH: Yeah, me and a friend of mine.
TH: Let's talk about Bad Religion. Is your newest album completed yet? I heard that you guys were going to Hawaii to record...
GH: Yeah, it should be done any day now. It's being mixed right now.
TH: There were some rumors on the Bad Religion Mailing List that Brett might be playing on it. Is there any truth to that at all?
GH: He wrote a song...but he couldn't make it out to play. But there is a song written by Brett on the record, yeah.
JASON JOHNSON: Should we introduce ourselves? I'm Jason.
GH: Hey Jason, Greg.
TH: I'm Tom.
GH: Hey Tom.
BEHRANG TALEBI: Behrang.
GH: How are you doing.
TH: So when you're writing songs, do the words usually come first? Or the music?
GH: It just depends, really.
TH: Does Greg ever write words and come in with them and say, 'Hey guys, let's write some music to these words...'
GH: Yeah, sometimes he does it that way. Sometimes he's like, 'Here, play this riff and I'll try to write some lyrics to it.' Sometimes there are complete songs that he's already worked out.
TH: Is it hard to write new songs? Now that you live in different parts of the country?
GH: No, not really. Surprisingly not.
TH: Do you guys ever argue about how the songs should come together?
GH: Oh yeah. (laughter) Not too much.
TH: Has there been a particular incident where things got especially...
GH: Especially nasty?
GH: I can only think of twice where there were songs that somebody wrote that we didn't like. And the band didn't want to play them. But two songs out of a hundred eighty is pretty good. (laughter)
TH: Not bad at all.
GH: Pretty good average, there.
TH: There's one rumor, and I'm convinced that this is just a rumor, but some people were saying that there might be a Bad Religion breakup in the year 2000 and that this would be there last album.
GH: No, not that I know of. Unless you know something that I don't. (laughter)
BT: Well, they said on Love Line [a call in radio program -ed.] that they're going to have 13 more...
GH: Thirteen more records?
BT: Or seven more? To make twenty or something?
GH: I don't know.
TH: What instruments can the members of Bad Religion play, other than the ones they play for the band?
GH: Bobby plays guitar pretty well. Greg plays piano. That's about it, as far as I know.
TH: Some people were asking just the other day ... on his American Lesion album there were horns on one of the songs. Was that just a synth, do you
GH: Probably a keyboard, yeah.
TH: How were you first introduced to punk rock?
GH: I think I saw a video for the Sex Pistols and I went and saw the Sex Pistols play. And I'd heard the Ramones and liked them. That, and then I started going to local shows.
TH: Is that how you first started playing guitar?
GH: Yeah...well...when I first started playing guitar I was half listening to punk and half to rock, you know. So the first two songs I learned to play, one was The Ramones one was Queen. (laughter)
TH: Was there ever a time when you decided that 'This is what I want to do?' Or has it pretty always been that way?
GH: No, I decided that I wasn't going to become a veterinarian because I was bad at biology. So maybe guitar. (laughter)
TH: Were you in any bands before Red Kross?
TH: How did Red Kross start?
GH: I was taking photo shop in high school and one of the guys in the class had a punk rock flyer on his notebook. And I go, 'You listen to punk rock too?' And he said 'Yeah.' And we thought 'cool!' And we started talking and we liked the same bands and we decided to start our own band. And we found out where Black Flag rehearsed and asked them if they would give us a gig. Well, actually we asked them to play our bass player's junior high graduation party. And they said, 'Yeah, sure' and then we became friends with Black Flag and they gave us a bunch of gigs. And that's how it got started.
TH: Bad Religion had sort of broken up for a while during the '80 to '85 period and I've read that you convinced Greg to restart the band. How did you do that?
GH: Well, I was with the Circle Jerks and our singer had broken his back. Fell off a wall drunk. (laughter) And I was looking to play some music. Greg had just moved back to LA. He had gone away to school at Wisconsin for a while. And I said, 'Why don't you put Bad Religion back together.' And he said, 'Well, Brett doesn't want to do it and so-and-so doesn't want to do it.' And I said, 'Well, I'll play guitar.' And Peter said that he'd play.
And so that's kind of how it got back to running again.
TH: What caused the break up? Did "Into the Unknown" break the band up? Sorta, kinda, maybe?
GH: Pretty much. You know, the first album is such a classic punk rock record and then you make a record that's progressive rock. It kind of bums all your fans out and nobody buys the record.
TH: Will the Circle Jerks ever release another album?
GH: Probably not.
TH: Does everyone in Bad Religion play hockey?
GH: Just me, Jay, and Greg.
TH: Have you guys done any more hockey things recently? I know that you guys have the Bad Religion hockey club...
GH: We played this year up in Vancouver.
TH: How'd that go? Did you guys win?
GH: We got our asses kicked. (laughter)
TH: Who's the best hockey player in Bad Religion?
GH: Greg's pretty good. I'd say Greg. He's got a good shot. He's got a good wrist shot.
TH: Your reverend-ship. Have you ever performed a wedding before?
GH: Actually, I married Michele [Ceazan, Bad Religion's manager].
TH: I heard something about that. Have you married anyone else?
GH: Not really. Not legally. I did a ceremony in Europe. I didn't have any paperwork or it would have been legal.
BT: How did you get the reverand-ship?
GH: You can just send away on a postcard...
TH: The Universal Life Church?
GH: The Universal Life Church in California.
TH: A guy by the name of Liam wants to know if you will perform a wedding.
GH: As a gig? I don't know, it's kind of hard to get us all together.
TH: Have you ever read the Bad Religion Mailing List?
GH: Uh, no.
TH: Do you ever look at any of the Bad Religion websites?
TH: Any particular ones? Or just...
GH: I check out a few every once and a while. I kind of get bored, so I look at what people have created. There's a lot of good stuff out there. There's some cool stuff.
TH: In your last tour, the "No Substance" tour, you played a lot of small clubs. In fact, you played this club and I was in the audience. Do you
think that you'll play small clubs again for the beginning of this tour?
GH: I don't know, maybe. We always like to play small clubs every once and a while so there's a good chance we'll do some clubs, yeah.
BT: Do you know about when you'll start going on tour again?
GH: No, the record will be probably be out in March, so sometime after that.
TH: Okay, here's a question that someone else sent in from the mailing list. These aren't my numbers so...
GH: That's okay.
TH: I'll just read it. Bad Religion has been described as 'the most popular unknown band.' And since they're on a major label, and since "Stranger Than Fiction" sold a million copies at least...that's not my number, I don't know...and since artists usually earn about a dollar a copy, can we then conclude that the members of Bad Religion share a cumulative income of over a million dollars?
GH: (laughter) A cumulative income of over one million dollars. (pause) I guess you'd have to say that's true. I mean, divided by five... That's pretty...
BT: And then you take out taxes...
GH: Yeah, take out like, forty percent taxes, so that would be... That's a 'no.' (laughter) I think that "Stranger Than Fiction" sold, probably six hundred, well, over five hundred thousand in America. I don't know, maybe a million world-wide.
TH: Now, "The Gray Race" sold a lot in Germany. "Punk Rock Song" was what? Number five...
GH: I don't know, it got pretty high up on the singles charts over there.
TH: What's it like over there? Is it totally different than over here? I mean, is it sort of just starting up? The whole punk thing?
GH: No, it's just... In a lot of other countries people aren't so worried about categorizing what they like. So, you know, someone might be a really huge Bad Religion fan, but also go see, like, Rage Against the Machine or Stone Temple Pilots.
TH: On the Bad Religion Mailing List there are often people from other countries who just type in English as best they can. It's pretty cool.
GH: Yeah. And also, in foreign countries, major labels don't release as many albums as in America. Like maybe Atlantic puts out, I don't know, five hundred records. In Europe, a lot of bands don't get released world-wide, so you've kind of got... I guess if you're kind of popular, you've got a better shot in some other countries. There's fewer stuff for people to choose from.
TH: Have things changed much since Brian Baker came? I really liked his guitar playing in Dag Nasty. Has he changed the sound much, do you think?
GH: Yeah. A little bit, yeah. He's added some stuff.
JJ: He's from DC. Is he here today?
GH: He'll be here. He's coming out.
TH: I've heard that Greg can speak German. Can anyone else in the band speak any languages?
GH: No. I think that Greg speaks more Spanish than German. Well, actually, Brian speaks French pretty well.
BT: Is Greg going to be going to get his doctorate any time soon?
GH: I don't know. We're too busy doing band stuff. I don't think he's had the time to work on it.
TH: How's the Punk Rock Karaoke tour going so far on the east coast? How's the turnout? I think tonight there's a Misfits show over at the 9:30 club [The Black Cat was virtually empty at the time of the interview -ed.]...
GH: Yeah, I heard about that. It might hurt a bit.
TH: How's the turnout been in other cities? Has it been okay?
GH: It's been pretty good, yeah. We're having a lot of fun doing it.
After the interview, Behrang asked if he could take a couple of pictures. Hetson responded, "Sure. Do you want me sitting? Standing? Posing?" While we were changing positions for photographs, I asked Greg a little more about how they collaborate on their songs from such great distances. He explained to me that they sent demo tapes back and forth across the country. After the photography was finished, we thanked him for his time, shook hands, and went our separate ways.
Throughout our conversation, Greg patiently answered all of the questions and seemed truly enthusiastic about the interview. While he easily could have spent his time before the show hanging out back stage, he instead spent it walking around the club, drinking a beer, and talking to fans. One does not typically observe such behavior from a member of a platinum selling rock band with a worldwide following. Despite all of his success, he can still walk around a club as if among peers and friends. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to do the interview.
Tom Huff is a college student from northern Virginia. He enjoys reading books, playing guitar, and listening to mind numbing punk rock music. Direct all questions, comments, and death threats to Tom@TheBRML.org