(From The Dallas Morning News - 5.11.2000)
Music Page: Little faith
Bad Religion goes for sound, not ideology
Back in the dear old dead days of punk rock, you'd occasionally find yourself propped up against some grimy cinderblock wall, observing the untutored mayhem being delivered from the stage, and you'd say, "If these guys ever learned to play their instruments, they'd be pretty good."
At its inception in 1980, Bad Religion was those guys - original bassist Jay Bentley once repainted his guitar, unaware of the fact that for maximum sonic efficiency the strings are typically removed first. Since then, they've been the avatars of almost every major trend to shape the loosely defined genre.
They learned to play their instruments. They went through a long stretch of experimentation in the '80s, when punk seemed as quaintly out-of-date as the waltz. Then they were revitalized in the early '90s when the form was once more hot - only to find themselves pilloried as sellouts.
It didn't help that one of the group's founding members was Brett Gurewitz, president (in the beginning) of Epitaph Records - the flagship label of such acts as Rancid and the Offspring, which came to stand (rightly or wrongly) for the wholesale marketing of what was once a resistance movement.
"There was a time where people believed that when you recorded something, you had this control over how it entered the record store, which was totally untrue," says Brian Baker, who replaced Mr. Gurewitz on guitar when he left the band in 1994, ostensibly to run his ever-more popular label.
Even though he has been an essential part of classic groups Minor Threat (founding member) and Dag Nasty - as well as an active and contributing part of the Washington, D.C., hardcore scene - Mr. Baker has little patience for punk ideology.
"I never felt like we were part of what you could call a 'punk lifestyle,"' he says. "I never wanted to sit in some squat and make plans to overthrow the government."
Moreover, he maintains that ideological and commercial awareness is relatively new to the music. "I used to listen to bands like the Sex Pistols and the Damned, and I never knew what label they were on," he says. "I didn't really even know what a label was."
During the mid-'90s, there was much talk about what was truly punk and what was not. Despite a discography that would do any lifer proud, that time found Bad Religion enduring a period of abuse at the hands of punk purists who objected to the seemingly easy success of groups like the Offspring.
"Fortunately, I think that kind of thing has dissipated," Mr. Baker says. "A sellout is someone who changes their art for the sake of marketability. An artist has a product, his art, and he hopes to get better at it by practicing. Our changes have been like that - organic. Whatever you would call 'the community' is never more important than the music."
If Mr. Baker sounds like a fan it's because he is, and he can prove it: In 1994, when he joined Bad Religion for the Stranger Than Fiction tour, he had to decline an offer to tour with supergroup R.E.M.
"Oh, there really wasn't any question at all" about his decision, he says. "I love R.E.M., but I was only signing on as a touring musician. With Bad Religion, I was going to be a contributing member. My Mom didn't really understand - she was like, 'Take the money!' - but it wasn't about that."
The band is currently touring in the opening slot for Blink-182, supporting the just-released album The New America, its fifth major-label effort. The album, produced by rock icon Todd Rundgren, is an accessible work that melds punk and pop without compromising the tenets of either. Harmony, melody and attitude are all present in abundance as the playing supports the educated polemics of lead singer and songwriter Greg Graffin.
Years ago - during the punk resurgence of the early '90s - Mr. Baker was quoted as likening Bad Religion's situation to that of a surfer watching others hotdogging along a crest, patiently waiting for the next wave. He claims that analogy remains apt.
"We're still treading water," he says. "But we've been where we are - bubbling at the top of the underground - for so long that we've made it work for us. We're incredibly happy where we are."
By Matt Weitz / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News