|Category:||Interview - Internet||Publish date:||7/25/2007|
Interview with Brian
by Tim Follows
expressnightout.net, July 25, 2007
MOST D.C. MUSIC FANS would likely say that the most influential, popular musicians to emerge from the District in the past 30 years are Ian MacKaye and Chuck Brown. (Eat your heart out, Dave Grohl.)
But a strong case can be made that no Washingtonian enjoys a bigger audience than MacKaye's erstwhile Minor Threat bandmate Brian Baker.
After Minor Threat's demise in '83, Baker played in numerous outfits including Lickity Split, Doggy Style, Government Issue, The Meatmen, Junkyard and, most notably, Dag Nasty, a band that won wide acclaim for melodic harDCore and for which Baker composed the vast majority of the music. Since '94, Baker's been plying his craft in Bad Religion, the most overtly cerebral platinum-selling band in rock.
While Bad Religion's weighty lyrical themes, redoubted lexicon, desire to publish indelible manifestos on the meaning of punk and ability to turn an arresting phrase are all rare qualities, the band's up-tempo, harmony-filled, buzzsaw-guitars-with-solos brand of punk has become rather generic. The band played a preeminent role in blazing the template that revitalized punk in the late '80s; it's not their fault that their style has been rendered stale by countless imitators.
But Bad Religion is one rock 'n' roll zebra that has little inclination to change its stripes. Every track on the sextet's latest album, "New Maps of Hell" (Epitaph), is immediately recognizable as Bad Religion and, though the record isn't as strikingly strong as 2004's "The Empire Strikes First" (Epitaph), the group does itself and its fans no disservice with the effort.
We talked to Baker before Bad Religion's Vans Warped Tour gig at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Wednesday and asked him about the greatest 40-something punk band of all time and the greatest teenage punk band of all time and playing on the same bill as Velvet Revolver.
» EXPRESS: When "The Empire Strikes First" came out you said that you played most of the guitars on that record. Is the same true of "New Maps of Hell"?
» BAKER: Yeah. I play most of the guitar, because I have a higher efficiency-level. I sing on tour, but I don't sing on the records, because I'm not as good of a singer and those guys can knock out my parts in half the time it would take me. It's really not like, "Yeah! I'm the kick-ass guitarist!" It's more, "Studio time is expensive, so let's get this done."
» EXPRESS: What did you write on the new record?
» BAKER: Nothing. Brett [Gurewitz] and Greg [Graffin] each put together about 15 songs and we knocked that down to the eventual 16. There's nothing in the songwriting sense, because songwriting is dictated by a verse, chorus or something like that. There's certainly some riffage, but you don't get paid for that.
» EXPRESS: Why is it necessary for Bad Religion to have three guitarists?
» BAKER: Because Brett's function is more of the Brian Wilson of the group. He is 50 percent of the writing team, but he's not able to go on tour. He runs one of the biggest independent labels in the world [Epitaph Records] and he can't spend his summer on a tour bus. He plays with us when we're within 50 miles of his house. I replaced Brett in '94 and when he came back it was pretty contingent on that I stay, so it's the arrangement that we have and it works for everybody.
» EXPRESS: "Hell" seems to be a recurring theme for your band. Do you think that's true and what does the title of the new record mean?
» BAKER: It really is a throwback to the first record, "How Could Hell Be Any Worse?" and it echoes it, even in the artwork and the color scheme. [The phrase] "New Maps of Hell," by itself, doesn't mean that much; it's just trying to get that imagery from the first record, because it seemed appropriate.
» EXPRESS: Do you know what the lyric "Welcome to the new Dark Ages," off the new record, means?
» BAKER: Well, absolutely. At least in America, I think the new Dark Ages are evident in illegal wire-tapping, the dismantling of the Constitution, the preeminent concept of government being "Hey, trust us. We know what we're doing. Go out and spend some more money." And we're being judged on whatever qualifies as patriotism. There's a litany of things that we can use to mirror that particular time in history when everyone was afraid that, if they disobeyed the powers that be, they'd be killed — and in many cases they were.
» EXPRESS: Do you talk about the lyrics a lot before Greg sings them, or does he pretty much just decide on them?
» BAKER: Well, Greg and Brett both write lyrics. We go through them while we're rehearsing and vet them, as it were, but they know what they're doing. We have veto power, but that's come up rarely, because we pretty much think in the same direction. They do a good job expressing themselves. I'm comfortable having it represent me.
» EXPRESS: Minor Threat and Bad Religion were contemporaries. Were you aware of Bad Religion at the time and why do you think Bad Religion continued while Minor Threat broke up?
» BAKER: I was aware of Bad Religion, but they never toured out to Washington. I had their first record and I thought it was really good. For us, they were a little off the radar, because the only California bands we became really passionate about put out multiple records and would always tour in Washington. Circle Jerks, Black Flag, bands like that.
Bad Religion's longevity, I think, is attributed to the fact that — much like Minor Threat was an after-school hobby — Bad Religion was exactly that for Brett and Greg, who were interested in education. Greg, you know, is a professor at UCLA. Bad Religion is his art project, and I think that having it not really taken so seriously, or as a primary vehicle for financial success, is why it continues to exist, because it's there for our expression, but it's not the end-all be-all of our existence. Minor Threat broke up because we hated each other. We're all friends now.
» EXPRESS: You must be surprised by the longevity of people's interest in Minor Threat.
» BAKER: Absolutely. Minor Threat was an after-school hobby for some relatively over-privileged kids from Washington, D.C., so it's bizarre that it has such legs — but maybe that's why.
» EXPRESS: Because you were just living in the moment and not looking toward something bigger?
» BAKER: Absolutely. There was no concept of it turning into something that one would consider a career. It was a moment in time and, for some reason, people stuck to it. And now there's now generations who, when they first decide that they don't like their parents, they have to go buy the starter kit, and Minor Threat tends to be one of the discs in that starter kit.
» EXPRESS: What goes through your mind when you see someone in a Minor Threat shirt?
» BAKER: I'm flattered. If they're really young, it just reminds me of myself with a Black Flag shirt 27 years ago.
» EXPRESS: Do you have any idea how many records Minor Threat has sold?
» BAKER: Probably around a million. There's a lot of mom-and-pop going on with it, so we don't really have an accurate count, but my guess is 800,000 to a million.
» EXPRESS: What are some of your favorite memories from Minor Threat?
» BAKER: Basically, the first time I ever got out of D.C.: An early tour to California in a van that you wouldn't go to the grocery store in, staying at Jello Biafra's house in San Francisco, staying at SST in Hermosa Beach. I'm 16 years old, 3,000 miles away from home and I'm staying with all these people who are legendary to me and I only knew them from their records. It was an amazing experience.
» EXPRESS: Bad Religion just played with Velvet Revolver in South America. Does your group have more in common with Velvet Revolver or a young punk band?
» BAKER: We have much more in common with a young punk band. I don't think we have anything in common with Velvet Revolver — other than we're in the same the same age group. What they're doing is a little more entertainment, rather than infotainment, as I would qualify us.
» EXPRESS: What do you do when you're at home in D.C.?
» BAKER: Try to continue to fix up my hundred-year-old Columbia Heights row-house/shack. It's pretty much a fulltime job. My wife runs Transformer Gallery down on P Street and she's really busy with that and I help out as much as I can. I'm a glorified roadie for Transformer. Hang out with the few people I know who are my age who don't have children and go have dinner somewhere. Watch "The Daily Show." I'm pretty sedentary.
» EXPRESS: Do you still self-identify as punk?
» BAKER: Yeah, I do. It's just become such a nebulous description these days, so it's tough. If we're describing a certain attitude and understanding of the world — yes. But I don't really go for the costume anymore, because I don't think it's necessary. When I was very young, it was somewhat dangerous and provocative to have a certain image — it threw people off balance. But now, thanks to MTV and Hot Topic, there's nothing threatening or frightening about a guy with a mohawk anymore, so what's the point of all of that hair maintenance every day?
» EXPRESS: Do you get recognized a lot when you're out to dinner?
» BAKER: Not in D.C., because it's not a music town. In California it happens all the time. In D.C., I'd probably be recognized a lot quicker if I was a mid-level staffer for Patrick Leahy.
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