Still Punk After All These Years
Sunday, July 29, 2001
The men behind Bad Religion and Social Distortion are older and wiser but just as persistent.
The record company bigwig seated on a couch with the band shifts into overdrive talking about the fall release of the group's latest recording. "As the owner of Epitaph Records," says Brett Gurewitz, 38. "I can say that we're very excited about the new smash hit Bad Religion album."
The aroma of hype instantly generates a dissent from one of the veteran punk group's founding members: "As a musician, I disagree strongly, as it is outside the bounds of humility," counters Bad Religion guitarist-songwriter . . . Brett Gurewitz.
It's understandable if Gurewitz is experiencing symptoms of a split personality these days.
After 6½ years shepherding Epitaph Records from tiny indie punk label to major-player status, Gurewitz has decided the time is right to return to the thing he got into the music business to do: critiquing the social status quo in Bad Religion.
During the years Gurewitz has been otherwise engaged—in part overcoming what he has said was an addiction to heroin—the hard-core punk band he formed 21 years ago with several high school buddies put out three albums without him.
Now, it's not psychological dysfunction but good spirits spurring Gurewitz to engage in a little clowning during an interview at the band's Hollywood recording studio.
"Even though I'm getting no sleep, I'm haggard, tired and over-stressed" from pushing to deliver the album to Epitaph next month, Gurewitz says, "I haven't had this much fun in 6½ years."
Neither have the other longtime members of the band—singer Greg Graffin, bassist Jay Bentley, guitarists Greg Hetson and Brian Baker. (Drummer Brooks Wackerman recently joined the group after a degenerative shoulder condition forced Bobby Schayer to stop drumming.) They say that with Gurewitz back in the fold, all feels right once again in their corner of the punk world.
They're not alone.
"This is the greatest thing that could happen with them," says Paul Tollett, president of Goldenvoice concert promoters. "They always do well with or without him, but with him in the band, there's a chemistry that's hard to beat.
"We've had a saying at Goldenvoice for the last 12 years: Never underestimate Bad Religion," Tollett adds by way of explaining the group's longevity. "A lot of bands have an overinflated view of themselves, but Bad Religion always seems to do better than we think they're going to do. . . . Being around forever—you don't get many points for that. You get points for keeping it going creatively, and both those bands [Bad Religion and Social Distortion] keep coming up with new things."
Gurewitz had collaborated with Graffin in writing one song—"Believe It"—for "The New America," Bad Religion's latest album and the final one under its contract with Atlantic Records.
That contract began in 1994 with "Stranger Than Fiction," which remains the group's biggest hit with 387,000 copies sold, according to SoundScan. That was the last album Bad Religion made before Gurewitz turned his attention Epitaph.
Now, the group is back on the roster at Epitaph, the label the band started in the early-'80s to put out its recordings and those by other groups back when mainstream labels wouldn't touch punk.
"I love running Epitaph and it's great making records for other people, but there's something about making your own music that can't be matched," says Gurewitz, who turned over daily operation of Epitaph to others. "I'm dedicating myself about 95% to Bad Religion."
Says Graffin, 36: "I think I speak for all of us when I say that in Brett's absence, we had a lot of high points, but in terms of satisfaction, things feel a lot better now than they have since he left. It's like we went off in two separate directions, but there was something always pulling us back."
Adds Hetson: "It's like coming back home to that comfy couch."Comfy, yes. Old, soft and squishy? Never.
"There's some of the hardest, fastest, most urgent recordings we've ever made," says Gurewitz, who stops, then corrects himself. "No—I won't even equivocate. There is the fastest, hardest recording we've ever made. There's no question."
Says Graffin: "When we all got together and did this, we were pretty conservative in our hopes. But having heard it, I know that it's the best-sounding Bad Religion album and the best songs we've ever done. Whether it's a hit or not, that still isn't registering on my radar. It's not what I'm thinking about when I write a song."
What he and Gurewitz do think about is twofold. They start from Bad Religion's long-standing desire to challenge societal forces that suppress freedom of thought and individual expression. Next, Graffin thinks about how Gurewitz will react to whatever he comes up with, and vice versa.
"I think Brett and I take [songwriting] pretty seriously," Graffin says. "We always try to outdo each other, and that's why the records that we write together are always so much more exciting."
Adds Gurewitz: "There's a chemistry when we write together. When you listen to this record, I think it sounds like the record we would have made after ['Stranger Than Fiction'] if we'd continued writing together."
With 20 years experience under their belts, it's with a little reluctance that the members of Bad Religion can also invoke the M word.
"I hate to use the word matured.... " says Graffin, who often concocts the long sentences you'd expect from one who's still working on his doctorate in zoology at Cornell University when he's not singing punk rock. "But certainly our lyrics have evolved and they reflect a growth that is normal for a person who is . . . a songwriter going through life and accepting the changes that life brings, while still being able to identify with punk themes."
If there's a secret to Bad Religion's staying power, it's probably found in the words of wisdom Gurewitz got from a friend following that first show 21 years back in a rented Santa Ana warehouse.
"I'll never forget this," Gurewitz says. "He told me, 'You guys are really good. Even though you might not realize it, if you just don't break up, you'll get popular.'
"To this day," he adds, "when one of my groups says, 'Can you give us some advice, because you've made it and we want to be like you,' I say, 'Don't break up, because if you really are good and you don't break up, all the other groups that aren't good will break up and you'll be left.' "
Besides not breaking up, Bad Religion also has persistent intolerance continually re-energizing them and their music.
"That's good for the longevity of our songs," says Graffin with a wry smile. "As long as we focus on those never-ending problems, there'll always be something for us to write about. As long as society continues to be restrictive, and to come down hard on the youth, then our audience will always be energized by our songs."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times