That Old-Time Bad Religion: Have the independent-minded punks joined the corporate Establishment? No way, they say
Back in the initial days of the Los Angeles punk scene, Bad Religion stood alongside such celebrated early '80s groups as X and Black Flag.
True to the punk tradition, the group raged against the machine with songs that were as cerebral as they were convulsive. The band's shows, too, were gripping episodes, leaving both the musicians and the audience drained by the end of the night.
While virtually every other band on the scene either moved to major labels or dissolved, Bad Religion maintained its semi-underground pace, releasing its albums on its own Epitaph label and finding its own ways to build a following, without having to cater to the tastes of radio programmers.
So what was this last bastion of independence doing backstage recently at its Hollywood Palladium show, glad-handing with Atlantic Records President-designate Danny Goldberg for photos that ended up in music industry trade magazines?
And what was Bad Religion doing onstage last month at the Universal Amphitheatre as part of the "Acoustic Xmas" concerts alongside such corporate-affiliated acts as Billy Idol and 4 Non Blondes--a benefit sponsored by KROQ-FM, one of L.A.'s biggest commercial-rock powerhouses?
It's all part of the new era for Bad Religion, which plays Saturday at UC Irvine's Crawford Hall, next Sunday at Red Dog in Santa Barbara and Jan. 11 at Montezuma Hall at San Diego State University. The band now is part of the corporate-rock world, having signed a five-album deal with Atlantic Records. Atlantic is now distributing the band's latest album, "Recipe for Hate," which was recorded before the deal was struck.
Brett Gurewitz, Bad Religion guitarist and songwriter, takes on one of these heard-it-all-before looks as he considers the reactions he has gotten to these moves from some of the group's old fans.
"We stand for individuality, we stand for independent thought," says Gurewitz, 31. "Lyrically that's the crux of most of our topics. And I don't think moving to a company with broader distribution necessarily contradicts any of those concepts."
Greg Graffin, the band's singer and other primary songwriter, concurs.
"We had always maintained that having the benefit of a major distribution network would be something that would benefit us," says Graffin, 28, in the band's tour bus before a recent show. "An indie band can only go so far with indie distribution. We felt that what we had built thus far worked perfectly well, but it wasn't getting to enough people."
Gurewitz and Graffin are as odd a pair as you're likely to find fronting a band. The former, a California native, is completely immersed in the rock world, finding and developing new acts for the group's label when not playing with Bad Religion.
Wisconsin-born Graffin is into another kind of rock--the fossils he studies in pursuit of a doctorate in evolutionary biology at Cornell University to complement the master's degree in geology he already has from UCLA. He's even abandoned Los Angeles, moving his family to Upstate New York.
"We're not a typical rock 'n' roll band," Graffin says of the lineup that also includes lead guitarist Greg Hetson (formerly of the Circle Jerks), bassist Jay Bentley and drummer Bobby Schayer. "We're a bunch of weird guys onstage who have really good melodies and relevant lyrics, but we're not your average rock band."
Even when Bad Religion started in 1980, it didn't really fit in to the standard molds.
"We were just kids in the same high school--El Camino Real (in Woodland Hills)--who didn't fit in," Gurewitz says. "We were geeks or punks or whatever you called us. We used to get beat up and picked on and we decided to play music in the garage once in a while. And then someone said, 'Why don't you play our party?' "
However, sometimes that party spirit has turned nasty. Three years ago when officials in North Hollywood closed a show by the band before it started, because of overcrowding, some fans threw objects at the police and broke windows of neighborhood businesses. The incident gave the band its greatest media exposure to that time.
"We've had a number of riots," Graffin says. "That's just the one that got covered. Bad Religion fans are very fervid and rabid. They wait a long time to see us, even if it's really only six or eight months. To them, that's a long time."
Although Graffin regrets the damage done by the fans, he says the attention brought by that fracas helped the band in two ways. On one hand it precipitated a move to larger venues that could accommodate the crowds, and on the other it exposed the devotion of the fans.
"It made us more mysterious," he says. "People started going, 'Wow, this is that riot band. Let's go to the show!' "
Slowly and quietly that started to manifest in hard-to-ignore ways. Rising alternative stars started naming Bad Religion as a significant influence (among them Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who guests on "American Jesus," a track on "Recipe for Hate").
And concert attendance and record sales built to levels far above the norm for indie rockers--and even better than many big-label acts. "Recipe," in fact, had already sold 160,000 copies through Epitaph before the Atlantic deal was struck.
Atlantic's Goldberg says it wasn't so much the numbers but the strength of the music and the band's convictions that won him over after he was given a tape of "Recipe" by Bad Religion's publicist. But he sees a potential audience far beyond the band's current reach.
"I think they could go very far," the executive says. "Certainly they could go as far as a band like Midnight Oil, which has had platinum (million-selling) albums. They have a quality so high that they easily transcend the genre in which they started. They seem to me a very sophisticated rock band that happens to have a lot of integrity and commitment, but musically they're so good that I don't see any limit to what they can accomplish."
That would be fine by Graffin.
"As a band we have always tried to make people think and to have relevant lyrics that pertain to the common man," he says. "If you can provoke people to think, you go a long way toward making society a better place to live in.
"Our music is populist in focus, and I think all music should have equal potential in reaching the music-listening audience, and I know our audience is a lot bigger than 160,000 people. Whenever you put your heart and soul into music, from a personal perspective it's a tragedy if it's not widely distributed, if it's not given the same fair shake as other things. To me, it's a tragedy."
The feeling at KROQ is simply that the time had come for Bad Religion.
"We're just looking to play great music," says KROQ program director Kevin Weatherly. "We could care less what company distributes them. The fact is they have a loyal following and the timing was right."
But what if Bad Religion doesn't reach a wider audience?
"The thing to remember is that Bad Religion has never been goal-oriented," Gurewitz says. "We didn't say, 'Let's form a band . . . write songs . . . demo them . . . shop them . . . get a deal . . . try to have a gold record.' We said, 'Let's write cool music, let's play it and stay out of the way of the results.' I've found that when things are like that in my life, that's when I've had success."
But will success undermine the band's strongest selling point--its loyal following?
The subject of Bad Religion's corporate move was a big topic among the fans at the Palladium show. The consensus is that the band will stay true to its values and its fans. But there was an air of doubt in the room.
"Money talks, so who knows how the band will change?" Jose Avilez wondered as he bought a Bad Religion T-shirt. The 25-year-old West Covina firefighter said he's seen the band in concert 25 or 30 times in the past 10 years.
"But I don't think they'll change their values," countered his friend Chris Lester, a 26-year-old construction worker, also from West Covina.
"If they sell out, they won't have crowds like this," Avilez said, pointing to the packed auditorium, " 'cause I won't be here."