|Category:||Article - Internet||Publish date:||3/12/2010|
|Source:||ocregister.com (United States)||With:||Brett Gurewitz, Greg Graffin, Jay Bentley|
It’s summertime 1980, and to keep from getting bored and going mad in the San Fernando Valley, three teenagers have decided to start a punk band.
Jay Bentley, left, the smart aleck who’ll later make a habit of dressing in kilts and evenings gowns on stage, just turned 16. He’s learning to play bass.
Greg Graffin, center, the brainiac assigned vocals, is still 15, at least for a few more months. Soon enough, he’ll be fronting a band opening for an equally young group out of Orange County, Social Distortion.
Brett Gurewitz, right, future indie-label mogul, is two years older and preparing to graduate from the Woodland Hills alma mater where all three met. He just picked up guitar.
They’re all into the same records. Some are from this side of the Atlantic: Black Flag, the Germs, the Ramones. Some are from the other: Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam.
After two years of band bonding, Gurewitz’s dad loans him $1,000 to make a record. Stewed in the breakneck rhythms and caustic diatribe that courses through their music to this day, the album, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, was the polar opposite of what was then dominating radio and a new thing called MTV. Compared to the daily diet of A Flock of Seagulls and the Human League, “Eye of the Tiger” and “Ebony and Ivory,” the group — now named Bad Religion, with Pete Finestone settling in on drums — had created a half-hour-long hand grenade of furious rebellion.
At the time, hardly anyone paid attention to it — and fewer still probably noticed that the record had been self-released under a new moniker that would eventually become a punk mainstay, Epitaph. But today, as the band begins to celebrate its 30th anniversary with more than a dozen sure-to-sell-out shows this month and next throughout House of Blues clubs across the Southwest, that album is considered a landmark — a raw cornerstone of the aggressively outspoken rock that has followed.
Zack de la Rocha, for instance — the politically charged vocalist for one of rock’s most incendiary groups, Rage Against the Machine — vividly remembers hearing it for the first time three years after it first came out.
“I was fifteen,” he wrote in an exclusive e-mail to us earlier this week. “The first thing I remember is pulling the insert from the sleeve of the record and seeing those drawings from Dante’s Inferno, and that red wash over the blurry shot of Los Angeles, and I admit I was scared. A little terrified even. I had no idea what to expect.
“When the needle hit the record I have to say it was a defining moment for me. The music was darker than most punk records I had heard. It was almost gothic, and there was a genuine sadness to the melodies. Listening to the words I remember being overwhelmed. It wasn’t some revelation that god didn’t exist … it was more like an injection of the sad truth. That our condition is the product of the mess of our own making … and at fifteen that was as scary as the inferno drawings.”
(Click here to read more of Zack’s thoughts on the band, as well as tributes from Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio, Geoff Rickly of Thursday and members of New Found Glory, Set Your Goals and more.)
How Could Hell Be Any Worse? — which many fans didn’t discover until it was reissued in 1988, once the band’s reputation was rising and Epitaph began to flourish — was merely the opening salvo. What followed has been a lengthy career that has affected bands from Rage and Pennywise to the litany of new punk groups that have emerged in the ’90s and ’00s.
After three decades, 14 albums (with another due this year), countless tours and a few episodes in rehab, Bad Religion is now not only one of the most influential — and continuously active — punk bands in history, it’s also arguably more relevant and popular than ever before.
“I think Bad Religion has had more impact on music than they even know,” says Efrem Schulz, frontman for O.C. hardcore outfit Death by Stereo, adding that it’s one of few punk bands still issuing successful records, not just coasting on its legacy.
“There are so many kids out there right now in bands that sound like Bad Religion that don’t even know who Bad Religion is,” he says. “They think they sound like this other band who copied Bad Religion.”
Meanwhile, Epitaph has grown into a giant of independent music, a force that now has subsidiaries both eclectic (see Anti- Records roster of, among others, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Merle Haggard, the Swell Season and Michael Franti) and old-school (via Tim Armstrong’s purist punk and ska outlet Hellcat Records).
The label figures significantly in rock history for its key contributions to 1994’s explosion alone: the Offspring’s Smash, Rancid’s … And Out Come the Wolves and NOFX’s Punk in Drublic, along with Green Day’s titanic Dookie (on Reprise), were the albums that essentially brought punk out of the shadows and into the mainstream.
SEARCHING FOR THEIR SECRET TO SUCCESS
“It’s a privilege, really,” Graffin, now 45, said about the demand for so many gigs during a phone interview last week. “One of the great things about this 30-year milestone is the fact that there’s still a scene that continues to evolve and that people still consider us an important part of. That’s primarily why we still do it, because they’re still out there. They want it, and we owe it to them.”
Over the years members of Bad Religion have come and gone — and, in some cases, come back again. In fact, no sooner had they laid down their first manifesto, the band then got severely derailed, veering off into prog-rock for 1983’s Into the Unknown, losing Bentley for a time, and not recovering until 1988’s meatier Suffer.
No one in the group will attest to any secret to their longevity. In an interview last year just before the taping of a 15th-anniversary Warped Tour concert in L.A., Bentley, also 45, said the solution was to “stay out of each other’s underwear.” Gurewitz, 47, doesn’t know the answer, either: “I quit acrimoniously once (in 1994, to concentrate on Epitaph) and that was the end for me then — but then it wasn’t the end. It was a false ending.”
Graffin often describes it like a real family, one that has grown up together but moved apart — he now lives in upstate New York, Bentley in Vancouver. But the singer admits that description gets misconstrued.
“People think of it like, ‘Oh, they love each other like family, like brothers.’ I do mean like that, but with that there’s plenty of combat and disagreement. Each member is committed to a longer-term goal, which is to be a productive member of the family. Sometimes that means you don’t agree all of the time.”
That friction is what fueled them all along. Bad Religion essentially was punk rock’s salvation for a time, bridging a gap from the late ‘80s (when few such bands thrived) into the mid-‘90s – by which time it, too, was scoring KROQ hits like “Infected” and “21st Century (Digital Boy).” More recent efforts like The Process of Belief (2002) and The Empire Strikes First (2004) have managed to keep the band’s music prominent on modern-rock radio (first with “Sorrow,” then with “Los Angeles Is Burning”) without compromising the blueprint laid down with earlier albums like No Control, Against the Grain and Generator.
Through it all the band has made indelible impressions on at least two generations of young people, receiving an endless stream of stories from fans about how their passion for Bad Religion inspired them to become musicians themselves — or very often led to suspension or expulsion at school for wearing their T-shirts.
“I really do appreciate when a song makes a difference in someone’s life,” Graffin says. “I’ve had people tell me that if it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t have gone to college. That really means a lot to me. It’s not just your music but the way you live your life, and I appreciate that I’ve had that positive impact.”
INTO THE UNKNOWN
Everything has a beginning and an end. There are no talks of calling it quits anytime soon, but everyone in the band knows that day will come.
Of course, each member has other endeavors to occupy his time. In addition to overseeing his labels, Gurewitz produces some of his roster and raises his three kids, including daughter Nico Moon Celeste, who arrived last Fourth of July. (Bentley also has two sons about to enter their 20s.)
Graffin earned his Ph.D. at Cornell University and now gives lectures on paleontology and life sciences at universities. He also has released two solo folk albums, American Lesion in 1997 and Cold as the Clay in 2006.
He’s currently finishing his first book, Anarchy Evolution (due in October), a memoir of his dual life as punk star and teacher, mixed with his views on evolution and religion.
He definitely talks like a professor: “I’ve always maintained that there’s more to life than music. Music is a really important part of life, but I’ve tried to keep my brain working and working on academic pursuits. I’ve entertained students with my lectures …I hope. I could see writing more books — writing books and writing songs are both ways of sharing ideas, and sharing ideas in almost any kind of medium is a privilege. I’ve been able to do it in two areas now. I see writing as a pursuit I think I can carry on until I die.”
For now, there’s still plenty going on with Bad Religion, which will follow this House of Blues run by entering the studio to cut its 15th album, due in fall. There’s plenty of fodder for Bad Religion right now — Wall Street, health care, Toyotas — yet Gurewitz says the new album may shy away from current topical issues to instead get at something more emotional and introspective.
“I’ve got to say that living in the aftermath of eight years of Bush, it feels tired to rail against him on record,” he says, “and it feels unnatural to rail against Obama for trying to clean up Bush’s mess. I’m writing more about the feelings of just living through this time.”
The band is also revamping its Web site to include a complete mixed-media timeline as well as its entire catalog streaming for free, plus all of the lyrics to every song they’ve ever written. (“You can find our lyrics on the Web now,” Gurewitz says, “but most of them … a lot of them … are wrong.”) Also part of the redesign: rare photos and videos and aggregated social networking feeds for all things Bad Religion.
A busy year, to say the least. Will they make it another 30? Graffin says he’s frightened by the thought of a world where people would want to see them perform in their 70s.
But don’t count them out anytime soon. He shares a story from the early days of punk promotion, when Gary Tovar, who started concert mainstay Goldenvoice, had a conversation with Graffin’s friend Keith Morris of Circle Jerks — who early on wasn’t convinced Bad Religion would cut it as a headliner.
“Gary shot back and said ‘No, no, no Keith, you are wrong. Don’t ever underestimate Bad Religion,’” Graffin says, laughing. “I have no hard feelings about it now, and Keith and I are great friends. But to this day the guys and I still say that to each other: ‘Hey, don’t underestimate Bad Religion.’”
Register critic Ben Wener contributed to this report.
- Kelly Skye Fadroski
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