Maybe you don’t know the name Greg Graffin offhand but everyone who’s anyone knows what Bad Religion is. They are the seminal punk band started in Los Angeles in 1980 on Epitaph Records which was formed by BR founding member Brett Gurewitz.
I got a chance to talk with BR band leader Greg Graffin just a few weeks before they went on their most recent tour. Graffin didn’t have anything specific to promote but both of us just thought it was a chance to let the SG community rip down the curtain and see what the man with the Bad Religion plan is up to.
Check out the website for Bad Religion.
Daniel Robert Epstein: How’s the touring going?
Greg Graffin: The last was good. We did about 10 shows in September and October. We’ve been kind of quiet all summer. We did a big tour in the spring for seven weeks in North America. Then we took off for the rest of the summer so I could finish my PhD.
DRE: How did that go?
GG: I just finished.
DRE: I saw a bunch of majors that people thought you had. Was it geology or paleontology?
GG: That was my master’s degree. For my PhD it was evolution and religion.
DRE: How does all that impact on your music?
GG: Well I’ve been singing half my life in Bad Religion. It’s about religion. Evolution was always kind of a religion to me so for PhD I finally brought together the two halves of my life and synthesize them into one piece of work.
DRE: Why was your education so important to you?
GG: Life is an education to me. If you don’t continue to learn you end up like Vanilla Ice. When you’re music career is over you have nothing. Music has been a gift. The fact that you can do it as a career has been an incredible privilege that only a few can enjoy and even so I know it’s temporary. Maybe temporary is the wrong word because I might do it my whole life. But there’s more to life. Music is only part of life it’s not a complete life. The development of the mind is just as important as performance.
DRE: What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the punk scene since you started?
GG: I guess the biggest change is that you can know look like a punk and talk about your feelings. How society is no longer the focus. It used to be that punk bands were all talking about society. Now punk bands can get up there and talk about their girlfriends, to blame their misery on their girlfriends.
Look it’s a change and I don’t criticize change. To me it’s neither good nor bad but recognizing that there are things they talk about today that would not have been talked about in the early days of punk.
DRE: In the 1980’s you mentioned that Bad Religion was just a hobby.
GG: At that time I was taking academia pretty seriously and Bad Religion was kind of a hobby. Then in the 90’s Bad Religion became my career and academia became my hobby. Now in the 2000’s academia became important again but now I’m doing both at a very high level.
DRE: I also read that you said that if Bad Religion had a hit on the scale of Nirvana’s hits that the band might not be around today.
GG: That’s possible but I could see how it would be possible. A lot of bands peak early and its very hard when that happens to come back from that and still be viable.
DRE: What is it about success that makes that happen?
GG: I really don’t know. Maybe it’s just mathematical or logic that once you reach an early peak you spend the rest of your life struggling to get back to that point. That’s the kind of a desperation that Bad Religion has never had to worry about. We just do our own thing and gradually built up a large following. We still haven’t released our masterpiece.
DRE: A lot of people might disagree with that.
GG: I guess. We always joke about that now. Onstage we always joke and say “Now we are going to play some of our early good stuff.” People always cheer. Even though we turned things around with The Process Of Belief last year because a lot of people saw that as a great return to form.
DRE: Does money kill the anarchist spirit?
GG: Anarchy was never really part of my world view even when I was a teenager. It was more like a cool symbol to paint on your leather jacket. The actual spirit of Southern California punk, which is what we were part of, is more like the opposite of anarchy. It was do it yourself and try to build something from scratch that will have future lasting value. Anarchy is about disorder and chaos. I think that was more common in England and San Francisco.
DRE: The last Bad Religion show I went to had a lot of young kids there. I wanted to bust some heads.
GG: [laughs] Don’t go busting teenager’s heads. I think we’re really fortunate. I don’t know how it happened but there are still a lot of young people discovering Bad Religion every year. I guess what we have to say is still pretty appealing.
DRE: Are they the ones screaming for the old stuff?
GG: Yeah that’s the funny thing because they never had a chance to hear it when we put it out. But I also want to say that we don’t play music for teenagers and it’s not the average teenager that’s interested in that. It’s the fringe teenagers like the people who pose for Suicide Girls. The people who aren’t part of the mainstream culture. That’s why I think they are more thoughtful and understanding that going with the trend is not going to bring you any happiness. Because of that we’ve been able to write our style of music and our topics. We’re writing about things that follow you all through like how do I fit in with this social scene, how am I a developing individual within this social group, how can I maintain my identity and still find happiness as a social person.
DRE: Believe it or not The Ring and The Pirates of the Caribbean are pretty big on Suicide Girls. I know you’ve worked with [director] Gore Verbinski on your videos.
GG: Yeah we were one of his first filmic enterprises.
DRE: What is he like to work with?
GG: He’s a really good friend of ours. It’s like asking you what your friends are like. I can’t really see him as the visionary; he’s just a guy we hang out with.
DRE: He’s just the guy you dump a beer on.
GG: Yeah he’s a lot of fun. In fact he was in a band called Little Kings that was on Epitaph.
DRE: Do you still feel as confident in your songwriting as when you first started?
GG: Oh yeah. More so even. It’s a craft you get better at over the years. Sometimes I forget that I shouldn’t think so much and I should just let go.
DRE: Do you hear that clicking?
GG: Yeah I do. I have a digital phone.
DRE: I thought someone was tapping into this conversation.
GG: The CIA doesn’t care that much about what I say.
DRE: What was it like playing with Brett Gurewitz again?
GG: It’s great to have him back in the band. We’re very happy that he got his life turned around. It was his decision to come back into the band. We were just happy he did that.
DRE: How much has your views changed of America in the past few years?
GG: It’s just gotten more and more cynical. As you get older, read and understand more all those hunches you had as teenager turn out to be true [laughs]. Jeez the world really does suck if you’re American. I should say that the world thinks you suck if you’re an American. Right now we’re probably the most hated people and I think that’s a shame because America should be a leader. It should lead by example and not be hated.
DRE: We’re not leading around we’re just forcing people around with a sharp stick.
GG: Punkers were always vehemently against bullies. To be part of a country that’s being perceived as a bully makes it a great time to write punk songs.
DRE: Has Bad Religion’s sound changed much over the years?
GG: It has. I think I have gotten to be a better singer and the guys have gotten better at playing their instruments. We still produce our albums ourselves by and large so we’ve gotten better at recording. But we’re also very conscious of keeping it very raw, not overproduced and we try to make it as true to the original style as possible.
DRE: Have you ever slept with a Goth girl?
GG: In the early days there was no distinction between Goth and punk girls. Bad Religion has a lot of Goth credibility because on our first album cover we put a huge woodcut on the back of our first album. That became a symbol for Bad Religion. So in the early days yes I was with a lot of Goth girls.
DRE: What’s good about Goth girls in bed?
GG: I’m not sure their style dictates how good or bad they are in bed.
DRE: So they never tried to stab you?
GG: No in fact some of them are just too disturbed to be any good in bed. They’re strictly for show.
DRE: What’s your favorite pornography?
GG: Very plain. Regular porno. I’m not into urination or defecation or S & M or anything that could potentially get me in trouble with the FBI.
by Daniel Robert Epstein