|Category:||Interview - Internet||Publish date:||2/1/1996|
|Source:||Addicted To Noise, no. 2.02, February 1996 (United States)||With:||Greg Graffin|
|Synopsis:||Bad Religion's Singer-Songwriter on Punk Rock, Academia, Them and Us.|
by Roy Trakin
Bad Religion's Singer-Songerwriter on Punk Rock, Academia, Them and Us
Addicted to Noise: So Greg Graffin, punk-rock bandleader, Ph.D. student in paleontology, father of a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter ... that's an amazing range there. This is a hobby which has turned into a career.
Greg Graffin: Yeah, but it's a career based on not having a job, so I don't mind that at all.
ATN: Will there come a point where you have to choose between your careers in academia and punk-rock?
GG: They are two different worlds. Any occupation which is also an avocation can last your entire lifetime. Without making any absolute determinations, yet. I've taken a couple of years off from academia, but my research is still intact. And my topic will continue to be useful to medical and evolutionary science for years to come.
ATN: Even as a punk-rocker, you're a bit of a professorial type in that you point out moral lessons and paradoxes. What's interesting about this record is your attempt to reconcile "Us" vs. "Them" into "We," even as you yourself have one foot in two different worlds. It's almost like the Marxist dialectic, with "thesis" and "antithesis" becoming "synthesis."
GG: I believe it was Hegel who came up with that. What I find rewarding about music is what I've found rewarding about academia... that is the process of sharing ideas and comparing feedback, using them as platforms for other people to talk about their ideas.
ATN: You are someone who literally does live with one foot in the establishment and the other in the counter-culture. Unlike, probably, the majority of people who you sing for.
GG: You're right about that. But because I'm able to go back and forth, I'm able to see tremendous consistencies in the ways that those two worlds operate. The constraints in academia are very similar to the constraints in pop music and pop art in general. And that is, they're both based generally on close-minded individuals and the way that these systems are set up to cater to close-minded people. We think of academia as being so open, but the fact is, it has just as much ritual, phoniness, backbiting and competition for tenure as any other occupation. It's probably worse than it's every been because the jobs are so scarce.
ATN: This record is finally your opportunity to claim this band as your own after the departure of Brett Hurwitz. Did you feel the pressure of being the main songwriter in Bad Religion?
GG: A lot of people don't recognize, when you're a co-writer, there's a lot of altruism involved. You don't fully explore all of the creative options you have. You have to compromise. You know that your partner will fill in what you have left out. With Brett gone, I really felt liberated to be able to explore elements that I hadn't explored. It felt really good and made this a much more genuine album than any of the collections I've written in the past.
ATN: How have you managed to progress past what have become punk's increasingly limited stylistic boundaries and orthodoxy?
GG: I think there's a lot of room for careful experimentation, where you don't alienate the people who've come to love you. It's a tough tightrope walk. You don't want to put out something that is so drastic that you've reinvented yourself.
ATN: Do you believe punk-rock can save the world? When you sing, "This is just a 'Punk Rock Song,'" I think it's said with a degree of self-deprecating irony. It's both more and less than that... it works on either level.
GG: That's a good point. I believe that rock & roll is far too limited in scope to really address the huge problems... and I sing about that in "Punk Rock Song." There are so many drastic human tragedies and problems going on among people who've never even heard rock & roll and all we can do is offer you this "Punk Rock Song."
ATN: "10 in 2010" is kind of a "Blade Runner" view of a pre-apocalyptic future burdened with overpopulation, where survivors are fighting over scarce resources. And you don't offer a solution, either.
GG: But I don't believe that's our job. Do you feel it's an obligation for us to offer a solution? Or is it more important to point out the problem? I think it's so much more important to point out the problem. Politicians always talk about, "Let's hear a suggestion..." Coersion is what politics is all about, coercing people to think a certain way. I'm against that 100%, which is why I've always hated politics.
ATN: "Drunk Sincerity" sounds like it's about politicians in general and Bill Clinton in particular.
GG: One of the verses is about politics. The second verse talks about the Vietnam War. That's blatantly political.
ATN: And yet rock & roll is such a fascistic enterprise, with its intimations of Leni Riefenstahl, secular religion and its appetite for mass spectacle on an arena-rock level, the ultimate dionysian experience where the individual loses his identity to the crowd.
GG: You can draw that picture, but isn't a classroom a fascistic situation, too?
ATN: Yes, but doesn't the successful teacher have to get the students to think for themselves on a Socratic method level?
GG: That's what education is all about.
ATN: Is that possible within the rock band's relationship to its fans?
GG: You just painted a stereotype of the rock & roll experience I'm trying to break.
ATN: Isn't that harder to do the more popular you get?
GG: You can always be outwardly and openly against fraternities, which eliminates a percentage of your rock-buying audience.
ATN: I thought Bad Religion had a pretty sizable jock following. Anyway, your audience is overwhelmingly male.
GG: Not after they hear this interview they won't be. We'll lose a lot once they hear how little I respect them.
ATN: Punk-rock has always needed something or someone to bang its head against. Is "Them & Us" poking fun at that need for conflict, even as the music relies on it? Are you trying to draw lines, obliterate them or both?
GG: That's a tough dilemma, isn't it? "Them & Us" is about people who blatantly try to draw those lines.
ATN: What do you see as the major division in this country today?
GG: It might be the "respected" vs. "the disrespected." I feel that's a powerful dichotomy that's prevalent today. A lot of people who are economically disadvantaged would feel a lot better about themselves, not if they made more money, but if they were more respected. When you have no money, it's the disrespect that hurts the most.
ATN: And yet punk-rock has never necessarily gone out of its way to befriend minorities or the poor. It's basically made up of suburban, middle-class kids ranting against their own affluence.
GG: That's interresting, but I disagree with you. I lived in Woodland Hills, but not on the affluent side. I lived on the north side of Ventura Blvd., by Woodlake and Victory. I went to El Camino High School. My mom was a single mother who made maybe $28,000 a year, with two kids in junior high.
ATN: So you lived in a lower-middle-class pocket surrounded by affluence.
GG: I was not angry at my socio-economic standing. I was angry more at the disrespect shown. My mom always kept food on the table, but she was discontent bcause she never got the respect she probably deserved. I'm not talking about the people w ho can't put food on the table; I'm talking about the working poor. And I think their biggest frustration is not being respected as citizens of the United States. And what does that make them? It makes them cynical about being citizens of the United S tates. It makes them not care about this country. Now that I've ascended the socio-economic ladder, that's the one thing I want to teach my children... the compassion element is far more important than the economic element. And I don't believe that you have to resort to drastic measures, like give away three quarters of your income, in order to demonstrate that. It's the way you treat people in general.
ATN: What does it mean for you to be on a major label? Do you feel the pressure of succeeding quickly?
GG: I would rather have a slow, organic, steady solid growth than the kind of boom or bust mentality that pervades most of the bands and most of the labels.
ATN: Does it make a difference not having Danny Goldberg at Atlantic, the person who pursued and then signed you originally?
GG: The people he brought in are all very sensitive and good at what they do. The upper echelon of management there, the Senior VPs, know the sensitivities of Bad Religion and we interact directly with them. And that's what's important.
ATN: What about continuing on without Brett?
GG: This record will be our most popular and it'll have no input from Brett. And I think that's very rewarding. Not that there's any kind of antagonism towards Brett... it's only to let him know you're only as strong as you are as a unit. If yo u decide to jump ship, that unit might be able to teach you something about your importance to it.
ATN: So there is a bit of competitive desire to "prove yourselves" after his exit?
GG: Of course. That's only healthy. And Brett's goal will be to show how much Bad Religion needed Epitaph. Our goal is to show how much Bad Religion supported Epitaph.
ATN: That's the same competitive desire you put down in "Punk Rock Song," where you say we're all in this together.
GG: I never, ever in my punk songs said how negative competition is. I think competition is so important to challenge, to provoke people to use their own heads.
ATN: You're more right wing than left, aren't you?
GG: I really hate politics. I affiliate more with whom my parents affiliated with, and that's the Democrats. I'm far more liberal-thinking than conservatives.
ATN: There's a lot of apocalyptic imagery in your songs. Raising children, you can't really think the world might end soon.
GG: Yes you can. Raising my son and daughter with the knowledge that nothing lasts forever or that everything might cease is actually very valuable. It gives them perspective and allows them to treat not only their fellow humans but rare commodi ties better, with more appreciation.
ATN: You might be the only lyricist in rock who would rhyme "moiety" with "similarity" in "Them & Us." What does "moiety" mean anyway? [according to the American Heritage Dictionary, it is a part, portion or share, or either of two basic units in cultural anthropology that make up a tribe on the basis of unilateral descent].
GG: A moiety is just a part. I think chemists use it alot when they talk about the portion of a compound made up of selenium [a non-metallic byproduct of electrolytic copper refining]. The other thing that's great is, "Them & Us" might be the fi rst song ever to start with the word, "Despite."
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