|Interview - Internet
|Addicted To Noise, no. 2.02, February 1996 (United States)
|Since their humble beginnings in the San Fernando Valley more than a decade ago, Bad Religion's timekeeper has been watching the changes from behind the bassline.
by Roy Trakin
Since their humble beginnings in the San Fernando Valley more than a decade ago, Bad Religion's timekeeper has been watching the changes from behind the bassline.
Addicted to Noise: This band has really had to reinvent itself over the last few records, leaving Epitaph to sign with Atlantic, then losing Brett Gurewitz.
Jay Bentley: It seems like we reinvent ourselves every four years. Not necessarily dramatically, but something happens where we have to stop and go, 'What was that?' It doesn't matter.
ATN: Your lineup has constantly shifted. More recently, Bobby Schayer was brought in as drummer in 1992 and you've just hired Brian Baker, who's played with Minor Threat, Meatmen, Dag Nasty and Junkyard, on guitar. And you had at least one stylistic shift on 1983's Into the Unknown, ironically the last time Brett Gurewitz split the group, leaving the leadership to Graffin.
JB: I think the bottom line was always not just to change to go with what was popular. It was more like making changes to fit the band. Not necessarily growing our hair and wearing leather. We've been together 16 years, so any changes have been gradual, over time. Greg [Graffin] moved to upstate New York [Ithaca] five years ago. That's a big change on our writing style. Now, he does everything on tape and sends it to us.
ATN: Don't you lose the closeness of creating together? Or is that overrated?
JB: No, it's not overrated. For some people, it's great. For us, it's not one of those great things. This allows us to individually listen to the songs, get ideas and then talk about them. Whereas, you have the frustration of presenting a song to the group and wanting an immediate response. And wanting to record it right then and there.
ATN: This way you can work on a song without getting involved in personalities or egos.
JB: I can listen to the tape for a month before I open my stupid mouth and say something I might not really mean, like 'Wow, I really don't like that.' Maybe I do like it, but I'm just not listening to it right.
ATN: How much a part of this band was Brett? And how much is he missed now?
JB: He wrote anywhere from 30-60% of the songs on any given album. Last year on Stranger Than Fiction, he wrote a lot. A year before, on Recipe For Hate, he wrote four songs. It went year to year. We had the benefit of having finished Stranger Than Fiction before he left. It hadn't even come out when he left. Things happened pretty quickly. We didn't have to worry about writing the material.
ATN: For The Gray Race, though, you had to come up with songs without him for the first time since '83's Into the Unknown.
JB: Greg [Graffin] did the lion's share of the writing, probably 95%. Brian [Baker] wrote four or five guitar parts, and that was it. It worked out well because I think Greg found he was able to explore areas where he'd normally say, "Brett will write those type of songs." And now he got to write them. By the time we went into the studio, he had 23 songs. There was no lack of material to choose from.
ATN: For your first major label record, Stranger Than Fiction, it seems you guys went out of your way to make a hard-edge, uncommercial punk-rock album, as if to prove the affiliation wouldn't affect the music you made. This time, you seem to have gone back to your love of melody and pop hooks a little more.
JB: I think you're right about Stranger. It was definitely a hesitant album. It was the first time anyone had given us a recording advance. When we were on Epitaph, we did things based on the budget we had, which was, "How much money do we have?"
ATN: Did you feel increased pressure as a result of being with Atlantic?
JB: Sure. You're thinking about it all the time. I would say there were times when you're sitting behind the board, going, "I really don't want to go overboard on this." It's easy to sit in the studio for 12-15 weeks to make an album. We walked out in five with Stranger and said, we're done. There's a lot of fun to be had when you're doing something on your own and you stretch the borders. And there are really no rules. And I think we began to feel as if we were entering an area where there were a few more rules. That's OK. Not necessarily rules imposed on us, but just kinda like, you don't want to get carried away with yourself.
ATN: Certainly no one at the label tried to interfere with your creative freedom.
JB: Danny Goldberg told us, he didn't want to know... he just wanted to hear it. And everybody else just told us to have a good time and make a record. We've been doing this for 15 years. It wasn't like we needed any creative direction.
ATN: What's kind of ironic about Bad Religion is, you've been around 15 years and yet you're just starting out. Most people probably think this is your second or maybe third record.
JB: For a lot of people, this will be our second record. For other people, our first record was in '88, Suffer. There aren't that many people who can remember back to 1980. That would make them my age and still interested in punk, which is rare. The average age of our audience is 18. That means they were two when we started.
ATN: And that remains the median age for punk-rock fans.
JB: Because it's the age of identifying yourself, defining yourself and maybe just standing up and saying, "I'm an individual now. I'm unique and I need to find out a little more about what I am and who I am..." It's different now because you've got eight million people screaming, "individuality," but they're all the same.
ATN: Yeah, what happens with the mainstreaming of alternative, punk culture. Now it's all about a whole different kind of uniform.
JB: The individuality is kinda lost because there are certain structural fashion rules that apply.
ATN: Don't you have to thank punk coming into fashion for the signing of Bad Religion by a major label? Isn't that the paradox Greg is trying to deal with in some of these new songs?
JB: You're right. We were signed before anything really happened with Green Day or Offspring. So you can't say we were signed at a time that there was a frenzy to sign all punk bands. It wasn't until we were done recording Stranger Than Fiction when Dookie and Smash came out. And all of a sudden every punk band in the world had to be on a label.
ATN: Actually, it seems like you guys are just a little ahead of your time or behind it. That must be frustrating.
JB: No, it's actually good. It keeps you balanced and level. I don't ever want to make a record based on other band's album sales. "Gee, if we do this, maybe we'll be as big as them."
ATN: There's a sense that Stranger Than Fiction didn't live up to label expectations, saleswise, even though it was your biggest album, with more than 300,000-350,000 sold, while Recipe did closer to 175,000 -200,000, with Epitaph and Atlantic sales taken together.
JB: When we did Suffer in 1988, we sold 8,000 copies worldwide. Next year, we did No Control, which sold 20,000 copies worldwide. Following year, with Against The Grain, we did 40,000 copies worldwide. It's not like all of a sudden, we're selling 350,000 records. This is the result of 15 years worth of work. When we sat down with Atlantic and with Sony for the rest of the world, we said, "Here's what we sell. We can roughly expect to do better than that. Whether's it's 50% more or doubling it.... We'll do better."
ATN: You originally met Greg [Graffin] in the San Fernando Valley. You were best friends in high school?
JB: I was born in Kansas, Greg grew up in Wisconsin. We ended up in the same junior high school, Hale, then went to El Camino High School together.
ATN: Your anger was a reflection of what you saw as the complete cultural vacuum that was the Valley at the time.
JB: If I were to give that time and place any credit, it would be that the absolute staleness of that at the time was what forced people like Greg and myself out, leading us to think, "This isn't comfortable," without exactly knowing why. That's not a good thing. It's just reality. It's like when people say, "Oh, it's just a bunch of suburban kids rebelling against nothing." Well, that's exactly what it was. Nothing was happening. And we saw something vital happening in places like Hollywood, even though it was just 40 minutes away. It was OK to be different. And that's what set the tone for punk-rock for Greg and myself. It was never about what you looked like. It was more what you did or what you said.
ATN: And what about now, when it has rigidified into a commodity with its own code of behavior?
JB: It's too specific in terms of what it is. It used to be, if you got on-stage and screamed into a megaphone and smashed a typewriter with a sledgehammer, you were punk. But now you're art-rock or whatever...
ATN: Some of the band's critics point to the earnest self-righteousness of the band's anthems, though I sense there's an irony and self-indictment in those rants. What are you guys complaining about anyway? You're successful and making a living at something people would kill to be doing.
JB: Personality and what you do for a living were never things we complained about. Anything we ever thought was something worth talking about was things that we all do. Just getting pissed off driving or your attitude towards other people. It's the things you do when you're frustrated. It's what you do with yourself.
ATN: The new album seems to say nothing is really black and white, like on the songs "Them & Us" and "Parallel," but that things are more blurred, a shade of gray. And yet punk has always been about that very clash of opposites. So, are we on different sides or all together in this?
JB: All the songs like that are not written about what we expect or want, but what is. "We're all in this together." That's what you want. But what you have is "Them & Us." That's the way it'll always be.
ATN: What is the "Them & Us"? Black vs. white? Rich vs. Poor? Republicans vs. Democrats?
JB: [Laughs] Country-western vs. jazz.
German transcript updated
English transcript added
English transcript added
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Interview image(s) added: Diplomatic Defense
Interview added: Diplomatic Defense
English transcript updated: Bad Religion, the ‘McCartney and Lennon of punk,’ to make Spokane debut
Interview added: Bad Religion, the ‘McCartney and Lennon of punk,’ to make Spokane debut
German transcript updated: Gähnend in die Punker-Rente