|Interview - Magazine
|SLAMM Magazine #80 (April 1998) (United States)
Punk Rock with Substance
by Scot Tempesta
The year is 1980. Dinosaur rock is being lowered into its grave, and punk rock is in full attack. Mohawks, safety pins and slam dancing are all the rage. Bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Bad Religion are the order of the day.
The year is 1998. Grunge is fast becoming the next classic rock, and electronica is in full effect. Genital piercing, tattoos and latte are in vogue. Bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Bad Religion are but a footnote in the history of rock ’n’ roll. Or are they?
While many of the bands from back in the day are long gone, 18 years and 13 albums later Bad Religion continues to stand as the torch bearer of an era gone by. And now with the release of its latest album, No Substance, Bad Religion continues to deliver, albeit in a more mature vehicle, the very essence of what punk music was and really is all about.
"No Substance is a criticism of disposable society, and most of America’s pursuits have denigrated to things that are really without substance", says guitarist Brian Baker in a recent phone interview.
Led by primary songwriter and vocalist Greg Graffin, bassist Jay Bently, guitarists Greg Hetson and Baker, Bad Religion is an only slightly modified version of the original line-up. Both Hetson, formerly from the Circle Jerks, and Baker, an original member of the legendary Minor Threat (and also in Dag Nasty, Junkyard and Government Issue) are the newest members and both have been in Bad Religion for years.
I was curious how Baker, who by his own admission, has "been there and done that" would explain how and why a band like Minor Threat ceased to exist, yet Bad Religion not only continues, but actually becomes more successful with each new album.
"One of the things about Minor Threat, is that the myth is a lot bigger than the actuality," Baker says. "Minor Threat broke up in 1983, yet we were much bigger in 1986 than we were when we broke up. So if you look back in time, we were aware that we were a national act, but we had absolutely no idea of the profile that we would have years later than that. We were kids when we broke up. I was 18 and we broke up for kid reasons. Bad Religion benefitted from never breaking up, and continuing to stick in there and work through 18 years, and that I think explains why I am talking to you now in Bad Religion as opposed to Minor Threat. I really like the Bad Religion thing. It’s a lot of fun, and having a really good singer [Graffin] helps. It’s one of those pieces to the puzzle that’s really hard to find."
But is it still possible to be punk after all these years?
"We’re still a punk band, and we put out punk rock music. However, I wouldn’t qualify the members of the band as punk rockers, necessarily, but that’s really just a product of age and experience. As you get older, it’s easier to understand your rage, to a degree, and try to funnel it in more productive ways. And so I think what we wound up doing was that rather than take over an abandoned building and complain about the government, we’ve focused on the musical output."
With punk having more of a foot in the past, and the alternative scene being more connected to today, a band like Bad Religion could be caught in the nether region between the two worlds.
"I don’t really feel that we are in a nether world because we are very well aware that we are a punk rock band," Baker says. "Maybe the fluctuations as to what would be called an alternative market are really more product of, after all these years, that you actually learn to play your instruments, and you learn a little more about songwriting. But when it comes down to it, we’re still a punk rock band. And I’m comfortable with where we are."
If indeed the early days of punk were not only about spiked hair, but also about the angst of a band like Black Flag, then what about the punk scene of today? Baker explained his perspective.
"Punk rock has always had a sense of community, and having something more than just the music itself. It also implies a lifestyle, to a degree, and what I’ve noticed now is the lack of danger involved in it. In 1980, before you found punk rock imagery in fashion and in print ads and in television, you would be denied access to a city bus in Washington DC because your hair was a strange color. There was much more of a rebel aspect to it, and you tended to bond tightly to people who were of your ilk, because you felt it was you small people against the world. And now I think it’s much more commonplace, at least the visual aspect of identifying with the punk rock movement. No one gives you a second look, and it’s very hard to provoke people with your visual style because it’s all been done."
Given the leap across time that Bad Religion has made, they now draw fans from nearly all age groups. "We do get really young kids who have just discovered this world, and they’re still in the throes of excitement. They have that glow." says Baker. "We still have the guys who grew up with us who may not even look the part anymore, but you can just tell by looking into someone’s eyes to see what’s up with that. We have a total cross-section."
With the advent of grunge, punk’s cousin, and the spawning of the entire alternative scene, a veteran band like Bad Religion has a unique view of today’s music scene.
"I’m as unexcited by today’s major market music as I was about the Foghat and Foreigner era that beget my punk rock experience," Baker admits. "Stuff that is basically created for mass consumption still rarely jumps out with something special for me. You can still find gems through all this though. I remember distinctly the first time I heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ I was in my car which only had an AM radio, and I instantly knew that things were going to change. I thought that Nirvana was absolutely amazing. It was a defining moment."
A defining moment for Bad Religion comes this summer when it headlines the 1998 version of the Warped tour, which makes a stop in San Diego at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on July 1.
"We’re real excited about the Warped Tour. We have friends in other bands who have been on the last couple, and they say it’s one of the best tours."
This year’s version of the Warped Tour includes something very different — a pirate radio station at each show.
"We’re going to set up a tent with a pirate radio station in it, and people can come play their demo tapes, and all kind of stuff like that. The station will hook into a different local frequency depending on what area we are in. It’s going to be real fun."
For fans who wish to see the band in a more intimate
setting, Bad Religion will also come to San Diego before The Warped Tour as part of a West Coast club tour. They’ll appear May 3 at Cane’s.
And after 18 years, how long can Bad Religion go on?
"We can continue as long as we’re viable," says Baker. "And as long as we don’t put out any records that suck."
German transcript updated
English transcript added
English transcript added
Article added: Fracture #19
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