LA short-hairs BAD RELIGION have sold a few zillion albums without anyone's help or permission! Openly endorsed by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, they've nevertheless done things their own way. As the world's biggest Hardcore combo hit Blighty, JASON ARNOPP catches the fearsome foursome in the midst of corporate cornball toss in Hamburg...
"I DON'T believe Richard Branson exists!" comments diminutive guitarist-cum-Woody-Allen-lookalike Greg Hetson, strolling slowly by.
Bad Religion have just participated in a farcical interview/signing session for the opening of a brand new Virgin Megastore in Hamburg. Now, they're waiting for Mr Branson to turn up for a photo session, twiddling their thumbs in a room containing professional imitators of Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston, plus someone in an enormous Sonic The Hedgehog costume and a wacky German who delights in twisting balloons into various outlandish shapes.
Here are Bad Religion, the world's most intelligent Hardcore combo, trapped in a room full of cornball corporate toss. Branson never shows.
Bad Religion are widely perceived as college professors with loud guitars, and this is almost true in one case. Singer Greg Graffin is an undergraduate teacher's assistant at a New York university, aiming for a degree in zoology, and specialising in palaeontology (the study of fossils).
WHEN THE band get together, prepare for a battle of the brains. Discussion tends to be loud, mainly conducted between Bad Religion's two songwriters, Graffin and blue-barnetted guitarist Brett Gurewitz.
"Branson's selling music -- he's not exploiting peasants in Third World countries for their labour!" laughs bassist Jay, when asked whether they have a problem with Virgin's enormo-cash monstrosity. "There's a difference between opening a Virgin Megastore and helping to build a missile guidance system!"
"People use 'multi-national corporation' as a general, derogatory term," notes Brett, who also runs the band's US homebase label, Epitaph, in an unusual arrangement. "But what's so good about keeping money in your own country? That's nationalism, isn't it?"
What would America be like, with Bad Religion at the tiller?
"I think I could do a better job than Clinton or Reagan!" reckons bold Brett. "I'm pretty sure any of us could. Anyone who wants to vote for me, feel free!"
"Once you get to that level," reasons Graffin in his cool, analytical tone, "sensible decisions are meaningless. I think we're all sensible, but it's so multi-tiered."
Continues Brett: "It brings up the question of whether a non-politician could do a better job as president than a politician. I say, 'Fuck, yeah!'. We should make it illegal for politicians to become president! They have their political careers at stake."
"If Bad Religion were president, it probably wouldn't be much different," smiles Graffin. "Except we wouldn't be so worried about making rash decisions and losing our job!"
BAD RELIGION started generating their highly harmonised Hardcore with the influential 'How Could Hell Be Any Worse?' album in 1981. After knocking chunks out of LA alongside the likes of Circle Jerks and Black Flag for a few years, they later split after a disastrous second album ('Into The Unknown'), which featured keyboards and acoustic guitar.
'Suffer' was their excellent come-back platter in '88, and since then we've had 'No Control', 'Against The Grain', 'Generator', and now 'Recipe For Hate', which features minor guest vocals from no less than Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.
If there's ever a criticism of Bad Religion, it's usually that the band's songs are a touch samey.
Jay: "If that's the worst thing you can say about us, then it's a compliment! When you have over 120 songs, there's bound to be some overlap, but at least we have a style."
Brett is less conciliatory: "To me, there's a world of difference between every one of our songs. But we're not like David Bowie, where we re-invent ourselves for every record -- one of the things I like about us is our continuity..."
CORNERED LATER, Greg Graffin explains his (bad) religious leanings.
"Atheist is too a strong a word for what I am. I'm not completely adamant that there is no God, but I'm not an agnostic. It's just that if I made a choice, I'd say there's no God.
"You're brought up hearing that God never lets anything bad happen, but there's so much suffering in the world...it just doesn't make sense!"
The name Bad Religion, explains the singer, is "a metaphor".
"We're not against people going to church on Sunday! Religion encompasses a lot of things -- like people thinking the States is the greatest, or that white people should dominate the globe.
"Compared to a lot of bands, our name isn't offensive any more. When we started, it was a far more conservative era. Televangelism was massive.
"Our song 'American Jesus' is about the supposition that Jesus treats America differently than other countries. During the Gulf War, George Bush said, 'We'll win, because God is on our side!'. What an amazing statement!"
GET BRETT Gurewitz on his own, and he'll tell you about the way he left the band back in '85 to, "pursue my drug career even more diligently! I was doing LSD, coke, heroin... I was a garbage disposal unit! I also wanted to be an engineer, so I ended up working with hundreds of cool bands."
Now all that's behind him, what do he and Bad Religion do for kicks on the road?
"We used to be a little more wild..." he slowly begins. "Nowadays, I do a lot of reading! Today, we had a football match against the crew. Just good, wholesome activities -- one of my other hobbies is chess!"
Bad Religion don't have any pornography on their bus. At the moment.
"Last year we had a great tape," admits the six-stringer. "Traci Lords is one of my favourites. Even though I'm a feminist, I must say I'm hypocritical, cos I'm kind of a fan of porn! In Germany, they have a star called Dolly Buster, who's sort of a turbo sex cyborg. Maybe we should go shopping later..."
BRETT DYES his hair blue for a reason.
"While I'm running Epitaph Records, I have to deal with the corporate world. This is my small way of saying that you can still be different and do well. You don't have to wear a suit 'n' tie and be a drone.
"All our success is very wonderful and all that, but it has very little to do with how hard I work at it. I'm gonna write songs, no matter what.
"I just happen to have the good luck that a lot of fuckin' people like it!"
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
English transcript updated: Bad Religion Reflect on 40 Years Together
Article image(s) added: Hartbeat #10
Article added: Hartbeat #10
German transcript added: Age of Unreason
Review added: Age of Unreason
English transcript added: The Genius Of... The Process Of Belief By Bad Religion
Review added: The Genius Of... The Process Of Belief By Bad Religion
English transcript updated: Bad Religion: Il Mito Hardcore
Article image(s) added: Metal Hammer February 2002