by Jeff Brown
"I honestly think that this band will go on as long as there is something for us to say and we don't mind saying it together," Bobby Schayer of SoCal punk rock legends Bad Religion says from his hotel room in Sacramento. The drummer and his band currently share the stage with upstarts Blink-182 and are having a helluva good time doing it. "We've made it 20 years together and actually are showing no signs of slowing down. From the early days in the San Fernando Valley to today's current whereabouts, we just keep making music that we all enjoy making. I don't think that there is anything wrong with a twenty-something punk rock band, do you?"
Probably not, as long as said punk band continues to make relevant, critically praised music. With roots deeper than Alex Haley and a reputation for being true to its upbringing, Bad Religion plays with a vitality that belies its age. Schayer says that geographic diversity provides a fountain of youth of sorts for the band, allowing it to maintain an upbeat attitude that is reflected on its peppy recent release, The New America.
"Right now we are having the time of our lives," Schayer offers with as much conviction as Jennifer Warnes. "I think that at this moment, we are a better, happier band than ever before in the history of Bad Religion -- at least as long as I've been in the group, which is a little over 10 years now. I think we've finally found the recipe for success as a musical outfit, and that's to actually not live in the same place as the rest of the band.... I live in Seattle, Washington; Greg Graffin (lead singer/ writer/doctoral candidate in evolutionary biology) lives in Ithaca, New York; Jay Bentley (bassist) lives in Vancouver, British Columbia; Greg Hetson (guitarist/inventor of punk rock karaoke) calls Austin, Texas, home; and Brian Baker (guitarist) lives somewhere in Washington, D.C. The secret is that we only get together when there are enough musical ideas to do so, and, therefore, we don't get on each other's nerves as much anymore. Every time Bad Religion reconvenes, it's like a family reunion."
The latest reunion resulted in the band's lucky 13th album. The New America is the band's fifth for Atlantic Records, and it marks something of a departure. The quintet teamed with legendary musician and producer Todd Rundgren, the studio genius behind such artists as New York Dolls, XTC, Cheap Trick, Badfinger, Foghat, and Meat Loaf.
"I'd heard horror stories about his struggles with other bands, and I'll admit I went into the recording sessions with more than a bit of reservation," Schayer says. "But when we actually got around to working together, Todd was amazing. He doesn't exactly tell you what to do in any given situation; he just sort of asks you what your options are and makes you look at your approach from a variety of different angles."
"I don't want to work with a band just to add them to my list of accomplishments," Rundgren said prior to his June KC concert. "With Bad Religion, and Greg in particular, I saw a chance to challenge the band to redefine what it is that they do together, to broaden their horizons. Before the band ever came to my studio, Greg and I were communicating ideas back and forth, testing the waters. I think I helped Bad Religion look at what they do from a different perspective. Any band that's been together for 20 years occasionally needs someone like me to do that for them."
Schayer counters, "We all appreciated his honesty and his musical input, but when it came right down to it, Todd Rundgren wasn't a pushy producer. He helped us make a new record with a new vision, and we enjoyed the process. The fact that his studio was located on the remote tropical Hawaiian island of Kauai didn't hurt much either."
A cameo by guitarist Brett Gurewitz, one of the act's founding members, added religious significance to this recording session in paradise. It marked his first appearance on a Bad Religion record since 1994's Stranger Than Fiction. Gurewitz had left the band to focus on his burgeoning business, Epitaph Records, the label he started to put out Bad Religion records. By the early '90s, he had grown to be a major player in the music industry through his partnership with such bands as The Offspring, Rancid, Pennywise, and NOFX.
"It was really nice to have Brett back with the band," affirms Schayer. "Epitaph Records really took off during the last decade, and he had a family, a wife, and two kids that he really wanted to be around a lot more than us. So it sort of made sense when he left the band, but it did cause a rift for a while. Some feelings were hurt, maybe even some bridges burnt. So when he and Greg got together to write 'Believe It,' it was a relief. When he came in and helped record (the song) and soloed on it, that felt like old times. It was as if no time had passed and Brett was still out on the road slugging it out with us."
The band prolongs its continual slugging match, touring with Blink-182 and Fenix TX for the better part of the spring months. The trio's Kansas City show is one of the last of the excursion. Despite the fact that some might expect friction between the younger groups, which revel in sub-Road Trip juvenile humor, and the terminally serious band behind such songs as "The Voracious March of Godliness," Schayer claims conflicts have been minimal.
"The tour with the 182 boys has been really good," he says. "In fact, it has gone better than we thought it would. A lot of people criticized us for doing it, but we didn't care. We realized that the people coming to see the band were not exactly Bad Religion's fanbase, and we wanted to capitalize on that. We've had a lot of kids come up to us after the show and tell us stuff like they'd 'heard of us but hadn't heard us,' which is kind of what we expected and wanted. We are playing to crowds of 10,000 or more a night of receptive and new punk rock kids. If we can just reach a fraction of them, if we can get a couple hundred kids to go check out a Bad Religion record, then we win. Some might call that selling out. I don't. I'd call it do-it-yourself marketing."
Regardless of whether the group's new punk-rock outreach program is working, Bad Religion's trek across the nation hasn't been all easy pickings. "It's been really hard trying to figure out what to play every night," Schayer says, laughing. "You try and squish 20 years of music into a 40-minute opening slot and see what happens.... Whatever the case, Bad Religion is currently lined up to be on the road for the next year or so, and beyond that, we'll just have to see. As long as it's still fun, we're in it for the long haul."