Bad Religion have not only been America’s most exciting punk band for the last 17 years, since returning in 1988 with Suffer, but they’ve been the most lyrically fascinating as well. This triple threat of singer Greg Graffin and guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s superior songs, continually contentious lyrical matter,and Graffin's sensational singing has trounced their copious imitators. And since Gurewitz’s return to the band after a seven-year absence, they’ve seemed completely and totally invigorated---nay, "burning"--- with all that’s made them such a juggernaut of musical power on the one hand and consummate social critique on the other. How amazing it is, that they’re as inspiring now as they were on their 1981 debut EP or their classic 1982 first LP, How Can Hell Be Any Worse!?
Indeed, with five of their first six LPs newly remastered and reissued, and a fierce new LP in The Empire Strikes First, there’s never been a more opportune time to speak with the two songwriters. As the title of the new LP implies, Graffin and Gurewitz have unleashed an LP brimming not only with their usual killer melodies and “ooohs” and “ahhhs” backing vocals, but their words have never felt more consequential than they do at this moment, 24 years into their long and respected career. And with a gold LP in 1994’s Stranger Than Fiction, they’ve proven their appeal to alternative rock fans in general.)
As noted below, fans looked forward to The Empire Strikes First because it was certain Bad Religion would have a lot to say on the current charged political climate, given their established perspective and long experience. Sure enough, as discussed in our #3 review last issue, the two have captured the apprehension of living under a hard-right Bush II administration for four years, one that inarguably betrayed every campaign vow of moderate Republicanism its leader made---while pursuing a religious slant so troubling it led the country's scientists to sign papers of protest.
Since these very topics were implicitly discussed on their previous eleven LPs, Bad Religion were bound to unleash the intelligent, unsuppressed, sarcastic rage of The Empire Strikes First. We spotlighted some of the lyrics last issue, like on "Let Them Eat War" ("that's how you ration the poor"), and the title track's "We strike first/And we're unrehearsed/Here we go ahead, this day's the greatest show on heaven and earth/C'mon and get your money's worth!" and "Even 10 million souls marching in February couldn't stop the worst/Ca-ca-ca-cacouldn't reverse." Additionally, the LP's centerpiece and fantastic radio single "Los Angeles is Burning" used the catastrophic L.A. fires of 2003 to critique shortsighted environmental manipulation (a specialty of Graffin's, with his Ph.D. from Cornell in evolutionary biology, though it was written by Gurewitz): "Palm trees are candles in the murder wind/So many lives are on the breeze/Even the stars are ill at ease." Other highlights include the plaintive plea of "Atheist Peace" (the opposite of fundamentalist extremism), its sister track "God's Love," and the related suicide bomber critique "Live Again---The Fall of Man."
For Bad Religion, their music and songwriting process are completely intertwined; the two explain below how, now that their partnership has resumed, they use each other to vet their new songs. And since this is my fifth BT interview with them, going back to 1989, it's my latest chance to plead for a reissue of the disowned but now (interestingly enough!) more respected second LP 1983's lnto The Unknown. Once again I had little luck, even as the original vinyl copies of the LP fetch three digits. Sadly, songs such as "Chasing the Wild Goose" will remain unheard to all but the tiniest minority of fans.
ln any case, the G&G boys have a lot to impart on a wide range of topics, so let's get to it. But pick up the new LP and 2001's The Process of Belief ;they'reproof of how punks turning 40 can still beat the tar out of groups young enough to be their kids, and how blistering and vital they remain. And check out the improved new versions of their early 1982-1992 LPs; they're wonderful and thrilling records too!
This interview took place in the Epitaph Records L.A. conference room, with Gurewitz taking a long break from running that powerhouse label, and Graffin joining on speakerphone f rom his house in lthaca, NY.Thanks to Hilary at Epitaph for arranging this and setting up the speaker so that we could all talk together.
JACK: So let’s talk first about the new LP before we get to the reissues.
BRETT: I’m pretty proud of it, actually. It’s hard to make a good record that will satisfy fans without being the same record you’ve done for so long.
JACK: I said in my review that “Los Angeles is Burning” is kind of the “American Jesus” on this album, an instant single. I just heard it on the radio driving here, on 103.1.
BRETT: Cool man, thanks. I like that one a lot; for me the true joy of that song was having Mike Campbell play on it, from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. He does all the lead guitars and the solo---that kind of Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind” [sings guitar part of the great Australian band’s 1967 #16 hit] part. So I’m really happy with how that came out.
JACK: Is that one of yours? My advance copy doesn’t say who wrote what, but I guessed that was you, from my experience listening to your songs.
BRETT: Yes that’s one of mine. If it’s shamelessly poppy, it’s probably me. [both laugh]
JACK: When I was here in L.A. six months ago, I was doing a Weirdos interview and their singer John Denney almost lost his house in those fires out here. He got back and there was a note from a fireman that said something like, “We saved your house.”
JACK: It seems like there's this stupid environmental policy where the developers and city planners just say “Screw nature, we’ll put millions of people in the desert where there’s no water and steal all the water from everywhere else"--- like the way L.A. stole the Owens River [see the late Mark Reisner’s 1993 book, Cadillac Desert; the American West and its Disappearing Water] and later the Colorado River. "Then later all the placed that are natural firewalls, we’ll tear those down and build tract housing.” Is that an underlying message behind the song?
BRETT: No, it's just one. It’s a very deep song and actually a political song. That’s probably the top level, which is that L.A. is burning literally and does so terribly every two years. [Note, a week after this interview there were new wildfires south of Cerritos in L.A] We just lived through the worst case of it, and the disregard for nature and the hubris---the overbearing pride, if you will---of culture. On the other level, it’s a comment on the way that people in this country have their world view tilted by the way reality is depicted on television, and using L.A., the media Mecca, as the setting for a story about that.
JACK: I was really looking forward to getting this record just for the lyric sheet. Your band has always made me think about things of that sort, and this is a particularly crucial time for such issues, obviously, with the Iraq war and the Bush administration.
BRETT: I’m pretty proud of the lyrics this year, and I also think Greg’s are some of his best lyrics ever. He just wrote his [doctoral] thesis this year, and he had a lot of notes and thoughts that were still very fresh that he could draw upon because he defended his thesis this year. His lyrics were more concerned with those kinds of issues about belief and religion. My lyrics were far more political. But it makes for a nice dynamic on this record.
JACK: Which are both intertwined at the moment!
BRETT: More intertwined now more than ever! They're two topics that have always been intertwined in our work---right from our first 7-inch. It was a little less sophisticated back then, but it still made for a good brew.
JACK: I connect Greg’s new song “Atheist Peace” to songs over the years like “Bad Religion,” “God Song,” and “The Voice of God Is Government."
BRETT: As we touch upon these timeless topics that we use every couple of years in the new record, rather than it getting stale, it almost feels like, at least in terms of Greg’s writing, he’s really refined it, made an art of it. If you have an "Atheist Peace" instead of a religious war, it’s quite brilliant. Who would have thought about it other than Greg?
JACK: A lot of interviews I’ve done lately, with The Pernice Brothers and Killing Joke and Poster Children and Modest Mouse… With such totally different bands, we don’t introduce the topic, but they’ve all been going to leaps and bounds to say how moved they are by this being election year and how they want to do everything they can to be involved in the process and get rid of the current administration. My thought was, where was a lot of this comment two years ago, before the Iraq war, when the administration took office and showed its hand, so to speak? Bad Religion was one of the few bands that was speaking out back then, on The Process of Belief, especially on “Kyoto Now.”
BRETT: That record was written before 9/11 took place. And 9/11 was the reason that political dissent was silenced. Everyone was afraid to express anything negative about this country in the weeks and months just after 9/11. We, on the other hand, with our long history of dissent, did not hesitate. The record was critical of the U.S., but written before 9/11, and I actually watched it [9/11] in the studio while I was mixing The Process of Belief, so it was already too late to comment on the current events. The interviews we did the week of 9/11, we weren’t in any way pulling back, as most people were back then. It’s only just starting that it’s more acceptable again. I think the country’s never been more conservative or more nationalistic than it is now. In my lifetime, certainly not. It’s a swing to the right that’s more extreme than I’ve ever seen. I can only hope that it’s a pendulum and that the bright side will be that when it swings back left, it will swing back to compensate even farther than it’s ever swung. I don’t know if that works that way in politics.
JACK: There’s such a power and money dynamic involved here, with the forces of big business and big money siding with the Republicans for the most part [since their policies are tacitly more favorable for the wealthy and powerful], that you wonder if there’s forces preventing that from happening?
BRETT: I think there definitely are, and I think the current administration and the conservative power brokers are extremely sophisticated manipulators in the media, better than anyone before them. Certainly Karl Rove.
JACK: These people make Ronald Reagan look like a piker.
BRETT: I’m telling you. No question. And George Bush.
JACK: One of the things I found interesting is when the Iraq war began, I couldn’t stop playing the Generator record you made back then. [both laugh] Now of course, that record’s been newly reissued, with the two main tracks I’m referring to [“Heaven is Falling” and “Fertile Crescent”] as bonus tracks, so that they’re there on the new CD even twice, in case you missed it the first time.
BRETT: It’s good for you to mention that, because we opposed the first Gulf War, a popular war, which was actually sanctioned by the U.N. and did have an international coalition behind it, which this one did not. At the time I had my reasons, but I just didn’t feel that it was worth risking American lives to restore monarchy.
JACK: Most people don’t mention that aspect.
BRETT: It had nothing to do with democracy. We basically put a king back on his throne.
JACK: An oil sheik regime.
BRETT: Yeah, we put an oil sheik back on his throne. Well, the real interesting thing to look at it was…We had a Bush in power: the economy was fucked, he was cutting taxes for the rich and attacking Iraq. Now, it’s 12 years later: the economy is fucked, we have a Bush in power. He’s cutting taxes only for the rich and he’s attacking Iraq. It’s like, “Whoa! Wait a minute here! Is this deja-vu, or does nothing ever change in the U.S.?”
JACK: I’m just glad that he doesn’t have a son. [both laugh]
Brett: No shit! I guess the only other real difference is that there is no cold war anymore for this one. And it's much more dangerous to go out there unilaterally attacking helpless countries.
JACK: I wonder if the occasion of these reissues is a chance for you to rediscover some of your oldest records, or do you just normally play them anyway?
BRETT: No, I don’t normally play them, and I definitely have to rediscover them. What I found is that the one I really like is No Control. That’s the one that, if you go back through all of them, really held up nicely for me. I like them all OK, I’m really proud of my body of work, but I thought No Control was pretty awesome. That’s an overall really strong, consistent, high-energy punk rock record. Every time I sit down to write a Bad Religion record, I kind of revisit my old records...
JACK: And immerse yourself in your catalog.
BRETT: Yeah, a little bit, to give myself a sense of perspective.
JACK: On the Stranger Than Fiction record, I remember you wrote a song loosely modeled after an Elvis Costello kind of song.
BRETT: Maybe my favorite song I wrote. You’re talking about “Stranger Than Fiction?” Another one that I wrote which I tried to model after that kind of thing, although I’m not as great a writer as him, was “Atomic Garden.” I think “Stranger Than Fiction” was more successful, although I like both songs.
JACK: I always thought it was the strength of Bad Religion’s that it had influences beyond punk rock. It’s always shown in your writing more than modern punk bands that base of influence is so much narrower.
BRETT: Oh yeah, I almost never listen to punk rock. [both laugh]
JACK: I promise not to blow that up as a pullout quote. [both laugh]
BRETT: Thanks. I promised to be honest, though. I’ve always had diverse tastes. I listen to lots of kinds of music. You can’t listen to one kind of music straight for 20 years. Now with punk rock, we’re in the third or fourth generation of it.
JACK: 27 years after we bought our first punk records, I'm supposed to say I don't like what the kids are playing, because that’s the way it always goes. But it does seem fair to say that those playing punk today have less of that multi-dimensional influence, which makes their music more narrow.
BRETT: Right. I make it a policy not to say anything bad about the new crop of punk rock bands.
JACK: With your label, that strikes me as being both prudent and generous. What is it like listening to something like How Could Hell Be Any Worse these days, now that you’ve remastered and reissued it? You nicely namechecked it on the new LP, on “Los Angeles is Burning.”
BRETT: I’ve gone through some different feelings about it, but now I think it’s really cool. Maybe it’s because garage is so popular now, but we really sound like a garage band more than a punk band. I always used to think, “This sounds so crappy. It sounds kind of unprofessional and juvenile.” I used to feel that way years ago about the time of the Suffer record, when I tried to make that record sound better. But now when I listen to How Could Hell Be Any Worse, I think, “Man, that’s actually pretty cool!” I listen to it today and it sounds exciting and raw and I like it again. The remasters sound cool.
JACK: All of them I thought were upgraded.
BRETT: A lot louder, anyway. Digital dithering was just so crappy in like ’88, when we started playing everything on CD. It mostly sounded grainy and quiet. We actually dug out the master tapes, not the multi-tracks, but the two tracks, to remaster it.
JACK: Did you personally oversee that yourself?
BRETT: Yeah. It was fun.
JACK: You must have been like, 19 years old when you made the first album.
BRETT: 18. On the 7-inch, I was 17 and Greg was 15.
JACK: Damn! [Brett laughs] You were babies. It’s like looking at an old photo album and barely recognizing yourself.
BRETT: I know. Exactly. [Greg Graffin joins the chat, on speaker-phone from his home in Ithaca, NY]
JACK: Brett was just paying you a great compliment on your lyrics to “Atheist Peace.”
GREG: Oh, you were? Thank you, Brett!
BRETT: You’re welcome. You missed every word of it. [all laugh]
GREG: These are some of Brett’s greatest lyrics also on the album.
JACK: Ah, synchronicity! I think this one is even more lyric-intensive than your albums usually are.
Only 1/3 of the interview is displayed here. The rest of the interview can be found in The Big Takeover #55 (Vol. XXV, no.2, 2004), which is available as a back issue.