Interview with Brian Baker - by Sev / Bucketmag.com
Sev: First of all, I want to thank you so much for doing this.
BR (Brian): Sure man, it's no problem at all.
Sev: Bad Religion has recently reunited with Brett [Gurewitz]. How do you feel that has affected the band musically?
BR: Well, it's made the songs better, because he's an incredibly great songwriter. He wrote most of my favorite Bad Religion songs before I was in the band, and once it was made clear that his return had nothing to do with me retaining my position after eight years of being in Bad Religion, I was jubilant. I love the way Brett writes, and there's a healthy competition between Brett and Greg [Graffin]. It makes Greg step up to the plate, and it just resulted in the best album that we've put out since I've been in the band.
Sev: He must have been really excited to come back because I think it's the only band he's ever been in.
BR: Yeah, it really is. It was the perfect timing for everybody- for him in his personal life, for us in our world it was time to decide if we were going to sign back to Atlantic or do another record label. It's so awesome that with Brett returning we also have the owner of our record label in the band, which doesn't suck. So it was really an opportune thing for everybody, and it's good to have him back. I just wish he could play with us more, but he has this label to run. He played New York, and I think he's going to play a couple of other shows, but it's tough for him right now. This is a big time at Epitaph, so he won't be here tonight. It's more fun when he's on stage too, obviously. A three-guitar army cannot be denied.
Sev: I know, how do you guys divide up the solos?
BR: I still do everything.
Sev: Was it Brett's return that motivated you to come back to Epitaph?
BR: Specifically, yes. It's just logical. That way, we didn't have to even spend five seconds thinking about it. There's no bidding war, no this and no that. It's just like, "Yeah, let's do this." It was a no-brainer.
Sev: And how is it being back on the label that was originally created by Bad Religion for Bad Religion?
BR: We're certainly aware of how appropriate it is to be returning to the label that everybody started. It's also the best label for the kind of music we play on earth. There is no better label for us to be on. Unless we can find another one, we'll stay here.
Sev: Do you think your days in Atlantic were more of a positive thing or a negative thing?
BR: Positive, they were great. A label exists to make sure the records are in the stores, and they did a good job. I have no animosity towards them at all. It literally was that our contract had come up and it was like, "Okay, what do you want to do?" There was no negative thing from that.
Sev: Would you say that the dynamics of labels are the same with Epitaph as with major labels?
BR: Well, Epitaph has become a pretty big operation. It's much different than the Epitaph the band was on when it started.
Sev: It certainly is one of the biggest independent labels.
BR: Yeah, it definitely is. The things run pretty similar. Independent is really defined by the fact that it's not owned by a conglomerate, and they choose their distributors based on who's effectively going to put records where, as opposed to being united to this cabal of preexisting distribution systems. But as far as the functioning of the label on a day to day basis, Epitaph has a promotions department, a radio department, and it's exactly the same to be quite honest, except for in Epitaph's case, possibly staffed by people who are a little more passionate. Epitaph is a punk rock label, and the people who work there are people who love that kind of music. They're not forced to work some Nelly Furtado they don't like, and that's the problem with Atlantic or any major, when you have such a wide variety of groups. Epitaph is purpose driven- it exists in order to put out good punk records, and so they have employees who also want to succeed in that role, and that makes it a little more opportune for a band like Bad Religion.
Sev: Tell us a little bit about this tour with Less than Jake and Hot Water Music.
BR: It's been a lot of fun. Both bands are really good, which is nice. I really like Hot Water Music and Less than Jake.
Sev: Both of those bands are headliners in their own right.
BR: Yeah, they really are and that was kind of the point of this- to make it really exciting for everybody to come out, and it's also fun for us. It's nice to tour with bands that you enjoy, 'cause you see them 40 times. It's a little selfish but it's true. It's been going really well, and every show has been sold out. That's nice.
Sev: It seems that fans, especially now, are rabid about Bad Religion.
BR: Well, it helps when you put out a good record.
Sev: Let's actually talk a little bit about the record. I personally think it's Bad Religion's best record. I would say that unlike your last couple of albums, which all had great songs, this one seems more focused, and more of a complete record, instead of a bunch of songs put together.
BR: Exactly. I absolutely feel that way, and it's really simple. Greg Graffin is a great songwriting, and it's really hard to write 16 songs that are really, really strong. When you're splitting the work up, it just makes for better quality. We're keenly aware that there'd be a lot of excitement about Brett returning and being on Epitaph, so [we] really wanted to make a supreme effort into making a cohesive and really powerful record.
Sev: And it certainly was. Even the order of the songs is perfect. I can't find a single flaw in that record.
BR: Oh, I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. I'll have to say that more attention and care was given to this record than probably all of the Atlantic records combined because of the obvious fact that this was a put up or shut up record. This record was going to define the rest of what we do, and if we couldn't put out something that people really responded to in a positive way, it could have easily- you know, I don't want to slip into a band who goes out and plays songs that are 10 years old for money. That's not a good place to be.
Sev: Did you feel when you were making the record, "Wow, this is a really damn good record we're making here?"
BR: The whole time. Yeah, I was really well aware of that.
Sev: Brooks' [Wackerman] drumming sounds incredible in the album. How have the band dynamics changed since he joined the band, especially with him being much younger?
BR: He's an incredibly talented guy, and he can do things that no previous Bad Religion drummer has been able to do. Brett's keenly aware of like, "if you got it, flaunt it." He encouraged Brooks to really let out all the stops. He really is that good, and it's so exciting to play with someone who's got that kind of energy and who is that talented. As far as the personal dynamic, he slips right in. He's as nerdy as everybody else.
Sev: I saw you when you played at the Conan O'Brien show, and he sounded incredibly tight- tighter than most drummers do live.
BR: Well, he really is. He's a really amazing drummer. He comes from a long line of family full of drummers. He gives clinics and stuff- he's one of those guys. I'm glad he chose to also play in a punk rock band.
Sev: How was the whole Conan thing?
BR: I've done it so many times. It never seems like it's loud enough and you have to play in the middle of the day.
Sev: Does it ever seem that you're playing to no one there?
BR: Yeah. It seems like I'm doing a commercial, which is a necessary part of being on the level that Bad Religion is. The art stops when the record is finished, and from that point on, what you're really trying to do, is to make people aware that the record is out there. You have to do these things. Personally, I don't get really get a good kick out of being on television or making videos, or a lot of these other things that are part of the mechanics of getting people to know that there's a record out there, but even in this ideal job of being a guitar player for a really great punk band, there are things that aren't any fun, and for me that's one of them. I didn't start doing this for that. I like playing guitar. The most I have is when I'm on stage where I'm in this zone where it's just my box behind me and shooting this guitar at me, and it's louder than I can play at my apartment. That's the joy to me; it's just being able to really hear exactly what's going on and the whole dynamic of the performance, and when you're doing a song or two on television, usually through rented equipment, it's just not the same thing.
Sev: For a band that has always brought to light the negative aspects of religion, what's behind the title, "The Process of Belief?"
BR: Actually, in this case, "The Process of Belief" was just a title that sounded cool. It's a line from the song "Materialist." I really wish that I could formulate some sort of insightful explanation, but it's just a really cool sounding title, it's already part of the lyrics, and it's very Bad Religion.
Sev: I've heard a lot of people speculate about different meanings behind the title.
BR: Good, that's what it's there for. People can speculate all they want.
Sev: Are there any particular songs from the album that mean more to you than others, or any that you especially enjoy performing?
BR: Yeah. I like playing the rock operas a little bit more. I like "The Defense" and "Epiphany," because it's really challenging; especially playing those songs live, it's really fun. You're wrestling with a lot of music in a short period of time and different tonalities. I really enjoy them also lyrically- they're both songs that I think are really well put together. They really do provoke a lot of thought. You remember things after you've heard the songs as opposed to just being entertainment. So I like those, and I also like the modern trilogy, the first three fast songs on the record, which lately we've just been playing them all in a row live, which is really cool.
Sev: That will definitely get all the fans pumped and going.
BR: Yeah, it just seems like a great way to do those three songs- just don't screw around and just go all three at once. So that's always fun too.
Sev: Now that you mention those songs, the song "Supersonic," in particular, I wanted to ask you about the lyrics. It says, "How does it feel to be outstripped of the pace of cultural change," and "I gotta go faster, keep up the pace, just to stay in the human race." How would you say that those lyrics relate to Bad Religion right now?
BR: I don't think I'm the one to answer that, because I actually didn't write those lyrics. I know that when you're formulating an interview you don't know where you're going to be or who you're going to get, but when you're doing with what was the impetus for content, I really don't want to put my words in someone's mouth. When your lyrics are important you want the proper explanation and not just my interpretation.
Sev: How have the September 11th attacks affected the way that you write music, and just the way in which the way you view the world in general. I know the album was completed before September 11th.
BR: Yeah it was, but in a Bad Religion sense, Bad Religion has always certainly tried to get people to question our systems of government, but in doing so, Bad Religion has never been a nihilistic band or a fatalistic band. It was a pretty interesting situation when this came up, and we had already made this record that touched on a lot of these points.
Sev: Definitely, especially the song "Sorrow."
BR: Yeah, it was just so opportune. It almost felt weird. The prescence that Brett had, who wrote those lyrics...You have to choose your words carefully because you can't capitalize on a tragedy, which is a horrible thing, but on the other hand, I think that it's really nice that there was a song on there that...I don't know, in some ways it's kind of depressing, but when you look at it as a whole, it really isn't. There's almost this thread of optimism that runs through it that I think makes it especially appropriate. I don't know how it's going to affect future writing. It's such an enormous thing to think about, how serious the change has been. I live in Washington, DC, and just the way humans interact is so different now, because of these isolated terrorist acts, and this amazing power that those acts have- not just in a destructive sense, but just the way in which society reacts to it. I think that one thing that could definitely come up on the next Bad Religion record is some of the downsides of the way we humans have behaved in the light of this tragedy. On the one hand, I support this rousing call to arms and reawakening of patriotism, because there's nothing wrong with that. But once again, then you have people who use it as an opportunity to basically persecute other people, who are also Americans. I see a lot of that downside, and it just comes from people who are not cognizant and really have no idea what this whole melting pot concept is about. I can see Bad Religion being in a perfect position, especially knowing Brett and Greg and the way they think, to provide some scathing commentary that's appropriate to it. But it's touchy, because I don't think that there's anything wrong with an increased amount of patriotism, and people becoming more aware of the positive about being American. I just don't want it to be a lynching for the negative to get even.
Sev: I understand. It's interesting-I remember after the attacks seeing all these cars with American flags, when now, only six months later, it's much more rare to see such displays of patriotism. There is still a fair amount of patriotism, but it's definitely subsided.
BR: It's so American. "Oh okay, I guess we can take the flag down now." That's why I never put one up. I'm comfortable with my assessment the way things are.
Sev: Especially you living in DC, and Greg who lives in Ithaca, how did the attacks personally affect you?
BR: I was in DC at the time, and personally, my girlfriend's best friend's brother was in the World Trade Center and was killed. That wasn't too cool. Nobody else I knew was killed, but I have friends who worked in the Pentagon, who were actually two guys [in] part of the company that was reinforcing that particular part of the Pentagon that got hit. If you remember from the news stories that just uncannily this plane hit the one of five sides that had just been completely rebuilt and shorn up, and which was what made it so that the whole building didn't fall. My friend was one of the main people involved with that, so he was in that building, just somewhere else. It's just fucking insane, and the Pentagon is pretty centrally located. I live in DC, and I have to say that it's pretty strange to this day that every time I drive by that building, even as it's being rebuilt, it's certainly a frightening reminder. But you know what it was- it was like earthquake day. I lived in California for a long time, and the behavior of people- it was very earthquake- or riot-like. A lot of people walking, a lot bottled water being purchased, not a lot of talking.
Sev: I have some friends in DC, I don't really have a lot of friends in New York, but they were telling me that it was almost panic-like.
BR: Yeah, I live just a little bit north of downtown. Basically, my girlfriend, who worked downtown at the time, walked from downtown, and we sort of watched TV for a while. We're watching everything, made all the phone calls, we were able to get through to everybody we knew and what was going on, and we went and rented bad comedy movies- bad bad movies. I remember exactly what we rented, fucking "Joe Dirt." It was terrible, but we wanted to rent the most vacuous thing, and we just sat there watching this horrible movie trying to get your brain off this thing. She was waiting about her friend's brother; it was all a really unpleasant experience.
Sev: How is it actually being in a band whose members are spread all over the U.S. when it comes to rehearsing or writing the record?
BR: We don't rehearse at all.
Sev: You just come out and play?
BR: Yeah, we just kind of come out and play. The writing of it is pretty simple because Greg and Brett both have home studios, so they put together frameworks in their own studios and we all get tapes and get an idea of what the songs are going to be. In the case of "The Process of Belief," we did get together, after we'd all have these rough sketches, we all got together for a couple of weeks and really hammered out these songs, and added what real musicians add that you will never find in any drum machine or a ProTool guitar program.
Sev: Do you usually write your own solos?
BR: Yeah, I do all that. Brett and Greg both kind of understood early on that it's best to come up with a concept and then just sort of let me go. It seems to be working, it's really fun. There's lots of guitars on this record- so many different things; for me it's just like a kid in a candy store.
Sev: In 1998, you guys did a small club tour and you played here at the Middle East in Cambridge (MA). That is, to this day, my favorite show ever. Have you ever considered doing anything like that again?
BR: Actually we did for "The Process of Belief," it just happened to be in Europe this time. When these records are released they're released simultaneously all over the world, so this year we did that in Europe. Maybe next year we'll do it again in the United States, but you have to pick, because there's only so much a band can tour.
Sev: That show was amazing. It was the first time I saw you guys.
BR: Cool, well I'm glad you liked it. I remember it being a really good show.
Sev: You guys are playing the Warped tour this summer. You did it in 1998, so what are you most excited about those shows?
BR: I love the Warped Tour. I'm excited about it for purely selfish reasons. I love touring with NOFX- they're really good friends of ours, and we have a lot of fun together that has nothing to do with playing music. When I think of the Warped tour, it is exactly how everyone always says it- it's this crazy summer camp and everyone's got counselor power. There's never any end of things to do; you can bring a mountain bike, or whatever. It doesn't really feel like work, because everybody's playing 30 minutes, there's really no hierarchy, there's no real headliner per se, and it's different every day. It keeps it interesting, and for the people on the tour, there's no ego thing, no power thing, which you find in every situation when you have a bunch of bands all at the same level together. The Warped Tour seems to transcend that, and I just have a really good time. It really is a summer camp.
Sev: Do you usually play your set and go do your own stuff, do you watch other bands, or what's a typical day for you at Warped?
BR: It depends. On 1998 I watched the bands that I liked. When the bands came on that I didn't like, like if I heard a saxophone, no offense, I would run into the bus and hide.
Sev: I take it you're not into ska.
BR: No, I'm not into ska, but I will have to say in defense of our co-headlining act, Less than Jake, I don't define that as ska. I see those horns being used as another guitar, and that's why I like it.
Sev: Yeah, and Less than Jake doesn't really play as much ska anymore.
BR: No they don't. What I was really hiding from was more the Cherry Poppin' Daddies...
Sev: Oh, swing.
BR: Yeah, it was more a swing issue for me. Yeah okay, it's like 98 degrees in Omaha, 112% humidity, and you're in a fucking suit with a white carnation, and you're not holding an instrument that plugs in. Get the fuck out of here. And they were always dicks too, all the suit guys; they never hung out with anybody, they never ate together, they just hung out in their suits. It's like, dude, you're not fooling anybody. It's Warped tour; kids are smarter than that.
Sev: That whole thing with swing was over within like a year too.
BR: It was a short lived flirtation with just horrific bastardizations of what was actually pretty goddamn good music, but that's just my opinion, I may be wrong.
Sev: You've been doing this all your life. You were in Minor Threat, Dag Nasty; what, if any, would you say are the major differences of what you considered punk 20 years ago and what you consider punk today?
BR: Well, the most important thing is that in 1980 punk was an exclusive, small, dangerous community of like-minded individuals, and now it is no longer small, it is no longer dangerous, and in many cases it is not a community. On the upside, what I do like is that there are millions of people who are familiar with punk rock music now. I remember the first Minor Threat single sold like 800 copies, something like that. Minor Threat didn't become a big deal 'til way after we broke up. The scope of it, I'm impressed by. I think it really does say that there was something of some quality in this type of music that attracts people a bit, and that people are interested in. I miss that, being part of that tight-end community, but then again, I also miss being 15- can't do that either, so that's the main thing.
Sev: In today's world, what exactly is punk to you?
BR: It's hard. I think saying fuck in front of your mom and going to school naked is probably still punk. Walking into a deli and urinating on the cheese- that whole anarchy burger song of the Vandals, that still pretty much defines punk rock to me. I don't know, it's really hard to say. I'm definitely in a punk band, but I really can't say that I'm a punker anymore. I don't know if it's because I'm too old; I would hope that it has nothing to do with age. I think it's more that I have some reverence for that sense of community that comes from being part of a local scene, and because I'm no longer part of one, I almost feel it's like blasphemous for me to claim that I am. I live in Washington, and I can't tell you what cool bands are playing. I don't even know where to go to see them. Of course it's 'cause I'm gone all the time, and when I'm off tour maybe I'm not as interested in going down to the "Beef and Brew" and watching "The Exploding Chicken" play at 7:30 on a Sunday, but you got to do that if you're going to consider yourself, in my opinion, to consider yourself a punk rocker. I don't do that, so I don't think it's fair to use that title. There's so many ups and downs to it that's tough. All I know is when I was part of a little tiny scene and we didn't like outsiders, and if a band got popular we hated them, I thought it was the best thing in the world, so I know exactly what it's like to be on the other side of it, and you know what? I agree. People got pissed off when Green Day got really popular, and Green Day were still the same exact guys, and they weren't trying to do anything wrong. I know why people were pissed off at them, and I would have been pissed too if at that time I would have been that way. You know, I stopped watching NASCAR 'cause those fuckers sold out. I was a huge NASCAR fan, then I got really pissed off 'cause you had to have the country channel hooked up to watch it, they had too many drivers, the cars got all brightly colored, and then all of a sudden it wasn't cool anymore for me. It's exactly like punk rock, and I'm being the little indie kid. I don't watch NASCAR anymore; it's all bullshit. I don't know who these people are, and I don't want to see a Viagra car driving around a newly built racecar that didn't exist four years ago. Otherwise, I bear no one any ill will for choosing to only support virtually unknown bands that are significant to their own cities. I think that's totally fucking cool, and I don't expect to convert these people.
Sev: That's right, and you certainly can say that you've covered the whole spectrum, because you even toured with Blink, which is one of the biggest bands today.
BR: Yeah, totally, and that was cool too. I don't listen to their records. I like those people; they're very cool guys. It was a great tour, and I had a blast. I saw nothing strange about that. I keep getting interviews with people asking, "Isn't it weird opening for Blink?" It's like, "No, what are you talking about?"
Sev: I personally thought it was much weirder when you opened for Pearl Jam.
BR: That's weirder; yeah, that was way weirder. But still, the concepts were exactly the same. Let's see, these bands are our friends, they play to 30,000 people, they want us to come with them, they're going to overpay us, and we get to play music to people who have never seen us before, but know that we're supposed to be cool. Oh yeah, I'm into Bad Religion. Can you name a song? No, but I'm aware that I'm supposed to like them, so you actually get to play in front of them. What a surprise. You go and play with Pearl Jam or Blink 182 for a month and then, all of a sudden, a lot of people start buying the "Suffer" record, and "Recipe for Hate" record. And that was the whole point; it's to spur people into going, "check this out," and that's why we're doing it. The whole purpose of this entire game is make music and you make records because you want people to hear what you say. I don't care if you download them, I don't care if you borrow them. This is not about buying a product- it's about a message and the best way to get your shit out there. Go play to 30,000 strangers. And if 1,000 of them go, "Jesus Christ, what was that?" the next thing you know they're fucking online and they're checking it out. That's the whole point.
Sev: This is a question I ask every band that I interview. What are the last three bands that actually caught your attention and really blew you away?
BR: Supergrass. Blew me away is wrong, because I don't really like The Strokes, but they sure caught my attention.
Sev: I've heard so many things about that band, and I've never heard their music. They seem to have come out of nowhere.
BR: Yeah, it's a good hype machine. The record's okay too. Supergrass when they first came out it was really exciting to me. It was very interesting, and to the people who weren't willing to just suck the Oasis cock, Supergrass was really cool when that hit. Well, to show how often I buy new music, that must have been a 1995 discovery.
Sev: Do you usually listen to music?
BR: No, not at all. The stuff I like is mid-20th century American country music. I like Hank Williams, George Jones, The Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys. I don't really listen to the radio, and I don't really buy records. I really like music, it's just that I'm not up on what's going on, and I don't really think I need to be. It's just the way it is. I'd love to say that I'm standing in line waiting for the new Sum 41 record, but I really could give two hot fucks. Maybe it's because it's my job, I don't know what it is. I like stuff that you can't get anymore. I don't know, maybe I'm becoming my own little exclusive club of guys who like this weird music from guys who are dead and you can't see them perform anyways.
Sev: What can we expect from Bad Religion in the coming months?
BR: We're going to go to Europe. Actually, after this tour we have a couple of weeks off, and when we come back we'll do the Warped Tour. There's a lot more world to cover now. We have to do South America, Australia, Japan...We're going to be busy well into next year, and gee, guess what, we'll probably make another record, and continue to do this as long as what we're doing we believe is of quality and other people concur.
Sev: I heard some rumors a little while ago that you guys were considering playing Puerto Rico. That's where I'm from, so I heard from people down there that you may be coming. Is there any veracity to that?
BR: Well, I haven't heard anything about that, but why would I not go there? That would be fun. I would love to go places I've never been. That's fun.
Sev: That's all I have. Is there anything else you want to add?
BR: No, I think we've covered everything.
Sev: Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate this.
BR: No problem at all.