|Category:||Article - Magazine||Publish date:||1/13/1999|
|Source:||SLAMM Magazine #99 (January 1999) (United States)||With:||Brian Baker, Greg Graffin|
|Synopsis:||"Still Punk, After All These Years: Bad Religion’s Career Spans Punk History"
This is from SLAMM, a free 'zine in San Diego. There's bits of interviews with Graffin and mostly Brian.
The State of Bad Religion address
SLAMM (San Diego), January 1999
As you ponder the dark, disturbing message of Greg Graffin and Bad Religion through the eighteen-plus years of the band’s existence, you are often left to forage through a sea of loquacious innuendo. But with their latest release, No Substance, the hints and symbolic themes are replaced with in-your-face, vitriolic diatribes on the state of our culture and society; although the dictionary is still a useful companion if you are to discern the full message.
From dour images of the dying American ideal to a harsh condemnation of atomic bomb creator Edward Teller on "The Biggest Killer in American History," No Substance takes you on an intellectual roller coaster lined with harbingers of imminent doom. The cerebral and visceral squash together into a symbiotic, heart-pounding sound, leaving the listener with the kind of uneasy feeling one has after a nearly averted car accident.
Although the punk bands that have burst to the forefront recently, like Green Day and Blink-182, have altered the face of punk to include more tales of teenage woe and humorous undertones, Bad Religion has kept the spirit of the anti-establishment, anarchist message alive. Though the band has evolved over these last two decades and their many releases and incarnations, the articulate social conscience has remained firmly ensconced in their music. Guitarist Brian Baker recently spoke to me from his home in Washington, D.C., as the band was on a short break from their long stint on the road with the Vans Warped Tour, where they headlined an array of punk and pseudo-punk bands, playing to sold-out crowds of angst-ridden teenagers. Well, maybe not the same angst-ridden teenagers who were first attracted to punk back in 1980, when the fledgling band originally formed, sans Baker.
Back then, original members Greg Graffin, Brett Gurewitz, Jay Bentley, and Jay Ziskrout embarked on a journey that would far surpass their wildest dreams of success and popularity, surviving many near-moribund events and the down years before punk’s recent explosion into the mainstream. While not quite standing at the avant garde beginnings of punk rock, where the Sex Pistols and their contemporaries will always be deified, Bad Religion have become elder statesmen of the modern scene, serving as an important influence for many bands that have followed, including NOFX, Pennywise, and the Offspring, some with members so young they were not even alive when Bad Religion started to play.
Though Graffin and Gurewitz shared vocal duties from the start, when Gurewitz decided in late ’93 to take on full-time duties with the mega-successful indie label, Epitaph, that the band had founded several years earlier, many feared the true genius of the group was gone. Graffin, however, has put that early trepidation to rest and become, in this writer’s estimation, one of the great lyrical poets of his generation.
A UCLA graduate in physical anthropology, who also has a Masters in geology and is pursuing a Ph.D. in biology at Columbia, Graffin is an intellectual with an acumen for elegant expression. The underlying theme of his music is constant, appearing in morphed states again and again: It is a call-to-arms for the youth of America to wake up to the world around them and get involved in the efforts to steer us clear of our impending demise.
Another important factor in the band’s survival and continued popularity has been Baker, who was asked to join the band in Gurewitz’ wake. He had known Gurewitz and several other members of the band from Four on the Floor, the album his old band, Dag Nasty, recorded through Epitaph, and his years living and playing in the Los Angles area. He was the first person they called to replace Gurewitz, and he believes that Gurewitz may have even suggested his addition. At the same time he was offered the job though, he was also given the opportunity to play with R.E.M. on the Monster Tour. "It was a tough decision," Baker says, "but R.E.M. was looking for somebody to tour with them and Bad Religion needed someone to be a band member. I’ve never not been in a band as a contributor, songwriter, and the like -- so while on paper the R.E.M. thing looked pretty good, it was not hard to decide which way for me to continue." The choice has served him well (his replacement on the Monster Tour is now on tour with the Goo Goo Dolls) and he believes if he had chosen differently he would probably have been destined for a career as a tour sideman.
Baker’s foray into music had begun several years before, in the early ‘80s D.C. punk scene where he joined on with Minor Threat. Hooking up with that band demanded a price, though, as he was forced to make the switch from guitar to bass.
"It was almost 19 years ago in Washington where we were so punk that if you got there first with a guitar then you were the guitar player. So I played bass because it was the only slot available. I had never actually played the electric bass when I told the guys I could -- but come on! It’s punk rock, it’s four strings, how hard could it be?"
Later he played with Dag Nasty and made the switch back to guitar, where he has remained ever since. After experience with these two punk bands, he landed for a short time in the hard-rock outfit, Junkyard.
"In Dag Nasty I was already definitely playing what I would not consider punk rock. I wasn’t really leaving a subculture -- it was more about continuing to be able to play guitar, which has really been my whole goal throughout this. It has just happened to transcend a number of different genres."
Bad Religion’s new lineup was not to be their only change -- they decided that a clean break from Epitaph was necessary and made the move to Atlantic. The new label has freed the band from its production responsibilities, which had limited it to touring no more than ten or twelve weeks a year, and opened them up to the fairly rigorous schedule they now keep, touring 160 to 200 days per annum.
The laborious touring calendar has not, however, kept the bandmembers from involving themselves in a number of side projects. Graffin has recently completed a book, Band Aid, that serves as a how-to for bands just getting involved in the industry. He has also released his solo album, American Lesion. Greg Hetson is involved in a punk-rock karaoke concern in Los Angeles and across the country with the Warped Tour. And Baker has become involved in several side projects himself, including a collaboration with Ric Ocasek on his latest album (that was followed by touring with Ocasek’s band) and a now-completed project with the punk band Lickety Split that included members of Avail, the Suspects, and the Pietasters.
Baker sees the side projects as a positive for the band.
"None of us live in the same city and when we’re together our time is spent as Bad Religion, but I think it would be a little selfish to assume that on our days off we are not allowed to go and do whatever we want. I mean, even if I’m not on tour with Bad Religion, I still play guitar every day."
Stranger than Fiction was the first album recorded under the auspices of Atlantic and it was an epic success, returning the band to the hard, punk-rock spirit that had been missing from their prior effort, Recipe for Hate. Two years later, the underrated The Gray Race became the first album to include Baker’s adroit guitar work, along with some of his seasoned, original songwriting. The Gray Race was not as well received as its predecessor, but it did quiet those critics who had predicted the collapse of the band with Gurewitz’ departure. The album implored listeners to stop seeing the world in black and white, and instead look for answers in the shades of gray that lay between.
"The theme was to try to exemplify a world where people are not so colorblind. People believe they are right or they are wrong, partisan politics, rich versus poor, there are so many black and white issues. We attempted to provoke more of an understanding of other people in a way that one would hope to understand their close friends, rather than to simply categorize people in one way or another based on stereotypical behavior. It is that general, populist, ‘please-be-good-to-everybody’ message, which has sort of pervaded the Bad Religion catalog."
After touring in support of that album and releasing their first live record, Tested, Bad Religion headed into the "studio" to start work on their 13th release, No Substance. The "studio," however, turned out to be Graffin’s basement, and the three-month recording process placed the band into uncharted waters, as this time they did not have to send demo tapes across the country to bandmembers in various cities.
"I had my amplifier on top of a ping pong table, to the left of the train set, and we shoved a mic into a cabinet and stapled some carpet around it and recorded it on what is now a $500, first-generation hadap machine. It was very, very relaxed and very low key -- we just kind of came and shot off the hip."
The result is an amalgam of penetrating melodies, potent grooves, intricate harmonies, and the usual mind-piercing, thought-provoking lyrics. Though the tempo has slowed, there are undeniable allusions to their early days in the hardcore L.A. scene, when they played with bands like the U.K. Subs and Adolescents. No Substance works the central theme of a society without substance wading hopelessly through a sea of talking heads and empty dogma. It features substantial irony on songs like "The State of the End of the Millenium Address," which delves into the Big Brotherisms that have saturated our culture and politics. The album also condemns and bemoans the fools who have become our leaders in "Mediocre Minds" and "At the Mercy of Imbeciles." At other times, No Substance decries the self-absorbed, sanctimonious individuals we have become, in songs like the activist cry, "The Same Person," and the infectious "Shades of Truth." "All Fantastic Images" is a cutting reproach of England, which has become a recent enemy of the band because of how they have been treated in that country -- and, as Baker admitted in a recent Alternative Press interview, "I just kind of like the idea of having someplace that we hate."
The message of punk itself has been, to some degree, garbled and convoluted by its induction into the mainstream arena, but Baker offers his thoughts on its overriding theme: "Do what you want. The time has long since passed when a punk rock lifestyle is really of any import to people who are not that way -- there is nothing shocking about the clothing or the purported attitude. I really think it is more about independent thought and a general rejection of dogmatic thinking."
While the band has certainly been purveyors of free thought, many in the punk scene labelled the band as sell-outs when they moved from Epitaph to Atlantic and started to garner more success and popularity. It is the same "punk-police" who seem to have increasingly made "success" and "sell-out" synonymous, ironically introducing rules of conformity to a subculture that is trying to tear them down.
"I think that if something is of quality and attracts the amount of attention of Green Day and the Offspring, that is a good thing," Baker says. "I would much rather have the heartbeat of the city be that of Bad Religion than Winger -- I can’t believe there is something wrong with popularity if the message you’re sending out is one that is benevolent."
German transcript updated
English transcript added
English transcript added
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Interview image(s) added: Diplomatic Defense
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Interview added: Bad Religion, the ‘McCartney and Lennon of punk,’ to make Spokane debut
German transcript updated: Gähnend in die Punker-Rente