BAD RELIGION: 'WE ALWAYS DID THINGS BECAUSE WE WANTED TO'
by Elliott Sharp
It's not up for debate: Bad Religion is one of the greatest, longest-running punk bands of all time. Formed in 1979, the California band has since produced 15 albums, the majority of which were released on Epitaph Records, the label guitarist Brett Gurewitz created in 1980, which has also released albums by NOFX, Rancid, Hot Water Music, Alkaline Trio, and dozens of other punk bands.
Since its 1982 debut, 'How Could Hell Be Any Worse?,' the longest period of time Bad Religion has gone without an album were the five years between 'Into The Unknown' (1983) and 'Suffer' (1988). Staying true to form, next week Epitaph will release the band's 16th studio album, 'True North,' a powerful collection of melodic, aggressive tunes. And, as it has since the beginning, Bad Religion remains loyal to its leftist politics, advocating for justice and fairness while railing against societal norms and group-thought.
Yesterday, as he was leaving the band's practice space in Hollywood, Bad Religion bassist and founding member Jay Bentley gave us a call. We spoke to him about how technology has changed how the band interacts with its fans, and how Bad Religion has managed to achieve success without compromising its values.
RedBullUSA.com: Back in the late 1970s, when Bad Religion started, you guys were making your own flyers and putting them up around town to promote very grassroots, DIY warehouse shows. Fast forward 30 or so years, and now the band's new album is streaming on YouTube. Do you ever miss the intimacy of those old days?
Jay Bentley: Sometimes I do, but you have to embrace technology, and embrace what's happening. There are advantages to the Internet and new technologies, and if we would've had these tools back in the early days, and if they would've helped people get out to the shows, we would've used them back then, too. Out of everything, what I miss most is making the flyers. That was one of the funnest things to do. We'd sit around and make cutouts from the National Enquirer or whatever magazines and things we could find.
RedBullUSA.com: Many artists claim that the Internet eliminates informal relationships with fans, and others say the exact opposite. What do you think?
Jay Bentley: I think it's made things better. Now I can talk to people all over the world all the time. We have a fansite with this thing on it called “Ask Jay,” and people get on there and ask me a question and I answer it. Now I wake up in the morning and I no longer read a newspaper with my coffee. I just flip on my computer and peruse information. And then I click on emails from fans in Italy. If they were using snail mail, it would take two weeks for me to get the letter, and it would take two weeks for them to get my response. Instead, I can just answer them right now: “No, sorry, we're not playing in Rome.”
I understand the other side of the debate, because the Internet is very impersonal. You just have to know that anybody you're talking to on the Internet probably isn't who they say they are. But you pretty much have to accept the downside because it's not going to go away. If you complain about it too much, then you become this pariah that people look at and say, “This poor person has no clue.” This is the world now, and it's not gonna change.
RedBullUSA.com: 'True North,' the title track, is about trying to find one's moral compass, and staying focused despite various obstacles, societal norms, and so on. Do you think Bad Religion, as a band with certain political commitments, has been able to do that?
Jay Bentley: Over the long haul -- over 33 years -- I think we've done very well. We've had our ups and downs, and we've done our fair share of things that could've destroyed the band, but we're fortunate they didn't. One thing we've learned is that we do have a general direction and purpose. Brett wrote a song on 'Suffer' called 'Do What You Want,' and that's sort of remained the motto of the band: Do what you want, but don't do it anywhere near me; go away, and go do your thing.
RedBullUSA.com: There was a time when popular opinion in the indie music world was that when a band allowed its songs to be used in television shows, etc., they were selling out. Bad Religion songs have been used in many shows, movies and video games, but you've bucked that earlier way of thinking by being very selective regarding who you allowed to use the songs.
Jay Bentley: I'm sure some people question what we've done, but I just don't care. As long as they're not using our songs for cigarette and alcohol commercials, I really don't care. I don't think our songs have ever been used for commercials, but there have certainly been video games and other things.
Back in 1989 or 1990 we had a few records out on Epitaph, and skateboarding was exploding. Sony came out with the Handycam, and then all these kids were making homemade skate movies. This kid called and said, “Hey, is it cool if we use one of your songs?” And I said, “Use whatever you want, here's our entire catalogue.” These kids were making indie films, and the whole scene took off!
So many people come up to us now to tell us that that's how they first heard our music. We were able to reach so many people. I never cared if they gave us anything back. They could've used anything they wanted because we were all in this together. A lot of people have those stories. Imagine if we hadn't done that? It was never really a marketing plan, we just told people to do what they wanted to do.
RedBullUSA.com: So, looking back on Bad Religion's history, you don't think any decisions the band has made might've jeopardized its integrity?
Jay Bentley: No, I don't think so. We always did things because we wanted to. We had a brief interlude when we were on Atlantic Records. We gave it a shot, and at the end of it, you could've called the last two records 'Contractual Obligation 1' and 'Contractual Obligation 2.'
We didn't want to take any tour advances or anything because we didn't want to get ourselves into any financial holes. We really wanted to get the hell away from there. But, in the long run, we've really done everything we wanted to, and there are no complaints there.
I try to stick to a philosophy where I don't regret anything I've done in the past because that would change where I am right now, and I really like where I am right now. If you start to change things in the past, then you change how everything would be today. We might have made a silly decision but it got us where we are now. I think the band is in a great place. We're all really happy and positive, and we're making records the way we want to.