Interview with Jay Bentley (bass)
By Damian Burford
My first encounter with Bad Religion came at the age of 16, living in the cultural wasteland of my North Louisiana hometown, Shreveport. Attending a house party in the middle of the woods, I witnessed the 6’4” mohawked lead singer of the local band, THE PICTS, bellowing out the vocals to “Do What You Want.” I loved the raw energy and power of their cover. I craved more, and since I could not purchase a Picts CD, I did the next best thing. I bought All Ages. The 1995 compilation of fan favorites would become the soundtrack of my young adult life.
“What is your favorite Bad Religion album?” was posed to my music loving constituents. As expected, the vast majority of fans praised 1988′s Suffer or 2002′s tour de force, The Process of Belief, as their favorite records. With a band that has a 30-year career, you will find other answers as diverse as the band’s career. Answers such as Into The Unknown, The New America or Stranger Than Fiction also populated the list, with many fans chose the first album as their favorite.
Undoubtedly True North, the band’s 16th album,will join many listeners’ lists of favorite Bad Religion albums. It has been touted as a return to the band’s original mission statement of short, concise bursts of melody and thought. Like other albums from the band, it is sure to polarize older fans and will draw many comparisons to what’s come before. I find it to be more an amalgam of the band’s youthful exuberance of their earlier albums meets the refined palate of their elder years. Think of it as Recipe For Hate meets The Process Of Belief, with an ever-so-subtle taste of Into The Unknown. In the end, True North is exactly what you want from a Bad Religion album. It’s strong, politically thought provoking and—most important of all—melodic.
My interview with bass player Jay Bentley was on December 21st, the potential end of the world looming. I called Jay at 9 a.m. He sounded tired. I started rambling about how much of a pleasure it was to be talking to him. I told him how much Bad Religion had meant to me in my youth. He laughed at my confessional ass kissing. With that, I found Jay awake and full of energy, not to mention funny and absolutely charming. He had the energy of a 20-year-old. It was easy to see why he had been put in charge of the band’s press. What really jumped out about Jay was how excited he sounded. I sat in awe listening to Jay discuss fatherhood and the band’s earlier albums and how they translated into this new record. If the world had ended on December 21st, I would have died a very happy man.
So Jay, I’ve got to admit, I’m a little freaked out to talk to you today. Bad Religion was one of the more seminal bands of my youth. I can’t really believe this is happening, ya know? So I was curious who would freak you out to interview?
I can imagine it would be a surfer or skateboarder since you probably know all the band guys.
Yeah, but I know all those guys too! I grew up with Jay Adams, Tony Alva and all those guys. I was at Reseda Skatercross, and that was the beginning of all of that as far as I can remember. Skateboarding sort of had two separate lives. There was this sort of beginning, sort of Logan Earth Ski, and if people today would have seen the boards we were riding, they would go, “You guys are out of your minds!”
The second wave [was] when Tony Hawk came in, and that was really when it exploded and got so much bigger than anybody would have ever thought. So I don’t really think skateboarding guys would have really freaked me out. I don’t think anybody would freak me out, to be honest! [Laughter]
You know, actually there is. Brett [Gurewitz] and I are huge ELTON JOHN fans. [Laughter]I know it’s kind of weird. A few years ago, I had an opportunity to meet him and I’ve always had this theory that when you meet people who you really like, there is a potential that they will be dicks and then you won’t like their art anymore. So I didn’t want to meet him and so I just didn’t. Then a few months ago, Brett posts a photo with his arm around Elton John! I was like, “You are such a dick. How was he?” “Oh he was SO nice!”
Who have you met that’s been a dick?
[Pause] Nobody really. I’ve seen people at their worst, but I think the thing is, I understand why people get the way they get. I don’t like it, but I understand why you are smashing things up. You’re frustrated, angry and a baby, but that doesn’t make things cool. I kind of put myself in their shoes and go, “Alright, I get it.”
Congrats on your newest child. This is your third kid, right?
It’s my third! I’ve got two older boys and now a daughter. 21, 19 and 9 months old!
You just got your other kids out of the house. How scary is it to have a brand new newborn?
It’s a girl and it really is a different thing. You might think, “A baby is a baby.” For some reason, there is a different thing about a girl. Boys are sort of rough and tumble, “Let’s just go do crazy shit!” With girls, it’s like “Come on, let’s go smell the flowers!” It’s a different mentality.
How does having kids affect the direction of your life and work in the band?
Years ago, when all of us started having kids, we sat around and said it really changes sort of the purpose of why we do everything. All of a sudden it’s not about us, it’s about our kids. It didn’t really change the art or product of the band. It just sort of changed why we did it, but it didn’t really change the band too much. With that being said, Brett told me recently, “I learned something a year ago. Don’t write Bad Religion songs with an acoustic guitar in front of your baby.” [Laughter]
You do not write the lyrics, but what kind of effects do the kids have on that aspect?
I know what the guys are writing. We talk about it, and I think that sometimes for Greg [Graffin], having kids sort of allows him that outside perspective of “I remember what it was like to struggle like that,” and “when you are a kid, and have no clue what to do.” I think Greg has written a couple of songs from that perspective. We talk about everything and it has got to be insanely difficult. That has happened. As far as writing something personal to your kid, I don’t think that has happened.
What do your kids think of their “rock star” father?
I don’t know. I’ve always kind of felt like their friends think it’s cool, but I’m the guy who says, “Take the trash out! Make your bed! Do your homework!” I’m just a dick dad! [Laughter]
Are they fans of the band? Or did they rebel and go some completely different way?
They like the band, but it’s not their musical tastes. My youngest son is really heavily into rap. My oldest son is super heavily into heavy metal. And that’s fine. I’m like, “You guys find your own path. Music was generated to fill the hole in your soul. So whatever it is you find that makes you feel good, there you go!”
In my research, I found a video interview of you with a very nice set of grey hair! How did it feel to get that first grey hair?
[Laughter]Nothing really! I guess it just happens. I dyed my hair for a long time, just all kinds of colors and black. I got tired of that and that wasn’t that many years ago. Maybe eight years ago or so. So I shaved my head and let my hair grow back. That was when I was really like, “Whoa! I’ve got a lot of grey hairs! Oh well, whatever! That’s cool.” [Laughter]
You guys have had 30 years of rock with Bad Religion. How does time affect the writing process? Do you go in thinking that this might be the last album you’ll make?
That’s not really a thought. When we go in to make a record, the thought is, “This is going to be the best record we’ve ever made.” We’ve all said if you’re not going to make the best record you’ve ever made, then why would you make it? I’ve been a part of records that were good, that were bad, and I’ve been a part of records that were actually indifferent. To make records now at this stage in our career, there is no reason to make something that you don’t think is the best thing you have ever made. Obviously that is subjective, and once you have made the record and sent it out on its own path, people could say, “This record sucks!” and that you are no good anymore, but that is not why we do it. We go in and think, “Oh man! This is great!” Being together for so long gives you sort of a map of how you do things, and I don’t want to say efficiently because that sounds to scientific. We know how we work best. We’ve learned over the years and we go in to make a record and if we spend too much time, we are going to fuck it up. It just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. At the same time, when we made Suffer, we recorded and mixed that record in seven days. We are never going to be able to do that again. We sort of talk about it, but we’re not going to be able to do anything in seven days. It’s just not going to happen. We’ve kind of learned how to get the best end result that we want, without everybody just sort of either forgetting what it is that we’ve done or you play it so many times that you suck the life out of a song. With this record, Brooks [Wackerman] had a small window where he was off tour with TENACIOUS D, and told him, “Come on out here! Let’s make a record!” Then all the guitars went on and then the singing and everyone was happy. Then Brett mixed it and everyone was happy. And okay! We’re done!
I like that I can put on any Bad Religion record from any point in the collective and, no matter how different they are, they all have that Bad Religion feel. Whether you’ve heard it or not, it is a Bad Religion album. Is there a formula? Or is it just the chemistry you get when dumping you guys into a room?
Sometimes there is something that you can say sounds like this and sounds like that. We have 240+ songs, so obviously some songs are going to sound like those. There are only so many notes you can play, and obviously you are going to start repeating things. With that being said, I think that what happens with us is, if you were to bring in a song from any other artist… If Brett brought in a DAVID BOWIE’S “Man Who Fell To Earth,” because I’ve seen NIRVANA do that… If Brett brought that in, by the time we were done with it, it would sound just like Bad Religion! It wouldn’t sound anything like David Bowie at all! [Laughter] People would be like, “What the hell is that? Oh, that’s just Bad Religion.” We kind of strip it all down and play it at a reckless tempo, where it almost feels like it is going to fall apart. The guitars are just turned up and Greg has a very unique voice, then Brett and I go [sings background vocals to me followed by laughter].That’s kind of what happens!
In a past interview you talked about how people have a tendency to not like the albums upon release. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t like New Maps of Hell or Dissent of Man when they were first released, but when doing research, they blew me out of the water! What makes your albums growers, and not show-ers?
Not to brag, but maybe because they are good! I think they are good records. When Brett left the band in 1994 and we went and recorded The Grey Race, I listened to that record and I said, “This will be the ultimate sleeper.” People won’t get this, maybe forever, but this is a really great record. There is something about that record, to me, that was the ultimate, ultimate sleeper. [Laughter]So I’m still waiting for people to go, “Oh man! That’s such a great record!” The only reason I say that, it isn’t really scientific, it is a little bit more anger. When we recorded Suffer, the general consensus from all the press was, “This is the greatest record ever! You’ll never top it.” We were really fucking angry and we went in and made No Control and they went, “WOW! This is the greatest record ever! You’ll never top it.” Well FUCK THEM! We went in and did Against The Grain, and while we were recording it, Brett almost had a nervous breakdown because he was so focused on itbeing better than No Control or Suffer that he almost wasn’t paying attention to the Against The Grain record! He was listening to No Control or Suffer and going, “Fuck this has to be better!” He finally said to us, “Hey I’m freaking out. We just need to make records and not worry about whether people or how people compare our materials to our old materials. It seems like we can’t win.” That was how we started thinking that no matter what we did, the people are going to think it’s not as good as this and we can’t be caught up in that because that can really destroy you.
Why work with Joe Barresi (PENNYWISE, QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE, New Maps of Hell & Dissent of Man) rather than just have Brett produce it yet again? Does that help break the mold?
Brett mixed this record, which is what was happening in the late 80′s and early 90′s. Brett was producing and mixing the records and I think what happened was that it was just one too many hats. “I’m a songwriter, I’m a guitar player and I really want to be involved in the songs, but I don’t want to be involved in the intricate details of where the drum mic goes. I don’t want to get caught up in guitar amps all day long.” So [we brought] in someone else to be part of that and who is totally fascinated with the process of recording, which is Joe. Joe loves the process of recording. He’s just a true studio dog. Having him in there, that opens Brett up to sit and listen to the music as it’s developing, and have ideas about directions for ways the music should go and not be worried so much about the sound that is going to tape. And to be honest, to have a guy like Joe who has done a jillion records, you can look at him and ask, “What do you think of this?” and his opinion is super valid.
Let’s talk about the actual record. I like that the song “Dharma and The Bomb” comes out of nowhere with this weird little song that has such a different and distinctive sound. Where did that come from?
It’s probably my favorite song on the album. Brett was still writing that in the studio while we were recording. He was still kind of finishing that up. It was something we were all really excited about. It has a surf vibe to it, and that’s something we haven’t ever really done. As he was writing it, the concept of the song changed twice. It finally became “Dharma and The Bomb.” He and Greg were sitting there talking about lyrical ideas, and I’m just sitting there thinking it’s brilliant. It’s only a two minute long song, and it is the greatest thing ever! [Laughter] Other than that, it’s an odd Bad Religion song, and I don’t mean odd in a negative way, and I like it. It’s one of my favorite songs ever. It’s Brett singing and one of the things Brett wanted, and this is the studio magic stuff, one of the things Brett wanted was a California surf kind of dialect. Greg is from Wisconsin and he doesn’t have that [mimics California surfer] “Hey, dude! What’s up, bro?” That’s just not in Greg’s thing. So Brett was like, “Fuck! What am I going to do? I guess I’m just going to sing it!” You can hear it when he sings, [mimicking Brett's surfer voice:]“Stoked to watch all cre-ay-shin” [Laughter] He was so surfer on that track, and that’s right. That’s it!
Am I crazy, or did I catch some “I Dream of Jeannie” references in the lyrics?
Yeah! There is! When it comes right down to it, it’s kind of about terrorists having a dirty bomb and India having an atomic bomb. [Laughing] Oh, here’s a cute little song about terrorists having a little dirty bomb in a suitcase. Awesome! [Laughing] I remember when we got the song tracks all down, and everything was done. The sequencing was done. The mixing was done. I got my first copy and I called Brett, I think “Dharma and The Bomb” into the next two songs in a row [“Hello Cruel World” & “Vanity”], may be the best few minutes of Bad Religion I can remember hearing. [Laughter]
After all these years and all these changes in the world, why are people still attracted to Bad Religion?
At this point, I will just defer to the word “tenure.” [Laughter] I think that if you just stay around long enough, people will like you. “Oh, you’re not going to go away now, are you?”
What I mean is more like, you can give a disenfranchised kid a copy of All Ages and he could probably get sucked into the songs and to him, it is still relevant.
I think that as punk rock became… I don’t want to call it “mainstream,” although it is. The word that almost always comes to mind is that it has become a part of the fabric of society. It is no longer a fringe art. It is just something that people don’t fear. It’s certainly nothing like what it started out as. Maybe we’re just a part of that fabric. As long as we keep making records, and as long as we keep going out on tours and speaking our minds and having a good time doing it, we’ll be a part of that fabric. You always wonder when it all ends, how long will it be before you just vanish. In my life, and watching ten and twelve year olds, and you watch a big question mark appear above their heads when you mention THE BEATLES and say, “I’ve never heard of them.” You wonder, how long afterward will it be before people say, “I don’t know who that is,” about us. [Laughter]
After all these years, when you step out in front of a crowd of thousands and thousands of people, do you have to pinch yourself?
I always get nervous. I’m always humbled. I walk out and I look at people having fun and singing the songs. I can’t believe they know the lyrics. [Laughter] I remember the first show we played, we were opening for SOCIAL DISTORTION. We had six or eight songs. We played them and people were dancing. They weren’t singing the songs, because they didn’t know them. They were dancing and we finished. People were yelling, “Play them again! Play them again!” So we played the same six songs again, and that was really cool. That’s how it started. Every time I go out on stage, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
What is your “true north”?
For right now, my true north is paddling out on a surfboard. Even if the waves aren’t that great, I can just paddle out and sit in the water and watch the pelicans and the dolphins go by. I feel at peace and at one with nature.