Punk Rock Origins: The Story Behind Bad Religion
For the past three decades, Bad Religion -- with their guitar overdrive-laden, melodic ditties ("oozin' aahs-in'" was a phrase coined especially for the seminal band's trademark harmonies) -- have been the gateway for many a teenager to the world of punk.
Birthed in 1980, in lead singer Greg Graffin's mom's garage in the West Valley, Bad Religion rode the wave of the burgeoning punk scene in Southern California, along with Black Flag, the Adolescents, the Circle Jerks. Their sound has, oddly enough, become something that's classic and current at the same time. Graffin attributes that to its members, who are constantly trying to improve their craft -- but in the 34 years that Bad Religion has been making music, they've also influenced countless musicians from the obvious (Rise Against, Gaslight Anthem) to the not-so-obvious (Tegan and Sara) and the obscure (folk singer William Eliott Whitmore), in both sound, intelligent lyric-writing and ideology.
A huge part of that influence is through guitarist Brett Gurewitz's label Epitaph Records, who has nurtured punk rock bands in Southern California and has given intelligent, agitpop-punk bands such as Social Distortion and Bad Religion a worldwide audience.
That music can be an agent of societal change is one of the reasons the venerable L.A. punks are as relevant as ever. "True North," their latest--and 16th--full length album, has the same anger that was evident in 1982's "Voice of God Is Government" and sustained throughout the 1990s and early 2000s anti-Bush ragers (I and II: "Generator" from 1992 and "The Process of Belief" from 2001). Their sly intellect is still cloaked in pop-punk hooks and guitar overdrive and presented in under 2 minutes, and Graffin's academic leanings (he has a Ph.D. in zoology and teaches evolution at Cornell) via references to Ivan Pavlov, national greed, atheism and the decline of Western civilization are now the gems that make the songwriting better than ever.
Graffin spoke to Artbound about the new album, the evolution of punk music, Bad Religion's early days and the essence of the band.
Graffin: I was born in Madtown [Madison], moved to grade school in Milwaukee and my dad has lived in the same house in Racine. My wife's family are also longtime Wisconsin people so we've been flying the flag for a long time. We have an entire group of us -- an entire part of Rancho Park is called Little Racine and we named it that because plenty of friends in my age group all moved to Los Angeles.
That you spent your childhood in the Midwest is not something a lot of people know about -- and it's a fascinating fact, given that you and your sound is so closely identified with Southern California.
Graffin: How a kid from Racine, Wisconisin could fit in Southern California in 1978? I was only 11 but by the time I was 15 in 1980, I started this band with these guys, Brett Gurewitz and Jay Bentley, all of us in the West Valley. That's where my mom chose to settle when we moved out here from Wisconsin. And the punk scene was really in its infancy. So there was already a culture in place -- a surfer culture, a skateboarding culture, but there wasn't exactly a punk culture and certainly wasn't one in the West Valley. So when we decided to cut our hair short and playing punk music in my mom's garage, we were really seen as the devil. We were extremely ostracized by our peers and the neighbors. To think that someday that was going to be seen as the start of a budding movement worldwide was incomprehensible. Two years ago we were asked to play in Jakarta, Indonesia, where hardcore punk is similar in its stages to what was going on in Southern California in 1980.
And a lot of people say we helped pioneer that [punk movement], but we were just at the right place at the right time. Personally, I don't think anyone can take credit for pioneering anything. And we did write some good songs back then, and started a tradition that we've refined since then. We've become better songwriters and better musicians, but to think it started on inauspicious beginnings is something I always reflect on and that's something I wrote about in my book, "Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God."
For a career that spans most of your life, what were early milestones for you?
Graffin: The milestone early on was simply trying to garner a following. There weren't enough punk rockers in the West Valley at the time to actually have a full-fledged punk scene. We knew there were a sprinkling of punk rockers at the various high schools, and on the weekends we'd all get together, but we weren't necessarily forming a huge community in the West Valley. It was just that people would come to my mom's garage and listen to our rehearsals. And we would get gigs with other bands who had similar gigs in Orange County, like the Adolescents, for instance.
Together we would play concerts in Hollywood and they'd invite us to their somewhat larger scene in Santa Ana, and we'd go play as an opening band for them, and our cadre of punk followers would come with us. We would bring people to them and they would bring people to us -- and out of that and out of that exchange a larger scene started to materialize.
For our professional development the first stage was building a following, and that was somewhat of a milestone and being able to then be invited to play at the established clubs in town was a major milestone.
There were no clubs in the West Valley, so we would play at a place in East L.A., a club called the Vex. It was in a dangerous neighborhood but it was a punk rock club that people from all over would converge in; they'd only have shows on Tuesday nights or something. The other one was the Starwood in Los Angeles. A real milestone was playing at the Whiskey at the Sunset Strip. And that went on pretty much throughout the '80s. It was a commitment to the music and the live performance of punk rock that really established us as a Southern California mainstay.
I always found it very interesting that hardcore punk roots grew out of the SoCal's suburbs -- the Middle Class, T.S.O.L., the Adolescents -- that scene, it seemed, grew out of a reaction to the antiseptic-ness of the suburbs.
Graffin: Of course when you're a teenager, you're reacting to almost everything. It's a knee jerk reaction to everything. It's not really conscious, but it's interesting to look at it. From a cultural perspective, it's harder to draw those connections. Obviously Orange County was extremely conservative, but the West Valley was a lot less conservative -- but I'd say more conservative than Hollywood. So what I like to look at is the punk scene as a reaction to the expected tranquility that you're supposed to find in these suburban areas; it's just expected that you're going to have a nice lawn, a two car garage, peace and quiet when the parents come home from work. Those expectations were never part of the teenage agenda in any society, in any culture, in any time in human history. So punk rock was a natural cultural attraction, and the fact that there was this exciting scene going on in Hollywood made it more attractive to the suburban areas to try to spontaneously create their own kind of sound. So in that sense the Socal punk sound WAS created in the suburbs.
To this day that sense of rebellion is also what's kept Bad Religion fans vested in the band. I know when I hear songs from "Generator" and "Stranger than Fiction" I always get so pumped.
Graffin: That's what music does; you tend to gravitate for the rest of your life towards the music you first heard when you were a teenager. I found that to be true as well for myself. So it's like your brain development at the time in your life is open for inspiration and then as you go on with life that inspiration when you search for it, goes back to the part of your brain when you were exposed to it. That's why people have so many sentimental favorites like the Backstreet Boys and Justin Bieber...
But for Bad Religion, the kind of music that you were inspired by was also the music that you were making at the time.
Graffin: The source material for all punk rock, for me, is what I still recall and cull from that body of work [that came out] from 1979 to 1985, all the punk rock that I heard, from the bands I hung out with and the bands that inspired me so much at that stage. For me that is punk rock, and the way that is expressed now -- I think Brett and myself have become better songwriters and we still need to work on our craft, but when i think of what really motivates and inspires us, it comes from an original source and motivation that we can tap into from hanging out and attending concerts by these bands that we looked up to back then.
Such as the Adolescents? Who else?
Graffin: I'd say there was mutual inspiration, some of these bands were contemporaries back then, but I think we helped influence each other. I think the Adolescents were good friends of ours and we loved their music. We weren't really friendly with some other bands but we were inspired by Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. And obviously we became great friends with the Circle Jerks because Greg Hetson's now a member of our band.
But bands from Orange County like Middle Class and T.S.O.L. are bands that we admired, and some of our members became good friends -- Jay used to hang out with T.S.O.L. quite a bit and played in some bands together, but I can't overstate the social element of it. The scene was so much smaller then, and you could actually just hang out and talk to the bands that you looked up to, and some of them were more standoffish; Darby Crash [lead singer of seminal punk band the Germs who killed himself] and I never had any meaningful conversations, except he bummed fries off of me at Oki Dog. And that meant a lot to me. (Laughs.)
That's interesting that you bring up T.S.O.L. because when you're talking about the future of punk rock in SoCal, you can say that Fidlar -- a band where two of the members are progeny of T.S.O.L. keyboardist Greg Kuehn -- are now the torchbearers of the current SoCal sound.
Graffin: Unfortunately if you want to talk about punk music, you really should talk to Brett. A lot of my life is spent in academia now, so except for the bands that we take out on tour with us, I don't really get exposed to too much of it.
That's right, you teach at Cornell now, and not UCLA anymore.
Graffin: I teach evolution for non-majors at Cornell. It's a great experience, and it's very similar to what i did at UCLA. Honestly I had a great time teaching there, but the truth is I really only carve out a small portion of the year to teach. Right now I'm just doing the fall semester. As I get older I might be back at UCLA again, but [teaching] allows me nine months of the year to music and three months of the year to devote to teaching. It's very rewarding; it's a very happy situation.
But I will say this on your previous comment -- I'm always amazed that, every time we have a show, I try to take one short brief interlude between songs to ask, "Is this your first Bad Religion concert?" If it was just our fans continuing to go to our concerts, no one would raise their hands, but every time I ask, it's brand new listeners, raising their hands. And what it means is there's a whole new set of punk rockers coming into the world who haven't had a chance to see Bad Religion yet. And they've heard of us, of course, because our reputation precedes us, but they're new punk rock fans who just can't believe they're seeing Bad Religion in concert. And I'm still amazed because every generation, there's a defiant punk rock tradition that continues. How that's manifested in the new bands, you have to ask Brett. That's his job and his work, knowing what's going on in the landscape of modern music. And I've somewhat fallen out of step with that because I've spent more time writing books and teaching then I do going to punk clubs, but certainly knowing how that punk tradition is manifested in new bands is definitely a specialty that the tradition has continued for so long.
"True North," your latest set, is 16 songs and 35 minutes. In it, the three-part harmonies, the conciseness of the songs -- are classic Bad Religion. Was there anything you wanted to reinvent during the making of in this album, after 33 years of Bad Religion?
Graffin: The term reinvent is a word that is particularly unpleasant to me. It means you're consciously trying to be something that's different from your true essence. And it's interesting that you say that because our new album is called "True North," which is this constant lifelong search for truth and the constant struggle against the rigidity of this world and the expectations placed upon you.
The struggle against that kind of stuff really celebrates the idea that life is a quest and a continual searching and learning process. And I think in order to do that and to do it with authenticity, you can't be constantly concerned with how you present yourself to the world, you have to be yourself. That's a long-winded way of saying I've never been an artist who feels like I've had to reinvent anything. I try to express myself as honestly as possible and try to reflect the new things I've learned since the last album, mix the elements and styles of music that inspired me in the past and I try to do it in a fresh-sounding way. Sometimes you really stumble upon combinations that really do sound new and you come up with fresh material. And once you're trying to chase an idea and image that you feel is like a popularity contest or for money, you lose sight of your own sense of true north.