Bad Religion: Finding True North
by Poppy Reid
In an age where more than three decades together habitually equates to a band’s brand-making, Bad Religion have maintained immediacy and a new collection of followers with each album cycle, sans trite propagation.
Much of this, is thanks to wide-eyed linchpin Greg Graffin, the band’s own punk professor. Graffin is on the phone from his farmland home in Lansing New York, and he’s got just over a week before rehearsals begin in support of album #16 True North. He’s avoiding the writing of his second book The Population Wars, the overdue deadlines of which are ‘hounding him,’ but he’s surfeited with the fact his most recent frustrations he sees both in himself and in society have been partly purged.
“We tend to want to blame people and hope they’re responsible. We try to find scapegoats and people we can pin the problems of the world on and we want to believe that people have free will and they’re not exercising it if they do something wrong,” he says, speaking slowly and ruminative. “But at the same time that’s human nature,” he laughs. “The more I think about it the more I realise we can’t be calculating and we can’t all predict the outcomes of our behaviours.”
As a lecturer at New York’s Cornell University where he’s currently teaching evolution, and as a doctor of zoology, Graffin could be discussing a number of issues really. But he’s referring to the first track on True North called In Their Hearts Is Right, the track which kicks off 35-minutes of intellectual anarchy overlayed by Bad Religion’s trademark pummelling punk rock, three-part harmonies and themes of the Obama administration, generational unity and philosophy inspired by Sagan and Chomsky.
But while Graffin has been commentating on culture since he was 15 with Bad Religion, and later studied anthropology and geology, his frustration in humanity, unlike most who educate themselves, has softened with age.
“I think I’ve grown more tolerant,” he says. “A lot of people get older and they grow less tolerant. I struggle with that too because part of me wants to be very calculating and precise, that’s kind of the science background I have. Part of me wants to be unforgiving. But there’s something in my bones - I don’t know what it is, it’s just the way I’m made - that I tend to be very accommodating and forgiving of people and I think I struggle with that.”
Thankfully, his bandmates share the same ideological values, it’s surprising though, considering their different upbringings. 50-year-old guitarist/vocalist and Epitaph/ANTI Records owner Brett Gurewitz was raised Jewish; bassist Jay Bentley was brought up in Kansas and was part of the skate-punk surge; guitarist Greg Hetson was a member of innovative hardcore bands Circle Jerks and Redd Kross before Bad Religion; guitarist Brian Baker is a founding member of minor threat, his first album with Bad Religion was 96's The Gray Race, and drummer Brooks Wackerman - who recently filled in for Travis Barker on the current Soundwave tour - started his career in '91 with heavy metal band Bad4Good. His musical background before he joined Bad Religion in 2001 ranges from pop punk and funk metal to comedy rock and industrial rock.
“We all had varying backgrounds when we were young kids but pretty much we were all from very liberal households that were pro-education. Even though I’m the only guy in the band that went to college, the other guys are intellectuals in their own right in terms of they all read books and see movies. It’s kind of like those cultural things that some families don’t expose their kids to.”
Having basically grown into their own together, it wasn’t always political punk and mosh pits. Bad Religion, like any band who has reached global stature, have experienced their own tumultuous times. The negative press surrounding Graffin and Gurewitz’ fallout, Gurewitz’ drug abuse in the early ‘80s and the myriad lineup changes may have stunted their ascension, but 34 years on, the band are still questioning establishment and provoking chaos at their shows. Graffin has a tradition where at each show he’ll ask who is experiencing them for the first time – “and remarkably it’s like 60% of the audience.”
“That’s not just true in the United States,” he enthuses, “that’s true in Australia and Germany, all over Europe and all over South America. It’s almost like every year there’s a new generation of people that decide they’re gonna turn punk rock and they come out to our show ‘cause they’ve heard so much about us but they’ve never actually seen us live. I realise it’s a privilege, because it means our audience is continually getting refreshed.”
While Bad Religion aren’t active members of the Hollywood club scene anymore – they’re each entering or nudging their 50s – Graffin says the fact the community even exists makes him very hopeful.
“We are not living the life of punk rockers anymore,” he chuckles. “It’s not exciting to me go to a club and come home at 2:30 in the morning… But even if the community isn’t as small and intimate as it used to be you can see it branching into other areas of culture too, where people actually do put a premium into ideas and art. That’s very rewarding to see that.”
It would be easy to surmise that Bad Religion are more influenced by Graffin’s studies now more than ever, but as he tells it, his higher education has very little input.
“The intellectual portions of it helps to stimulate ideas but I think the emotion in the song, the melody, even some of the phrasing, that comes from feelings. Those feelings were stirred I think more from my own personal relationships, my family, my friends.”
The title track on True North was greatly influenced by his immediate surroundings. With a son in his early twenties and a daughter away at university, the generation they belong to are just now discovering themselves, their ideals and thankfully, Bad Religion.
“When kids decide to go punk, it’s when they first start experiencing the world on their own and they head out into that world with some direction, usually what their parents tell them, but also their teachers and their religious leaders,” he says thoughtfully. “But they head out into this world and they realise nothing that they’d been told makes any sense at all, and it’s completely out of touch with what they really have to experience. So the idea from that obviously came from my own kids who are now teenagers going through what we went though, exactly a generation later.”
The truth is that while his children are one of his greatest inspirations - they’re a direct portal into the mindset of the band’s newest group of followers – that’s as far as their involvement with Graffin’s music goes. To him, it’s his most personal project and his two offspring sensed that at a young age.
“Even though the kids are aware of what I do for a living and we’ve got a pretty normal family life, we don’t really talk about, that’s kind of like ‘dad’s work’ we don’t sit around talking about music at the table. I don’t share any strategies with them. I don’t talk about songwriting.
“I have to say though, it would hurt me very badly, if it was embarrassing. I’m very proud to say that they’re not embarrassed by what I do for a living because I can’t say that about Dick Cheney,” he laughs. “His kids must have it a lot harder.”
Bad Religion’s back catalogue is a weighty, all encompassing one. Over sixteen records and five U.S. administrations, the band have an ongoing relevance that, because of the state of society, won’t taper off anytime soon. Even during early records like Into The Unknown and seminal album Suffer - when the six men were just boys – they were touching on issues denoting universal themes and modern life.
“21st Century (Digital Boy) was written what, 25 years ago?” Graffin remembers. “The metaphors we were using in that song are still very viable today and we’re happy to play that song live almost every concert.
“The first album we asked the question, ‘how could hell be any worse when life alone is such a curse?’ If society would have cured all of its evils that we were talking about in 1982, that song would quickly become irrelevant but that’s not the case, things have just gotten worse it seems.”
Forever the intellect, Graffin has been awfully aware of the influence Bad Religion has on youth since he was one himself. Unlike a lot of frontmen in the heavy music realm, he feels a responsibility to enlighten fans and use the music as a medium to fuel self-reflection and awareness.
“I always thought, if you’re gonna be in a rock band or a punk band, there’s been so many of them throughout history that I always wanted to add a little added value. There’s got to be something more than just going up there and parading around as a rock star,” he states. “I believe Bad Religion’s tradition has always been to stimulate thought in the areas of philosophy and cultural significance and current events rather than fashion and hairstyle and what the latest trends in New York City are.”