Wortraub - A Conversation with Greg Graffin
This is the original transcript of the interview, only minor editing has been applied for readability. This has been the basis for articles but has never been published in the original form.
Wortraub: Why did you choose to do Americana, traditionals and create some new folk and country songs? What is the tradition you see yourself in?
Greg: What happened was … when I was a kid, my uncle introduced this music to our family. He would always be playing banjo and guitar, sitting around at family gatherings. I learned to sing with him at a very young age, we are talking 3, 4, 5 years old. That is when I started doing his sing-a-longs. By the time I got to be 15, I knew I wanted to be a singer, but of course Bad Religion was a punk band, but I did not really know any other way to sing. My delivery, my style was always based on the kind of singing that I had done. So it was really natural for me to adapt this style with Bad Religion. Some of the earliest reviews of Bad Religion claim that we sound folky. You can tell that I am not like a lot of punk singers back then. I really was trying, though I wasn’t as good at the time, to be melodic. I thought a good song had to be melodic. But not overly melodic, but barely enough melody to draw in the listeners and not be to showy. That comes from an old time approach to music. I case my musical tradition then is Americana, cause I am an American. All I think that Americana logo means is that it is authentic from America. Elements of it in my life are that I learned this music in a familiar avenue through my family, through the passing along of tradition from older generation to younger generation. I think, if you talked to Johnny Cash, if he was still alive, he would say the same thing. Cash learned the same songs, the same way of the 19th century musical tradition. But he was a lot older than me. He brought it to a new generation of people, that turned into country / rock, in the 50s and 60s. What I did, was bring it to a punk audience that had never heard that before in their lives. It remains to be seen if this is in any way interesting to punks, but based on my little bit of experience, doing shows, talking about it, especially to Brett, this is very attractive music. It has melody, it is very basic. It is similar to punk in the sense that it is from the heart and very authentic.
Wortraub: Most classics of folk and country tell stories that warn of wrong behavior, tell stories of wrong doings: tragedy … is this the proto-genre for something that you have previously expressed in punk rock?
Greg: It is actually, it is a very good analogy between punk and old-time music. This old-time music maybe was the original form of punk in the sense that it comes from the lower-class … these were not elite people singing this music. These were hard working, working-class farmers, people that worked the fields and had to create a new country. They were dying young, their children were dying young and I think it was very much a case of the lower classes sharing a tradition of tragedy. Maybe it is a tradition that never went away in America, because hardship and tragedy is still with us today. It is just that we have learned how to hide it better with pop music. If you look at what is the established music it is always bullshit about you know, life is beautiful, isn’t it sad when your girlfriend is a bitch to you and you know, all the pop music themes. But there is still people that want to hear about how life really is. I think, that is the tragic elements, the underground, the old times tradition.
Wortraub: Why did you choose not to modernize the classics, not to re-invent them but stick to some very classical arrangements?
Greg: That is what they did in the sixties, that’s what the hippies did and I never liked it. And it did not really appreciate it. What I really like is the original arrangements. And what I realized is, that it is really hard to find some good quality recordings of these songs in the traditional way they are played. We really tried to focus on that because we wanted to create a fabric that made you feel like you were back at the farmhouse in the 19th century …
Wortraub: … that sounds so conservative. Which is ironic, talking to a punk musician?
Greg: It is conservative in the sense that it belongs in a museum. But there is nothing conservative about preserving tradition. That is not conservative. In fact the problem with the right wing party is that they want to destroy tradition and they want to create their own, better way. Throughout history that is what the right wing is trying to do, trying to tell you that you should forget your traditions, forget whatever common good you are talking about, follow our way, the new way. I have never subscribed to that but I think, that is one area where conservatism in politics is antithetic to conservation … there is conservation, which means protect the environment, protect tradition, protect music, freedom and what not … and then there is conservatism, which is being a conservative thinker politically and saying our group is right, their group is wrong. I don’t think there is any parallel to draw between politics and music in that sense. But is this album a rebellion? Of course it is a rebellion. If you want to know why, why this rebel is standing behind his choices? It is because today music is made on a computer, I don’t care which album you listened to, it was made on a computer. Most of the singers can’t sing, if you get them in a room by themselves, they need a producer to help them on a computer to make them sound even melodic. Most guitar players can’t play one song through. They need to cut a small piece and loop it, so that they have something for the singer to match his auto-tuned voice to. With this album I want to remind people also, that music is meant to be played and sung by real people. If it is going to be recorded it is going to capture a moment in time. And that is what all these songs were. We spend hardly any time with the setup and we spend no time at all on overdubbing, we did most of the songs as one or two passes. It was recorded entirely analog, no computers. And it was even mastered completely analog. It is a beautifully sounding record and I think people will resonate with it. They will think, man, music can be so uplifting and so invigorating. They will compare it to the other records they just bought and realize that all this technology, this convenience – as computers are supposed to be conveniences – is hasn’t made us feel any better. It just gives us a more high tech product.
Wortraub: You do a version of the folk classic “The Ballad of Omie Wise”. You chose a version in which John Lewis is caught and brought to justice but many versions of the story run that he breaks jail and is never caught, confessing only on his deathbed. Why did you choose this version?
Greg: That is funny. I only chose the one that I was introduced to when I was young. Maybe mine was a censored version. I was young. That is one of the oldest songs that I do, it goes back to the 1700s which is the dawn of time in America. That song has probably numerous versions, but they are all passed down, in an oral tradition.
Wortraub: With “Omie”, “Sadie” and “Willie Moore” you have three stories of young girls dying … is that coincidence or E.A.Poe talking: “there is nothing more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman”?
Greg: That is the European idea with these old time stories, rather than the American version of these songs. If you spend too much time analyzing the lyrics, I think we loose sight of something that is very important to this record, that is we wanted to create a feeling and a fabric of American life and part of that is encapsulated by the melody and the instrumentation. I think, those three songs, that you just chose are haunting. They create a really haunting feeling, even if you do not know what the words are saying, these are haunting melodies and haunting instrumentations. That is something, if you travel around the old towns of America, that is still very much alive. That feeling of something is not right. And so the lyrics as it turns out, maybe it is because of the haunting image of dead girls that these songs persisted in American traditional music. But I did not choose them specifically because of that.
Wortraub: There is a “religious” song with “Talk about suffering” and another with a message in religion “One More Hill”. Otherwise you chose no gospels. Why is that? Religion is a very special topic in America.
Greg: Well, they are part of the tradition but not of my family. I don’t think I could pull it off, I wasn’t brought up in a gospel family. You know, “Rebel’s Goodbye” sounds a little like the traditional gospel style of singing, so does “Watchmaker’s Dial”. Those are songs I wrote, maybe emulating the gospel tradition. But I don’t think that I am good enough to pull off the gospels. Also, the ones that are more know are not interesting to me. Like “Amazing Grace”, come on. The last thing this world needs is another version of that.
Wortraub: In “Rebel’s Goodbye” you refer to young men marching to war, but the scenery reminds of Civil War rather than new warfare. What is your feeling about that?
Greg: I appreciate that old ring. My challenge on this album was that the songs I wrote I wanted to weave into the old songs, and use imagery that was both appropriate for the 19th century and yet still relevant for modern society. That is the greatest thing about a song, if you can find a song that is timeless in it’s imagery. That is a great challenge for any songwriter and I take that very seriously. In “Rebel’s Goodbye”, I first of all use the concept of the rebel, which in American history, even if we don’t think of it as going back as far as the revolution, it is always the Civil war that we think of the rebel soldier. Right? At first I wanted to write a song about the rebel waving goodbye to his flag as Atlanta was burned at the end of the war and he had to march out west to start a new life under a new name … I thought, there are three verses to work with, the first one was the classic Civil War rebel, the second verse really talks about the 1960s and the rebellion of the hippies and the third verse really talks about the punk rebellion and the people who made up that so called rebellion. The first one is really talking about a dead rebel soldier, the second one, even though I am talking about trains leaving the station, the generals dying by assassins were really Martin Luther King and the Kennedys of the 60s …
Wortraub: … but Lincoln was also a “General” and was assassinated.
Greg: That is a good point and once again you have verified that it is a timeless image. I really hope that this song, even though it is not a spiritual, it still has that ability to move people in creating an emotion of sadness. What I wanted to do is to show them, that there is always a great deal of sadness, when we say good-bye to a rebellion. I just hope that that preserves that rebellious spirit in people.
Wortraub: Rebellion seems to be the key word here. What do you think of the American tradition of “Civil Disobedience”? The Revolution? Thoreau? Martin Luther King?
Greg: To me that is the great American tradition. Our country was founded on rebellion. And now to hear a president say that you are either with us or against us is very offensive to most American’s sense of patriotism. I am not nationalistic but I do appreciate the American sentiment of rebellion, because that is what we were taught from our earliest age. Living in a country that was founded on it. If you are going to be a good American, you are going to question.
Wortraub: Is this your way of questioning then? In musical rebellion?
Greg: Possibly. That is very conscious. You assume that I have control over my … you assume that there is a perfect blend of my philosophy and my consciousness, but I am not sure there is. That is just the way I was raised. The way you are raised, those are your values, those are your ethics. It explains a lot, why you chose to, for instance in my case, write punk rock and sing rebellious song … for me to verify your assumption, that means that I would have to have a good understanding of my conscious. We don’t make who we are. I am more the other way round.
Wortraub: You know the quote by Emerson: “Some have been thought brave because they were afraid to run”? Is your song about real bravery, which means accepting that some things are greater then you and facing that?
Greg: I did not realize that Emerson had that quote. But thanks for bringing that to my attention. … It looks like Ralph Waldo and I are on the same page because that is my sentiment exactly. Because in this era … this song was inspired by Hurricane Katrina, believe it or not. I was in Europe touring with Bad Religion. We could watch it on CNN every night. I imagined what it would be like … I knew that everyone from the middle-class downwards was fucked. They are not only not going to get their city back but they are going to be lucky if the government helps them with anything. And I saw families that had to scatter and when they came back to try to look for each other, they could not find each other. They ended up having these notes. And I thought of what would a father say to his kids who had to find him. And I think the best advice he could give them is, don’t be afraid to run. When the city barons and the so called government help comes to find you, it is going to be for a sinister purpose. It is not going to be to help. And it turned out, that is what happened. Developers bought up all the neighborhoods, because it was cheap land. This was a song about advice from a father to his kids. It also could have been a hundred years ago in a mining town, or it could have been thirty years ago with General Motors and the manufacturing towns.