|Category:||Interview - Internet||Publish date:||10/1/2019|
|Source:||Ultimate-guitar.com (United States)||With:||Brian Baker|
|Synopsis:||Brian talks gear and the band's latest album "Age of Unreason."|
UG recently caught up with Bad Religion’s axeman, and punk legend, Brian Baker to discuss the band’s most recent release, "Age of Unreason." You can check out the full conversation below.
Hey Brian, how are you? It’s been a while…
It sure has. I just love guitars so much. So any chance to talk to a guitar-oriented publication, be it paper, online, or on terrestrial radio, I relish that chance. I’m such a guitar nerd.
I want to talk a bit about the new[ish] album. What took so long?
You know, I think there was a lot of touring and there was also the fact that Bad Religion albums aren’t created on any sort of timeline. It’s basically just whenever Brett and Greg have written enough songs that they think are worth it, that’s when we start working on a record. Sometimes it takes a year and a half, sometimes it takes four years, this time it took over five. But I think it was due to a lack of a schedule rather than any other influence.
The writing traditionally has been Brett and Greg writing the songs and you record the guitars, is that the same way this album came together?
Yeah, that’s the system that’s been working for so long. They bring in demos which are usually pretty well fleshed out because they both have relatively sophisticated demoing situations, considering what you can do at home nowadays. So they sound good and they’re pretty well thought out and they serve as a pretty good roadmap.
How much do these songs change from the demo to what we hear on the record and how much creative freedom do you have, as a guitar player, within that space?
The good thing is that - having been with these guys for so long [since 1994], both Greg and Brett play guitar as songwriters, so when they demo, they’re kind of leaving an open space for experimentation, especially for guitars and drums. So they bring in the basics of the song - maybe a melody that is important to the overall tune that I will just replicate. But, in general, the map is more about how the song is going to run – verse chorus, bridge, fugal horn section, etc – rather than specific instructions. So there is a lot of leeway, which is great.
As far as the recording of the guitar parts, is that still mostly you?
Well, I’ve done a lot of it but now it’s kind of a fun system. It’s just whoever happens to be in the room, and I’m not kidding. There will be certain things that Brett will want me to do specifically because they just hear me playing it but on this record, there were days where I had to be gone and Mike did some stuff and then Mike had to go somewhere and I did some stuff and sometimes Brett would be working late and hear something he wanted to add or change and he would just go do it. It’s a generous way to share this, and it seems to work. It sounds kind of weird but it’s really just whoever is around unless a certain part lends itself to a certain player because Brett, Mike, and I are definitely different types of players.
That’s an interesting way to do it and I think it would require a setting aside of the egos that guitarists seem to have these days, for some reason.
Yeah, the ego thing doesn’t come into play. This band has been doing such great stuff for so long and its because the songs are good – not because the guitar solos are good or that sparkling Nashville Tuning overdub that you thought up is good, it’s because the songs are good. So were serving the song and I think that’s why we can track records this way.
You have writing credit on "Faces of Grief" – did you bring that song in?
Actually, I kind of did. Brett and I were talking and he wanted another rager – he was trying to write an aggressive song. We had been talking on the phone so I hung up and went downstairs and within about 15 min I had put the music together and I recorded it on the Voice Memo app on my phone and I texted it to him. Then he wrote words for it and we recorded it a couple of days later. It was just that simple – I was just trying to help out.
Sometimes those are the best riffs, the ones that aren’t as thought out – just spur of the moment feeling type songs.
Yeah, I think so. It’s just kind of what came out and that’s pretty much what you hear on the record is a much better recording of what was on that voice memo.
Guitar playing is a constant evolution. How have you been evolving recently as a guitar player or a songwriter?
Well as a guitar player I think I’ve just been more curious about guitar players from the past than I ever have been. Being a punk rock guitar player, there is this generic idea that everything starts and ends with Steve Jones and, if you’re lucky, you get Mick Jones in there too. But I’ve always been a little bit more curious about how things came to be and I’ve found a lot of inspiration in the basic tenants of guitar, even thinking about when the guitar become prominent, and you’re thinking about Scotty Moore and you’re thinking about Buddy Holly and Luther Perkins. There’s really a lot to that and incorporating those lessons into what I’m doing now. I also started using old guitars. I’ve been on the 1950s [Les Paul] Juniors for about three or four years now and there’s just something about that hunk of wood with an aluminum bar screwed to the top of it, that’s it. It’s just put me a little more in tune with what the guitar was 60 years ago and what I can do with it now.
As I understand it, your 1950s Juniors have been modded quite a bit, utilizing modern parts.
The stage guitars, yeah. I have a couple at home, that are all straight. But it’s not like I’m not playing them, I think they’re just there for when the stage guitar wears out. They’re not getting any cheaper and I had the opportunity to get them – I was a little late to get them when they were super cheap. The stage guitars are the ones that came to me almost as husks – one was almost a husk and the other one was complete but it had been “refurbished” shall we say, in every way with modern components so I had to adjust that.
So have you been reverting them back to their original glory or are you still using Super Distortions?
I am so fortunate to have access to the Seymour Duncan Custom Shop and in my stage guitars, I’m using ceramic magnet P-90s that are wound not quite as hot as the SD Custom P-90. They’re no noise-canceling, they’re just wide open 60 cycle hum. But that ceramic magnet is a holdover, I think, from my Super Distortion humbucker relationship which was basically that whole 70s & 80s humbucker sound which I grew up with so I wasn’t aware there were other options. I was using them mostly because I was trying to drive stock 800 JMPs just enough without having to put anything in line, which is kind of my sound. So when I got into P-90s I found that these ceramic magnets kind of fulfilled the same role, as far as gain structure. But Bad Religion is a relatively linear and consistent tone. My clean channel is just turning the knob down, otherwise, it’s pretty much the same. So I think the subtlety of the old pickups is lost if I were to play the old pickups live, but recording - I play the old pickups.
And you’re still running no effects.
Right, no effects.
I know you’re using Kempers live, are you using them in the studio at all?
No, I haven’t. I haven’t done the smart thing and made a profile of the studio amps yet. But when you record with Brett, on every song there is this awesome shootout that happens at any one time, there are maybe 10 amps set up, so it becomes a matter of finding out which amp or combination of amps is working better for the song. So he’s got some old tweed amps, which is great. There is always a number of old Marshalls of varying ages – we have a 2555, that’s about as modern as it gets – but we always have an 800, a JMP, I have some modded Plexis. So we just pick and choose from that stuff and I couldn’t tell you, from song to song, on the new record, what amps are in play because it changes that often. I haven’t profiled any of those because the sounds were always a combination of a number of things.
You mentioned a modded Plexi, I’m assuming that’s the Dookie Mod on those?
Yeah, I have one that’s a Lead Mod and one that’s the Dookie Mod and I guess there are differences between those two terms. What they are, I can’t tell you – think the Lead Mod is gainier.
Using a ceramic magnet, no pedals into a Plexi, I feel like your tone sounds gainier than it should be, on paper.
Yeah, I think so, it’s more about turning the knobs the right way. A modded Plexi can definitely go pretty heavy metal. But if you turn the knob to about 10 o’clock you’re in more of a warmer JMP sort of space. Actually, I think it’s closer to a Silver Jubilee structure that I’m working with, with these Plexis – it’s just that you don’t have that third knob – that input volume. But you can keep them from roaring. I’m still trying to be articulated – I still want to try to hear every string and I will sacrifice solo sustain to support chordal clarity. That’s just how I like to set up my stuff and if I have to fight a solo a bit more, that’s fine with me, that’s kind of how they used to do it back then anyway.
I remember last time we talked you were using the Jimmy Page #1 and #2 and I think I remember you saying that you were bypassing the tone knob, is that the case with the Juniors as well?
No, everything is 50s wiring. I don’t use the tone knob but I’m not bypassing it.
Is one of the Plexis you’re using Billie [Joe Armstrong]’s?
Yeah, I believe so. I think there are four of them and right now one of them is out. I can tell which one is his because there is some writing on it.
I’m not going to tell him if you still have it…
Oh no, he’s quite aware I have it. So yes, one of mine is his. My sense is that he probably has more than one. So I think it’s cool.
A few years back you had sort of a budding collection of vintage guitars, what have you accumulated since then? What are some of the gems of your collection? You’ve got that Custom Shop R-4 now too.
Well, it has kind of died down because once I got into Juniors, I kind of hit a wall because, where do you go from there? I bought a 1957 Special that is really straight and nice that I got through a friend. Then I have these four Juniors. But the next step up would be like player grade 50s Goldtops – you’re getting into 5 figures no matter what you do. And I’m not an investor. These are all tools that need to be used. I don’t know if that maple cap on those 50s Les Pauls, I don’t know if that’s working for me. I think part of [what I love about the Juniors] is that it’s just a slab of mahogany. It’s just more mid-y to me. So getting into that next level of collecting, I don’t know if I could use them and I don’t want to have anything I can’t use. That’s kind of contrary to the whole idea of what I’m doing. I have picked up a couple of cool Custom Shop things but that’s more because I’m addicted. I see those more as recording guitars than touring guitars. I bought an R-9 about a month and a half ago at Chicago Music Exchange. That guitar is actually out with the live stuff – I haven’t had it in my house yet. I wanted a Joe Perry but I didn’t want to pay the money for it so I found a really nice tobacco R-9 and I think it’s great – I played it a little bit at soundcheck but I haven’t really bonded with it yet. I have a couple of pickups for it that I’m going to try when I see the guitar again next week.
You take vintage instruments off the shelf, what are you looking for, what are you listening for?
Well if it’s an old guitar, before I do anything I’m looking to see if it has frets on it because I don’t have any use for original frets on anything prior to ’59. I’m also looking for balance and what it sounds like acoustically. You can really tell a lot about a guitar when it’s not plugged in. So I like to strum it and see how it resonates. I’m also looking for originality – anything that doesn’t look right or smell right – I actually smell the guitars. I bet [Joe] Bonamassa smells his guitars.
I bet he does.
I bet he does. And he knows a lot about guitars. So there’s that and then you plug it in and see what happens. But it’s all relative at a guitar store. So I usually try to plug into something – like a modern version of a tweed and not anything that’s too gain-y. Preferably something that will break up on its own. Something with 18 watts or 32 watts, something like that. Because I want to hear the guitar and not the coloring of the preamp stage. I don’t try to replicate what I’m going to use it for in Bad Religion because you’ll never be able to find that in a music store, the way it’s going to work live. And I always look for really good headstock repair to put us in the right price range. That’s always a good thing to see.
Chances are, that headstock is breaking sooner or later. If you find one that already been repaired, they’re usually stronger.
You know what, I’ve only broke one headstock myself after playing for 40 years. Only one. So I guess I have a pretty good record because I’ve done a lot of battle out there. Hardcore shows in the 80s were a busy place.
Is that how it broke?
No, after soundcheck I put the guitar down and I leaned it against the drum riser and it slid off and cracked the headstock.
That’s crazy, think about how many stage divers have run by you through the years. A couple of them might have been me.
I know! And hitting other band members. When I used to play on [Jay] Bentley’s side, it was a sword fight – there was a lot of contact going on. But amazingly, I’ve only been able to do it one time.
I do a thing every October, around Halloween where I compile a bunch of gear related horror stories. In all your years dealing with your beautiful vintage instruments, what’s the most horrifying thing that’s ever happened to a piece of your gear?
Well, there was a guitar repair that was pretty astonishing. I had my main guitar, which for a long time, was this white SG. I had it in my early band Dag Nasty and I had it in Junkyard and I had it when I started in Bad Religion. It had broken previously at the neck joint and it had been repaired but I broke it again, falling onstage, and it broke in a different spot. I took it to this great shop that was highly recommended in Hollywood – I’ve actually forgotten the name of it so I don’t even have to hide the name. But I brought the guitar in and they were like, ‘we can absolutely fix this, no problem, we’ll let you know when it’s done.’ So left the guitar there. It was my stage guitar so it’s got some issues like it was missing a truss rod cover and missing a knob and it was kind of dirty – I brought it there right from the road. So they call me a couple of weeks later and tell me it’s all done. So I go to get the guitar and it is strung up to pitch, it has a new truss rod cover, a new knob, but the neck is still broken. So that was an interesting experience for me, where they totally missed the part where we had the in-depth discussion about the break at the neck joint. Like the string tension was pulling the neck up off the body. That was mind blowing to me – but I got a new truss rod cover.
That’s a score... those are like $8.
Another time, we had a tech in Bad Religion many years ago and I do remember one time, at soundcheck, looking over and seeing that Greg Heston’s guitar was on fire. He had it on his desk and I don’t know what was happening, I assume it was a soldering mishap, but there were flames everywhere. It was pretty great. It was his 61 SG Les Paul so it was like, ‘if you’re going to set fire to something, make sure it’s a vintage guitar’.
I love the smell of burning that good old nitrocellulose.
Yeah, exactly. That was great. We still laugh about it to this day. The best thing about it was, and we still use this line today, his response was ‘I’m sorry guys…’ I like that he apologized to all of us, not just the owner of the guitar. He was a nice guy, just maybe not that handy.
You mentioned not being able to get the Bad Religion tone from a guitar shop. For everyone out there who wants to play Bad Religion songs, how do you get that Bad Religion tone? What is at the core of it?
It’s really the simplest thing. I would just say it’s a Les Paul through a Marshall. The Bad Religion tone, even though we’re using P-90s now, when you hear it on records isn’t quite the same as live. If you want to have the standard [tone on the records] I would say it’s a 24.75 scale humbucker guitar through a non-modded Marshall amplifier of pretty much any stripe. For example, the Kempers I have on stage, and I use two Kempers and two cabs – mirroring what I used to do with conventional heads, those are just profiles of a stock 800 that I bought new in 1989. I just profiled that one head and that’s what is in those Kempers. I’m not using anything that came with them and I’m not searching the web for new profiles. I’m not using any effects or any gate or anything like that.
There has to be some subtleties to how you play because a Les Paul through a Marshall is the signature tone of a wide array of bands.
Of everybody, yeah, because it’s not broken. And yes, there are subtleties that do come from the player and I only know how to do about 10 things but I’ve refined them. But there is a certain tonality that comes from the hands and the way you attack the strings. But the basis of the Bad Religion sound has always been the humbucker rand the non-modded Marshall.
Are you guys already working on the next album?
No, I’m not really thinking about a new album right now because this one is still developing and there is a lot of world yet to play. 2020 is going to be a busy year for us, it’s our 40th Anniversary year. We have a book coming out at the end of the year – it’ll be our first authorized, somewhat participatory, biography of Bad Religion. So there is a lot more to do with this record. The good thing about Bad Religion is that you don’t really have to have a new product out to go work. The catalogue we have is so extensive and we are so fortunate to have the fan base that we have. So we don’t really worry about a new album cycle, those thing just sort of come when they come. The next one might take four or five years, it might take two, I don’t know. It’s just about whether songs have come together in a way that is respectful of the Bad Religion standard. But in the meantime, we have Brazil to rock.
...And Mexico, you guys are busy.
Yeah and a lot of places we haven’t been yet on this record, which is another great honor is to be able to play so many great countries when we do a new record. It’s great because people show up – even at places we haven’t played in a long time. It’s still just as fun for me to play those places now as it was 25 years ago.
Are there touring plans beyond October that we haven’t seen yet?
Yeah, we’re going to be going to Australia in December for some festival shows. Then in 2020, we’re going to do an extensive US Tour. We’ve focused on the US this year and sort of underappreciated our European friends so we’ll go over there at least a couple times to do some festivals and then do a city-by-city tour. We need to go back to Japan, which is a glorious experience. I highly recommend it as a musician or just as someone who wants to see and eat great stuff. Going to Japan is a privilege and everyone should do it – look for cheap flights. So we definitely want to get back there.
Sounds like things are going to be crazy with Bad Religion. Have you had any time to work with any of your other bands?
Yeah, Dag Nasty has been on a bit of a hiatus recently just due to time constraints because I’ve been so busy with Bad Religion. I do have my fabulous local hardcore band Beach Rats, which is myself, Ari [Katz] from Lifetime, and Pete [Steinkopf] and Brian [Kienlen] from the Bouncing Souls, and our friend [Danny Windas] plays drums. It’s great to be in a New Jersey hardcore band. We all live very close to eachother – like within a mile or two – and our whole idea with this band is that we only want to play basements or festivals, nothing in between. So far we’ve done pretty well. We’ve played a couple of bars and we’ve done pretty well as far as doing only basements or the big stage. We’re going to be recording a follow up to the EP over the winter. I’m in another band called Fake Names and we’ve been working on a full length that will be coming out on Epitaph next spring. That band is myself, Dennis Lyxzen from Refused, Johnny Temple who is in Girls Against Boys and Soulside, and the other guitar player is Michael Hampton who is in SOA, The Faith, and Embrace, so he’s an old friend from DC Hardcore. And we have made this record which we think is great. It’s a fun record and Dennis is awesome on it. It’s a cool, ‘friends hanging out’ kind of record and it sounded so good we figured we should see if someone wanted to put it out and Brett wanted to put it out. So that’s where we are. I hope people like it.
There are a couple of other things that I want to clear up, quick. Wikipedia claims that you turned down an offer to join R.E.M. Is that true?
No, I was asked to be a touring musician with REM, to be kind of a utility infielder.
There is another rumor I came across, that you jammed with Santana when you were a young man.
This is true. I believe I was 12 and I did jam with Santana at Cobo Hall in 1977 I think. It was during an encore. It was just one of life’s crazy things. I was backstage…well the story is kind of long…
I love stories… if you have time…
Oh of course. I lived in Michigan and I was in a cover band in 8th grade and the drummer’s father owned a really nice seafood restaurant in Detroit. This is a restaurant where Santana and his crew would always go anytime they played in Detroit. They had been doing this for years, as bands do, they have their favorite spot. So they came to the restaurant and they gave the drummer, his name was Billy, backstage passes for me and Billy to go see Santana. That was incredibly exciting. I’m sure we played “Black Magic Woman” in our cover band because you just do that if its 1977 and you’re 12 and you’re in an 8th grade cover band. So we go to the show and what I believe was their tour manager gives Billy and I the tour of backstage and they had this tuning room and there was maybe 10 or 15 guitars in there and I’m 12 and I don’t know protocol, so I just walk up and start playing one of those guitars. I just felt like I had walked into a music store. I didn’t really think about it. I guess the tour manager watched me play for a little bit – no one yelled at me or took the guitar away. Then we moved on to the rest of the tour and to get us some Cokes or whatever. I didn’t really think much of it. Then we were watching the show from the side of the stage and when the encore came up, I noticed that Billy is being led up on stage to the bongo area and I was like ‘Jesus Christ! Billy is on stage’ and the next thing I know there is a guitar tech coming towards me and he has this Les Paul that he put around my neck and he walks me out on stage and plugs me into like a Boogie Mark II and it’s just unbelievably overwhelming. The photo alone is pretty great because it’s just me jamming with Carlos in Frye Boots and this expression of fear on my face. So they brought me out and I don’t remember what I was playing, I was just jamming with them. I don’t remember what song it was. But it was all kind of a blur. I remember that Carlos leaned down and asked my name and I told him and he said into the mic, ‘here’s my friend Brian’ and sort of held my arm up. So we did some Santana style jamming and it was probably in G. It was nuts. That was my first arena show – like the first time I went to a real rock concert. Eventually everybody went home and the reason I have photos is because, somehow, one of the photographers got in touch with my parents and said, ‘I’ve got pictures of Brian jamming with Carlos Santana, do you want to buy them’ and of course they did so that why I have them – there were two different shots.
Was that the first time you played a Les Paul?
No my first guitar was a 1965 Epiphone Olympic and my second guitar was a 73 Les Paul Deluxe. When I got it, it was a Deluxe, but by the time I was done with it, it was full on Ace Frehley with three DiMarzio humbuckers in it and mini switches. I put a brass nut on there – every single 70s mod you could do when you’re a kid.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today.
I love the site and I will talk guitars forever, anytime. So thank you!
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