By Gabriel Sigler
Bad Religion may be one of the most consistent punk bands of all time. With the band approaching their 40th anniversary (!) next year, it would be easy for them to coast along on fan nostalgia, and simply bang out their greatest hits on the festival circuit each summer. Yet the band continues to release exciting new albums that also manage to push their patented melodic West Coast punk style into new directions, including on the caustic new Age of Unreason LP, the band’s 17th studio album, and their first during the Trump era.
We caught up with Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker (also of Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, and Junkyard fame) by phone from his home in New Jersey to discuss Bad Religion’s long-awaited response to the Trump administration, why he’s getting back into basement shows, his Beach Rats project with members of The Bouncing Souls and Lifetime, and even a few scoops on the band’s upcoming 40th anniversary plans, including a major tour and an upcoming biography of the band.
Bad Religion play ’77 Montreal on July 26 at Parc Jean-Drapeau, with Pennywise, The Exploited, OFF!, The Avengers, Cro-Mags, Streetlight Manifesto, and more. Passes are available here.
Bad Feeling Mag: Age of Unreason is the first Bad Religion album in the Trump administration — was there anything in particular you wanted to tackle or do differently this time?
Brian Baker: Well, the album came about in a very organic way, much like all of them do. The reason it took so long to come out, was because we just didn’t have the songs yet. [Laughs] It’s kind of a happy coincidence, I mean obviously the Trump administration is pretty much tailor-made for a punk rock response, and in the case of Bad Religion, I think it’s definitely in our wheelhouse. But Greg [Graffin] and Brett [Gurewitz] didn’t really start writing until maybe like a year before the record came out, so that’s what was fresh. Both of those guys, they don’t write to task — they’re actual real writers, like the kind I wish I was! [Laughs] So, what they’re putting out is exactly how they felt that day, and this is how you get Age of Unreason.
Brett did an interview with The LA Times last year, where he described it as an album’s worth of “Fuck Trump” songs; is that the way you think it came out?
I think Brett was being a little bit self-effacing. There are songs clearly on the record that are a direct reference to Trump, but I mean, Bad Religion has never really been a “Fuck Trump” kind of…”Fuck Authority,” nihilist…that’s really not how we do things. And there are a number of songs on the record that have absolutely nothing to do with the current administration to which we are held hostage.
People have often said there is a “Bad Religion sound,” but especially with the last few albums it really feels like you’re stretching out stylistically — is that the goal from the start? Or does that come about in the song writing process?
I’m loathe to keep using the word “organic,” because when I hear other people use it I roll my eyes into the back of my head, but it’s really an apt word here, because the songs, as things have kind of expanded, it’s really just a result of writing songs that sound like songs you’d like to listen to, or the writer likes to listen to. There’s no grand plan of any kind. No like, “Well, we have to have a perfect ratio of sort of Rolling Stones-based mid-tempo songs.” It’s really a reflection of the kind of music that everyone likes to listen to. And it’s fun to play things other than 180 beats-per-minute + punk rock, though that is still awesome too. And also, the skill of the players, each rotation we keep moving up, and it’s just so nice, to be able to play pretty much anything you can think of effortlessly which is what those guys do. It’s just cool. So that’s really how it is, it kind of just happens on its own.
It must be freeing as well, since the ability to stream music has opened audiences up to so many kinds of music that they probably weren’t aware of 20 years ago. Does that help when you’re putting these songs together, knowing that you have a bit more leeway than you might have had in the past?
You know, I don’t think it’s occurred to anybody. We haven’t needed more songs since the 20th century. And we are very conscious of not becoming a heritage act. And the way to do that, and the way to remain somewhat relevant, is to continue to try and put out great records, and to basically continue to practice this art. In the nicest, most grateful way possible, like, we’ve done a pretty good thing now. We’re not trying to like, climb up a ladder of any kind. This is just where we are, and we are really lucky to be here, and I would just like to stay where we are until we don’t enjoy playing anymore. And that’s kind of our mutual goal. Don’t fuck it up [Laughs], but this idea of like, “Oh, we’ve got to generate a new audience,” that just doesn’t really apply to us. I guess that’s part of the great thing about having this legacy and this pedigree, and just kind of the credibility that you cannot buy. You can only earn real credibility, and Bad Religion and a lot of other bands of our era have earned it. So spend it wisely. And to me, that’s spending it playing songs on-stage that I love.
Bad Religion is really in a place where you don’t need to release another album, since the band has such a deep catalogue. How difficult is it to narrow that down for a setlist every night?
It’s not too hard. Some records would come out and we would only play maybe two or three songs in the set, because when you look at it in context that’s still a huge chuck. This record, I played a few days ago, I think we play five currently, and I think that’s going to be the saturation point, and what we’re going to do as we move on through the rest of this year’s touring, and 2020, where we’re going to be very active for the 40th anniversary, is we’ll probably just be swapping stuff out. These songs are just going over so great, and they’re so much fun to play. Also, we really do try to change the setlist every night, and we’re very lucky to have all these great songs to choose from. We’re spending four minutes a night playing “The Dichotomy” from Into The Unknown. That’s not a band who’s trying to win anybody over. [Laughs]
Is that the first time you guys have done that? I thought the band didn’t even like talking about that album anymore.
No, it’s fine. It’s like, a young man who really enjoys Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes with a keyboard, makes record in his early 20’s, I don’t know. No, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. But the way it came up? No discussion of any kind. We were at one of our rehearsals before we started the tour, just shaking the rust off. We are fluent in probably 200 songs…but we have to pick songs that have a reasonable chance of being played, and make sure that we’re familiar with them. We learned the whole No Control record, for instance, which is really handy. But to answer your question, Jay just started playing the bass riff, or the keyboard part on his bass. And I think Greg was in the room, and just immediately started singing, and I’m like, “What the hell is that?!” And they’re like, “It’s “The Dichotomy.”” And the next thing you knew, we were playing a version of it, but with our instrumentation rather than the somewhat esoteric and spacey version [laughs] from the record. It’s really fun, and about 2% of the audience gets it, but when they get it, you just see it, the mouths dropping open, it’s really great. It’s fun, and it breaks up the set. They can’t all be “Do What You Want.””
I saw you in Austin last year, and you did the Suffer album in its entirety, and a few years before you did these “era” specific shows; did you enjoy that process? Would you like to do something like that again?
Well, it’s really hard to do, it’s exhausting. It’s a challenge. I don’t know if we’re going to do era-specific stuff anymore, because I think that our body of work should really be seen less as…placement in time, you know? It’s not like, “Here’s a record from 1980,” it should be, “Here’s our first record.” Just breaking them all up, at the time we did that it was probably the right thing to do, but I don’t see that happening.
Playing the records in their entirety, is…the thing about doing Suffer, the idea was that it would just be the encore. And that’s what we did. And that was cool, because that’s completely unexpected. And also, the Suffer anniversary I think is somewhat more significant than the No Control, because Suffer really was the beginning of the band again. It’s definitely an album that is critically acclaimed to be, “This is kind of when punk came back”. No Control is a great record, but it doesn’t have the weight of Suffer. We played that in its entirety as encores, we’ve done it maybe five or six times, but we’re not advertising it. And lately, we’re just taking songs that we’ve never played before and sticking them in the set. It’s just really hard to do that entire record. And here’s a hint: [whispers] not all the songs are great.
Side A is pretty banging, if you ever want to do just that.
We mess with it every night, that’s not a bad idea. But you see the point. Doing the parlour trick of doing it in its entirety, still on a lot of records leaves you with, “Well, here’s why this was the 11th song.” It’s because it’s not as good as the first and third. [Laughs] And when you have as many songs as we do, there’s no time for that. Every song has to be special.
Are you a fan of those full album shows? Is there anyone you’d like to see perform an album show like that?
That’s interesting…you know, off the top of my head I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do that. But I don’t really go to a lot of…I don’t go to a lot of shows where the bands are big enough that that type of advertising…you have to have some kind of history to be able to say, “Hey, we’re playing our hit album from 1992.” Like, I see a lot of those kinds of bands at my day job, [Laughs] and so when I’m off tour, I just go to like, weird shit. Like, little basement shows. It’s not like I’m not trying to see them, I just don’t go to like, quote-unquote “concerts,” unless I’m playing them.
What kind of shows do you go see when you’re not on tour with the band?
There’s a lot of little shows that happen here [New Jersey], there’s shows that happen at the Asbury Park Brewery, which is just like a little annex in the back of a working factory. It’s not like a bar, it’s a little 100-person space, and a good friend of mine has been booking it for a long time. And there’s always just crazy shit going there. There’s a bigger venue called House of Independents, which is right in Asbury that another friend of mine books, they’ll have national acts there, but a lot of times they’ll have just the same thing, a pile of weird, like, Central New Jersey lunacy, and it’s just awesome. It reminds me of how all over the place things were when I first started listening to this music as a kid. And I guess I’m kind of doing the same thing. My mid-life crisis is that I’m really getting into things that were really important to me when I was 15, and I’m really liking it.
Does that feeling tie into the Beach Rats band that you’re doing?
100%. Beach Rats is exactly that, and our whole edict was, we don’t want to play anything but basements and festivals. Like, nothing in-between. [Laughs] Just completely buck the normal scene, because obviously it’s like, me and the [Bouncing Souls] guys, that’s what we do anyway. And so that’s it. We played New Year’s Eve in my basement [Laughs], we played the Asbury Park Brewery, we’re playing this huge festival that Dave Matthews is headlining, the Sea.Hear.Now festival at the end of September, which is just hilarious. And also, our set’s like 15 minutes, because with punk, you don’t need more. Like, “I’m done, thank you. This is what I had to say.” But yeah, that’s exactly it. It’s going to these little shows, and all of us were like, “We should do a fun hardcore band.” Not that our real bands aren’t fun, but you know what I mean, it’s a whole different thing.
So far it’s proved to be pretty cool. We put out a single, I guess it’s an EP, a 5-song EP, and I think it’s great, it’s really fun. We were hoping to do another EP this winter, but it just didn’t happen. There’s obviously no schedule for us. And so now I think what we have to do, is we’re going to do a full-length, but we won’t be able to get into that until the winter, when everyone’s touring dies down. We have a bunch of new songs, but not quite enough for a record yet. And we only write when we’re in the room together.
You mentioned the upcoming 40th anniversary of the band earlier; what can you let us know about your plans for next year?
Well, there’s going to be a book. Our good friend Jim Ruland, in punk, his most notable thing is that he collaborated with Keith Morris on his book My Damage. And that’s really more of…memoir is probably apt, ours is really more the biography. And so, it’s a little less songs and stories, and a little more of the author. And we’re not quite sure what the name is, so tentatively we’re running with this, tell me how you like it: Bad Religion: The Biography. [Laughs] If that winds up being it, I’m pretty comfortable with it.
What about: “How Could This Book Be Any Worse?”
[Laughs] That’s an interesting way to look at it. So this book, I assume, I think we’re looking at a summer release. We’re booking things now, we’re hoping to put together a really cool tour of North America, maybe put together some bands that we don’t normally play with, and try to make it into a little more of an event. We’re developing things now, that I think will be appropriate to commemorate this milestone, and keep us busy, and hopefully keep everyone happy who likes the band.
Looking at the schedule for ’77 Montreal, is there anyone in particular you’re looking forward to see or reacquaint with?
The Exploited! 100%, absolutely. I haven’t seen The Exploited since before Wattie had like, his first heart attack, I know he’s been sick twice, and I know that he’s come back twice. It’s funny, I’ve met that guy a bunch if times, and he’s really nice, and I’m sure you’ve heard this from people who know him, I can’t understand a word he says. Like, he knows my name, because we’re both old people in the same place at the same time, so he knows me, but there’s just not much conversation. But I have not seen him play in maybe five or six years, and I’m totally stoked, because I have great respect for lifers, and for survivors. And there are some really good Exploited songs, the body of work is what it is, but I just totally like somebody who’s still…he is out there doing it because it’s what he does. It doesn’t ring of desperation, it’s like, “This is the thing I do, and I love it.”
So I definitely want to see them. And I’m going to miss Pennywise, because I’ve seen ’em 250 times. I’m going to fuck with them in catering, but then I’m not going to pay any attention. [Laughs]
That’s the headline right there, thank you!
If you were writing for a periodical in the UK, that in fact would be the headline. “Baker Disavows Fletcher!” We’re so linked, you know?