Bad Religion
Interview by: Luke Harlow

Bad Religion formed in 1980. The founding members were Greg Graffin, Brett Gurewitz, and Jay Bentley. Closely attached to the history of Bad Religion is that of Epitaph Records, founded by Gurewitz initially as a means to put out Bad Religion records. After a number of changes, a break-up and a re-uniting of the band, they added Greg Hetson to play guitar and had Pete Finestone on drums. This launched the modern Bad Religion with 1988's Suffer. In 1989 they released No Control, Against the Grain in 1990 and Bad Religion 80-85, a collection of early material, in 1991. Bobby Schayer replaced Finestone on drums for 1992's Generator, and they went on to release Recipe for Hate in 1993. They left Epitaph Records in 1993 for Atlantic Records, releasing Stranger than Fiction in 1994. Following that album, Brett Gurewitz left the band to focus on running Epitaph Records and the band added Brian Baker, to take Gurewitz's place on guitar. In 1995, Epitaph released All Ages, kind of a "greatest hits" album from the early days through Generator. The band released The Gray Race in 1996, Tested a compilation of live songs in 1997, No Substance in 1998, and The New America in 2000. After The New America, Bad Religion underwent some significant changes. One, Bobby Schayer developed a condition in his shoulder that significantly limited his range of motion; as a result, he left the band. Two, Brett Gurewitz returned to the band and Bad Religion returned to Gurewitz's Epitaph Records. Their new album, The Process of Belief, is due out in January 2002. The current lineup is: Greg Graffin-vocals, Brett Gurewitz-guitar, Greg Hetson-guitar, Brian Baker-guitar, Jay Bentley-bass, and Brooks Wackerman-drums

Brian Baker, who is arguably one of the most legendary guitarists in punk rock history has a resume that even the cursory punk fan must respect: He played in Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, Junkyard, Meatmen, Government Issue, Samhain before joining Bad Religion. Bad Religion, simply, is one of the most important bands in punk rock history. I have long wanted to do an interview. On November 30, 2001, I got to talk to Brian over the phone. Not only was it a great experience because of my personal interest in Bad Religion and Brian's work, but he is probably the most articulate interviewee I have ever spoken with. The following is the most engaging interview I have ever had the privilege of doing:


Luke: You just got done recording a new album, what should we expect?

Brian: At the very least, it's the best Bad Religion record I've ever been on. Of that I can assure you. In my seven-year tenure with the band, I've never spent more time trying to make something and expended more energy in doing so. One of the nice little things about life is that it seems as if it is a formula for getting something really wonderful. We really worked hard, we wanted to make a monster record, and it's a pivotal record for us. It is the return of Brett Gurewitz, who is, I would have to say a relatively important aspect of Bad Religion's history and song writing. We wanted to make sure this record was wonderful and I really think we have. I am very, very proud of it.

Luke: On the last record, "The New America," it seemed like you toned down some of the harshness, the "up frontness" of the lyrics. People liked it, people didn't. We've heard with this new album that it is a return to the Bad Religion of old, yet it is going to blow people away with some new things. Can you give us some insight and give us some comparison of the two?

Brian: I think the main difference is that when Brett Gurewitz is contributing as a writer, what happens is the bar is raised. I had been a Greg Graffin fan long before I was in the band and I think he has written some of my favorite Bad Religion songs. But this man has been trying to go it alone for the last seven years. Brett's return has not only given us that Bad Religion sound that had been put in the back seat, but it is really these two guys working together and playing each other's music that has made everything better. I don't envy Greg in having to be thought provoking and poignant on sixteen songs all by himself. That is a very difficult job for a songwriter. I think this new collaboration is why this record has so much fire to it. If you're focusing on eight songs instead of sixteen, because they basically split the writing chores, that extra attention and extra focus really makes everything better.

Luke: Obviously it is quite clear what your position is on Brett returning to the band. What has the outside reaction been toward Brett Gurewitz returning, and the flipside of that, Bad Religion returning to Epitaph Records?

Brian: The return of Brett and the return to Epitaph have been very positive amongst both people who have never really had a problem with Bad Religion being on a major label… It is really a win-win situation. Everyone who has remained loyal to the band and stayed with us are as excited as those who as soon as we went to a major label said, "That's it for me." I'm not even going to argue the logic there because I find it a little flawed, but nevertheless, that's how people are and they certainly have a right to be that way. There are people who felt once the band went to a major label and Brett left, it was no longer the special thing that had been important to them. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I haven't really heard any negatives. We have a pretty large internet presence, I talk to a lot of people electronically and everybody seems really, really excited about it.

Luke: It seems as if Bad Religion is closing an open and or something. In terms of the history of punk rock, Bad Religion and its members span that history. It is kind of hard to talk about punk rock on some level without including Bad Religion in that conversation. You yourself were in Minor Threat and Dag Nasty. Do you ever get a sense that people are falling all over you, that this is really important to people, or is it more of a laid-back affair?

Brian: To be honest, I am amazed how important it is to a lot of people. For myself, this has been my life. All these things I have done musically, these aren't choices I have made or things I necessarily set out to do. It has all been pretty organic. I was fifteen when I was in Minor Threat. I had funny hair, didn't like my parents, and knew how to play an instrument. That was the long and short of it. I had absolutely no concept of what this would mean to people. Everything has sort of gone that way. I mean, with Bad Religion, the guys called me up and said, Brett's leaving the band, do you want to play? I thought it sounded like fun. I am constantly amazed at how important all of these things have been to people. Of course, I am very proud of it. I don't mean to sell them short and act like I don't care about them. I certainly do. To me, I guess I am so much of an insider in this because it has been my life, I'm not thinking about motivating a generation of punk rockers, I'm worried about whether or not my G-String is in tune. It's really an interesting thing. People seem to like all this stuff and that's great, I hope they continue to do so. I just think it would be a shame if I behave as if that was the goal here. All of this has been a happy accident and I think it should be treated as such, at least that is how I do.

Luke: Along those same lines, the punk rock ideal is very much about having no rock stars, no idol worship of the musicians. But, on the other hand, there are bands that have inevitably been elevated. You have The Clash, the Ramones, others, and I would put Bad Religion in that conversation. Do you think that says something about the punk rock ideal? Has Bad Religion presupposed certain basic punk rock doctrines?

Brian: When you think about being elevated to some – and let's just use the term for discussion even though I abhor it – "rock star" status, there are two ways that you can do that. One is if it is an organic thing and the people who are elevating you are the people listening to your music. It is an entirely different thing if the people playing the music are attempting to affect this lifestyle. That is the beauty of The Clash and that is the beauty of the Ramones. All of these people, when you meet Joe Strummer, he's a guy with an English accent who just got his teeth fixed. He's not a rock star. I know members of virtually every seminal punk rock band on the earth, with the exception of the members of the Sex Pistols—thank you very much. I have never met an arrogant, self-serving person who thinks that what they've done is so important that there should be a separation between them and the audience. Conversely, when you're in the audience and you have you're heroes… Punk rock is a lot different than when we started. In 1980, in Minor Threat or Bad Religion or a lot of these bands, when everybody was in their incubatory stage, the anti-rock star thing was also a bi-product of the fact that you were exposed to one fiftieth of the people who currently exposed to this kind of music. It was much more of an insular club and there was much more of a belief system that has become a little bit watered down over time. I mean, I've been on tour with Blink 182, ok? This is not the same kind of thing that I was dealing seeing Black Flag and being so scared I had to hide in the bathroom when I was fifteen years old. I thought they were going to beat me up because I was in the audience. There was this visceral, very small and frightening thing about punk rock that made it so dangerous, and it is not dangerous anymore. So, it is appealing to a broader section of the population. And whenever you get into a broad section of the population, you get rock fans, and you get autographs, you get Ebay, people want to get your guitar pick. I don't want to put anyone down because of the belief system they've developed, but that has seeped into what we call punk rock and it really is a product of how big this musical form has become. It is actually a section in Tower Records, like "Jazz." What is that? I used to have to drive thirty miles to go and get some Bad English punk single from the one weird guy who sold punk records in Washington, DC. So that's why this quasi-rock star thing has come to be. That is what Americans do. It explains REO Speedwagon, you know?

Luke: This an often asked question, but I don't think it hurts to revisit it. Bad Religion has always dealt with some amount of controversy, one, for the name, and two, for the "crossbuster" logo. On the band's website, you have kids saying things like their Bad Religion shirts have been banned from school, and things like that. Will you address what the name and crossbuster logo are all about? Bad Religion has said things like it is not necessarily about being anti-Christianity or anti-religion. What are the ideals of the band? I know this is really broad, but I am sure you've addressed it enough times.

Brian: I am happy to help you with this. The name Bad Religion and the crossbuster logo came to pass in the minds of two fifteen year olds in the midst of the Jerry Falwell scandal in 1980. They were trying to find the most offensive name and image they could possibly find for the punk band they were starting in their garage and "Dead Kennedys" was already taken. These are not people who thought that twenty-one years later they would be on the telephone doing interviews. So you have the name, which, in a pissed off fifteen year old kid's mind, is a cool name and it looks pretty cool on your jacket. Let's fast forward. Here we are now. I'm in a band with six people. Some people believe in God, some people do not. There are atheists, there are agnostics, and I'm not going to say there are any practicing Catholics and we have to have fish on the rider on Fridays, but there are people who lead a much more spiritual life than others, just within the six members of this band. There is absolutely nothing wrong with people who find peace and value in religion. What we have is this name that we are forced now to deal with. The way we manage to get out of it, or to try to make sense of it, is this crossbuster logo and this Bad Religion name really represent anti-dogmatic thinking. You can't just say we were kids and it was a bad name. I do like the fact that people get thrown out of school for wearing that t-shirt because I don't think you should get thrown out of school for wearing that t-shirt. It is a fundamental human right, and I think the Constitution protects them. Plus, there are far more offensive images that people are exposed to on network television. We just have to use it as a euphemism for not being told what to do. Unfortunately, people take it the wrong way and I don't like to offend people who are devout, but then again, it is just a punk band. Part and parcel of that is that you are going to make people pissed off a little bit. It is an interesting way to come to terms with the issue and I can't really define it, I'm sort of free-associating to explain my feelings on it.

Luke: What's your take on the current wave of vague religious expression we have been seeing in America in light of the September 11 attacks? Call it the American Civil Religion, call it what you will, but there has obviously been heightened religious language like "In God We Trust" in the public sector. What are your thoughts?

Brian: I think people think that it is the right thing to do. I think that people who do not practice a faith specifically, but will write down "Lutheran" or "Jewish" on an order form if asked a question are seeing a situation—which is understandable in this current terrorist situation—that makes you want to unite with your neighbor. You know, everybody's a little bit scared. There's nothing wrong with tipping your hat to the man upstairs if he's there or if he isn't because you can't lose. It's very American. It's on the money. You know the "Founding Fathers" thing, "God Bless America," "In God We Trust." Those slogans embody what we know to be America and people are latching on to them in a way that they wouldn't if this tragedy had not happened. I don't think any harm can come of it and if it awakens somebody's spirituality as a result of this tragedy, then fine. That's good for them.

Luke: You currently have several bands taking a stance saying they are members of a certain faith, be it Christian, Muslim, Hare Krishna, and so on. Is there a place in punk rock for those types of bands? You talked about the ways in which punk rock has changed over the years, is seeing bands of faith one example of that?

Brian: There was always a place for that. I mean, the whole point of this punk rock thing was individuality, doing what you want to do. It doesn't hurt that this form of expression is based on not having any rules. A Muslim punk rock band is a beautiful thing…if they're good. (laughter) I mean, you are judged on what you're doing. What you believe in, there is nothing more punk to me. One of my favorite punk bands ever is the Bad Brains, who in 1981 all of a sudden decided that they were Rastafarians and they aren't joking. That didn't really affect their reputation. "I Against I" is still one of the best punk records ever written. I think it is part and parcel to punk rock for people to be able to do that.

Luke: The more relevant, the more important you get, the more stories float around about you. There seems to be a lot of that with you in particular, Brian Baker, have been offered positions in big time bands like R.E.M. and Guns N Roses. Truth or fiction, is there a story behind that?

Brian: True. There aren't really stories, just decisions. Actually, before I joined Bad Religion, I was given a tryout to tour with R.E.M., it wasn't to join and be the fourth Beatle for God's sakes. They needed someone to replace Scott Holzapfel who had toured with them as a second guitar player. I tried out with them because we had mutual friends and I got the gig. Unfortunately for them, I guess, there was a lag time. They weren't scheduled to start rehearsing for a few months. I think this would have been for the "Monster" tour. I think about a week after they called and said I had the gig, Bad Religion called. It really wasn't a difficult decision, because what I was offered in R.E.M. was really a sideman status. In Bad Religion, I was to be a contributing band member. The choice was very simple for me.
There have been many other ones besides that. I mean, Guns N Roses, whatever. Tommy Stinson called and said they were doing this Guns N Roses thing and asked if I wanted to come and play guitar. I thought about it for a day and said, "Well… no." It is no big deal. I have been this guitar player for quite a long time and I've done studio stuff for other things. I've played with Joan Jett and I've played with Rick Ocasik, it's not any big deal. I get calls to do stuff and sometimes I do them and sometimes I don't.

Luke: Well, I think the average punk kid does think it is a big deal. Maybe there is a little more myth attached to it for them.

Brian: I didn't make these decisions because of some punk ideal at all. It was like, I don't want to do this Guns N Roses thing because I don't know who's in Guns N Roses anymore and I'm in Bad Religion and I really like it. So I didn't go down to the tryouts. It wasn't like they were saying they would send me a plane and fit me for my top hat. It was more like asking if I wanted to go jam and see if it works out.

Luke: Getting back to one of the initial questions, it doesn't seem like your "major label years" really hurt the band in terms of getting new listeners or appealing to a certain kind of audience. That is my perception, what do you think?

Brian: I agree with you. I think there was an initial backlash, but what was really refreshing—and something I seem to understand intuitively, maybe because I play music—people began to understand that the label that gets it to the record store has absolutely nothing to do with what's on the record. I think there was a general understanding of that that fell over the punk community. So many punk rock bands actually wound up on some form of a major label. People began to realize The Clash were on a major label, The Jam were on a major label, and the Sex Pistols, and Stiff Little Fingers, and U.K. Subs, and so on. People began to realize that we weren't on Atlantic for them to mold us into N'Snyc. We were on Atlantic because Brett couldn't run Epitaph and run the band at the same time. For us it was such a small thing, we were just going to change the distributor. There was no financial motivation, like we would make a million dollars. There was none of that. Atlantic took a band that had already proven, that had generated a following all on their own, and all they did was they were smart enough to realize not to screw around with that. They put our records out. When we came to the end of our contract with Atlantic, at that same time Brett was coming back to the band. We all aren't stupid men and thought, "Wouldn't it be good to be on the label that is owned by the guitar player in your band? That might be a good idea." It was really that simple. I mean, obviously there some history to it and all that, but it was just the right thing to do. I don't want to act like we are bumbling through all this and we don't care, because we obviously do, but once again, it wasn't that big a deal. It was like, well, we could go re-up for some records with Atlantic or we could do Epitaph and Brett was like, I think you should do Epitaph, I would like you to be on my label. So we were like, ok. I mean, it is all the same, especially now. The Epitaph of 1993, pre-Offspring Epitaph was not as an efficient a method to get your records to Kuala Lumpur as it is now. There is no downside to being on Epitaph, so here we are. And it is great, it's awesome, I have friends who have worked their forever. It's cool, it feels right. Atlantic was cool, those people were great, I don't have anything bad to say about them or the experience. I'm still friends with a lot of people we worked with there. Everyone seems pretty happy. We're trying to make records and have a good time and that seems to be happening. This is a completely valid question. I get it all the time. I understand what the schism is. There are people who once more than ten people know about something, it is not special to them anymore. That is just something you come to terms with as you get older, as you realize that in life, everything can't be yours. Sharing with the rest of the world is sort of part of the deal of becoming an adult.

Luke: The Epitaph label in general seems to be harnessing many of the "older," more vintage—and I don't mean vintage in a bad way—bands. These are people that have been around for a long time, that have done works that are considered impressive and have left a legacy in punk rock history. Did that play any part? You mentioned you know people from virtually every seminal punk rock band, do you have a sense of that?

Brian: The reason why Epitaph has so many of these bands is that so many of them have been with Epitaph since almost the very beginning. That's why you have Pennywise and NOFX, who I think are still considered to be relatively high profile and important punk rock bands who have been with the label for ten years. Another thing is that Epitaph is a really good label and they have lots of really good bands. If you are known as a seminal band, that must mean somebody thinks you're pretty good. That's just the nature of the beast. Bad Religion going to Epitaph, I really didn't think of it in those terms, like we were rejoining the fold of our ilk. I didn't really think of it that far, it was more of, "Hey, that's a great idea, why don't we do that?" "Cool. Now we don't have to put anything down on paper. It's easier that way."

Luke: For me, I thoroughly love Bad Religion because I find the band challenging and I think you raise the intellectual bar for punk rock kids. I think it is cool that a band is so outspoken about studying, learning, and bringing culture up. Attached to that, I am also an evangelical Christian. Do you think that it is odd that a person of that particular religious strain would find appeal in your band?

Brian: Absolutely not. The basic core of the Bad Religion message has been to provoke independent thought, to ponder life's complexities, to ponder bigger social problems, to realize that this is a global community. In all of these things, there is certainly nothing at congress with being an evangelical Christian in that message. That's the irony of that fifteen-year-old kid picking this name. It is such a minor part of what Bad Religion is about. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that. We are a band that is fronted by a college professor who really cares what happens to people on this earth. The songs he writes are about issues that are important to him. This is really reflecting his personality and it is very honest. I don't see any conflict at all with somebody that qualifies himself as an evangelical Christian to find something important in Bad Religion. I think it is wonderful.

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