Bad Religion - 04.26.07
It's hard to write an introduction for an interview such as this. Bad Religion have been a band since 1980, and have endured lineup changes, label shifts, and a quarter-century of touring to produce 14 studio albums and 3 EPs, all while standing as a cornerstone of the punk rock genre. Nearly every contemporary punk band (and even those in other genres) can trace roots back to Bad Religion, and as such, this interview was an honor to conduct.
Dr. Greg Graffin, the band's frontman, is a part-time professor at UCLA teaching life science. He has a Ph.D. from Cornell University in evolutionary paleontology. He has had his thesis published and is co-author of a book with Preston Jones called Is Belief In God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?: A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity.
Brett Gurewitz is the lead guitarist for Bad Religion. He founded one of the largest independent record labels, Epitaph, back in 1981 in order to release Bad Religion records. Since then, Gurewitz has produced for a number of bands including Rancid, Pennywise, The Pietasters, NOFX, No Use for a Name, and of course, Bad Religion. He also produced Graffin's solo album, Cold As the Clay.
Stylistically and thematically, what can we expect from the new album?
Brett: Well, stylistically, you're going to hear some classic Bad Religion songs that could have come from our No Control/Against the Grain era, and you're also going to hear some experimental songs that have a sound that we've never tried before. A couple very aggressive, and a couple quite poppy. So, conceptually, the reason we called it New Maps of Hell, we liked the concept of maps because we wanted to pay tribute to where we've come from, but also explore new territory.
I understand that you've said the Iraq war isn't explicitly mentioned in the album.
Greg: Well, not extensively, no. We kind of made our statement. The Iraq war started in '03, and we were pretty much done with the songwriting for our last album by the time that war started, and the writing was on the wall. We felt like we kind of made our statement on the war. It was pretty obvious the direction that things were heading, and I just don't think it was artistically interesting to pursue those kinds of issues anymore. I think that it's kind of run its course in terms of artists' reaction to it. We traditionally are a band that criticizes the currently-held view or the popular view as being one that’s not very well thought-out, and so the war was an obvious target, but we still live in a society that doesn't think very much, and so there's plenty of fallout from the war, from the social implications that we're left with, and those are the kinds of things we are addressing on this album. I guess the most blatant we get is an allegory to the god of war in a song called "The Fields of Mars." Other than that, we criticize some of the traditional social problems that are brought about by religious thinking and group mentality and the gang mentality. It's not thinking globally or sustainably.
How have you guys embraced Myspace and the digital age as a band?
Greg: Wholeheartedly. I wish I had a few more friends. I'm pretty popular, but considering that I'm in a legendary punk band, you'd think I would have a few more friends on Myspace. If anyone wants to shoot me a friend request, that would be cool. The other thing is that that if kids would float me a picture comment, I'd float them a picture comment. A lot of times, I just get a message, or sometimes a friend request, but it's the picture comments that really brighten my day.
So do you sit there during class, grading papers and commenting on Myspace?
Greg: You know, what's funny is that now at UCLA, all of the grading is done online and you just have to move the cursor over the student's number, and a picture of them comes up. So I think it's infiltrated the grading systems as well, the concept of profiles. Every student has a profile.
Bad Religion has always had somewhat of a political motivation. If a Democrat is elected in 2008, do you see the band's focus changing at all?
Brett: No. We wouldn't change.
Greg: Yeah, we're going to start writing ditties, presidential jingles. Bad Religion, we stand for social justice and humanism and thoughtfulness, and there's always plenty to talk about no matter who the president is.
Brett: We basically stand for all of the issues that you cannot raise if you're running for president because you won't get elected, no matter what party you are.
What made you guys decide to come back to Epitaph from Atlantic?
Greg: You know, Brett, why don't you take this one? We didn't really come back to Epitaph—Brett was there already. [laughs]
Brett: I've always been here and keep in mind, the bands have something like 11 records on Epitaph and 3 on Atlantic. So, Atlantic was just a little sojourn and it's actually really nice that they were able to come back.
Greg: So in a sense we never really left because Epitaph was always a symbolic home for us and we strayed for a little while. It was only a matter of time, really.
Brett: And maybe more to the point, for a group like Bad Religion, a major indie such as myself is a more suitable home than a major label, particularly nowadays where the major labels are all kind of hunkering down and merging because they're in search of that elusive million-seller. Major labels are not looking to sell a couple hundred thousand records. They need to sell a million or a couple million.
Brett, what artist besides your own band are you most proud of signing and releasing music by?
Brett: Motion City Soundtrack. Well, Tom Waits and Motion City Soundtrack.
What new artist do you think can echo that level of success [of Motion City Soundtrack]?
Brett: A brand new signing called Gallows. They're the best new punk band I've heard in decades—in over a decade, at least.
What makes them so special?
Brett: Their songs, their lyrics, and the sheer rawness of their intensity.
If both of you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be and why?
Greg: My opinion on the music industry has changed drastically over the years from the time I was a young whippersnapper when I thought the industry had a lot to do with it. I think it's kind of like asking someone what they would do to change culture. It's very difficult to identify any particular element that could drastically change the music industry. The music industry responds to the changing attitudes of the people who are buying the records. And I think there's so many things wrong with the major labels that we could talk for a long time about some of the things that are not going right. Being on an independent label, as Brett hinted at earlier, you can see a far greater efficiency at marketing toward a demographic that is suitable for the bands and from a band's perspective, a much more interesting community to be a part of. We didn't experience that at the major label level—there was no community, and there wasn't any creativity in the marketing or in the making of the records or the selling of the records, and I think that was a real drag or downside of the industry.
Brett: Yeah, the one thing I would change right now is that I would like to play all the songs I bought for my iPod on my other players. So I'd either like to see no DRM or a universal DRM. I don't give a shit which, but I think that's going to be sorting itself out somewhere down the line. Epitaph is getting ready to eliminate DRM, so that's a newsflash for you.
Was [eliminating DRM on Epitaph] a business decision or something personal that you felt needed to be done?
Brett: What influenced was Apple making it possible through their recent deal. EMI decided to do it.
Greg: Along those same lines, believe it or not, I still don't own an iPod. My kids do, but here's the problem. It finally dawned on me, because I was so ready to pull the trigger, but where I spend most of my time listening to music is in nice places with nice systems in my house, in my car, that are not set up for iPods. I was reading some of the articles of what you have to do to network your home to get lossless reproduction on your audio files—
Brett: The thing you soon discover after getting an iPod is the amazing freedom and luxury of having your entire record collection in your pocket anywhere you go. I'm going out to Coachella in a couple of days, and I will have nine thousand, two hundred-something songs in my pocket with me. It's just amazing.
Greg: I understand the convenience of it. It gets tiresome looking for my CDs that I want to listen to. I'm just a snob, what can I say?
What are your thoughts on some of the current trends, strategies, and ideals of some of the bands and their fans nowadays? Do you think the immense popularity that some of these bands have thanks to media such as MTV has a positive or negative ripple effect?
Brett: MTV is having a lot of trouble. They just laid off 250 employees and are hardly playing any music anymore. TRL is either gone or going away. MTV is not really the big hitmaker that you think it is, and a lot of these groups that are massive today, including Panic at the Disco, who I love—they're one of my favorite newer bands—were not made by MTV. MTV actually caught onto Panic after they were already selling 14,000 records a week. They became such a huge phenomenon simply as a result of the internet being such an efficient means of social networking. That's the amazing development—that a group can get popular instantly based on their merits because kids like them. Hundreds of thousands of kids can all be communicating together about a new song that they like or a new group that they like. I think that's a positive ripple effect, and what that effect has been that there are more groups than ever making more music than ever in more styles than ever. There are more groups selling 50,000-100,000 records than there ever were, but there are far fewer groups selling millions of records. And I think that is a positive development; what it means is increased diversity. I think diversity benefits everybody.
Do you think that's going to lead to the downfall of major labels?
Brett: It already is. How many are left now?
Greg: And the ones that are left have let go so many people and they're operating at such a low capacity that you could say the ship is already half-underwater.
Brett: Major labels that survive will adapt and change the way they do business.
Where do you think they'll end up from here? How will they adapt?
Brett: I think they'll learn how to make a profit and have a business model where selling a million to two million is the biggest seller they'll ever have. Being able to have more artists selling fewer copies each. I think that's what they'll have to adapt to.
Greg: It used to be that they could sign one band like Pearl Jam and that was known as a cash cow for the label, and with that one Pearl Jam signing, they could sign twenty crappy bands that never sold hardly any CDs. That's got to change because there aren't any bands like Pearl Jam that are going to sell 14 million albums worldwide.
Brett: It just doesn't happen anymore. So what they have to adapt to is a music industry where you sell less of more. The overall music being ingested by music fans is going to be as large or greater. Just like a thousand cable channels and Tivo mean we don't have everyone in the United States watching the same sitcom at 7 PM. Everybody's watching what they want to watch.
On a similar note, Greg, you wrote an essay that's currently on the Bad Religion website titled, "Fast Food and the Music Industry."
Greg: Oh yeah, that's actually a keynote address that I gave at the CMJ Conference a number of years ago.
Tony: I've always found it fascinating.
Greg: Along those same lines, it's like you're starting to see a breakdown even in that mentality. The point of that article was that Epic had their Pearl Jam, so Warner had to have their version of the #1 choice on the value meal. And these are things that they could easily market to the massive numbers of fans who are buying that kind of music. And that's why I made the analogy between Burger King and McDonald's, which essentially offer the same thing if you take the #1 on their value meals.
Brett: Let me just be clear about something because we keep invoking the Pearl Jam name. Ed Vedder from Pearl Jam is a good friend of me and Greg's, and neither of us would ever dare compare them to McDonald's. [laughing] So Ed, if you read this, man, don't take this the wrong way. We're trying to think of a big band to name.
Greg: But the point is not really with Pearl Jam and how they were marketed and how every label wanted their example of Pearl Jam.
Brett: Pearl Jam was as pissed off as anyone that they were being treated that way.
Greg: And so now what the labels are going to have to do is work a little harder to develop artists and might have a more diverse talent base that can't just focus their energy on any one band.
Brett: That's what they're going to have to learn to do. That's what Epitaph has always done, and that's why we're having a good time and enjoying the new climate. And that's why as a music fan, I'm enjoying the new climate. We've always loved having a big hit, but if we can sell 50,000 of something, we're thrilled.
Epitaph has signed some hip-hop artists, such as Sage Francis. Do you see any sort of correlation between the hardships touched upon in hip-hop and the anti-authority ideals that punk rock was founded upon?
Brett: Yeah. I see a lot of similarities especially between underground hip-hop, which is mainly the kind we sign, and the do-it-yourself punk rock movement of my youth.
Tony: Is that what got you into signing those sort of artists?
Brett: No, no. I like the music.
What have you been listening to lately?
Brett: Lately? I've been listening to a group called Bird and the Bee, the new Nine Inch Nails. I've been rocking Timbaland. I've been listening to a group called Fujiya and Miyagi, who I love. They're probably my favorite of all-right now. I've been listening to Gallows, which is a hardcore band. I've been checking out the new Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem. I'm really loving that right now. I listen to so much new music. Let me go to my Last.fm page and I'll tell you exactly.
Tony: What a great invention.
Brett: I know. Top weekly artists—I've been listening to Cobra Starship, Elliot Smith, the new Modest Mouse, Timbaland, The Knife, Arcade Fire, the new Vanna, Peter Bjorn and John, and the new Fall Out Boy. I'm all over the place. There's so much good music out there.
Greg, what have you been listening to?
Greg: You know what? I'm really not listening to anything. [laughs] You know, when you talk to Brett, you can always get the latest updates. We both love music, but I don't really listen to music that much when I'm not on tour with Bad Religion. It's a nice time to be away from music, and I do a lot of reading. Primarily, I read to prepare for my other life, which is being a professor at UCLA. Most of the music I come across is the stuff I hear when we're on Warped Tour all summer. And also when we're on tour with other bands that we bring along, but I kind of get my fill of it. I do love recording of course, so it's interesting. The new Tool album sounds really great. I picked that up. I don't spend much time surveying the diversity of new music as much as Brett, and luckily I'm in a band with a man who is an expert on it.
Brett: You know, I'm a maniac about new music. I'm like a Hoover vacuum cleaner. You know what else I've been listening to for the last few days? Apples in Stereo. It's not new, but I just rediscovered them and have been kind of getting into it.
Greg, how did you balance teaching and recording the new album.
Greg: Pretty much the same as I did when I was in graduate school, except now it's kind of at an elevated level. I didn't sleep too much.
Brett: [laughing] Greg's a maniac.
Greg: I would go into the studio at about 5 PM after spending all day on campus and then stay in the studio until midnight or 1 AM and then get up the next morning by 7 to get to the campus by 8. It didn't used to be that difficult because when I was a graduate student, I could stroll into campus around noon, put in three hours of work, and then go to the studio in Hollywood and stay there until 3 in the morning. Now, I have higher expectations, both at the level of academics and the level of music. Fourteen albums in—you're kind of expected to be doing some really high-quality work, not just rehashing your old stuff. I think I managed pretty well. I also enjoy when there's a lot going on. I'm kind of ADD, so being able to switch gears in the middle of the day kind of suits me well.
Some people at shows poke fun at the fact that you've been around for so long by referring to you as Bald Religion or Dad Religion.
Greg: [laughing] I like Bald Religion.
Brett: My favorite is recently we posted a picture of ourselves for the new album, and one of the comments from the fans was, "They look like a gang of teachers." And when I looked at it, I realized that's exactly what we look like. It's amazing. That's one of the fantastic things about being in a group at our age. We really stopped caring what people think about our physical appearance.
Greg: It's also refreshing to see young people make fun of it because we know that it's coming, and it's not so far away for them. [laughing] We were in the same boat.
Brett: The truth is that we don't have anything to shy away from. We're not trying to hide anything.
Greg: We came from that same school of criticism, the snotty punk kids, so there's nothing that they're going to say that's going to shock us that we haven't already recognized ourselves.
Brett: Speaking only for myself here, I was never even good looking as a teenager, so I'm very good for that kind of criticism.
Greg: I've never really felt like we're beyond the criticism. I'm this kind of nerdy kid from Wisconsin trying to make it in Southern California.
Brett: You were good looking, Greg.
Greg: I never thought so, though. The only guy who knew he was good looking was Jay.
Brett: Do you think he knew it?
Greg: He was a surfer dude. They all know it.
A big deal is made out of the DIY ethic of the punk scene. What do you feel its importance is and do you think the fact that bands are getting away from it is going to shorten careers?
Brett: I think careers are getting shorter anyway. I don't think it has anything to do with getting away from the DIY ethic. It's interesting that groups seem to get popular and then unpopular really fast now. I have my own ideas about why that's happening. In terms of the DIY ethic, there's a lot of that still going. You look at AP Magazine, and there's as many ads for recording equipment as there are for CDs. There's more bands out there and more bands making their own records and putting them up on the Internet for streaming and downloading than ever before. And that's definitely the DIY ethic at work. I know what you're saying though, that the bands aren't trying to put the records out themselves, they're trying to get signed.
There seems to be so much of an emphasis on getting signed.
Greg: We also only started Epitaph when we were kids because we couldn't get signed. I mean, it's a fine line, isn't it? The normal thing to do when you're young and starting a band is to put your effort and energy into the music and into the band. We didn't know, maybe Brett knew at a young age, but I certainly didn't know that Brett wanted to build a label. We didn't know he was any good at it either until he started really digging in and making headway in that world. But, Tony, it's normal that bands want to focus on the music at first.
Brett: You can do a lot more as a band. You can get your band going, you can record something that sounds real professional and distribute it online through something like a MyStore or any number of ways that people can sell or distribute their music online. Or they could give it away online, whatever they choose to do, having it heard and received or rejected by kids all around the world. Don't forget, when we were teenagers making our vinyl 7"s, we couldn't put a song on some kind of virtual thing and have millions of kids be able to link to it. It was a real different world. The other side of it is that as a result of this new technology, record stores have gone out of business. Whereas, I was able to make boxes of records and drive them around to record stores and place them there on consignment, there's almost no record stores left where a kid can do that. Especially in rural areas, where a kid might only have Wal-Mart to buy records. I don't know if it's that the DIY ethic is gone; it's expressing itself in the channels that are available to it.
Some of your fans are still a little bitter that you guys agreed to open for Blink-182 a few years back. Why did you agree to do it?
Greg: First of all, I would challenge the assertion that some of them are still bitter. If they're still hanging onto bitterness over a tour that lasted two months, they've kind of lost sight of Bad Religion's evolution since that time, which is rather significant in the last three albums we've done. The truth is, when you make decisions on tours and whatnot, especially when it's an off-album-cycle, as that one was, we ended up doing the Warped Tour and then Blink-182, you try to make decisions based on how you can reach the most people when you play live.
Brett: Can I just interject here? What's wrong with Blink-182, man?! If kids want to hate us for that, screw them. I like Blink-182. The point of it—Greg, it's really cool of you to try to be so humble and apologetic, but they're a good band, they love our band, they're popular. I don't want to say "screw you" to any Bad Religion fans because I'm grateful that they like us.
Greg: But the criticism was just that they probably thought it was too much of a commercial-type tour. The truth is, we played huge festivals and always have, and those big concert venues are a real blast to play at.
Brett: For the record, I just want to say I like Blink, and Mark Hoppus is a fucking amazing guy, and some people just want to be pissed about something. I'm pissed about plenty of things, but not stuff like that.
Tony: I was wondering a bit about that question, but it came up several times.
Brett: They're a good band. Friends of ours. They revere our band. It was a lovefest. Those people can get over it, you know?
Greg, do you have any plans to play any solo shows or any of the songs from Cold As the Clay?
Greg: I just came back from one. I played in Phoenix, and that was a lot of fun. They've become these really interesting kind of show that's such a blast—I'd like to do more of it. This year's pretty busy with Bad Religion, but the shows are so interesting because you get all these really belligerent punks who come to the show and are as rowdy as you can imagine and then when we start strumming the acoustic guitar, they sing every word! [laughs] You get these really drunk people singing about suffering and let's keep love in Jesus, at the top of their lungs. They have no subtlety at all, they're just screaming. It's happened now in San Diego, Phoenix, and up in San Francisco.
Brett: How does the rest of your band react to it? Do they like it?
Greg: Yeah. They're scared shitless at first. They're like, "We're going to get killed out there." They're so enthusiastic, and the crowd response is so exciting.
Brett: I still love that record.
Greg: It's one of the most fun environments you can be in.
Many musicians and bands view Bad Religion as an influence. Since you guys have been around for 25 years as a band, what artists do you look at for influence or inspiration musically?
Brett: Personally, I look to Elton John and the Beatles mostly.
Greg: My influences in songwriting are pretty diverse. I really idolize Todd Rundgren and Ric Ocasek. If I could have been a songwriter and producer like Todd Rundgren and a bandleader like Ric Ocasek, I would have been stoked when I was little. Now I know both of those guys really well, and it's kind of weird when you grow up to be something completely different but in the same profession. I still cite them as highly influential in my approach to music. Mine's kind of diverse because I also like a lot of acoustic music like Neil Young and Jethro Tull.
Brett: Yeah, I could also name Neil Young and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young.
Greg: It's kind of a weird mix. But then when I think about punk and want to write a punk song, somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory, I always default to all the bands who were our contemporaries in L.A. like the Circle Jerks and the Adolescents and the Germs.
Brett: Yeah, same ones for me. That's just where my mind goes when I think about—
Greg: You get this weird blend of Todd Rundgren and Leonard Graves Phillips. That's the guy from The Dickies.
Greg, have you been doing any producing lately?
Greg: No, actually, my entire life is now absorbed by Bad Religion and touring the rest of this year, and then next winter back at UCLA. It's something I'd like to pursue, but as I've moved forward in life, I used to think producing was easier than it really is. It's something that takes dedication and you can't just do one record occasionally. You have to build up momentum and develop your chops before you can be at the top of your game in producing. It's just like anything. I've had some offers, but I just don't think I would do the bands justice. Someday, maybe I will take some years out and develop that part of my creativity, but right now I have more—
Brett: Oh, Greg, we're on KROQ right now!
Greg: Cool. 2:45, that's a good time.
Brett: As long as it's PM. [turns the radio up so we can hear the new single over the phone] All I care is if the DJ says something nice about it. I hate when they diss you. Hold on, he's talking...he's going to talk shit. He just said it's totally a Weezer song.
Greg: Did he really?
Brett: I was just talking to Pat from Weezer yesterday, and I said, "Dude, we've got a song on the radio and it sounds like a total Weezer song."
Greg: Who was that?
Brett: Jed the Fish said that, but it does sound like us doing our version of a Weezer song, but I love Weezer. When I told Pat that, who's in Weezer, he said, "Well that's good. Someone's got to be trying to sound like us." So Pat from Weezer doesn't care.
Greg: Jed didn't have anything complimentary to say?
Greg: You know Jed's my buddy, but he'll say whatever on the air. That's pretty funny.
Brett: Oh, whatever, it's all good.
Greg was just saying about developing his creativity as a reason for not producing. Brett, you've produced a bunch of bands; would you like to comment at all?
Brett: I don't have any production jobs coming up right away. I'm producing the new Rancid record, and I'm starting that in January. That will be really fun. I'm really looking forward to that too. It's something I started out doing. I was actually engineering and producing before Epitaph really got going. That was really my living as a recording engineer. It's something that I enjoy and I'll always love. I don't have time to do it full time, but I still enjoy doing it once in a while.
Do you guys ever step back and disconnect yourselves from politics, or is that something that's constantly on your mind?
Greg: To be honest, I constantly disconnect from politics because I despise it so much. It's become a game of rhetoric. You can't get any real information about it. They're usually not talking about the really difficult issues, so my conversations tend to be a little more nerdy and academic about world affairs. And when I don't talk about world affairs, I actually have a lot more fun. I disconnect all the time from political-type discussions.
Brett: Greg and I like to disconnect from culture completely. We like to go on a nice backpack once a year where we hike out into the wilderness and carry everything we need to survive on our backs for several days. That's my idea of a good time.
Do you feel like there's one specific song or even one album that epitomizes Bad Religion as a band?
Brett: If I could think of one, it might be "American Jesus." It might be the closest thing to that for me.
Greg: It seems to be a song that resonates with a lot of people.
Brett: It's catchy and it's against nationalism and it encapsulates a lot of our themes.
Do you think music has a responsibility to educate and inform its listeners about such things as societal problems and politics?
Greg: [laughing] No, they have schools that are responsible for that. The problem is that our conservative leaders would like to offload that responsibility onto bands or anybody else who would be willing to take it up and infuse the world with a little bit of artistic flavor added to the dialogue. The truth is even Bad Religion is really when it boils down to it, an artistic pursuit. I've gone on record many times as saying when I started out I wanted to be atypical. I didn't want to be a typical rockstar or a typical frontman who symbolized sex and drugs and rock 'n roll. If I could add anything, I wanted to add a little worldliness and provocative thought into the equation. Just because I feel a personal responsibility to do that, it's really a responsibility to myself. I still believe very strongly that the responsibility for education falls on the schools and bands can be put under the category of the arts.
Greg, what's your favorite dinosaur? And Brett, what do you think?
Greg: My favorite dinosaur? I'd say triceratops.
Brett: My favorite dinosaur? I've never really though about that. I think I like those big duck-billed dinosaurs that eat leaves. What are they called, Greg?
Greg: Edaphosaurus. That's the genus.
Brett: That'd be mine. They're cute; that's why I like them.
Despite an atheistic belief, is there any room for spirituality in anyone's lives? Furthermore, do you think that metaphysics exist, and do you think there could be an afterlife without there being a god?
Greg: That's like six questions in one.
Tony: Do you want me to break it down a little bit?
Greg: No, that's okay. As for the first one, spirituality is sort of a wastebasket term that the answer would have to be yes. Of course there's room for spirituality, almost any way you'd want to define it. But does it mean that there is some unknown entity in the universe that we call the spirit? Well, I'll have to disagree with that. I think that anything we refer to as a spirit is a product of the human mind and of course there's plenty of room for tolerance and for other people to think and believe what they want. But then you said something about "does metaphysics exist?" This makes no sense to me at all. It's commonly mistaken—metaphysics is simply a question or a pursuit to try to understand what exists and what does not exist. That's what metaphysics is. So people say, "Does metaphysics exist?" Again, it exists in the realm of the human mind. But I think one of the goals of science as opposed to metaphysics is that science only deals with things that exist. So if we cannot agree that something exists, we cannot treat it scientifically. Science is all about tolerance anyway. Science is not a rigid structure; it's a constantly changing structure based on new discoveries and new ways of seeing things and new ideas. Any scientist you meet has got to be a very tolerant person.
Brett: You know, I can recommend an amazing new book on the subject called The Variety of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan. It's just an absolutely beautiful book on a really great thinker's search for meaning in the universe and his views on religion.
Greg: It's published from the grave, which is the really nice thing.
Brett: Yeah, it's posthumous, but it's basically a transcription of a number of lectures that he did before he died. It's a wonderful book on the topic by a very thoughtful, sensitive man who is tolerant of religious people and atheists and everybody. His views are very harmonious with Bad Religion's views on the subject.
Greg: And he was a professor here at Cornell. [laughs] So he hit close to home.
Bad Religion has been through some lineup changes, and Brett, you were out of the band for a few years at one point dealing with some personal issues. What keeps you motivated to continue writing and recording when most bands' careers are measured in months, not years?
Brett: Our output has really diminished compared to what we used to do. Keep in mind, it's been three years since our last record. The richness of our lives outside music has kind of slowed down our productivity. I think that it's the very richness of our lives outside music that inspires us, really, to be creative because we have lots of life experience to draw from.
Greg: I think that Bad Religion is a creative outlet and we look at it that way and because of that, we've been together as friends for so long that it's almost like a family. If you think about how your family maintains its composure over all these years, it's not just the genetic connections you have to all of these people. It's the fact that there's a formality around your gatherings. When you get together with your family, you try to keep it civil and you have certain rituals or ceremonies that you go through like getting together for the holidays, for instance. And then you have a good time and go off on your own independent lives. Bad Religion is kind of the same way. We each have independent lives and the rituals that we have when we get together are either concerts or a more intensive project like a studio project, but if we didn't have—I guess the analogy to the genetics is that we have a creative desire and each person fulfills a certain little niche in our creative output. We now realize the specialness of that bond and I don't think we want to let anything interfere with that. It's a real great feeling doing these projects together.
Brett, you left the band for a while, and it continued without you. What made you decide to come back, and did the writing process come easy after such a long layoff?
Brett: What made me come back is that I missed it. I was eager to try and have a channel for my creativity again. It was surprisingly easy. [laughs] I was afraid that I would have forgotten how to write songs or that if I wrote something, it wasn't going to sound like a BR song, or something like that. But when the guys brought me back into the band, and I started writing, I think the first song I wrote for Process of Belief was "Sorrow." And that's probably the best song I've written in years, and maybe even since. That was a real stroke of luck for me because I came up with a good one right off the bat and it gave me confidence to write some more.
Greg, what was it like making music without Brett during that time, and were there ever thoughts of ending the band?
Greg: I never gave it a thought to end the band, because especially back then, it was so unlikely that I would ever scrutinize my own actions that I could never except failure. [laughs] That's probably how I dealt with the hardship, by not scrutinizing it very much. And so, it never really crossed my mind. At first, I thought my goal was to really show Brett that him leaving didn't mean the band had to disintegrate. In a weird way, I was doing it for him because I felt a tie to our history and as a friend, I wanted to maintain something that we started and make sure it was intact in the eventual case where he would return later. But clearly, I struggled through those years because my songwriting was very prolific but maybe only half the songs were up to standard that the albums with Brett were. It's hard for me to criticize myself because I still don't really know when I write a good song what's really special about it. I can't really tell sometimes until I see the reaction of the audience. I will say that we gained a lot of fans during those years because we toured extensively, so there were some real high points on those albums, that now in retrospect I realize as being good songs.
Were you guys close during that time?
Greg: Brett was kind of out of touch.
Brett: I kind of fell off the earth for a little while. I had some problems with drugs that I was struggling with, and so I wasn't really in circulation for a few years there.
Greg: I was always very tolerant of that.
Brett: No, Greg was never judgmental and he never abandoned me as a friend, and I ended up getting it together and I've had my life back now for over eight years I've been clean. We've been close ever since I...came back to Planet Earth.
What are your personal favorite songs that you've done as 25 years as Bad Religion?
Greg: Some of the most satisfying were—you know, I've got to qualify this because there's so many ways that these songs affect me. Sometimes there are songs that I don't even think were good at all, but the fans go crazy for them, and so I recognize that they must be pretty good and I get a special feeling out of it. A song like "Come Join Us," for instance, I didn't think was a really great tune, but people love it so much. And because of the reaction, I would have to cite it as one of my favorites to play live. But on another side, a song like "The Answer" is one of my favorites in terms of being able to say what I wanted to say in a concise manner, and it's kind of a slower tune, so the audience responds more lackadaisically and I can't always tell if it's really as enjoyable as some of the more upbeat ones. But I certainly got that same kind of satisfying feeling from a song off the last record called "God's Love."
Brett: For me, probably "Sorrow," I'm really proud of. I'll just say that one; I really love that one.
Greg: That's one of my favorites also.
You have achieved great heights in a quarter-century. What's the next goal for Bad Religion?
Greg: Well, I don't know. Do they make a Nobel Prize for punk? [laughing] I don't think that's shooting too high, is it? To be honest with you, Tony, it's really hard for me to even—when we were first starting out on this journey, we wanted to make a record that anyone would listen to, and so we never really set goals that were measurable by traditional measures of success. And by the same token, therefore, looking back, it's "what have we achieved?" We know that our music makes a lot of people happy and it inspires people in some way, and that to me is still the greatest achievement.
Do you have any last words for your fans?
Brett: Please buy our new record, please buy our new record, please buy our new record. [laughing]
Greg: If you leave me now, you'll take away the greatest part of me. But really, we would like to thank everybody. We know it's cliché, but if they only knew how importantly we really do view our fans as the reason we're doing this, and we don't take it for granted when anybody shows up, and it motivates us to give the best show that this 41-year old body can give.
Brett: That sums it up. Hey, Tony, thanks for doing this interview. It was a really good interview with really original and good questions. Your questions were thoughtful and I really appreciate that.
Greg: Thank you.
Special thanks to Brett and Greg for doing this very lengthy interview and to Sue for arranging it.
Lookin' good, Pony T.
Fantastic interview, fantastic band, fantastic new album.
Well done Tony.
Everyone should pick up New Maps of Hell, it's one of those albums that sounds great played extremely loud.
I agree with everything Tate just said, fucking awesome band :-p
I just downloaded the CD while reading the interview (great interview), cant wait to pick it up when it comes out.
More people on this site should listen to shit like this
ha. thanks for asking my question regarding metaphysics. it came out a bit different than i had intended, but it was still interesting to see him answer it (though he put me in my place by doing so). my intentions were more to see their thoughts on life after death, etc., and there reasoning behind it.
so many good questions, though....
Unfortunately, the link to Greg's keynote address called "Fast Food and the Music Industry" is down at the moment because of the BR site redesign. I found the text of it online and have attached it if anyone's interested in reading it. If you ever use it anywhere, give it the credit it's due.
Aside from that, I love "Honest Goodbye." The question/answer vocals are really, really well-done and bring a lot to the song. Hell, the whole album is excellent and should bring back a lot of fans lost from TESF and hopefully a lot of newer, younger fans anxious to discover the roots of the music they listen to.
A personal endorsment for Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco from the Godfather of Punk. Maybe now the haters will take a break, nah probably not.
if only more bands these days could be like bad religion.....
really good interview, very interesting
Mr. Brett's musical taste has seemed to have gone to shit in recent years.... just look at Epitaph
Amazing interview. 5 stars.