Interview: Bad Religion
To many, BAD RELIGION will always be synonymous with the definition of punk rock. The fact that the group have grown from being a high school four-piece to alternative icons is no small feat especially when you spend 34 years questioning authority and social ills. 16 studio records later, the teenagers have grown up, and like the genre they call home, their music has evolved and portrayed how a band can call The Ramones and Black Flag influences and still invade the Billboard charts. Holed up in the Metropolitan after an intimate gig in Toronto, guitarist Brian Baker shed light on the band’s relation to the term “heritage act” and why any true achievement is never free of adversity.
As art imitates life, in what ways have the last 30 years affected Bad Religion?
We’ve had some changes to the administration. I think much like life, the journey has been peppered with adversity, triumphs and failures, good songs and bad songs, going to new places and loving them, going to new places and never wanting to go back. We’ve seen drummers come and go, we’ve seen songwriters re-enter the folds, but again, much like life, the key to success is simply to persevere. Taking everything we’ve learned on this journey and distilling it down into what we do in the future is key. Also like life, we are running at about a 70% success rate.
Regardless, Bad Religion has still developed a diverse discography that actually reflects the band’s career over the past few decades. What’s the driving force behind that consistent output?
Attention to detail in songwriting is really, really important and having good songs begets longevity and allows relevance to flourish. The simple fact is that Brett and Greg are really fucking good songwriters, and that’s why this works. If the songs weren’t good, we’d be a heritage act. If those guys didn’t express themselves lyrically and musically every 18 months or so, in a way that was cohesive and relevant, this would turn into a caricature of what it once was. I think that it is only because of those songs – and the timing of the way they think – they’re pretty special guys and I can say this because I don’t write anything. I play guitar and they write.
It seems like there is never any lack of material to inspire those songs
It’s very lucky that as teenagers they decided to start a group that basically used the human condition and global politics as a sound board. Talk about something that is ever-changing yet still has the power to provoke thought.
“I found that bands who were very popular and stopped because they didn’t need anybody any more and then reformed – bands like Blink-182 – is because they ran out of fucking money. But that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with earning a living playing music. Take note Fall Out Boy: it’s fine.”
Would you say a concern for social responsibility is a defining character of the punk genre?
It should be. I can think of examples within the punk genre where that is not the case, and the concern really is about maintaining the punk genre or compartmentalizing certain aspects of society and cheering them on. Yes, that and the other cardinal point of punk, which is to question authority. Those two should be part of it, and they certainly are a part of Bad Religion.
Many people are claiming True North resembles Suffer, an album fans dearly love. Is that because of a conscious effort or a natural return to a style that everyone’s more comfortable with?
What I’m uncomfortable with is hearing bands go, “well, we thought we’d go back to our roots”, which to me, translates into, “we’re not selling enough t-shirts”. The beauty of the Bad Religion situation is that every record you hear – The Son of Man, whatever those black and red records were prior to that – are simply the product of what Brett and Greg and writing. Those guys write independently of each other, and so when we do a record, those guys come from working in their own worlds and then everyone gets together and shares and we make a record. What you hear is the songs they’ve been writing, and there is no conscious way to define how the record is going to be.
Brett wrote a bunch of fast stuff because he’s mad about Mitt Romney. Oh, and Greg came in with some fast tempo stuff as well. It’s a product of what it is, it’s organic, even though I loathe to use that word because by the way, those “organic bananas” that you see aren’t necessarily organic. I would never think of it as a conscious decision but more of a happy accident, and for me, it’s because it’s really fun to play these songs. This entire album has been a joy to record, and though we’ve only performed these songs live twice, they are so much fun to play. It reminds me of the way I loved to play during that Suffer/No Control era. The dynamics, tonality and physicality of playing is really fun, and I deserve to have a good time because I’m 47, and I’ve been in this band for 19 years, and I’ve been playing punk music for 30 million, or whatever it is, 33. It should be fun for me; that’s why I’m doing it.
I find it interesting that the circumstances of Brett and Greg’s lives, as well as the current social climate, have brought them back to the place they were years ago. It’s come full circle.
Topically, throughout all of the Bad Religion records you are seeing a little bit of an overview of what’s happening at the time they are recorded and True North is no exception. It’s an astute observation on your part that what was being observed required tempo to be expressed. Obviously there’s a relationship between the type of expression, the type of song, and the topic.
From your experience, does your opinion on certain records change as you get older? Can the same be said for writing with different guitars and recording/touring with different instruments?
I think so, they become more refined and you know what you like. Just specifically talking about guitars and equipment, in recording there are things that I used every time. For example, I would never play an F-style guitar just because I believe they have no place in punk and they’re just used as a “candy coat”. When you think of a Fender guitar you think of Stevie Ray Vaughn or Jimi Hendrix, who are both very not punk. In the last couple of recordings I’ve been using telecaster guitars to do things that I never would have done before because I get it now. Experience has told me that if you combine that tonality with my standard Gibson Humbucker thing, you can get a much wider spectrum sound that doesn’t sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn. That’s just one little technical thing. In general, we’re at the point now where you have to know what works, and I’m in the process of refining it further and further.
Brett noted recently the album is about giving a voice to himself and Greg, and also connecting with today’s younger generation. In what way does the album art contribute to that idea?
In this case, I don’t think it has at all. Considering that most of the images are from the first part of the 20th century America, maybe with the exception of Instagram users, I’m not really sure how that connects (laughs), specifically with today’s disenfranchised Honey Boo Boos. In another sense, the stripped down cut-and-paste aspect of it does hearken back to the way records used to look when we were kids. I’m really just glad it’s not red and black again.
Punk is often considered a genre for the youth as it expresses a lot of ideas they closely identify with. How do you think the band’s older fans still find a way to associate with your music?
There’s two connections. First, the people who have maintained that type of thought process while growing up, as well as the original thinking that brought them to the band in the first place, because it certainly wasn’t our incredible skill or good looks. They are the type of people who have developed into adults who still think about the world’s problems and global issues in the same way and they’re still angered by the things that we are. Then there is the other side, it’s like the people who think that Led Zeppelin is good now because they were good when they were in high school, and to some of our fans, we are their Led Zeppelin. We were the band they listened to in high school and they have that nostalgic connection and they don’t really know or care that we are making fun of Mitt Romney in “Robin Hood in Reverse”. They think it’s something to do with Kevin Klein, but they’re not really sure.
A few artists we’ve spoken to have shed light on how punk rock used to be a genre associated to misfits, outcasts and dysfunctional kids who in turn united around a style of music. As a member of various influential punk bands, do you think that still holds true now despite how kids today are so much different than those in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s?
I don’t know if punk rock is still the land of misfit toys as much as it used to be. Punk rock has long since stopped being a refuge for the downtrodden and compartmentalized as a place for misfits. I mean, punk rock is a genre of music; I don’t think that the people who enjoy it have the societal stigma that they did in the ’70s and ’80s. That being said, I think that’s positive. Obviously there’s a musical pattern and theme to punk rock, but it’s really about what we’re singing about. The idea that what we’re singing about can reach so many people without that stigma is a positive thing. The whole point of this is to encourage people to listen to what we have to say and to provoke thought. Therefore, I believe it’s good that punk rock no longer functions under that stigma in the modern world.
Why do you think older punk musicians have decided to reform acts that built a foundation in the early ’80s? Are current reunions more about profits or revisiting a sound that shaped careers?
It really depends. You’d have to assess that on a band-for-band basis to determine whether the goal was profit, recapturing youth, or whatever. I found that bands who were very popular and stopped because they didn’t need anybody anymore and then reformed – bands like Blink-182 – is because they ran out of fucking money. But that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with earning a living playing music – take a note Fall Out Boy – it’s fine, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing wrong with reforming a band because someone is no longer angry at a member that caused them to quit the band because they could no longer play with that guy. Nostalgia is a great reason too, there are no rules here. People tend to assume, especially with bands that people have heard of, that the entire goal of that band is to continue to earn. They take out the entire point of it, which for me is that music is fun to play.
From what I have experienced so far, the bands that experience longevity are also the ones that seem to have the passion. I think even if the passion disappears, or certain personal circumstances make it impossible to continue that band during a certain time frame, if for some reason that passion resurfaces and the band wants to try it again, then by all means.
It’s the people in the bands having a nice time, or at least it is in my estimation of it. This money isn’t for me to start dancing for your fucking entertainment, I’m doing it to entertain myself. And it is really awesome that there are so many people who want to watch me having a good time.
What’s the band’s main inspiration in terms of writing music today?
Well the “true north” is a great example of why we write songs; it’s the call on the mountain; it’s the megaphone. It’s very Ron Burgundy – “I wanted to tell the world, but I didn’t have a mountain to sing on, I just have a news show; I love you Veronica Corningstone” (laughs). What we’re trying to do is alert the masses and alert the troops. It’s like Robin Hood in reverse – don’t just buy this crap. Don’t sit there and take it, but take our experience and enjoy it. It’s also the podium, and the whole goal of this is that our podium is Bad Religion. We like to share the way we think. Hopefully it can influence some people who may not have formed real opinions on global harmony, organized religion and big chunks of what people think about as they go through their lives. In the end, it’s really our podium.