With seventeen albums to their name, a
high-energy live show, and a relentless commitment to lyrical themes such as
politics, humanitarianism, equal rights, and the dangers of theocracy, Bad Religion
is inarguably one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time. Realpunk
rock, that is—the kind that sticks in the psyche like a splinter. Not the
bubblegum nonsense that passes for punk rock in the mainstream today.
Put simply, Bad Religion is not interested in broken hearts or lost love. They are, however, very interested in eviscerating with precision the radical right-wing of America. Their latest release, Age of Unreason (Epitaph Records), is an outstanding explosion of protest songs; a damning assertion of chaos set to music, affirming that our powder keg society is on the brink of collapse from the inside out, while the new aristocracy—dangling our democracy in front of us like a limp fish on a hook—continues to proliferate like a heinous rerun of an all-too-familiar game show.
Recently, guitarist Brian Baker, a punk
rock veteran in his own right, first as a founding member of Minor Threat, and
then Dag Nasty before joining Bad Religion in 1994, sat down to chat with AQ
about the band’s new release, and also discuss what continually drives the group
to state their case with authority after four decades raging against the myth
of halcyon days.
know this may be a little cynical of me, but I have to imagine that having
Donald Trump as President is the gift that keeps on giving for a band like Bad Religion.
Am I right?
Well, yes, but there are a lot of pitfalls,
because you can’t just think like, ‘This is going to be great! It’ll be so easy!
Fuck that guy!’ There are 150 other bands doing that, too. So actually, you have
to refine your rage to really make it. That’s kind of the Bad Religion specialty.
Yes, there is a lot of material, but you have to still work with it.
and to that point, this is your first record of new material since True North
in 2013. I was wondering: is it far-fetched to suggest there is a “pre-Trump” and
a “post-Trump” Bad Religion? Or has it been like business as usual in terms of
how you guys want to put your message out?
I mean, I don’t think it’s really that
cut and dry. It is somewhat coincidental that this record [has come out] five
years after the last one…. When Greg (Graffin, vocals) and Brett (Gurewitz,
guitar) have enough songs they like and that we want to work on, that is when a
record comes up. There is no release schedule. By now, we just sort of do what
we feel like. It’s a little coincidental, but I haven’t really reflected on True
North as a “pre-Trump” work, politically. I haven’t thought about that. It’s
a great question.
of the reasons that I asked was because I felt like Age of Unreason has an
incredible sense of urgency about it—one unlike any other in the Bad Religion discography,
which is saying a lot.
Well, sure, absolutely. We are now living
in the greatest human and existential crisis in the history of Bad Religion and
in the history of our democracy. The urgency is required because we are dealing
with a place where sane people are being torn asunder. This is Defcon 1 here.
absolutely. I have always felt that Bad Religion records, given their sociopolitical
themes, are like public service announcements, like ‘This particular issue
needs to be addressed, or we are all fucked.’ But Age of Unreason sounds
like an endgame of sorts. It’s like ‘We had our chances. We blew them. It’s too
late, and now we’re all officially fucked.’
I see it as more of a little bit of a
hopeful record, but I do think from song to song that it is bordering on
frustration, because this is sort of an immediate and daily assault on reason. The
stakes are higher, but in no way are we throwing in the towel.
well I hope not. We need you guys!
No, no. Again, we happen to be a band, but really, it’s Brett and Greg who are thinkers. Whether we set it to music or not, these are guys who write all the time and are constantly engaged with the world.
the band discuss lyrics together as Greg and Brett bring them to the table? How
does that process normally play out?
Yes. Basically, Brett and Greg work independently
and make their own demos because they both have pretty good facilities in their
houses. They generate a lot of songs. We kind of start out with a lot of
emailing back and forth to kind of widdle out what the group thinks are the
weakest or if there are any lyrical issues—although, I cannot remember a single
one, to be honest. I have never seen a theme be rejected. I mean there is an
awkward sentence when you’re recording, like when Greg’s at the mic and Brett
will say ‘Hm, maybe we should say it like this,’ but it’s not content based. It’s
just about flow or just being more concise, or maybe even there’s a way that is
artistically enriching to say something. We’re all politically exactly on the
think fans, for better or for worse, expect the band to come correctly with
their messaging. But, for what it is worth, that is punk rock. If you’re not
willing to jump in with gusto and genuine assertion, you might as well be
singing about your high school sweetheart or something equally as trivial,
Yeah, I agree, for sure. I mean, there
are necessary components. Punk rock is protest music, clear and simple.
the topic of protest music, a song like “Kyoto Now!” is almost 20 years old,
yet today we see more and more environmental protections being stripped away. “21st
Century Digital Boy” deals with being mentally numbed by technological excess,
yet we see the leader of the free world using Twitter to spread misinformation
and hate at will. On one hand, it’s amazing how prolific the band has been on
the issues, but on the other hand, it’s frightening to think about how little
society has responded to do something, right?
Yeah, it is! It shows that this is a self-interested
society where the individual is more important than the collective…. I’ve had
the very good fortune to travel to dozens and dozens of other countries where things
are marketed different, but in this particular American model that we live, it’s
based on the individual success. The caveat is the idea that as long as you
aren’t hurting anybody, go get what is yours. I mean, that’s America. The
problem is that they seem to forget about the hurting anybody part. It’s very hard
to even get into the mindset of somebody that just does not see the
relationship between what they buy at Wal-Mart and climate change, and the end
of small-town America and why it’s the end of small-town America. And it’s not
the brown people. It’s the white people. These people just don’t seem to
engage on this level. Maybe for people like you and I it’s just painfully
obvious, but it’s maybe mysterious or fake for a huge slot of the country. At
least 40 percent is a number we kind of just throw around as a reference in
conversation, and that’s a huge number.
grew up in D.C. in an era of punk rock where Ronald Reagan firmly held the
position of Public Enemy No. 1, and through the review of history, I see a lot
of parallels between that time and now—but you lived it. I was wondering what
you thought: Are we in an era of Reagan-esque conservativism/populism on steroids?
Or is what we are seeing now a completely different monster that is far more
Well, no. What we are seeing now is
the Reagan model, and it is all based on this Southern strategy and supply side
and the trickle down [theories]—and that isn’t even just economically based, it’s
supposed to be in all things. The thing is now, it has been weaponized. The gloves
are off, the blinders are off, and nobody is hiding anymore. It was a lot
easier to have this assault on core American values in 1980 where you had to at
least had to give the impression that you weren’t doing that. Now, there is no
need to do that, with how society has sped up and the way that information
flows… there is a sense that nothing matters and it’s much more dangerous,
but I think it’s still the same old thing. It really is just the political model,
especially the Republican model, is not about public service. It’s about personal
service. It’s true through this history of American democracy, and everybody
knows that the Democrats have been as dirty as Republicans, but there is this
single tenant that Democrats love stability, and that there still are people
who are truly interested in serving others. If you had at least a proportion of
that, then that would help the medicine go down better. But I don’t see that
involvement on the Republican side. There is no justice. There is no humility.
There is nothing. It is just this insane, empty maw that just chews things up.
does seem like pure opportunism. It doesn’t even seem like there is an intent
No, there isn’t any intent to serve. There is just a portion of people, if you add in the ‘This is all God’s plan’ people—of which there is significant amount—who think that this is just how it is supposed to be. I guess there is a lot of ways that people can justify themselves, but if you take a Lindsey Graham character: how on Earth can this man function as a representative of South Carolina and how can he sleep at night? I’m just thinking ‘How on Earth can you be so shiftless in your stances all the time?” And the only answer is personal gain or that somebody has got something on him. In fact, that’s still personal, because if there is some dark secret, the reason to keep it hidden is that it will prevent you from making more money.
it completely strips away your leverage.
Entirely. It’s just really an insane
world. You know, I’m an eternal optimist, but changing the head of state is
definitely not going to cure this cancer. You do what you can with the tools that
you are given.
To pivot to the music just for a second—Stranger Than Fiction turns 25 years old in August, and even though you didn’t play on that record, that is the year that you joined Bad Religion. Are there any plans in the works to celebrate the anniversary?
Well, it’s funny because it is coinciding
with the 30th anniversary of No Control, so I don’t know how much
celebrating we can do on this touring cycle [laughs]. And to complicate
things further, we have released Age of Unreason, which I think is an
excellent record. There are a lot of songs on that that we want to play, so you
see where I am going with this. If I’m loading up No Control, Stranger
Than Fiction, and Age of Unreason… then what’s left? ‘Oh yeah, and
here’s “Against the Grain!” Ok, we gotta go! Thank you!’
true, I get that. There is a huge catalog.
There is. It’s an insanely huge catalog.
When we do our headline shows, we are playing I’d say 35 songs, something like
that. If you really do much more than that, no matter how much you like Bad
Religion or how much I enjoy playing it, it’s just too long. There really is an
effective time limit for a punk rock show. We found that if our whole thing is
over in an hour and twenty minutes, there’s a diminishing return. Also, we’re not
children. We’re in our mid-fifties, and thank God I’m not the singer, because there’s
a lot going on.
is! A lot of words!
Right, there’s especially a lot at the level that Greg is on…. So basically, at our headline shows a couple of times this year, we just had our encore be the entirety of the No Control record, which people freak out during. It’s about 25 minutes long and I love doing it like that…. No advertising it, or anything. It’s just like ‘Oh yeah, instead of playing “Sorrow,” we’re just going to play the whole No Control album.’ I love that, people really dig it. We don’t do it every time, and we write the setlist just about every day. We don’t have a strict set. We change it when we feel like it. It’s kind of funny, we did add a couple songs off Stranger Than Fiction, but not in acknowledgement of the 25th anniversary coming up. It was just some tunes that we thought, ‘These are some really good songs—why are we not playing them?’ It’s fun, we’re always looking for stuff to pick up on.
were in a lot of prominent bands besides Bad Religion, and in the past ten years
or so, you were featured prominently in two documentaries: American Hardcore
and Salad Days, both of which discuss punk rock in the eighties at
length. Do you think both of those films effectively covered the scene, or do
you think there is more to be explored in that regard?
I think there is a lot more to be
explored. The topic is huge and with something big, you always miss things. I
have a soft spot for the Salad Days film, but also, I know how those
guys put that movie together. They basically had such a shoe-string budget, and
there was so much more that they wanted to do, but they just did not have the
financing to do it. They wanted to touch upon everything, like post-Fugazi punk
rock, which includes global and international punk rock…. That’s a huge topic
that they couldn’t really get into because they didn’t have the money. There is
plenty more room for this and for these films…. If there is ever a Bad Religion
movie, I pray that is as half as good as any of these.
you remember (Salad Days director) Scott Crawford on the scene at that
time or did you meet him through the making of the film?
no! I remember him as a little kid!
footage of him hanging out outside at a show in D.C is wild. He’s like 10-years
Yeah! [I remember him] because he was so
much younger than we were. He was a cool kid, and he showed up and he did the
time. That scene was so small, so you remember pretty much everybody. He was a
standout, and he was young, but the fact that he was so industrial at that age…
he was contributing—he had this fanzine and he wasn’t, like, the mohawk and
spiked-belt kind, either. He was just super into it. It wasn’t fashionable for
him. He wasn’t “going punk.” He was touched, deeply, at that young age by what
was going on in town. It was awesome. I’ve known him forever. It’s got to be
like 40 years.
know, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the picture that broke the internet
last year, which is the four original members of Minor Threat sitting on the porch
outside of the Dischord house. Were you surprised by the reaction it received?
No, it was about exactly what I expected.
I thought it was great. I have told people the story, I don’t know if you know
the backstory behind it.
I know you guys see each other fairly regularly and you always take that picture
whenever you’re together, right?
Right, exactly. We always take the picture
together when we’re at the house, and Jeff Nelson loves doing it. He digs it,
so we do it. This was the first time that we were together where one of us had
an Instagram account. It was me! I told them, ‘Prepare to blow up the Internet.’
I just handed my phone to one of the people watching the photo being taken—a
guy we were meeting with for another reason—and I just said, ‘When it looks
like it, just push the button.’ It was remarkably close, too.
hit it right on the head!
Yeah, he did great. I just wish I would’ve
tied my boot [laughs].
[Laughs] Is that the only detail that is different?
No! We didn’t have the Pepsi box. The Pepsi
box was gone, so I had to sit on this wooden case, so that was different. I have
to say that the Dischord house is kind of frozen in time as far as what’s going
on with the house and inside the house, so it’s weird that the Pepsi box would have
won’t ask you about a Minor Threat reunion because I know it would be over Ian
(MacKaye’s) dead body, but you guys—
Or mine, too, if I may say. I am aggressively
disinterested in destroying a wonderful legacy and a lightning in a bottle
situation that in no way would serve to anyone’s benefit to reenact that now. Primarily,
I must say, we aren’t minors anymore, so we are disqualified.
Be sure to catch Bad Religion at Webster
Hall in NYC on August 2 and Brooklyn Steel in Williamsburg on August 3!