Bad Religion—The Chaos From Within

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. Real punk 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.

I 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.

Right, 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.

One 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.

Right, 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.

Yeah, 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.

Does 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 same page.

I 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, right?

Yeah, I agree, for sure. I mean, there are necessary components. Punk rock is protest music, clear and simple.

On 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.

You 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 dangerous?

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.

It does seem like pure opportunism. It doesn’t even seem like there is an intent to serve.

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.

Right, 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.

Bad Religion’s Age of Unreason (Epitaph Records)

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!’

That’s 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.

There 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.

You 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.

Do you remember (Salad Days director) Scott Crawford on the scene at that time or did you meet him through the making of the film?

Oh, no! I remember him as a little kid!

That footage of him hanging out outside at a show in D.C is wild. He’s like 10-years old!

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.

You 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.

Well, 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.

He 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 been gone.

I 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!