Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz Exclusively Interviewed by (International) Noise Conspiracy's Dennis Lyxzén
Back To The Beginning
Brett Gurewitz is the co-founder of L.A.-based Bad Religion, one of America's most enduring and important punk rock bands. Dennis Lyxzén is the leader of fashion-conscious Swedish garage punks the (International) Noise Conspiracy and former vocalist for vanguard prog-core practitioners Refused. Although they hail from different continents and different generations, they are two of the more relevant political voices in contemporary music.
Exclaim! recently secured an exclusive interview with these two icons in advance of the releases of their respective new albums --- discs that scream for change in the way the world works, starting with a (white) house cleaning in America's capital --- and their respective bands' appearances on this summer's Warped Tour.
In part one of this hour-long discussion, Lyxzén talks to Gurewitz about the history of L.A. hardcore and the life-changing impact Bad Religion had on a kid from northern Sweden, who after listening to the California band's music, was inspired to pick up the writings of Noam Chomsky and other liberal authors.
For part two of the interview, check out the cover story of Exclaim!'s July issue, which hit's the streets in late June.
Brett: Hi, Dennis
Dennis: Hey, what's up, Brett?
Brett: Not much. I hope you understand this is going to be a fluff piece.
Dennis: What is a fluff piece?
Brett: That's where you don't ask me any difficult questions whatsoever and you just talk about how great I am.
Dennis: Oh, okay. We'll see, we'll see.
Brett: I'll do the same for you some day.
Dennis: Okay [laughs]. We've talked a lot before and we've hung out so I want to start form the beginning. What's the first punk show you ever went to?
Brett: That would be the Ramones. I'm not exactly sure what year but I would guess it was 1978 or '79 and it was at the Hollywood Palladium.
Dennis: Who took you?
Brett: I went myself because I had just discovered the Ramones on my own through my local indie record store. There weren't any punks in my school yet but there were a couple of other guys who had just gone punk: my friend Tom Clement and this guy named Jay. They were literally the first two guys and they had the same idea around the same time I did. We got into the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, and I saw they were coming to L.A.
Dennis: When did you start seeing L.A. bands?
Brett: It was right after that. I got my driver's license when I was 16 and I started getting into punk when I was 17. There were no punk shows in the suburbs where I lived but immediately after seeing the Ramones I started going to local punk shows. The first one was the Germs at Flipper's Roller Rink in Hollywood during the last days of roller disco. This particular place was doing poorly so they started booking punk shows on weeknights.
Dennis: I'm just reading the Germs book Lexicon Devil. So you got into the Germs and they were the first wave of L.A. punk bands, right?
Brett: I just got onto the first wave as a kid at the end and I became the second wave.
Dennis: Then the second wave came with Black Flag.
Brett: [Black Flag founder and guitarist] Greg Ginn will argue that with you. He'll say he was part of the first wave but he didn't play the Mass because he wasn't cool enough. Brendan O'Brian, who books the Mass, tells me that's not true and they have had a big feud over it. I'll compromise because that time I saw the Germs it was with Black Flag. They bridge the gap between the first generation of L.A. punk and the second generation, which was L.A. hardcore. Black Flag were the ones that had a foot in both. I would say the second wave, it was us in the Valley and then the kids from the beach cities like T.S.O.L. and early ones people might not have heard of like the Crowd, Agent Orange, China White, Middle Class. Middle Class were the fastest band around.
Dennis: Their seven-inch was considered, at the time, the fastest hardcore seven-inch.
Brett: Right and I think they're the ones that set the tone for what defined L.A. hardcore. It was the violence of Black Flag with the speed of Middle Class. You had to play fast and you had to be tough, and that's what changes between the first and second generations. The first generation was more about emulating the New Yorkers and the British; it was a little more artsy. There were great bands from that original wave like the Weirdoes but that second generation, which I was part of, is really what defined American hardcore before New York or DC or San Francisco had a scene.
Dennis: In the Germs book, a lot of the original punks blame hardcore for destroying the original punk scene because of all the violence and all the moshing and slam dancing.
Brett: That's true. As Nietzsche would say, "destruction is a creative act." If you ever saw a Darby show, he wasn't exactly Andy Warhol. He was pretty violent in his own way. The original scene was kids experimenting with drugs and homosexuality and going to art school and being interested in existential philosophy. The second wave was just hell bent on destruction.
Dennis: So when did you form Bad Religion?
Brett: It was '80, I guess. Maybe before '80, maybe '79 when we started playing.
Dennis: But you'd been going to shows for a while and getting into the scene?
Dennis: So what was your first show?
Brett: Bad Religion's first show was a party. Some kid's dad had a warehouse out in Pomona and we played this party with Social Distortion. It was there first gig, or one of their first gigs, and it was our first gig.
Dennis: So you formed Bad Religion and started playing. And did you put out your first record by yourself?
Brett: The mythology is that Bad Religion formed and no major label would have them so they put out the record themselves. That's not true. The truth is I didn't even know what a major label was; I didn't know what an indie label was. I was just a kid and this was before any of that started. I just knew that we were a garage band and nobody was going to put out our record. It never even occurred to me to mail it to anybody. I thought no one would want us to have a record except us, you know what I mean?
Dennis: It was different times. All the big punks were on a major label, it wasn't really an issue.
Brett: Right. It wasn't an issue. To me the idea that a real record label would want us was like Star Trek. It would never cross my mind that it could be real; they were real musicians.
Dennis: And you were just a bunch of punks.
Brett: Not only were we punks. Greg was 15 years old, I was 17 and we lived with our moms.
Dennis: So you put it out yourself.
Brett: I put it out myself and basically we were putting it out for our friends.
Dennis: You must have sold a lot of records.
Brett: It sold a lot of records and interestingly, some of the more important critics in music praised us.
Dennis: That record came out in 1980, right?
Brett: Yeah, and the LP came out in 1981.
Dennis: At that time there was a strong L.A. hardcore punk scene.
Brett: It was amazing.
Dennis: And who were the bands you were playing with, who, if you went to a show, would you think was one of the biggest bands?
Brett: For me, the biggest and scariest band was always T.S.O.L. Black Flag or T.S.O.L. But T.S.O.L., people don't realise, were even bigger and tougher and scarier than Black Flag. But my favourites were the Adolescents. They were probably the biggest influence on my style of songwriting. Their self-titled "blue" album and Kids Of The Black Hole.
Dennis: They were really young too, right?
Brett: Yeah, they were our age.
Dennis: So coming from the outsider, what was the deal? I know this is way before punk rock got political and politically correct but just the whole idea of everybody in L.A. calling everyone in San Francisco "faggots."
Brett: What you have to realise is that we had this amazing scene and I don't agree with any kind of sexist comments at all, but it was shocking the difference between the two scenes. We had this intense scene, we had amazing groups who all had a culture and a sound and a scene and a way of dressing; we were thugs. We wore black leather jackets, we wore back boots, we wore bandannas and chains, some people mixed it with war paint and pirate regalia. Some kids dressed like they were out of A Clockwork Orange. It was a very macabre, theatrical, vibrant scene. It had a way of dancing and playing music and dressing. From just an anthropological standpoint, someone should do a study of it because it was pretty amazing. It all came from punk rock but it was a unique thing. When we went up to San Francisco to play, the punks up there would wear leopard skin tights with skinny ties, checkered shoes, have long hair and Devo glasses, and they were pogoing. I'm not exaggerating, they just didn't get it.
Dennis: I understand also with bands like Fear, it was done in a comical sense too.
Brett: The Fear thing started out as shock rock. I don't think they were early neo-conservatives. They were shocking in the way Alice Cooper was trying to be shocking.
Dennis: But San Francisco had a couple of good bands at that time, like the Avengers and the Dead Kennedys.
Brett: The Kennedys were different, they bridge the gap. They had been to England and we considered them part of the first wave. The second wave in San Francisco came later and it was the crustier one. It started happening up there in '83 but in '80, '81, when we went up there, it just wasn't happening.
Dennis: So when did you start touring?
Brett: We never really properly toured. Bad Religion, prior to the Suffer album, never toured nationally and the only band that had toured nationally was Black Flag and they kind of pioneered it. What we had done is we'd borrow the Circle Jerks' van and go anywhere that was within driving distance and we'd do four-day things. We'd go to San Francisco or Phoenix or Tijuana or San Diego.
Dennis: So here's a question I've wanted to ask you forever. Into the Unknown; I found that record on the internet and I think it's awesome. I understand that it was a departure from what you were doing but it also seems like a lot of L.A. bands were really into the new wave goth thing at the time. I just saw Suburbia and the way T.S.O.L. looks and sounds in that movie, it makes sense that Bad Religion were doing the same thing.
Brett: Exactly. You're the only interviewer who's ever caught on to that. Those guys were our friends and they had just gotten a keyboard and done Beneath the Shadows.
Dennis: Yeah and they were wearing puffy shirts and had weird haircuts.
Brett: Totally and I had that haircut too.
Dennis: But people didn't like that record, right?
Brett: No, people hated it. It's the only record that we shipped 10,000 of and had 11,000 returned.
Dennis: I've been talking to you about getting a copy of that record for four years.
Brett: Honestly, I don't have one.
Dennis: Have you ever thought about re-releasing that record?
Brett: No. Personally I don't like it and I don't think the guys in the band like it either.
Dennis: That's a bummer because it's a cool record. It's definitely a product of its time, but it's easy for me to look back at the history of punk rock and say, "that's where they made a mistake" because so many bands out there, their first record is amazing and then they try something different and it just didn't work out.
Brett: A lot of bands never get back on track but luckily we did. Maybe someday I'd re-release it but I have to get a copy of it myself and listen to it again first.
Dennis: I think it's really different; it's a really cool record. Then you did Back to the Known.
Brett: That was the first thing I even engineered. After Into the Unknown, I decided to learn how to be a recording engineer and that's when I started.
Dennis: When was that?
Brett: That was '84 or '85... '84, I think.
Dennis: And was Epitaph a functioning label at that time?
Brett: Yes and no. After Into the Unknown, I got a job with an indie record distributor and importer called Sounds Good. They used to import records from Europe, England mainly, and sell them in the U.S. before they came out here but they also used to distribute indie records. Even though my real job was working for them as a salesman, they let me sign bands and put them out and put the Epitaph logo on them. It's very interesting because many years later I did a band called the Hives, who were a garage band, and they accused me of not being into garage music at one point. I bring that up because at this point in 1985, I started signing a bunch of garage bands when no one else was. I was one of the first guys in the U.S. to do it. At that time I put out the Primates, the Morlocks, Emerge Alive, the Things... records that aren't out any more. I thought garage was going to be the next punk rock. It didn't happen but I made a few cool records. Interestingly to me, the garage thing ended up happening in 2003.
Dennis: Everything comes a round and eventually Into the Unknown will come around and people will love it.
Brett: [Laughs] Yeah, goth-y prog.
Dennis: Then you put out Suffer and No Control and that's when things started to gain momentum?
Brett: I quit my job at Sounds Good and decided to do Epitaph on my own again. That's when we did Suffer.
Dennis: You had almost broken up at this time, right?
Brett: I wasn't in the group at that time. Greg was keeping it going with some other dudes and Hetson was in the band instead of me. That was cool because he played on How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and he was always like family. Around the mid-'80s, the group started getting back together but I wasn't back yet. Then they asked me to come back and write some songs. Suffer was the result of that.
Dennis: And that's when you started touring?
Brett: Yeah, we did our first U.S. tour for Suffer. We were popular in L.A. and New York but it was very tough everywhere else. When we got back, some booking agent said he could get us a tour in Europe if we wanted. And we were like, "Are you serious? No one has ever heard of us in Europe." He said people liked us in Europe after How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and we were like, "really?" So we let this guy book a tour, not knowing at all what to expect, and to our surprise, when we got over there we were big.
Dennis: That's cool. Is that the Along the Way video?
Dennis: So that was the first experience in Europe?
Brett: Yeah. When we landed, the booking agent warned us that groups don't just come from America and expect to be big because they're an American band. He said we'd have some good shows though. The next thing we knew, every single show was sold out ten times with people in the street. It was insane.
Dennis: And then you did No Control. That's the first Bad Religion record I bought and it seriously blew me away.
Brett: I think it's the best one.
Dennis: It's one of those records I kept listening to for years and I still do. Once in a while I bring it on tour because it's an amazing record.
Brett: Thanks a lot.
Dennis: So then you quit the band, was that after Generator or Recipe for Hate?
Brett: It was actually after Stranger Than Fiction. But I understand why you would think that because Recipe ended up going to Atlantic also. Basically, from '87-'95, we made a record a year and I consider that to be one of our greatest achievements. They're not all equally good but they're all pretty good. It was a very prolific period.