Old-time religion Punk icon Greg Graffin steps away from Bad Religion for rootsy solo album
By Jim Catalano
For more than a quarter century, Greg Graffin has been the lead singer in Bad Religion, the acclaimed punk band that has had a huge influence within the genre. But for even longer, he has been singing folk and old-time songs, which he first heard from his Uncle Stanley in rural Indiana.
“I learned them from records he introduced me to, like Doc Watson and ‘The Anthology of American Folk Music,'” says Graffin, who has lived in Ithaca since 1991. “He'd point me in that direction; then when we'd get together and sing as a family we would have the same repertoire and be on the same page.”
Last week, Graffin released a solo album, “Cold as the Clay” (Anti-); half the album draws on those very roots, with a number of old-time ballads.
“Modern music fans don't really know what old time means—is it country, alternative, classic rock?” he says. “They don't know anything about the history of music in America, so even though I mention that I'm into old time and I've been singing it with my family, they really don't know what it means. So this is a demonstration of what it means.”
Graffin, backed by some of his old-time musician friends— David Bragger, Chris Berry, Joe Wack— from Los Angeles, takes on traditional death ballads such as “Omie Wise” and “Little Sadie.”
“Those songs that sing about tragedy and hardship are the ones that resonate most with people and those are the ones that last the longest,” says Graffin. “Folk music comes from the people, not the aristocrats, and it's a kind of storytelling. In the 18th and 19th century the average American was hard working and building a country, and there was a lot tragedy involved and hardship was a way of life. So those are the songs and the stories we can identify with, because we like to think we're living in hard times now, too. You don't hear many songs sing about how great things are right now.”
The main theme of the album is “the feeling of powerlessness and the feeling that the government doesn't care about you,” he says. “That's definitely true of a lot of people today in America.”
The album also includes the church ballad “Talk About Suffering.”
“My mom and my grandparents were involved in the church and that's where they learned music,” he says. “In going to my grandma's funeral in rural Indiana, they all had the most beautiful voices, singing at their church. They went to the Church of Christ; they didn't use instruments, they only used harmonies and voice. It's something that is very beautiful.
“But I also find a great amount of irony in that song,” he continues. “Bad Religion, and a lot of punk songs by other artists, talk about suffering. We wrote an album called ‘Suffer.' So I think we identify the same struggles that the church identifies with. But there's great irony in that the church says, ‘Always keep following Jesus, keep praying, keep hoping.' And of course nothing ever gets better.
“So that's where the irony comes in—me singing a song about hoping and praying, when the solutions that we came up with in Bad Religion, or at least the problems we've identified, are the same they identify in the church. But I don't believe that hoping and praying is going to make it any better.”
The other songs on the album have electric instrumentation, provided by the Canadian band the Weakerthans, and vocal harmonies from Jolie Holland. Graffin cites Gram Parsons and Neil Young as inspiring those songs. But, again, his lyrics are grounded firmly in the 21st century.
‘I struggled to try to write snapshots of American life,” he says. “I wanted the imagery that I used to be similar to imagery you might find in the 19th century, and in that way, relate a real American experience. I just wanted it to conjure up images of an American spirit and celebrate the American song on this album.”
Graffin grew up in Wisconsin, but moved to Los Angeles at 11 when his parents divorced. He continued to spend his summer back in the midwest, and it's that urban-rural dichotomy that has continued to inform his writing.
“There are a lot of elements in American songwriting that undulates between the urban and rural flavors of America,” he says. “That's part of what's great about the American song. So in trying to write an American song, you have to use images that are timeless—images from your experience, and from American communities.”
Graffin recorded the album in Los Angeles, with Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz in the producer chair.
“I was for once not focused on production— I was just a musician—and that was so much fun,” he says. “I didn't need to be so cautious. I knew that Brett was in the control room focusing on all the technical details, so I could just strum along. It was a real joy.”
As for the Weakerthans — guitarist Stephen Carroll, bassist Greg Smith, drummer Jason Tait— “I had heard their records and liked their music, but I didn't know what to expect,” Graffin says. “But they're such great artists. They just heard my songs as demos, but when they came into the studio, they really surprised me with how they improved the songs so much. So it was a great experience.”
Last week, Graffin kicked off his solo tour, joining the Weakerthans for shows in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
“It was a blast,” he says of the shows. “It was nice to be able to hear myself singing, and to play with dynamics.” He also reported that fans seemed pleased with the 40-minute sets. “No one was shouting ‘Play some punk rock,” he says. “I don't think anyone who came to the shows was disappointed.”
As for Bad Religion, Graffin and Gurewitz have started writing songs for the next record. But he hopes to keep his rootsy musical outlet going, too. “I think I can age gracefully doing this kind of music,” he says.