Into the unknown
From Minor Threat to Dag Nasty to R.E.M. to Bad Religion and so on, Brian Baker has left his mark on a litany of bands. He's seen and done it all and still finds the passion to keep going.
Nearly two-and-a-half decades ago, he picked up the bass guitar for Minor Threat. He, Ian MacKaye and the rest of the band switched on their amps and began writing, without any idea of what sort of an impact their music would have.
"Nobody tried to start a revolution based on a hooded sweatshirt," said Brian Baker of his Minor Threat days. "It was an unfair characterization to call the band 'straight-edge.' I thought we were so much more than that. But it was neat to have coined a phrase. Thank you, Ian."
Their fast and impetuous brand of D.C. punk did begin a revolution. An allegiance of fans swore to remain pure of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and more. To Baker, it was all just a common-sense mistake, based on some late-afternoon fun.
"It was accidental," he said. "Being in Minor Threat was just an after-school hobby. It's a pretty good idea for underage kids not to get fucked up. Nobody's going argue it's smarter to experiment with drugs when your body hasn't figured out how to work."
What happened as one result of the band's three-year life span may have been good for kids, but, according to Baker, it wasn't healthy for people to begin categorizing the band's beliefs and morphing its lyrics into the manifesto for a militant lifestyle.
Baker's take on punk rock was that it was self-expression, plain and simple. It was a way of life, one without rules. So, as the straight-edge community grew, he took issue with it.
"Punk rock is exclusionary enough, but adding this set of rules was folly," he said.
But, by then, he had already moved on. Minor Threat's legendary status was still in its infantile stages when Baker put down the bass and picked up the guitar for the next six years with the more indie-tinged Dag Nasty.
To many, this phase represented the heart and soul of his musical career. What few songs the band was able to record and release before its breakup in 1991 were treasured by the band's fans. This may be where his creative talents and abilities were best showcased.
"If I hadn't fucked up Dag Nasty, I thought I could be in a band of (Bad Religion) caliber," said Baker.
What happened with Dag Nasty is irrelevant at this point. What's important is that Baker did move on to bigger and better things.
Among other bands, he played with Government Issue, Meatmen, Rick Ocasek and Junkyard.
Then, one day, he got a call from R.E.M. His name was recommended to the group by a friend of a friend and he was asked to try out for the band. At his audition, they decided to take him on for the role of a "utility infielder," as he refers to it.
The position would never have made him a full-fledged member of the band. He'd have no input on songwriting, or the recordings, either. He'd just show up for live shows and fill in the blanks. Baker was happy to take on the role, though he did not feel completely comfortable as a hired gun, a position he had never been in before.
"Three or four days later, I got a call from Bad Religion to actually be a band member," he said. "I think it was Mike Mills who said, 'Well, that's what you do then.'"
Still, Baker did not want to leave R.E.M. empty-handed. He pointed them in the direction of Nathan December, a friend and musician who had spent the previous two to three years on tour with the Goo Goo Dolls.
After 14 years of leapfrogging from band to band, here he was, in California, playing guitar for one of the most recognizable punk rock bands in history, Bad Religion. With Brett Gurewitz leaving the band to concentrate on his label, Epitaph, he had huge shoes to fill.
He makes it sound easy, saying that Bad Religion was his favorite band when he asked to join. He knew a lot of the songs and the transition should not have been too difficult.
Until they went into the studio.
"The only Bad Religion records I don't like are the ones the one that I'm on," said Baker.
He also admitted that "Into the Unknown" was also at the bottom of his BR list.
By 2001, Gurewitz was back in the band. With Baker's band status reconfirmed, things began looking up for the band again. The Gurewitz and Graffin songwriting team was intact and Baker was able to add a Dag Nasty-style flair to certain songs.
Things were good. The punk flame was rekindled and the '80s D.C. rock of Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, et cetera were revitalized. By '95, Baker was living happily back in D.C., where his heart has always been. This year, he married and released "The Empire Strikes First" with Bad Religion.
By this age, most of his fellow musicians are half his age and many of the people that began writing music in the '80s have long since put down their axes. Still, Baker looks straight ahead. He can't wait to hear what the next Bad Religion record will sound like. He enjoys being in a band, because it's his life n and what a remarkable life at that.
"I'm pretty amazed by it myself," he said. "I don't think of it that way myself but that may because I've never not been in a band. If you're willing to do this and work at it for 24 years, you end up doing something cool."
By MARCELLO DE FEO
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