Punk, politics and passion
Greg Graffin and Bad Religion take a stand with 'The Empire Strikes First'
Entertainers often catch criticism for mixing their art with politics. The Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines caught flack for criticizing President Bush during a concert. After Linda Ronstadt's commended Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11" from the stage of a Las Vegas casino, she was booted off the premises after the show.
But there seems to be a sense among many musicians, especially those who are opposed to the current administration, that this year's election is so important that they can't remain on the sidelines. Hence, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam and others are headlining the Vote for Change tour this fall.
In that sense, Bad Religion's new CD, "The Empire Strikes First," couldn't be any more timely. Released earlier this summer, the longtime punk band's album has songs like the title track and "Let Them Eat War" that contain some pointed statements against the war in Iraq, the Bush administration, and the state of American society.
"Because of the title of the album, it's been getting lots of press," says Bad Religion singer and songwriter Greg Graffin, who lives in Lansing. "And, let's face it, I do like making a statement that in this political year we don't support the Bush administration, so in that sense it's a good self-affirming statement."
Bad Religion also contributed "Let Them Eat War" to the compilation CD "Rock Against Bush, Vol. 2," which hit record stores this week.
"It's no mystery that Bad Religion and most punk and pop bands are similar in that they are liberal, and they all love to encourage people, more than ever this year, to get out and vote against the Republican party," says Graffin. "That's the marketing angle, anyway."
Actually, Graffin says that while the new album does have some politically charged songs, the bulk of the 15 songs are still in keeping with the band's usual approach, which mixes provocative topics with accessible melodies, anthemic choruses, and aggressive instrumentation.
"Bad Religion albums have a philosophical undercurrent, and aside from the three political tunes, there are a dozen other songs that are about that philosophical undercurrent, and of course a lot of that revolves around religion, which is keeping with our tradition.
Many of Graffin's songs were influenced by his dissertation research examining the relationship between evolution and religion; he earned a Ph.D. in zoology last summer from Cornell.
"Songs like 'Sinister Rouge,' 'Atheist Peace' and 'God's Love' (go to www.ithacajournal.com/badreligion to hear a sample) -- these are songs that are still intimately tied with their polemics against the right-wing ideology," he says. "They're also in keeping with Bad Religion's older records in addressing this absurd idea that we are a Christian nation, and the incorrectness of that kind of a view. Because whatever religion you are, it should not have any bearing on who you choose as president. That's the greatest thing about America, I thought."
A Warped view
Bad Religion is currently headlining the Vans Warped Tour, which comes to Darien Lake Wednesday before concluding in Boston next week. It's the band's third time on the tour. While Graffin sometimes felt like he was preaching to the converted during the 1998 tour, in 2002 he realized the band was reaching a whole new audience of younger fans. It's a trend that has continued on this year's tour.
"An interesting statistic is that there has never been more American school-age children than there are right now, which pretty amazing," Graffin says. "So what that means for Bad Religion is that every year in 1990s, there'd be a new generation of punkers to discover us. Now it's a larger population than ever that's discovering us every year. I ask at every show for how many is this their first Bad Religion show, and over half the people have never even heard us.
"It just shows the punk-pop boom in schools is a snowballing effect," he continues. "Every year, the pop-punk bands make punk acceptable and mainstream to kids, and there are more of them every year who are just learning about Bad Religion. They've read about us, they view us as kind of the godfathers of punk movement, and they want to see us play."
Graffin, who turns 40 in November, says he doesn't worry about not being able to connect with a younger audience. "I've said it before, there was never any question when I was an undergrad about the age of my professor. No one said, 'Professor, how can you relate to those kids? You're so much older than them.' The way you relate to them is by having something relevant to say.
"That's how I see being on stage with Bad Religion. If you got something relevant to say, it doesn't matter how old the audience is, as long as the audience consists of people who want to hear something relevant and are willing to learn. Luckily, the punk rock audience always want to hear something relevant. So that's how I justify it."
Of course, he admits it's not getting any easier, given the demands of touring. The band spent six weeks in Europe this spring, and when the Warped Tour winds up, will gear up for its headlining tour in North American. Then it's off to Japan, Australia and South America.
"How do I feel? I'm very tired," he says. "The fact is, there's such a demand for Bad Religion. We've always operated on a independent budget and independent way of operating, so it takes a lot of personal commitment.
"Sometimes, I've often thought if I could franchise Bad Religion out to all the different cites, and have a cover band in every city playing concerts," he says with a laugh. "I'd pick the singers, and we would actually let them call themselves Bad Religion, like a true franchise."
Last summer, Graffin finally finished his Ph.D. in zoology, which he had been working on since 1990, completing his dissertation titled "Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist World View: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology." (You can read about his research at www.cornellevolutionproject.org.)
"It cleared one academic project off my plate and opened the world for another one," says Graffin, who plans to start working on a book related to his research. "I am very excited about getting going on that. I knew this year was booked up with shows, so it will be slow going. But next year is going to be an academic year."
Another goal is to record his second solo album; his first, "American Lesion," came out in 1997. Bad Religion guitarist and fellow songwriter Brett Gurewitz "has expressed a lot of interest in producing it, so I know he's going to encourage me to get some more songs written," says Graffin. "I've been writing a lot of songs the last two years."
After living in Ithaca for 14 years, Graffin has no plans to relocate. "I really like it here," he says. "The more I travel, the more I reaffirm my love for Ithaca. I also have a place in Los Angeles, and spend a lot of time out there. I like it there, but I love Ithaca, and it's a great place to come back to. I have a family here, and the kids (Graham, 12; Ella, 10) love it. Who needs to uproot?"
By JIM CATALANO
Originally published Thursday, August 12, 2004