Bad Religion is one of punk rock's oldest and most revered acts. Over the past 20 or so years, they've sold millions of albums and have influenced countless bands. Without a doubt, their place in the history of punk as one of the most important and significant groups is certainly solidified. Several months ago, Bad Religion came through Chicago for a show at the Vic. I was lucky enough to get the chance to sit down and talk with longtime bassist Jay Bentley. We conversed about the band's highly acclaimed latest album, "The Process of Belief", their return to Epitaph, and the ever-changing lineup. Hanging out with Mr. Bentley was an absolute pleasure, and I'd like to thank Hilary and Hector at Epitaph for all their help.
JIC-You spent most of the last decade on a major label and now for about the past year and a half you've been able to call Epitaph home once again. How does it feel to be back where you started?
Jay-Kind of like that, it kind of feels like going back home. There are four people that still work at Epitaph that were there when we left. To have those people still there and still making an impact at the label, that's really helpful to me. Like on Atlantic, it was never really about the music. No one ever made a phone call and told us to change our style. It's about all the shit that they do without your knowledge, whether it's press ads or giving singles to cigarette companies. All these things kind of happen without your consent and it makes you wonder if they ever think about what that means to us, the band. With these guys at Epitaph, I sleep pretty well at night knowing that I'm never going to wake up in the morning with something that I'm not happy with.
JIC-Along with returning to Epitaph, you experienced some fairly serious changes with the band's lineup back in '01. Brooks Wackerman became the new drummer and Brett Gurewitz found his way back and reclaimed his guitar duties. Does the current incarnation of Bad Religion feel somewhat solidified at this point in time, or are you guys still adjusting?
Jay-I don't know if it's that solid right now. Brooks is still like the new guy. That's just going to take some time, but I think this might be the best Bad Religion. Now you've got Brian on guitar, Brett writing songs and Brooks, who's just great in the studio. He always understands what we're trying to do and can play anything backwards and forward, inside and out. It's just kind of getting around the fact that we have a catalog of 200 some odd songs, so he's learning them in blocks and we're still working on that. It's fairly difficult.
JIC-Describe the injury that forced your longtime drummer Bobby to leave the band.
Jay-It was his rotator cuff, just like a baseball pitcher. He just blew it out. He could've had surgery to fix it, but he chose not to. It's pretty depressing, but I think he was at peace with his decision. It's not a risky surgery or anything; they do it all the time. We lined him up with the orthopedic surgeon for the California Angels, since we have connections in LA and can take care of stuff. We had it all lined up and it would've only taken eight months for him to recover. I told him even if he quits the band to still have the surgery. Just do it and then quit, because he is going to get older and his shoulder is still going to be screwed. He's going to want to pickup his grandkids someday. The shoulder might be okay now, but it won't be later.
JIC-How do you manage with everyone in the band living in different cities?
Jay-That's how we manage, and that's why we manage. I think if we didn't stay away from each other, like outside of the band, we'd just kill each other. That's the way it is, we've been like that since we were 15. We knew right away that the concept of a community van/house/sleeping bag was not for us. We don't necessarily agree with each other's personal lives, but that's what's so great about us. We don't fly this unity flag of "Here we are". We're just five idiots from the valley who really like what we do. We'll spend a modicum of time together outside of that, but we certainly don't drive each other to the polling place and say, "Who'd you vote for". We don't care. So that's why this works.
JIC-Your most recent album, The Process of Belief, received a lot of praise and was hailed by most as a return to form for Bad Religion. What are some of your feelings on how the record turned out?
Jay-It's everything that I had hoped for and more. Making that record was reminiscent of Suffer, because at both times people had just written the band off. We had put out a couple of really crappy records in a row and just didn't really seem to be actively participating in music as a band. By that time, the Atlantic deal was over and we didn't have a drummer. We were nothing. We were as close to being finished as we've ever been, other than Into the Unknown. So when it all came back together, and we were in the studio making The Process of Belief, no one cared. Which was great, there was no pressure. The outside world didn't give a shit what we were doing in West Beach. We were just sitting there making this record, as it was unfolding, those of us who'd been doing this for 23 years were saying, "This is a fucking great record".
JIC-Is there a song off that album that's most meaningful to you?
Jay-Maybe "Sorrow". It's a tossup between "Sorrow" and "Can't Stop". "Can't Stop" is the sort of song that drove me crazy when I was 15, that 50-second punk rock song. I remember having that on a loop on my CD-player. I just put that song on repeat, played it literally 1,000 times and never got tired of it. Every time I was smiling and going, "This is great". "Sorrow", on the other hand, was a song that actually kind of made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It had nothing to do with the sentiment of what happened after the song was written and recorded. Everybody started associating the song with the World Trade Center attacks and 9/11, but it had nothing to do with that. The song was written and recorded six months before that even happened. When I first heard "Sorrow", I just kind of went, "This is an odd and weird song". Lyrically Brett really struck a nerve with me on that one.
JIC-How's this current tour going so far?
Jay-It's great, it's totally unexpected. Aside from everybody getting kind of sick. It's a SARS world out there now, every time anybody coughs everyone around gets a little freaked out. In fact, somewhere on our bus there's a bag of masks and rubber gloves. Other than that, we pretty much just threw this tour together out of nothing. We were supposed to be in the studio, but Brett ran late doing the Rancid record and Graffin's been working on his Ph.D. No one's really working on material right now. We're all kind of living in our own little corners of the universe and I think we would've gladly just fucked off for the next seven months. We had to do something though, because you kind of have to do that as a band. We just threw this tour together. We didn't really expect much of it, but it's been great.
JIC-Do you guys worry about possibly upsetting some of your more close-minded fans when taking bands like Promise Ring or Sparta on the road with you?
Jay-No, we don't worry about it. Typically the crowds haven't responded all that well to those bands either. A lot of the time they hate them. The guys from Promise Ring were great from day one, they knew what to expect and they just didn't stop. They got the boos, the spit and the shoes. They just didn't care. They just did their set and said; "Thanks a lot". Jim from Sparta let a couple of people get to him and he started having a conversation with them. I said, "Don't ever let that happen Jim. There's 2,000 people in there, don't focus on one guy that hates you". It's like fuck him. He's not worth your time. You're bumming out all the other people who might actually be enjoying your band. They're just getting bummed out because now they have to watch you battle with one guy. That's always been something that I try to do, open people's minds to other kinds of music. In 1980, when we started, every band didn't sound like us. Every band was totally different and unique. You would go and see shows and every band that came on you'd be excited, because they were something different. Somewhere along the line, say 1995, these shows were just like one punk band after the other. We all sound the same, we all the play the same fuckin' guitar through the same Marshall half-stack, we all have the same singer and we all go "Whoa-oh-oh" into the background microphone. That's cool, but fuck that for four hours. I don't want to see that. It's just a shit fest. Really, when it's my turn to pick the bands, (Promise Ring, Sparta, Green Day, Supersuckers) I try to go out of my way and find bands that don't sound like us. I want to spend my time watching someone else, so everyday of tour I'm at the soundboard watching a band that I like.
JIC-What was it like touring with Blink 182?
Jay-(Laughs). We took that tour because we will never be that band. We're never going to be a band that headlines the Melon Arena or the Great Western Forum; it's just not going to happen. We did that tour with Pearl Jam back in '94, but it was only really eight shows. It's not fair to say we did a tour with them, because it wasn't a full tour. That was a lot of fun, but we didn't get the full effect of what it's like to be part of that world. The Blink tour, I don't know. Those guys asked and I've been saying for a long time how disappointed I was that Green Day and the Offspring had both gotten so huge and never called us to go on the road with them. They both responded with the retarded, "We're too embarrassed to ask you to open for us". I'm like, "Fuck you. We took you out with us because we like you. Is that what it's about? Now you're embarrassed for us to open for you?" We don't care, there's no hierarchy, there's no totem pole - we're all here together. I just wrote it off and said whatever. The guys from Blink called and just asked and we said absolutely. I think they were surprised and everyone else was too. They couldn't believe we were doing it, but I don't really care. That's not why I do this. I don't do this to do what people want me to do. Anyway, the tour was a lot of fun. Blink has a staff of like 50 people, catering and everything, but they're never around. They pull-in, they play their show and then they split. So each day and entire night, we were the next band in line, so we got all their shit. It's like, "Okay, you guys want all the food?" We were like, "Yeah". It was great. It was almost like it was us, but not quite.
JIC-Is it fair to say that a majority of today's punk rock bands lack a sense of social awareness, or even the aggressive attitude that used to be so synonymous with punk?
Jay-Absolutely. Punk rock has become palatable. It has become marketable and an institution of marketability. You can actually take a band, give them the right management, put them on the right label, make sure they've got the right hair color, get them on MTV and make millions of dollars. That didn't exist before. Punk rock was ugly and dirty. It was filthy. You look at the Casualties and at fuckin' Good Charlotte. If you saw them eating dinner together at Denny's you'd think: "There's some fuckin' rough punk rocker dudes right there", Right? One of the groups is going to get into their '78 Dodge Ram van and head down the road with a U-Haul and the other's going to get in a Learjet and go to a management meeting in the Bahamas. That's really what makes the difference. Now it's like the Hot Topic mall punk or whatever. It's just kind of a swing in popularity, where now being a punk isn't necessarily being a punk. It's just a fashion idea; it's no different than wearing a Lacoste shirt or having a Subhumans logo on the back of your leather jacket. It's all just icons. Really, it's only the people that wake up in the morning and think slanted. It doesn't matter what you look like.
JIC-Have you made an effort to play songs relevant to the war in Iraq on this tour?
Jay-Yeah, actually we have. That was something we discussed beforehand, because we were going out on a tour that's not really revolving around a record. We'd been playing the same 35-40 songs for the past few years, because it's just the songs that everybody wants to hear all the time. We've had this standard idea of what we want to play, so we decided to mix it up and play different songs. We also leaned toward things that might be more relevant to what's going on in the world right now. I think everybody wanted us to have an opinion on the war, but we'd rather let the music do the talking.
JIC-I think the song "American Jesus", from your 1993 album Recipe for Hate, with lyrics like: "I don't need to be a global citizen because I'm blessed by nationality", is especially poignant today, mainly due to its commentary on cultural imperialism. Do you find this song, or any of your other ones, to be more pertinent now given the global political climate?
Jay-Oh absolutely, we'll be playing that one throughout this tour. We'll be playing songs like "All Good Soldiers", "Get Off" and "Kyoto Now". We were playing "Conquer the World" for a while, but that started hurting Graffin's voice. In 1991 we put out Generator. That was written concurrent with the first Gulf War, so there's a lot of material there to be used, like "Heaven is Falling". It's the same fuckin' war, people just haven't been paying attention. It's been going on this long, there just hasn't been 400,000 American kids fighting an aggressive invasion until now.
JIC-What exactly is the Bad Religion Research Fund?
Jay-Every year we review theses from students that are doing field study, not laboratory work. We basically find one or two of them that don't require a ton of money, and aren't asking for beer and surf wax to go to Mexico and study fish. It's really all about the field studies because that's what Graffin does; he's into biology studies. He knows that $200 can go a long way on water when you're out in the desert and doing research. When the schools and other facilities won't fund that kind of stuff, which they usually won't if there's no find and they're not going to make a ton of money. These people just get left out. They don't get anything. We realized that it doesn't cost a lot of money to do this. It's something that anybody could do, we just happen to do it because our singer is one of those researchers. We put a percentage of our earnings into the fund and then every year somebody gets it.
JIC-Tell me about Greg Graffin's Ph.D. dissertation that he'll be giving at Cornell University this summer.
Jay-I know that he changed it recently, because for ten years he'd been writing this evolutionary biology thesis. It had something to do with the two disciplines, biology and geology, that you need to be certified in to be a paleontologist. There's no paleontology degree. While he was writing this thesis there were these major discoveries within the past few years that changed everything and wiped out his work. I didn't really know what he was doing. To me he hasn't been going to school. He's been on the back of a tour bus eight months out of the year. We don't really talk about it; I just figured he was playing hooky all the time. What I think he's working on now, and I could be totally wrong, deals with religion's effect on the evolution of mankind. That's my understanding of what he's up to right now.
JIC-Does the band have anything on its agenda for this summer?
Jay-Not really, and that's because of Greg's Ph.D. work. He asked for June and July off.
JIC-Are there plans to record any new material in the near future?
Jay-In the late fall, yes. We're hoping to be in the studio toward the end of September. We're working on material for a new full-length right now.
JIC-It's been over 20 years since Bad Religion's inception and you guys are still going strong. What do you attribute your success to?
Jay-We just don't take the band too seriously. It's really just something that we like to do, but it doesn't make our lives. Much like getting together with your friends to play poker on Wednesday nights, Bad Religion is just something that we get together and do. It doesn't have to be the most important thing in the world. That kept us from feeling a lot of pressure for the band to perform in a certain way. I know so many bands that start up and want so hard to be successful that they always fall short. Our idea of success was making a record. It didn't have to be successful in terms of how many it sold; we just wanted to make one. Everything that we did, we did on our own. No one else believed in us. Although, we didn't believe that we'd be sitting here now, 23 years later, in a tour bus playing at the Vic. You can't think like that, it's an illogical conclusion. Music is an art form, you certainly can't rely on it and believe in it as a career opportunity. You can be a guitar tech or a soundman. There are tons of jobs you can rely on within the music industry if you're talented, but no amount of talent insures any kind of success as a musician. Even when we were 15 we knew that. There are no guarantees in this. We just decided to have fun with it, let it go as long as it goes, and one day it'll stop.
JIC-What more do you wish to accomplish as a band?
Jay-To make the best record that we've ever made. That's probably been the underlying goal since Brett's came back. It's easier said than done. Having made a couple of really bad records and experiencing times where I just didn't care about the band, to being back where you're in the studio at eight o'clock in the morning and you don't leave until five o'clock the next day - you're just working and laughing, and can't get enough of it. You're on tour and you don't want to stop. It's way better to be on that side of the fence. That's our goal, to constantly be enjoying this. I think that's it, to really enjoy it for what it is.