Interview with Punk Veteran Brian Baker
Guitarist Brian Baker talks about his latest gig in Bad Religion, some of his famous DC hardcore projects, and the political outlook this election year.
By Mark Prindle
Brian Baker has been in more great punk bands than anybody else in the history of society. From Minor Threat to Government Issue to The Meatmen to Dag Nasty to Bad Religion (and a couple of non-punk stops in betwees), it's darn near impossible to find a record featuring this blonde bombshell that doesn't tear rockin' ass out of melodic fast good world thing. As his fifth Bad Religion album, The Empire Strikes First, hit the street mid-'04, he was kind enough to engage in a half-hour phone interview with yours sincerely.
I unfortunately didn't realize he had a call right afterwards -- I was cut off midstream before getting to several other questions I wanted to ask! Here we are getting all involved in this non-musical political discussion (with me sounding as stupid and oblivious as ever!), and I never even got to ask him which album he is most proud of! Or if he knows why Graffin and Gurewitz won't stop being nogoodnicks and just re-release Into The Unknown for Christ's sake!? Or (other questions as well)! Regardless, he was a very pleasant man, and our conversation can be enjoyed below.
Can I speak to Brian?
Brian: This is Brian.
Oh hey! This is Mark Prindle calling for an interview.
Brian: Hello Mark!
Hey! How are you doing?
Brian: I'm well.
Oh wow, so you've been in pretty much every punk rock band of all time basically.
Brian: Actually, they're gonna make a new one up just so I can join it.
Cool! Okay, so first you were in Minor Threat and they ruled, and then you went to Government Issue and they kicked ass, then you had your Meatmen who were awesome, Dag Nasty -- great! But I don't know Junkyard.
Brian: Not punk!
Brian: Major label Guns 'N Roses Jr., but nobody was good-looking. Late-80's file under -- well, you probably wouldn't be familiar with the other of that -- but there was L.A. Guns...
Brian: Faster Pussycat kind of thing, though we didn't have the make-up on. Basically it's been a long career, and sometimes you like to just, oh I don't know -- take a few chances, see what's out there on the other side.
Were you into that music at the time?
Brian: Definitely! Absolutely I was. And this band was more of a sort of Motorhead-meets-Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Oh wow! Sounds interesting.
Brian: It was not what would qualify as "glam" or any of that stuff, so fortunately now -- 16 years later or however long it's been -- there are no Internet photos of me floating around with lipstick and hairspray. Which probably wouldn't be the best thing right now.
Are those records good? I mean, should I --
Brian: One's good. The eponymous record called Junkyard is a pretty good record and representative of the kind of thing we were trying to do. We made a second record, which I wanted to call Sophomore Slump, but of course I was a little too clever to be in a metal band anyway. It's terrible. And then there's a third record, but it was basically just demos culled after we got dropped from Geffen, who was the label we were on. But the first one I think is worth it, maybe just as a, you know, a 99-cent mp3 might save you the trouble, though I'm sure the record is probably $1.99.
Was that before Dag Nasty?
Brian: No, that was after. After Dag Nasty was Junkyard. And then that stopped, and I did a couple of things that didn't really go anywhere -- that didn't have any releases. But the next thing I did of note is I joined Bash And Pop.
Oh! The Replacements guy?
Brian: Yeah. Primarily because I wanted to be friends with Tommy Stinson, because he was my idol. I mean, the bow tie and lipstick, the Replacements who had become one of my favorite bands. So I joined that band as a second guitar player, and during the time I was in that band, which was a very short period of time, I got the Bad Religion call. So that brings us to now!
Did anything happen with the -- by "did anything happen," I mean did you end up touring for that last Dag Nasty album? The reunion sort of? The one that came out a couple years ago?
Brian: No. Yeah, that came out in 2002. It's called "Minority of One."
Yeah, I like that. I like it a lot.
Brian: I like the record too. We kind of made it really without any intention of being able to tour it. I was just trying to keep Dag Nasty as sort of a fun thing for the four of us, because two of us in Dag Nasty are still touring musicians and two guys aren't. And we're all very good friends who grew up in the same city, so I just wanted to kinda make low-pressure records and not really have to worry about touring them.
The downside, of course, I found out is that when you don't tour, you don't sell any records and nobody ever hears it. So I think the next one we do, we may want to do a couple little shows somewhere just to make it interesting. But that's way in the future. I'm steeped in Bad Religion as we speak.
Are you guys touring right now for this record?
Brian: I leave on Thursday on the second leg of our tour, which is -- we're gonna be on the Warped Tour.
What do you think about the new album compared to the others that you've played on?
Brian: Well, it's interesting because I joined to replace Brett Gurewitz in 1994, but the replacement was really more as a musician/guitar/touring musician. I mean, I joined as a member of the band and was encouraged to write, but I was kinda coming into a dynamic where these two guys, Brett and Greg, had written everything, and I really wasn't gonna hang my shingle out, so to speak. I collaborated.
So I have two eras, because I have the records that I was on where Brett wasn't around, and then we have 2002 when Brett rejoins the band in kind of a Brian Wilson-type capacity and we make the record The Process Of Belief, which I believe was by far the strongest Bad Religion record I'd ever played on. And The Empire Strikes First seems to be continuing that tradition. It's a little bit more experimental in that, you know -- basically, in punk rock, "experimental" means "We're not done writing the songs, but we're recording them now."
Oh! Okay. Ha!
Brian: And this record I'm very proud of. I just can't tell if it's my favorite or if The Process Of Belief is my favorite. The main point of that rambling diatribe is that participating in the band with Brett and Greg writing is just a wonderful experience, and that's really what I wanted the whole time.
When I joined in '94, I was kinda hoping to replace Greg Hetson and get to ride the tails of these two songwriters, and as it came to pass, that was not the case. But now it certainly is, and I'm very happy to be a part of it. I think the record sounds really good and I do hope people will like it. I think what we're singing about is so timely and so important, and it's so good that it came out before November.
Does Brett actually play on the records or just write for them?
Brian: Well, he plays a little bit. To be honest, I pretty much play all the guitar. Not in a way of like, "Hey! I play all the guitar!" but more of a.... Bad Religion functions as a democracy, and we use, as an example of how we work, a NASCAR team. And the guy who's best at putting tires on in the pit is the guy who puts the tires on in the pit. It saves time and the thing runs better. The fastest driver drives it. The guy who's best at holding the gas can does the gas can stuff.
When we're in the studio, I apparently am the most efficient as far as time goes, and I have the ability to interpret what Brett and Greg are thinking when they're playing the guitars on their demo tapes. But they just don't -- you know, these people play instruments in order to use them to write songs, whereas I play an instrument because it's the only thing I know how to do. So most of the playing really falls to me, but he plays when he feels like it. Like, "There's a part I wanna play, Brian." "Good! I'm gonna go get some lunch." You know? Like that. It's certainly not a matter -- no one's sitting around going, "I didn't get my chance."
I don't sing backing vocals on the records, though I sing them live every night, because I don't like singing backing vocals that much, and there are a bunch of guys there who are better at it than I am, so once again, I'll take lunch. It's that sort of dynamic. The drummer's the one who's screwed because no one can play drums but him.
Heh heh. Did you write all the music in Dag Nasty?
Brian: I'd say about 90% of it, yeah.
I know, obviously, it's different being in Bad Religion. Is it kind of a relief that you're not depended on to do that, or do you miss it?
Brian: I miss it to a degree, but I think that these guys are better at writing Bad Religion music than I am. So once again, the race car ethic is in place. I have a little bit of writing credit on this record, just because I happened to be in the right place at the right time, but stylistically I do a much different thing.
Dag Nasty I think is a little more free-form in some ways. I think that it's not as hooky. Dag Nasty is guitar. The guitar is more important in Dag Nasty writing to me than the vocal melodies, and in Bad Religion it's the exact opposite. So I think I'm better suited to try to hold up the guitar end of things in Bad Religion, because Brett and Greg certainly have the vocal melody aspect of it hammered, as well as the lyrical thing. I would love to participate, but it's just not necessary. I'm not at home stewing over my 4-track going, "When's it gonna be my chance, guys? How dare you!"
Do you feel like when they're writing songs that they feel kind of a responsibility to play Bad Religion-type music? Or are they both just still really into that fast punk rock with the --
Brian: It just comes out that way. As a matter of fact, I think that there's more of a responsibility to NOT simply try to stick within a proven Bad Religion framework. I think getting OUT of it is a little bit cooler than sticking to it, 14 records down the road. In my observation of what they do, this is just what comes out of those guys.
The new record is a good example. I think about half of it is definitely reminiscent of things that have come to pass throughout our career, but there's some stuff on it that's really very interesting, that really doesn't -- I don't see where it falls in into our history. Basically what I'm saying is that it's not contrived.
And also, for both of these gentlemen, the lyrics are the thing, and whatever gets those lyrics across in the best way possible, that's how the music is made. And when you think about it that way, you see that there's a certain pattern. The amount of words that especially Greg likes to write requires a certain tempo to deliver them effectively, and so I think that's kinda how it's solved. I'm kinda grasping at straws here because I'm not inside their heads quite like they are, but that's what I notice. When an old rager comes up, then I look at the lyrics and go, "Okay. Well, that's why the song is that speed. He's got a lot to say!" And it doesn't sound good if you're trying to draw out a multisyllabic diatribe about the state of the current conservative right-wing Republican ruling party.
Did you write that lead guitar line in "Let Them Eat War"? That's a really good --
Brian: Yeah! I did actually.
That's a great lead guitar line.
Brian: It sounds a lot like Dag Nasty! Ha!
That's the thing! I really like Dag Nasty, so --
Brian: Well, me too! No, but that's funny that you noted that. That in fact is one of the things I contributed to that song, and it really does kinda remind me of a Dag Nasty song.
I also really like those harmonics going on in the title track.
Brian: Oh yeah! Yeah.
And "Los Angeles Is Burning" actually reminds me of the Beatles kinda.
Brian: The best thing about that song is that Mike Campbell plays the lead guitar on it.
From Tom Petty?
Brian: Yeah! Like you wanna talk about a chance for me to go get lunch that I REALLY enjoyed that lunch? Mike Campbell sat in the chair, and that Beatle-esque thing you're hearing is his Nashville tuning of the 1904 Fender that he probably got out of a glass case at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And this guy's totally cool, totally low-key; coincidentally, he was recording in the studio next to ours, and he and Greg are acquainted. And Greg said, "Hey, wanna play on this song?" and he said, "Yes, I would." And there we have it.
Does he know the band?
Brian: Yeah! Oh, absolutely. His children are big fans, and as a matter of fact, he's done some collaboration with Brett. Mike Campbell does tons of stuff, and he's into surf music and all of these other little things. He knew Brett professionally; I think they might have worked on something previous to this. You know, a Mike Campbell vehicle of some sort. So they were already friends, so it was actually a happy coincidence. And I just couldn't wait, because I'm an enormous Tom Petty fan, both as a solo artist and with the Heartbreakers of course, and Mike Campbell is, I think, one of the best guitarists on the face of the earth.
Neat. Yeah, I like Tom Petty. I liked that last Tom Petty album a lot actually. Wasn't too fond of the one before it, but the last one I liked a lot. Who is this rapper guy? You had a rapper on one of the songs.
Brian: That's Sage Francis. And if I knew anything about "spoken word music," as I like to characterize it, I could tell you more. But he is another good friend of Brett's. I'm just completely ignorant of that genre, but apparently he's a big deal -- socially conscious, very indie, below the mainstream thing, and has a huge following. And the only thing I know of him is what he sang on our record, and those were his words, and I think that they're awesome. So if I ever have a need for thumping bass in my Volvo, I'll go pick up something along those lines.
Are you as into politics as those guys are?
Brian: I think possibly more so than Mr. Graffin, but Brett and I are pretty head-to-head as far as our participation, constant outrage and keeping ourselves apprised of exactly what's going on everyday. I take the good paper and the bad paper everyday, just because it's my ... I'm from a media family; both of my parents were involved in television until they retired -- television news, so I grew up with this. And I live in Washington, DC, which doesn't hurt.
What do you think of Kerry?
Brian: I like Kerry because I like smart people. And I don't think he's a liar. And I represent a certain segment of our country that when I hear the words "Massachusetts liberal," I say "Yes!" not "No." I think that the key is I need to know more about him, which I think is what everybody's saying right now. I am confident that he won't do anything stupid. I'm not necessarily confident that the age of crony capitalism will go the way of the dodo the minute that Bush is elected out of office; I mean, I am a realist. But I certainly think he's the best game in town, and I look forward to knowing more about him.
I've been so mired in this -- basically, I've been working with a political action committee whose very existence is simply to encourage young voters to get to the polls in order to remove George Bush from office. So most of my reading and participation has been in that Richard Clarke/Peter Singer kind of thing. I haven't really focused a lot on the end game here; I'm still mired in the fact that I'm just -- my outrage is such that that takes up most of my political energy.
Do you get the feeling they're not telling the truth about pretty much anything?
Brian: Uh, yeah! Yeah, I do. It's interesting. It took me a little while to realize this, but when I was first -- well, not first, but basically since 2000 -- I've had conversations with my friends like, "Okay, is it just that they're evil, greedy bastards? How can it be that simple? It's just so obvious!" And I've spent a lot of time with this and did a lot of reading, and what I've come to believe is that these people aren't evil. They honestly believe that the world will benefit from the United States being the top dog empire, dictating international policy based on fundamentalist Christian ethic. They believe this is a good thing that they're doing. And I think that might be even more frightening than them just being fuckin' Boss Tweed.
It's astonishing to me. Every single thing that comes up, I just can't wait for two days later to see what it becomes. I got a great giggle out of this: The 9/11 Commission Report was released where they say there was no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. Then you get the radical right, and I get the Washington Times -- that's my bad paper because I love to see how they spin things. And they're like, "No no no! One of the lieutenants in his army is an al-Qaeda operative!" Never mind addressing the fact that if you have an army and one guy's an al-Qaeda operative, that doesn't necessarily say that al-Qaeda operations are going hand-in-hand with the dictatorship. Nevertheless, today we find out that the right wing had the guy's name spelled wrong! That's why they thought the lieutenant was an operative for al-Qaeda -- because they took an "e" out of the name! I mean, that's the kind of game we're playing here.
Oh my goodness.
Brian: It's just something that's just childlike. It's insane! I'm dealing with a president who will go on television and basically say, "The reason why I'm saying there's a link is because there's a link." It's like a four-year-old when the mom says, "Why did you eat the macaroni and cheese before dinner was ready?" and the kid says, "Because!" This is the president of the United States.
And he's creepy too. When he goes on to give a speech, it just seems so unnatural and fake. It just doesn't seem like a human being talking to you.
Brian: Well you know, they tried to let him just be a human being in the election, and guess what happened? He can't get three words out of his mouth without screwing up! So now he's so tightly roped in and so tightly scripted that all you really get of his personality is that self-satisfied smirk. That's all you get from him, because he's coached to whatever level it takes so that he does not contribute to -- what is it now -- FIVE volumes of Bushism books? Where he mangles the English language and completely has no concept of sentence structure? He's just not the smartest guy in the world, this man! Not a smart man. I think the president should be smarter than I am, but that's me.
What do you think about, you know -- regardless of what his reasons were, I just keep going back to, umm... The Taliban and Saddam did kinda suck. I know we kinda propped 'em up to begin with --
But I just feel like, "Well, at least THEY'RE gone, I suppose."
Brian: Saddam Hussein's out of office and the Taliban is no longer a ruling body in Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean that they're gone. And in the case of Afghanistan, that was an interesting attempt at nation-building whereby we basically went in there, removed their government and then left a McDonald's wrapper on the ground and drove away. I don't know exactly how that's going to factor into the idea of long-term peace in the Middle East.
Oh, we're already gone from Afghanistan?
Brian: Afghanistan? Yeah! There's like three guys in a Humvee there, drinking Miller. Like that's it. I mean there's obviously some sort of skeletal force there, but basically they just turned the entire country back to the warlords who in varying degrees seem pretty Taliban-like to me. And don't even get me started on the idea of quote handing Iraq back to the Iraqis unquote at the end of this month [June 2004].
How is it gonna happen?
Brian: "We're gonna hand it over to Iraq." Translation: "Our entire army is gonna stay here; we're still running everything. As a matter of fact, we're gonna send MORE troops here. We're NEVER leaving, and the reason why we're saying we're handing this thing over to some puppet shadow government is because somebody's gotta get re-elected in November, and people are bummed out about Iraq." I mean, it's just transparent! I just don't know what kind of person would bite and actually take that seriously.
What can we do in Iraq? Do you think we should just leave?
Brian: No, I don't think we should leave. I think one thing that might be helpful is if half of our army wasn't contractors working for American interests, that might give people a little bit of a reason to believe that we actually are trying to do something positive for the country. The president keeps saying, "We want to return Iraqi oil to Iraq." No, you don't. The whole reason you went there is because you wanted to have Iraqi oil. So as long as the whole point of being there is to rob them of their resources and neutralize independent thought that may be anti-Christian or anti-American, I don't think they're gonna have a good time over there.
But once again, I play guitar in a punk band and I'm not a policy advisor. I just think it's an enormous mess, and the only thing I can possibly think of is to at least reduce the APPEARANCE of wanton looting on the part of the Americans. That might help.
Yeah. Back on the subject of music, how is it that not one, not two, but THREE members of one of the seemingly most moral Washington DC bands, Minor Threat, ended up with Tesco Vee?
Brian: Ha! Uhh.... Well, I think that the moral compass has been exaggerated to say the least. I mean, I was in Minor Threat and I don't recall actually trying to start some sort of sober militia. The reason I didn't drink or take drugs is because I was 15 when I joined the band and I didn't hate my parents. So when they told me not to smoke pot, I didn't, and when they went out of town, I didn't raid their liquor cabinet because I respected my parents and I didn't like the way liquor tasted. That was me being straight edge.
Minor Threat is also characterized as this militant self-abstention outfit, but it's really like one or two songs out of the entire catalog that deal with that. Most of our material was about personal politics, and it was music written by people who were from the ages 15 to 18. And when you look at it in retrospect, no one was trying to start a revolution. As a matter of fact, no one ever even thought that, that -- this was an after-school hobby, this band! I'm not kidding. I mean, there was no grand plan.
And when you think, "How did you wind up with Tesco Vee?" -- well, 'cuz Tesco Vee was hilarious! And a really good friend of ours. And he needed some guys to play with him. He moved from Michigan where he had his band The Meatmen, and he needed guys to play with him. He came down to Washington and the first thing he did was that "Dutch Hercules" record that I played on and Ian [Mackaye] was on, and I guess Lyle [Preslar] was on that too. Then he started to do The Meatmen as sort of a -- you know, uhh -- I wouldn't say... well, it was a real band, but they would play like once every two years. It wasn't a machine. Tesco wasn't trying to make his living out of being in the Meatmen. It was basically an art project for him.
He was a teacher, right?
Was he a teacher?
Brian: I believe he was. Now I think he does something with the phone company. I'm not quite sure. I haven't seen him in a few years. But basically the way it happened is because everybody was friends and lived in the same basically small town when you look at the music community, and it sounded like fun. And so we did it.
Did you ever tour with him?
Brian: I never did, but Lyle did.
How did the "straight edge" thing happen? Who picked up on that song and turned it into what it became?
Brian: The first evidence I saw that it was turning into something other than a song was in Boston. The contemporary Boston punk rock scene that existed concurrent to DC --
Oh, that Springa guy?
Brian: Yeah. They kinda took it another step. But most of all of this straight edge militia stuff was from bands that didn't exist until years and years after Minor Threat broke up. And when you want to analyze the "straight edge" concept, it's really not a bad idea for teenagers to not be drinking and doing drugs and having promiscious sex. Not in the sense of denying them pleasure, but if you're living at home -- and I'll use me as a great example: I'm living at home, I get to go out and play at a nightclub on a weekday when I'm in high school, because my mother knows I'm not out shootin' up! Because she was very familiar with this band that I was doing and what I was doing.
And for me it was just sort of a great way to get to play shows, because people wouldn't put on punk rock shows because everyone was too young, but if everyone doesn't drink, they could put X's on their hands and still make ticket money if they don't have bar sales. So that was one reason why it was beneficial to play, and secondly it was just easier being a young kid and aligning yourself with something -- I mean, why do you think we have Christian retreats? Why does 3 Doors Down sell out arenas? It's a variation on that theme. It just all went haywire after that. By the time all these third-wave straight edge bands came into existence, where they added 'vegan' to the list, which I really wasn't aware that that was on the checklist -- by then, I was drunk in a cowboy hat; I didn't really give a shit.
Ha! Oh, that was '90 or whenever?
Brian: Ah, whenever. Even later Dag Nasty, I was way way more interested in playing guitar than worrying about whether -- the personal politics of a band member really had nothing to do with what came out of their hands, as far as I was concerned.
Okay. Is it hard to connect with the audience, since they seem to be getting younger and younger? You know, the punks are staying teens, and you guys are I guess in your 40s now.
Brian: Late 30s, thank you.
Late 30s? Oh, that's right! I didn't realize you were so young when you were in Minor Threat.
Brian: Yeah. No, I don't think so. Good songs are good songs. Why would it be any harder to connect with people who are 18 years old now, when Bad Religion were connecting with 18-year-olds when they themselves were 18? Plus also realize a lot of parents come. Ha!
Oh, they do?
Brian: It's interesting! There's a lot of father-son nights. On tours like this Warped Tour, we're not really preaching to the saved; we are dealing with a lot of young people. When we do our own headlining tours, it's a very interesting mix and I wouldn't categorize it in any specific age group. I really wouldn't. Yeah, it's a cool thing.
What do you think about this, uhh -- I don't know much about it, but I know that Johnny Ramone is involved in some "Punkers for George Bush" or something?
Does that make you like the Ramones any less?
Brian: It doesn't make me like the Ramones any less. It makes me question -- well, it makes me question, it doesn't matter if it's Johnny Ramone or my next door neighbor whose name is Johnny, "WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU!?!?!? How can you have this shit shoveled at you and honestly support this man and his ethics and this program for global domination?" That is what concerns me. It has no effect on my enjoyment of the Ramones.
Yeah, that's the thing. It seems like it should somehow be possible to be a Republican and still realize this guy is not a good president.
Brian: You know what? There are a lot of them. And that's what's so wonderful. It IS possible to be a Republican and to see that this man is not a good president. And that, my friend, is what we're all hoping for on that one lovely Tuesday in November. Yeah, of course. Being Republican doesn't mean that you're stupid or you're a warmonger or you're greedy. Basically, well I don't need to outline it for you, but there's nothing necessarily in their platform that says that you have to run government the way it's been run by these fucking ex-Nixon, Cato Institute cronies who've been waiting for their chance in the sun for the last 20 years.
My mother's a Republican because she doesn't like how the Democrats take her money away with their taxes.
Brian: Oh, interesting! What tax bracket might she be in? I can point my finger at some Republicans who are doing a very good job of taking money away.
I know. I guess right now she'd be upper-middle class. She used to be lower-middle class.
Brian: Oh good, so she got what -- $150 back?
Yeah, that's the thing! I was talking to her the other night and I said, "Well you know, they did it so that his friends could get like $50,000 back."
Brian: And more! But also, mind you, you get your $150 back if you're in the upper-middle class tax bracket, but fortunately you won't have to be burdened with social security or any social services for your children. And sadly that beep on the phone means that my 5:00 is calling.
Brian: Are you alright? Do you have enough?
Yeah! I do. Thank you so much for your time.
Brian: Well, I really appreciate it and I hope to talk to you again.
June 22, 2004.