With new album and tour, Bad Religion wants to oust the president
Amidst the anxiety of a post-9/11 context, our identity as a nation is undergoing more flux than ever before in modern history. And with one of the most important and polarizing presidential elections in recent memory less than two weeks away, the youth culture has seen an unprecedented effort to mobilize voters.
In times of social unrest, very few genres of Western music can compare with punk rock when it comes to being a voice of revolution. The intersection of all these factors will occur at House of Blues on Wednesday when legendary L.A. band Bad Religion will be performing their notoriously socio-political punk rock (with Rise Against and From First to Last).
For more than 20 years, Bad Religion has played the pied piper to generations of disaffected youth by tossing grenades laced with issue-laden shrapnel at the establishment. Their latest album The Empire Strikes First is a timely assault on the current administration and attacks with smart-bomb precision.
Guitarist Brian Baker, himself a credentialed veteran of the American punk scene, recently discussed the new record in light of current events with CityBeat:
Orlando CityBeat: You've been with Bad Religion for about a decade now but you've been involved in other high-profile projects so, to set the stage, give us the highlights of your resume.
Brian Baker: My high school after-school hobby just happened to be a band called Minor Threat, and that's how this all started. It was completely accidental but I was in Minor Threat from its inception till its end. And the band after that that garnered the most attention was Dag Nasty, which I formed myself. It was more of a creative outlet for me; it wasn't quite the same collective as Minor Threat was. After Dag Nasty, I was in a band called Junkyard for about three years, which was sort of a lukewarm major-label offering in the wake of a Guns 'n' Roses signing frenzy. And after that, the next band of note was Bad Religion, which I joined in 1994.
OCB: You replaced founding member Brett Gurewitz on guitar beginning with the tour supporting Stranger Than Fiction, which was also the band's first major-label record. Years before, Gurewitz started the then fledgling and now definitive punk label Epitaph just to put out Bad Religion records. Was there any acrimony on his part over the major-label contract or otherwise, and if so, was this a factor in his decision to leave the band at that time?
B.B.: I believe there was but you'd have to talk to him. I always maintained a good relationship with Brett from before I was in the band, of course, because I had been on Epitaph with a Dag Nasty record and during the time when he was out of the band. But there were definitely some interpersonal problems with the band members. When the band agreed as a collective to go to a majorlabel it was primarily because, at the time, it didn't seem possible for Epitaph to do all the work required to further Bad Religion and also for the members of the band to be working at Epitaph. What happened, which is very interesting, is after Bad Religion signed, Epitaph enjoyed success with The Offspring to such a degree that it became a much larger entity, one that could well have competently addressed the needs of both Bad Religion and the Bad Religion members. So it's kind of ironic, and not the Alanis Morissette version of it, but factual irony that it came out that way. So I think that Brett felt that all of a sudden he found himself in charge of the biggest independent punk label on the face of the earth. And he made some choices and that's what came of it. And good for him because otherwise I would never have gotten that phone call one summer afternoon saying would you like to join what at the time was my favorite band. So it worked out well for everybody.
OCB: After the band left Atlantic and returned to Epitaph, was there any awkwardness with re-entering a professional relationship with Gurewitz?
B.B.: We had come to the end of our contract and we had an option of doing more work with Atlantic or going to another label. However, this coincided with Brett's return to the band. Brett had come to the conclusion that he was ready. He wanted to be a participant, especially as a songwriter, which is what his primary role is here. And we're faced with a situation where we're going to have a new label and Brett's going to be back in the band. I don't know about you, and I never went to business school, but I think I'd want my guitar player in my band to own the label that I'm on because what are you gonna tell your radio people? You didn't do a good job? Well, second prize is a set of steak knives. He runs the label so it's a great place for Bad Religion to be in and especially with the state of Epitaph at the time. By the time Brett had returned and we were looking at labels again, Epitaph had proven itself to be every single bit as viable as any of the labels that were interested in us so we decided it was a nice coming-around, especially when you think of the fact that Epitaph was started as a vehicle for Bad Religion. It all worked out well. There was nothing weird at all about it. It was a wonderful position to be in.
OCB: After a six-year hiatus, what catalyzed Gurewitz's decision to rejoin the band?
B.B.: This would be a better question for Brett but he'd had some interpersonal problems and he also had become interested in making music again and writing. And I think, I know, he felt that his efforts to try to do this without the framework of Bad Religion, he wasn't happy with the results. The first band he was in and the first band that he wrote for was Bad Religion and that's where he felt most comfortable. So I think he just felt that the time was right where, creatively and emotionally, he wanted to be part of this band which he had basically built. And fortunately, those of us in the band, original members and replacement players like myself, agreed wholeheartedly. I'd wanted Brett to come back in some form for quite a while because my favorite Bad Religion era had been, was always when Brett and Greg (Graffin) were writing together and against each other in a way. That creates better Bad Religion music, as some of the middle-era records prove.
OCB: What guitar dynamics do you and Gurewitz individually bring to the band?
B.B.: On the recordings I play the majority of the guitars. We use a race-team analogy, and that basically is the fastest driver drives the car. The guy who's best at taking the tires off takes the tires off in the pit. And in the recording situation I just seem to be able to interpret Brett and Greg's vision in a way that they really like because neither of them are really guitar players. They're songwriters. They use a guitar, in Greg's case a piano, most of the time to write the music and then it's sort of up to me to work with what they have and play things that they can hear in their head but can't physically play. So in the recording I do the majority of the playing. And you know, recording is not cheap and time is of the essence. I've become more of a guitar player than a songwriter during my Bad Religion tenure. I really focus much more on the instrumental part of it so when we record everybody benefits from that.
OCB: What are you most pleased with about this new album?
B.B.: I am very pleased that it managed to take the foundation laid by the previous record and expand on it in a number of ways. It is more experimental without attempting to be so. I think the recording has a magic to it. It just sounds better. And also I really like the fact that, timing of course is everything, the gloves are really off lyrically. I'm very proud of the sentiments echoed by The Empire Strikes First. I like the fact that it is a much more specific criticism of a specific system of government. Bad Religion has historically always sung about those complexities and global issues and politics and so forth but I really like the fact that is an obvious attack on the current administration and I think that there's value in that. I mean what is the point of being a punk band if not to provoke some sort of thought, provoke some sort of discourse? You have to wear your heart on your sleeve and I think The Empire Strikes First does a wonderful job of that.
OCB: What do you think is the band's best live trait?
B.B.: I don't know. Just watching our drummer play is worth the price of admission. He's absolutely phenomenal and it is such a joy to play with him. Sometimes I'll just turn around and stare at him and forget that I'm supposed to be playing too. I think live we're incredibly interesting and competent. We really try very hard to perform up the standard of recording quality. We usually play about an hour and 20 minutes. We play 30 to 35 songs. We play songs from every era, from virtually every Bad Religion record because there's nothing I hate more than a band that's existed this amount of time and going to see them live means that you're just witnessing them trying to get you to buy their new album. When I go see a band with this kind of history I want to see all of it. And I think we do a very good job of covering those bases and trying to keep it interesting by finding songs from 15 years ago that haven't been played and bringing them back out. I think that's why people keep coming.
OCB: Considering the topical themes of your album, let's turn our discussion toward politics. How important is it for young people to vote in this particular election?
B.B.: It's absolutely crucial. This is certainly the most significant election of my lifetime and probably my parents' lifetime. One only needs to look at the results of the 2000 election in places like Florida to see how such a small handful of people could have drastically changed the world.
OCB: Thanks for the reminder.
B.B.: (laughs) In their case, of course, having been allowed to, which really depends on which side your allegiance lies. But I think it's incredibly crucial and I've spent most of my time this year to encourage people to participate in the process and that their vote does matter. That's why I'm part of PunkVoter.com and why I spent a lot of time on the Warped Tour this year helping register young voters. You have to participate if you're gonna have a way to comment. I just don't see why this isn't so patently obvious but of course I'm fortunately from a media family. I live in Washington, D.C. and I couldn't wait to vote the first chance I got.
OCB: Bad Religion's music has always had a strong vein of politics and social commentary. And with your work in bands like Minor Threat, you're certainly no stranger to the marriage of art and politics yourself. Here's your chance to issue a macrocosmic message in plain talk. In your opinion, what should we as Americans be most pissed off about in the current state of affairs?
B.B.: Being lied to. I think being lied to is a big thing but it's hard because there's so many. I think we should also be pissed off at the mangling of the Constitution. I think we should be really pissed off at the blurring of the line between church and state. I think we should be pissed off that we are currently under an administration that dictates international and domestic policy based on fundamentalist Christian ethics. I mean, there's so many I don't know where to begin. The unilateralist strike on Iraq makes about as much sense as attacking Mexico. I'm not sure which currently hassled ex-pat of the Bush administration said that. I've got so many goddamned books in my library now that it looks like I'm trying to form a web site or some sort of counterculture revolution. I think being lied to that may hit home the most. These are elected officials who are supposed to represent the interests of the citizens of this country, or at least the people who voted them into office. And I think it's a mockery of the democratic process that they don't feel that they have to be held accountable in any way.
OCB: Well what can we be most proud of then?
B.B.: What we can proud of, I think, is what we're going to see on November 2nd, which is the amount of people who don't like to be lied to and are going to do something about it.
OCB: In "Let Them Eat War", you guys ask, "Can this be what they voted for?" Has America been fleeced by the Bush administration?
OCB: Can we trust the mainstream media in our country today to illuminate how for the average citizen?
B.B.: I believe so. I don't believe in a left-wing media conspiracy. I don't believe in the domination of right-wing talk radio as being reasons that are good enough for people to disavow the mainstream media. I think journalism is still a noble cause and there's certainly an ethical structure that is taught to every journalism student that, by and large, everybody follows. It's relatively hard to be impartial but that is the job. Mr. Bush refers to the mainstream media as opinions. I don't believe that. I believe there's going to be, like in every situation, a Rush Limbaugh or two but it's impossible to characterize the entire system because of blatant bias on the left or right in certain instances. It's just foolish.
OCB: For more than two decades, Bad Religion has always confronted the dangers in religion and politics. With the current administration, have the chickens come home to roost in a way that even you guys couldn't have predicted?
B.B.: Oh yeah. I mean, I'm astonished. The entire Ashcroft wing via the dependence or the insistence of this administration in hiring when they have the chance to appoint somebody, you have to find somebody whose political and religious views are in tune with the current administration. As I said before, it's a mockery of church and state. I never ever thought it would be so blatant as to try to float faith-based initiatives as an alternative to Social Security and Medicare. "Just let the church take care of it like they did in the old days" -- I mean, it's just psychotic to me. This is how they think. They don't think there's anything wrong with this. That's what they do.
OCB: What is the band's take on religion?
B.B.: It varies from band member to band member. There's an atheist, there's a couple of agnostics, and there's a couple of believers, believe it or not.
OCB: Where do you fall?
B.B.: I'm an agnostic.
OCB: Is there such a thing as good religion?
B.B.: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think that religion provides a lot for a lot of people. There's this question of faith, which I've never really been able to see, it's always been sort of nebulous to me, an intangible. But I know so many people who are religious who get so much out of that experience. My wife is a practicing Catholic and she comes home with the ashes on her head and she goes to mass and it provides such a great feeling of peace for her, a joy for her. I don't know how she gets that out of this crap but she does, and good for her. Is not the whole goal here to better your life? To have a relationship with your savior, is that not supposed to be a benevolent one? These are just basic concepts. It's not just Christianity. I don't think religion is bad at all. I think using your religion to achieve more earthbound goals, you could get mixed up there. But the band name is called Bad Religion because the guys were 15 and Dead Kennedys was already taken (laughs). At this point, we've distilled it down to watch out for dogmatic thinking.
OCB: Is it possible to completely separate art from politics?
B.B.: I don't necessarily think it should be. I guess it possibly could. There is apolitical artwork in my house. And I don't really think Good Charlotte have a whole lot to say about our current administration, though qualifying that as art is certainly putting it on a limb. Yes, I think it can certainly function without it but it's nice when they mix well.
OCB: What do you say to those people who say keep your politics out of your performance?
B.B.: I'd tell 'em to go see Sum 41 and have a nice time.
OCB: In your opinion, what is the most important thing that mainstream America should hear but that no one is saying?
B.B.: If I knew that, I'd be doing something bigger with my life other than playing guitar in Bad Religion (laughs). That's a really tough question. I think everything that we should be worried about is out there in the open. It's just a matter of whether or not you're willing to go pay attention to it. If I knew any new ones I'd be the first to say it but I can't really think of anything. There's already so much on the plate.
By Bao Le-Huu
Orlando CityBeat writer