Rocking For the Free World
By Stuart Green
June 29, 2004
In the first part of an Exclaim! exclusive (online at www.exclaim.ca), Dennis Lyxzén, leader of fashionable Swedish political garage punks the (International) Noise Conspiracy interviewed Bad Religion co-founder and Epitaph Records honcho Brett Gurewitz about the early days of the California hardcore punk movement. "I'm really into early hardcore and that's why I wanted to talk about that," Lyxzén says. "There's such a history of punk rock and for a lot of people punk rock starts and ends with Blink 182 and I just wanted to show people that from the late '70s there's been an amazing counter culture and punk rock culture and Brett was a part of that and I want people to see that."
In the conclusion of the conversation, Lyxzén confesses it was Bad Religion that helped spark his fascination with global politics and his subsequent desire to try to make a difference through his music. It also took a decidedly more political tone as the master (Gurewitz) and the student (Lyxzén) discuss the state of the world, the upcoming U.S. presidential election and how the two things are interconnected.
"Our whole album is dedicated to getting Bush out of office." Brett Gurewitz, guitarist/co-founder of political punk icons Bad Religion and Epitaph Records has a really hard time hiding his disdain for the current president of his country. "I'm not a presidential scholar but I don't think you'll find a worse president in the history of the United States," he offers on the line from his California pad. "He's probably one of the worst leaders in the history of world leaders. I just hate the guy."
If the anger in his words is palpable, the message in his music is equally forthright and potent. This former angry young man is a lot greyer in the temples and much more worldly-wise than he was when he and a few school chums put Bad Religion together nearly 25 years ago and perhaps his voice - that of a man who turned 40 in May - is calmer, but there's no denying his passion or his dedication.
When it comes to putting across his point of view on the current state of affairs in the U.S., he's an articulate orator and an insightful, thoughtful and rational debater. It's an odd juxtaposition to the bilious, profane, saliva spraying outbursts many younger punk bands employ when raging against the machine and would almost appear to be counter-intuitive. After all, punk rock has always been about loud, fast and angry youthful rebellion. More refined protest is the stuff of hippies.
But since re-joining Bad Religion almost four years ago (he left in the mid-'90s in order to devote more time to his burgeoning Epitaph Records and to get sober), the man formerly known simply as Mr. Brett has helped his band reclaim its crown as the most authoritative voice of social and political conscience in punk rock. And it's something he makes no apologies for.
The band's 14th album, The Empire Strikes First, is a whip-smart, lightning fast wake-up call to arms that advocates change in Washington, and by extension the rest of the free world. That change, insists Gurewitz, must be to a more moderate way of thinking.
"I just don't understand what's going on today," he says with an exasperation that you know is accompanied by a vigorous head shake. "There's something happening in the U.S., it's this wave of conservatism unlike anything I've experienced in my entire life. It's very, very frightening and it's very, very polarising and I don't know how you fight something like that because the more I fight it, the more it seems to polarise the kids. Nevertheless, I can only act in accordance with my own conscience so I'm going to continue to do everything I can to promote the liberal cause and promote social justice and to promote whatever I can through my art. Not only that but to try and get kids to question authority and question the establishment."
Songs on The Empire Strikes First, like the ironic, anthemic bootstrap chant-along title track, put it in simpler terms, comparing the current campaign in Iraq to the U.S. action in Vietnam in the 1960s and unapologetically attempting to recruit fans to rise up in protest. Flashpoints like the Iraq occupation and its tenuous links to the 9/11 tragedy in New York is exactly the kind of thing that gets Gurewitz really angry and in turn really motivated.
"The world was changing for the worst for a long time leading up to 9/11 and the U.S. has a lot of culpability in 9/11 and I think a lot of people realise that," he offers. "It's terrible that 3,000 people died but a lot more people than that have died around the world in causes related to social justice. I think the biggest tragedy is that as a result of it we have this man in power who has surrounded himself with a conservative cabinet, has gone on a mission to replace the judges in the U.S. with conservative judges and has swung this country so far to the right with his Machiavellian use of media. The Bush administration is so sophisticated in its use of the media. They've really created a climate of fear in the U.S. and they're using the politics of fear to swing the country to right and as a result of that we now have a country with an official policy, an official doctrine of preventive war. I won't even call it pre-emptive war because that implies there's a threat. Preventive says there isn't even a threat yet.
"He's now, through the Patriot Act, whittling away civil liberties at home. On top of that he now recognises Israel's right to occupy the West Bank. He's unilaterally abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty, he has gone backward more than any president in history on environmental issues for the world and in the U.S., where I'm an avid mountaineer and an amateur naturalist. 9/11 was a tragedy and no one will apologise for it, but the real tragedy is Bush is using it as an excuse to do all these things that could take 100 years to undo."
An over-reaction on the part of the White House, perhaps? "I don't even think the administration over-reacted, I think they mis-reacted," Gurewitz continues. "I mean a war in Iraq because of a terrorism issue? There were no links to terrorism there. What he did was a setback in the war on terrorism. OK, maybe going after [Osama] Bin Laden in Afghanistan was a reaction but everything else has been a distraction.
"You can clearly see the Bush war on Iraq is nothing but a war of choice that uses 9/11 as a justification and it's so obvious to everyone who is even willing to invest the smallest amount of effort. Anyone with an internet connection can go to any newswire and get historical information going back three years with great ease and yet it's like the young people in America are putting their heads in the sand."
And it's that indifference or lack of thirst for knowledge of political causes that, for Gurewitz it seems, is a source of frustration almost as great as that he feels with his government and his country in general.
"You know, I live near the Sunset Strip and it has always been a reflection of society," he says. "In the '60s it was like cops and hippies conflicting with the hippies wearing mini-skirts and having long hair and smoking weed and protesting Vietnam. Then in the '80s it was cops versus punks. It was punk rockers rioting, playing at the Whisky A-Go-Go, spiky hair and possibly protesting the first Gulf War. Now what does it look like? It's a bunch of fucking fashion models and jocks on steroids driving around in Hummers and Hummer limousines, getting drunk and trying to fuck each other and cops conflicting with them just trying to protect property. Basically it's shallow greed and the worship of wealth is what the Sunset Strip is about right now. It's insane, it's what American culture is all about right now. The escapism here is consumerism, it's vulgar, shallow, superficial consumerism. Hopefully Bad Religion represents the opposite of that."
It's an attitude he hopes to be able to address with the band's new record and Bad Religion's inclusion on a new compilation put out by the NOFX crew and Fat Wreck Chords as a tie-in with the punkvoter.com movement that aims to get 500,000 punk fans to register and vote against George W. Bush in this November's presidential election.
At gigs in Europe in May, vocalist Greg Graffin even took the opportunity to call Bush a "tyrant" and encouraged fans there to contact everyone they know in the United States about voting him out of office. "We have a very important ceremony in America in November, it's an election," Graffin told a Madrid audience. "It's an election in which we must change the current administration. So if you have any friends [in the U.S.], make sure you call them and tell them, 'Bush out' because we don't want to be part of the empire that strikes first."
In a recent conversation with Exclaim!, Gurewitz and former Refused and current (International) Noise Conspiracy front-man Dennis Lyxzén compared notes on youthful political activism. Lyxzén confessed that it was picking up a 1991 Bad Religion seven-inch (coincidentally an anti-Gulf War offering) that included notes from revered M.I.T. professor and leftist thinker Noam Chomsky that got him interested in and angry about the state of world affairs.
"I got that and it had all that info and suggested reading and that's one of the first things that made me super excited about politics," says Lyxzén, a left-wing political activist who hails from that bastion of socialism, Sweden. "I was a straight-edge kid and a hardcore kid and I was hanging out with the anarchists but that was the first record that made me excited about reading stuff, and in '91 I started reading Chomsky because of that seven-inch. Now here I am today the crazed anarchist from Sweden. I was into Dead Kennedys and the Clash and political music but they never made me really want to read books the way that did.
"You've always talked about politics and you have always been that kind of band but it seems like on [The Empire Strikes First] you're stressing it even more. There are a couple of songs about the war and the presidency and things that are going on right now and I think it's cool that you say that but don't you think it's kind of weird that no new bands talk about politics that much."
Responds Gurewitz: "That, for me, is what makes it all worth it. You know, people ask if music can really change the world or be a force for social change and I think it can be. Even if that seven-inch got some guy named Dennis to read a book and then got him to devote his career to making other kids think for themselves and read books, that's a positive force for social change right there."
Lyxzén says Gurewitz's observations about the sorry state of affairs with political activism really hit home this past spring. "We were out playing shows with the Offspring and you know me, I don't ever shut up," Lyxzén says with a laugh. "People got really, really offended that we talk about politics and the fact that if you elect the president in the United States it's going to affect everyone. People get pissed off and this is at a punk rock show. It doesn't make any sense."
"And you know what's even more confusing?" asks Gurewitz. "At a time we were hungering for information [in the early '80s] and we were enthusiastic about trying to change things and opposing the establishment and we were a movement and so forth, there was no internet and information was hard to come by and you had to dig for it and fight for it. Now everything is available to everyone at their fingertips."
Lyxzén suggests that negative reaction could be partly based on a need for young people to get away from the ugly realities of global politics. After all, saving the whales and opposing nuclear weapons are much sexier and are easier to understand than looking at images of war atrocities, deciding change is needed and then having to research the alternatives to the status quo before voting in an election.
Perhaps what kids - more specifically the new wave of punk poseurs who came to the music via bands like Good Charlotte - want now is not to have to think and would rather use music as escapism and too many bands seem willing to comply.
"I think it's something a little bit more pernicious than escapism," says Gurewitz. "It's almost like the rise and fall of the Third Reich or something. What causes an entire society to sway toward the conservative end of the spectrum? I know people get up in arms about comparing Bush to Hitler and I actually think there are a lot of interesting similarities, but the fact is, what happens when society takes a swing to the right? What are the ingredients? Xenophobia? Fear? Suspicion? An economic downturn? These are all the things that are happening here. I don't necessarily blame the bands; it's the kids, it's the people. I don't know, man."
The proof could come this summer when the 10th instalment of the Warped Tour, punk rock's annual travelling day camp, winds its way across North America. You can bet that a good number of the bands on the bill (most of who are involved in punkvoter.com or similar anti-Bush initiatives) will use the opportunity to preach a political message to kids who may not otherwise give a shit about politics.
"Here's my take on that," Lyxzén offers. "You've got to realise that there's great potential in everything. When I got into punk rock, I was the only kid in my town who was into it and it took me years to find out about this stuff and now there are Hot Topics in the malls that sell punk rock outfits. On the one hand it's so not dangerous, but on the other it shows the potential of a counter-culture where people feel like they're outsiders, where they're looking for an alternative. In everything there's potential; people feel they're out of place, people feel there's something wrong and people feel the world is fucked up but the problem lately is that people are taking that energy and anger and directing it toward themselves. A lot of bands fuel that. Me and Brett want to take it and focus and direct it on what's actually wrong with the world. I think the Warped Tour is a good chance to talk about that.
"You have to compromise something to gain something. We turned it down three years in a row, but we thought if we're not doing it, it's just shorts and an electric guitar. Here we are, we don't really sound like a punk band anymore but we come from that aesthetic and we come from that background and we want to show that. I think it is a trade off."
Gurewitz, now the more diplomatic elder statesman of political punk, agrees saying he hopes the Bad Religion message and the band's stated goal of getting Bush out of office will come across to Warped fans. Even the apolitical ones.
"It's a way for me to express my ideas for 450,000 kids," he says adding that he will only be personally playing a few dates on the tour while the band does the whole six-week jaunt. "Yah, it pisses me off that the Marines are on the damn thing [in the form of an information/recruiting booth], but am I doing more harm by playing the Warped Tour or boycotting it? There are always trade-offs in life, but you do the best you can."
New Noise and Refused Reissues
Like Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix and Jesus before them, Refused were more popular in death than they ever were in life. Their 1997 swansong landmark, The Shape of Punk to Come, is hailed as a classic of experimental hardcore. That disc (now re-mastered in 5.1 surround sound DVD audio format), along with earlier releases Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent and a collection of EPs and rarities have been re-released by Epitaph after being wrested from their original home by label boss Brett Gurewitz. And vocalist Dennis Lyxzén couldn't be happier about it.
"Brett actually pays his bands," he says. "We never got a cent from that record label ever. I'm glad someone is putting it out that actually will take care of it in the manner it's supposed to be taken care of. It's about time."
Lyxzén is also busy with his current band, the retro-boogie mod-punk (International) Noise Conspiracy that has a new Rick Rubin-produced offering ready to drop in mid-July while they are criss-crossing North America on the Warped Tour. Lyxzén says T(I)NC's third release, Armed Love, is the band's most expressive disc yet and works perfectly against the backdrop of a pending presidential election.
"We've always been political but we've tried to be a little more intellectual in our songs," he says. "But I would say that the new Noise Conspiracy record is more direct than anything we've ever done. It's much more to the point and serious. That's definitely an effect of the climate in the world."
Political Punk In A Wired World
With a U.S. presidential election in November, the internet has become a hotbed of political activism. Everyone with a modem and basic knowledge of web design can and are setting up sites to espouse a particular point of view. But some of the most frequented and better-designed sites have music biz connections, particularly the punk sites.
Probably the best known of the music sites. Operated by Fat Mike of NOFX and his Fat Wreck Chords record company, the site links to other anti-Bush sites as well as hawking a new compilation and other merchandise like the infamous "Not My President" T-shirts that date back to the 2000 election (which Mike claims Bush didn't really win). Participants include almost every good punk band you can think of except Propagandhi, who got dumped in a controversial dispute over the principal backer of moveon.org, another anti-Bush site. Spawned a counter site punkvoterlies.blogspot.com, which assails any points punkvoter.com makes. Ben Weasel is a contributor.
From their mission statement: "Music for America is a partisan, political non-profit working to turn out our generation at the polls. By throwing some kick-ass parties and concerts all across the country we're building a decentralised movement that encourages our friends to incorporate political participation into their daily lifestyle, and will ultimately bring about lasting, progressive change in this country." Participants include an eclectic mix of artists from Antibalas and the Decembrists to RJD2 and Lifesavas.
An amateurish, lo-fi site with links to indie bands across the States rocking against Da Prez.
Founder Nick Rizzuto says, "Punk music has been, and still is, one of the most heavy-handed genres of music there is. Unfortunately the topics of such heavy-handed songs are almost always seeped in left wing propaganda, bumper sticker rallying calls and oversimplifications of otherwise complex topics. Unfortunately the web sites established by such bands to further their political views don't offer much more by way of information and truth than the music does. We at conservative punk mean to be the foil to this trend." Participants/supporters include the recently converted Dave Smalley of Down By Law and Dag Nasty fame (a band in which he used to play with Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker), as well as the Misfits and the Ramones.