As promised, here is part two of my interview with Bad Religion. For this interview, I spoke with Brett Gurewitz, one half of the songwriting team in the band and we used the lyrical subjects from The Empire Strikes First [review] and previous records as a jumping off point to look at some of the issues they've raised. Greg, unfortunately, couldn't participate in this part, but you can see my interview with both him and Brett that was posted on Saturday in the first part.
First, because it is one of my favourite songs, I wanted to ask you about "Sorrow." It confused me to no end because of all the religious imagery.
Brett: Well, it's the story of Job from the Old Testament. Job was the most righteous man in the world. The devil said to God "these people are basically bad" and god said "Well no." The devil said "Give me one example" and god said "Look at Job, he's a righteous man." The devil said that he could corrupt him like any man, and they made a wager. And that was god's way of rewarding the one righteous man on the planet. That was god turning his back on the one man who was good and righteous. That's not god, that's religion. That's an example of how detestable religion is. What is the lesson there? No matter how good you are, god will turn his back on you? This is the basis for Judaeo-Christian religion? Is it any surprise the world is so screwed up. They say that the story of the Job is the saddest story ever told, so it seemed like the best archetypal story to start a song called "Sorrow"
It seems telling that it picked up a lot of meaning after September 11th.
Brett: It took on meaning, but that's the beauty of using archetypes in writing. It makes your song somewhat universal. I try to do that as much as possible. It gives the song more power; it imbues it with more potential. Most of my themes were political on the new record, but the song "Beyond Electric Dreams" isn't about religion, but about spirituality. It's about finding hope and a basis for a moral code in nature; not needing to seek that through some kind of transcendental channel.
"Let Them Eat War" reminded me less of hip hop than I thought it would.
Brett: It's definitely in the context of Bad Religion; he sings a verse, he does it in his own style.
It reminds me of the Jim Carroll spoken word bit in And Out Come the Wolves
Brett: It's poetry, but even if it is hip-hop, that's ok. If it challenges what people think is "allowed" then that's good.
That song in particular seems to hit the current administration the hardest. His re-election campaign is about being a war president.
Brett: The main theme of that song is the way that Bush's support comes from the working poor and the working class, and yet these are the people who his policies hurt the most.
He's managed to hijack their religion, so they tend to vote in lockstep.
Brett: His policies reward the wealthy, and do the most harm to the working poor. In times of war, they rally around their president and encourage their children to join the military. All the while, Bush cuts benefits to the military and increases benefits to the wealthy corporations. It's a great irony. One would think that if there were any sanity in the world, those people would be opposing Bush.
They're buying into the tendency to blame things on globalization, for example; it's misdirection.
Brett: They're taking him hook, line and sinker. It's because his politics are the politics of fear. He and his team -- mainly Karl Rove -- have been extremely sophisticated in the user of the media. Especially these very friendly outlets like Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh. These folks really buy the whole program. Yes, "Let Them Eat War" is an anti-war song, but it's asking a more complicated question: How is it that his support base is so gullible?
It seems like 1984 is a reoccurring theme on the record. "Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever" being the most obvious. You didn't say "doublespeak" but you've hinted at it.
Brett: I really think Orwell was a visionary. Take the line "You deserve Two Minutes Hate," it comes from the television show the citizens were required to watch. It was two minutes of propaganda. There is a certainly an Orwellian undercurrent. I really feel that the writings of Orwell were prophetic.
Orwell talked about how the only limit to his totalitarian vision was the lack of technology. He spoke about central authorities in his non-fiction writing, and now, it seems like a lot of that technology exists and is being gradually phased in.
Brett: If you interpret things a little differently, like the whole idea of Big Brother controlling the brains of the population via little cameras in every apartment. It hasn't happened; instead we have a monitor in every apartment. People tune into "Big Brother" and their brains are controlled by what they're told. It's much more subtle, but kids are turning into Fox News and watching the "No-Spin Zone" or "Hannity and Colmes" and then turn to CNN and say, "That's the liberal media!" That's a coercive force. CNN is quite conservative. It's astounding how television has managed to homogenize and declaw the American worldview.
The never-ending war is the most Orwellian. A War on Terrorism is like a War on Weather. It's an abstraction so it's by definition a never-ending war.
Brett: What is war if not terrifying? How can you have a war on terror? What about the language that has entered into our daily lives? It's not doublespeak, but what's friendly fire, or collateral damage. What are "Islamic Extremists" exactly? All these things, a little at a time, chip away at the national resolve.
Since September 11th, there have been no major attacks on US soil, and so you see politicians on television claiming that the war on terror is effective. That's pretty textbook example of specious reasoning. Terrorism is multi-variate and any number of reasons could exist for a decline or upswing in terror attacks.
Brett: That's what I mean by the sophisticated manipulation of people by the media. What brought president Bush -- an unpopular president when he entered office -- popular support? A huge terrorist attack. People rally behind the president in a time of fear. If there is no terror attack, he's doing a good job and people will support him. If there is another terrorist attack, his popularity goes up, not down. It's a lose-lose situation for broad-minded liberals with a progressive worldview.
It's not even a question about liberal media anymore. The BBC is not liberal, The Economist, a magazine I subscribe to, is considered quite conservative. But because they're European, they don't feel that being "conservative" means that they have to agree with everything Bush does.
Brett: Ideology is always a bad thing. To be rigidly ideological is any direction is a bad idea, because any conviction should come from investigation and evidence. Having said that, there is a political pendulum that swings right to left, and right now it's swung so far to the right that it's terrifying to me. I've never seen anything like it in the US. That's why I bring up the "liberals as champions of reason and probity." It's true that some aren't and are simply ideological, but it is by far the lesser of two evils.
Were you a Clinton supporter?
Brett: My personal politics are far more liberal than Clinton, but I think he was a much, much better president that Bush. The worst thing he did was getting a blowjob.
He did oversee the biggest peacetime expansion in history.
Brett: He did luck out a little. He was a great president.. Every positive and meaningful reform in the modern era was a liberal reform. As a Democrat, Clinton is on the liberal side, so I supported him more than his opponent each time. Looking back on the Clinton days, that was the golden era compared to today.
"God's Love" seems like a really melancholy song... there has always been a undercurrent to Bad Religion, but that one seems particularly sad.
Brett: It's sad, but I think it's also a rousing song. I think it's pretty powerful. As Greg explained it to me, sometimes you'll see a starving, suffering child or suffering in the world around you and theologians will say to a child, "God loves us Billy." And we'll ask "How can God do this do this to us?" He'll tell us that we're just men and we can't understand God. God does love us, but it's hubris to think we can understand his master plan so we're just supposed to have faith. Greg is asking, is this how God shows his love? We have a president who genuinely thinks he's doing the right thing. And where does this conviction come from? It's certainly not from evidence because there isn't any. His conviction must come from God. The most powerful man in the world, and he's trying to make a decision whether to go to war, and there isn't any evidence for it, so he prays. And a little voice says "Go to war, do it for me." And then he has the conviction that he's doing the right thing, and he's doing it for God's love. And then we have these Muslims and they're cutting off this Jewish guy's head, and doing it for Allah. That's not God; the god that these people are talking about seems like a bloodthirsty curmudgeon.
Do you ever worry that you're going to be accused of overreacting and being too dramatic? Like when progressive people bring up 1984, many people just accuse them of being melodramatic.
Brett: Not to sound like an old man, but I've been making records for twenty years and I've never really brought it up before. To say that anyone who is raising his or her voice in this day and age is overreacting is akin to how Rush Limbaugh saying that the American soldiers in Abu Ghraib were just "blowing off steam."
This is one of my first experiences with this. I can't really remember the last time a Republican was in office. I sometimes wonder if my concerns are overt because I've never seen anybody but Clinton.
Brett: This is the worst, this is worse than Reagan by far. That was still during the Cold War and there were checks and balances on American power. Even Vietnam took place during the Cold War. So, while world opinion was largely against the action in Vietnam, it wasn't the same set of circumstances. In the world, you aligned yourself with the Soviet Union or with NATO. Vietnam was the wrong war and it was an immoral war. But people didn't think that the US was a superpower run amuck. They were still being kept in check by the Soviet Union. There was a sense of containment of both of the super powers. Now, the US is the sole superpower in the world, and we have unilaterally and pre-emptively attacked a sovereign nation who was no threat to us. And there is nobody to contain us. The whole world is watching and the difference is there is more responsibility that comes from being the only superpower on the planet. You have to take the moral course.
The founding fathers were also very insistent on internal checks and balances between levels of government by electing each branch seperately, but now it's Republican controlled in all directions. I'm surprised they've only put in the partial-birth abortion bill.
Brett: If they get re-elected, they'll put another conservative justice on the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade is gone; the woman's right to choose is gone. Born-Again Christians give a fetus more rights than an independent woman.
Overall, it seems that this is a very dark record, lyrically.
Brett: What the record is saying is that these times are desperate, and something has to be done and I believe music can be a force for social change and we made this record very topical so that hopefully it will have a positive influence and help in some small way to facilitate that change. We've gone twenty years without making a topical record.
I think that restraint is what will make people take it more seriously, because you've never done anything like this.
Brett: We've always been political; we're secular humanists, we're feminists. We've always championed social justice. These have always been causes that we've held high and yet we've never been a preachy band. We're not a "funny" punk band that decided to become political. I hope we're somewhat credible on that level. We've never been explicit or topical on a record because the times never warranted it.
Are you fundamentally idealistic about the future?
Brett: I don't want to be a defeatist, but I don't have a rosy outlook.