Longevity speaks for itself. Our resident punk expert talks with Greg Graffin.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been more than 30 years since a group of nerdy Southern California teenagers, obsessed with sci-fi and philosophy, decided to mix distorted guitars and machine gun drumming with three-part harmonies and in-your face lyrics about the hypocrisy of organized religion (among many other topics).
In that time, nations have disappeared off maps; political control has vacillated between the left and right in this country; and hundreds of bands have formed, sold records, sold out and broken up. But Bad Religion has remained a constant. There have been some lineup changes here and there – most notably guitarist and co-songwriter Brett Gurewitz leaving in the mid-90’s and returning in 2001 – but Bad Religion’s sound and more importantly their pointed lyrics have stayed fairly consistent.
While 2009’s release The Dissent of Man was overshadowed by the band’s three-decade anniversary tour and live album, the attention is back squarely on the here and now with Bad Religion’s latest True North, 16-tracks of brilliant two-minute (for the most part) explosive, cerebral punk rock.
Singer, songwriter Greg Graffin spoke about the new record, the band’s legacy and why they are realistic about how much time they have left as a band.
BLURT: You guys recorded True North last summer. Did any of the discussion during the primaries and presidential election play into the lyrics at all on this record?
GREG GRAFFIN: Lyrically, the songwriters – Brett and myself – are always pretty active throughout the year; we tend to just write songs all the time, we’re always keeping notes and ideas and to some degree it does reflect the political climate. We’re, of course in touch with the current political climate, it’s a part of conversation, and it’s kind of a long standing tradition, for 33 years now we’ve been writing songs that are philosophical, that are about science and religion. These are topics that are always current and always in the public eye outside of punk rock… I tend to think that we’re lucky that we stumbled upon that subject matter as teenagers. We were kind of nerdy kids who liked talking about science and sci-fi and philosophy. You wouldn’t think that would be popular.
Not the obvious choice of teenage conversations.
(Laughs) We had this tradition of putting these views to punk music and that’s very fortunate, because that’s lead to our vitality. We’re not talking about our girlfriends or whatever and the songs tend to age well. You can’t really age gracefully if you’re still talking about your heartbreak from high school. In some respects we’re always writing about certain topics and that tends to reflect the current conversations that are going around. I’d say there are some songs (on this album) that are overtly political and talk to the current topics, like “Robin Hood In Reverse” and the other one is “Land of Endless Greed”. They’re very current to what’s going on in politics. But they’re not really the featured songs on the album in the sense that the album is revolving around this theme of “True North,” trying to find truth in this world which is getting harder.
Can you talk a minute about another song of this record: “Fuck You”? What was the story behind that one?
Almost all of the lyrics were written before I even had a title. I just kept humming it and I had the lyrics written, but I just couldn’t think of those two emphatic words. What am I going to put here? After 33 years, you’d think I would have been able to express how I feel. Then it came to me. The band liked it and a lot of other people liked it too. I like the fact that it’s not a very nihilistic tone. Its tongue and cheek and keeping with Bad Religion’s tradition of analyzing human nature. It’s kind of a Pavlovian response that that can get you into so much trouble.
I’ve got to say, as a 39 -year-old punk fan, I’m glad this song came from you and not some brand new pop-punk band just looking to be controversial.
Yeah, thanks. I appreciate that. I also think, you know what? It’s time. We’ve skirted around the subject so often, why not just come out and say it.
True North also seems very reminiscent of some of your earlier stuff like No Control and Suffer and a departure from the last few records. Was that a conscious decision or am I reading into it too much?
Well, we had our 30th anniversary with the last album, the Dissent of Man, and it turned out people were really encouraging and there seemed to be a reinvigoration. The focus was more on the celebration than the album. I think we went back and rested for a while – because it was a long tour – and started revisiting some of what people call the classic era, like Suffer, No control, Against the Grain and Stranger than Fiction. I think those are really good albums, but I also think we’re a much better band now. In the last 12 years, we’ve gotten a drummer who can add so much more to our sound and I think out songwriting has gotten so much better. I consider myself more skilled at singing better and I know the guys consider themselves better at their instruments now that they’re sober (laughs). We definitely gave ourselves kind of a challenge and said let’s try and write songs that are no longer than two minutes and we got some really cool songs. They are not some half-finished ditties, they are full productions. Add that to all of the skills and abilities we have built up over the years.
During the process did you ever regret that two-minute restriction you put on yourselves?
You know when I write a song and when Brett writes a song we usually start with a pretty traditional formula, which is: three versus, two choruses and the refrain at the end, and maybe a bridge. When you consider the tempo we play at, a normal rock song with that formula – a normal rock band plays at 120 beats per minute – that ends up being a four-minute song. But Bad Religion plays upwards of 300 beats per minute that ends up being a perfect two-minute punk song, so it doesn’t feel constraining at all. But there were a couple of slower tempo songs that did go over the two-minute mark.
You forgave yourself for that?
I know I’m in the minority here, but while I really appreciate the classics you named, I am a big fan of some of your later albums like New Maps of Hell and The Empire Strikes First. I think you like a tighter band on those records.
Thanks. We really are a much stronger band now. I think anyone who has been around for this long really does want to improve on their work. I believe that combined with the fact that we have a much better drummer speaks for itself.
There was a lot of speculation before you started working on this record that the band was going away, or at least taking a very long break. Was that ever considered?
We consider that after every third concert. We don’t know how long we can continue and it’s kind of silly to say that, but you have to take it lighthearted. We consider it a gift that our fans have been so generous and supportive over all of these years, but anytime that we can’t perform to the best of our ability; we have to think about that. We’re totally blazing new ground here. There aren’t many bands, from any genre that have been around for 33 years that are still making new and good albums that are still in their tradition; that are consistent with their tradition. We have to be a little bit humble and take that attitude that any of these tours and shows could be the last time that we appear.
That being said, you recently announced some European dates. Do you plan on touring in the U.S. this year?
Yes, we’re actually going to start out with a U.S. tour, so watch the website.
And do you have plans for another solo record? It’s been about seven years since Cold As Clay came out.
Yeah, actually I do have plans for another solo record. The question is when can I find the time to record it and what genre will it be. But definitely I feel it’s time. Every eight years seems about right.
John B. Moore can be found at : Blurt/New Music Magazine/InSite Atlanta Magazine (Music Editor)/Innocent Words/NeuFutur Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at his handle @Jbmoore00. Oh, and he also posts a regular blog about all things punk at Blurt, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”