Bad Religion
The Most Popular Unknown Band
by Lee Sherman

Guitar, January 1994

Punk rock's "live fast, die young" ethos was a sure-fire way into the history books for the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys but it sure doesn't explain Bad Religion. For 13 years the Los Angeles hardcore group has been delivering the goods in relative obscurity, putting their albums out on thier own independent label, Epitaph, and playing packed shows for the faithful. Neither does it explain how Greg Hetson -- who holds the distinction of having played with both the Circle Jerks and Bad Religion and whose approach to guitar could best be described as "play fast, high-strung" -- went from being a kid who could hardly play the instrument to someone looked up to by a new generation of kids who see him as some kind of hero. Bad Religion have seen contemporaries like Black Flag and Germs come and go, while they've upheld the hardcore banner. Aside from an ill-advised lapse into progressive rock on their second album, Into The Unknown, Bad Religion's chainsaw buzz hasn't let up. It is only now, on their seventh album, Recipe For Hate, that the band has decided to take the tempos down a notch, take advantage of the recording studio, and see what the music could sound like if both guitar players played something different. Bad Religion's music has always been more melodic than the other Southern California hardcore bands, but the tunefulness of the songs and the abundance of appealing vocal harmonies make this their most accessible album to date. But, before you accuse them of seeling out, keep in mind that the band's message of individual freedom comes through clearer than ever.

"We used to have two types of songs -- fast and really fast," says Hetson. "It seems that when you slow things down a bit it gives you more space to throw things in if you want. When you're playing a minor 7b5 chord at full distortion and full speed, you can't tell what it is."

The album features more guest shots than the David Letterman show. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder brings his earthy vocals to American Jesus and Watch It Die. Concrete Blonde vocalist Johnette Napolitano adds to the harmonies on It Struck A Nerve, k.d. lang guitarist Greg Leisz plays slide on Man with a Mission, and Jon Wahl and Chris Bagarozzi of Epitaph labelmates Claw Hammer contribute guitar leads to Kerosene.

"The attitude is still there, we just approach it a little differently," says Hetson. "We're more comfortable with experimentation but we're not about to do a jazz album."

Hetson readily admits that his playing style is a direct result of never having learned to play properly instead of a conscious attempt at minimalism. Recently he took a few lessons. "I figured someday I'll be playing in a Vegas lounge so I'd better learn a few jazz chords. I started with 'Sunny' and moved up to 'Girl from Ipanema.'"

The band may not be known to the mainstream yet, but if Nirvana can get to #1 with a similar kind of melodic punk then the time may be right for Bad Religion. As Hetson says, "We're the world's most popular unknown band. We do the things we need to do but for some reason it isn't picked up by the major media. It's all word of mouth. We have a huge live following and we sell a decent amount of records so they must be finding out from somewhere. So we know it's not hype. People are there because they like us, not because they read about it somewhere."

Perhaps only Johnny Ramone has put down more 16th notes on record than Greg Hetson. If nothing else, he deserves some kind of medal for perseverance alone. "If somebody picks up the guitar because they saw me banging on it and they say, 'I can do that -- go up there, knock out a few barre chords and make it sound decent,' then that's the best compliment I could have. That's the basic philosophy of guitar from your punk-rock-hardcore school. It's not this magical, mystical thing -- you don't have to be an Yngwie Malmsteen." - Lee Sherman