Bad Religion Is Spreading
by Barney Greenway

Metal Maniacs, vol. 10, no. 6, February 1994

I have just witnessed two of the strangest events to grace the expectations of the musical world at large. In the recording rooms where the illustrious BBC `Peel Sessions' are captured, I have seen three compatriots of a punk band congregate around a microphone and sing first take, perfect three part harmonies that would put most heavy metal singers to shame. Then I watched as the vocalist tinkled the ivories on a convenient piano, crooning opratically as he did so and when I enquired of the purpose, I was told "Oh, he's working out ideas for new songs." I chuckled briefly, although I had no reason to be surprised. Stranger things had happend - like this band, Bad Religion's, rise to almost pop band proportions over a period of seven, non-compromising yet moorishly catchy, hardcore LP's, on their own self financed Epitaph records. So which was the primary catalyst - band or label? Blue topped guitarist and Epitaph mainman, Brett Gurewitz explains. "The band started in 1980, so that came first. Because we didn't have vinyl back then but we still played shows, Epitaph was formed to release our 7" (Bad Religion), and all it was was a P.O. box and a logo. It's always been common for small groups in the L.A. scene toput out their own singles.

But when did it expand to a more widescale operation?

"Well, going on Bad Religions split, between Forward to the Unknown and the reformation record Suffer in `88, I decided that I was gonna have a proper go at the record company, well before going back with the band."

That initiative certainly seems to have paid dividends, as Brett has amassed a healthy roster of acts. "There is something like 11 bands at the moment. They're all definitely very alternative, and most of them have the Southern California hardcore sound. Not all of 'em though. Recently we signed a group called Clawhammer, who although they have their roots in punk, they're not a punk band. Also, a group called Rancid, who have a different punk sound."

That's fine, but should you find that the well of those bands is running dry or becoming overworked, would you maybe consider moving into a different area? "I would never make a conscious effort to sign a group that had a currently mainstream sound, but sometimes you can sign a group that really doesn't sound like anything but if tons of people get turned onto it, it becomes mainstream. It's possible that one day, one of my bands might spearhead a new movement, but I'm not gonna jump on the popular bandwagon."

It's very possible, if not affirmative, that Bad Religion are that band. They have transported their philosophical and convention challenging persona into the arena of the traditionally apathetic population, and fed them the bait within songs that yer subconscious just won't stop hummin'. Other early bands like 7 Seconds and Dag Nasty harboured the same potential but faded away, so why Bad Religion? Vocalist and wise old professor Gregg Graffin offers a theory. "It's not because we're changing, but the climate of music is. The general public is more inclined to be negative towards this music, but I think we've always done it well and we're streching it to it's full potential. They're hearing it with new ears." "Most of the punk bands from the eighties went metal or speed metal or syntho" interrupts guitarist Greg Hetson. "None of the bands from the early days really stayed hardcore, and although we've still retained elements of our roots, the direction that we've musically gone is one that I don't think anyone else has taken, and so that's kept us vital, prolific and challenged", adds Brett.

Indeed, their latest Recipe For Hate opus doesn't massively shun it's predecessors in approach. There's just something distinguishing that you can't quite put your finger on. Brett explains, "Well, I think our songwriting has got a lot better, but still our real focus hasn't been..." "Diluted!" proclaims Mr. Graffin. Brett continues, "Yeah, what I've personally tried to do with the songwriting is develop the elements of pop songwriting which are most appealing to me like economy, energy and melody and piece them together into a punk rock context which takes on a life of it's own." Talking of which, the concise astuteness of a Bad Religion lyric is similar to placing the subject under debate underneath the most powerful microscope, and analysing it down to the last blemish - emphasising careful research rather than blatant anti-isms. Perhaps this is a little to studious for the average Bad Religion supporter. Maybe this will prompt the band to tone down on the clever stuff? Gregg defends, "Well no. Brett and I, who do most of the writing, think pretty deeply, and when we're motivated, it's because we have thought a lot about the topic."

Of course there is always the point that by sticking to their guns and pushing their degreefounded lyrics, they could essentially be alienating a certain section of their listeners who just don't understand the complex language structure or the dry use of irony that make a straightforward issue go deeper. Supposedly, hardcore is the one music that is accesible to all - everyone should be able to find a reference point and a foothold, so how do they overcome this problem? Wouldn't they want to simplify to clarify?

"I think we toned it down a bit on Recipe.and Generator, but one of the main things we advocate is thoughtfulness. If our songs require some to understand, then that's ok," states Brett adamantly. "You can't really condescend by asking questions can you? And that's a goal of ours, to not give the answers but to provoke thought through pointed questions. When you question someone, you're forcing them to make their own judgement," Gregg points out. Brett elaborates, "If you try to write a song for the many, then you're gonna end up catering to the lowest common denominator, and you'll end up with some watered down Pablum (i.e. easily digestible), so we're just trying to write lyrics that are relevant, meaningful and thoughtful. I've had an experience were kids have written to me, saying that they've studied one of our songs in their class at scholl." Like an "Early Learning A to Z With Bad Religion," right Brett? (laughs) "That's not what it's for, but that shows it's having a positive effect..Another side of it is that our vocals are kind of a percussive instrument. Our guitars have a straight forward Ramones or Motorhead blur to them, so lyrically we have Gregg rattling off those words that have meaning and also break up the four/four timing. So sometimes, finding the right word also has to do with what word has a good sound with the song."

On the newest Recipe. LP, this harmonious coupling has certainly served them well. As mentioned earlier, songs like "Kerosene", or "American Jesus" have hooks that demand repeated listening. They obviously are keen to progress without loosing the identity, so what made these songs click like never before? "This time, I experimented with the popular style. I'm a big fan of pop music, not the chart stuff, as in anything from Buddy Holly to Teenage Fanclub. I love pop hooks. Even though something might have maistream appeal, I don't think that, by default, it's worthless. For instance, Nirvana's Nevermind is a great record. I don't care how many people disagree with me, it's not gonna make me change my mind", states Brett.

You can sense that Bad Religion might soon bridge that gap to higher ground. All the signs are there - Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder even offered his services on "American Jesus". How real is their journey to the land of megapop mediocrity? "Obviously I've thought about it, because it kinda seems like we're on the cusp. On the other hand, as a songwriter, I've decided not to consciously make an effort to write a hit song, because I strongly feel that to write good stuff, you can't be motivated by that - it has to come out almost by accident. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was not the result of Kurt Cobain sitting down and trying to write for the top 10, but when Madonna has a hit, she does, so it ends up like easily-consumable crap. If it happens for us, it'll be strictly accidental - I'm not gonna beat myself an inch of my life to get it!" Brett argues.

This band seem to have a crystal clear vision of how to pace themselves without overkill, on how far to streamline their attack plan without sacrificing too much of the system-mocking respectability, and how to keep a tight rein on their affairs in general. However, their destiny could slowly be slipping out of their own hands.

Apparently, they have been under negotiation with assorted major labels for some time, and it has been confirmed that since the time of this interview, the band have now signed a substantial deal with Atlantic Records. The details of this are very sketchy at present although the agreement only involves themselves, and not the remaining Epitaph bands. Gregg and Brett seem a little reluctant to disclose too much, but seeing as major labels practices have long been a pet-hate for the punk community at large, weren't Bad Religion a little wary of committing themselves to the corporate monster, thus forfeiting a large part of their self control? "Control isn't an issue for me, it's the wishes of the band that come first. As a record company owner, I don't have any philosophical problems with other labels in general. We've had conversations with 'em, but it's wether we can come up with a good solution for everyone", offers Brett. "Selling out isn't in our agenda, and if you did it for cash you would be", states Gregg. "But, we want to reach as many people as possible, and Epitaph has been very good with that, thus far. However, if we saw some kind of a commitment from a major label, we could do better." Yes, it could soon be crunch time in the Bad Religion make-or-break scenario, and in typical prophetical fashion, Gregg concludes it all with a qoute: "Straight is the way, and narrow the gate to heaven. That's why so many of us end up in hell."

And how could that be any worse?