Bad Religion's Punk ProsodyRIP, September 1994
by Sandy Masuo
It's near dusk in the San Fernando Valley as countless commuters merge into sludgy arterial traffic for the stop-and-go journey home. Bad Religion have been in the studio since noon and are about halfway through their 12-hour day. Working at Rumbo Recorders -- owned by Captain & Tennille's legendary Daryl Dragon -- located in the midst of the Valley's vast gridwork of housing tracts, mini-malls and sprawling public schools, is a homecoming of sorts. Canoga Park is where the band began some 15 years ago.
Greg Hetson is nestled comfortably in the corner of one of the two overstuffed couches. A veteran of both Redd Kross and legendary L.A. punk outfit Circle Jerks, he is softspoken, affable and given to subtle fits of off-kilter humor. In his baseball cap and glasses he is occasionally reminiscent of Wayne's better half, or rather the real-life person that Garth would probably like to be. The coffee table is littered with miscellaneous papers, empty Marlboro Lights boxes and bags of pretzels. A large wood console TV -- not exactly state-of-the-art, but not an artifact either -- is tuned in to a hockey hame (Rangers vs. the Capitals). There's a low-level buzz in the atmosphere as band members appear and disappear behind the heavy wooden door to the studio, working on tracks that include "Tiny Voices," "21st Century Digital Boy," the wonderfully titled "Hooray For Me and Fuck You," and the title tune, "Stranger Than Fiction."
"The singing guys are doing their singing and I just came along 'cause I wasn't sure what was going on," Hetson explains of the evening's agenda. "I still have some guitar parts to do, so I came down to hang out and cheer them on."
It's a generous sentiment, but self-motivation is one thing that Bad Religion have always had in spades. They seem every bit as insipred today as when they were teenagers plaing the same three songs over and over in frontman Greg Graffin's parents' living room 15 years ago; as convincing on the brink of Stranger Than Fiction, their eighth album, as they were in 1981 when they got Hetson (then with Circle Jerks) to play their demo on KROQ's legendary Rodney On the Roq show; as self-determined now that they've moved to a major label, Atlantic Records, as they were when they founded their own indie label, Epitaph [home to the Offspring and other cool bands].
Graffin pops in now and again to take a breather, check the hockey game, follow the progress of the interview and report on the recording situation. The 28-year-old has been leading a bi-coastal life while he completes his doctorate in evolutionary biology at Cornell University in New York. His rich speaking voice and drawling mannerisms bring to mind a stockier, scruffier Judge Reinhold.
As the main "singing guy," co-producer Andy Wallace is really putting Graffin through his paces, and as the evening progresses so does the vocalists' fatigue. Drummer Bobby Schayer makes a quiet appearance, briefly studying a xerox of the recording schedule before returning to his roost in the control room. Between bouts of backing vocals, bassist Jay Bentley plunges into the sofa, grazes on pretzels washed down with Diet Coke, keeping tabs on the muted hockey game on the tube as he relates acute accounts of band history with Hetson playing the role of color commentator.
"It's funny," 30-year-old Bentley says, returning from a tangent about the elemental components (Top Ramen, frozen french fries, macaroni and cheese) of the average musician's diet, "because now we talk about the record business and how things are going, and who's doing what, and whether or not we're happy with the way things are going, and that's a little unusual. It used to be the five of us could sit down in the room and have all our career discussions and it never had to leave the room because we were our label, we were our managers, we were our booking agents. When we sat down and said 'we're gonna do this and we're gonna do that,' that's exactly what we were going to do."
"You knew it was going to get done because you were gonna do it," Hetson interjects.
"And as things progress," Bently resumes, "you get a booking agent, a manager, a label and all this other shit. I mean, a lot of people have the misconception that the reason you do all that is because you're sell-outs and the truth is, it's because you're five people and you can't fuckin' handle the work load. I can't field 300 phone calls a week: 'Can you come an play in my back yard?' 'Will you play at my prom?' And you're goin', 'No. I'm sorry, I can't.'"
"'Why not?'" Hetson chimes in with mock outrage. "'You guys are fucked!'"
"How do you discern between the right people and the wrong people to work with?" Bentley asks rhetorically. "I don't have that ability any more. It used to be easy. We played in L.A., we played with people we knew. I don't know who the fuck the promoter is in Boise, Idaho. People have the wrong impression of why you do things like that. We just continually talk about whether these people are doing what we would do if we were still doing it. And if the answer isn't 'yes,' then we have to say 'Okay, what do we do now?' And that's great. I wouldn't want to do it any other way.
"We were on a really small independent label selling 200,000 records worldwide. You know how many people worked at this label? Four. You know, ever single one of those records, I touched! 200,000 fuckin' records. People say 'it's not possible.' Well, we did it. Everybody's stoked, like 'You're really cool for doing that.' But I don't want to do it again. It's like, somebody, if they'd never run a marathon in their lives and one day they woke up and said 'I'm gonna run a marathon' and they did it. Their friends would go 'Yeah! That was great!' They'd say, 'Yeah, and I don't ever want to do it again.'"
"Sell out!" Hetson jears in his best devil's advocate tone.
"Yeah," Bentley agrees. "Fuckin' sell out! You should do it some more.' It's like, 'No. You do it.' Before you start judging why we did something, you do it first. You walk 15 years in these shoes. Don't get me wrong; the reason why being on an indie label is great -- and you'll notice that I don't use the word 'cool' -- is that independent labels can turn on a dime and they can really help a band to develop."
"A major label -- they're swingin' from the fuckin' bleachers on every release. They just want to sell records. That's their job. Their job is not to be cool. Their job is to sell records and to get them into Kmart, Wal-Mart -- get it into the places that Epitaph couldn't. I mean, everybody's just doing something they really enjoy and to discount that by taking the end result and going, 'I don't like you because of that' -- it's funny. Everybody's entitled to their own opinion but there's more to everybody's story than just that last three-minute video."
Graffin makes another brief appearance with an update on things at the recording front (other songs slated for Stranger Than Fiction include "Television," "Slumber" and "Handshake"), and guitarist Brett Gurewitz, 32, settles into the sofa, noodling on a guitar with an intense, detached expression on his face. His neo-'50s glasses, goatee and closely cropped hair are only the external manifestations of his beatnik-punk soul. The real giveaway is the hard-edged reverence with which he speaks of music and Jack Kerouac.
"He was a great genius, a great writer. He would actually take a roll of brown paper, put it in the typewriter and type continuously. He called it 'beat prosody' meaning beat generation prose and rhapsody together -- beat prosody. As a contrast, if you read Joyce, it sounds like stream-of-consciousness when you read it, but it's not. It took him ten years to write Ulysses. Some people read Ulysses in the same way that they'll read Desolation Angels and they're reading it the wrong way. You're supposed to read Kerouac as if you're listening to music and let it seep into your consciousness; you're supposed to study James Joyce. Joyce is quoted as saying 'This took me ten years to write. It should take you ten years to read.' But Kerouac didn't feel that way, so it's a totally different vibe."
If Kerouac's writings are beet prosody, intended to seep into your mind like music, then Bad Religion's music is punk prosody -- a continuous stream of songs stretching back nearly ten years, pummeling their way into the hearts and minds (and frequently bodies) of their fans.
Nestled between the first outburst of Southern California punk (which included Circle Jerks, X, Germs) and the Next Generation (NOFX, Coffin Break, Claw Hammer) -- "we're kind of like generation 1-A," Hetson surmises -- their music is a potent blend of earnest melodicism (think Clash and Social Distortion) driven by chunky power chords and jittery energy (a la the Ramones minus the deadpan humor) plus Graffin's agile rant delivering a slew of commentary that ranges from strident statements (Against the Grain's "Modern Man") to softer sentiments ("Struck a Nerve" from last year's Recipe For Hate). And that's just their recorded work. The stage has been, and still is, the band's best platform.
"People are all pretty much the same," Bentley begins, trying to sum up just what their audience -- at home in L.A. and abroad -- means to the band. "They just come out to see the show. But there's a big difference between every other audience on the planet and a Los Angeles audience. That's the truth. They're the most violent fucking people you could ever imagine. It's just amazing. You can go from here to, like, Phoenix and it's just a different vibe. This is where slam-dancing started. This is where it's just like, 'Let's take this whole thing to a violent end.'"
"See how far we can take it without hurting somebody," Hetson adds. "And if we hurt someone, who cares?!"
"Let's see how far we can go with hurting somebody," Bentley resumes. "We started in '80 and didn't really do any touring until about '87. It was the first time we really left the west coast, and went to the east coast. It's probably not a fair representation because the shows didn't go very well, and there wasn't a lot of people there. Now if we play here or on the east coast, it's relatively the same size audience, but L.A. -- that' the punk rock that we grew up with. We didn't grow up with the grunge-type punk rock that Seattle is feeding off of or the artistic punk rock that New York is feeding off of. I don't know what Washington or Boston were feeding off of, but every city had a different vibe. Los Angeles's vibe was just violence. That was kind of it."
"It's kind of like that surfer attitude: 'get gnarly,'" Hetson interjects.
"It was like gang warfare, kind of," Bentley says, trying to put his finger on the exact description. "It wasn't like it is now. I mean, people liked to thrash and it was okay to get a broken nose or something. You know, 'Look I broke my nose in the pit -- cool,'" he says with a momentary Beavis & Butt-head inflection. "And everybody liked it. If you didn't want to get involved, you didn't have to."
"Nowadays," he notes, "even if you're just sitting at the front of the stage, who knows what's going to happen? The pit is a big part of our show, you know. If the audience gets churning, we get churning. You know there's never been a position where I personally felt like 'I'm standing up here and they're churning because of me.' It's always been like, 'They're churning. I'm churning. I'm churning, they're churning.' It's just all one big thing. If there's not that connection, then it's a bad show."
"To put it into perspective, we were on tour, doing our own thing, then we got a slot opening for Neil Young. And we're kinda like 'Yeah, we love Neil Young; he's kind of a weird freaky old punky dude.' So we go and play and it's, like, his audience, and they just stand there and stare at us and we're like, 'We're not used to this.'"
"It would have been better if they were at least booing or throwin' shit at us," Hetson says, the mere memory drawing frustration into his voice, concluding that "no response is worse than a bad response." - Sandy Masuo