[Sidebar] May 7 - 14, 1998
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Smart attack

Bad Religion's PhD punk

by Mark Woodlief

[Bad Religion] "Luckily, Bad Religion has never been too deeply rooted in any one era," says the band's vocalist, Greg Graffin. "I mean, if we'd been thought of as old-school punk, we would've been dead by 1982. If we'd been thought of as postpunk, we would've been dead by 1985. If we'd been thought of as heavy metal, we would've been dead by '91 or '92. And if we'd been thought of as alternative, we would be buried with all the Seattle bands."

Bad Religion -- Graffin, bassist Jay Bentley, drummer Bobby Schayer, guitarists Greg Hetson and Brian Baker -- have outlived an encyclopedia full of rock trends in their 18-year career. Last week the band's 13th album (and their second on a major label), No Substance, came out on Atlantic. Next Thursday, as part of a back-to-the-clubs tour, they'll headline downstairs at the Middle East. And this summer they'll be one of the headliners on the ska-and-punk Warped Tour. Nevertheless, Bad Religion are a bit of an anachronism in the marketing-intense musical world of 1998, where careers are seemingly built overnight on the strength of a radio single by bands with little staying power. The long run and slow build that this group have enjoyed without becoming a nostalgia act is increasingly the exception to the rule.

"We've been able to stay away from generic typecasting," Graffin points out, "and that's allowed us to adapt to the times."

It's not surprising to hear Graffin -- whose training as a natural scientist includes a master's degree in geology from UCLA and a still-unfinished PhD in zoology at Cornell -- speak in terms of adapting. Punk rock may once have been an endangered species in the cultural ecosystem, but Bad Religion have survived with Darwinian pluck to see it reach a level of mainstream acceptance that few would have predicted back when they first emerged from LA, in 1980.

"The general perception of this style of music is that now it's a legitimate form of music, whereas when we started it was seen as not music at all," Graffin observes. "There doesn't seem to be any stigma anymore. It's become the standard listening material at high schools. So I think the audience has become broader, definitely, but it still maintains its appeal to the outsiders, the people who don't fit in."

No Substance takes into account punk's new standing in American culture by combining the speed and aggression of hardcore with anthemic choruses and sing-along melodies. And as always, in songs like "Shades of Truth," "No Substance," and "The Biggest Killer in American History" Graffin continues his mission to provoke thought with lyrics that put a contemporary spin on the Socratic method -- encouraging listeners to confront ignorance in general rather than preaching about pet issues.

"We've always been about raising questions, never providing the answers, but inspiring people to think," he explains. "We share our ideas with people, we provoke them to think. Luckily, in the punk rock world, there's never been a paucity of good skepticism and good cynicism."

In what he calls "putting our money where our mouth has been," Bad Religion set a rock precedent this year by founding the Bad Religion Research Fund, an annual grant awarded to students pursuing field-oriented research in the natural sciences. "The more time I spent outdoors studying nature, the more I learned about all the relevant topics in biology and geology. So I always wanted to be in a position where I could have enough money to sponsor these kinds of pursuits and to inspire students to study nature in its own context." More than 500 applications have been received; the band will announce the grant recipient this summer.

In recent years, Graffin's put his own academic interests on hold -- he's currently on a leave of absence from Cornell -- to pursue music full time. He released his first solo album, a collection of folk-punk tunes titled American Lesion, earlier this year on Atlantic. And he's got two book projects in the works. One, tentatively titled Band Aid: The Music Industry from a Band's Perspective, aims to provide up-and-coming artists with the tools to navigate the music business. "There's a lot of charts and graphs [in the book] that are based only on my experience. But they are predictive models of what you can expect from this crazy industry. In that respect, it's kind of cynical and kind of satirical at the same time."

The other book is a Bad Religion biography, which he's collaborating on with New York rock critic Jack Rabid. Graffin's hoping it will present a clearer picture of Bad Religion's role in the American punk experience. "I've never seen a satisfying treatment of what LA hardcore and underground music has contributed to the modern complexion of music, whether it's good or bad. I'm talking about bands like the Adolescents and X. Bad Religion were contemporaries with these bands. The fact that you don't see Bad Religion's name much in these historical treatments shows that there was some ignorance about that era."

Bad Religion play downstairs at the Middle East in Cambridge next Thursday, May 14. Call (617) 864-EAST.

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