Bad Religion's PhD punk
by Mark Woodlief
"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.