PROFESSORS of the punk scene… IT’S BETTER THAN BEING THE SENILE OLD BUFFOONS
GREG GRAFFIN BAD RELIGION
When Greg Graffin was a schoolboy, his days began with choir practice. Under the tutelage of his teacher, Ms Perkins, the young chorister sang the standards of the time, and at Christmas, a bunch of carols celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It was here, in a schoolroom in Wisconsin, that Greg learned about the harmonies that for years have defined Bad Religion’s sound. As well as this, he picked up the skinny on a theology that he has chosen to reject for the entirety of his adult life. So profound has this refutation been that years later Greg would use the vocal techniques he’d learned as a child to sing the line: ‘Now we all see, religion is just synthetic frippery, unnecessary in our expanding global cultural efficiency’ (God Song, 1990).
There is a compelling case to be made that Bad Religion are America’s most important punk rock group. With the genre at an ebb so low that a priest could have been summoned to its bedside, in 1988 the band released the album Suffer and in doing so kept the line from going flat. From this, groups such as The Offspring, NOFX and Pennywise found fertile ground on which to prosper. All of these did so through Epitaph Records, the label formed in 1980 by Bad Religion co-founder Brett Gurewitz so as to release the band’s eponymous debut EP. In terms of influence, theirs is a story that is hard to beat.
But it is Greg Graffin who for almost 40 years now has been the group’s sole constant member. A Wisconsin native transplanted to Los Angeles, today he resides in upstate New York for his ‘other job’ as professor of evolution at Cornell
University. If the idea of a singer in a punk band moonlighting as a lecturer at an Ivy League university – or vice versa – seems incongruous, think again. Even at their fastest, Bad Religion’s songs are never wholly divorced from pop music, but lyrically the group remain challenging and sometimes esoteric. In other words, Greg’s compositions are college lectures to which one can slam dance. Too weird for the mainstream, at their best the work is nearly untouchable…
Tell us a little bit about the pre-punk Greg Graffin, please.
“The pre-punk Greg Graffin is not a very interesting character, because the pre-punk Greg Graffin was a child. I was only 15 years old when I cut my hair and decided to go punk. I guess you would say that I was a musically enlightened kid. I didn’t say ‘gifted’, you’ll notice, because I always had a sense of humility about my skills. I’ve always downplayed them, because I felt that I was no different from anybody else. I thought that everybody had the ability to do the melodic interpretations and the combining of words. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised that it doesn’t come as naturally to everybody as it does to me. But me and my grade school friends were really into progressive rock, and my first concert was actually Yes in 1977. I was only in sixth grade. So the pre-punk Greg was a kid that wasn’t particularly interested in fashion and didn’t pay much attention to how he looked.”
As a teenager you promptly moved to LA, fell in with the wrong crowd and formed Bad Religion. Where did it all go wrong?
“It was to do with the counterculture and about how we should position ourselves as a band. Brett and myself really bonded over Emerson, Lake & Palmer, because no selfrespecting punker would ever admit that. So in a sense we loved that there were bands that could fill stadiums, but who didn’t have to go the commercial route to be played on the radio. It may have been naïve because we were just kids, but we really believed that we could musically do what we were capable of yet remain outside the mainstream. And Brett also loved the Ramones because they too played to their ability and stood outside the world of mainstream commercial radio. But they too were gods. So there was a model there: we could be like them, and we could play that kind of music in our garage, which I think is what attracted us to it.”
Bad Religion emerged into an extremely febrile LA punk scene. What was that like?
“You don’t realise how special something is when you’re going through it, especially when you’re a kid. So it was a great fortuity of time and place that Bad Religion emerged into this mosaic of Southern California. We just happened to be there when there was this budding group of miscreants who gathered in Hollywood every night. But LA is a car culture, so the image of London street punks didn’t really work where we were, because when we’d finished hanging out at [punk hangout] Oki Dog we then had to get in our cars and go back to our suburban lifestyles. Unlike London or New York, LA doesn’t have an urban pulse. But we were outcasts even in the punk scene because we lived out in the San Fernando Valley, which is a wasteland, really. But one thing we did want was to be as good as any of the bands in the scene.”
LA was a violent and nihilistic scene, but Bad Religion’s music was anything but. That’s quite the dichotomy.
“[The violence] was never something that I liked to acknowledge or admit. To me it was just a part of every day punk culture. But with 20/20 hindsight you look back and realise that it wasn’t an amiable scene on many nights. It didn’t leave you with a great feeling when you went home. The violence did a lot to discourage the scene. Early on the violence was between the punks and the police, which backfired on the cops because it made everyone band together. But then infighting between different factions started to pit people against each other, which drove the scene apart. It drove me out, certainly, and sent me off to university. That’s why there was a lull between 1983 and 1988.”
In 1988 Bad Religion released third album Suffer, and in doing so saved American punk from itself. Is that a fair assessment?
“That’s impossible for me to comment on. But I think it is fair to say that the inspiration we drew from the punk scene and from the bands in it never really left us. We were all feeling super inspired and we all still believed in the good aspects of punk music. At that time as a band we were all quite diffuse, and the scene was certainly diffuse, but we believed that that shouldn’t mean that we couldn’t make a great punk album. There were a lot of factors that came in to that process. Philosophically we were all growing and maturing. I was at university, so I was able to bring that to my own songs. Brett was growing as an engineer, so he was able to bring that to the album. And we believed that we had something interesting to share. And you can hear in Suffer a philosophical and musical maturity, not to mention a belief that there were people out there who still had a desire to hear this kind of music.”
Were you not surprised that Suffer did find an audience, because it looked for the entire world like American punk was dead?
“I think it was right on par with what I expected, because the first year it wasn’t a huge explosion. What really shocked me was when we went to Europe and I discovered that there was an entire continent that had been wanting to see us for years. But even playing in LA was uplifting. We may have only been playing in small clubs to 250 people, but they were all ecstatic to see us.”
Suffer also emerged on Epitaph, which at the time was essentially Bad Religion’s house record label. Was it nice being your own bosses?
“Back then I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t think about us being on a label. I just thought we were continuing what we started in high school. Now I realise how much time and effort Brett was putting in to building Epitaph as a business, but back then I really didn’t.”
You toured the album Recipe For Hate in 1993 and took out Green Day as your support. Were you aware that serious changes were afoot in the punk scene?
“I loved touring with Green Day and I loved that their music was becoming so popular. Even though it was a Bad Religion audience there was a lot of crossover there. That was really uplifting to me. I just felt it was a celebration of the punk scene and the nexus of so many people’s musical desires. That’s what made me so happy about that tour.”
Punk rock went mainstream in 1994, of which Bad Religion were a part. Was that weird?
“I don’t know if it was weird or not. I was probably too young and immature to recognise it as a significant moment. I probably thought it was just another step along the way to musical success. I just kind of lived in the moment. I didn’t strategise or think a lot about it. I did know that my family life was in jeopardy if I didn’t make a change – and ultimately about a year and a half later my marriage was over – but at the time I was realising that I needed to make a decision in my life because all along I’d been in academics and punk rock at the same time. So my own crisis was balancing all of these things. But punk rock was becoming so popular that it would have been suicide to screech the engines to a halt. I felt that I had to honour my bandmates and my fans, who were growing by leaps and bounds.”
Today Bad Religion are seen as the wise elders of the punk scene. Is that a cap that fits?
“Well, it’s better than being the old senile buffoons. But the word ‘elders’ implies that
you no longer have anything left to give, and that’s the only qualification I would make. I would say that a better way to put it is that we are the professors of the punk scene. Because if you are the professors then you still have wisdom to offer as you grow older, and students look to you for the keys to success. I don’t know if we can offer those keys, but if you choose punk as a way of life you’ve got to be able to figure out, through wisdom, how you can do this in life and age gracefully.”
Speaking of professors, you actually are one. Tell us about your academic pursuits…
“It was almost a spiritual quest in many ways, because I read Charles Darwin when I was in high school. It might come as a shock to readers of Kerrang! to learn that in the U.S. evolution is a controversial subject that isn’t taught as a subject in school. When I was in high school, I discovered that evolution was a subject that gave me a lot of purpose and was something I wanted to study more. I wanted to study human origins and where I came from. If you consider that Bad Religion became my determination in life, our music spends a lot of time considering why people believe religious myths, when in fact we have a story of creationism to hand that’s actually based in science. You could say that it was instigated by a love of nature and finding some kind of truth in studying nature. That’s why I’ve pursued that. So my specialty is paleontology. I’ve worked at the LA County Natural History Museum. I went on my own digs for fossils. I went to the Amazon basin. I write about evolution and I’m currently writing a new book on that subject.”
There seem to be more smart people in punk rock than any other form of music. To what do you attribute this?
“I don’t know, that’s a tough one to answer. You interview a lot of metallers as well, right?”
Yeah, but some of them are as dumb as stumps, Greg…
“Well, that’s for journalists to comment on. Maybe I can offer my own perspective. I don’t suffer fools. If someone is stupid, I won’t be mean or put them down. I refuse to do a battle of wits with an unarmed person. If I started out being lucky enough to get the smart genes from my parents, it makes sense, then, that my community of people would be at least as smart as I am. Obviously there are exceptions. I’ve been playing [ice] hockey on the same team for 20 years and not all of my teammates are mental giants, but they’re still great people and I love hanging out with them. But when it comes to music, what makes the vibrancy of the punk scene is that the people in it are all intellectual equals. Or close to it.”
How good a hockey player are you, by the way?
”I play forward, but I can also play left or right wing. But although I’m in the upper quadrant of the age of our team, I don’t make a lot of mistakes. I can create plays and I know how to play smart.”
What would the punk landscape look like without the existence of Bad Religion?
“That’s hard to say because the landscape of music has taken on bizarre permeations. All I can say for certain is that there’s definitely a Southern Californian sound and I’m happy to have been a part of [creating] it. And if people recognise a connection between the new music that Bad Religion is putting out and that classic geology then I feel we’ve been successful at what we do.”
You’re a committed atheist. In the United States, is this a fringe belief?
“It’s definitely a subculture. Only two weeks ago I was travelling and a lady on a flight asked me what I do for a living. People ask me that all the time. I told her that I teach evolution, and that I’m a lecturer at Cornell. And she said, ‘Evolution?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And she said, ‘You mean, like, coming from the monkeys?’ And I said, ‘Well that’s a particularly 19th century way of looking at it, but that’s essentially what I teach.’ And she said, ‘Well, what if I tell you that I don’t believe in it?’ And I said, ‘Well, you’re perfectly welcome not to believe in it.’ But she wanted to know how God’s greatest creation could have anything to do with the animals of the earth. So here’s my point: not only is she ignorant about biology, but the first thing that comes to mind when she hears about evolution is religion. Atheism is so underground in the United States that most people can’t figure out how you could even take that position because they haven’t been listening to their biology lessons.”
On the off chance that when you die you do find yourself standing before the ‘great creator’, as an atheist how do you plead your case?
“I would say that if you felt it so important that you be known to your greatest creation [mankind] then you’ve gone about it in a pretty stupid way, because you’ve made evidence about yourself so hard to find. And then I would say that through my works and through my family life I’ve had a pretty good run, and I’ve been a pretty good person, so I think you can agree that there are far bigger problems on this planet than my poor soul.” GREG GRAFFIN’S Most recent solo album MILLPORT is available now through anti-. Bad Religion are currently working on a new album
Sometimes Greg’s lectures get a bit lively
When the tour bus leaves the services without you… Greg on one of his fossil digs, possibly Bad Religion: thoroughly unimpressed by our gags Some venues just aren’t fit for purpose, really…