Kerrang! (UK) - - Interview - Words: Ian Win­wood

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…

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