The band recently released The Empire Strikes First, which Adam reviewed. The band is also playing the Warped Tour this summer.
Because of the length, the interview is going to be split in two parts. The first part, with Greg and Brett will be posted today, the second half with Brett should be up on Wednesday.
About a million bands claim that Bad Religion inspired them, which leads me to ask, what inspired you to play guitar or sing?
Brett: Well, I just wanted to be like my heroes. My heroes were rock stars, they weren’t sports figures or athletes or race car drivers
Greg: I really believe that there is something inside of me; a genetic motivation - if you will - to sing. Ever since I was three years old I was always singing in front of the mirror; performing for my mom or my dad. I would sing for anyone who would listen. I always knew that I wanted to be a singer. How I was going to do it was a complete mystery though. When I was thirteen I really wanted to sing rock and roll and then I discovered punk rock when I was fourteen.
That’s when you met Brett?
Greg: That’s when I met a guy named Tom Comez. And he introduced me to Brett. Brett and I had a couple of rehearsals with a drummer and they went really well. I had written three songs and he had written three songs. We were going to be like the White Stripes and just do guitar and drums. And then we thought that really sounded lame, and I’m glad we made that decision because we found Jay who was a friend of mine from school. I asked him “Can you play this stuff?” And so he traded in his guitar for a Sears bass.
What do you think you guys have outlasted your peers?
Brett: What makes us so durable? I’m tempted to say that it was fortuitous circumstance. I dropped out of the band for a few years and Greg kept it going, and then Hetson joined. I started the label, and it was right when they came around and asked me to rejoin. It seemed to me that there were a few happy accidents that helped us keep it going.
It wasn’t for any virtue like perseverance or. It also wasn’t a plan or foresight that punk rock would be popular. We were just lucky.
Greg: A huge part of that was having outside interests. Brett was always interested in the music industry and I was always interested in academia. Those two pursuits took us away from Bad Religion, and they still do. We didn’t tour very much last year because I was finishing my PhD. working on my dissertation, which I finally finished in August.
I think there is something to be said for those outside pursuits and how they make the band members more interesting because there is a story behind them. It shows that there is a life out there that they’re willing to take part in; they’re not completely consumed by music.
Music is a wonderful part of life, but that’s the point; it’s a part of life. A lot of bands get burned out on themselves. They just think “The band is everything” and I think that can drive you crazy. It’s like having a smothering family.
What motivated you to remaster the records?
Brett: When we started making records, the best way to make a record was analog. You record to analog tape and then you would go into mastering. At that time, mastering meant transferring from magnetic tape to lacquer. That was something you could use to stamp into vinyl and make records. I still feel that the sound of that is unsurpassed in terms of the clarity and the high end.
Then the CD came along. When they were first invented, they sounded like crap. You would take the very clear, excellent resolution of an analog recording and through digital sampling, digitize it onto a CD. Through that process, it would invariably end up sounding grainy and quiet and the high end wouldn’t have the detail that the original recording had.
Over time, the process of creating digital recordings has gotten much better. So now CDs are loud and clear and comparable to analog recording. It’s not quite as nice as analog, but the level you can get is much higher than analog. CDs today are extremely loud when compared to old vinyl.
What does this mean for someone who made a record back in 1987? I’m not trying to polish something that wasn’t meant to be polished. Let’s say you have a camera that takes clear pictures, and you also have a crappy disposable camera that takes crummy pictures. Say you take a picture of something dirty and crusty, like a nail. When you take a picture with the excellent camera, you get a clear picture of every bit of crust and rust as it was meant to be seen. That’s the way the nail really looks.
If you took a picture with the disposable camera, it’s going to be a fuzzy bad picture. Is the clear picture cleaning up the rusty nail? No, it’s showing it in all its crusty, rusty glory; how it really looks.
Our original analog recordings had distortion and noise and flaws. The digital recording process back was akin to a crummy disposable camera. It took an inaccurate picture of what really made. By remastering it, you’re hearing the way we heard it when we recorded it; the way it sounds on vinyl.
Digital mastering is better now, so I can dig up the original tapes and get a very accurate representation of how those master tapes sound. In 1987 when we did Suffer and 1998 when we did No Control and 1991 when we did Against the Grain, the digital mastering was primitive and sounded foggy and grainy. It also upsets me that if you put it in a mix with our new record, the songs are so much quieter; Another function of the enhanced process is more volume or “level” in the CD.
I wanted the old stuff to sound as good as it can be without in any way tampering with the original intention. There is nothing remixed, we didn’t tamper, we just brought it into a much better focus.
Greg: I’m really into it, because I believe music should be heard as close to the analog as possible. That’s why I still haven’t jumped on board with iPods and all that. I just don’t like the way it’s digitized, I just don’t like the sound of MP3s. I’m not ethically opposed to that stuff, but I really don’t enjoy the sound.
Brett: I recorded those records [originally] and I’m finally satisfied with them. I know there has been some dissent about the motives for putting those out. But the fact is that Epitaph has lowered the prices on all the back catalogue; all the old releases. My thought was, if we’re going to lower the prices, why just lower the price, why not make the record sound better at the same time?
I think a lot of people thought it was going to be like when Lucas went back to Star Wars.
Brett: Well, that was cheesy!
I think that’s what people were worried about.
I was watching the (recently reissued) Bad Religion DVD, and you guys spoke about what the “No Crosses” logo meant. Now, looking back, what does the logo mean now?
Brett: It still means no religion. It doesn’t mean “no Christ”. For the record, I think that Jesus Christ was one of the greatest dudes ever, I just think that the sum of religion’s contributions to mankind has been a big negative. If Jesus was around today, I hope he would be a Bad Religion fan. <laughs>
Greg: It’s the same as the international sign for no parking. Basically, it means don’t park your fucking vehicle here. It means that this is a place where you’re not going to find Christian theology as a foundation for our beliefs. It’s not hateful, it’s simply a statement of our own personal belief. It doesn’t mean we hate Christians; many Christians are some of my best friends.
Brett, you released a single as The Daredevils with Gore Verbinski and Josh Freeze; why didn’t you end up recording a full length?
Brett: I really just can’t stand my voice as a lead singer. I think I have a pretty good voice for background vocals, because it has an edge to it. It also helps to keep the backgrounds from sounding like a wall of “Greg.” I don’t like when the backgrounds sound like multi-tracked lead vocals. Combining my voice, Greg’s voice, etc. I have decent enough pitch and I think I’m good at arranging background and lead vocals. I cringe whenever I hear myself doing lead vocals. I do it when I’m doing demos. I can’t tell what a pleasure it is when I have Greg’s voice on my demo. His voice is so wonderful and goes so well on top of my writing that it’s like discovering something magical every time it happens.
He’s got a one in a million kind of voice. It’s completely unique.
Brett:I love it.
Greg, most people have heard of your side project, American Lesion. Have you considered doing it again?
Greg: Interestingly, Brett has been very encouraging of me lately to start writing some more for that. Because he really wants to produce it so I thought “that’s an interesting combo.” Brett and I in the studio doing something completely unrelated to Bad Religion. I think later this year after the touring is over I’ll start pursuing it some more.
Every Bad Religion song is credited to you or Greg? Have you always shown up to rehearsals with completely songs and lyrics?
Brett: Yes, that’s how we’ve always done it.
So some of the “thesaurus” rock reputation is because of your writing as well?
Brett: Definitely. I stopped doing it though. I can tell you the exact record I did it on. I stopped doing it on Generator. That’s when I thought I’d attempt to be more poetic and more journalistic.
I think I give credit for my SAT score to Bad Religion.
Brett: I’ve always enjoyed vocabulary. I’m a high school drop out. I’m not an educated guy, at least not through traditional methods. But I’ve always been an avid reader. I’ve always enjoyed looking up words rather than glossing over it.
I still remember looking up “jurisprudence”
Brett: From “You are the Government” right? I still forget what rectilinear means. That was from one of Greg’s songs. It seems that nowadays there is a terrible lack of proficiency with the English language. People in general, including our president.
It’s a point of pride, unfortunately.
Brett: It’s Karl Rove’s unique genius. Americans don’t trust intellectuals. To them a regular joe is someone who isn’t too curious and doesn’t read. And that’s someone you can trust.
How did it feel to incorporate Sage Francis on the record?
Brett: What we did was a traditional hardcore breakdown with a tribal tom-tom rhythm. Punk rock has a rich history of songs that break down to a tribal beat. And then, rather than having Greg put lyrics over that eight bar section, I invited Sage. He’s an exceptional poet and an important part of the slam poetry scene, and very politically outspoken. I really thought he could add something and I think he really did
And though he’s delivering it in his own style, it sounds like a Bad Religion song with a guest vocalist, it doesn’t sound like a drum machine or something. I think it sounds cool. I expected it to be controversial but I’m proud to be able to collaborate with Sage because he’s one of the coolest up and coming artists around. I think the under ground hip hop scene has a lot to offer and it has a lot in common with the L.A. punk rock scene as I remember it, not necessarily as it is today.
You’ve been involved in the punk scene for 25 years now, and you’ve seen it from a very underground scene to right now where it’s the biggest thing. It’s become such a powerful thing at the mainstream; you hear it at hockey games.
Brett: It is mainstream; when I was coming up in the LA Hardcore scene, the major labels weren’t paying attention to our scene, but the first punk rock bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were on a major label. Even the Stranglers.
Major labels invested in punk rock at first, and then it didn’t sell very well, and then major labels pulled out of it. And it turns out there was a real scene there that was viable. And so the bands were forced to do it themselves. The thing that sprung up in the vacuum that the major labels left was the LA hardcore scene.
It was very counterculture, it was very anti-establishment, it was very fun. But it was also, unfortunately, very violent. It was very liberal. There was no such thing as “conservative” punks back then I can tell you.
Now, so many years later, punk rock is mainstream, and there is no other way to put it.
How do I feel about that? I will admit that I’m conflicted. I don’t feel just one way about it. When Epitaph started out we were doing our own thing, and we were minding our own business and it was fun because it was something other than what major labels. We didn’t’ have to go head to head with them. We weren’t in competition with them.
Now major labels love putting out punk rock records. So how do I compete with a major labels?
Brett: That is very sentimental of you to say, but those companies are powerhouses with bottomless pockets. In the real world you can’t go head to head with those guys. On the other hand, I don’t think everything major labels put out is bad. I love the new Modest Mouse record, and that’s what I’ve been listening to lately.
I’m not really anti-major label, but where I come from and where Epitaph sprung from is from the DIY scene of early 80s. LA hardcore. Now that punk rock is mainstream, in some ways it’s cool and in some ways it’s bad. There isn’t really a simple answer.
You’ve had some good luck with the mainstream, most obviously the success of the Offspring
Brett:I benefited from that. My goal is not to keep bands a secret. I want them to get huge, but then they’ll be in the mainstream. I don’t think it’s the right thing for label to keep bands to themselves. That’s not why a band signs to label.
But everybody likes to feel like they’ve got there own little secret. I have a neighbourhood restaurant that I think it my little secret. It’s great and my girlfriend and I like to go to it. And we don’t want anyone else to discover it. And it’s kind of like that with underground music.
If something’s great, and everyone else discovers it it’s a little sad, but it’s also selfish to want that not to happen.
As I got older, I started to understand that. Those bands probably want to pay their rent and they don’t live to serve or something. Bands like Green Day don’t bother me because they stuck to what they wanted to do.
Brett: I don’t begrudge anyone for making a living. I think it’s when kids get pissed at bands for doing something that makes them some money, and yet they go on Kazaa and get all the music for free. Not only do they not want bands to make money, but they want them to give away their records for free.
Was the old scene more inclusive than right now? It seems very tribalized nowadays.
Brett: I don’t know how inclusive it is right now, since I’m not kid and I’m that guy from Bad Religion and most kids are cool to me so I have a skewed world view, but back in the day, it took awhile. If you wanted to part of the scene and no one knew you, it wasn’t inclusive at all. You couldn’t just go and not fit in. You had to have punk hair and a leather jacket and the right boots and the right t-shirt. They couldn’t look new or kids would think you were a poseur with a rich mom.
Nowadays it seems that if you have a credit card you can buy some Dogpile pants and “cool” punk rock t-shirts and a new pair of boots and get all geared up and go to a show and “be all that.” When I was a kid and you had new stuff, kids would call you a poseur and beat you up.
It wasn’t terribly inclusive.
Greg, can you tell us a little about your dissertation?
Greg: I wrote about two things that I’ve studied my entire life. That is, evolution and religion. My dissertation is actually more for a popular audience than my earlier work in my masters which was on bone tissue. If people are interested, they can visit cornellevolutionproject.org. That has a good summary of what I’m doing these days. I hope to write a book next year.
Are you working as a prof.?
Greg: I’ve actually gotten away from teaching because it’s too consuming. I wouldn’t be able to do Bad Religion at the level I’d want and be a professor at the level I want. I decided to use my PhD to write books.
The PhD gives you a certain credibility when writing books.
Do your students recognize you?
Greg: From No Control to Stranger than Fiction when I was doing most of my teaching, students didn’t give a damn. I was teaching pre-med students. Pre-med students don’t have the time and really don’t have the interest to pursue music. They’re not really interested in music at all. That’ was true at UCLA and here at Cornell.
A bit about the book: I heard you were going to do a talk called Atheism and the Naturalist World?
Greg: How’d you find that out?
I went through Cornell's site.
Greg:I had to cancel it because I was doing a press tour in Europe for Bad Religion.
That’s the topic of the book too.
It sounds interesting.
Greg: Thanks. That’s where my dissertation leaves off. It comes from the suggestion that if the average citizen was alive three hundred years ago, they would probably be persecuted – or prosecuted – as a heretic. We just know so much more about the world, and it’s completely contrary to the teaching of traditional theology.
Is it for academia?
Greg: I don’t think so, it’ll be in general science; not a speciality books.
It must be frustrating to see battles about the nature of scientific theories, debates about evolution, and bans on stem cell research in Washington.
Well, it is a problem. But it’s not just evolution, it’s a deep seated problem with education. People to accept the implications of their modern lifestyle.
You guys put a song on Rock Against Bush and the new record seems to be most direct political statement yet. Most of your statements have been much more subtle. This seems like the first time that you seem to be directed at specific people. What pushed this to the forefront?
Greg: I don’t think the record is that much more directed. This record has three songs that are criticisms of the right wing. We’ve always had a few songs like that, but this album might be more heavily laden. The other songs are about topics that we’ve been talking about in regards to modern society being bogged down by traditional theology.
You’re right in that the criticisms themselves are very direct on this album.. We’re not pulling any punches this time, and I think it’s because we’ve reached a point in the band where we don’t have to be careful anymore. We’re as established as we’re going to get; we’re more informed than we’ve ever been. And as writers, Brett and I aren’t shying away from these issues. It’s an album that reflects our maturity and our “senior status” as a band. <laughs>
Brett: I think that I didn’t mince words because I didn’t want to risk being misunderstood. I think the need to be understood clearly has never been more dire. On several songs I tried to express myself in a creative way, and at the same time as expedientially as possible. I’ve written anti-war songs in the past - “I Want to Conquer the World” is an anti-war song, another is “Heaven is Falling,” we have a number of them. But I don’t think everyone understands those songs. I don’t know if the average fan even cares.
Well, besides being really catchy, “I Want to Conquer the World” really had a strong sense of irony.
Brett: I’ve had jarheads come up to me and say “fuck yeah, I feel the same way maaan.” And that’s not what it’s about. The current political climate is the scariest and the most dangerous that I’ve seen in my entire lifetime. And so, what little I can do to talk about it I want to do and not be misunderstood.