Bad Religion tore up the stage one song at a time at the New York City stop of their world tour supporting their latest bar-setting album, True North. Punknews interviewer Jason Epstein got a chance to catch up once again with bassist Jay Bentley and guitarist Brian Baker before the show to chat about their "mediocre" albums, going to an S&M club with Fat Mike and of course, True North.
Can you tell me a bit about how such a stark contrast came about between 2010's The Dissent of Man and the recently released True Northcame about? Was it really just because Brett was super into the new Pennywise album?
Jay: No. But I will tell you it's because we put constraints on time and said that songs can only be two minutes. Brett did say he wasn't going to write songs in front of his two-year-old daughter with an acoustic guitar. Greg was very limited in the amount of time he had to write songs because he was teaching at Cornell.
Brian: You know what happens during election year? Punk rock is made. And there's just something in the air that that kind of, stand up for what you believe in!, good vs. evil shit really comes to a head, especially if youâre pretty serious about what side of the fence you stand on and you're bombarded with all this information that's completely contradictory to the way you live. That makes you stand up for what you believe in and you're incredulous about the fact that there's a world out there that actually is following the directives of the Republican National Convention.
I remember 2004 probably being the most political outspoken punk rock year in my lifetime. Brian: Absolutely. So that has a lot to do with it also, when you're kind of in that lyrical zone, that begets faster, more concise music. So that had sadly less to do with our friend Fletcher and more to do with every Bad Religion album and what's happening at the time of [writing it].
What has been your favorite Bad Religion song to play live over the years? What about your favorite one to listen to?
Jay: I don't like us. I don't like anything we do.
Brian: Well, I do. I like a lot of the things we do. I'd have to say my favorite songs tend to be ones that pre-date me. Sometimes Greg refers to it onstage as our "early good stuff," but it really is our early good stuff. That's why we're here. My favorite songs is called "Sometimes It Feels Like" and that has knocked my previous favorite "Portrait of Authority."
Playing or listening?
Brian: Both. That's a big criteria…I mean please, I don't listen to them. When I'm listening to Bad Religion it's to make sure I know the chords.
Brian: They're both the same to me. I don't listen to Bad Religion for pleasure, the best thing is when I listen before we go on a tour and we haven't played in months. My version of rehearsal (because no one lives in DC but me) is I go in the basement and I start with How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and I play along with the entire thing to the end of whatever the new record is.
And is that fun to you?
It's like OK, I'm doing this by myself now, but then all of a sudden it'll be five other guys and a thousand people watching me.
Brian: Well, I think it's very fun and if I didn't do it myself first then it could be quite embarrassing with all five of us when we get together.
Jay: When you don't do your homework at home and you do it onstage while we're playing, you get summarily punished.
That's like high school.
Jay: It's very high school because it's totally verbal and there's a lot of finger pointing and absolutely zero consequence.
Greg loves pointing fingers.
Brian: Yes and if you'll notice, he's always pointing at Greg Hetson.
He's like …YOU.
Jay: Youuuuuuuu, YOU.
And how about you Jay, favorite song to play?
Jay: I like to play "Generator," but only because of what we do in the middle, and it's different all the time.
Ah, the bridge.
Jay: Yeah the breakdown part. It's part of that spontaneity like, what's it gonna be tonight? You never know. I like that part, but then again right now I like playing "Dept. of False Hope" which is our last song that we're playing because of the way we're ending it. Little quirky things that make me go, "Wow, I like that."
A couple of years ago Bad Religion played this very venue [Terminal 5] as openers for Rise Against. That must have been interesting opening for a band that was not only influenced by Bad Religion, but also opened for Bad Religion years before on the The Empire Strikes First tour.
Jay: Well, that's the way it works. They came and opened for us because we sold more records than they did. The next time around they sold way more records than we did and they said, "Do you want to come on tour with us?" We said, "Sure."
Brian: I'd love to tell you that it is interesting but itâs the same as it is the other way around. They're our friends and we all go eat lunch together no matter whoâs playing last. It wasn't that different at all.
Jay: It's not awkward. You come into the same venue as them and Greg would say, "For how many people is this your first time seeing us?" Almost everybody would raise their hand. And [it's like], "This is great!" So it's all new people and it's fantastic.
Brian: When Bad Religion goes out as a support bands the reason is so people who would never see us come see us. In this case it's weird because we're doing the same venue, but it's still a different type of people and trust me, kind of the whole point of this journey is trying to get as many people to hear you as possible in whatever way is fun to do. And this is a fun way to do it.
Bad Religion almost never plays anything off the Atlantic albums save for The Gray Race (which happens to be my favorite Bad Religion record, believe it or not). Most fans would agree that No Substance and New America aren't the band's best efforts, but there really are some very solid, very worthwhile tunes on them. Can you comment on that period of the band, the songwriting during it and why those records are left pretty much untouched on your set lists?
Brian: I can comment on why they're pretty much untouched on the set list. Those are interesting records and there are some good songs on them, but we've kind of reached this critical mass where you canât play more than an hour twenty or an hour thirty at all. No one's attention span, including ours, can go that long, and we have a catalog that's so full of stuff that anything we would pull off No Substance would be replacing something off another record, and quite frankly probably a better song. You have to make some tough decisions, but there's only a set amount of time and we're only dealing with 16 albums worth of materials and I canât see a "Shades of Truth" trumping a "Big Bang," can you?
No. And it's twice as long as Big Bang.
Brian: And not that good.
Jay: The songwriting on No Substance was sort of a poorly executed idea of, "Let's just go into Alex's studio and push the record button. Greg has some ideas…"
Jay: It's not that it was underproduced, it was under-conceived. It wasn't going to be this thought-out [thing with] songs having some sort of beginning, middle and end. It's like, "Weâre gonna make it up in the studio, write and record everything while we're there." Trying to be spontaneous.
Brian: And it was spontaneously mediocre. It's good to write songs first and then go and record them.
Jay: I'll say this much for that record and then I'm gonna shut up about it; if you're going to write a spontaneously mediocre record and then call it No Substance, you're stupid. Or a genius…I can't tell which one it is.
Wait, wasn't there a song on that or The New America called "Mediocre Minds?"
Jay: Sure, why not.
Brian: And then New America…..after No Substance the writing process for that was, "Oh God we'd better not do that again, as a matter of fact we're gonna overdo it and overthink everything and we're going to get Todd Rundgren to come overthink with us and we're going to get this incredible songwriter/producer guy and we're going to do the exact opposite of kind of getting together in upstate NY and jamming and we're gonna go the other way." And what we got was a record that has a couple of really good songs on it, but again was forced in the same way No Substance was - just in a different direction. It took some time to realize that the best thing to do was what had been working the entire time the band's been together, and that is Brett and Greg write songs at their houses and then everyone meets and everyone plays and tweaks the songs, and that's Bad Religion.
Did I read somewhere that True North was recorded with tape? Does that make a difference to you as a performer on the album or is it more on the engineer side of things? How do you feel the analog recording style contributed to the results?
Brian: It doesn't make any difference with the performance at all.
There isn't more stop and go?
Jay: Even in the beginning there was stop and go; we'd record half of a take and they'd go, "Stop, that sucked, start again," or you'd fuck something up and they'd say, "Okay, go ahead and fix that." This was total producer, sonic tomfoolery where [it's like, OK] I'm going to try something rad and [the concept worked].
Brian: All I know is that True North sounds awesome and if it's because of the tape, that's great. But if itâs not…I mean I can't hear, I can't tell. That's a recording production thing; it's not a band meeting. I don't care. I play guitar through my amp, I have no idea how it winds up on a little in-ear pair of headphones, or on the internet.
Jay: What you're looking for is analog compression. That's it. That's the secret. The mystery ingredient is analog compression and I don't want to hear anyone say, "that's bullshit… Tape doesn't run out of space," it just squashes sound down. It doesn't peak out….it doesn't just cut it off like digital. Analog smashes it down. Digital can't replicate that smash but if you send it already squashed it can read that.
NOFX did the reality show Backstage Passport. If you guys had your own reality show that follows you on tour, what would the title be and what would the documentary crew uncover about the members of Bad Religion?
Jay: No, no no. [The title would be] "We're so Fucking Boring that You Wouldn't Last Five Minutes."
Brian: "Don't Poke The Bear" or, "Pay No Attention To the Man Behind The Curtain."
So, what if you co-headlined a tour with them?
Jay: We'd watch them do crazy shit and go, "wow, that was really crazy!"
Brian: Actually, not even. We'd watch Mike do crazy shit.
Jay: I went with Mike to an S&M club and got beat up and that was bad.
Isn't that considered cheating?
Jay: [My wife] was there!
She watched you get beat up?
Jay: She was like, "How does that feel?" It feels like I'm getting hit with a ping-pong paddle…
Brian: It's not very erotic, but if some people like it, then good for them!
Some peopleâ¦like Mike.
Jay: I just don't feel like being up for seven days on drugs…
Brian: There's nothing wrong with that.
Jay: My idea of anarchy is changing the channel. Leaving the TV on all night long.
Brian: Oh, you power waster.
You like to live dangerously?
Jay: I like to leave the water running while I brush my teeth.
Brian: That's bad, you should stop doing that.