Interview: Bad Religion [August 2015]

By Jason Swearingen

Bad Religion are not only one of the most important, but one of the best punk bands that have ever existed. Over 35 years of touring and recording, they have managed to push the boundaries of their own sound without betraying it, and matured in every aspect of their songwriting. Fifteen years ago, they seemed to be on their last breath, but over the ensuing years, they have come roaring back with a rejuvenated energy. They are currently touring, and later this year, they aim to head into the studio to record their 17th full-length LP. It was a thrill to talk to guitarist Brian Baker about the band’s past, present and future.

JS:I saw the Riot Fest after show you played last fall at Double Door, and it was awesome. Do you guys get to play intimate shows like that very often?

BB: You know, we actually do more than you’d think. They’re really fun. We like doing them. It’s just about whether they can work with our tour scheduling. I’m glad you liked it. They’re really rad.

JS: It was amazing. I grew up in West Virginia, so I didn’t get to see you all until 2004. So that was the smallest place I’ve ever seen you play.

BB: Cool. Well, thanks!

JS: I was at a show you played a few years ago at the Congress Theatre (in Chicago). During the set, Greg asked for anyone in the audience who it was their first time seeing you to raise their hands. It was at least two thirds of the crowd. It hit me right then, the balance you must have to effect between the old fans who want to hear some more obscure tracks and the new fans who want to hear the essentials. How does that affect the way that you tour and the songs that you choose to play?

BB: We have a pretty simple system, which is that we play songs, pretty much, from every record. Though we keep making new records that, in my opinion, are quite nice to listen to, but when we tour a new record, it’s not like we’re going to play the whole thing in its entirety. We have too rich a catalogue to do that. So, basically everything’s equal. So we’ll play four No Control songs. We’ll play four Suffer songs. We’ll play stuff off the new record. We’ve learned that about an hour and a half is the maximum that you can take of us yelling at you. So that’s our format. Whatever we can shove into 90 minutes and be kind of an equal spread. Because there are people who have never seen us before. It’s a thing: you’ve seen the logo your whole life, and you know you’re “supposed” to know what it is and like it, but you’ve never heard it. We call this “The Misfits problem”. Except, you know, we’re not the Misfits.

JS: I wanted to ask about the centuries sets you played. You played more stuff from the Atlantic Records era than normal, and I was wondering if there was anything interesting about how you picked those songs, and if you’ll be playing any of those on the upcoming UK tour?

BB: I think we will be. The basic thing with the century sets is it gave us a chance to play three hours of music, instead of an hour and a half. In doing that, we thought it’d be more interesting, in each era, to play stuff that everyone hasn’t heard before, because there’s a lot of repeat fans. And we were like, “Well why don’t we take another look at these Atlantic records?” Honestly, we’ve been trying to play songs off of those records, but the problem is that the songs – there’s not a lot of good ones, to be quite honest. They can’t all be winners, my friend.

JS: I get told I’m crazy a lot, because I think No Substance is my favorite record of yours.

BB: You know what? My favorite is Recipe For Hate, which people can’t really figure out either. I will say, in defense of No Substance – that record is really good when you listen to the whole record. It’s the sum of its parts. But trying to cherry pick stuff out of it is kinda tough. Also, again, we’re kind of time limited. We just pulled a couple things from records that we don’t normally play, just in the spirit of what we were trying to do. but there’s still a lot of ground to cover if you wanna talk about the 20th Century (records).

JS: Are there any plans to release a B-sides record?

BB: We don’t do a lot of B-sides. Those guys write stuff that they want to sing about, and they stop when there’s enough. So there’s not a lot of freaky stuff rolling around to do as B-sides. I mean, there’s some hilarious older demos from before people had their technology sorted in their houses – the pre-garage band era – but I don’t know how interesting that really would be. If we ever have enough B-side material to release, I’m sure we will.

JS: Do you have any idea when you’ll be recording the new album, or who you’re going to record with?

BB: I know that there are songs written that I’m about to go hear a number of, because we’re starting up on tour on Thursday. Believe it or not, because no one lives in the same city, we do most of everything when we’re on tour. I don’t have a start date. I know that there’s a lot of stuff. I’ve heard some things that I think are fantastic. My assumption would be that we would be recording in the same manner that we always do, because it’s an awesome experience, and we know it. But anything could change. The decision about where and who is really more of a Brett thing, because he’s the label and in the band. So, obviously, we go with his expertise.

JS: You mention the process you normally use. What process is that?

BB: Normally we go to Joe Barresi’s studio and camp out there and make records. That’s our normal thing. We’ve been doing it for years. I think, starting just after Process. We’ve been working with Joe forever. He’s got an awesome studio. Everything he has sounds good. It’s a great experience. A lot of things, when you get to be our age, half of it is that what’s comfortable to do is more interesting than anything else. What’s fun takes a lot more precedence over “Well, gee, are we gonna get that radical canon drum sound that AX7 got at that studio on Monserrat island?” Like, come on. It’s punk rock.

JS: This is the first record you’re writing with Mike?

BB: Yeah!

JS: What’s that like?

BB: Well, Mike’s a great guitar player. He’s actually much better than I am, but I was here first, so tough shit! It’s gonna be great to have Mike on the record. Brett and Greg write the stuff, and then it’s up to us to interpret what they’re doing and add our own stuff. I really am excited to see what Mike comes up with, because he’s such a traditionalist. He’s very parsimonious with his notes. He’s super Steve Jones/Johnny Thunders school, and I think it’s gonna be a real interesting thing to see what happens. Mike’s even been influencing me since he’s been in the band. He’s reminded me of all of these fundamentals that I’ve kind of glossed over for so many years. I’m looking forward to it. I think that the record will, without a doubt, show that type of simplicity and rawness that we’re refining to a tiny, needle-sharp point.

JS: So maybe more an extension of True North than Dissent of Man?

BB: I’ve heard stuff that reminds me, tempo-wise, of True North, but I can’t really say because they’re not done writing. Believe it or not, these guys, it’s just what comes out. Rage begets speed and tempo and the type of recording, so it really depends on how much rage is involved. We work both sides of the fence, so we’ll see.

JS: Over the years, the political climate has changed. Recently, I’ve read articles stating that the demographic called the “Nones” – atheists, agnostics and the like – are actually posing a serious threat to the status quo in the upcoming American elections. How does the growing dissatisfaction with organised religion and the rise of social liberalism affect a band like Bad Religion?

BB: Obviously, we’re not a voting bloc. We’re certainly left-leaning, as you can can tell by – oh, I don’t know – all of our songs. I think that this “none” vote sounds like Bernie to me, which, if I were able to pick and choose these things, I think that our erstwhile representative from Vermont would be a nice breath of fresh air here. I’m not sure about numbers. Because that’s what we’re dealing with. There’s a lot of Evangelicals out there. And there are a lot of people who are voting on the color of somebody’s tie. It’s very tough. That’s one of the beauties of America, that you get to vote, and that means there’s such a wide range that I don’t really think our cadre of “nones” necessarily, until I read otherwise, until I believe something on the internet, until I’m told I’m supposed to like something by Gawker, I won’t know. But realistically, I would love to see the country understand the separation of church and state and actually put that concept into practice as I think the framers intended. That would be a thrill. I hope it works out that way. And I like the term “none.” Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m going to use it and act like I found it.

JS: I have a friend who is an equally big fan of all of your stuff, and I asked him if he had any questions I should ask. He said to ask if there are any plans for any Dag Nasty shows in the future.

BB: Yeah! Dag Nasty is playing Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas in November. I think it’s November 6,7 and 8. I don’t know what day we’re playing yet. Dag Nasty is Dag Nasty with Shawn. That’s how it’s worked out with us. That it’s me, Roger, Colin and Shawn. We’ve been hanging out a lot more. Shawn and I live in the same city. It’s that good hardcore Dag Nasty before everything got all weird.

JS: Do you think you’ll do any tours?

BB: I don’t know about that. This is the only show we’re playing this year. We played a show in 2012, a benefit for a friend of ours who’s making a movie – The Salad Days movie about DC. I would like to play some shows, but everybody’s got, you know, kids and a real job and all of this. Dag Nasty is definitely a “for fun” project. So it really kind of depends on when people have free time. I would love to do it. I think we’re a rad band, and it’s really, really fun playing with those guys. Shawn Brown is a mensch. I mean, he’s fucking it. So, we’ll see. I hope to, but I have no plans for it as of yet.

Try these three interviews

Interview: Greywind [Reading 2016]

Interview: Arcane Roots [Reading 2016]

Interview: Trash Boat [Reading 2016]