For more than a decade, Los Angeles' Bad Religion were as independent as an indie band could be. Formed in 1980 by lead singer Greg Graffin, guitarist Brett "Mr. Brett" Gurewitz and bassist Jay Bentley, the loud and fast but melodic punk band released its first five albums (and two EPs) on Epitaph, a record label founded by the band and run by Gurewitz.
One of the last surviving bands of the vibrant underground hardcore scene that swept through Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Bad Religion unrepentantly wave a banner for the lean, bracing style of punk with which they established their career. Having sold a total of nearly a million albums without the assistance of a major label, the band nonetheless decided to sign with Atlantic Records in 1993. Now, Bad Religion videos appear on MTV, and fans can buy the band's albums anywhere CDs are sold.
The current Bad Religion includes Greg Herson (formerly of the Circle Jerks) on guitar and Bobby Schayer on drums; although Brett Gurewitz appears on Stranger Than Fiction, the band's latest Atlantic release, Brian Baker has replaced him on the road, allowing Gurewitz to devote himself fully to Epitaph's burgeoning roster. Graffin, 29, currently lives in Ithaca, N.Y., with his wife and two children.
When did you first know you wanted to be in a punk band?
From a very early age I was in tune with pop radio, and most of this listening was done driving. We had an old '67 or '65 Buick LeSabre, and whenever we would drive around, I would actually stick my head right against the speakers in the back and sing along to the music.
Where did you grow up?
Southeastern Wisconsin. We settled in Racine. Then when my parents got divorced, we moved to Milwaukee. At the age of 11, my mom moved us to Los Angeles.
I left Wisconsin for the absolute wasteland of the San Fernando Valley. The people at school were so much different. Pot culture was at its height. Kids in my junior-high class were coming to school wasted, and the rest of the San Fernando Valley was full of surfers and people who loved Led Zeppelin and Foreigner. It was an incredible shock. And that is the No. 1 reason that I found solace in punk music. I just didn't fit in at all with Southern California pot culture.
When did you first become aware of the L.A. hardcore scene?
It was '79. I listened to the Rodney on the ROQ show on KROQ, in L.A. It wasn't until we formed the band, though, and started playing in clubs in L.A. that we started meeting these people and realizing how much we had in common.
Who were your favorite bands at that time?
Oh, I loved all the bands that were melodic and hard – like the Gears and the Adolescents. The Chiefs were one of my favorites. I saw Black Flag early on and loved them. Of course, the Circle Jerks.
How did the Epitaph label begin?
At first it was just a name. Our album had to look professional, so we had to come up with a name to call the label.
What made you think you didn't need to sign to an established label?
At that age – we were 15, 16 and 17 – we were all fans of records. And we loved every detail about our favorite records. So we thought that to make a legitimate record, you had to have a label name.
You've said before that you consider Bad Religion's music to be folk music.
Folk music usually has an emphasis on the lyrics and melody. And those lyrics are usually relevant in some way. And it's populist in scope, which is also true of Bad Religion. So it's more meant to draw some parallels between the two. And I think even my voice and my delivery can be thought of as a little bit folky.
Politics seem to play an important role in Bad Religion's music.
We actually try to keep opinions out of it, usually. Our music is just based on relevant issues, that's all I can say. Politics are all about getting people to think your way. It's subtle or sometimes overt coercion, and that's the opposite of what Bad Religion are all about.
How do you respond to people who say that punk died in the 1970s?
I think English punk died in '79 or '80. Maybe '82 at the latest.
As far as American punk goes, it wasn't the same as English punk. It wasn't a working-class movement that was protesting the conditions under which this class had to work. I don't think American punk ever died. Part of that is thanks to bands like Bad Religion – of which there aren't many.
Do you anticipate Bad Religion experimenting with new musical styles?
I really don't think so. I've thought a lot about it. What if this music becomes the next pop music, the way it's started to with Green Day and Offspring? If it does, then it has the danger of becoming passé. But even if it's passé, there is such a thing as music with longevity.
You may soon qualify as a rock star.
I've heard this before, but I think it's more of a state of mind. When you hear the words rock star, the average person thinks of limousines and ornery sons of bitches who don't talk to you. If I get that kind of success, then I'm going to be the same person.
Plus, music isn't the only thing in your life.
That's an important fact. I set a goal for myself that I wanted to follow up on. In '87 I got a master's degree at UCLA in geology and then transferred to Cornell for a Ph.D. in biology in 1990. I just have to write my thesis, finish up some of my actual lab work and take my orals. Then I'm a doctor. But I'm not in any rush, because I want to make sure my sanity is intact. Also have a wife and two kids.
How has having children changed your perspective?
I think I'm a pretty typical dad. But it's a whole new ballgame. It's just one of those steps that you take in life that elevates you to an entirely new level of fear and responsibility. But it's what life's all about, really, meeting those challenges.
Perhaps you're some kind of a new-and-improved rock star.
I guess rock stars are role models for the kids who listen to that music. My role models have all been geologists – you know, the guys who are doing fieldwork until they're 70.
Ah, the real rock stars.
This story is from the December 29th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.