Q&A: Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz on Punk-Rock Ethos and Meeting Elton John

'Punk bands that look and sound the way we did in '81 are like Civil War reenactors'

brett gurewitz bad religion
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Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion.
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Southern California punk heroes Bad Religion have long matched the ferociousness of their riffs with lyrical profundity. On their sixteenth album, True North, out tomorrow, the band steamrolls through 16 songs in an economical 35 minutes and covers such topics as materialism ("Robin Hood in Reverse," "Land of Endless Greed") and painful memories ("Past Is Dead," "My Head Is Full of Ghosts"). Clearly, these are meaningful topics to guitarist-songwriter Brett Gurewitz and frontman Greg Graffin.

Rolling Stone joined Gurewitz at his home in Pasadena, California, to discuss the new album and its surprising influences, the Occupy movement and why the punk-rock ethos was "a moment in time."

There seems to be a theme of greed throughout the record.
I think what you're picking up on the themes of avarice and greed is just what we're feeling in our times with the Occupy movement, the mortgage crisis and the corruption on Wall Street. It's so in our face right now. Greg's in New York writing and I'm in L.A. writing but, for example, he wrote "Endless Greed" and I wrote "Robin Hood in Reverse" and we honestly did not confer about any of that. So I think it's just we're on the same wavelength and we're in similar places in our lives, so it's natural that we picked up on the same stuff.

Were you guys sending each other songs?
Greg and I get together before the writing, either on the phone or in person, and talk about what kind of record to make. He usually defers to me cause I'm still in music, in that world, and he's really far from it; he's really an academic now. We talk about it and then we go off and do it. Then usually I send him two or three songs, he sends me two or three songs, and then from there we finish the record and meet in the studio.

When you were having the initial discussion, what was your viewpoint on what kind of record to make?
I wanted to make a really stripped-down, economical record, sort of back to our original ethos, which was to write a great song and then carve all the fat off, so all you have left is guitar, drums and melody.

So were the songs written in different formats and then stripped down or did they start off that minimalist?
They were written as stripped-down and then we said, "What can we take down more?" Sometimes you want to be effusive. I like that and I've been that way with my lyrics in the past. But it wasn't what we did when we started out and punk, in the beginning, was really a reaction to self-indulgence and dissipation, which was the prog rock and the disco of the Seventies. And so it was a return to Chuck Berry, but turned to 11.

What inspired it was the new Tom Waits record, Bad as Me. The last few records, he would have a song with 12 verses in it. It'd be beautiful, lyrical and narrative. But he and Kathleen [Brennan, Waits' wife and frequent cowriter] told me this year, "We're gonna write two- and three-minute songs; we're gonna make a record with 12 three-minute songs." And I didn't really think he could do it, but I thought, "All right, if you really do that, that's gonna be awesome." He did it and it was my favorite of his records in awhile; I loved it. So I said, "All right, if he can do a record of three-minute songs, I'm gonna do a record of one-minute songs." So I told Greg, "We should do this. It worked for Tom and I think it will really light a fire under us." And Greg loved the idea; I feel like his writing flourished. It's his best writing in 10 years. He wrote my favorite song on the record, which is "True North."

Since you wrote separately, were there things that emerged that surprised you in either the writing or the recording?
I think there's a longing in the record, even though it's an aggressive punk record, so that might sound funny, but that's what emerged for me. "Dharma and the Bomb" is a longing for sanity, "Vanity" is a longing to have a place in the universe, "True North" – which is one of Greg's wonderful songs – I think is a longing to be accepted by his eldest son. The song is about a young punk seeking his own truth, but that young punk is somebody – I think it's both Greg and his son. So there's a lot of yearning, there's some longing in there and I think in the theme of greed, there's even a longing there for civility and humanity. We've always really been humanists, we've always believed in mankind, in humanism and we've always felt there was something uplifting and searching in our music. And I think that emerges in our record.

You said you wanted to go back to the roots of Bad Religion. Back in the early days, would you have been influenced by someone like Tom Waits?
Our sort of obvious influences were the Adolescents and the Germs. The Adolescents were our contemporaries, but when you're 17, you're influenced by your friends. But that's almost superficial 'cause Greg and I were both influenced by Carl Sagan, both reading and watching Cosmos. I was influenced by Jack Kerouac, by Tom Waits; I've always been a huge fan. At some level, William Burroughs is punk, Tom Waits is punk.

I hate to get into that question: "What is punk?" But it's something that's outside the mainstream, that's challenging the norms, that's avant-garde. So whatever is doing that for its time is always what influenced me. Greg and I were precocious, so I think our punk influences are probably the least of it, although we owe a lot to them. They're what gave us immediate acceptance in our community, but the fact we had deeper interests in countercultural art are the influences we were continually able to draw from.

Are there other musical influences that have also lasted all these years?
Yes, for sure, my first love in music was Elton John and I finally got to meet him a few weeks ago. My wife arranged it as a birthday present for me, out in Vegas. He was so nice; he loves music and musicians. Bruce Springsteen definitely; huge fan, continues to be a huge influence. Really the greats – Dylan, Stones. Both Greg and I were very influenced by Darby Crash in terms of how he tried to be a smart, artistic lyricist in punk, and that kind of let us know that you could do that. And the Ramones are a huge influence 'cause they let me know that it didn't matter that I suck at guitar, you could still write good songs, good lasting songs.

Are there current bands, obviously in addition to the Epitaph acts, that you admire? [Gurewitz owns the label.]
There are some great bands going today, but in terms of that punk-rock ethos, I think it was a moment in time. We have a right to keep doing it because it's who we are; it's how we write and express ourselves. But I've always thought that the punk bands that look and sound the way we did in '81 are like Civil War reenactors. You go to Gettysburg and you wear the authentic uniform and you go out for three nights and you starve yourself. They might be touring, living in a van, eating Top Ramen, but you're still just reenacting something that someone else is doing (laughs).

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