It may seem odd that a punk group called Bad Religion would make a record celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus. But the punk veterans’ Christmas Songs, which came out October 29th, collects nine traditional Christmas numbers, including “O Come All Ye Faithful,” God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and Irving Berlin’s classic “White Christmas.” The collection follows on the heels of the band’s 16th studio album, True North, which came out earlier this year in January. Rolling Stone spoke with Bad Religion principal Greg Graffin about the motivations behind Christmas Songs, the band’s relationship with Christianity, and more.
What’s the process of taking a traditional Christmas song and making it a Bad Religion song?
That is what characterizes the album itself. This is the truest form of Bad Religion’s sound. We weren’t trying to make it sound punk. We weren’t trying to make it sound metal. I think it’s very natural, because there’s really not many bands out there that sound like Bad Religion. The vocal arrangements are a big part of the formula for a Bad Religion song – layered harmonies and background vocals. So when I start to describe the elements of Bad Religion’s sound, it starts to sound like a Christmas choir. That’s the weird way that the album makes sense.
Is there any connection for you between your new album True North and this Christmas album?
I think so, yeah. Besides the spirit of the music, the feeling of it is pretty much the same. The vocal arrangements are consistent. But it doesn’t share the same seriousness as True North, because True North is a heartfelt expression of ideas and this is a reworking of holiday songs. There’s a little bit of a difference in the intellectual content.
When you perform a song you haven’t written, is it important for you to get behind the lyrical ideas in that song?
I would say I don’t get behind the ideas that much. I tend to mimic what I hear. As most singers do, when it’s not original material, I’m giving voice to someone else’s ideas. That’s true about how I approached these song. I sang them like I believed they should be sung, almost as if I’m harkening back to my choirboy roots. I was in a choir as a kid. It was from those early days that my outlook on harmonies and arrangements were nurtured. I always took that with me, even on the earliest Bad Religion record, which strangely was only about six years after that.
Do you celebrate Christmas?
Oh, hell yeah. That always the best part of the year growing up. It’s one of the great traditions in most secular families in America. Most of my friends who are Jewish also loved Christmastime and loved the holidays as much as I did.
So is the religious tone in these songs sincere, or is there some irony to it?
Well, that’s tough. Of course there’s irony. The irony, some would argue, is the best part of this album – the fact that a Bad Religion, with a crossbuster as their logo, is making a record of some of the most festive songs of the Christian holiday. But I don’t only want the responsibility of the irony, because the truth of the matter is Christmas is not made ironic by Bad Religion. It’s made ironic by the secularism of modern society. You don’t need to be a Bad Religion fan to make Christmas ironic. If you really talk about our intellectual heritage, Bad Religion is not ironic – modern society is ironic. These are things Bad Religion has always sung about, the secularization of Christianity. That’s as deep as we’ve ever gotten into our criticism of religion.
How would you characterize Bad Religion’s relationship with Christianity?
Bad Religion has never been about criticizing people who are Christian. But we’ve always been about pointing out the irony and contradictions in Christian theology and the more extreme versions of Christians that seek to challenge modern secularism. Let’s face it: There are people who are extremists in every corner of society, and whatever flag they’re waving is something Bad Religion has stood against.
Are you done touring on True North?
We’re probably 90 percent finished. We did a huge tour this year, but next year we’re going to Japan and South America and Australia. And we’ll probably do some more shows in North America as well.
Is the band working on a next album yet?
We’re looking forward to not stopping the writing. I think next year is going to be a year of reflection and living life a little bit so we’ll have more stuff to write about.