Punk statesmen Bad Religion were supposed to make a big splash on the literary scene in 2000. Two separate books were slated to be on the shelves to commemorate the band’s twentieth anniversary, one of which was to be written by front man Greg Graffin himself, a sort of how-to guide for bands on the workings of the music industry called Band Aid. Neither made it in time, mostly because Graffin completely reassessed his priorities after working with studio whiz Todd Rundgren for BR’s latest album, The New America. For a band oft compared to the Ramones in terms of maintaining a consistent sound and ethic, the change — however subtle — is impressive. For one, Graffin, always the intellectual, seems more at ease displaying a sense of humor. Good thing too, because he’ll soon need all he can get as Bad Religion set out this week for a tour opening for punk jesters Blink-182.
Doesn’t it somehow feel wrong to be opening for a band that’s two generations removed from you? Blink-182 are like your grandkids . . .
When they first started, I thought they were a little bit of a knockoff of NOFX, who we had signed to Epitaph and brought on tour with us. But the more I heard about Blink, I heard they grew up on Bad Religion, so now I look at them like NOFX, that they’ve had a parallel evolution from the same source.
Sounds like inbreeding.
Yeah, exactly! But when it comes down to it, I couldn’t care less. If people want to believe that the marquee directly reflects importance, they’re just shortsighted. I was happy to be asked, because it’s a great way to reach some people who’ve never heard punk rock, who are now willing to listen to it. And if you’re just preaching to the converted, there’s no progress. I take that very seriously.
Bad Religion are considered a serious band, primarily for your high level of socio-political commentary. But your twist on computer sex, “I Love My Computer” is kind of a silly song.
It is kind of out-there, isn’t it? It’s tongue-in-cheek. It’s just more of a prediction song. People are spending more time being entertained in “real time” than by real people, and that leads to a lot of questions. People think they’re communicating, when they’re not really talking, they’re typing. In a realm like that, it’s hard to talk about any real attraction, because you’re attracted to the idea of the other person, rather than the real person. You’re withdrawing from society, rather than creating society.
So where did this fascination with relationships on the Internet come from? Have you ever met anyone on the Web?
No [laughs]. It’s not real. Relationships on the Internet are only a fraction of knowing the essence of the other person. And the confusion that arises with new technology, that can go for a sexual relationship as well as a simple, information-getting relationship. Just because email is easier doesn’t mean it’s better.
You co-wrote one of the songs on this record, “Believe It,” with Brett Gurewitz [who co-founded Bad Religion but left to run Epitaph full time]. How did that happen?
I went out to L.A. to spend some time with Brett and he was in a position in his life where he felt like writing, and I said, ‘Why don’t you write something for Bad Religion with me?’ And it ended up being pretty nice. Brett and I have kept in close touch all these years. There was a little bit of disappointment on my part when he left the band, but we never had any serious acrimony between the two of us. I can’t say the same for the rest of the band. But he and I, being the songwriters from way back, we really wanted to try again. And when we started writing, we were really excited about how easy it was, how fun it was and how natural it was. So it’s something we’ll be doing more of in the future.
It’s sort of perfect timing for him to come back into the fold, isn’t it, what with the anniversary.
I don’t think he ever thought of it, really. I wanted this album to be a sentimental favorite, and I knew I personally couldn’t do that without including Brett.
Are you ever going to finish your Ph.D.? You’ve been teaching at Cornell.
If I ever sit down and concentrate, I could be done quickly, but too many other opportunities keep rearing their ugly head. You can get a Ph.D. up until you’re fifty, and I’m only thirty-five, and I’ve got plenty of years ahead of me to sit down in a library and research some arcane topic.
What about finishing the book? Is that also on the backburner?
If I can get a publisher interested, it’d be a lot easier to pursue it. But I spend more time thinking and writing, not promoting, which is probably why Bad Religion isn’t as popular as the Offspring [laughs]. So I haven’t shopped it around and I haven’t worked too hard on it. It’s like three-fourths of the way done. I assume we’re talking about my music book, because I’m also doing one on geology.
You’re writing two books at once?
Yeah, but that’s nothing new. I’m doing sixteen songs at once, too. They just take a while to develop. The music book, each chapter is just a different facet of the music world: managers, agents, lawyers, touring, rehearsing, etc. It’s a very comprehensive guide to all the different elements of what it’s like to be in a band. And I want to go back and edit more personal anecdotes in, but as it is now, it’s more like a textbook. And it’s got some theories that I’ve developed, like the repetition burnout theory, which is, no matter how popular a song gets, as the band plays the song more and more through their years, the song begins to sound less and less vital, because the band reaches this hypothetical threshold and you sort of go on autopilot.
How was your experience working with Todd Rundgren?
All the negative rumors didn’t pan out. The rock history books are full of them, and Todd is in every one. He’s a prick in the studio, he’s an egomaniac, it’s his way or the highway, all that. But the people who were hurt, they were oversensitive egomaniacs themselves. Who gets offended by an egomaniac unless their ego was trampled? I have a pretty healthy ego, I am a secure egomaniac, and if anyone is going to try to trash me, I come at ’em with both barrels. He can pick me apart, and I’ll be just as incisive back. So we got along great. He has a sharp tongue, and so do I. He has a resilient character, and so do I. He used to be my hero, and now he’s just my friend.
What did you learn from working with him?
He said very plainly, “You’ve been around for twenty years, and the only thing you’re afraid of is changing.” He came on strong: “You talk about change, but what about yourselves changing?” What was I going to say? He produced the first punk record ever, if you accept the New York Dolls as the first punk band.
How did you respond to that?
I respected what he was saying, but I took it with a grain of salt. Anyone who listens to us can’t say we haven’t changed. But he helped instill an ethic in us not to be afraid of change, or of how the punk elite will take it. How to be authentic. And it’s time, with the millennium, our anniversary, to make a statement about ourselves. We’ve done every kind of social analysis possible, and it was time to focus on our concerns. I know how to make records, I didn’t learn that from him. But what I learned, it’s like having a good editor to be a great writer. He challenged me to be as clear as possible. And he and I spent more time laughing than anything else. If people didn’t get along with him, it was because he picked on their insecurities . . .
Like it says more about them than him?
You gotta own your feelings. That’s a therapy word. Don’t externalize things that bother you. If you don’t like hearing the truth about your own shortcomings, don’t talk to Todd. That’s what happened to Andy Partridge. He’s probably still moaning about [working with Rundgren], but even he would say Todd helped him make the best XTC record ever. I’m not whining and moaning about it. Most producers suck your dick: “You’re the greatest, you rule.” That’s why most records suck: You’re not challenged. But we were legitimately challenged. He would be very honest. I’m pretty immune to criticism. It’s kinda like taxes — how can you let it bring you down? If you want to misjudge me, though, you’ll be in for a good fight.