For most of their fourteen years, Bad Religion has been at the forefront of punk rock. They are one of the most influential and successful punk bands, with a deeply devoted, cult-like following. Fourteen years and six albums later, Bad Religion continues to evolve and top themselves with every new release.
What has kept this band going all these years? With the normal life expectancy of a punk band being just a few years, what makes Bad Religion so special? Vocalist/lyricist Greg Graffin explains:
"I think it's a couple of things. Number one, just an internal motivation we have to make music. And also, the fact that every year, we've become more popular than the year before, so there's always been a feeling of progress with the band.
"If we had written a huge hit our first year like Nirvana or something, I don't think that we would be around today -- because bands that have early surges only go downhill from their early high and it's very depressing. So it's much more uplifting that each year you can make progress from the year before."
Going downhill has never been a problem for Bad Religion. With each successive album selling more copies, they have never experienced what it's like to be rock n' roll has-beens. Not that Bad Religion has magically avoided the obstacles every band faces. From 1983 to 1986, the band experienced some downtime while Greg Graffin was in college and the other members were separated from each other.
But Graffin is quick to deny that the band was seriously threatened: "Bad Religion had always been -- I don't want to say a side project -- but more of a hobby throughout the 80's. Even when I was away at college, me and Greg Hetson and Peter Finestone (Bad Religion's original drummer) would play shows and keep the name 'Bad Religion' alive. And in '85, we released a six song EP, 'Back to the Known.' And, to my surprise, we were getting more popular than ever." "Back to the Known" was followed by "Suffer" in 1988, then "No Control" in 1989, "Against the Grain" in 1990, "Generator" in 1992, "Recipe for Hate" in 1993, and in 1994, "Stranger than Fiction."
Besides being the first album recorded for the new label, Atlantic Records ("Recipe for Hate" was originally recorded on Epitaph), "Stranger than Fiction" represents the culminating achievement for this constantly evolving band.
"This time, I don't know," says Graffin, "because our song writing is getting better every year. It's a kind of craft you develop -- just like any kind of writing. And because of that, I think these are our best songs ever. It's easy to listen to it and say, 'This is the same old Bad Religion,' but once you look into the lyrics and you read what we're talking about, you'll see that these songs are put together better than any ones in the past."
For the rest of the punk world, it seems that signing to a major label is an extremely touchy matter, with viable arguments both pro and con. Bad Religion eschewed the politics of it and did what was right for them.
During the course of their thirteen years preceding Atlantic Records, Bad Religion had always maintained that getting better distribution would be an asset. It comes down to that -- because Bad Religion controlled the situation from the start.
"The fact is we were not signed by some A & R guy," Graffin explains, "we were signed by the president of the label. The president, Danny Goldberg, took time to meet with me in New York and the other guys in LA to assure us from the highest levels of management that we would be taken care of. And there's no way we would have gone on to a major if we didn't get that kind of assurance."
With Atlantic Records currently signing bands like Samiam and Jawbox, Graffin has some advice for other indie bands considering making the switch to a major label:
"You gotta really be sure that it's time to switch off an independent label. To me, that indication comes from upper levels of a major label, not the A & R level."
With the subject matter of major labels being so controversial, some people will only listen to bands affiliated with independent labels -- many bands enter shaky ground when they sign because of the reaction by the fans is uncertain.
"To me, the important thing about Bad Religion is what we have to say and how we do it through our music," Graffin says, "and if that music is being marketed by a major label or an independent, it's completely irrelevant. If you say you're a fan of Bad Religion, I would hate to think you're only a fan because of the label we're on -- it's really superficial." With respect to life with a major label, Bad Religion proves to be another exception. While bands like Green Day and Jawbox have mentioned the new found pressures of being with a major, Graffin does not seem to notice.
"For us, it's even less pressure because we have got an established routine that we've been doing for thirteen years before we went to a major. Now we're in our fourteenth year and things aren't going to be that drastically different. We are in a situation where our label gives us an incredible amount of leeway because they realize that we have this precedence that we've built our success through the years -- so they're not going to tamper with that. The one difference is that we were able to hire a great producer this time."
Produced by Andy Wallace, "Stranger than Fiction" also features Tim of Rancid doing extra vocals on "Television," and Wayne Kramer of MC5 on "Incomplete." "Recipe for Hate" features backup vocals by Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Jonette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde. Though "Stranger than Fiction" is scheduled for release in September, the tour will not hit the States until around November.
Like all successful bands, Bad Religion has watched their lives outside the band and their lives within the band slowly begin to merge. While some bands might find this burdensome, Graffin manages to outweigh the bad with the good.
"To me, it's more like a privilege. This is a time in my life where I enjoy being busy. I enjoy having millions of things to do, and the time that I put in now is really an investment in bettering myself -- it's all a part of it. It's not just being a whore for a major label. This is all part of making myself a better person, too. And that doesn't mean pleasing the record label. I'm talking about my individual relationships with people and how I get along, and how I produce things myself.
"You gotta look at it this way: If you're in a band, and people want to talk to you, that's a privilege you're not going to have later in life. And you might as well look at it as a privilege because there's millions of people walking around that nobody gives a damn what they think." Because Bad Religion has become a full-time job, Graffin has been unable to finish completing his PhD. in Zoology. He has a Master's in Geology. On top of that, Graffin, guitarist Brett Gurewitz, and bassist Jay Bentley all have families. Fortunately, the band is able to have their families come with them for most of the tours.
In keeping with their impressively consistent album production, Graffin says that he has already written three songs for the next Bad Religion record.
Bad Religion is probably the most influential band in punk today, with its sphere of influence widening. They're the guys you and your friends emulate when you play power-chord songs in your garage. They are the ones who are in control of their future. Where else do these guys have to go?
"Hopefully," concludes Graffin, "we can just continue our progress and still feel like we've made some accomplishments each year. And the more we accomplish, it might seem like the less there is to do the next year, but a band is an entity and can do so much before they burn out. And we haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what we can achieve."