Over thirty, a father, a husband and a Cornell University Ph.D. candidate--nobody would ever think Bad Religion's Greg Graffin has fronted a punk band for half his life, but he's seen the band grow from a bunch of pissed-off teens in a garage to becoming one of America's hottest rock bands with a hit single, "21st Century Digital Boy," under their belts.
With the departure of original guitarist-songwriter and Epitaph Records head honcho Brett Gurewitz, Graffin has become the sole helmsman of the ship he helped build over 15 years ago. Adding strength to the mix is the addition of ex-Minor Threat guitarist Brian Baker, who gave up a gig touring with R.E.M. to join Bad Religion's ranks. The band's new album, The Gray Race, marks the beginning of Baker's tenure as a full member of the group.
"The songwriting has shifted to my shoulders," Graffin says. "That was both a challenge, a source of stress, and a liberating experience. A lot of times when you have multiple writers you don't want to step on each other's toes. It's actually a lot more altruistic than many people give it credit for being. I always felt there was a reserve of creativity inside me that wasn't being explored.
"I have a home recording studio, and I play all the instruments [on the demos]. This year [drummer] Bobby Schayer and Brian Baker came up to my studio quite a bit. They spent weeks and weeks there, and it really benefited us when we got into the studio."
Ric Ocasek produced The Gray Race, which the band characterizes as their best album yet, full of emotionally charged music and lyrics that will please longtime fans and bring the group plenty of new admirers.
"[With Baker], the precision of the guitar work is a notch higher. He's a much better guitarist [than Gurewitz]. I learned a lot about guitar on this album. I could never play rhythm guitar as good as [Circle Jerks/Bad Religion guitarist] Greg Hetson, but I thought I was just about as good as Brett. So I thought of myself as an adequate guitar player. Brian showed me what a really great guitarist can do for an album. And it helped me with songwriting because any ideas I had he could expand on them."
Graffin also has some influences that might make younger punks scratch their heads and wonder, like Ocasek, for instance. Best known for his hits with The Cars and marrying supermodel Paulina, he has produced several fringe artists, among them New York art-rock stalwarts Suicide and D.C. hardcore pioneers The Bad Brains. Soon after meeting Ocasek, Graffin found the two had plenty to talk about.
"The first two Cars albums were very influential to me. They came out when I was 13 or 14 years old, and when I was 15, I started Bad Religion. Those two albums were the last thing I remember before becoming a punker. They had a tremendous influence on me, as did all the music I heard as a kid. So it was a really thrill for him to call me one day and start talking to me about the demo tapes I had made.
"I learned a lot about production style from him. His ideas were so musical; we were talking music instead of sounds, and that really came through in his style. It created what I would say is our most musical album to date. He wasn't the kind of guy who was pushy. It's funny; I used a lot of what I learned immediately, because right after our project, I went on to produce another band. I realized it doesn't do any good to be militant.
"I was a huge fan of Todd Rundgren's before I was a punker. Studying his style at a young age made me learn about writing pop songs and still maintaining an image below the mainstream. I really respected that ever since I was a kid. My favorite album was probably A Wizard, A True Star."
Between fronting Bad Religion, writing songs, and producing, Graffin studies paleontology at Cornell University. One can imagine that two careers could create an intense demand on one's life. If someone held a gun to his head...
"I'd probably choose music, because it gives me a lot more freedom to express myself. Which is actually pretty sad, because the university should be my choice. Universities are very stifling. They can be so stifling as to almost inhibit creativity. With music, even if you're not the most popular person in the world, you can do any style of music and release anything."
From Graffin's academic credentials and the charged fury of his songs, one could draw many conclusions as to what is on his bookshelf. Bad Religion's music and Graffin's songs come from a variety of sources and traditions from before Johnny Rotten was an itch in his daddy's britches.
"I've been reading a lot of self-help and popular psychology. It's really interesting. Not only because I turned 30, but I have young kids now, and a lot of shit is coming up that I thought I'd never have to confront. Just like any discipline, there's a lot of crap.
"I find it especially interesting because of my interest in evolution, putting our species in perspective. It's interesting to me to see how narrow-minded a lot of the psychological literature is, how it doesn't see mankind as a continuum from the animal kingdom. It totally ignores our instinctive behaviors. We're still 50 percent animal brains, with the same neural reactions animals have.
"I'm also reading a lot of music literature. Since I'm on a leave of absence from the university, I've been really getting into my career. I've been so immersed in academia for ten years, I never really surveyed the kind of writing that goes on about music. There's actually some good stuff. I'm reading this book, Last Train to Memphis, by Peter Guralnick. I'm really interested in American folk music.
"My mom's side of the family is from rural Indiana and every time we'd have a family get-together there would be traditional music playing. The whole family was musical; they grew up around the radio. American traditional old-timey music is my earliest memory. My uncle led the sing-alongs and he was really into Doc Watson, the Delmore Brothers, and Jimmie Rodgers. I guess what was really the strongest influence was my mother's side of the family was very religious. They grew up in the Church of Christ, which is very musically oriented. The stuff that influenced my mom and my uncle were the early traditional guitar players. If you give me a guitar and a pick, I could probably put on an hour-and-a-half show of these old-timey tunes."
As well as being a musician and a scientist, Graffin is also a husband and father of two. Unlike a large portion of the leather-jacketed, mohawked masses, Graffin thinks fatherhood and punk rock are equally important.
"I think I've been able to separate them pretty well. I know I can be a good dad and a good punker. As a husband I think I'm doing a pretty good job too, but you have to be away a lot. I don't think there's a conflict between being a husband and father and writing thought-provoking music that excites people and motivates them. I think punk is in disarray. My son is going to get a lot different view of what punk is than some English kid who grew up with The Exploited."
Along with Ocasek and famed linguist Noam Chomsky, Bad Religion has attracted its share of fans. One of the oldest is perhaps the most famous rock singer in the world--the one who hates being perhaps the most famous rock singer in the world, Eddie Vedder.
"We're friends, and Eddie was a big fan of ours before there was a Pearl Jam. He used to come to shows in San Diego, where he lived." So, is a collaboration out of the question? "It is probably possible. I would like to put together something out of the ordinary, but still really good."
As Graffin would be the first to tell you, punk rock isn't all about being serious and politically committed. Hell, some of it's just plain fun. He doesn't seem to think Bad Religion's serious, studious image is very close to the truth.
"There's been sarcasm all along. The song on The Gray Race, "Come Join Us," is very sarcastic. Actually, we're pretty fun if you look at our videos and see our live show. I guess you got the serious press package. Look at the pictures on the inside of Recipe For Hate and you'll see that we're not all that serious."