Percolating right below the mainstream
Brian Baker, Bad Religion's guitarist since 1994, discusses the welcome return of the man he replaced, the tracks he doesn't like on the new album and how the elders of Californian punk rock are content to let the newer bands hog the limelight.
Bad Religion have returned. Not that they were really away for any length of time, it's just that some sort of order has returned to the camp. Brett Gurewitz, co-founding member of the band is back, they've returned to Epitaph, the label that loves them best and that they have always called home and their latest album, "The process of belief" is, after a few years of forgettable releases, a fine return to form. Bad Religion also managed to include Ireland in their tour plans this time around with an outstanding show in Dublin's Ambassador Theatre being a fine way to mark their Irish debut. The recently completed English tour was also a resounding success.
Brian Baker, who joined the band as Brett Gurewitz's replacement in 1994, agrees that the band is finally back on the right side of the road. "This record is a lot stronger than the last couple. Bad Religion have a built in following. There are people who come to see us who haven't bought a record since 1988, which is totally cool because I don't think I would have bought a record since 1988, but the live show is really cool, so I would have kept going to see us. Actually, for a lot of these shows, people have only known the new record, which is really interesting."
As regards Brett Gurewitz rejoining the band, Brian, who looks like he could be someone's uncle, but with bleached blonde hair and torn jeans, believes it can only be a good thing. The problems that drove him to quit the group back in 1994 have been tidied up and even though he isn't a constant presence on the tour, due of Epitaph business (he's president of the label), he has been a positive influence.
"The song-writing aspect of it is what's so wonderful. My favourite Bad Religion albums are the ones that Greg and Brett wrote together and there's a certain energy that's there when they're both writing. It makes [Greg] Graffin write better and albums are always much more interesting because they have two specifically different styles. So that aspect of it is great, I'm really into it. Also I like that the guitar player in my band is the president of the record label. It kind of ensures that people might want to do a good job."
So far, Brett has only managed to play ten shows and unfortunately couldn't make it over to Ireland. "He shows up when he can", Brian explains, "but he really does it because it's fun for him. He plays guitar to write music. He doesn't fancy himself as some shit-hot guitar player. The point of him coming up on stage is it's a good time for all of us, not that there's anything different happening in the PA. I mean, he just sort of fumbles around, sings when he feels like it. It's really more for our personal entertainment, than for the audience's. It's not really a liability when he can't make it, because we've been touring in this format for so long we know how to do it."
This album may be a return to form, but that doesn't mean it's perfect, not in Brian's eyes anyway, but when you're in a band that's the way things go. Then, of course, there's all the record label side of things to deal with too "When the record's done, the art stops. From then on it's a marketing experiment that I have nothing to do with, nor do I care about. The important part of this is perfecting the music, and of course, writing and recording it, I don't really care what the single is, or what special offer is being made in HMV or wherever. I don't give a shit about that. Fortunately, at Epitaph, they do care very much and I think those decisions are better left to somebody who does it for a living, because certainly, I don't want somebody from the record label coming down, telling me how to play guitar".
"Why do we even need a single anyway," he continues. "We're not that kind of a band. It's just this expectation in the industry that you're supposed to have this release and then this single with extra tracks. That completely has nothing to do with Bad Religion. Our records are supposed to be taken as a whole, each song is part of a larger concept. Extra tracks are extra 'cause they're shitty and they're not good enough to be album tracks. Why does anyone want to go buy a single with extra tracks anyway? 'Here's one song and a couple of other ones that weren't good enough to make it onto the record. Enjoy'.
"I'm not that kind of person, I don't collect that stuff, I don't care about it. Is 'Broken' representative of the album. No. There are better songs than 'Broken' on the record". Such as? "All of them except… Well, 'Broken' is better than 'Evangeline' and it's better than… This other song that just drives me fucking crazy that we don't play live. I call it 'Chord Orgy'. It's one of Gaffin's songs. It's not 'Materialist'".
So an album gets released and not everyone in the band likes the songs? "I'm one of five people, or six in this case", the guitarist explains, "We're a collective and that's how we do everything. You don't win every battle. I'm just saying personally, as a listener not as a participant, that there are three songs on the record that I don't like and one of them I can't remember the name of, so that tells you how much attention I pay to it". Seeing that I'm obviously surprised by this, Brian 'I hate our own songs' Baker smiles. "It still isn't a bad ratio. Three out of fourteen or fifteen. I mean there are songs I don't like on 'Revolver' and 'Rubber Soul'. That's just the way it is".
So what then would be the perfect album, where every song is a work of genius? "'Appetite for Destruction' by Guns 'n' Roses", is the answer that's given, but only for a moment. "No it's not. 'Rocket Queen's a shit song. See even that record has a bad song on it. Another record that you think every song's good, "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC, but what's the fucking deal with that… there's an awful song on "Highway to Hell". The ninth song." What a perfectionist.
Way, way back in 1994, the Offspring broke punk into the mainstream with their superb, although not perfect, "Smash" album and its hit singles 'Come Out and Play' and 'Self-esteem'. The Offspring's sound was a lot back edgier then and the Bad Religion influence was obvious to anyone who was familiar with both bands. Younger punks making it big using their blueprint didn't really get to the Bad Religion boys though. What it did was something that benefited the punk scene in general. It opened up the minds of a lot of youngsters to a new sound, a sound that they've been delving deeper and deeper into since then.
"We've been getting a lot of twelve and thirteen year old kids lately", Brian explains. "Mostly before that we attracted college kids and guys up to the age we're at. So they'd be taking their wheelchairs. I think it's nice that kids are curious as to where this music came from though. If you like the Offspring and then you wanna see where the sound came from, do a little exploratory work, that's cool, but the goal for us is not to break any new ground. Bad Religion has pretty much been percolating right below the mainstream fro about twenty-two years, and I certainly don't have a problem with that. I think the next level would be uncomfortable".
Unlit Camel in hand, Brian leans back in his chair and I think it's safe top say he's happy with what he's achieved in Bad Religion, whether that means liking every song on the new album or not. "You can't mass market on the level that Blink-182 do the kind of thing that we do. It's not intended to be and I would like to be able to stay here. This level is fine with me."
by Ken McGrath.