Out of the social upheaval, boredom, and anger of early ‘80s Los Angeles, Bad Religion was born. Widely regarded as one of the founders of the Southern California (SoCal) punk movement, Bad Religion continues to release successful and socially conscious records after all these years. With their recent album, The Process of Belief, and supporting tours, they show no signs of slowing down.Over the years, the group has gone through a number of member changes, but it was in 1994 that the departure of founding guitarist Brett Gurewitz took the biggest toll on the band. Bad Religion was enjoying commercial success with the resurgence of punk and a hit radio single with the song “Infected.” Gurewitz was forced to leave in order to tend to Epitaph Records, the independent label he formed in 1981 for the sole purpose of releasing Bad Religion’s records. Epitaph has grown over the years, however, into one of the biggest independent labels in the world.
Gurewitz has returned for The Process of Belief, and with this came a resurgence of the collaborative and creative energy that the band felt they had been missing in recent years.
“[Brett] looks at it like going to an amusement park,” said guitarist Brian Baker, who is formerly of American hardcore forefathers Minor Threat. “But Brett can’t be here all the time, he’s in California a lot, having — you may have heard of it — a small, independent label to run, but we all have known that was the deal from the start. But, honestly, when Brett’s along, the guitar thing isn’t really that big a deal to him, the guitar is just a tool to him, to write songs, but he never thought of himself as some hot-shit guitarist. So when he’s along, and we all play as a three-guitar thing, he just likes to sit back. Maybe not play as much lead, just pound out the chords, watch the audience, and he’s really just having the time of his life.”
While the make-up of the band may change, the ideology behind it all remains the same. Lead singer Greg Graffin, the core of the songwriting and thematic elements of the band, has remained with Bad Religion for its entire 22-year lifespan. He is the one member who has not either taken time away, or been recruited along the way. He has not been idle by any stretch of the imagination. Graffin has been working towards a PhD in evolutionary biology at Cornell University, as well as completing a masters in geology at UCLA, and recording a solo album.
“As far as the evolutionary biologist goes,” joked Baker, of Graffin, “he does tone it down around the kids. And of course there’s the Reverend.”
Reverend Greg Hetson, that is. Hetson, formerly of SoCal group The Circle Jerks, is not only the group’s third guitarist, but also a certified priest in the Universal Life Church.
“It was pretty much just a joke,” said Hetson. “I picked up a pamphlet from Universal Life that said ‘Be A Minister!’ and I mailed it in. The only real qualification I had was that I could put a 34-cent stamp on a postcard. But it has been kind of fun. I got to marry our tour manager to her husband, so that was cool.”
Rounding out the group are one old and one new member. Bassist Jay Bentley has been around since the beginning, being one of the founding four with Graffin and Gurewitz, while drummer Brooks Wackerman joined the lineup just prior to The Process of Belief, replacing former drummer Bobby Schayer.
But even with all the changes, in the band, as well as the music community and the world, Baker believes that what Bad Religion is about at its core has not changed.
“Well, if you wanted to draw a comparison to when I started in Minor Threat [in the mid-’80s], and now, times have changed, primarily because you have the chance to disperse information to a much larger group of people.
“The message that Bad Religion has been working to put out has not changed, and if you’re just talking spreading the word, they’ve done a very good job of doing that. I mean, even just in my tenure in the band, I’ve played in over 30 countries with these guys, so the word is definitely out there. Touring places like Germany, that’s just something you didn’t do 20 years ago, I mean, that’s something the Beatles did in 1962, and you just didn’t think about it as a real possibility.”
And with the changes in the political and social climate, the world of punk music has changed right along with it, but Baker still believes that there is a place for what punk stands for in the world today.
“Well, punk is no longer ‘dangerous’ for one thing. It’s become cool, it’s no longer stigmatized. Now, some of the coolest kids in high schools are the ones with bleached hair and Pennywise T-shirts, whereas when I was a kid you would be beaten to within an inch of your life for leaving the house wearing a leather jacket.”
The ideas that punk rock was founded on, says Baker, are still alive and well. Unlike the detractors who believe the popularization of punk has taken away its spirit, Baker believes it can only be a good thing.
“As I’ve said, it’s all a matter of accessibility. If you can get a band like a Blink 182, whose members I like very much, or a Green Day, to get the music out there, and to get people listening to this genre and to what we have to say, that’s great.
“I may not own any Blink 182 albums, their music may not be made for me, but that’s not the point. You can look now, and ‘punk’ is a heading in a music store, like ‘jazz,’ and if what I’ve done, and what Bad Religion has done, has been any small part of that, then I’m very proud of that.”