Years on form their rise on the Los Angeles punk scene, Bad Religion have eventually took the UK by storm with their seventh album ‘Recipe For Hate’, and head-line a small tour that packed venues, with punk of all ages, up and down the country. Pete Daley, 101 punk – year 1, talks to guitarist Greg Hetson.
However, in those years of rising to superstardom the other side of the “pond” – Bad Religion have matured into a melodic outfit, and although their roots are still firmly embedded in the punk style, there is an air of indie/ rock about their material in its present format.
They returned to the States somewhat surprised with the response in the UK, as guitarist Greg Hetson says, “We didn’t think that we were that popular in England. We haven’t had that much press and our records aren’t easily available It was a good surprise.” Greg contacted us from Gainsville (I think that’s how you spell) in Florida, two weeks into a six week tour of North America, to talk about the group, and how they’ve grown over the years. Their earlier material must have given the average British fan an assumption of what to expect when they hit the country to promote their new album.
Recipe for Hate was released on September 21, 1993 and became the last Bad Religion album distributed via Epitaph Records before their return to the label in 2001. The album peaked at number 14 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, marking the band’s highest-ranking album so far. Although no singles for this album were charted, it scored two radio hits, "American Jesus" and "Struck a Nerve", which also earned airplay on MTV.
Punks, old and new, scurried from their hiding places, and donned the rags that had sat in wardrobes for years gathering dust, but what was offered was something not quite expected.
“We’re always been kind of pop orientated,” explains Greg, “It’s just kind of coming up a lot more in our songs lately. What they refer to in Germany as “Melodic Hardcore”. It’s got the vocal melodies and pop structures, but with the energy and attitude of punk”
Greg started out in the field of music with another bunch who were among the founders of the Los Angeles punk movement, and in this issue of Dissident, Redd Kross. “1979, I was seventeen,” says Greg, “Jeff and me were in the same high school together. We met in one of our classes and started talking, and we liked the same type of music, so we just started doing a band”. As simple as that. But, it wasn’t that easy. “People were into Rush and Zeppelin, that kind of stuff, and if you were into anything else, they didn’t like it – the surfer dudes.” But fun, non-the-less, as Greg continued. “A lot of fun because it was all new and we’d do a show and not know what was gonna happen because it wasn’t proper venues, somebody would rent a hall and hopefully the police wouldn’t show up or the person who owned the hall wouldn’t freak out because two or three hundred people with Mohawks and green hair were running around.”
The scene was alive and vigorous. Groups seemed to explode from out of the woodwork. Talent was raw, and it was young. “Some of guys were fifteen, and Brett, I think he was seventeen – so obviously he drove the band around. He had a van, so everything was thrown in the van and he had to drive everybody around. Most of the bands, back then, the late 70’s early 80’s, were very young. The kids in the band were like fifteen, sixteen or seventeen years old, which was quite a contrast to some of the bands that were being pushed on F.M radio or commercial radio. It was just different.”
“There seems to be a lot of political awareness and social awareness…It’s a kind of pendulum that has kind of swung to the “awareness” decade. The same as the early 80’s it was the “yuppies”, right now, it seems like a movement towards taking care of the good “fellow man”. It seems to be a step in the right direction.”
The American punk scene was as much an influence as the British bands that took the country by storm – the Sex Pistols etc. “From about ’79 till ’84 it was very big.” Greg remembers, “A lot of the cities, they had their own scenes. Towns had their own independent labels that were putting out material of their own bands. It was pretty strong. At first they were influenced by the likes of The Ramones and the English stuff, and then bands started touring America like Black Flag and The Circle Jerks – who I used to be in, and the Dead Kennedy’s sort of sprung up”.
Over the years the band have grown in stature and amassed a discography of impeccable choice, although their second album, of which the title I can’t find anywhere, was disowned by the group. “I wasn’t in the band then,” says Greg, as if stating for all and sundry that he had nothing whatsoever to do with it. It couldn’t be that bad surely? “The way I look at it, it was an experiment that failed,” he laughs, then continues, “The music was fine, but just did not fit what Bad Religion’s first album and EP was all about.”
The new stuff, namely Recipe For Hate, is advancement on the experimentation that the group have emphasized over the years and is without, a commercial punk album. Heavily indie with solid rock boundaries, and definitive punk roots although rife with melodies. “We have many varied influences that I guess are coming out more,” says Greg. “We’re more comfortable at playing with different styles and experimenting a bit.” It could well seem, or many could well assume, that Bad Religion are aiming for a wider for a wider market? “Not really,” Greg explains, “We’ve slowly progressed and experimenting with the indie orientated sound, more melodic, different tempos, different chords here and there, which I think is a natural thing. Being together for thirteen years you get a lot better, the song writing becomes a lot more complex and the playing gets better, I don’t think it’s been a conscious effort”. So, sort of “matured over the years, like a vintage whiskey? “Yeah, maturing, that’s a good word, or immaturing. But then again, on the next album we might go back to the 1234, 1234 beat”. Joking, of course.
One of the many fans who used to follow Bad Religion around in the good old days was front man for Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, who appears on two of the tracks, “We played some gigs with Pearl Jam in Germany last year, some festivals, and we started talking – that’s how we found out that Eddie was a fan and used to come to see us all the time. He just happened to be in town at the time we were recording and we gave him call and said “hey, why don’t you come down and maybe sing” and he said, “Okay, but I don’t want to do anything that might ruin the record or bum your fans out” – and we thought, that’s pretty cool, good attitude. We didn’t have anything planned, we just played tracks and came up with some ideas and he sang, pretty spontaneous”. Many groups would emphasize the fat that someone such as Eddie appears on their record, but Bad Religion don’t, basically knowing that the press are going to pick up on it anyway, but ethically, they don’t believe that it is necessary to promote the fact, “I’m sure he wouldn’t want us to do that either,” says Greg, “We’ve got some other friends playing on the album also, a couple of the guy’s from Clawhammer who are on Epitaph Records.”
The two tracks that Eddie features on, doing backing vocals, are “Watch It Die” as well as “American Jesus”, and just emphasizes the group’s – as I’ve mentioned earlier, experimentation. “Watch It Die is basically about people who are trying to be environmentally aware, and trying to save the planet. But it’s just gonna end up burning out anyway. What can you do? It’ just kind of a pessimistic thing, like saying, it’s too late. The damage is done. It comes from Greg’s (Graffin – vocalist and chief song writer) background, his biology and geology stuff”. This sort of went against my assumption that Bad Religion were “political” which certainly, in my view – until recently – came across in their lyric. “We don’t share any political views,” says Greg, “We’re a very observant band. We observe and put out what we see and feel, and you make out of it what you want.” But if you read the lyrics to say “Don’t Prey on Me”, there seems to be a double emphasis on the word “Prey” – hands clasped and looking skywards, and feeding off someone like a leech – to me, that seemed like a political message, bus Greg disagrees. “Every verse on that song is about something different. One is about the L.A riots. One is about the Anti-Abortion movement in the U.S, it’s basically talking about some sort of the problems that’s going on in America.” So, the emphasis seems to be on awareness – “There seems to be a lot of political awareness and social awareness.” Greg elaborates, and seems to have the same outlook on music as myself – if it contains anything political, whatsoever, then it isn’t music – “It’s kind of pendulum that has kind of swung to the “awareness” decade. The same as the early 80’s it was the “yuppies”, right now, it seems like a movement towards taking care of the good “fellow man” it seems to be a step in the right direction”. Maybe, but in other words, Bad Religion are trying to get a message across in their lyrics. “Yeah, open their eyes.” says Greg. “But without preaching, take what you want from it. If someone wants to listen to the record and not even read the lyrics, then that’s fine, as long as they enjoy the music. If they don’t get it, then that’s fine – sometimes I don’t get it.”
This “drawing upon observations” seems a good way to write. And how do they do it? Sitting on a park bench watching life pass them by? Reading newspapers and watching T.V? Maybe – but the vast percentage of it is done through “biology” – amazing. And I thought it was a boring subject when I was at school. If only I’d known. “A lot of it is ordinary life, but most of it is actually, Greg, our singer, goes on about it in a more scientific approach because he teaches at university. He teaches biology so he gets some of the ideas from the stuff that he reads of some of the stuff that he studies” – Amazing.
The title track of the album, Recipe For Hate, is another one – no biology here, or politics – but history. “That ones about the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering America and how people who write history think it’s a good thing. A lot of bad came out of that, that was not taught in schools, especially over there (US). It’s like, Columbus came and he made friends with the Indians and everybody lived happily ever after, but that’s a lot of bullshit. A lot of bollocks.”
Recipe For Hate is literally an impressive album. Diverse in styles from punk to indie to rock, and is awesome live, as was proved on the recent tour of England , as well as the Phoenix Festival where I rated them as one of the top four groups of the whole festival along with Helmet, Die Cheerleader and the God Machine. But Greg didn’t seem to think that they were that impressive. “I don’t think that we had a really good show. It was a really weird sound on stage, but they were having a bad time, but I’m glad some people enjoyed it.” Greg pauses. “I thought Helmet were the best that evening. The Black Crowes were good too I really tried to hate that band but they were really good”. So there you have it, a brief Phoenix review from a man in the know in the two times that I have seen Bad Religion live, they have proved that they are no slouches once they climb onto the stage, and anyone who had seen them would not disagree with that statement.
“We try.” Says Greg. “If it’s a hundred people of a thousand people, we try to win them over because they’ll tell their friends and next time, the crowd should be doubled, hopefully. I think we’re a lot better live than in the studio. I think most good bands are.” Now that’s what I all blowing your own trumpet, Greg realizes his error, “An un-intentional pat on the back.” But well deserved. Anyone who can stay in the music industry and still make records after thirteen years, deserves more than just a pat on the back, especially if they refuse to conform to standards set but many labels. One final question that I had to ask Greg was, there are many groups around that, although they were founded on a punk basis, and might still have punk roots, there are not many outright punk bands around – could he ever see that changing? “It seems that there are a lot of bands that are coming out, and selling tons of records, that were influenced or started with that background – Nirvana and Soul Asylum to name a few But, no, it doesn’t seem like there is. There are some, but they are not getting any attention.” Bad Religion’s album – “Recipe for Hate” is out now – you’ll be impressed.