- Bad and nationwide: Bad Religion (Baker, left) brings the Warped Tour to Cleveland.
There's no band more socially relevant on tour at this exact moment than Bad Religion -- six SoCal dudes with loud guitars, thesaurus-warping lyrics, and enough political malcontent to stun one of Howard Zinn's yaks -- even if the same can't be said of the bill the band comes to town with.
"There's good and bad," Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker says of this year's Warped Tour, which Bad Religion is headlining. "Something Corporate is one of the worst bands I've ever seen in my life. New Found Glory is great. I take it on a band-by-band basis. When I look at punk rock, I'm not looking at the reverence a band's showing toward their elders. I could really give a shit."
As you may have already picked up on, Baker and his bandmates aren't much for mincing words or filing down their political fangs, no matter how long in the tooth they get. For proof, we give you one album (this year's The Process of Belief, the band's best in at least a decade) and one song from that album ("Sorrow").
The Process of Belief had the misfortune of being released -- but not written -- after September 11. For a band that prides itself on up-to-the-moment sociopolitical commentary, this had to be profoundly weird. While Belief carries Bad Religion's activist torch (songs debunking the concept of "destiny," songs blasting American environmental policy), it added nary a word to the only public discourse we were capable of having upon its release.
Except, oddly, for "Sorrow."
Couched in the same songwriting formula Bad Religion has leaned on from the very beginning -- hup-two-three-four bass and drums, melodically distorted guitars, and Greg Graffin's all-crooning, no-screaming sandpaper bark -- the song's lyrics are deliberately corny, particularly coming from such a famously humorless band: "When all soldiers lay their weapons down/When all kings and queens relinquish their crowns/Or when the only true messiah rescues us from ourselves/It's easy to imagine there will be sorrow no more."
Ha-ha. This is Bad Religion's idea of a sarcastic little joke. But when Graffin hits the word "sorrow," the usual Greek chorus of multitracked Gregs harmonizing along, that moment resonates much more powerfully than the band could've ever imagined. It sounds honest, hopeful, sincerely sad.
"That song, it really has absolutely nothing to do with even a fictitious event that could've happened like [September 11]," Baker explains. "The lyrics are way more tongue-in-cheek, if you really take a look at it. But a lot of people have embraced that song, gotten a hopeful message out of it."
Indeed, the world changed drastically as Belief moved from the studio to the streets, but the record somehow only came out stronger.
"Bad Religion has pretty much made an entire career out of questioning the way things have been handled, both by other societies and our society," Baker says. "But we haven't been nihilistic or spent a lot of time shouting, 'Fuck the government.'"
Still, the band remains staunchly confrontational, from its logo (a Christian cross literally crossed out, like the old Ghostbusters icon) to Belief's stronger tunes. Listen to Graffin's furious wordplay, veering between "I'm materialist" and "immaterialist." Dig his global-warming rant on "Kyoto Now!" And listen up as he pounds home the band's durability on "Broken": "Oh yeah/I know I'm not broken/A little cracked/But still I'm not broken."
The melodies hit home, the guitars crack like whips. It's a great record; Baker knows it and knows why.
"It's pretty obvious, the reason why: The time-tested, road-proven songwriting team is back together. I'm not going to make any comparisons to classic songwriting teams, but there's something that happens when they're working together and working against each other that makes the music better."
Oh, that. Bad Religion's no stranger to Richter scale-shattering lineup changes, and guitarist Brett Gurewitz serves as the band's San Andreas Fault. A mainstay since the group's late-'70s inception in California's San Fernando Valley, Gurewitz split after 1994's Stranger Than Fiction, the band's poppy major label debut (actually, Baker was initially hired to replace Gurewitz). Brett, it turned out, had a small, fledgling indie label of his own to run: Epitaph Records. Perhaps you've heard of it.
Bad Religion cut three major label records in Gurewitz's absence -- most notably 1996's Ric Ocasek-produced The Gray Race -- though the eternal flame had died down a little. But the prodigal guitarist rejoined the fray for Belief, and the effect is immediate. The unity and accompanying tension between Gurewitz and Graffin has made the band whole again.
(Small word on that: Your chances of actually seeing Gurewitz onstage here are roughly 1 in 10. He's a busy dude. "Brett is a big band member, but he's not really playin' with us a whole lot," Baker says. "We carry his stuff around, but he only plays about 10 percent of the time.")
Still, that 10 percent has paid Bad Religion many dividends, such as the band's new label: Epitaph, duh. No major label horror stories there. Baker chalks the move up to logic. "If I worked at Epitaph and my boss's band had a song that he wanted on the radio, I'd try pretty hard to get that song on the radio," he says. "Second prize is a set of steak knives."
So where can you hear all this progress? The Warped Tour, of course. Bad Religion is once again a part of summertime's ubiquitous punk carnival, a hugely powerful monolith with Black Flag in its heart, but Mountain Dew in its veins. The commercial-crap-to-inspired-punk ratio is consistently perilous, but Baker ain't kickin' no gift horse in the teeth.
"It really hasn't changed too much at all," he says. "It has gotten larger, but I think it's the best thing in the world, from the standpoint of someone going to see it. What an amazing situation: There's 600 people roaming the country in 35 tour buses. If I were still 15, this would be unbelievable to me. We didn't have this sort of thing when I was listening to punk rock. It was a party in someone's basement whose parents were out of town."
Hmm. Alarmed that Baker sounds like your grandfather? He's not far off, at least in terms of influences. Every young Warped band -- from Anti-Flag to Something Corporate -- owes a debt to Bad Religion, spiritually and melodically. So what if a few Warped bands have ditched Bad Religion's deeply held politics and intellectual worldview? Screw it. "I don't think it's the majority that sits down with these lyrics and analyzes them," Baker says. The mentality's more akin to "We're gonna run in a circle and hit our neighbor.
"I guess it's kind of a shame that people aren't taking everything we do seriously," he says. "I can't give instructions on how people are supposed to react to our music. Just do something you feel good about lyrically and hope that someone gets it. If they don't . . . that's why they made Good Charlotte.
"Good Charlotte sucks, by the way."