ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 2, 1996
By Steve Newton
Who would have guessed that the same punk-rock music that was big in the late ’70s would be all the rage in the middle of the ’90s? Just five years ago, the announcement of a Sex Pistols reunion tour would have been scoffed at, but in ’96 it sounds like a hell of an idea. Not even Greg Graffin—who’s been holding the punk-rock torch high for many years as the singer-songwriter for Bad Religion—could have foretold the resurgence in punk’s popularity.
“I didn’t have that kind of foresight,” quips Graffin, on the phone from a Toronto nightclub. “All I knew was that throughout its history, punk was always given a lot less credit than it deserved. And I knew it was a style of music that always had—because of its populist focus—a lot more potential for recognition than it was getting.”
Graffin’s band has been doing an admirable job of keeping thrashy punk rock in the public eye ever since its 1982 debut release, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?. The band’s latest entry into the punk-rock sweepstakes is The Gray Race, which was produced by former Cars front man Ric Ocasek, whose career Graffin used to follow in the late ’70s.
“I had heard of him back then, before we were a punk band,” says Graffin. “Those first two Cars albums were really influential to me, so it was kind of a thrill havin’ this guy call me about my own songs. We were kinda surprised, and didn’t really think of him as a producer for Bad Religion, but that awkwardness really faded when we got in the studio and realized he knew a lot about us. He was really lucid about the music, and he understood the direction that we were going.”
With Ocasek in tow, the band holed up during October and November of last year at Electric Lady Studios, the historic Greenwich Village location where Jimi Hendrix recorded his wildest music. “It’s sort of got an interesting feeling to it,” says Graffin of the famed studio. “It’s very intimate, and yet it has a good live room, so that allowed us to play all the instruments as if it were almost like a club gig. That’s how we recorded it, all at once.”
The Gray Race marks the recording debut of Washington, D.C., guitarist Brian Baker, who replaces original member Brett Gurewitz. Gurewitz left the band in ’94 to concentrate on the operation of Epitaph Records, which was founded by the group. Baker became acquainted with the Bad Religion members several years ago when one of his former bands, Dag Nasty, released its Four on the Floor album via Epitaph.
“It’s really helped to hone our sound,” says Graffin of Baker’s addition. “He was in a very influential band called Minor Threat, and mixing that style with Bad Religion is like mixing the East Coast punk with the West Coast punk, two slightly different styles that really meld together nicely.”
The precise, slammin’ guitars of Baker and Greg Hetson definitely jell well on The Gray Race, providing a slashing and intense background to Graffin’s foreboding tunes of alienation, decay, and—in the case of “Ten in 2010”—the frightening potential of the population explosion. The latter tune was based on a radio news report Graffin heard about Earth being home to 10 billion people in another 14 years.
“The scariest thing to me is not the absolute number,” says Graffin, “but the actual doubling rate. The fact that our population will double in 15 years means we have reached a very steep part of the population growth curve, and that’s dangerous, ’cause it can be runaway population growth—followed by extinction.”
The Gray Race is loaded with concise blasts of riff-driven social commentary, and among its most compelling tracks is “Punk Rock Song”, which slags any bandwagon-jumping punk-rock wanna-bes trying to cash in on today’s punk craze.
“Punk is not about looking cool,” wrote Graffin in a ’95 issue of Bad Times, the band’s official (and occasional) newsletter. “It is not about being popular. It is a heartfelt movement of relevant music that comes from determined musicians who question the prevailing dogma.”
That said, what would Graffin’s take be on the heavily hyped reunion tour by the Pistols, who scathingly questioned everything from the relevance of Her Majesty the Queen to record companies themselves?
“I think it’s interesting,” he comments. “You know, I hope they go out and really take it seriously, but knowing the Sex Pistols, they’ll probably make a circus out of it.”
Graffin seems more impressed by the underground punk-rock legacy of our town—which is also the current home of Bad Religion bassist Jay Bentley—than he is by the headline-making Queen-bashers of jolly old England.
“You have a great tradition in punk with bands like D.O.A. and the Subhumans,” says the 30-year-old rocker, who brings his band to the Plaza of Nations as part of Music West on Saturday (May 4). “Those are bands that were very influential to us, so we especially love playin’ Vancouver.”