Bad Religion on Punk, God and The Process Of Belief
In this 2002 interview, Brett Gurewitz and Greg Graffin discuss philosophy, belief systems and the 'definitive' Bad Religion album
It's Sunday, and Bad Religion’s songwriting duo, guitarist Brett Gurewitz and lead vocalist Greg Graffin are in town to talk to Metal Hammer about their new album, The Process Of Belief for one day only. The day of rest. Fortunately, we manage to get out of Hammer choir practice this week.
“I think the goal was to create the definitive Bad Religion album,” says Brett. The owner of Epitaph – one of the most successful independent labels ever – may be worth a few quid, but he still looks incongruous in the fussy surroundings of a Mayfair hotel suite, despite fast approaching the age of 40.
“It was a very challenging goal because we’ve been together a long time and made a lot of records. To reunite at this time in our careers, and attempt to make the definitive Bad Religion record, is a big challenge. But that was the point.”
So, after a six-year hiatus on Atlantic Records, Bad Religion are back at their spiritual home of Epitaph Records and the Lennon and McCartney songwriting duo of punk are back together again. What drives that artistic partnership?
“It’s healthy competition,” says Greg with his characteristic impish grin. “When you grow up together, your world views evolve similarly and you tend to gravitate towards similar ideals. We’ve known each other for 22 years.”
That’s why the sleeve of Bad Religion’s first album, How Can Hell Be Any Worse? showed a dystopian downtown Los Angeles in the late-20th century. After meeting in High School, it’s the place where Brett and Greg grew up and melded their ideas: the world’s central pyre of capitalism and faith. Ideologies the band have railed against for the past 20 years.
So it’s ironic that The Process Of Belief – arguably the definitive Bad Religion album – is released mere months after world events that have reversed attitudes in America 20 years and back to that bleak period of ‘Reaganomics’.
“You would think the natural reaction would be that this was caused by religious fanaticism,” says Greg, when I ask if there’s any chance that the events of September 11 could encourage people in the US to think again about faith and religion. “Maybe we should see it as a shortcoming of our own nationalistic or theological loyalties. It teaches me that belief is hard to shake. People tend to cling to their beliefs stronger in times of crisis. Maybe it’s a position of luxury and leisure that allows people not to question anything.”
That polarisation of beliefs is already resulting in more avowed militancy from America’s flag-waving moral majority. Perhaps more distressing for us, the hysteria seems to be leeching into something as relatively insignificant as alternative music. Are the new generation of Christian bands serious, or are they a cynical marketing angle to counter the Satanism of acts like Marilyn Manson and Slipknot?
“The whole concept of Christian music is weird,” says Brett. “If it’s Christian music and rock, isn’t that some kind of form of Gospel? Gospel music is music that celebrates Christ and I’ve heard Gospel groups who rock a lot harder than Creed.”
“60 per cent of the US population believe in divine intervention and 65 per cent believe that Satan is a real person,” expands Greg. “It’s numbers like that where these bands find an audience by saying they’re Christian. It’s part of their marketing.”
Fact is though, Christian teachings still hold some importance for Bad Religion. The influence for their songs come from Biblical stories – plus legends and myths from Ancient Greece. Brett and Greg may not hold any truck with organised religion, but let’s face it, these are stories that have stood the test of time – whether you think they’re fiction or not.
“I don’t have an interest in theology. I’m not religious,” says Brett, who was brought up in a Jewish family but never practised the faith. “But I do have an interest in the great philosophical questions – not to say that I’ve ever found any answers satisfying. When writing songs – whether it’s Greek mythology, the Bible or any other classical works – sometimes it’s a fun writing tool because these stories are archetypal. And archetypal stories tend to be more evocative when you’re writing songs. I guess theology is something I’ve been interested in, but I’m not interested in it from the standpoint of attending services. Why is it that man is so fucked up and these themes continue to occur through history?”
An example of Brett’s influence is Skyscraper from 1993’s Recipe For Hate. The song is based on the Biblical Tower Of Babel story [(Genesis 10.10) where citizens of Babel thought they could ascend to heaven if they built tall buildings. God – supremely pissed with such a venture – invented foreign languages so the Tower’s builders couldn’t communicate with each other].
Similarly, the ultimate redemption song, Sorrow, the cripplingly cathartic highlight of The Process Of Belief, is based upon the Biblical story of Job. An upright god-fearing character, Job was the focus of a bet between God and Satan, when Old Nick bet the man upstairs that he couldn’t find a man so strong that he wouldn’t give up his faith no matter what happened to him. God showed Satan Job, so Satan set out to corrupt Job by raining down misery, famine and plague on him. In other words, Satan got Biblical on his ass. But Job never gave up his faith in God and after much hardship was justly rewarded.
Brett’s lyrics to Sorrow: 'Let me take you to the hurting ground/Where all good men are trampled down/Just to settle a bet that could not be won/Between a prideful father and his vengeful son' – the vengeful son meaning Satan, being as he was created by God, but then cast out of Heaven.
“The easiest way to summarise Sorrow is that it’s very difficult to account for suffering in the world from a theological perspective,” says Brett. “My interpretation of the story of Job is that it doesn’t matter how good you are, the universe doesn’t run on the merit system. In other words, it’s impossible to justify the suffering in the world with the existence of a God. The story of Job is the archetypal sad story. It’s the saddest story ever told, it deals with the biggest question: why is there so much sorrow? Why is there so much pain the world? I wanted to tackle the subject without trivialising it.”
The sadness of the story comes through in both the melody and tone – as well as the lyrics – of the song. So much so, that alternative LA radio station KROQ picked up Sorrow as a post-September 11 anthem for America’s psychological landscape – a full three months before the album’s release.
The irony of a post-September 11 anthem written by a band called Bad Religion isn’t lost on Brett and Greg, although they want to make it clear that they were well finished on the album before September 11 and that they’re not trying to capitalise on tragedy. Brett was actually busy mixing down the finished album while he watched the events of that day unfold on the TV monitor in his Westbeach Studio. The events have no direct influence on The Process Of Belief, but you could be easily mistaken for thinking otherwise – especially with the power, impact, and message of the songs on the album.
“We knew we wanted to make a very strong statement that had a lot of personal weight and personal experience wrapped up in the songs,” says Greg. “We wanted to make a meaningful album and one that spoke to our Humanitarian slant. Because of that, it almost seems like we did write some of the songs after September 11.”
As an MSc graduate and ex-lecturer, Greg’s own beliefs go hand-in-hand with his current study of a PhD in evolution – rather than acceptance of the Bible’s Genesis book. The album title was chosen by Brett from a line of Greg’s lyrics in the track Materialist: 'The process of belief is an elixir when you’re weak'. Look at the rest of the song’s lyrics closely and you’ll realise Materialist is a more of an anti-religious song than anyone like Ozzy or Judas Priest have ever written.
Fortunately for Bad Religion, America’s Christian right wing are more likely to get wound up by a demonic figure plastering themselves and their stage show in all manner of Satanic imagery than a mild-mannered academic from Cornell University and a respected record label boss.
Brett: “Materialist refers to belief in God and the biological process that causes the belief in God. It’s a theory that humans are designed to believe. It’s in our biological make-up. Personally I’m driven to be dissatisfied with the results of my ambition and drive. We chose it for a title because it encapsulates what the band name ‘Bad Religion’ has meant all along: let’s challenge belief systems and not be satisfied with the status quo.”
Conscientious as ever, Brett and Greg are at pains to clarify the true meaning of the song. “It’s not about ‘materialism’ in the sense of shopping,” says Brett “It’s not ‘materialistic’, it’s ‘materialist’, says Greg. We’re not talking about the song Material Girl by Madonna, we’re talking about the philosophical school of ‘materialism’. It states that there isn’t spirituality that exists in the universe, it’s simply a projection of our own minds, so that all that exists in the universe are material properties. That is, atoms and molecules, and any other properties we ascribe to them.”
Still with us?
“Materialism is basically an atheistic philosophy,” says Brett, keen to clarify things again. “As opposed to deism or theism. It could be easily misconstrued though.”
But of course.
“Y’see, materialism is the foundation of a religion called Modernism,” grins Greg, warming to his theme. “And Modernism is actually something that has been suggested as the religion of worshipping capitalism, i.e. being materialistic.”
“I think this is all getting a bit dry,” says Brett. “We don’t want to come off as fuckin’ Descartes or something…”
A bit late for that, we feel. So Poindexter, why do people actually need something to believe in? “I don’t think they do – it’s a biological property of their brain,” says Greg. “Thing is, most people need an institution to provide them for it.”
It’s true; we’re all hard-wired to have something to believe in. It just seems that religion is the easy way out for most people to manage their belief systems. But what’s the alternative?
“There’s a modern school of thought called Humanism,” says Brett. “It’s a Godless belief system but basically says there’s hope for humanity without the need for some kind of divine guiding intelligence – one can still come up with a meaningful system of morals and values. The message of Bad Religion is certainly one of Secular Humanism.”
Secular Humanism has probably been most famously exemplified by controversial author Salman Rushdie and his challenges to religious orthodoxy. His 1988 book The Satanic Verses was banned by the Islamic Faith and a fatwa [Islamic death sentence] was issued upon him by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, forcing Rushdie into hiding for many years. It’s a defiant philosophy – compared to organised religions – where, simply put, people think for themselves. It dates back to ancient Greece and that period’s philosophers and mythology – again, an area where Bad Religion also draw inspiration for songs.
In terms of artistic merit, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to draw a parallel between Rushdie’s incendiary writing and Bad Religion’s explosive songs. On the new album, Prove It sums up the philosophy’s aggressive defiance: 'There’s no such thing as hell/There’s no proof necessary/It’s only in your mind.'
If Secular Humanism is belief in your own destiny and success, such beliefs are apt for Bad Religion at the moment. “It’s important to note that we had to believe in ourselves to make this album,” says Brett. “We had some troubles that we had to overcome.” Brett cites personal differences between himself and bassist Jay Bentley as something he’s had to settle to make The Process Of Belief. And his substance addictions have been well documented over the years. These are the real reasons that caused Brett to leave the band in the first place after they signed to Atlantic. “I was out of my mind most of the time so I didn’t really pay much attention to what was going on,” he admits with a shrug and the look of regret.
Brett recorded one song on BR’s last contractual obligation to Atlantic: 2000’s critically acclaimed The New America. That preceded the reunion of Greg and Brett and helped heal wounds. So: punk rock. Still something to believe in? Is the fact that Bad Religion are seen as the godfathers of SoCal punk – with 1987’s Suffer revitalising the stale late-80s scene in the US – a cross to bear?
“No, it’s a feather in our caps,” says Brett. “Every time I think the scene’s peaked it gets bigger and more widespread. Especially now with the pop-punk groups – and a really vital underground. Punk rock dissent is still alive and well.”
Mainstream punk has its detractors but Brett isn’t one of them. Bad Religion may have been panned for playing with punk pop tarts Blink 182, but they did it all the same. Brett sees punk in the mainstream and underground punk as a parallel: both survive simultaneously without either taking anything away from the other. Kids who are listening to Blink this year will be buying Crass in another few years, he reckons.
“I like punk. And I like pop punk,” he avers. “You can do both well and you can do both poorly. You don’t need to be political to be punk.”
So if you don’t need to be political to be punk, what do you need to be?
“You need to be punk. That’s why it’s called punk.”
What is punk?
“Anyone who needs to ask will never know.”