Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz Exclusively Interviewed by (International) Noise Conspiracy's Dennis Lyxzén Back To The Beginning
Published Jun 01, 2004The History of Bad Religion: The Exclaim! Timeline
Review of the new album, The Empire Strikes First
Bad Religion: Rocking for the Free World
Brett Gurewitz is the co-founder of L.A.-based Bad Religion, one of America's most enduring and important punk rock bands. Dennis Lyxzén is the leader of fashion-conscious Swedish garage punks the (International) Noise Conspiracy and former vocalist for vanguard prog-core practitioners Refused. Although they hail from different continents and different generations, they are two of the more relevant political voices in contemporary music.
Exclaim! recently secured an exclusive interview with these two icons in advance of the releases of their respective new albums discs that scream for change in the way the world works, starting with a (white) house cleaning in America's capital and their respective bands' appearances on this summer's Warped Tour.
In part one of this hour-long discussion, Lyxzén talks to Gurewitz about the history of L.A. hardcore and the life-changing impact Bad Religion had on a kid from northern Sweden, who after listening to the California band's music, was inspired to pick up the writings of Noam Chomsky and other liberal authors.
For part two of the interview, check out the cover story of Exclaim!'s July issue, which hits the streets in late June.
Brett: Hi, Dennis
Dennis: Hey, what's up, Brett?
Brett: Not much. I hope you understand this is going to be a fluff piece.
Dennis: What is a fluff piece?
Brett: That's where you don't ask me any difficult questions whatsoever and you just talk about how great I am.
Dennis: Oh, okay. We'll see, we'll see.
Brett: I'll do the same for you some day.
Dennis: Okay [laughs]. We've talked a lot before and we've hung out so I want to start form the beginning. What's the first punk show you ever went to?
Brett: That would be the Ramones. I'm not exactly sure what year but I would guess it was 1978 or '79 and it was at the Hollywood Palladium.
Dennis: Who took you?
Brett: I went myself because I had just discovered the Ramones on my own through my local indie record store. There weren't any punks in my school yet but there were a couple of other guys who had just gone punk: my friend Tom Clement and this guy named Jay. They were literally the first two guys and they had the same idea around the same time I did. We got into the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, and I saw they were coming to L.A.
Dennis: When did you start seeing L.A. bands?
Brett: It was right after that. I got my driver's license when I was 16 and I started getting into punk when I was 17. There were no punk shows in the suburbs where I lived but immediately after seeing the Ramones I started going to local punk shows. The first one was the Germs at Flipper's Roller Rink in Hollywood during the last days of roller disco. This particular place was doing poorly so they started booking punk shows on weeknights.
Dennis: I'm just reading the Germs book Lexicon Devil. So you got into the Germs and they were the first wave of L.A. punk bands, right?
Brett: I just got onto the first wave as a kid at the end and I became the second wave.
Dennis: Then the second wave came with Black Flag.
Brett: [Black Flag founder and guitarist] Greg Ginn will argue that with you. He'll say he was part of the first wave but he didn't play the Mass because he wasn't cool enough. Brendan O'Brian, who books the Mass, tells me that's not true [that Flag were part of the first wave] and they have had a big feud over it. I'll compromise because that time I saw the Germs it was with Black Flag. They bridge the gap between the first generation of L.A. punk and the second generation, which was L.A. hardcore. Black Flag were the ones that had a foot in both. I would say the second wave, it was us in the Valley and then the kids from the beach cities like T.S.O.L. and early ones people might not have heard of like the Crowd, Agent Orange, China White, Middle Class. Middle Class were the fastest band around.
Dennis: Their seven-inch was considered, at the time, the fastest hardcore seven-inch.
Brett: Right and I think they're the ones that set the tone for what defined L.A. hardcore. It was the violence of Black Flag with the speed of Middle Class. You had to play fast and you had to be tough, and that's what changes between the first and second generations. The first generation was more about emulating the New Yorkers and the British; it was a little more artsy. There were great bands from that original wave like the Weirdoes but that second generation, which I was part of, is really what defined American hardcore before New York or DC or San Francisco had a scene.
Dennis: In the Germs book, a lot of the original punks blame hardcore for destroying the original punk scene because of all the violence and all the moshing and slam dancing.
Brett: That's true. As Nietzsche would say, "destruction is a creative act." If you ever saw a Darby show, he wasn't exactly Andy Warhol. He was pretty violent in his own way. The original scene was kids experimenting with drugs and homosexuality and going to art school and being interested in existential philosophy. The second wave was just hell bent on destruction.
Dennis: So when did you form Bad Religion?
Brett: It was '80, I guess. Maybe before '80, maybe '79 when we started playing.
Dennis: But you'd been going to shows for a while and getting into the scene?
Dennis: So what was your first show?
Brett: Bad Religion's first show was a party. Some kid's dad had a warehouse out in Pomona and we played this party with Social Distortion. It was there first gig, or one of their first gigs, and it was our first gig.
Dennis: So you formed Bad Religion and started playing. And did you put out your first record by yourself?
Brett: The mythology is that Bad Religion formed and no major label would have them so they put out the record themselves. That's not true. The truth is I didn't even know what a major label was; I didn't know what an indie label was. I was just a kid and this was before any of that started. I just knew that we were a garage band and nobody was going to put out our record. It never even occurred to me to mail it to anybody. I thought no one would want us to have a record except us, you know what I mean?
Dennis: It was different times. All the big punks were on a major label, it wasn't really an issue.
Brett: Right. It wasn't an issue. To me the idea that a real record label would want us was like Star Trek. It would never cross my mind that it could be real; they were real musicians.
Dennis: And you were just a bunch of punks.
Brett: Not only were we punks, Greg was 15 years old, I was 17 and we lived with our moms.
Dennis: So you put it out yourself.
Brett: I put it out myself and basically we were putting it out for our friends.
Dennis: You must have sold a lot of records.
Brett: It sold a lot of records and interestingly, some of the more important critics in music praised us.
Dennis: That record came out in 1980, right?
Brett: Yeah, and the LP came out in 1981.
Dennis: At that time there was a strong L.A. hardcore punk scene.
Brett: It was amazing.
Dennis: And who were the bands you were playing with, who, if you went to a show, would you think was one of the biggest bands?
Brett: For me, the biggest and scariest band was always T.S.O.L. Black Flag or T.S.O.L. But T.S.O.L., people don't realise, were even bigger and tougher and scarier than Black Flag. But my favourites were the Adolescents. They were probably the biggest influence on my style of songwriting. Their self-titled "blue" album and Kids Of The Black Hole.
Dennis: They were really young too, right?
Brett: Yeah, they were our age.
Dennis: So coming from the outsider, what was the deal? I know this is way before punk rock got political and politically correct but just the whole idea of everybody in L.A. calling everyone in San Francisco "faggots."
Brett: What you have to realise is that we had this amazing scene and I don't agree with any kind of sexist comments at all, but it was shocking the difference between the two scenes. We had this intense scene, we had amazing groups who all had a culture and a sound and a scene and a way of dressing; we were thugs. We wore black leather jackets, we wore back boots, we wore bandannas and chains, some people mixed it with war paint and pirate regalia. Some kids dressed like they were out of A Clockwork Orange. It was a very macabre, theatrical, vibrant scene. It had a way of dancing and playing music and dressing. From just an anthropological standpoint, someone should do a study of it because it was pretty amazing. It all came from punk rock but it was a unique thing. When we went up to San Francisco to play, the punks up there would wear leopard skin tights with skinny ties, checkered shoes, have long hair and Devo glasses, and they were pogoing. I'm not exaggerating, they just didn't get it.
Dennis: I understand also with bands like Fear, it was done in a comical sense too.
Brett: The Fear thing started out as shock rock. I don't think they were early neo-conservatives. They were shocking in the way Alice Cooper was trying to be shocking.
Dennis: But San Francisco had a couple of good bands at that time, like the Avengers and the Dead Kennedys.
Brett: The Kennedys were different, they bridge the gap. They had been to England and we considered them part of the first wave. The second wave in San Francisco came later and it was the crustier one. It started happening up there in '83 but in '80, '81, when we went up there, it just wasn't happening.
Dennis: So when did you start touring?
Brett: We never really properly toured. Bad Religion, prior to the Suffer album, never toured nationally and the only band that had toured nationally was Black Flag and they kind of pioneered it. What we had done is we'd borrow the Circle Jerks' van and go anywhere that was within driving distance and we'd do four-day things. We'd go to San Francisco or Phoenix or Tijuana or San Diego.
Dennis: So here's a question I've wanted to ask you forever. Into the Unknown; I found that record on the internet and I think it's awesome. I understand that it was a departure from what you were doing but it also seems like a lot of L.A. bands were really into the new wave goth thing at the time. I just saw Suburbia and the way T.S.O.L. looks and sounds in that movie, it makes sense that Bad Religion were doing the same thing.
Brett: Exactly. You're the only interviewer who's ever caught on to that. Those guys were our friends and they had just gotten a keyboard and done Beneath the Shadows.
Dennis: Yeah and they were wearing puffy shirts and had weird haircuts.
Brett: Totally and I had that haircut too.
Dennis: But people didn't like that record, right?
Brett: No, people hated it. It's the only record that we shipped 10,000 of and had 11,000 returned.
Dennis: I've been talking to you about getting a copy of that record for four years.
Brett: Honestly, I don't have one.
Dennis: Have you ever thought about re-releasing that record?
Brett: No. Personally I don't like it and I don't think the guys in the band like it either.
Dennis: That's a bummer because it's a cool record. It's definitely a product of its time, but it's easy for me to look back at the history of punk rock and say, "that's where they made a mistake" because so many bands out there, their first record is amazing and then they try something different and it just didn't work out.
Brett: A lot of bands never get back on track but luckily we did. Maybe someday I'd re-release it but I have to get a copy of it myself and listen to it again first.
Dennis: I think it's really different; it's a really cool record. Then you did Back to the Known.
Brett: That was the first thing I even engineered. After Into the Unknown, I decided to learn how to be a recording engineer and that's when I started.
Dennis: When was that?
Brett: That was '84 or '85... '84, I think.
Dennis: And was Epitaph a functioning label at that time?
Brett: Yes and no. After Into the Unknown, I got a job with an indie record distributor and importer called Sounds Good. They used to import records from Europe, England mainly, and sell them in the U.S. before they came out here but they also used to distribute indie records. Even though my real job was working for them as a salesman, they let me sign bands and put them out and put the Epitaph logo on them. It's very interesting because many years later I did a band called the Hives, who were a garage band, and they accused me of not being into garage music at one point. I bring that up because at this point in 1985, I started signing a bunch of garage bands when no one else was. I was one of the first guys in the U.S. to do it. At that time I put out the Primates, the Morlocks, Emerge Alive, the Things... records that aren't out any more. I thought garage was going to be the next punk rock. It didn't happen but I made a few cool records. Interestingly to me, the garage thing ended up happening in 2003.
Dennis: Everything comes a round and eventually Into the Unknown will come around and people will love it.
Brett: [Laughs] Yeah, goth-y prog.
Dennis: Then you put out Suffer and No Control and that's when things started to gain momentum?
Brett: I quit my job at Sounds Good and decided to do Epitaph on my own again. That's when we did Suffer.
Dennis: You had almost broken up at this time, right?
Brett: I wasn't in the group at that time. Greg was keeping it going with some other dudes and Hetson was in the band instead of me. That was cool because he played on How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and he was always like family. Around the mid-'80s, the group started getting back together but I wasn't back yet. Then they asked me to come back and write some songs. Suffer was the result of that.
Dennis: And that's when you started touring?
Brett: Yeah, we did our first U.S. tour for Suffer. We were popular in L.A. and New York but it was very tough everywhere else. When we got back, some booking agent said he could get us a tour in Europe if we wanted. And we were like, "Are you serious? No one has ever heard of us in Europe." He said people liked us in Europe after How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and we were like, "really?" So we let this guy book a tour, not knowing at all what to expect, and to our surprise, when we got over there we were big.
Dennis: That's cool. Is that the Along the Way video?
Dennis: So that was the first experience in Europe?
Brett: Yeah. When we landed, the booking agent warned us that groups don't just come from America and expect to be big because they're an American band. He said we'd have some good shows though. The next thing we knew, every single show was sold out ten times over with people in the street. It was insane.
Dennis: And then you did No Control. That's the first Bad Religion record I bought and it seriously blew me away.
Brett: I think it's the best one.
Dennis: It's one of those records I kept listening to for years and I still do. Once in a while I bring it on tour because it's an amazing record.
Brett: Thanks a lot.
Dennis: So then you quit the band, was that after Generator or Recipe for Hate?
Brett: It was actually after Stranger Than Fiction. But I understand why you would think that because Recipe ended up going to Atlantic also. Basically, from '87-'95, we made a record a year and I consider that to be one of our greatest achievements. They're not all equally good but they're all pretty good. It was a very prolific period.
Dennis: Oh, I have to tell you this, when you put out a seven-inch with Noam Chomsky during the first war in Iraq.
Brett: Yah, we were against the first Iraq War...
Dennis: I got that and it had all that info and suggested reading and that's one of the first things that made me super excited about politics.
Brett: Oh wow, that's cool.
Dennis: I was a straight edge kid and a hardcore kid and I was hanging out with the Anarchists but that was the first record that made me excited about reading stuff and in '91 I started reading Chomsky because of that seven-inch and now here I am today the crazed anarchist from Sweden. I was into Dead Kennedys and the Clash and political music but they never made me really want to read books the way that did.
Brett: That for me is what makes it all worth it. You know, people say do you think music can really change the world or do you think music is a force for social change and I think it is. Even if our seven-inch got some guy named Dennis to read a book and then got him to devote his career to making other kids think for themselves and read books, that's a positive force for social change right there.
Dennis: That brings us to the new record. I listened to it last night for the first time and I think it's the best one in a long time.
Brett: Wow, thanks very much.
Dennis: For sure. You've always talked about politics and you have always been that kind of band but it seems like on this one you're stressing it even more. There are a couple of songs about the war and the presidency and things that are going on right now and I think it's cool that you say that but don't you think it's kind of weird that no new bands talk about politics that much.
Brett: Oh please, don't get me started.
Dennis: No please do get started because I'm one of those guys who has been doing this for a long time, I mean talking about politics, but it seems like the only bands talking about politics are the older guys.
Brett: I know man, I just don't understand what's going on today. there are still European bands that do it and European artists from all walks of life, but there's something happening in the U.S., it's this wave of conservatism unlike anything I've experienced in my entire life. It's very, very frightening and it's very, very polarizing and I don't know how you fight something like that because the more I fight it, the more it seems to polarize the kids. Nevertheless I can only act in accordance with my own conscience so I'm going to continue to do everything I can to promote the liberal cause and promote social justice and to promote whatever I can through my art. Not only that but to try and get kids to question authority and question the establishment. It's almost as if...and maybe you can answer this question for me because you were involved more than me in the straight edge movement. That movement to me always seemed like a bizarre form of protest. It seems like it has extended itself to not only are we going to not drink and not take drugs and not be sexist and not be promiscuous but now we're also going to love the Lord and be nationalistic. It's like it's taken the next step.
Dennis: I think the straight edge thing in the '90s was the perfect thing for a lot of people. It was one of those things where you could take a political stand without being political. It suited a lot of people perfectly because they didn't have to take into consideration the big questions about economy and the government or social structure we live under, you can kind of make your own little protest about this or that without having to make the big connections. But then in early 2000 when the anti-globalization movement came about and people started to talk about the economy and how the G8 affected our lives. Then came the backlash with 9/11 and a lot of people after that got really scared to talk about politics. We're out playing shows with the Offspring, and you know me, I don't ever shut up, and people get really, really offended that we talk about politics and the fact that if you elect the president in the United States it's going to affect everyone. People get pissed off and this is at a punk rock show. It doesn't make any sense.
Brett: And you know what's even more confusing is that at a time we were hungering for information and we were enthusiastic about trying to change things and opposing the establishment and we were a movement and so forth. Back then there was no internet and information was hard to come by and you had to dig for it and fight for it, now everything is available to everyone at their fingertips. You can clearly see the Bush war on Iraq is nothing but a war of choice that uses 9/11 as a justification and it's so obvious to everyone who is even willing to invest the smallest amount of effort because anyone with a connection can go to any newswire and get historical information going back three years with great ease and yet it's like the young people in America are putting their heads in the sand.
Dennis: Here's an interesting thing, every time the economy in Sweden gets bad and every time we have a crisis, people buy a lot of candy. It's escapism. The world is in the worst shape it's been in a really long time and there's two ways to go. Either you do like we do and you stand up and get even more outspoken about politics and even more involved or, like you said, you put your head in the sand and treat it as escapism and say it's just music, you shouldn't talk about politics.
Brett: I agree with you that it's escapism but I think it's something a little bit more pernicious than escapism. It's almost like the rise and fall of the Third Reich or something. What causes an entire society to sway toward the conservative end of the spectrum? I know people get up in arms about comparing Bush to Hitler and I actually think there are a lot of interesting similarities, but the fact is, what happens when society takes a swing to the right? What are the ingredients? Xenophobia. Fear. Suspicion. An economic downturn. These are all the things that are happening here. I don't necessarily blame the bands, it's the kids, it's the people. I don't know, man. I know we got off the subject of Bad Religion but...
Dennis: But I think it's an important part of the legacy of Bad Religion. It was always one of talking about politics so I think it's important especially considering the new record is very political and it has a lot of political issues on it.
Brett: And I hope your record will too and someone's got to bear the torch and society will swing back because it's a pendulum. You know, I live near the Sunset Strip and it has always been a reflection of society. In the '60s it was like cops and hippies conflicting with the hippies wearing mini-skirts and having long hair and smoking weed and protesting Vietnam. Then in the '80s it was cops versus punks. It was punk rockers rioting, playing at the Whisky A-Go-Go, spiky hair and possibly protesting the first Gulf War. Now what does it look like? It's a bunch of fucking fashion models and jocks on steroids driving around in Hummers and Hummer limousines, getting drunk and trying to fuck each other and cops conflicting with them just trying to protect property. Basically it's shallow greed and the worship of wealth is what the Sunset Strip is about right now. It's insane, it's what American culture is all about right now. That's the equivalent of candy in Sweden. The escapism here is consumerism, it's vulgar, shallow, superficial consumerism. Hopefully Bad Religion represents the opposite of that.
Dennis: I think you do. Also the Epitaph web site has a lot of political links on it and a lot of stuff that hopefully can inspire people. The worst thing is that bands are afraid of talking about politics because they don't want to alienate their crowd. They want as many people as possible to like their band. But if people that are actually consuming the music or into the scene get interested in politics, then a lot of bans would feel more comfortable talking about politics.
Stuart: What I think is interesting is that for both bands, this is the first time you've put new music out since 9/11. America needs music like the kind your bands produce now more than ever if for nothing else than information and truth. I wonder how the changes in the world that came as a result of that have affected what you do musically.
Brett: The world was changing for the worst for a long time leading up to 9/11 and the U.S. has a lot of culpability in 9/11 and I think a lot of people realize that. It's terrible that 3,000 people died but a lot more people than that have died around the world in causes related to social justice. I think the biggest tragedy is that as a result of it we have this man in power who has surrounded himself with a conservative cabinet, has gone on a mission to replace the judges in the U.S. with conservative judges and has swung this country so far to the right with his Machiavelian use of media. The Bush administration is so sophisticated in its use of the media, they've really created a climate of fear in the U.S. and they're using the politics of fear to swing the country to right and as a result of that we now have a country with an official policy, an official doctrine of preventive war. I won't even call it pre-emptive war because that implies there's a threat. Preventive says there isn't even a threat yet. He's now through the Patriot Act whittling away civil liberties at home. On top of that he now recognizes Israel's right to occupy the West Bank. He's unilaterally abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty, he has gone backward more than any president in history on environmental issues for the world and in the U.S. where I'm an avid mountaineer and an amateur naturalist. 9/11 was a tragedy and no one will apologize for it, but the real tragedy is Bush is using it as an excuse to do all these things that could take 100 years to undo.
Stuart: That really manifests itself in the new record. The anger is more palpable than almost ever before. It's almost like it's 1982 all over again and Ronald Regan is in power.
Brett: Bush is much worse than Regan. I'm not a presidential scholar but I don't think you'll find a worse president in the history of the United States. He's probably one of the worst leaders in the history of world leaders. I just hate the guy.
Dennis: That's amazing, it makes me really happy.
Brett: The point is, though, there's nothing specific about 9/11 because I think we have to get past 9/11 and start dealing with the issues that lead to it.
Stuart: But the anger about the over-reaction of the administration would come through in the themes.
Brett: I don't even think the administration over-reacted, I think they mis-reacted. I mean a war in Iraq because of a terrorism issue? There were no links to terrorism there. What he did was a setback in the war on terrorism. OK, maybe going after Bin Laden in Afghanistan was a reaction but everything else has been a distraction.
Dennis: It's such a disaster too because America is a country that loves to think that everybody likes their way of life but that's not true in the outside world.
Brett: Not anymore.
Dennis: And it just adds fuel to the fire of anti-Americanism.
Brett: And this recent Bush announcement about the West Bank is just going to make it worse, there's no question about it.
Stuart: What about you, Dennis? You're as political as Brett and although you come from a different generation and a different country and probably have a different view of the world, but this new conservatism that Brett's talking about, how does that come through in your new songs.
Dennis: We've always been political but we've tried to be a little more intellectual in our songs. But I would say that the new Noise Conspiracy record is more direct than anything we've ever done. It's much more to the point and serious. That's definitely an effect of the climate in the world.
Stuart: So both bands are doing the Warped Tour this year and it almost seems like there's a bit of a contradiction there. You both talk about the loss of vitality of punk and the loss of political activism and Warped to me has turned into a day camp for poseurs.
Dennis: Here's my take on that. You've got to realize that there's great potential in everything. When I got into punk rock, I was the only kid in my town who was into it and it took me years to find out about this stuff and now there's Hot Topics in the malls which sell punk rock outfits. On the one hand it's so not dangerous, but on the other it shows the potential of a counter culture where people feel like they're outsiders where they're looking for an alternative. In everything there's a potential; people feel they're out of place, people feel there's something wrong and people feel the world is fucked up but the problem lately is that people are taking that energy and anger and directing it toward themselves. A lot of bands fuel that. Me and Brett want to take it and focus and direct it on what's actually wrong with the world. I think the Warped Tour is a good chance to talk about that,
Brett: It's a way for me to express my ideas for 450,000 kids. Yah it pisses me off that the Marines are on the damn thing, but the truth is am I doing more harm by playing the Warped Tour or boycotting it.
Dennis: The other thing is if we don't do it and Bad Religion doesn't do it, there'll be no one there to talk about politics.
Stuart: I guess it goes back to what Brett said about changing one kid's mind who goes out and tells a few others and word spreads.
Brett: There's always trade-offs in life but you do the best you can.
Dennis: You have to compromise something to gain something. We turned it down three years in a row but we though if we're not doing it, it's just shorts and an electric guitar. Here we are, we don't really sound like a punk band anymore but we come from that aesthetic and we come from that background and we want to show that. I think it is a trade off.