Greg Graffin The Exclaim! Questionnaire

Greg Graffin The Exclaim! Questionnaire
What are you up to?
Writing a new Bad Religion record. It’s going very slowly. When you have over 200 songs in your catalogue, you always ask yourself, "Why am I writing another one?” You recognise that you have to write a better one, or at least strive to do better than you’ve done before. With so much work piled up behind you, you have a lot of material to consult and really improve on your craft. And that’s not easy.

What are your current fixations?
One of those guilty pleasures is VH1’s new show Supergroup. I’m fixated on it because I know most of those people. I don’t know Ted Nugent, but the other guys are all friends of ours, and I just don’t want to end up being asked to be on a VH1 show like that. I recognise that it’s hard to age gracefully in rock’n’roll.

Why do you live where you do?
I spend a lot of time in two cities. I have place in L.A. and a place here in upstate New York. The time I spend in New York is where my family is, and it’s a real escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. When I came here, that’s what I was seeking and I really enjoy it. It’s quiet, no one cares who Bad Religion is, and I can really enjoy my private life and my family life. Of course L.A. is sort of the headquarters of my professional life, musically and to some degree academically, although where I live in upstate New York is where Cornell University is, in Ithaca, New York. That’s another centre of academic life. But I love L.A. I don’t like driving there, but it’s where I spent a lot of my middle life — my teenage years. That’s obviously made me feel a kinship. I have such a great network of friends out there. It’s also the centre of my musical identity. I spend a lot of time in L.A. because it keeps me in touch with my musical identity.

Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
When I really think about mind-altering, I think about thought provoking. That’s the most familiar kind of alteration of the mind. I don’t take hallucinogenic drugs or anything. I guess some of my friends would refer to certain types of bongs as a mind-altering work of art, but for me it’s more the thought-provoking variety. There are a number of great books that I consider mind-altering works of art. E. O. Wilson’s Consilience is one of them, even though most people would consider it science. I think of it as a piece of art. It’s based soundly on scientific principals, but it has all the creativity of a fine piece of art. I’m trying to think of another mind-altering piece of art… You’d think it would be some painting. I’m very impressed by painting but it doesn’t make me think that much.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
There was this show called the Inland Invasion in Los Angeles, and we were playing with a number of other bands. There were something like 60 or 75 thousand people there. It was just huge, and it was all punks. It was only three years ago. We were up pretty close to the top of the billing, and it was a spectacle, that’s for sure. I’ve played in front of crowds that large before, but never with such enthusiasm. And never where there was such a feeling of belonging, because it was a hometown crowd. It was an eye-opening and very special evening.

What have been your career highs and lows?
I don’t take the word career that seriously. I don’t think of music as a career. It’s a privilege. I’ve been very lucky to be able to play it for so long professionally, but I’ve also had a lot of activity in academia, so I’d consider that a career also, even though I don’t make my bread from it. One of my career highs had to be my PhD, because it was an achievement that I actually questioned myself about and I wasn’t even sure I could get it. When I did get it, it was a real high point. Academic lows would be when I got a D-minus in physics. I don’t take my career lows very seriously. A career low in music might have been in 1983 when we released Into The Unknown. I really don’t take them very seriously.

What’s the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
It usually doesn’t register as mean because if it’s clever, I usually chuckle because it registers more as funny. A lot of times people will try to be mean, but they don’t realise that I’m laughing at them. One time when we were on tour, after a gig, some guy criticised us because we were on a tour bus. He said, "Nice van!” and it just didn’t register. He was trying to be mean and imply that a band of the punk variety should not be in a tour bus, they should be in a van. He was criticising us, and me particularly, for driving in a tour bus. I think I said, "You should have your eyes examined, because that’s not a van,” and he just went on ranting.

What should everyone shut up about?
How about the new democracy in Iraq? I’ve very tired of the headlines, and it doesn’t seem like something anyone is paying any attention to and we all know it’s a scam anyways.

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I’m neither a narcissist nor a self-loather, so it’s hard for me to qualify or characterise either of those. I don’t particularly like anything about myself, that’s why I’m always trying to improve it. By that same token, I can accept most of the things about myself, so there’s nothing I hate about myself.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?
You’ve just ventured in the realm of regret! I don’t have any. I don’t live with regret. I really can’t think of any. That doesn’t mean that I’ve succeeded in everything. I’ve been a tremendous failure in many things, but it wasn’t because I didn’t heed the advice of someone else. It was probably because no advice was given.

What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Let’s start with the bed. General criticism of character. Or technique. I think it’s safe to say that that’s worthy. Criticism of character or technique in bed or band. That’s worthy of getting kicked out.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I play in a hockey league every winter, so I obviously think about hockey first. Secondly, I think of natural resources and outdoor life, because I’m an avid backpacker. Then I think of my youth in Wisconsin, because all my friends are still in Wisconsin, and they all say "eh” just like people in Canada. I have generally good, warm thoughts about the people because I grew up with that kind of a culture. Then, finally, I always have to default on the one negative thing about it, which I do on stage a lot also, and that is that I can’t help shake the imagery of Canada associated with Celine Dion, and that really bothers me. I think she’s really from another planet, but she keeps talking about Canada.

What is your vital daily ritual?
Coffee at four p.m. That’s really vital to my well-being. I’m an addict, but a functioning one. If I don’t have that coffee blast in the last afternoon — and I don’t drink it for breakfast or anything, I just need that last afternoon pick-me-up, and that will get me through to midnight. I’m actually pretty productive for 16 hours a day, but my mind shuts down without it.

What are your feelings on piracy, internet or otherwise?
I think for a piece of art to be shared is a great thing, if it’s a good piece of art. But to claim it as your own is of low character. I don’t like people who steal things and claim to have done something new or unique or in any way noble or honourable. At the same time, sharing art is a great thing. I guess I distinguish the sharing of it as a kid would do when he downloads something on the internet, than an artist who steals a riff or a part of a song from another artist and claims it as his own. I think that’s much more of an error, and much more evidence of a low character.

What was your most memorable day job?
What’s that?

How do you spoil yourself?
I really feel terrible if I don’t create something every day of my life. You’d think I would say, "I treat myself to a facial and spa,” but the truth is I can’t sit still if I’m in spa or getting a facial, because I’m constantly thinking that I’m not creating anything or not doing anything, so that’s not a treat. A good vacation would be a treat, and that includes adventure travel and outdoor exploration. But I’ll tell you, nothing feels like a treat more than writing a great song. And that only comes once a while of the many days that I try. It only happens sporadically.

If I wasn’t playing music I would be…
That’s easy for me. I’d do it in my spare time, and I would be studying palaeontology. I’d be on digs.

What do you fear most?
Ignorance. I’m not generally a fearful person, but I guess there’s a secret fear in me that I should be afraid of more things that I am.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
I guess I’ll pass on that one. It’s possibly incriminating.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
I immediately thought of meeting someone else, but I’ve had some weird situations where people have come up to me as well. I guess one personal one that was really weird was when I was at Six Flags, which is a roller coaster park in California. I was with my kids, and we had an odd number in our party so my kids went with their friends and I was by myself. And it just so happened that the girl I sat next to said, "You look so much like my favourite singer,” but she had no idea it was me. I didn’t say anything, but my kids did. They were so tickled by it. One really strange celebrity encounter I had was one summer in Colorado. I was doing fieldwork in palaeontology when I was college, and I went to a fourth of July parade in Aspen, because it was the closest town from the mountain field site that I was researching. So I took a weekend vacation down from the mountain and went into town, and this parade was going on. And I was just enjoying the festivities, when I bumped into someone on the street, and it was Stephen Hawking. I didn’t realise it at the time, but there was a science convention going on somewhere. He was definitely a celebrity in my book.

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I guess it would be Sir Charles himself, Charles Darwin. Having Charles Darwin would be odd enough, but he was an experimentalist with plants, so I guess I’d serve him some of our new, fancy varieties of sweet corn that weren’t around in the Victorian era. I think he’d be pretty blown away.

What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Calling her more often.

Given the opportunity to choose, how would you like to die?
Fast and clean. There’s no real clean way, is there? Probably guillotine. That’s got to be the fastest, right? It’s not that clean, but it could be pretty tidy.

As one of punk rock’s leading smart guys, Greg Graffin’s new solo release, Cold As Clay, shows all the linguistic skill of his work with full-time punk outfit Bad Religion, with the guitars turned down and the Americana turned way, way up. His second solo release, following 1997’s intimate and deeply personal American Lesion, this newest collection represents another huge departure for the iconic vocalist. Backed by the Weakerthans, the record is steeped in country and western traditions, with enough mandolin, slide guitar, and fiddle to fill out Graffin’s compelling lyrical narratives.

As one of the originators of the fast, melodic punk rock sound associated with Southern California, Graffin has been an active member of the punk community since forming Bad Religion with some of his friends from high school at the age of 15. Now in his early 40s, Graffin’s career has seen him tour the world and influence generations of young punks, not only with his powerful vocal abilities, but his equal dedication to the realm of academia; after majoring in anthropology and geology at the University of California, Graffin went on to earn his PhD in evolutionary palaeontology from Cornell University.