This interview took place in Toronto on April 24, 1996, in a noisy green room in a divey nightclub.
Q. Explain, once and for all, how the name Bad Religion relates to your own feelings about religion.
A. Religion is a metaphor as we use it, and therefore it’s not really related to how I feel about religion. Religion we use as a metaphor for any kind of prescriptive dogmatic thinking, and people who espouse that kind of thinking. And I see religion, in the real world, as a good crutch for people, and also as a good way of organizing communities, but I also see it as an authoritarian kind of institution that I also feel creates a lot of suffering among people. And so I guess that’s the link. That’s what Bad Religion usually talks about in our music – this idea that people suffer a lot unnecessarily.
Q. Have you actually been saddled with questions like this for the last 16 years because you picked the name Bad Religion when you were kids?
A. Yes. A lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about the name. The name is not as important as the ideas put into the songs.
Q. And indeed, what you’re saying is true: One of the early precepts of punk is that you "do it yourself" and also think for yourself. But are you finding that ideal harder to live up to now that you are an actual father and you have to, for example, tell your kids what you consider right from wrong, otherwise they’ll get hurt or various other things?
A. No way. I think it’s easier as I become more worldly and adult to think individually and be confident about that individualism, and there’s no inconsistency with having a moral code, with right and wrong, and still thinking individually. To me, they’re just two different levels of thinking. So they’re consistent, and what rubs off on my children, I think, will also show that you can think individually but still know what is right and wrong. I mean, there’s an authoritarian stance that parents have to take, and that’s the one place where I accept authoritarianism – in a family relationship. "Why does it have to be that way?" "Because dad said so." If you don’t have that structure, kids can grow up very confused, so I think that kind of structure is the mold on which morality should be based. Unfortunately, many families ascribe it to some other authoritarian system.
Q. Now, as we know, one of the ironies of growing up and turning a fringe band into a successful band that can sign a contract with Atlantic Records is that you’re constantly being accused of selling out. Frankly, I don’t care about that: Money’s money and a record deal’s a record deal, whether it’s with Epitaph or no.
A. Exactly. I agree with you there.
Q. But another way in which you are consistently dissed online, for example, on the Bad Religion mailing list is for having any kind of proscriptive opinions at all [Greg laughs], not that they can come up with any really solid examples of this that you’ve tried to impose on your adoring fans or anything, but this is one recurring criticism: "They’re sellouts, and they do have proscriptive opinions." Read that Addicted to Noise thing [the review posted on BRML]; they dis you for the same issue.
A. Is that right?
A. Look, some people don’t like to be provoked. Some people don’t like to be asked tough questions. Some people would rather simply conform and walk the easy path. But the easy path is not what’s best for our fellow humans; it’s not what’s best for your interpersonal relationships, and it’s not what’s best for you to grow as an individual. So if you don’t want any of those things, then you should take the easy path and you should probably have nothing to do with Bad Religion, because we can’t comfort you on any level.
Q. Now, I’m going to play devil’s advocate with this question, because in that same Addicted to Noise rant, he complains bitterly that virtually every song Bad Religion has ever made espouses some kind of left-leaning or Liberal political worldview. There’s this aphorism that says "if, when you’re young, you’re not liberal, you’re foolish; if, when you’re old, you’re not conservative, you’re foolish." Have you found that where you stand on the liberal_conservative axis has changed as you’ve grown older, or do you think those terms [don’t] have any meaning anymore?
A. Well, as I became more educated, it is more difficult to be a liberal. But it means you have to elevate your liberalism to a much higher intellectual level than you were when you were a kid. It’s easy when you’re a kid to say "Fuck everything! Accept anything that is a little paranormal!" And when you’re an adult, you’re confronted by a lot more societal pressure to conform, and so you’ve got to elevate your liberalism to, I think, more intellectual pursuits.
Q. Could you give me an example of that?
A. When you’re young, for instance, it’s very simple to accept your group of friends who are taking drugs irresponsibly. And it sounds like a liberal stance to say, "Hey, let them take drugs. Let them do what they want." You start to understand the negative consequences of taking drugs. You start to realize that it affects more than just one person; it affects all the people who love that person as well. And it might, on the surface, appear to be that you’re turning more conservative when you say that you’re against drug use. And in order to still maintain your liberalism, you have to come up with an intellectual explanation for why you’re against it. And it’s usually a lot different than the right-wing view, which is "God didn’t want it that way" or "It’s not American," which is the simple answer of why you’d be against drugs.
Q. But I think in the example you just gave the rationale you’d use for being opposed to drugs is your own experience: You can point to people you know who ODed or lost jobs or something because they were alcoholics or addicted to things.
A. Or how about if you understand the economics of drugs, which I think I have a decent understanding of? It’s very detrimental to the general well-being of the population. It doesn’t help to enrich the middle-class; it keeps the poor people very poor and the rich people very rich. But these are, you know, intellectual pursuits! The guy on the street couldn’t care less, you know, and it almost makes you seem aristocratic to be liberal and adult. And I definitely think that it’s much more populist to be a liberal, and accepting to be a liberal, but you do have to assume that people are educated to explain your liberalism.
Q. Did I read correctly in Alternative Press that one of the reasons why you formed Bad Religion was to find a group of friends who were, for want of a better term, anti-pot? In other words, they were not drug users. You wanted to, in effect, form your own mini-community of that sort of thing? True or false, in broad terms?
A. Yeah. I was 15 years old, though, remember, we’re talking about a different time. I just wrote an article for Details which explains this very thing. We did not form a society from which to exclude others. We formed a society which, hopefully, was inclusive – at that time, at least. We accepted people, and in that sense, it wasn’t a clique. It was just a random assortment of people who didn’t fit in elsewhere, whereas most cliques that form is just that – they are secret societies from which to exclude other people. And you use that as a way to exclude people.
We then get involved in a lengthy aside about my own life, which is between Greg and me.
Q. Exactly what force or event or theme in your life caused you to write "Struck a Nerve"?
A. The birth of my first son. Wait, I only have one son.
Q. He’s still your first.
A. The birth of my four-year-old boy. He was our first. It was just because it was a meaningful time in my life. I started analyzing my life now as someone who is responsible for more than just myself. And there’s an air of hopelessness in the tune.
Q. Yeah, "anomie" and "despair" are words that come up. There aren’t many songs like that. I mean, the entire canon of Morrissey and the Smiths has a lot of those kinds of themes in there. Some people claim that, in Life of Agony, they talk about some of those things. [Greg laughs] If you listen to Life of Agony, they just talk about getting fired and things. This is not in the same sphere at all.
Q. And I have to commend you for this wonderful song which suits me to a T on many occasions. But it doesn’t seem to meld with the other roughly 180 or so songs you have in your discography.
A. But that’s one song on that album. Every album, we try to write at least one or two songs that are on that fringe, you know – to challenge people’s definition of punk, to show that _
Q. This isn’t good-time music, necessarily.
A. To show that there’s some depth, and to use Bad Religion as an outlet.
Q. Now here’s a question. This is not as contrived as it may sound; I actually mean this sincerely. Could you be replaced by a female singer and have Bad Religion still be credible?
A. Be credible?
Q. "Would the songs still work?" is another way of saying it.
A. This is a male-dominated society, no doubt about it, and if there’s any authenticity to our experience that we’re sharing with people, it might be difficult for a woman, unfortunately. I don’t say that with pride; I say it with disappointment, because a lot of it has an authoritative _ not authoritarian, but authoritative – stance, that’s not purely experiential. There’s a lot of it that’s analytical, and unfortunately our culture seems to give more credence to men who are analytical than to women who are analytical. I think they would have a harder time convincing people of the authenticity of the songs.
Q. So you think that if we had a female singer who was just as vocally capable as you are (maybe who didn’t have quite such a gravelly voice) and sang exactly your songs, people would find it jarring?
Q. "Cognitive dissonance," I think, is a word we can use here.
A. Maybe so.
Q. Is it fair to say, and will you hate me forever if I say, that not many of the videos Bad Religion has made stand up to prolonged scrutiny?
A. You mean they’re not good? [Chuckles] I don’t care! Videos, to me, if you criticize our videos, I couldn’t care less.
I then suggest that the band get the hell out of their videos, turning them into mini-films with soundtracks. Greg then extols "the last two, [which], I think, have turned things around": "A Walk" and "Punk-Rock Song" were directed by a friend of theirs who’s a total neophyte. "He understands us, and I think these are the first two videos that have ever captured us." David Bragger is the name, though the spelling is unclear.
Q. How exactly did you get Dan Winters to take
the photos on Stranger Than Fiction?
[For readers who are not photography initiates, Dan Winters is one of the more capable Amerikanski B&W commercial photographers. There are more than a dozen of his photos highlighted as best-of-year in the new American Photography 11 book. I still think Melodie McDaniel is capable of more surprising work – see her video for Porno for Pyros’ "Cursed Female" – but Dan Winters has relatively astounding talent all the same.]
A. He likes Bad Religion.
Q. That will do it. It’s like, the Smithereens got Saul Bass, one of the big Establishment graphic designers, to do the cover of their album Blow Up because Saul Bass’s kids like the Smithereens.
A. Oh, is that how?
Q. In part.
[Actually, the full story, as I wrote in the Smithereens FAQ, is: "Blow Up’s cover was designed by Saul Bass, a dean of American graphic design whose other notable achievements include the opening credits of Psycho and the Minolta and Celanese logos, among many others. Bass agreed to work with the band – a first for him, and definitely a step down in station – after hearing their previous albums and, presumably, after being lobbied by his kids, who were Smithereens fans." Saul Bass died the day after I interviewed Greg. He was 75.]
And that was the end of the interview. I’m hoping this won’t be my last conversation with l’homme Greg.