Bad Religion: The Rules of the New America

As celebrated guitar teams go, it's not exactly Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, or even Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King. But if you're a devotee of early 80s punk, it's hard to find a modern day axe combination with better punk credentials than Bad Religion's Brian Baker and Greg Hetson. Baker's taut, hyper-speed guitar work helped make the short-lived Minor Threat an underground legend. Hetson's Circle Jerks played a major role in igniting the slam pit wars that grew out of Los Angeles nonpareil hardcore scene two decades ago.

Established in 1980, Bad Religion was also part of L.A.'s dynamic punk movement. Hetson joined the band in 1984 and for a number of years played in both the Circle Jerks and Bad Religion. Baker signed up with the latter group in 1994 when he was asked to replace original member Brett Gurewitz. Dag Nasty and Junkyard were two other semi-noteworthy pre-Religion bands that Baker helped man.

Hetson and Baker have thus far paired up for four Bad Religion albums. The recently released The New America CD features plenty of piled-on electric guitar riffing. Some of the songs are played at a familiar, take-no-prisoners punk pace; other tracks are slower and contain more nuance.

The unsurprisingly topical album is more or less a platform for left-leaning vocalist-founder Greg Graffin to spread his message. Nevertheless, you can't underestimate the roles Baker and Hetson play in delivering those social observations in a loud and resounding manner. As the Clash, the greatest of the political-punk groups, once bellowed: This is a public service announcement with guitar! The idea of a punk rock band celebrating its 20th anniversary probably would have seemed like a weird concept back in 1980 or even 1990?

Baker: Our theory is that the reason it's lasted for 20 years is because nobody thought it was going to last more than 20 minutes. That attitude has pretty much prevailed. As long as you have no expectations, I guess things can continue to go on their own perpetual motion.

Hetson: Getting out of the garage and getting it to a gig and maybe doing San Francisco was pretty much all you expected back in the early days. We never thought further than that. We never set any high expectations. I think that's why we've lasted. We have a good time doing it. Of course, we never expected it to be fun this long. To what degree do you still consider yourselves a punk rock band?

Baker: Personally, I don't consider myself to be a punk rocker, but I'm in a punk rock band. Punk rock is the way you think. It's not about the way you look and not the way you act. It's not necessarily some angry, rebellious subculture where people want to overthrow the government. It's about individual choice and the way you think about the world. Bad Religion will always be a punk rock band because that is the criteria by which we write our lyrics.

Hetson: It is more of an attitude or an outlook on life. But I do think we play punk rock and we have lived what people might consider the stereotypical punk life living as squatters, crazy hair, tattoos. Well, Brian's got tattoos and (bassist) Jay (Bentley) has a couple. I did notice that a number of the new songs still adhere to the old punk tenet: short, fast and furious.

Baker: Well, there's also a signature Bad Religion sound that a lot of other people have identified as punk rock. At least half of every record we do, at least tempo-wise, is able to fit into that description. I don't think there's any danger of anyone thinking that we've gone somewhere that we don't belong. No matter how long you both play in Bad Religion, there are still a lot of people who will remember you best for the Circle Jerks and Minor Threat. Is that a positive or a negative thing to you?

Hetson: It's positive. As long as people are still remembering me it must mean that I have some kind of influence and that I'm viable in the music world. As long as they're thinking of me, I don't care if they're thinking about me in terms of the Circle Jerks or Bad Religion.

Baker: It's entirely positive because Minor Threat and Circle Jerks are great examples of bands that became more popular after they broke up. They're legacy bands. I'm always excited about people who have reverential views of Minor Threat and the Circle Jerks. We don't mind talking about it. It was a great thing. But the thing was, it didn't get important until it wasn't there anymore. Tell me how you?ve both developed as guitar players since those early days in the Circle Jerks and Minor Threat.

Hetson: The way I approach the guitar is the same. I still play really aggressively. But I think I?ve gotten a lot better. When I was 24 or 25 I decided to take some lessons and learn more than just two bar chords and one scale. I started learning other crazy-assed standards like The Girl from Ipanema and This Masquerade. It was fun to whip those out at parties to impress people! Taking lessons has helped me with some of my timing. But stylistically I haven't changed.

Baker: I've been playing guitar since I was eight years old. I had the right kind of left wing media parents who were smart enough on the Christmas of my eighth birthday to supply me with a Beatles songbook and a nylon string guitar, some off brand in case I didn't like it. By the time I was playing guitar in Minor Threat (as a teenager) I had pretty much peaked as far as my ability goes. It's not exactly rocket science to be able to play this kind of music. This is the type of music that you can get better at through experience, but there really isn't a technical watershed. It's about the emotion and expression. It's not about technical skill. After you've been doing this for 20 years it sort of just flies out whether you want it to or not. Punk guitar may be relatively simple to play from a technical standpoint, but it seems there is a trick to playing it in a compelling way, which helps separate the Circle Jerks, Minor Threats and Black Flags of the world from the lesser bands. What is that trick?

Baker: For me the trick is to do things as simply as humanly possible. That's why when I use a bar chord I never use more than three strings at a time. The reason for that is very simple: It's a lot easier to control three strings. If you have six strings waving back and forth you can't get around as fast and as easily. People ask me, Are you always playing a minor chord? No, I just don't happen to have my hand on the fourth string. We don't have that over-saturated, I'm in Pantera sound. Our sound is crisp. It's aggressive, but it's not over-saturated. What makes the two of you a good guitar team?

Baker: A number of things. We're definitely complimentary to one another. Within this punk rock thing there is a subsection. He represents a West Coast style and I represent an East Coast style. The melding of the two is a big thing. The East Coast style tends to be faster. It tends to be a little tighter. Greg is sloppier than I am. But when we are both up at the same time he's filling some air that I don't because I tend to choke up too hard. I would be a better member of Anthrax than Greg Hetson would. He would be a better member of the Ventures than I would. Those things together work really well.

Hetson: It's strange. We kind of have a sense of who's going to do what part. That happened when he first joined the band. Sometimes in playing chord progressions someone plays higher or lower chords. It always seems like we are always naturally doing the opposite of what the other person is doing. We have chemistry that way. Again, the East Coast punk rock style of guitar is a little bit different than the West Coast style. I use more down strokes. On the West Coast, if you're not doing all down strokes you're a pussy. We had to school Brian a little bit on that. It was, No, man you can't do that! You have to be more the Neanderthal with it!? But he has a lot bigger guitar vocabulary than I do. So things clicked pretty quickly between the two of you in terms of your guitar playing?

Hetson: We had known each other since 1981, so we kind of knew what each other's deal was when we started playing together in Bad Religion.

Baker: It went pretty quickly. The first couple of months were a little difficult because I was replacing a rhythm guitar player and within 20 minutes I was the de facto lead guitar player. There was a little tension there. But we're grown ups, so rather than make that into an issue what we do is we approach it like a race team. Whoever is the best driver drives the car. Whoever is the best person putting the tires on in the pit does that. We've been able to find a happy medium where we both get to do what we want to do. So, Brian, you play all the solos?

Baker: I pretty much play them unless he has something that he wants to do that he's mapped out. I'm just better at it. I don't mean it in a technical sense. When we're sitting in a recording studio, I don't write any solos. It just happens. I'm better at hitting it on one try and saving an hour. It's really about time. These records cost a lot of money to make. I actually enjoy the singing more than anything now because I've been playing the guitar all my life. I've only been a backup vocalist since I've been in Bad Religion. When I warm up for a show, I'm warming up my voice. That to me is a challenge. The guitar thing is just an extension of my body at this point. Greg and I have flipped coins to see who would play a solo and the loser would have to play it. Not to demean the instrument, but Bad Religion is a vocal oriented entity. Guitar solos are written into the songs to give Greg (Graffin) time to catch his breath. It's not showoff time for us. We'll usually echo a vocal melody or something in our solos. What's it like working with Greg Graffin, who seems like a person with a lot of strong opinions. Does he give you two much creative leeway as guitarists?

Hetson: He usually sends a demo and has some ideas for guitar overdub stuff. We use some of those ideas if they fit. We fine-tune it. We might say, OK Greg, we understand what you're trying to do. Maybe we can fine tune it and make it sound like a real guitar part.?

Baker: Greg is a full service songwriter. He?s able to play the drums, the bass and the guitar. He also has a relatively sophisticated recording facility in his house. What he will do is write an entire song and then demo it up. He tells us, ?The reason you two guys are in the band is because you can make my `g bar chord to a bar chord? song into something a lot more special. That?s how we do it. When you listen to `The New America? album it?s like a guitar-orchestra. There are so many guitars on that. The original demo could have just been a piano. He?s very easy to work with. He respects our ability. He?s the best singer I?ve ever worked with. I didn?t write anything for this record. But the two previous records I had three or four songs on each of them. There was nothing I wanted more than to have him interpret my songs vocally. He?s better equipped than I am to do that.  

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