The title of the first single from Bad Religion’s new album, “True North,” is unprintable in this newspaper, but the two-word expletive advises one to have sexual relations with oneself. Because this is a punk-rock record, the title line is belted out with considerable gusto, chased through the 2-minute, 14-second song by a sprinting wolf pack of guitars. And yet, because this is Bad Religion, one of the smartest punk bands since their founding in 1979, the lyrics are not at all what you might expect.
Greg Graffin, the California sextet’s lead singer, expresses some sympathy for the need to vent; sometimes a rude retort “is the most satisfying sound.” But he also points out that this well-worn phrase won’t solve any problems; it’s just “the easiest thing to do,” because “it takes no thought at all.” In fact, rely on the phrase too much, and “your friends might not want you around.” Bad Religion, famous for challenging unthinking behavior in mainstream society, is just as willing to confront the same in the punk community.
“It’s a perfect punk-rock title,” says Graffin, 48, “but the song questions that Pavlovian response. One of our great thematic traditions in Bad Religion has been to question human nature. It can make you feel good to go through with those knee-jerk things, and sometimes it’s even justified. But that kind of reaction to frustration almost never leads to an intellectual understanding, so it’s not fully satisfying. And it’s been an objective of mine since I started writing songs to include both intellect and energy.”
There’s no lack of either on “True North,” which has become the first Bad Religion album, after 20 previous tries, to crack Billboard’s Top 30 albums chart, peaking at No. 19. Only one of the 16 high-speed songs tops three minutes, and seven are shorter than two minutes. But within those short bursts of adrenaline, Graffin and his co-writer, Brett Gurewitz, question their listeners’ assumptions again and again.
A song such as “Past Is Dead” sounds like another punk-rock anthem about seizing the moment. But again the lyrics subvert the title, this time suggesting that “instant gratification” is designed by the ruling class to create “intellectual poverty.” Another song points out that everyone believes that what’s “In Their Hearts Is Right,” whether they’re religious fundamentalists or punk anarchists. Perhaps some realistic skepticism is called for on all sides.
It was the band’s celebration of rationality that earned Bad Religion an invitation to join such fellow nonbelievers as Richard Dawkins, Tim Minchin and Adam Savage at the Reason Rally on the Mall a year ago this month. As he sang the national anthem, Graffin was flanked by U.S. armed forces veterans who disproved the notion that there are no atheists in a foxhole. In an entertainment industry where atheists are more closeted than gays, Graffin has long been blunt about his secularism.
“I don’t mind if other people call me an atheist,” Graffin says, “but I call myself a naturalist. Atheism doesn’t tell you much about what I do believe in; the term naturalist opens up the discussion better. I want to believe that we can live in a rational society, just as our enlightened forefathers hoped, but as you look around you see just as much evidence that our policy decisions are based more on emotions than rationality. The more we can further science education, the more we can move toward rationality.”
Graffin believes this so much that he earned a doctorate degree in zoology while simultaneously leading a successful punk-rock band and now spends every fall semester as a lecturer on evolution at his alma mater, Cornell University. Gurewitz — Graffin’s buddy since they were teens and co-founder of Bad Religion — took another path: He founded and still runs Epitaph Records, one of the most successful businesses to come out of the punk movement. Graffin says he thinks these outside interests have allowed Bad Religion to endure while so many other bands have shattered.
“We’re kind of like brothers in the band, because we’ve known each other since high school,” Graffin says. “So we’re like family. But if you think about it, you don’t have to live with your family all year long as an adult; you only see them a few times a year. We’ve all done other things as adults outside the band. It’s these sidelines to Bad Religion that makes us more productive when we get back together. They also give us more ideas for songwriting. When you have gatherings as a family, it goes well because you have these other projects to talk about. A lot of bands self-destruct because they feel they have to live in a group house and go through thick and thin together.”
The band will appear at a sold-out show Friday at the 9:30 Club. The current Bad Religion lineup includes Graffin, Gurewitz, founding bassist Jay Bentley, Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson, drummer Brooks Wackerman and Washington’s own Brian Baker, the legendary Minor Threat guitarist.
Gurewitz has become “the Brian Wilson of the band,” according to Graffin, meaning that like the reclusive Beach Boy, Gurewitz writes songs and records for the band but hardly ever tours. Yet the give-and-take between Graffin and Gurewitz has been essential to the band’s revival since the 1995-2000 down period when Bad Religion recorded for Atlantic Records and the two partners stopped writing together. Their renewed collaboration has allowed the group to once again explore the paradoxes of our everyday life — even within the favorite expletive of adolescent boys everywhere.
Himes is a freelance writer.
From “True North”:
“In Their Hearts Is Right”
“Past Is Dead”
From “The Dissent of Man”:
“Meeting of the Minds”
“Pride and the Pallor”
From “Against the Grain”:
“21st Century (Digital Boy)”