DS Interview: Brian Baker on Bad Religion’s “Battle of the Centuries” tour and his place in the punk history books

So it’s sometime in the waning days of 1979. Somewhere in Los Angeles, a group of high school kids get together and, inspired by a love for loud, fast music and pissing people off, they do something that has happened a million times over in the years before and since; they start a band. Their sound and their anti-authoritarian message inspire a legion of similarly disenfranchised youth, and a movement was born. In spite of more than their fair share of lineup changes (and a temporary early hiatus), said band continues to inspire and provoke audiences well into their fourth decade together.

Around the same time at a high school 2700 miles away in our nation’s capital, a similarly-minded four-piece inspired by a knack for being outspoken about similar causes. That band’s star burns out in a few years, but not before leaving a legacy as one of the most inspirational sounds and messages in the world of DIY punk and hardcore music.

It’s probably no secret that the two bands loosely alluded to above are Bad Religion and Minor Threat, respectively. No matter when you first made your way into this scene, odds are pretty good that at some point, you immersed yourself in the catalog of at least one but probably both of those bands (and you probably became at least casually familiar with bands like Dag Nasty along the way).

To follow the career of Brian Baker is to essentially have followed the arc of influential American punk music. Baker was the bassist-turned-rhythm-guitarist-turned-bass-player-again for Minor Threat before their all-too-early demise in 1983. He started Dag Nasty a few years later and after that project (and a couple others) ran its course, Baker rather famously turned down a high-profile touring spot in R.E.M. to join Bad Religion after that band’s founding guitarist and co-songwriter Brett Gurewitz departed in 1994.

Fast-forward more than two decades and Bad Religion remains as vital to the scene as ever. Some of the parts have changed since Baker joined; Gurewitz signed back on in 2001, Brooks Wackerman replaced Bobby Schayer that same year, Mike Dimkich officially took over for long-time guitarist Greg Hetson last year. Now in the latter part of their fourth decade, however, the band seems to show no real signs of slowing down. They’re about to depart on a US tour that features a handful of dates being billed as “Battle of the Centuries” shows. In certain locations like Boston, New York, Denver and Berlin, Bad Religion will play back-to-back nights in the same venue. Night #1 will feature a setlist comprised of songs from 1980 to 2000, while Night #2 will feature a setlist comprised solely of songs from 2000 and forward. Dying Scene had the privilege of catching up with Brian Baker to discuss the “Battle of the Centuries” shows and his roles not only in Bad Religion itself for the last twenty-one years, but the punk scene in general over the last 35. Head below to check out our conversation, and check out Bad Religion’s tour dates here.


Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Thanks for agreeing to talk to us, just before you guys head out on tour. This is something that I’ve been looking forward to doing for a long time. I’m sure you get it a lot, but I’ve been a fan of your work specifically for as long as I’ve been in to punk music, so I consider this an honor, so thank you!

Well, I assure you, I appreciate it, but I still don’t have that kind of perspective. This is a high school band that got popular! (*both laugh*) I don’t really think of it that way, but thanks!

Well, I wonder about that: as somebody who has been in scene not only with Bad Religion but with a lot of other important bands over the years, I wonder sort of when you get to that point where you realize that this has been a really long, important run. Are you able to put any sort of perspective on it like that?

You know, actually, it’s come around in the last few years. I think it’s probably been prompted…there have been a lot of movies made and I’ve been doing a lot more interviews that are all-encompassing, and that’s actually caused me to sit back and really just become incredibly grateful. And I’m really lucky that I went to the right high school! (*both laugh*) Had I not, none of this would have happened! I’m incredibly proud of the legacy, and I’m really happy that people still think it’s cool. I really think I have reached an appreciation of that much more recently. I spent a lot of time…just kinda like when you’ve got your head down shoveling and not really seeing what you’re clearing…to use a snow reference since I’m in Washington D.C. …

I’m in Boston, so I totally get it!

Even better! So you know exactly what I’m talking about. Occasionally I’d use a chair or a cone to save my parking space, but in general I just was trying to get the job done! (*both laugh*)

Right! To start off, you just celebrated a birthday, right?

Yes!

And this is the big 5-0, is that correct?

It is the big 5-0, yes.

Happy belated birthday! Are you one of those that growing up, particularly in this scene, that you’d make it to 50, or were you of the “live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse” type early on?

I was a little less…I projected fifty, but for some reason when I was little, it always involved center parted hair and a moustache! I know it’s strange, but that image was always in my head. Now that I’m here and I don’t have either of those things… (*both laugh*). I’m age appropriate! I wouldn’t go back in time, I think 50 is cool, it’s fun.

There seem to be a lot more people in this part of the scene having those milestone birthdays in recent years, either turning 40, or 45, or 50, which to me is pretty cool because I think it was actually Brett (Gurewitz) that had a quote in that “The Other F Word” documentary that said something like “punk wasn’t supposed to get old, but it did, so deal with it!”

Yeah, and it’s totally true. I think it’s great. It speaks to the staying power of this kind of music as well. Not only is it fantastic music, but there’s a tribal aspect to it, especially to those of us that were there at pretty much the start of the American version, I can’t separate myself from this social contract. To this day. I think that just speaks to how powerful this music is.

And it obviously wasn’t the goal of everybody to necessarily be around this long because you don’t think this far forward…

Oh no, that probably the anti-goal! You know, maybe that’s part of it too, that a lot of this was just a happy accident. It wasn’t planned, and it was not contrived. I think that perhaps that is why it worked. You can’t write this kind of thing.

On to the “Battle of the Centuries” shows,… You guys leave for tour in a couple of weeks I guess, but the whole tour isn’t “Battle of the Centuries” shows, correct? It’s sort of a mix of the two?

Yeah. The “Battle of the Centuries” shows are going to be places we’ve been going to for a very long time and that we like very much. I mean, that’s not to say that Santa Cruz, for example, isn’t a place that doesn’t deserve a “Battle of the Centuries” show, mind you, but it’s a special thing that we’re doing in places that we think that people would really dig it. It’s not a “tour,” per se, but we’re picking certain venues where if we can do a couple days in a cool place, we’re going to do it. I just saw one in Berlin…I get my information from the internet first sometimes too…

And it seems like that one in particular, I feel like the tour dates came out a little bit piecemeal, and it seemed like Berlin was right smack in the middle of a bunch of US dates so I actually thought it was a misprint at first.

We do a lot of that. We’re pretty used to it, and it’s really not such a big deal at this point. We hop, skip and jump around because we play all over the world, but a lot of the world really wants to see their live music during that kind of season. Spring and summer, you know? So we spend more time in a plane, but it’s cool. I’ve conquered jetlag at this point! (*both laugh*) It doesn’t really matter.

You guys haven’t really taken any extended breaks in what seems like a long time, as long as I can remember. Is the process still the same when it comes to ramping up to a tour, particularly over a summer? Or has that changed over the years as you guys have grown?

No, we’ve always been pretty consistent. We do pretty much stop working in the fall, usually September or October, because Greg Graffin is usually doing something at some school in some capacity. He has a lot of other pursuits, and he’s an author. So we usually are off the road five months out of the year, but you just don’t notice it because we may do a little one-off, or we may be able to go to South American and do three or four shows in one month during this five months off so it looks like we’re still active. To prepare what we’re doing this year, because we haven’t worked since October, we’re doing what we always do, which is that we get together where the tour is going to start, which in this case is Southern California. And we will rehearse and kind of just mingle for three or four days and freshen things up. And now with the addition of Mike Dimkich, it’s a little more important. Mike doesn’t have the background that we all do, but he’s a fast learner. Especially with these shows, there’s a lot of songs now that we’re playing a lot. It’s not like the old days where we would just pick a set and roll it out like it was a Broadway production. Mike has to know 100 songs, and he probably knows 60, so we’re going to beat at least another 20 in to him! (*both laugh*) Fortunately for him, a lot of them are the same song! (*both laugh*) That could either make it more difficult or less, it really depends on how you see it! (*laughs*)

And I suppose you could theoretically fake it for a minute-and-a-half if you don’t know that song in particular.

Right! As long as you know what key it’s in, you can pick slide your way out of something. Just “Ah!”…make sure you’re doing all the “Ahs!” (*both laugh*) and don’t worry about the rest of it.

Who came up with the whole “Battle of the Centuries” idea? Is this a new thing for between albums, or is this an idea that’s been kicking around for a while?

Jay (Bentley) came up with the idea but it was kind of a direct response to us really not wanting to go out and tour an album. That whole “come see us play our early good record in its entirety” schtick was kind of as old to us as the “reunion tour” schtick. And we have the advantage of having been active and hopefully viable for such a long time that we can hopefully actually kinda do this. There are a lot of people who just got into the band during Process Of Belief, and this is our way to be able to do something a little bit special. We don’t have a record out, but we want to get back out on the road and play guitars. Because it’s fun, it’s what we do. So it’s neat. And still, within this structure, the songs aren’t going to be the same every night anyway. So “Battle of the Centuries” isn’t going to be just a core list.

See, I wondered about that; if you would have a “night one” and a “night two” setlist, or if you’re going to, I don’t want to say reinvent them each night, but to pick really anything from those centuries each night.

What we’re going to do is pick different songs from those centuries each night.

Wow!

Yeah, so Boston’s Night 2 will not be the same as New York’s Night 2. In 2013, we looked at what we had been doing for a long time and made a big readjustment and one of those things which, if you follow us closely and I hope you do…

I do, yeah!

We’ve been really, really intent on playing different sets every night. We write them just before we go on, Jay posts them on the internet, and it’s made it so much more fun for us. I mean, I’m working. We’ll say “okay, we’re going to play ‘Automatic Man’ tonight” and I’ll think “last time I played that was in 1998…how does that start?” (*both laugh*) We’ve been doing that at our normal shows, so that ethic is still going to apply to “Battle of the Centuries,” and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s a challenge and it’s just cool! I mean, I was a fan of this band before I was in it, so it’s still, like “wow, I get to play this song that I used to listen to when I was in my car on the way to my crappy job!”

(*both laugh*) Right!

It’s awesome!

That’s one of the things I wanted to talk about. How long did it take for you to get to a place where you sort of took ownership of the pre-Gray Race material. Did it feel for a while like you were covering those songs, and then does that change at some point once you’ve been in the band for…five years, ten years, twenty years at this point…

Yeah, I mean, initially it did feel like that, but I think after about probably five years. Five years or so is when it really kind of became my thing. And that, coincidentally, is the longest that I had been in any band at that point, so when I crossed that mark, it just started to feel really natural. And now it certainly does as I’m in my twenty-first-fucking-year in Bad-fucking-Religion!

You know, and this might sound bad, but I was talking to another friend who, he and I both are on the downhill side of our mid-thirties now, and we were talking the other day about how A) awesome it is that Dying Scene gets to talk to a guy like Brian Baker and B) how it seems sometimes like Brian Baker is still the new guy in Bad Religion, and how totally fucked up that is because it’s been twenty-one years! Like, the band has had Brian Baker in it for longer than it didn’t! (*both laugh*) And yet, I still vividly remember that there was I think a Guitar World article that came out around the time of The Gray Race. I had been a fan of Bad Religion before that, and I tried finding reference to that article on the internet in doing research for this interview and I couldn’t find it, so maybe I’m totally making this up, but I swear the article came out just before The Gray Race and it talked about the album and your joining the band. I don’t know if that sounds familiar at all…

It’s possible…

And I remember it making specific reference to the solo in “10 in 2010.” I think I was probably 16 or 17 when that album came out, and I was still getting into playing guitar. And I remember physically putting the guitar down when I heard the solo they were talking about in “10 in 2010” and thinking, “whoa…Bad Religion is going to be just fine with “the new guy!”

Exactly! I think I do remember what you’re talking about. I remember being interviewed about that solo, and I remember letting whoever it was know that there was no wah-wah pedal on it. It just came out that way, it was about the weirdness of how that one-off thing came about…it sounds like it’s got a wah or a filter on it, but it doesn’t. It’s just fumble-fingers! (*both laugh*) And I’m proud to say that I’ve essentially been playing the exact same solo in every single song for twenty-one years! (*both laugh*) If you learn that, you’ve got the whoooole catalog!

Well like I said, I put the guitar down for at that point because, you know, you get a new album and you put it on and you pick up the guitar and noodle along with the album and try to figure out what’s going on. And I got to that solo in “10 in 2010” and I just put the old guitar I had down and said “well, okay, this isn’t going to happen…”

(*laughs*) Oh, it’s just a solo. Everyone likes the singing. Solos are just a place for the singer to take a breath, as a famous quote says.

Well, right. But as someone who plays at least a little guitar, and who grew up with parents that were fans of classic rock, I had an appreciation for a well-placed guitar solo. And there isn’t always a lot of that in the punk world, so to have somebody in a punk band who could solo his ass off is really cool, and it’s not something we see a lot of, certainly over the last five or ten years of modern punk rock.

Yeah, I don’t know what “modern punk rock” is. As soon as the (imitates scream Cookie Monster vocals, to a T, I might add) became punk rock, I didn’t know what to do. I realized it was not for me and I should just go listen to my Clash records.

And truthfully, that’s a lot of why Dying Scene started, or at least why I started writing for the site, because a few of us were sort of blessed to come of age in what I think is like the second Golden Age of American punk in the early 90s. And then it changed at some point and stopped being something I could recognize.

I wish I knew what modern punk rock really was, to try to be able to critique the guitar playing. And I’m cool with that. I was a Captain Sensible fan and an Ace Frehley fan. So everything that you’re hearing in my guitar playing is exactly a combination of Captain Sensible and Ace Frehley! (*both laugh*)

(we sidetracked in talking about The New America for a bit, and pick up with a related note about music critiquing)

The mystery to me is that the (Bad Religion) records all sell pretty much the same. And everyone has their own favorites, and I think it has a lot to do with…when I’m critiquing something that we’ve done, I’m listening to the guitar. And I have to remind myself that one of the real key elements to this band is the lyrical content. And if you’re looking at just lyrical content alone, I think that each record has all kinds of bright spots. So just because I don’t like a solo in a certain song, doesn’t mean it’s a bad song!

Does anybody keep track of what songs you’ve played night in and night out so that you can pull out something really obscure from time to time? I know that some bands have a database, and I know that Bad Religion obviously has a huge and loyal following but I’ve never stumbled across a place where someone keeps track of, say, how frequently you might play a certain song.

There’s not really a specific database using some sort of algorithm, but the Bad Religion page, www.thebrpage.net, has a lot of enthusiasts who have kept a pretty good record of what’s going on, and you can find a lot of setlists. In our case, basically, we know that when we’re going to play for ninety minutes, there are going to be songs that we just have to play because we’re not insane. There are core songs that really should be played, so if we’re playing 30 songs, each night we have the liberty to mess around with probably half or them. Or maybe ten, something like that. That’s where the switch comes. Because you have to remember that a lot of people still come to see Bad Religion for the first time, every time. And I think there are a lot of people who probably would be disappointed if we didn’t play “No Control.” I would be disappointed, because I loved that song since it was D.O.A.’s “The Prisoner”! So we have to be conscious of that, and I feel like we owe that to people. But we can definitely mix it up enough to keep things interesting for everybody who has seen us a number of times, like me!

I suppose I can’t wrap my head around the fact that there are still people seeing Bad Religion for the first time and just getting in to your music. Which I guess speaks to the longevity of the music and that the message is still vital to a younger crowd. I think the last time I saw you guys was last summer’s tour with The Vandals and Pennywise and Offspring, and there were a fair amount of younger fans who seemed to know a lot of material from every band. I’m glad that that still happens.

I am incredibly glad that that still happens, and I think that it also speaks to the fact that Brett and Greg write really good songs. We’re not just releasing records to make a new t-shirt. This is still a genuine expression from these guys that love to do this. So that’s part of it. We’re not really out there doing a retrospective; we’re still producing things that people really, really like and we try to keep moving with that. It’s a very good position to be in.

Is Brett doing any of the “Battle of the Centuries” shows? I guess I don’t really know how that arrangement works?

I don’t think so, but I don’t know. There’s always equipment on the truck and whenever Brett can show up, he’ll show up.

Does that change what you guys play? Do you have a way you play when Brett’s there versus when he’s not?

The only thing I do is that…there are a couple of signature Brett solos that I normally do, and I will give him “the look” when one is coming up, and he will either nod his head or shake his head.

Oh, interesting!

Yeah. I mean, Brett wrote half the songs and he knows how they go! And the other things is that there are certain things that he really likes to sing, so I’ll back off and let him take them. Because basically, I’m just ‘doing Brett.” So when Brett’s there, I let Brett do Brett! (*both laugh*) And then I just do whatever I do! Whatever that is?!

Has that lead to weirdness at all over the years? Because like you said, you’re doing Brett’s parts, but then Brett’s doing Brett’s parts. Or are you guys both easy-going enough that that stuff isn’t an a big deal?

It isn’t a big deal at all. Brett’s an awesome dude. Most importantly, let’s be clear here; Brett rejoined the band, and I’m still in it. Within that, you accept the situation as it is and I love that he’s in our band and I love when he plays with us. There’s the farthest thing from tension when we’re on stage together.

Yeah, I guess I didn’t mean tension personally so much as creatively and from a performing perspective if there’s a weirdness as to who’s playing what part. But I guess it’s been such a long time now that any of that would have been worked out long ago.

Yeah, and also, with live performance, you’re getting the whole experience of doing it. That’s what’s going on for us. Once you decide what you’re going to do, then you’re experiencing how much fun it is to do it and you’re not thinking about who does what or what goes where. All the homework has been done a long time ago, so all we’re doing is enjoying the results of hard study.


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