DS Interview: Greg Graffin on his latest solo effort and new Bad Religion

A couple Fridays ago (March 10th, to be precise) Greg Graffin released a stellar new album, Millport (ANTI- Records). It marks the first time in more than a decade that the Bad Religion frontman has pressed the “pause” button on his punk rock day job in favor of a more traditional, folksy Americana vibe. Millport features not only a core lineup that should seem very familiar to fans of both punk and Americana: Social Distortion‘s Jonny “Two Bags” Wickersham, Brent Harding, and David Hidalgo Jr., but it also includes production credit from Brett Gurewitz, long the musical yin to Graffin’s yang.

While Graffin and his Millport session colleagues rank as some of the most legendary names in punk rock, a project like this allowed them to let go of the traditional constraints of trying to hone a singular sound. “The great thing about this project is that you’re hearing unconstrained love of the songs, and unconstrained love of creating something that we felt was a blend of many genres and therefore something that’s truly creative,” says Graffin, though he quickly points out that none of that is to say that crafting a new Bad Religion album is formulaic; it’s just a different standard. “It’s one of the great challenges as artist is to maintain the tradition of his or her prior work. That’s hard to do. It normally takes (Bad Religion) two years to put out an album. Why has it taken us four year to release an album after True North? Well, True North was such a great album — and we owe it to our fans to take it seriously as a great album — that to do another one is going to take a lot more work.

Graffin and company holed up at California’s Studio 606 and Big Bad Sound for ten days of creating and recording last April, in what he says was basically akin to “hitting record and having a party.” The result is an album that’s the strongest and most cohesive of his solo career, with sounds that range from folk to bluegrass to 70’s rockers that would make Neil Young and Crazy Horse proud. Perhaps the album’s most upbeat singalong is “Time Of Need,” with it’s “Hey Man!” chorus that draws heavily on traditional Gospel hymnals, a bit of a curious decision for someone who’s spent close to four decades fronting a band called Bad Religion. He explains: “One of the greatest things about religion — if it can be said from a guy in Bad Religion — there’s something good about it and it has nothing to do with theology or the philosophy of it, but it has a lot to do with the music. The music is what is handed down through the generations, and punk rock is a kind of roots music now.

Instead of focusing on the lure of paradise and an eternal afterlife, “Time Of Need” places the responsibility for making things better squarely on the shoulders of the listener, and of humanity. “In the old days,” says Graffin, “the Gospels would sing about how hard times were and how God is going to deliver us. What I’m trying to say is that God’s not going to deliver us. We have to be responsible ourselves for this changing environment and changing surroundings. No religion can help this time of need.”

We caught up with Graffin over the phone during a recent late winter blizzard that blanketed much of the Northeast with some of the biggest snow totals of the season. As you might imagine, we talked quite a bit about Graffin and Gurewitz’s long history as collaborators, and just how the solo, Americana projects inspire the two punk rock icons in ways we might not have expected. We also touched on just what the Social D trio brought to the project, and how Graffin hopes to balance solo and Bad Religion material going forward while raising the bar in both areas.

Head below to read our full Q&A!

 

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): Thank you for taking some time on this — I don’t know where you are but I’m currently hunkered down in a blizzard just north of Boston — day to chat with Dying Scene.

Greg Graffin: No problem. I came back from my show in Los Angeles to upstate New York, so I’m in the same blizzard.

It’s kind of inspiring in a weird way. I haven’t seen it snow as hard as it is right now in a few years, anyway.

All it inspires me to think is that winter is getting pushed closer and closer to summer every year, and that’s not a good thing.

Well no, I guess inspiring is maybe not the right word.

It’s definitely indicative of a changing weather pattern, that’s for sure.

Definitely…more on that later. Anyway, it’s nice to finally get the chance to officially talk to you. As somebody whose first real punk rock show was Bad Religion on the Gray Race tour 21 years ago next month…

What city was that?

That was in Boston.

I wish I could say I remember the show, but I don’t. (*both laugh* ) I vaguely remember the backdrop that we used.

Which is funny because I remember nothing about the backdrop that you used, but I remember the rest of the show pretty vividly otherwise (*both laugh*). My right ear is still ringing from that show, so thanks for that.

Oh no…that’s some long term damage. (*both laugh*)

Consider it a battle wound, I guess. Anyway, congratulations on Millport. I’ve had the chance to listen to it I’d guess thirty or forty times straight through at this point (*editor’s note: that’s not hyperbole) and I find myself enjoying it more and more every time that I listen to it.

Thanks a lot. I agree with you. It’s a catchy piece of work.

It is, and it didn’t really dawn on me until recently, but it’s been eleven years since Cold As The Clay came out. When it comes to your solo albums, now that you’ve got three of them, do you wait until there’s a collection of songs that seem like they’re a good fit for solo material, or did you write this album with a specific purpose and time in mind?

I don’t know, man. It’s one of those things…do you ever have stuff in your life that you’re always meaning to do, and you always have hanging there over your head, and then one day you say “god damn it, I’ve got to hunker down and get this done”? That’s kinda my solo career in a nutshell. As I indicated as early as 1997, I was drawn to do this kind of side project. I wrote and produced American Lesion, then about 8 years went by and I did Cold As The Clay. In those cases, it was the same thing where I said “god damn it, I’ve just got to do the damn project.” I can say with confidence that now it’s become a pattern with Millport. It’s not an accumulation of songs, but it’s an accumulation of experience that goes into the songs on these albums. Sometimes that experience takes many, many years, but I’m always playing this kind of music. Now, I’ve got almost thirty years of practice (*both laugh*) because it’s the style of music I’ve played since I was a kid.

The push to get it done means that other things have to go on hold. I have to take a sabbatical from academics. I have to take some time away from Bad Religion. And in this case, I’m figuring out how to make it work. I hope to do more of it more regularly. For instance, borrowing people from Bad Religion helps. Brett Gurewitz produced it, so there’s no pressure to write a Bad Religion song if he’s helping me in the studio with this. Likewise, Jamie Miller played drums on my tour for Millport — he’s going to be my touring drummer — so that helps a lot too. The real element that made it the most interesting was when Brett as a producer heard the songs and immediately thought of the guys from Social Distortion as being the perfect combo to bring in to the studio. That gave it a real interesting element, and of course, those guys have had their own side projects for so many years, and many of them are Americana in style. So it seemed like if we could all just put aside our other projects for a while, we could get this done. And that’s exactly how it came about.

The liner notes that came with the album say the whole thing was recorded in the span of a week – or ten days – last spring. How much of the stylistic direction of the album came from being in the studio? And I ask because there are a lot of different sounds on the album: it’s not just a folk album or an alt-country album, but there are bluegrass elements to it, there is sort of a 70’s Topanga Canyon, Eagles/Neil Young influence (on a few songs). How much of that direction as driven by you ahead of time and how much came out of who you were working with in the studio?

I knew from the songwriting the elements that I wanted to put in there, but the producer, Brett, enhanced those, and obviously the musicians themselves being able to play that kind of music — it’s not easy — but they are virtuosos at this kind of stuff. They have to get equal credit for the sound. But certainly the styles that you bring up are very familiar to me so that helped inform the songwriting as well. I presented these guys with some demo tapes, and I think because of their familiarity with the genre, they immediately knew what they had to do in the studio. Being such excellent musicians — and being motivated, you know? They loved the songs and Brett loved the songs, so it was almost like we could just push “record” and have a party (*both laugh*). It was really like that, it was very natural and fun.

It sounds that way. I’ve been a fan of Jonny Two Bags’ guitar playing for years, and it sounds like he really sorta dug in on the opportunities that he had on the album. It sounds like people had fun on the album.

One thing about side projects is that you’re freed from all of your constraints of playing in your most highly-visible band. I know that sounds crazy, because everyone wants to think that bands are just a free-for-all, but they’re not. The more popular the band, the more eyeballs that are on the project, and the more you kind of confine yourself to what’s successful in the past. And that can sometimes lead to constraints. The great thing about this project is that you’re hearing unconstrained love of the songs, and unconstrained love of creating something that we felt was a blend of many genres and therefore something that’s truly creative.

You’ve mentioned being tethered to your “day job” project, and Bad Religion being tethered to a particular sound, I feel like we’re at a different place now than we were when American Lesion came out. It seems people are more comfortable, particularly frontmen, in picking up an acoustic album or an alt-country album or whatever. It might be revisionist history on my part, but I feel like American Lesion was really the first one of those albums that I remember coming across, certainly as a listener. Is that me making that up, or do you remember back to the landscape at the time that American Lesion came out?

I wouldn’t argue with you if you said it’s the first example of that. It certainly wasn’t the first time that a band member did a solo album. In the 70s, for instance, Chris Squire of Yes did a great solo album, but as far as I could tell, it was just sort of a watered-down Yes album, you know? You can say that even with some of Elvis Costello’s stuff..some of the stuff he decided to go do without putting The Attractions on the album…some of it was just watered down Attractions stuff. That didn’t make much sense to me. So when I did American Lesion, I wanted to clearly show some of my songwriting elements that I bring to Bad Religion, but not to have the formulaic production of a punk album. I think that spirit was alive and well, even in Bad Religion, and I think Brett and I share that kindred spirit in some ways. Our third album, Into The Unknown, was the complete antithesis of its predecessor, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?.

As a commercial experiment, it’s a flop, because you don’t ever want to say that we released a really popular punk album and followed it up with something that flopped. That just shows we don’t know what the hell we were doing. (*both laugh*) But as an artistic expression, it can’t be criticized, because the songs are good, it’s interesting — for whatever you want to call that — but it’s commercially not viable. Artistically, it’s very strong statement that shows that songwriting is important to us, and creativity should never be too formulaic. Having said that, it shouldn’t be fair to just leave it at that. I want our audience to know that writing a Bad Religion album … although you might get the impression that I’m saying that it’s formulaic and it’s constraining, it’s not … it’s one of the great challenges as artist is to maintain the tradition of his or her prior work. That’s hard to do. It normally takes (Bad Religion) two years to put out an album. Why has it taken us four year to release an album after True North? Well, True North was such a great album — and we owe it to our fans to take it seriously as a great album — that to do another one is going to take a lot more work. So it’s not that it’s confining — I think we broke some new ground and some interesting ground on True North. But I think it’s just taking your fans seriously. And with the solo record, I wanted to take my fans who like my previous solo work seriously and also acknowledge that there’s a lot of musical directions that we can go in as solo artists that we can’t with Bad Religion.

I agree, for the record, that True North was an album that set the bar higher again for Bad Religion, which as a fan forever was a really nice thing to see.

(*laughs*) I agree with you. It’s very nice that especially when you’re thirty-three years into the game and you’re still putting out records and not just playing songs that are from decades ago, you know?

Right, and when you can go to a show and see a band play new songs and actually enjoy them and have the fans enjoy them — because we can list countless bands that are still living off a setlist that’s roughly twenty years old at this point. So it’s nice that you got buy-in from your fans. And in many ways, I suppose (Millport) is the True North of the Greg Graffin solo experience! (*both laugh*) I do really think that it raises the bar that much over Cold As The Clay. I like Cold As The Clay, and I really liked American Lesion when it came out, and knowing that we had this conversation coming up, I’ve been listening to all three albums on a loop for the last few days, and you can’t help but notice that Millport raises the bar both stylistically and lyrically.

Thank you. Yeah, I’m glad we achieved that in your eyes, because I believed it, Brett believed it, and the guys in Social D believed it, and that was the motivation for creating it. The only thing I can say is that I hope we can continue both in BR and in my solo work. That’s one of the great challenges. I look at it sort of as a life goal; to be an artist, to get older, and to prove that you can do your best work later in life. That’s such a rarity in this commercial world of art, because most people are content to keep capitalizing on their past work.

In working with Brett, there’s obviously a familiarity with you two in the studio. You mentioned that formulaic is maybe the wrong word to use when writing Bad Religion songs, but when you’re working with him on solo material, do you find yourselves falling into similar patterns that you use on a Bad Religion album, or is this more of an open process when it comes time to actually record and mix and all that?

In keeping with the theme of freedom — artistic freedom — I specifically back off from the production when I have Brett doing the solo project. In Bad Religion, I co-produce. Usually, I have a heavier production hand in Bad Religion, particularly if it’s a song that I wrote by myself. Brett can tend to let me produce those and I tend to let him produce his songs in studio for Bad Religion. But the solo stuff, I love being just a songwriter. It sounds cliche to say that it’s difficult to have so much information in your head — that’s cliche because information is what our head is for — but it’s really true. If you have to produce and write, it’s akin to being a writer/director on a movie, which can work, but it doubles your output of intellectual burden. If you can just focus on the singing and the songwriting and the playing and be completely confident in your producer, for me, that’s when you’ve got a match made in heaven. For me, that’s what happens with the solo records, and Brett really enjoys the role of producer.

Cold As The Clay and Millport are not your typical albums that you would attach the Brett Gurewitz sound to. Did he ever express trepidation at recording a bluegrass song or a 70’s rock song? He’s not a traditional Americana-style producer obviously, so was he ever nervous about his whole side of the arrangement?

No. One of the lesser-known facts about Brett and myself is that we both met each other not to be in Bad Religion, but we met each other as lovers of — we met each other as lovers! (*both laugh*) No, we met each other because we both have this deep affection for 70s music. He loves Elton John, and some of those albums like Tumbleweed Connection and other early Elton John albums had basically country-rock production on them. He studied those, and he really wanted to make albums like that his whole life. So for this, it’s almost something he’s been practicing for for a long time. I always played piano and wrote my songs on piano. How Could Hell Be Any Worse? has piano and acoustic guitar on the album because it was just natural to me, but we were too young to achieve the sounds that we were going for. You can almost listen to “We’re Only Gonna Die,” the original version, and picture that with the kind of production of Millport, and then you’ll see it took us thirty years to refine it and Brett, now, is able to achieve the kind of sounds he’d always wanted. He’s continued to get better as a producer in every category.

“Lincoln’s Funeral Train,” which I guess was the first single if we still call them singles anymore (*both laugh*) — it was at least the first song I heard off the album, and it was a traditional bluegrass song to begin with, and yet you turned it into obviously the grittiest rock song on the album. Why that decision, rather than give it the same traditional bluegrass sound of the original?

I just had this vision in my head of a plodding, chugging steam engine. I wanted to hear that song with kind of a Crazy Horse treatment, you know? Distorted guitars, if played right, can sort of sound like a steam locomotive moving forward, so when I first did a demo of that song I didn’t want to do it on acoustic guitar, I just broke out a Gibson electric guitar and played the demo with that and a distorted amp. If you turn your distortion up enough on an electric, you can get it to sound like a locomotive chugging along, and I thought it suited that song. It’s got a forlorn mood, and I thought it really gave it a powerful, marching, dirge-like quality.

It’s funny because in listening to it compared to the original, I think it has more of a marching, dirge-like quality than the original does…

(*laughs*) well, Norman Blake, the guy who wrote it, will hopefully hear it one day and agree! It’s also odd because it’s the only one of the ten songs that I didn’t write. I’m particularly satisfied with my songwriting, but I think that song came out well, and I think it’s a good bridge to listeners who are used to hearing distorted guitars. They can really understand and it could be a doorway or a pathway to discovering songwriting and melody in that old-time style.

“Time Of Need” is another song that grabbed me right away, with the way that you play off a traditional Gospel sound, and yet you turn it into the antithesis of a Gospel hymn. What went in to the process with that song?

Well, you hit it on the head. One of the greatest things about religion — if it can be said from a guy in Bad Religion — there’s something good about it and it has nothing to do with theology or the philosophy of it, but it has a lot to do with the music. The music is what is handed down through the generations, and punk rock is a kind of roots music now. It’s got deep roots. Now when people come to BR shows, they tell me that their mom gave them an album. It’s like the old bluegrass and country albums that my mom gave to us. Or the Johnny Cash albums that my dad made us — MADE us — listen to. It’s a tradition now that’s handed down through the generations, and that’s how you come to gravitate toward this music. Gospel is one of those great, deep-rooted traditions in America, but what if you could retain the musical tradition but make it more meaningful for your audience, a modern listening audience.

The way to do that is to take the supernatural out of it and put the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of mankind. The song is called “Time Of Need,” and in the old days, the Gospels would sing about how hard times were and how God is going to deliver us. What I’m trying to say is that God’s not going to deliver us. We have to be responsible ourselves for this changing environment and changing surroundings. No religion can help this time of need. I guess what I’d put in a nutshell then is that this was my attempt at a secular Gospel.

I think what caught me most off guard was that I didn’t catch that you were saying “Hey man!” instead of “Amen!”

(*laughs*) That’s kind of the trick of the song right there!

Yeah, well, well done, because it took me two or three listens before I picked up on it. For such a positive and uplifting sounding song, musically, it’s really probably the heaviest song on the album — “Lincoln’s Funeral Train” notwithstanding — in that line that “all your hard work and all that you’ve known / will be carved on a twelve-inch stone.” That is pretty weighty, more than any other line in the song. And yet, it sounds so uplifting!

That’s exactly right. It is weighty, but so is the philosophy. Bad Religion has always been about writing about philosophy. People often say that we write about politics, and that’s not really true. We try to identify the timeless questions, identify the things that are not so easily answered by an election, and try to sing and write about them. In this case, this song “Time Of Need” is identifying that we’re always in a time of need. It’s not just because of the current political climate.

The interesting question is how are we going to address this time of need. Many people think it’s through religion, particularly those who are singing Gospel songs. But I’m suggesting that if we’re going to take responsibility for it, and we are truly the pilot’s of the Earth mothership, then we have to own the responsibility , and by doing that, we can work a lifetime. But all that hard work and everything we’ve passed on as knowledge is way more important thatn the life that you lead. You’re living your life for your fellow man, and therefore, the twelve-inch stone in your graveyard is as good as anything to commemorate your life’s work.

Which is I guess is the opposite of a lot of prevailing religious wisdom, which is obviously more selfish…

Exactly. This is a purely materialistic way of looking at life. You live, you pass on knowledge, the knowledge lives on, and hopefully your fellow man who is younger will pass it on to their offspring. But this knowledge is way more timeless and important than your temporary life. Your temporary life gets commemorated on something material, namely a slab of stone, and we shouldn’t lament that. It’s not sad, to me — it’s uplifting. It says “here lies a guy who did his job and made the world that we all live in a better place.” The religious way says “here lies a guy who’s now living in Paradise.” It’s a rather selfish message. Why do we care when we visit our grandparents’ gravestones. It’s not because we’re happy that they’re somewhere better than here — although that gives some people a certain amount of comfort. We’re mostly happy because of what they taught us. We’re happy because we are living a better life because of them.

Having never consciously thought about that song that way until right now…

Well, that was sort of a long-winded sermon on a secular Gospel song. (*both laugh*)

It was a heavy song before we talked and now, boy…(*both laugh*)

 

 

 


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