Greg Graffin is a man of science. With a master’s degree in geology and a Ph.D. in biology, Graffin has taught subjects like evolutionary biology at University of California Los Angeles and Cornell University, where he wrote a dissertation entitled “Evolution, Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist Worldview.”
Like many academics, Graffin has authored multiple books, including Evolution and Religion, Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God, and Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence.
Unlike other academics, however, Greg Graffin is also the front man for one of the world’s longest-serving punk rock bands, Bad Religion.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk was an emerging subculture on the streets of Los Angeles. Graffin, in his early teens at the time, recalls some of the transition from child to teenager in his recent memoir, Punk Paradox.
“I wasn’t the best cultural anthropologist at the time, because I was only 15 when we started the band,” he laughs. “Bad Religion formed my first I guess ‘excursion’ into being part of a subculture… But I was still basically a kid, not qualified to comment on the implications of the subculture.”
Describing the Los Angeles punk scene as chaotic, Graffin says Bad Religion’s arrival on the scene in 1980 was nothing new, with punk bands already performing in clubs around Hollywood.
“We didn’t really ‘arrive’ on the scene,” Graffin corrects himself. “We rehearsed in my mom’s garage – that was our ‘scene’ – and we tried to go out into Hollywood to go to concerts or go to clubs, and half of them we didn’t get in, so we just hung out outside.
“We didn’t really ‘arrive’ on the scene… We rehearsed in my mom’s garage – that was our ‘scene’.”
“But on the streets of Hollywood it was everything you’ve read about. Everything you’ve heard: a lot of violence, and lot of crime, a lot of sleaze… and a lot of drugs and alcohol.”
Graffin and co-writer Brett Gurewitz and himself listened to a lot of progressive rock and classic rock in the 1970s, but when punk music emerged, there were bands they wanted to emulate the look and stage presence of when creating their own band.
“Brett was a really big fan of The Ramones, and I loved all the LA bands like The Gears and Black Flag and the Circle Jerks,” Graffin says. “And likewise, we were just part of a scene with a lot of contemporary bands, like Agent Orange and The Adolescents, so we were forming a culture of our own and borrowing from each other – liberally.”
Although Bad Religion was so named because the then-teens thought it would cause distress to adults, there is a deeper meaning behind the band’s name, which Graffin says they were lucky to grasp early on.
“Most teenagers don’t really know much about – or care much about – the future, and we didn’t necessarily care about the future, but we chose a name that you could talk about until you were old and grey, like I am,” Graffin laughs. “Religion is something that never goes away, it’s a conversation that you can literally carry to your grave. And the importance of religion in one’s life is a constant meander between significance and irrelevance, and I think we were very fortunate to touch on the as a theme because it has formed a thematic background for all of our song writing, too.”
Bad Religion’s memoir, Do What You Want, was written by friend of the band Jim Ruland, which was released in time for the band’s 40th anniversary – right at the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
“People who enjoy knowing every little detail of the band’s history are really going to like Jim’s book, because every detail of the band is in that book,” Graffin says. “From the time we started ‘til the last concert we played up until 2020 – Jim even came on tour with the band in 2019, when he was writing it.”
Referring to the book as “the Bad Religion chronology” Graffin explains his approach to writing his own memoir was more novelistic than encyclopaedic, where he treats himself as the protagonist of the story.
“I wanted there to be a story thread that could be mapped onto the chronology that Jim provided,” he says. “So, I say Jim’s book is like the skeleton, and my book is like the connective tissue and the muscles. They go hand in hand, but if you’re literary in your interests then I think Punk Paradox is a nice complement to Do What You Want.”
Do What You Want chronicles Bad Religion’s first show, which is referred to on the band’s Wikipedia page as their first “unofficial” show with Social Distortion, who is co-headlining the band’s upcoming Australian and New Zealand shows.
“It was official, in a sense, even though it wasn’t at a legitimate club – it was at some warehouse in Orange County,” Graffin says. “But yeah, that was our first show ever, so it’s pretty cool being friends with these guys for so long… we’ve sort of both gone off on our own trajectory, and it’s nice now to be coming back together.”
Graffin says the double billing is particularly special because, despite both bands being actively touring for most of the last 43 years, they have rarely billed together.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a co-headlining tour with Social D and Bad Religion, so that is why this is a remarkable occurrence – and we’re kicking it off in Australia.”
“I don’t think there’s ever been a co-headlining tour with Social D and Bad Religion, so that is why this is a remarkable occurrence – and we’re kicking it off in Australia,” Graffin says. “For whatever reason we spent a lot of time touring in Europe over those decades, and they spent a lot of time touring in the States, and by the time we toured the States, which was usually in the fall, they would have already played all the venues over the summer. We played the same size venues, so we did more hopscotching, and we didn’t play together.”
Bad Religion had planned to do a retrospective show in 2020 to celebrate the band’s four-decade career, but plans were foiled by COVID-19 and the worldwide travel restrictions.
“So, this will be, essentially, the show that we were planning to do,” Graffin says. “Which is going to be a good look back at our history.”
Graffin says he divorces himself from the process of choosing songs to perform out of Bad Religion’s back catalogue of around 300 tracks, but bass player Jay Bentley takes great strides to catalogue each performance.
“He has a database of the last time we were in Sydney or something, and he’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, so this is the show we did then,’ and pays attention to that stuff and changes it up so that it doesn’t become redundant,” Graffin says. “With the number of songs that we have, it’s easy to make things sound fresh again – there are songs we have never played, so we can break something out and say hey, that’s the first time we ever played it.”
Having written so much material, Graffin says it is difficult to write new songs that are different but also great tracks.
“I speak on behalf of my co-writer Brett that we both have always felt the pressure to put out something great,” he says. “And sometimes we miss – as my friend Brian Baker, our guitar player, says: they can’t all be winners. But we try every single song, we think, is going to be great – and we wouldn’t record it or release it if we didn’t think that.”
The band’s most recent album, Age of Unreason, was their 17th studio release, and was eerily prophetic in some ways, thematically, to the pandemonium of the global epidemic that soon followed. It was also very political, in many ways.
“We always have insisted that we don’t write concept albums; it wasn’t an overarching concept album,” Graffin says. “There were songs on it that pointed to the absurdity of the democratic process that we’ve seen… I won’t say ‘ruined’, I’ll just say, ‘temporarily impaired’, so songs like “Candidate” are kind of a tongue in cheek parody of who we’re voting for these days.”
Then there are tracks like “Chaos From Within”, which suggests that maybe the chaos in the world today is really because of a flaw in human reasoning.
“Maybe it comes from up here,” Graffin says, indicating his head, “As much as our actions in the streets. So, it was very appropriate for what was going on – not only in the COVID epidemic, but in the crazy years leading up to it. And in many ways, it’s still very relevant today.”
Bad Religion with Social Distortion Australian/New Zealand Tour
Full ticket information available at badreligion.com
Wednesday, February 15th
The Trusts Arena, Auckland, NZ
Friday, February 17th
Riverstage, Brisbane, QLD
Saturday, February 18th
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, NSW
Sunday, February 19th
Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne, VIC