“You know people always say: ‘Oh, I’ve never heard of your band.’ I say that’s ‘cus you’re not 18 with a skateboard,” stokes the affable bassist Jay Bentley. His band, first wave L.A. punks Bad Religion, lit its flame of defiance two decades ago, to the heat-baked, smog-infested dystopia of mini-malls and suffocating boredom, known as The Valley. Thereafter, the disaffected teenagers loudly challenged their inhospitable environment with statements in music. Today, Bad Religion is still on the road, this time with veteran ska troupe Less Than Jake, and fresh punk cohorts Hot Water Music.
The tour marks a new beginning for the pioneers of thesaurus rock, as BR guitarist and band co-founder Brett Gurewitz returns to the stage – after a six-year leave to jumpstart the band’s label, Epitaph, which Gurewitz owns. “Personally, I feel more complete with Brett back in the band,” Bentley affirms, “because we spent 15 years together in the beginning doing all this, and that’s just something that’s part of what you do.” The new album, once again, has been produced by BR’s original songwriters, Gurewitz and vocalist Greg Graffin. The band returns to making innovative and influential music, back from when their groundbreaking furious beats and harmonious chorus inspired future punk superstars such as Green Day and Blink 182.
To the younger generation that didn’t grow up with BR, Bentley describes their current shows as being around 30 songs for about an hour and 20 minutes. “We don’t have a big show with a lot of fire and smoke,” he explains. “It’s all about the music, and it’s all about the band and the fans.” The down-to-earth Californian expressed distain for critics that categorize the band as “Political old-school punk,” touting: “Categories are for vegetables in the store. We’re just a band – geeks, fucking nerds with attitude!” Bentley doesn’t think much of the punk scene either, despite the devout fans that honor the band for its pioneering accomplishments. Punk lovers are just “a group of people that have independent thought,” Bentley observes. He explains matter-of-factly that if you “start pigeon-holing people because of what they like, you might as well be mad at them for what they eat, and before you know it you’re a militant, vegan, skinhead guy beating people up for a hamburger.”
However, says Bentley, “the state of music today is in a lot better shape than it was 10 years ago. That there is something out there for everybody is great!” Bentley laid down frank criticism as well on the influence of teen punk icons such as Blink 182, who toured with BR in 2000. “Blink fucks with (little kids) too much because they know who’s listening to their records. They know that there’s 12-year-old kids buying their records, and so they put some shit on their records that I don’t really agree with.”
In BR’s newly released album, The Process of Belief, the social-conscience punk rockers continue to challenge “the tacit, dogmatic structure of our society.” Track titles like “Materialist,” or “Kyoto Now!” make a loud statement of the band’s up-to-date political advocacy. “The music speaks for itself,” chimes Bentley. “If you get something out of it, that’s great.”
An explanation as to why BR holds such values and standpoints may rest on the fact that the band is uncannily intellectual. Vocalist Greg Graffin not only holds two graduate degrees, one in Biology and one in Geology, but is also working towards a Ph.D. at Cornell. This acknowledgement of academics has led the band to offer a unique research grant for the past 4 years, called the Bad Religion Research Fund. “The laboratories get tons of money.” Jay Bentley explains. “The people out there digging for fossils, or doing social studies; they’re not really getting any money.”
Thus with the Fund, which receives some 200 submissions per year, the band awards one young researcher, and hopes to eventually increase the Fund to five annual awards. In 1998, Lena Sharon Nicolai of the Michigan Department of Biology was one such recipient of the Bad Religion Research Fund, helping her with a study thesis titled: “Dispersal of mycorrhizal fungal spores by rodents and consequent effects on tree seedling establishment and forest regeneration.”
With a career history as complacent as Bad Religion’s, it’s not difficult to understand what’s been driving these guys on for the past 20 years. For bassist Bentley, life’s outlook can be summed up as waking up every morning, thinking: “Wow! I’m the luckiest human being on the planet!” The man’s optimism transcends the band’s fiercely independent spirit and influential trek through punk music’s infancy. Their own label, founded by BR’s Brett Gurewitz, has also grown from a mere logo and a PO Box, to a fortis industry player. As Bad Religion return to challenge the status quo and themselves, 18-year-old skateboarders, for sure, will know their name.