By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Before I died, I was the drummer in Bad Religion. That was 15 years ago. Both of us are doing much better these days.
I found out about my supposed demise when I met the band in the small Hollywood studio where they were recording their latest album, The Process of Belief. (I had been summoned to write their press bio.) I hadn‘t seen them since my stint pounding the skins ended with my sudden, and apparently mysterious, disappearance. But I’ll explain that a bit later.
Inside the studio, there was a lingering feeling of reunion. Not just for me, but for the entire proceeding. Greg Graffin and Jay Bentley were there, and Brett Gurewitz had finally returned. They were also back on Epitaph, which Brett started as an industrious teen to release the band‘s music when the major labels, predominantly staffed by coke-tooting Fleetwood Mac fans, wouldn’t touch anything resembling punk with a well-manicured pinkie. The new songs sounded familiar, the accompanying conversations anything but. Some scenes from the sessions:
Greg is nursing a bowl of French onion soup in a near-empty Hamburger Hamlet. He is hoping the cheese-laden broth will soothe his tired vocal cords, yet in a contradictory move is talking up a storm. Having just completed his second master‘s degree, this one in biology at Cornell, he is explaining the topic of his upcoming Ph.D. dissertation. (Both of us were raised by academics, so our conversations have always tended toward the cerebral.)
The premise is that naturalism (science) is basically a new and improved religion that allows us to view things as they really are and, thus, learn from our mistakes. Naturalism is directly opposed to deism (religion), but there are some scientists who hold that a belief in both is compatible. This is called dualism. Greg doesn’t recognize. “Dualism is a cop-out that leaves the door open for an inaccurate portrayal of human nature,” he argues, “which is what has led to all of the social and ethical problems of the past. If scientists take a soft position, then there is no naturalism and we‘re stuck with the old ineffective traditional religion, which has come to fail us in so many ways.”
This from someone who started a band called Bad Religion in high school. “I think I hit on something at a very young age that is easy to be consistent about,” he says, “which is questioning religion. I guess I take it seriously as a lifelong path of inquiry.” Then he laughs. “Jay, Brett and me were all present that afternoon when we decided not to call the band Vaginal Discharge. Then it was gonna be Bad Family Life, but we finally settled on Bad Religion.”
Back in the studio, a full-speed, state-of-the-art punk song is thundering out of the playback speakers. Greg stands in the small vocal booth and starts to sing the lyrics of a new song, “Materialist.”
I ain‘t no deist
It’s there for all to see
So don‘t speak of hidden mysteries
The sun is shining, and Brett and I are reclining in the studio’s cluttered patio, just off the shimmering asphalt of Hollywood Boulevard. When not writing songs for Bad Religion, producing albums for other bands or running his label, Brett informs me, he likes to spend as much time as possible indulging his true passion. He shrugs. “I‘m a total chess geek,” he says.
Last year a mutual friend of ours, Alex, told Brett of a chess camp. “I thought, wow, it’ll be really cool. I‘ll have a whole weekend of nothing but chess, and have expert guys coaching me, and I’ll really improve my game,” he says. “I thought it was gonna be like when I was a kid and I went to John Wooden‘s basketball camp -- that it would be on a ranch or something, and there would be a lot of people there. But it turned out to be me, Alex and his friend, and one other guy, and it was in Temecula at the house of an old retired conservative judge. The same vibe as both my grandmas’ houses, like a mausoleum, with lots of doilies and everything perfectly in place.” He sighs. “I mean, basically this was an old couple and we were sleeping over at their house.”
The judge wasn‘t a master, Brett says, “but he had devised a methodology of chess coaching called ’Fishbusters.‘ In chess, there are different slang names for bad chess players. They call them ’potzers‘ and they call them ’fish.‘ Fishbusters was supposed to be his patented method for curing you of being a fish.”
So there was the millionaire punk tycoon sleeping in a bunk bed in the den. “I was freezing all night, but I didn’t want to ask for another blanket, because I thought this old couple was looking askance at me, like I was the coarse ruffian with tattoos invading their world.”
The next day, “we wake up and the old guy has converted his garage into a little rumpus room with some tables and a chalkboard. And the Fishbuster just starts lecturing, basically asking trick questions like, ‘How does a bishop move?’ And we would answer, ‘Diagonally.’ And he would say, ‘Wrong! A bishop exerts a field of force in all diagonal directions, creating a star.’ He lectured all day and we didn‘t play one game.” Brett shakes his head. “It was quite the opposite of what I had imagined.”