Greg Graffin Trades Punk-Rock for "Old-Time Music" on Rootsy New Solo Album
Anthony St. James
Dr. Greg Graffin is about to release his third solo album, and first since 2006’s Cold as the Clay. He also has about a dozen shows lined up this year with his iconic punk group Bad Religion, is thinking up new ideas for his next book, and still has to come up with lectures for his other career as a college professor in the fall. But while maintaining one of the most prolific punk bands over a nearly 40-year career, releasing a trio of records as a singer-songwriter and continuing an academic life as an esteemed author and educator might be enough for one person, Graffin still wishes he could do a little more.
“If I could put out a solo record more often, I would do it, but I’ve got this thing hanging over me,” Graffin says. “It’s not just Bad Religion but also academics and writing books, so something’s got to give. I guess I’m the kind of guy who likes to stay busy, but I don’t get around to it as often as I’d like to.”
The 52-year-old has a very straightforward tip for being productive enough to balance the punk-rock lifestyle with an academic record so flawless it’d thrill even the strictest of parents, culminating in a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell and teaching gigs at Cornell and UCLA. It’s the single trick that’s helped Bad Religion remain active over the decades, and the same one that’s enabled him to publish a handful of books that many punk rockers (and other people) aren’t smart enough to even comprehend.
“I think I sleep less than most people," Graffin says simply, "although that might not be the healthiest thing and it might be why I’m aging faster than I should. The other thing is just that I juggle a lot. I teach only during the fall semester, I tour predominantly during the summer, and I’m always writing on airplanes and trains around the world when I’m traveling. I’m not the guy you see dozing off on an airplane flight. I’m usually using that time when I can’t receive any phone calls or anything to develop some ideas. It’s partly about dealing with an overly active imagination, and partly about always wanting to come up with new ideas for books, music and lectures.”
But while staying conscious more than the average person might be a portion of Graffin’s secret to success, it doesn’t craft records, books or lectures on its own. Beyond splitting his creative brainpower between music and academia, the veteran songwriter also ventures down a different musical path for his records away from Bad Religion. Much like Cold as the Clay, Millport delves into one of Graffin’s other musical passions, a folky take on roots music the vocalist prefers to call “old-time music.”
“I wanted to write a batch of songs that celebrates persistence and how things remain the same in the midst of all this change,” Graffin says. “That’s always fascinated me from a musical perspective. Look at what I’m most known for with punk music. How in the heck can it be that punk is almost 50 years old, yet people have proclaimed it dead many times? Punk always persists in the face of tremendous change, and I see a parallel with that and old-time music in that it always persists in the face of change. That says something very loud and clear to me about it being relevant.”
In Graffin’s eyes, his solo records are similar to his work with Bad Religion in several ways. They’re both focused on the melodies and harmonies of creating good songs more than staying true to a single sound or genre, and they’re both centered around thought-provoking topics that will hold up over the years long after musical fads have come and gone. Much as how folk music has been around and relevant for generations, Graffin and his Bad Religion co-conspirators have always been focused on creating tracks and lyrics with lasting meaning rather than going for the quick buck.
“That’s part of the persistence in the face of change,” Graffin says of Bad Religion’s relevance decades after their initial heyday. “My co-writer, Brett [Gurewitz, Bad Religion’s guitarist] and myself started off Bad Religion wanting to be songwriters and wanting to make an impact. Early on, we recognized that we had to pick topics that were not just the flavor of the month. You sacrifice something by doing that, because by picking something that’s the flavor of the month, you might have a huge hit on your hands. But those hits are a flash in the pan, because times change. If you choose a topic that is timeless, you may not get the kind of interest you want at the moment it’s released, but over time it grows in significance.”
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