Interview with Brian Baker, a Member of the Best Teen-Punk Band Ever and the Greatest 40-Something Punk Band Ever

After Minor Threat‘s demise in ’83, guitarist Brian Baker played in numerous bands, including Lickity Split, Doggy Style, Government Issue, The Meatmen, Junkyard and, perhaps most notably, Dag Nasty, a band that won wide acclaim for melodic harDCore and for which Baker composed the vast majority of the music. Since ’94, Baker’s been plying his craft in Bad Religion, the most overtly cerebral platinum-selling band in rock.
Bad Religion‘s weighty lyrical themes, redoubted lexicon, desire to publish indelible manifestos on the meaning of punk and ability to turn an arresting phrase are all rare qualities, the band’s up-tempo, harmony-filled, Ramones-guitars-with-solos brand of punk has become rather generic.Don’t blame these middle-aged cross-busters, though. They played a preeminent role in blazing the template that revitalized punk in the late ’80s and it’s not their fault that their genre has been rendered stale by countless imitators.
Bad Religion is one rock ‘n’ roll zebra that has little inclination to change its stripes. They tried that once, back before you were born, probably, releasing the goofy synth-pop new wave album “Into the Unknown” in the Reagan era. Fans roundly condemned it and BR went “Back to the Known” for their next album. They’ve been at it ever since.

I spoke with Baker before Bad Religion’s
Vans Warped Tour gig at Merriweather Post Pavilion in the summer of 2007 and asked him about the greatest 40-something punk band of all time, the greatest teenage punk band of all time, and what it was like playing on the same bill as Velvet Revolver.

So, what’s been the most frequent question you’ve been asked today?
Tell me a little about the Warped Tour. Why are you so attracted to it? Then there’s also people who want to know the history of punk rock music, which I’ve got a pretty good paragraph for.

OK. I also wanted to ask you what you’re tired of being asked in interviews.
Well, you know what? I’m really never tired to it – just the fact that anyone wants to interview me is good enough reason to keep up the enthusiasm, because there will be a time when no one cares.

You think so?
Yeah, sure. It’s a punk rock band. I don’t really know if we’re changing the world’s gravitational pull, but you do what you can. It’s an interesting art project, but I don’t really know what kind of longevity this sort of thing has – it hasn’t been tested yet.

Right. I’m sure you must be surprised by the longevity of people’s interest in Minor Threat, in particular.
Yeah, absolutely, but that was the result of a happy accident. Minor Threat was an after-school hobby for some relatively over-privileged kids from Washington, D.C., so it’s even more bizarre that it has such legs – but maybe that’s why.

Because you were just living in the moment and not looking towards something bigger?
Oh, absolutely. There was no concept of it turning into something that one would consider a career. It was a moment in time and, for some reason, people stuck to it.
And now there’s generations who, when they first decide that they don’t like their parents, they have to go buy the starter-kit, and Minor Threat tends to be one of the discs in that starter-kit.

What goes through your mind when you see someone in a Minor Threat t-shirt?
I’m flattered. If they’re really young, it just reminds me of myself with a Black Flag t-shirt 27 years ago.

Do you have any idea how many records Minor Threat has sold?
Well, if you combine all the singles, the album and add how now you can buy pretty much everything on one disc – if you rope it all together, it’s probably around a million records. There’s a lot of mom-and-pop going on with it, so we don’t really have an accurate count, but my guess is 800,000 to a million.

OK. I want to ask you about “New Maps of Hell.” I know that when “The Empire Strikes First” came out you told Mark Prindle that you played most of the guitars on that record. Is the same true of “New Maps of Hell”? (editor’s note: dude, is awesome. Please check it out)
Well, yeah. It’s really more of “the fastest driver drives the car.” I play most of the guitar, because I have a higher efficiency-level, but then I sing on tour, but I don’t sing on the records, because I’m not as good of a singer and those guys can knock out my parts in half the time that it would take me, so it’s really not like, “Yeah! I’m the kick-ass guitarist!”
It’s more, “Studio time is expensive, so let’s get this done.”

What did you write on the new record?
Nothing. Brett and Greg each put together about 15 songs and we knocked that down to the eventual 16. So there’s nothing in the songwriting sense, because songwriting is dictated by verse, chorus, or something like that. There’s certainly some riffage, but you don’t get paid for that.

Why is it necessary for Bad Religion to have three guitarists?
Because Brett’s function is more of the Brian Wilson of the group. He is 50 percent of the writing team, but he’s not able to go on tour – he runs one of the biggest independent labels in the world and he can’t spend his summer on a tour bus on the Warped Tour. He plays with us when we’re within 50 miles of his house.
And also, I replaced Brett in ’94, and when he came back, it was pretty contingent on that I stay. So it’s just the arrangement that we have and it works for everybody.

How is “New Maps” different from “The Empire Strikes First”?
I think lyrically it’s a little bit more traditional Bad Religion. “Empire” was a record that was really purpose-built – to express our disgust with the American political climate, which is really rare for Bad Religion.
[“New Maps of Hell” is] really less of a “Fuck Bush” record and more back to pondering global inequities and various other Bad Religion-friendly topics [chuckles].

Speaking of which: The idea of hell seems to be a recurring theme for your band. Do you think that’s true and what does the title of the new record mean?
It really is a throwback to the first record, “How Could Hell Be Any Worse?” and it echoes it, even in the artwork and the color scheme.
[The phrase] “New Maps of Hell,” by itself, doesn’t really mean that much, it’s just trying to get that imagery from the first record, because it seemed appropriate. You know, it’s a catchy title.

Minor Threat and Bad Religion were contemporaries. Were you aware of Bad Religion at the time and why do you think that Bad Religion continued while Minor Threat broke up?
I was aware of Bad Religion at the time, but they never toured out to Washington, where I lived. I had their first record and I thought it was really good.
For us, they kind of were a little bit off the radar, because the only California bands we became really passionate about put out multiple records and would always tour in Washington. Circle Jerks, Black Flag, bands like that.
Bad Religion’s longevity, I think, is attributed to the fact that – much like Minor Threat was an after-school hobby – Bad Religion was exactly that for Brett and Greg, who were interested in education. Greg, you know, is a professor at UCLA. Bad Religion is his art project and I think that having it not really taken so seriously, or as a primary vehicle for financial success, is why it continues to exist, because it’s there for our expression, but it’s not really the end-all be-all of our existence.
Minor Threat broke up because we hated each other and we were teenagers and didn’t know any better. We’re all friends now.

Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard. Do you know what the lyric “Welcome to the new dark ages,” off the new record, means?
Well, absolutely. At least in America, I think the new dark ages is evident in illegal wire-tapping, the dismantling of the Constitution, the preeminent concept of government being, “Hey, trust us. We know what we’re doing. Go out and spend some more money.”
And we’re being judged on whatever qualifies as patriotism.
There’s a litany of things that we can use to mirror that particular time in history when everyone was afraid that, if they disobeyed the powers that be, they’d be killed – and in many cases they were.

OK. Do you guys talk about the lyrics a lot before Greg sings them, or does he pretty much just decide on them?
Well, Greg and Brett both write lyrics. We go through them while we’re rehearsing and vet them, as it were, but, in general, they know what they’re doing.   We certainly have veto power, but that’s come up rarely, because, as a collective, we pretty much think in the same direction.
I think that they do a good job expressing themselves. I’m comfortable having it represent me.

What kind of things do you guys disagree about, either political issues or otherwise?
Greg Graffin thinks that bio-diesel is a really horrible idea and also believes that some element of big oil is promoting it for some reason. There’s other members of the band who believe that bio-diesel is a conspiracy. That would be one example.
There are some fundamental differences. There are people in the band who believe in God, strangely enough, but I’d have to say they’re armchair Presbyrerians. There’s no Shia in the band. Little things like that.

Is Bad Religion a democracy?

Did you just play with Velvet Revolver in South America?
Yeah, we did. It was fun; interesting.

How did that get set up?
We were playing in Argentina and they don’t get that much rock down there and they thought it would be a good idea for a big bill, because Bad Religion isn’t really perceived necessarily as punk-specific, it’s more “American band.”
The promoters didn’t see that there would be any conflict, whereas in the States I think it’s obvious that that bill would be a little polarizing.
There, it just made for twice as many people having a great time at the rock show and for me, I got to hang out and watch Slash, which was really cool.

You think you have more in common with Velvet Revolver or a young punk band?
I think we have much more in common with a young punk band. I don’t think we have anything in common with Velvet Revolver – other than we’re in the same the same age-group.
What they’re doing is a little more entertainment, rather than infotainment, as I would qualify us.

What bands do you like on this year’s Warped Tour?
I’ve only done three shows – I haven’t seen a lot. Of course Pennywise are good friends of ours – I like them very much.
I like New Found Glory. I think those guys kinda blew up and were characterized as a punk-pop thing and have managed to keep moving. They’re very nice people – not arrogant. They’re aging gracefully, let’s put it that way.
I also like a band called the Gallows, who I only saw for the first time two days ago. They’re an English band that’s really exciting to watch.  
But I’m out here for two months and I really haven’t made the rounds yet to go see the cool secret bands on the smaller stages, which is part of the fun of this. We always try to go see as much music as we can.

OK. I know that you produced the first Goons record, right? [the Goons were a long-lived, regionally popular, D.C. punk band that broke up recently]
I did a 7 inch, yeah.

How did that come about?
Just local friends. Serge was a friend of mine. I was playing with a band called Lickity Split that were guys who all lived in the same group house with the Goons and it just sort of came up. They asked me if I’d do it and I said sure, ’cause it’s fun.

What other local bands do you like?
I really don’t know any. I’m not home very much and when I am, the last thing I want to do is go to a nightclub and listen to loud music, so I haven’t seen anyone new in a long time. The last band I liked that I used to go see is a band called Army of Me, but they’re nothing like the Goons. They’re a little more pop, a little more Crowded House. I like French Toast, but I’m biased, because they’re good friends. I like Thievery [Corporation]. But as far as punk stuff, I don’t get out to that kind of stuff very often, so I don’t know.

OK. What do when you’re not working with Bad Religion, when you’re at home in D.C.?
Try to continue to fix up my hundred-year-old Columbia Heights row-house/shack. It’s pretty much a fulltime job.
My wife runs Transformer Gallery down on P Street and she’s really busy with that and I help out as much as I can.
I’m a glorified roadie for Transformer.
You know, hang out with the few people I know who are my age who don’t have children and go have dinner somewhere. Watch “The Daily Show.” I’m pretty sedentary.

Do you get recognized a lot when you’re out to dinner and that kind of thing?
Not really in D.C., because it’s not a music town. It’s funny: In California, it happens all the time. In D.C., I’d probably be recognized a lot quicker if I was a mid-level staffer for Patrick Leahy.

[laughs] Now, you’ve made your distaste for Good Charlotte very clear over the years. I remember watching Bad Religion sound-check while Good Charlotte played another stage at the Warped Tour and you stood at the front of the stage, flipping them off. What’s your problem with Good Charlotte?
Well, I don’t know where to begin, but I would just say that I’m glad to see that they’ve finally managed to put out enough horrible, unimportant records to fully fall off the radar and are now only going to be fodder for TMZ or Perez Hilton, by virtue of the people they’ve chosen to shack up with, which I think is perfect for a bunch of fools from Waldorf.

You basically just think they’re poseurs – is that the problem with them?
Not even that. Potentially there’s some punk rock camaraderie – there’s a little poking for at each other. We’re really good friends with NOFX and you say, “Yeah, the tour’s great, except that Fat Mike’s an asshole.”
I just said some offhand stuff initially about Good Charlotte, because I thought it was going to be a fun target, and they got really, really offended and all rung up about it and that in itself just caused an escalation.
I guess it was like me being a bully in high school, which I’m not really proud of.
It just kind of snowballed and they started to throw stuff back and at this point it’s just such an easy target – they’re opening for Justin Timberlake, alright?
It’s just fun to talk shit and I’m amazed that they took it so seriously. But now that the gauntlet has been thrown, I do not hesitate to express my distaste for their homogenized, unnecessary, pop whining.

And the best part is that they were probably wearing Minor Threat shirts at the time.
Yeah, exactly. “I’m just a Minor Threat” – whatever their lyric is on their most recent bad record. I don’t understand these people.
Also, they’re Christians. That’s a problem, too.

OK. Who’s more punk, you or your wife?
You know what? I look more punk, but I think she is, because her D.I.Y. is still really all her. She’s created her gallery on her own and she’s networking in a way that we used to before the world of tour buses. I think she’s more punk, definitely.

Do you still self-identify as punk?
Yeah, I do. It’s just become such a nebulous description these days, so it’s tough. If we’re describing a certain attitude and understanding of the world – yes. But I don’t really go for the costume anymore, because I don’t think it’s necessary.
And also, the early context of punk, when I was very young, it was somewhat dangerous and provocative to have a certain image – it threw people off balance. But now, thanks to MTV and Hot Topic, there’s nothing threatening or frightening about a guy with a mohawk anymore, so what’s the point of all of that hair-maintenance every day?

[chuckles] I just saw the Bad Brains in Manhattan on a boat
Oh, how was that?

That was awesome. I’d never seen ’em before. I thought it was great – I had a blast.
Good – glad you liked it. I haven’t heard their new record yet, but I intend to get it as soon as I can get out of a tour bus and get to a record store.

From what I’ve heard, I think it’s great. How big of an influence were Bad Brains on Minor Threat?
Absolutely enormous. They were incredible musicians. Ian explains it really well in “American Hardcore,” if you’ve seen that movie.
Everybody looked up to the Bad Brains. They taught us that just because it’s punk rock, it doesn’t mean you have to play shitty.
They were really, really accomplished musicians and I think one thing that made Minor Threat stand out is that we had the best drummer in town and we had a really good guitar-player and I learned bass just to be in the band, but then I got a handle on it and I think you can hear that in our records.

It’s said that you’ve been in more great punk rock bands than anyone else. Why do you think that is?
Luck, timing and a willingness to relocate at a drop of a hat. I just got lucky.

OK. I just have a few more questions about Minor Threat and then I’ll let you go. Do you know who the writer Tom Carson is?
No, I don’t.

He would have been a little older than you guys in Minor Threat. He told me he saw you play a couple of times and he was impressed by how martial it was and how tight you were. Do you remember it being that way?
Yeah, we strove for that. We rehearsed constantly. Those little bursts of 35 seconds songs become a lot more effective if it’s more of a precision thing.
And, once again, we had this amazing drummer and it’s really easy to be tight with somebody who’s really, really precise. He helped us form that sound.

What’s your favorite Minor Threat song?
“Screaming at a Wall.”

Which Minor Threat song did you have the biggest hand in writing – “Screaming at a Wall?”
No, actually I had nothing to do with “Screaming at a Wall.” [hums riff that sounds like “Small Man, Big Mouth”] God, I can’t even remember the name of it. We really wrote as a collective. I don’t even know, dude. I don’t remember the names of all the songs.

OK and what are some of your favorite memories from Minor Threat?
Basically the first time I ever got out of Washington, D.C.: An early tour to California in a van that you wouldn’t go to a grocery store in.
Staying at Jello Biafra’s house in San Francisco. Staying at SST in Hermosa Beach. I’m 16-years-old, 3000 miles away from home and I’m staying with all these people who are legendary to me and I only knew them from their records. It was an amazing experience.

How much longer do you expect Bad Religion to go on?
As long as we think it’s relevant and others do, I don’t see any reason to stop it. It’s still as much fun to play as it ever has been. The downside is the touring – the older we get, it’s a little more grueling to be away from home for so long, but, you know, I’m going to continue as long as it seems an accurate expression.

Do you have time for a couple more questions, or do you have to go?
I kind of have to go.

That’s fine. That’s plenty.
Are you good? Do you have enough?

Yeah. Do you mind, if there’s something I have to ask you, if I give you a call back later?
Just ask me now.

Oh, I just thinking that maybe when I was transcribing the interview or writing the article I might come up with something.
Oh, yeah – feel free. No problem at all.

OK. Thanks Brian.
See ya.

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