Bad Religion: An Interview with Greg Hetson

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When it comes to bands that have made their unique mark upon an ever-expanding world of music, Bad Religion’s 20-plus years of playing rank up there with The Beatles as far as influential bands are concerned. Of course, many of those bands may never play the Hollywood Bowl or the Bowery Room in New York, but each year they’ll be on Warped Tour, The Take Action Tour and headlining their own sold-out shows. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that’s the case, then Bad Religion is flattered beyond all expectations. Their latest release, The Process of Belief, is another example of what it means to push limits and push sound—to move past what may be expected and surpass everything that came before.

The history of this prolific punk rock machine began almost two decades ago as a reaction to an environment that was not only hostile to punk rock music but also an industry that wasn’t taking any chances on anything that couldn’t turn a profit. Three teenage friends growing up in Southern California met and began rehearsing in a garage, playing shows and recording a completely DIY EP. Brett Gurewitz, Greg Graffin and Jay Bentley soon realized, much like their counterparts in Black Flag and Minor Threat, that to get anything done they had to do it themselves. With that, Brett decided to start a label called Epitaph Records to release the now classic, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?

Several years later and a couple band members more, Bad Religion was soon becoming more than just a hobby. With the addition of Greg Hetson on guitar, Bad Religion’s sound was fully rounded out into the melodic buzz saw attack, a signature sound they have become famous for. 1987 was a good year for the band. They recorded the classic, Suffer, an album that held fast to their punk rock values while embracing a high amount of production quality. Soon after the success of Suffer, three more albums were released—No Control, Against the Grain and Generator—creating a veritable quadripartite of punk rock genius.

From that time on, the band managed to release one album a year, and in 1993, during a time when punk rock music was taking a loose hold on the mainstream, they were signed to Atlantic Records and managed to land a hit with the track, “Infected.” In 1993, the record Recipe For Hate, which hosted guest appearances from such greats as Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano (“It Struck a Nerve”) and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, who lent his signature voice to several tracks (“American Jesus” and “Watch it Die”), further broadened Bad Religion’s scope as musicians and respected artists. The years to follow had the band jumping from Atlantic to Epic and finally back to Atlantic. With the release of their latest record, The Process of Belief, the band was once again at home with Epitaph and under the wing of their friend and musical brother Brett.

During the times when Brett was involved heavily with the label, Bad Religion hired the talents of former Minor Threat guitarist, Brian Baker. A triptych of guitar talent was formed with Hetson and Brett, and the three brought a new aesthetic to the idea of what makes a band. Eschewing everyone’s expectations and pushing well past any predetermined ethos, Bad Religion took on the year 2002 with magnified intensity, bringing The Process of Belief to the forefront of progressive rock music.

Hetson always wanted to play guitar, but he was never in school band. “I wasn’t in school band because I wanted to play guitar but they didn’t have guitar in band,” he says. “There were a couple of schools in my district that did. I remember seeing them wheel around these Pignose amps for guitar and bass.”

Some of Hetson’s earliest influences in music were such guitar-heavy bands as The Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival, Queen, Judas Priest, The Ramones and The Buzzcocks. Early L.A. bands like Black Flag and X inspired him as a player as well. His first guitar “was a cheap Harmony electric all-in-one that I got when I was 12. I play an (Gibson) SG now through two Marshall straight cabs and a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. I also have a Marshall 6555, Silver Jubilee (released in 1987 to celebrate 50 years of Marshall business), which has a little more output than a JCM 800.”

Hetson began, as many do, by taking guitar lessons, learning the basics and hoping that one day, he would be playing in a band of his own. “At about 16, I started playing along with some friends who also wanted to learn how to play. I think I was about 19 when I started with the Circle Jerks. Basically what happened was I quit Redd Kross in front of the Whiskey, and Keith (Morris, singer of the Circle Jerks) overheard me saying I didn’t want to be with the band anymore, and he said, ‘Screw those guys let’s start our own band.’ He said, ‘I know a bass player,’ and I said, ‘I know a drummer.’ And that’s kind of how it all came together.”

So how did Hetson start playing with Bad Religion? you might ask.

“They actually gave me a demo tape. One day we were all hanging out at Okie Dogs. It was a place we all used to hang out at after shows. I really liked it and became friends with the guys. We (The Circle Jerks) were going to be on the Rodney On the Rocks Show the next week, and I said something like, ‘If we like the tape we’ll play it over the air.’ I started getting them opening slots on our shows and air play and somehow I ended up in the band years later.”

When it comes to orchestrating six members of a band, it takes lots of patience and practice. Fortunately for Bad Religion, having three guitars transfers well in both a live and recorded setting. Hetson says, “Surprisingly enough, recording is pretty easy because we do so many overdubs and layering anyway. Live, it kind of just works. We don’t do a lot of the shows with him (Brett), but when he does we’ve usually got enough going on that it works. Part of the time we’re all doing the same thing and other times others are doing different accents and things that were on the record. So it kind of works out—we thought it would sound like a wall of mush but it actually sounds good.”

The writing process for Bad Religion is collaborative. “For the most part it’s collaboration, but sometimes someone will come in with a complete song,” he says. “If you look at a lot of the songwriting credits, [they’re] always attributed to pretty much everyone.”

The new Bad Religion record is about half way through the mixing process. Hetson says, “It’s coming out really great. I think everybody is really happy with it. Some really strong songs. Some heavy lyrical content, as usual. It’s a little darker, lyrically than the last record maybe. There’s a lot of stuff going on these days for inspiration.”

Bad Religion has always been at the forefront of music both politically and socially with their various contributions to charities over the years and their songs inspiring fans to think outside of the box. The auspicious title for their soon-to-be-finished record is The Empire Strikes First, and like Hetson said, it has some ”heavy lyrical content.”

Of course, the lyrical content of Bad Religion’s songs has always been a message of self-empowerment, articulated positively by a UCLA master’s degree/Cornell University Ph.D. (Evolutionary Biology/Zoology/History of Science) wielding Graffin. They also have a band-sponsored research fund that “was created to allow students to pursue field-oriented investigations in cultural or natural science,” according to Hetson. “It is an award with an educational focus and is meant to promote self-motivated discovery, practice of the scientific method, and experience in scientific writing.”

With two decades of music behind him and many more ahead, Hetson, like his Bad Religion band mate Brett, decided to start a label with long time friend and producer, Steve Kravac. The two met at Westbeach Studio some years prior and decided to take their experience as musicians and give back what they had learned in the business to younger bands. According to the Porterhouse Web site, “Each band added to the Porterhouse roster has been selected for their individual merits as opposed to the strategy of many indie labels that adhere to a sonic likeness to create label identity.”

Hetson says that in music today, “People can’t tell Trapt from Incubus. You can’t tell one from the other. They all jump up and down, choreographed in time to the music. The most important thing is to create your own identity. Classic punk rock bands like The Clash didn’t sound like The Ramones. The Adolescents didn’t sound like Black Flag. None of the bands sounded like each other and maybe that’s why no one is selling records anymore.”

Hetson added some words of wisdom, saying, “The best thing you can do when you’re first starting is play the music you want to play. Try to create your own identity and style, and stick to what you believe in musically and philosophically. Do something with a twist.”

With that kind of grassroots individualism in mind, Steve and Hetson have managed to produce great records from bands like Speedbuggy and the newest edition to the Porterhouse family, Lightweight Holiday. Porterhouse is essentially run out of Hetson’s garage where they built a Pro Tools studio. “We’ve got enough room in there to cut drum tracks. It’s a two-car garage and if we do drums in there, we have to track them in the control. We’ve got a good-sized iso booth where we can fit a couple guitar amps and get some decent vocals out of. We’ve got two rooms, one small and one pretty big.”

When it comes to sonic differences between analog and digital sound, Hetson says, “I guess analog sounds better but you know, well they both sound pretty damn good. Analog sounds better but for convenience sake, Pro Tools works better. We do some of the drums on tape, depending on what the bands budget is and the rest on Pro Tools. We’re doing the new Bad Religion record with the drums on analog and everything else on Pro Tools. When it comes to time saving and money saving, you can’t beat it.”

Porterhouse is a small band’s dream. The Web site invites bands to send in unsolicited material and that’s essentially how Lightweight Holiday was discovered. “They just started sending in demos and after about a year-and-a-half of listening to their stuff, I had them open up for The Circle Jerks and checked them out live. Then we went in to rehearsal with them and told them, ‘We really like you guys but try this out and this out.’ They liked how we were approaching things and we said, ‘Let’s do a deal.’ They were really receptive to our feedback. Some bands are really reluctant when it comes to offering feedback, but they were really receptive.”

When all’s said and done, and the feedback from the amps reverberates to its final decay, Bad Religion isn’t just some average punk band you might listen to on your MP3 player, or in your car on the way home from school. They are, without hyperbole, an institution of integrity. By posing questions and always challenging their fans to think first, Bad Religion is an example of an ongoing legacy that hopefully inspires more young bands and fans to follow their dreams.
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This ranks up there with one of the more remarkable interviews I’ve done. I definitely got the best of two of my favorite punk bands with Greg being part of BR and Circle Jerks.

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