Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker wasn’t a member of the punk rock band when it formed in Los Angeles in 1980. But he wasn’t just sitting idle. Rather, he played in Minor Threat, the great Washington D.C.-based hardcore act that had a short but impactful run.
After moving to Los Angeles, he lobbied to join Bad Religion, a group that, like Minor Threat, wrote songs that addressed political and social issues.
“[Minor Threat and Bad Religion] were on opposite sides of the country, but it’s like I’m in the same class, like Punk Rock ’80,” he says via phone from a Portland, ME tour stop. Bad Religion performs with the Lawrence Arms at 8 p.m. on Saturday,Aug. 10, at the Agora Theatre
. “I was a huge Bad Religion fan. I was working in a rehearsal studio at the time. I didn’t have a band and started to lobby both guitarists, telling them that if the other guitarist leaves, call me up. One of the guys split, and the other guy called me. I had seeded the ground, and that’s how I did it.”
Years later, the band continues to be a force. Its latest album, Age of Unreason
, features blistering punk rock tunes that take aim at President Trump and his many divisive policies.
“From people who care about other people, and that doesn’t mean Democrat or Republican, there is an obvious understanding that the current administration doesn’t care about people,” he says. “There’s no public service. The gloves are off. For the closeted racists in the early ’80s, the environment was less encouraging. When you have a permission slip from this addled swamp monster, it’s disgraceful."
Baker says Ronald Reagan inspired the same response from the punk rock community when he was President in the 1980s. And yet, even Reagan wasn’t as callous as the current POTUS.
“The difference is that pretending to give a shit is gone now too,” he says. “It’s even more offensive. They don’t have the sense to lie a little smoother. That’s what made American politics this whole time. [Former U.S. President] Calvin Coolidge wasn’t interesting in regulating big business either, but he didn’t take a picture of his inaugural parade and announce that there were 17 million there. The arrogance [of Trump] is what I’m touching on. It’s palpable, but maybe that’s just a product of the 21st century.”
The group’s first studio release in six years, Age of Unreason
commences with “Chaos From Within,” a song that features the guttural vocals and driving guitars for which the band is known. “Do the Paranoid Style” comes off as a call-to-arms as it advocates standing up to oppression.
“There are a number of songs that are Trump songs,” says Baker. “They’re not just ‘fuck Trump’ either. [Singer] Greg [Graffin] and [guitarist] Brett [Gurewitz] have a lot of experience. This is after a five-year gap between records. If you think about the difference between now and five years ago, it’s pretty astonishing. I wouldn’t say this record is a product of the Trump administration because these songs came together along a non-specific time line but what a great time to put out a record about this. We’re pretty happy about it.”
Joe Barresi produced Bad Religion’s last few albums, but Carlos de la Garza helmed this release, and Baker says he helped give the songs their sonic edge. If anything, the album might be more melodic than past efforts. “My Sanity,” a song that references Trump’s use of the term “alternative facts,” features harmony vocals and has a great hook, and a gorgeous guitar riff carries “Candidate.” And “Downfall” is downright infectious and ventures into pop-punk territory.
“Bad Religion is basically self-produced, so it’s more like adding to the team rather than handing over the reins to one particular guy,” he says. “Having Carlos [de la Garza] this time brought a modern understanding of how to update Bad Religion sonically without in any way pandering. It’s interesting what he did with the soundscape. He had nothing to do with arrangements or lyrics, all the traditional roles of a producer. I like what he did. It sounds great. It’s fun to listen to. It’s not an onslaught. I’m an older gentleman. I like things that are fun to listen to. I don’t need to be challenged.”
The band recorded at Sunset Sound Recorders, an L.A. studio where many classic rock acts have cut albums.
“One day, you’re in the room where Van Halen 1
was recorded, and the next day you’re in the room where Led Zeppelin II
was recorded,” says Baker. “It’s pretty vintage. You’re steeped in that history. It’s a beautiful spot. I recorded there and at Electric Lady [in New York]. It’s part of all the books you read when you were kid. Now, you’re actually there. That alone was exciting. I loved it. “
Even though many of the songs take aim at how democracy has fallen into decline, a sense of optimism comes through in songs such as the title track and the album closer “What Tomorrow Brings.”
“The basic tenant through all of this criticism is that people are basically good,” says Baker. “We’re very hopeful. There’s a theme that these pitfalls need to be combatted. Science is a widespread topic [on the album], but it’s about being successful. We’ve always had that undercurrent even in our most scathing criticisms of a momentary glitch.”
Bad Religion has been through numerous lineup changes over the decades, so what’s held it together all this time?
“Good songs. That’s it,” says Baker. “If you don’t have songs, you don’t have a band. We realized long ago that the band is much more important than any one member. That’s the key. You have to respect the material.”
Bad Religion, the Lawrence Arms, 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $32.50-$55, agoracleveland.com.
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