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Greg Graffin of Bad Religion

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion

The Naturalistic Worldview of a Punk Rock Professor
Joshua Chaplinsky
Greg Graffin of Bad Religion

This year marks the 30th anniversary of seminal punk rock act Bad Religion. Seminal as in highly influential, but also metaphorically, as in "pertaining to or consisting of semen", because from an evolutionary standpoint they are the seed that spawned countless bastard musical progeny. That would make co-founder and lead singer, Greg Graffin, the patriarch of modern melodic punk rock, but please, let's not punish him for the sins of the son. Stubborn children need to learn from their own mistakes.

In addition to fronting the band for longer than the lifespan of The Beatles and Zeppelin combined, Graffin has also found time to pursue his love of science. He received his PhD from Cornell University and currently teaches evolution at UCLA, so that's Doctor Graffin to you. New book Anarchy Evolution chronicles the convergence of these seemingly disparate interests, and also serves as an exposition of Graffin's naturalistic worldview.

Having seen Greg speak the night before, I knew what to expect-  a down to earth guy lacking the pretension normally associated with both rock stars and intellectuals. We met in the lobby of his hotel to discuss life, the universe and everything, in an attempt to come up with our own version of The Ultimate Answer.

JOSHUA CHAPLINSKY: You've been the lead singer of Bad Religion for thirty years. You've just released your 15th album, and you've toured the world numerous times-

GREG GRAFFIN: The world and elsewhere.

JC: AND elsewhere.

GG: That's a "Spinal Tap" reference, for your Chuck Palahniuk fans.

JC: During that period you've also found the time to get a PHD, start a family, teach evolution, and now write a book. What compels you to stay so busy? Are you a workaholic?

GG: I don't think workaholic is in the dictionary as an affliction, but it's obviously someone who has a disease, and I don't feel diseased by it. I just think that i enjoy life and life has many offerings. I feel lucky to be able to have a forum to share a lot of these ideas.

JC: In the book you mention that at times your relationships and personal life have suffered because of it. Have you learned how to better balance work and family?

GG: I wouldn't say so. I think I'm still failing miserably. But that's something my wife and children would have to answer for you.

JC: You have your wife here with you on tour, so at least you are keeping family close.

GG: Ironically, we used to travel together all the time, but for the last five years she's been a marketing director and she's in town for business.

JC: So her being here is a coincidence?

GG: Exactly. We happened to be at the same hotel tonight. So I'm happy about that. And my kids are getting ready to go to college, so they are at a stage in their lives where I don't feel so guilty when I have to be away for long periods of time. They're more independent.

JC: Any regrets? Would you go back and change anything if you could?

GG: No, I wouldn't. I'm not a guy that lives with regrets, and I think I've managed to do things on my own terms and not have too many people hate me for it. I have a sense of duty, I have a sense of honor, and I've tried to uphold those. Again, it's up to other people to judge me on that.

"Anarchy Evolution" by Greg GraffinJC: Steve Olson was your co-author on the book. How did the writing of the book work, since it is essentially half memoir?

GG: Steve and I are friends, and he's such a gifted writer, and he's able to streamline my own ideas and thoughts better than I can. He knew quite a bit about my life from our friendship and he had written a book that I admired greatly which was called "Mapping Human History." Similar to my writing projects with Bad Religion, some of best work, I feel, is collaborative. I collaborated with Brett Gurewitz, my co-songwriter, for my entire career. This collaboration with Steve was really smooth. We basically shared the manuscript back and forth like a ping pong match, and we didn't correct each other very much at all. We just sort of accentuated or added to, or in his case streamlined the narrative.

JC: Did you guys disagree on any of the science in the book?

GG: No. We actually found ourselves confirming a lot of each other's ideas and adding to it. We learned from each other.

JC: Besides being part memoir, the book is an evolutionary primer and presents your naturalist worldview. What exactly does it mean to be a naturalist?

GG: As I point out in the book, naturalism is kind of a belief system. It's different from a traditional religious belief system because it depends on three parameters- observation, experimentation, and verification. Now if you think about traditional religions, some of them have the first two in them, but they certainly don't have that third one. And that's what distinguishes naturalists from most traditional religious thinkers. Religion doesn't require verification, and you can't have that in a naturalistic worldview.

JC: You also discuss some of the issues you have with evolution, natural selection in particular.

After the so-called modern synthesis of the 20th century, and here's where we might lose a lot of general readers...

JC: That's okay.

That's why we wanted this to be a book for the general audience. A lot of these details are in the notes because we took them out of the main narrative. But, for those who are interested in evolutionary biology, there was a great revolution in the middle part of the 20th century called The Modern Synthesis. It was a hardening of the idea that natural selection was this overriding force that selected the most favorable variants of any species and adapted them to their environment. But as the 20th century marched on and more and more observations and discoveries were made, it became clear that natural selection couldn't account for a lot of that change. That's why we insist that evolution is not really a process where everything is in control. It's actually a lot more anarchic than that. There is a lot more chaos involved. A lot more things of which we still don't know anything about.

JC: Doesn't that give opponents of evolution something to latch onto, to say, look, evolution is not fact, they don't know what they are talking about?

GG: No, that's irrational, I think. Just because we admit there are things we don't know, doesn't mean that the facts of natural selection that we do know are invalidated. There are a lot of things that are best explained by natural selection, but the overall process of evolution is what I'm interested in. It is what I teach about and is actually what gives me my worldview- and this book is essentially a book about a worldview. The overall sweep of evolution probably isn't explainable simply by natural selection, but that doesn't mean we won't discover more about the theory. I just think we have to go further than The Synthetic Theory.

JC: The anarchy in the title refers not to societal anarchy, but the anarchy inherent in nature. How do they differ, and what would you say to people who use the anarchy of nature as an excuse for bad human behavior?

Now you are talking about the social implications of evolution, and that's something this book sort of steers clear of. Obviously there have been some very poor uses of evolution in the 20th century- Social Darwinism for instance- and we point out in the book that that's not a viable way of using evolutionary knowledge. What's going on with society is entirely different from what goes on in nature. We make that distinction clear. And I use anarchy as a metaphor. I think good literature, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, still has to have a good deal of metaphor in it.

"Dissent of Man" by Bad ReligionJC: In the book you compare punk rock to evolution, saying they share a celebration of the creativity inherent in life. Using that evolutionary metaphor, how do you account for the longevity of Bad Religion?

GG: We have a creative drive, but not all creative experiments are successful. In nature, there are many lineages of organisms that you could see as experiments that didn't go anywhere and quickly became extinct. But if you're prolific- and Bad Religion has been very prolific, we have something like 330 songs- if you're prolific, you've got a much better chance of longevity. And we are not the kind of band that rested on our laurels. We put out a record every couple of years and I think that's testimony to the fact that our fans are still very vital. We also get a new crop of young people every year who've come to know Bad Religion for our newer material.

JC: I always figured getting your education was something you pursued later in life, but "Suffer" was released after you had already started grad school.  What did you discover first, science or punk rock music?

GG: It actually happened simultaneously. The beginning of high school for me was very traumatic. I was a Wisconsin kid thrust into Southern California culture. I didn't really have a lot of comforting stories from the narratives of religion to give me some understanding of big picture questions. I felt lost, and the punk scene made me feel like I had a community. And at the same time, I started reading books on science and reading books on evolution, and that made me feel a connection to a larger organic milieu. I felt comforted that my species has this long standing tradition in the world, and we're connected to all other species. I still do.

JC: You wrote the song, "We're Only Going To Die (From Our Own Arrogance)" at the tender age of 16. It was inspired by the book "Origins" by Richard Leakey. You still perform that song today, some 30 years later. Does the song still resonate with you? How do you feel when you look back at your early creative work?

GG: That's one of the songs that still resonates with me. I think it was a well written song. I feel very satisfied by the fact that it's still a big request, and that numerous other bands more famous than us have gone on to record it for their own albums. We still play it and I feel good about it, but I will say that, back to the issue of creativity and some things going nowhere, a lot of the stuff I wrote as a 16 year-old was age appropriate and not something I consider very good writing. 

JC: Taking that into account, what about famed lost album "Into The Unknown?" You reference it as a failed experiment. Do you have a fondness for it, or is it an embarrassment?

GG: No, when I say failed experiment, I'm talking about it as you would talk about certain evolutionary lineages as not persisting. They were failed and forgotten. This one is similar in that we were only 17 or 18 years old and we were just trying something new without any understanding of music as a career. It was almost spontaneous. As I also point out in the book, true creativity is spontaneous and unpredictable. You just don't know what the results are going to be.

JC: You ever put it on and listen to it?

GG: Yeah, I listen to it for a laugh.

JC: For a laugh?

GG: Just like you would look at old pictures of yourself and crack up.

[At this point we are joined by Greg's wife. I suspect she is his contigency escape plan.]

GG: My wife is here to censor my answers. 

JC: At the time of Brett Gurewitz's departure from the band, Bad Religion was achieving new heights of popularity. Despite that, you've said it was a creative blow to lose your songwriting partner. How do you view the bands time and output without Brett?

GG: I always look at it as sort of a V-8 engine having lost one of its cylinders, you know? The car keeps going, keeps chugging along, but you don't realize that it's not as powerful as it was before. I look back at our collaborative efforts, and those are the best Bad Religion albums. But I'm really very satisfied with a lot of the songs I wrote during that time, because it was a tumultuous time and I think I was able to tap into some emotional songwriting and some of those songs are great.

Suffer BoyJC: I read that you said "The New America" is one of your favorite BR albums.

GG: I really like the songs on "The New America," it was a special album for me because I got to make it with my hero, Todd Rundgren, as producer.

JC: Have you maintained a relationship with Todd, even though you said he was a total dick during the recording process?

GG: Actually, the other guys said he was a total dick. I actually had a great time recording. I haven't talked to him since because he lives in Hawaii.

JC: You recorded in Hawaii? That's cool.

GG: Yeah. I have not been back to his island since we recorded, but I wouldn't hesitate to go knock on his door if we went back.

JC: Around 2001, Brett rejoined the band and drummer Brooks Wackerman was hired. You guys returned to Epitaph and released "The Process of Belief." A lot of fans view this album as a return to form for the band and the beginning of a new creative era. How did those factors contribute to that revitalization?

GG: I think you answered you own question with the setup. Obviously Brett coming back was a rejuvenation, because I found a collaboration, as I mentioned earlier, that I think I work best under. And Brooks added a youthful vitality that was missing. He was not only so talented, but he also had a style that sounded modern. Not that Bobby [Schayer, previous drummer] didn't, but Bobby's style was old school punk rock. He really was a great classic punk drummer, but Brooks can play anything. 

JC: With the decline of the record industry, how does it compare being back on Epitaph, as opposed to a major label?

GG: You know, I've always tried to insulate myself from the label, whether it's Epitaph or whether it's a major. Marketing is something that I've never been that good at, and it is something that I don't enjoy, and I've really never focused much on the workings of the label. But Epitaph is like a family. Thirty years, now, we've been friends. It hardly feels like we're on a label. It's more like a family operation. And that is very rewarding.

JC: At this point in your career, it seems like being on a smaller label isn't adversely affecting you, because you have an established fan base which is constantly growing.

GG: Well, I would say that Epitaph has become such a proficient label that we don't need to scrutinize whether it's major or indie. But I think it matters greatly what label we're on, because as I said, being on your home label makes you feel like you don't have to worry about things getting taken care of.

JC: Do your kids fully understand the context of Bad Religion, or is it just "Dad's band" to them?

GG: You'd have to ask them. I don't know how they feel about that. I mean, they've grown up on the road, coming to concerts, but they also have a very private life away from music. I've tried to keep them out of the limelight. I think they probably look at punk as an old style of music, but a very vital one. They know it's not "has-been" music, but they think that it's dad's music.

JC: This is a question your wife might want to censor. I never thought of you as the type to avail yourself of groupies, yet in the book, you speak frankly about having done so. Did you ever use evolution and "fitness" to rationalize these actions to others? Because it makes banging chicks sound way more intellectual.

GG: No, I think it would turn off any possible groupies if you start talking about science. And as I told you earlier, using evolutionary knowledge to justify or to explain your interpersonal activities is kind of lame. It didn't work with Social Darwinists, why would it work if you're trying to get into the sack with a woman? I can't imagine something more of a turnoff than saying, you know, I really want to increase my fitness tonight. I had sex last night with three other girls and you're number five for today, what do you say? Let's do it.

JC: Do you ever think you might be wrong about the existence of god? Ever have any moments of doubt?

GG: Frankly, I don't think about it that much. I don't really bill myself as an atheist, even though there is a lot of atheism in naturalism. I would rather bill myself as a naturalist. I think it is a lot more interesting to make claims about nature and what we know of natural science than having an empty and boring dead-end discussion as to who started it all.

JC: Expanding on that question just a little, early in the book you say the existence of god is a non-issue because naturalism is about that which is encompassed by nature, not anything supernatural. Do you think there is even a slight possibility of a deistic creator? Not a supernatural being who can intervene in human life, but a life form higher than ours that could have set the events of the big bang in motion, almost like an experiment?

GG: Look, I have a lot of respect for deists, but I don't consider myself one of them. I think pondering the forces of creation is beyond me. Because of that, I've never resonated with conversations about god. And I've lived a very full and happy life without having those conversations and it doesn't even cross my radar screen when I talk about nature.

JC: In the epigraph of chapter 9, you quote Aldo Leopold, saying there is a good reason to believe that a shift in values will be achieved as the collection  of verifiable knowledge proceeds. What with the increasing power of the religious right in this country and seeing how long it has taken for evolution to achieve widespread acceptance, when do you think we can expect this shift in values?

GG: Probably when I have great, great, great grandchildren. It's gonna take a while, but that doesn't mean we should devote ourselves to a nihilistic or hopeless outlook. The truth is, I'd rather focus not on how long it took Darwin's ideas to infuse into the general educated public, because that was painfully slow. Rather, let's look at the amazing rapidity of how much our knowledge has increased in our lifetime. It's amazing to think that the genetic code was only deciphered the year I was born, 1964. Think about all the advances made since that time. I think in our lifetime there's going to be a continued blistering pace of discovery. So as that knowledge becomes better organized and communicated with the public, there has to be a shift in values. It is happening now. The average person when I was in grade school was not talking with their grocer about endangered fish species. Now you can not go to a decent grocery store without those kind of issues coming up. Because you wonder, why is there no tuna? Why can't I get Chilean sea bass? And the reason is because those fisheries are gone. So these issues are going to start affecting the average consumer, and as we learn more about evolution and natural science this kind of information is going to infuse into everyday lives.

JC: In an interview on YouTube you said this book was also about being a more interesting atheist than has been advertised by the popular books of the last few years. I assume you are referring to people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Can you go into more detail about what you think of their work?

GG: Oh, I love those guys. I've met Richard Dawkins. He invited me to his home and we had a great discussion. I'd like to know more about him and I'd like to be friends with him. Those books are really well written and I have nothing but good things to say about them. But the fact that they desire to make atheism a social movement, to me seems empty. It's kind of like straight edge in punk, you know? We don't need more social movements. We need more social awareness, and those are two different things in my book. The truth is, I bill myself as a naturalist because I think the atheist discussion is, even thought it is very active right now- these guys are just playing a ping pong match. It isn't really providing any movement forward in the discussions we should be having which are, how are we going to make social policy about the environment? What are we going to do about over-population? How are we going to create a society that's sustainable? Those are the kind of social movements I think need to be discussed, and we are going to get to that through a discussion of natural science, not through whether or not god exists.

JC: Do you think religion serves any positive purpose, or would you rather see it completely eradicated like Christopher Hitchens?

GG: I think it serves a positive purpose. A lot of lunatics who are going to go commit crimes are held in check because of their sense of morality or because it is not something that Jesus would have done. Then there are people who get comfort from it, and I think comfort's a good thing. It's a really good community through which you can delude yourself. And delusion serves its purpose in many respects.

JC: Not a lot of people know this, but a few years ago you shot a television pilot called "The Punk Professor." What can you tell us about that?

GG: That was just last year, actually. It's sitting on someone's shelf waiting to be developed. I'm not actually pursuing it. I said, yeah, I'll shoot the pilot, then it's out of my hands. Then I started writing Anarchy Evolution, and it is Bad Religion's 30th anniversary, which is going to take up so much time this year. But it's something I'd be interested in exploring, if anyone is listening and wants to develop it.

JC: After 30 years, what's next for Bad Religion and for you personally? Do you think you have thirty more years in you?

GG: I hope I have thirty more years of life. [Consults wife] Or do I want forty? Forty five?

Mrs. G: We have to make it to our 50th anniversary. We've been married five years.

GG: So I've got another forty-five years. I can do that. I'll be ninety.

JC: That's not a bad run.

GG: I hope to write more books; I'm enjoying this process a lot. Bad Religion hasn't made its last album, I hope. We still have more creativity in us. Maybe we'll start to curtail the tours a little bit. I mean, we've been touring like maniacs. It's very tiring. But we really enjoy it, and the number of fans keeps growing and we've gone to more countries on this tour than ever before. We finally got to play Moscow this year. That was pretty amazing.

The Punk Professor in action

The Punk Professor in action

Bad Religion Official Website

Anarchy Evolution Website


Joshua Chaplinsky has also written for Twitch. He was a guitarist for the band SpeedSpeedSpeed and alternately maintains/neglects his own blog at thejamminjabber.