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Brett Gurewitz plays with Bad Religion at the Glass House in Pomona, California, at the 2007 Warped Tour Pre-Party. Photo courtesy of Epitaph Records
“it’s like a rebirth or recharge,” says Brett Gurewitz, cofounding guitarist of Bad Religion, about the band’s new True North. “We just wanted to challenge ourselves to make an album like we did years ago—to reconnect with our punk-rock roots.”
After various lineups and major-label releases, the melodic-hardcore vets have launched their 16th album, one that finds them more comfortable in their own skin— or at least the skin of their earliest years. In that sense, it’s the most Bad Religion-like record in nearly two decades. And Gurewitz says it was one of the easiest to write, too.
Formed in 1979 by Gurewitz, Greg Graffin (vocals), Jay Bentley (bass), and Jay Ziskrout (drummer), the L.A.-based foursome was influenced by SoCal forebears like the Germs and Black Flag, while Graffin’s academic-anarchist lyrics were inspired by heady writers like Carl Sagan and Noam Chomsky. In 1982, the band released its blistering debut, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, on Epitaph Records, which Gurewitz founded and still operates.
The very next year, Bentley and Ziskrout departed, and the next BR album was the keyboard-heavy blunder Into the Unknown. The band went on hiatus after the album was panned by fans and critics. They reconvened in ’85 and tacitly admitted their misstep with Into the Known, which featured Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson due to Gurewitz’s battle with substance abuse.
In 1986, Gurewitz and Bentley returned to the fold and the rekindled songwriting chemistry between Gurewitz and Graffin propelled the band into its prosperous prime. From ’88–’90, Bad Religion virtually redefined modern punk with three albums: the ’90s-punk archetype Suffer, the pummelingly melodic No Control, and the poignantly fiery Against the Grain. Each showcased the band’s new musical foundation— super-tight breakneck rhythms, three-part harmonies (what they like to call “oozin’ aahs”), and articulate, establishment challenging lyrics.
“One of the things Bad Religion contributed to punk rock was three-part melodies and detailed background vocals,” says Gurewitz. “It was just something I was really fond of—probably because I was a California kid who grew up on the Beach Boys—and felt it gave a musicality to our strong messages. We are a band after all [laughs].”
After two more solid releases, the band ran into major mayhem when they signed to a major label. Shortly after their Atlantic Records debut, Stranger Than Fiction, the company re-released Recipe for Hate—which had already been released by Epitaph. As it hit the streets, Gurewitz left to handle the soaring popularity of Epitaph artists the Offspring and Rancid. Many in the punk-rock community suggested Gurewitz disliked the big-label bounce, but his explanation is that, “Bad Religion was well on its way, and it was an important time at Epitaph, so I needed to be there to aid in the hectic day-to-day ventures.”
Hardcore veteran Brian Baker of Minor Threat filled in as the band’s second guitarist alongside Hetson, but lukewarm sales of the next three albums pushed Bad Religion back to the welcoming arms of Epitaph and Gurewitz, who rejoined and made the band a sextet in 2002.
LEFT: Gurewitz (far left) at one of Bad Religion’s first shows—a University of Southern California frat party held on November 20, 1980. Photo by Gary Leonard / Epitaph Records RIGHT: In this pic from a March 5, 1981, gig at the Vex Club in East L.A., Gurewitz proselytizes with a Les Paul plugged into a Music Man head. Photo by Gary Leonard / Epitaph Records
His return alleviated some of the songwriting burden previously shouldered by Graffin, and it couldn't help but rekindle the signature sound.
“I am proud of every piece of music we’ve put out over the last 30+ years, but it was just time to make an album like this,” Gurewitz says of True North. “After setting out to limit ourselves to write fast, up-tempo songs around two minutes [long], this was the most fun, enthusiastic, and motivating project we’ve done in a long time.”
To get more details on the famous humanists' fearless and perennial holy war for peace and rationality through unimpeachable punk musicianship, we recently spoke with Gurewitz about the new guitar that inspired him while recording True North, and how record labels can still be relevant and beneficial to artists in 2013 and beyond.