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Interview with Greg Graffin By Gabriella

April 1998

Bad Religion, the role models for many second generation punk bands such as Green Day and Offspring, have cultivated over 18 years worth of poignant lyrics and fast, melodic punk – and they’re still in their early 30s. Without the backing of a major label, the band has managed to build a devout and steadily growing fan base over the years (including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who appears on their 1993 album Recipe for Hate).

Originally based in Southern California, the band is now spread out across the country raising families. They continue, however, to run the organization known as Bad Religion which, in addition to recording and performing tunes, runs its own merchandising line, produces unknown bands for free, and funds a research grant for promising college students.

Upon the heels of their latest release No Substance (due out May 5, 1998), Bad Religion is gearing up to headline this summer’s Warped Tour. In addition, singer/songwriter Greg Graffin is working on his Ph.D. in Paleoanthropology, which has become “a long term project, due to the fact that [he’s] pretty busy with the band.” Previously, Graffin taught Evolutionary History at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he currently resides.


NY Rock:

You taught evolutionary history, you're working on your Ph.D., how does that agree with your life as a singer/songwriter of a punk rock band?

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion:

Very well! Who said that just because somebody likes or plays punk rock, he is not allowed to have other interests? Having an academic career is not strange for me. I am a very curious guy, almost nosy. I want to know a lot of things, just for the sake of knowledge, because I am interested. It sometimes gets me into trouble.

NY Rock:

How did you find time for both careers?

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion:

I made the time. Altogether, I was a pretty average student, really good in some subjects, hopeless in others. I am really hopeless with numbers. The only reason I got accepted in the schools and universities was because of my ideas in research, but as I said, I am a very curious guy. [However], I don't think much about the American school system, even though I am a typical product of the system.

In a way I do miss the academic life. Music and writing lyrics is a very powerful stimulation of the brain, but it's not a day-to-day behavior where you spend your time interacting with colleagues. [Academia, however,] is something I can do the rest of my life and hopefully it will be a long life. So, I'm not that anxious about it. It will always be a part of me, just like music.

NY Rock:

You gave up teaching, did you ever think about going back to it again?

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion:

I always enjoyed sharing information with other people and helping young people or older people who are curious about things. For me there are many ways to teach; it doesn't have to be at a university. I might be a teaching assistant for one more class, but right now I'm traveling so much and spending so much time being a single parent, that I don't have time for that anymore. Those two things are almost enough to drive any person crazy.

Professor Graffin
photo © Gabriella

I think I can teach people as a musician too. What I know I'm good at is taking arcane material and making it interesting for the general public. That for me is what real teachers do; they take complex scientific information, that only scientists can understand, interpret it and make it exciting and interesting for the average citizen. Unfortunately there is an elitism around. The top scientists are elitists, but education is not for an elite few. Education is for everyone.

NY Rock:

You seem to be finally receiving credits long overdue for the achievements you've made. Do you think it has to do with the new trend towards punk?

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion:

Whether or not punk is the flavor of the month is not important for us. Bad Religion has been popular through many different climates. When heavy metal was popular, when new wave was popular, Bad Religion was still there underneath the mainstream selling more and more records. Next thing is this dance craze thing and we don't even pay attention to it. [We] just continue to do what we do, and more and more people buy our records every year. That's what we focus on.

Punk was never a fashion trend and treating it as one cheapens the whole movement. Bad Religion existed for so many years under the mainstream and even when punk goes away, which I don't think it will, we'll still have our desire to provoke people. The genre punk itself, for me, it has always been around. It has never gone away and it's becoming – especially in America a new form of folk music, because there's always a new generation of people who feel that they don't fit in society and people who are skeptical about the world they live in. Because of that, it's going to be around for a long long time.

NY Rock:

In a lot of your songs you're almost cynical. You don't seem to value faith very highly.

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion:

Faith in your partner, your fellow men, your friends, is very important, because without it there's no mutual component to your relationship, and relationships are important. So faith plays an important role, but faith in people you don't know, faith in religious or political leaders or even people on stages, people who are popular in the public eye, you shouldn't have faith in those people. You should listen to what they have to say and use it. It might give you some ideas on how to view the world, but ultimately you have to base your views on evidence. Evidence comes from your own eyes and ears. But of course this [philosophy] is in a society where the concept of "cool" doesn't apply and unfortunately we're far away from that.

NY Rock:

On No Substance you seem almost bitter...

Greg Graffin of Bad Religion:

I'm not bitter, but if you are aware of our culture, which I think I am, then you see how it's becoming more and more superficial and I'm addressing that. The media and TV seem to take over peoples' brains. [People] don't want to see what happens in the real world. Their minds get corrupted by fashion. There's nothing wrong with enjoying fashion, if it's just a casual enjoyment, but it isn't just that anymore; it has become compulsive. The increase of cosmetic surgery is a big indicator for me in that respect.

People are too focused on the outside, on looks, and they neglect everything else. If looks are all that matter to you, then you admit that other values, like political awareness and social conscience, carry no meaning for you. You focus too much on things that have no substance. If you base your whole life on looks, then remember that they're not going to last. They're only skin deep and what will happen if your looks fade? More cosmetic surgery, if you can afford it? Erasing everything that's characteristic and replacing it with a plain plastic Barbie smoothness is not beautiful. It's a misconception of beauty. Real beauty, [however], springs from within.


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