Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Greg Graffin Interview
I have a short news piece in the new issue of Harp on Bad Religion frontman Greg Graffin and how his doctoral dissertation sold exceptionally well.
I called Greg at his home in Ithaca last July, and the 20-minute interview is transcribed below. This story was intended to run with the release of New Maps of Hell last summer but wound up getting held until now.
I think I managed to play it off cool on the phone with Greg, which is amazing since I was beyond psyched to interview him. Bad Religion has been my favorite band since I was a teenager. I turn to their music—and specifically Greg’s lyrics—any time I need to feel balance and hope.
It’s always nice when you interview your hero and he or she turns out to be as nice and intelligent as you always imagined, and that was definitely the case with Greg. I especially liked the way he answered the question near the end about why The Grey Race may not be as strong an album as Suffer.
Eds 12/10: Since Harp went out of business and is no longer available online, here is the text of the article, followed by the full interview.
Pure Mind Power
By Jason Simms
Even though he wrote it “as plainly as possible while still having academic credibility,” Greg Graffin didn’t think his dissertation, Monism, Atheism, and The Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives From Evolutionary Biology, would sell the initial 500 copies he paid to have printed. Most professors retain stacks of their dissertations. But most professors aren’t the lead singer of arguably the most intelligent and sage punk band of all time, Bad Religion. Without a publisher, the book has sold 10,000 copies—which means a lot of teens are reading Graffin’s interviews with evolutionary biologists on their own religious beliefs.
“I didn’t expect it would sell as a piece of merchandise,” says Graffin, who sold the books from his academic website (Polypterus.org) instead of BadReligion.com. “The nature of sharing information is so partitioned,” Graffin says. “You lose credibility when use one category to sell the other.”
But there’s a single source to Graffin’s multiple outlets: “My most creative writing, I think, comes when I’m very active in the science,” says Graffin. “It sort of puts me in a zone that is pure mind power and not so much scrutiny.”
Your dissertation sold a bunch more copies than you expected, right?
Yeah, that’s true.
What did you think would happen when you put it up for sale on badreligion.com?
My goal was to write a dissertation that could be enjoyed by the general public. So anybody who really is interested in evolution and religion, I thought, would benefit from reading at least the introduction and the discussion, and the interviews, because the interviews are really fascinating. I interviewed the most illustrious evolutionists alive and it’s a generation of the 20th Century that is not gonna be with us much longer. In fact, three of the people I interviewed are already dead. So I knew that it was a great collection of opinions and I thought that people would generally be interested in it if they were at all interested in it if they were at all interested in the on-going tension between evolution and religion. So, my goal was to write it as plainly as possible while still having academic credibility to the extent that it would pass muster with my academic committee.
I guess instead of searching for a publisher, I just sort of reverted back to my natural tendencies in the way we started Bad Religion: By publishing it ourselves. I didn’t get an agent involved or anything, I just started printing them. And I sort of put the word out—even though, you’re right, it was on badreligion.com, I have also have an academic webpage, and that’s where it was really sold through. It wasn’t sold through our band webpage. I tried to keep it separate because I don’t feel like using my platform in Bad Religion to sell my dissertation, but I don’t mind referring people who might be interested. You know, Bad Religion fans might be interested so I referred them to my academic web page.
I just remember something on badreligion.com about how you were surprised that the first 500 that you made disappeared really quickly.
I signed the first 500 copies, not really thinking that Bad Religion fans would be interested in it, just because I didn’t think there was any way that those 500 copies could sell. I was worried because it cost a decent amount of money to print those and I really was worried we wouldn’t sell them and I’d be sitting on a bunch of books. So I just decided to sign them to see if it would add any value. And it turned out those sold out in the first week or two and by the end of the whole run, we had sold 10,000 out of my garage basically.
I’m so busy right now that we put it on hold. It’s currently unavailable. I am toying with…letting a major publisher take it over and just get it out of my hands entirely.
Are publishers approaching you about it?
Well, the word isn’t really out yet. Maybe if they read your article.
See the point is that I learned from all this, maybe 1000 of those 10,000 were sold to academics. The other 9,000 were just sold like pieces of merchandise that people who like Bad Religion had to have in their collection.
Have you gotten feedback? Do you think people are reading the whole book?
Well like most things in Bad Religion, the audience likes the music, and the music is infused with ideas and so, I think it does provoke them to think, and likewise, even if they don’t grasp the depth or the implications that are written in it, at least I think it provokes them in a way. It makes a bit of a difference.
Are there two Greg Graffins? Does Greg Graffin the poet and the performer feed into the professor?
Well first of all let me say there’s only one Greg Graffin. But in the days of Classical Greece, I think I would have been an orator, who is able to share ideas in a forum, where people would come and listen and it would all be very unified. But in today’s world, we don’t have that. The nature of sharing information is so partitioned, that you can’t really transcend the different categorizations very easily and so I have to walk very carefully so that it doesn’t look like I’m using one category to sell the other one, because I think you lose credibility when you do that. So it’s just the nature of modern media that I have to be kind of sczitzophrenic. It’s hard to be a well-rounded person in the world today because the media generally classifies you as one thing or another. In fact, most people are perfectly happy to define themselves as one thing or another. That’s never sat comfortably with me.
So it’s the same creative well that helps you write your dissertation that helps you write your lyrics?
Very much so, yeah. It’s a motivation just to share knowledge and acquire knowledge and use that knowledge for some sort of an interesting perspective on the world.
I was trying to look at the bio that comes in the book and when Bad Religion albums were coming out, and it seemed to me that my favorite albums came out while you were working. Process of Belief is probably my favorite and it came out while you were in the midst of working on this and I was wondering if you feel like it helps your creativity at all to be in school.
It does sort of help me. My most creative writing, I think, comes when I’m very active in the science. You can also gauge it this year because New Maps of Hell is coming out and it was recorded when I was very busy acting as a professor at UCLA. So now my game is elevated up to an even higher level, I’m beyond the graduate student level, I actually can’t wing it anymore when I’m in front of a group of students. There’s a newfound intensity this year in my academic work, and it remains to be seen the reviews of the new album, but most people say it’s a pretty intense album.
So you feel like the pressures of being a professor sort of fed into the overall energy level?
No, I think it takes my mind away from some of the practical details of writing. It sort of puts me in a zone that is pure mind power and not so much scrutiny. A very synthetic kind of activity, where I’m synthesizing information at a much higher rate and I think that helps me write lyrics.
There are a lot more 60-year-old college professors than there are bands on the Warped Tour. Are you going to faze out Bad Religion at some point and just do academics?
It’s hard to say. Obviously my goal is to try and age gracefully and I’m sure Mick Jagger thinks he’s doing the same thing. He’s 65 now or something and still performing, but hopefully when I’m 65 I’ll have a few books under my belt that are being actively discussed in academic circles and that’ll give me a place to exercise my mind. I don’t know if I want to be onstage as much as I am today.
Will your future books also be accessible to non-academic audiences?
That’s my goal, yeah. I feel you can do a lot more good for the world if you try and write for the general educated public.
Is that also why you continue to be in a punk band instead of, I don’t know, publishing poetery?
I guess so, yeah. I definitely see this style of music we’ve been playing…I’ve always believed it was music for the people, not an elitist kind of endeavor. So that’s definitely part of my core belief system.
I wanted to ask you about the song “No Direction” which you wrote, I don’t know, 15 years ago, but you’re still playing to that adolescent crowd and I was wondering if you still have fans coming to you for direction and if that’s something you still experience and if it’s changed.
Not per se. They don’t ask me what to do. They’re not my peers anymore, so. I think that song was more about, “Don’t ask me to be your leader because you have to make sense of this on your own.” And to a large extent I still feel that way. But I do symbolize something to them—people who are much younger—just like a professor symbolizes something to his or her youthful set of students. I think they somehow show that you never stop learning and you never stop formulating a sense of purpose as you go through life and to me that formulation is an intellectual pursuit. And a true intellectual pursuit is not concerned with giving people direction, but just trying to procure some meaning from a very brief time on the planet. Maybe I offer them some hope that you can age gracefully as a punker.
The last thing I wanted to ask you about is that Bad Religion seems to walk this line between being street credible band and being a pop punk band on the radio and Warped Tour. How do you do that?
I’m not sure. I mean, obviously we’re not the kind of commercial band, like the Chili Peppers who get played on the radio all the time and are considered very mainstream. I think we just have always focused on the content of the songs and the quality of the writing and that’s always been more important to us than the image or the fashion. Because of that we’ve been able to not look too silly as we got older. Because a lot of people you wonder, “Why does he still have a Mohawk?” or “Why is he wearing a leather jacket?” “He hasn’t changed much since he was 16.” I don’t think that offers people much substance. So luckily songwriting is a difficult chore, and if you take it seriously you can only improve with each effort, so that’s what we try to do and maybe there will come a time when we don’t have anything left to write about or we don’t have the energy. But until that happens I think we can still improve in our songs.
Do you think that you’ve always improved? To me Suffer [which came out in 1989] is a better album than The Grey Race [which came out in 1996].
Well Suffer as a whole is a better album, but that’s because [guitarist] Brett [Gurewitz] left the band. We lost half of our writing staff for about four albums. And yet those four albums still have, at least from my own perspective, real achievements in writing. If the whole album itself wasn’t as strong, the high points were definitely higher than my output on the previous album. So I really have to believe that the writing is better each time. Otherwise we’re just taking people for a ride. I can’t sleep well with that idea.
I guess to get back to my original question, you think the fact that you aged well is what makes it okay for a crust punk or an anarchist who listens to Discharge to also like Bad Religion, whereas it’s not okay for them to like NOFX.
Well, I can’t comment on those people. I don’t really understand it. I don’t care…if someone’s committed to something, we can’t really judge ‘em for their fashion. But if they’re just committed to the fashion, I’ve gotta say there’s more to life.