Bad Religion’s Greg Graffin Embraces Folk’s Past, Science’s Future
Most know Bad Religion's Greg Graffin as a punk legend (not to mention an erstwhile Ivy League biology professor), but he's got a folk rocker's heart, with a pulse dating back to early childhood. Before moving to the Golden State and founding Bad Religion amidst Southern California's hardcore boom, Graffin was just a churchgoing kid from Racine, Wis., with a family whose tastes skewed timeless: mostly country, folk and old standards.
In time, Graffin would become enamored with the electrically enabled chaos out in Long Beach, and the rest is history, but he's never lost track of his roots. Case in point: Millport, his third solo album. As with Graffin's last such effort (2006's Cold as the Clay), the album's sonic palette is rooted in the heartland, rather than the pit. CLRVYNT recently caught up with Dr. Graffin to discuss the trappings of his latest American portrait and get his expert take on the country writ large — after all, who better than an evolutionary biologist to parse out our xenophobic present?
Greg Graffin's Millport LP arrives March 10 via ANTI-. Pre-order it here.
It’s been a little over a decade since you released Cold as the Clay, your last solo album. When did you know it was time to release another one?
Isn’t that interesting? It doesn’t seem like 10 years. When you do world tours every year, time goes by super quickly. I’m always writing songs, and I’m always playing this kind of music in my house and with my friends. If I had an opening in my schedule, I would’ve done it sooner. Certainly, I try to write songs that are timeless, so it doesn’t actually have a timestamp on it. This album is my grappling with permanence, and this idea of permanence in the face of change. That, I think, just came from getting older, and my personal aging, and the recognition of Americana and punk — how they both have deep-rooted traditions now. I think the songs are still sort of timeless, but they also speak to a reality that’s occurring right in front of my face.
The Laurel Canyon sound runs really deep on this album. What’s your personal history with that type of music? How did you get into it, and what does it mean to you?
Well, our family moved out to Los Angeles from the Midwest, so I grew up on this old-time music that my family sang at gatherings. Of course, they learned it at church. What’s really interesting is that I learned that I associated with rural living in the Midwest, and I never thought of them as rock-worthy in any way. But then, I was just a kid when we moved out there — I was about 11 years old — and that just so happened to coincide with something that, at the time, I didn’t know was a scene. You don’t know anything when you’re 11 years old; you just hear what’s on the radio. I definitely identified with a lot of the stuff I heard, stuff which came out of Laurel Canyon: Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, the Burrito Mafia, the Eagles and whatnot. I could identify with it because it had this Americana vibe that jibed well with the old-time music that I had learned in the Midwest. I really just think it was part of the atmosphere when I moved to Southern California, even though I didn’t partake in the scene because I was too young. But certainly all of the kids in my junior high school were smoking weed and listening to Jackson Browne and the Eagles, and that became a flashpoint against which we rebelled by the time I was 15 and started Bad Religion.
Tell me about your choice to cover Norman Blake’s standard "Lincoln’s Funeral Train." What drew you to that song in particular?
That’s one of the songs I was mentioning before, one of the old-time traditions that I learned from my family — my uncle, actually, introduced me to Norman Blake. He was a well-regarded musician and writer in old-time circles. When I say old-time, I mean music that predated country music; it was still important in the 1960s even though it dates back to before the 1930s. And then there’s even older stuff, traditional American music — those songs have no known date or author, and come out of colonial times. But it was important in the 1960s for helping to revitalize the folk movement.
The folk movement took a lot of its cues from old-time music. Norman Blake was one of those folk revival dudes who used old-time music as a template. By the time it got to me, it’d been passed down through the generations. My uncle gave me a record with Norman Blake and Tony Rice, and it had a lot of traditional old-timer tunes on it, as well as “Funeral Train” [which was written by Norman Blake]. It helps to represent what I was going after on this album, which was a picture — trains are always good imagery, because they pass by so quickly, and they represent an archetype of America: the stitching-together of all of these communities, the history of a nation. This particular train was carrying an icon of American history: President Lincoln, after he’s been assassinated.
There are a bunch of towns named Millport, almost all of them small. One’s in Ohio, another’s in New York. Did any of those specific titular locations inspire the album?
Well, the reason that I chose “Millport” as a title … it could have been named Springfield or something, but I wanted to pick a geographic place name that was immediately familiar and recognizable, and yet also nebulous in location, so that everybody can identify. When you hear “Millport,” you’re dealing with something that feels like a permanent part of America. All of the old towns were built on waterways; all of them were built around a flour mill, grist mill or lumber mill placed in the middle of town. It’s familiar, but you can’t put your finger on it — that’s what makes it an interesting metaphor. The album artwork was shot in the Millport in upstate New York.
One of the most interesting aspects of this album is its personnel, which includes members of Social Distortion and Bad Religion. Most listeners don’t associate those types of bands with country.
If you listen to Social Distortion, you’ll recognize that Americana element, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to know that in their spare time, they played that type of music in side bands and solo projects. It wasn’t until later, at [Bad Religion guitarist and Millport producer] Brett Gurewitz’s suggestion, that we rekindle our friendship — even though our friendship wasn’t on the outs. He suggested that we play the songs for them, and they were into it.
You’ve recorded one solo album alone, and one with friends. Which do you prefer?
I’ve always liked collaborations. You learn more and have more fun doing it; it gives you a real sense of camaraderie.
Your book Population Wars: A New Perspective on Competition and Coexistence came out not too long ago, in 2015. As a scientist, what do you see when you look out at today’s political landscape?
Well, as a scientist, I see a tremendous amount of misinformation. I want to emphasize this: I’ve seen a number of administrations in my lifetime, and some are compounded by a sense that they don’t “trust” science — and this is one of them — but it’s happened before, particularly in my field of evolutionary biology. Not long ago, when I was a graduate student, whenever we applied for federal research funding, we had to do something that was required by a conservative Congress. You had to state that the evidence for evolution is still under scrutiny, and basically they wanted you to state, publicly, something you didn’t want to believe. Conservative administrations are notoriously hostile to science and gathering basic data. This is very important, however: It doesn’t mean that the structure of science is going to be undermined, because science progresses even in the face of this kind of antagonistic sentiment. You’ll still have the structure of science intact. What gets hurt is basic research, and a lot of people who depend on federal money to do that research. It’s going to be difficult times for getting basic research done, and that’s something that troubles me.