Like their pop-punk forefathers, the Ramones, Bad Religion carved a distinct niche in the rock landscape early in their career and haven’t altered the formula much in their 20 years together. Which makes the flurry of change surrounding their new The Process of Belief (Epitaph) significant — even if the band’s trademark melodic buzz remains intact. The big news is that guitarist/songwriter Brett Gurewitz, who started Bad Religion in the early ’80s with singer Greg Graffin and bassist Jay Bentley, is back in the fold for the first time since ’94, when they released their best-known disc, Stranger Than Fiction (Atlantic). The new album also finds the band back on Gurewitz’s legendary punk label, Epitaph, after five discs on Atlantic. With new drummer Brooks Wackerman aboard to replace the departed Bobby Schayer, Brian Baker (the former Minor Threat guitarist who joined after Gurewitz’s departure) sticking around, and long-time guitarist Greg Hetson still on board, the supercharged Bad Religion are heading out on a tour that’ll stop at Avalon next Thursday.
This happy reunion didn’t come out of nowhere: the seeds were sown a year ago, when Gurewitz co-wrote and played on a song from the band’s The New America (Atlantic). At the time, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the way things turned out. "Todd Rundgren was producing, and I don’t think his spin on it was what I would have done," he explains over the phone from Epitaph headquarters in LA. "I like a lot of stuff on that record, I just don’t like what happened with my song. The following year, Greg [Graffin] and I were having lunch, and he said, ‘That was fun doing the song. What do you say we collaborate on a whole record together?’ I said, ‘That sounds like fun, but can I be involved as an equal creative participant? If I’m gonna write half the songs and we’re really gonna collaborate intensively, I’d like to be involved in the playing, the recording, and the arranging.’"
Gurewitz and Graffin ended up producing the album themselves, and Gurewitz calls it "by far the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in the last seven years." The opening "Supersonic" finds the band at their hardest and fastest, a vibe that persists for much of the disc. "Maybe I was pandering to our fans a little bit, which I don’t think is the worst thing to do, because we really owe our existence to them," says Gurewitz. "One thing I hear a lot is that kids really love the aggressive stuff, so I wanted to make sure the record had a good offering of that type of stuff."
Gurewitz originally quit the band so he could devote all his energies to Epitaph, which exploded in ’94 with the release of the multi-platinum Offspring album Smash. Around the same time, he also fell into a Behind the Music–worthy struggle with heroin. "Yeah! ‘Bad Religion, Behind the Music. Brett’s struggle with chemical dependency was much like Leif Garrett’s,’ " he says mockingly, imitating the voice of the show’s narrator. "Did you ever see the Leif Garrett one? Fuckin’ amazing."
He gets serious, however, when it’s time to tell the actual story. "I’ve struggled with chemical dependency my whole life. I got clean for the first time on April 14, 1987, and I was clean for almost eight years. It was during that eight-year period that I had the most productive time of my life. I grew my band, I wrote a hundred songs, I signed successful bands, I grew Epitaph. Everything I’m kind of known for all happened during that period. Somewhere around ’94, I had this sudden and unexpected good fortune. My entire label was just exploding. I became the wunderkind of the music industry. What happened is that I didn’t really handle it very well. It really was the last thing I was expecting, and I relapsed."
Gurewitz’s drug problem eventually landed him in LA County Jail on a possession rap; he avoided a six-month sentence by agreeing to spend a year in a residential treatment center, where he got clean. "For me, that looked like a very good deal, next to six months in LA County Jail with all the crips and bloods. I’m telling you, it was a scary place, man." The experience inspired the album’s first single, "Broken," which slows things down to arena-rock tempo and showcases the group’s lush vocal harmonies. "That song is a direct result of my experience of coming back, getting back on my feet this time. I was accused by a loved one of being ‘broken.’ I guess the point of the song is really that our flaws are what make us human. They don’t detract from our humanity."
Bad Religion play Avalon next Thursday, March 14. Call (617) 423-NEXT.