Bad Religion prepare to play songs they haven’t touched since the ’80s
The SoCal punk icons tell their 40-year history through four episodes of 'Decades,' featuring special live performances and exclusive interviews with the band members.December 10, 2020
Like most bands (at least the ones who didn’t try to kill their fans), SoCal punk institution Bad Religion didn’t play any shows this year. Until last month, when they performed four shows in front of cameras, not people. Over two days in November, the band performed four sets at esteemed L.A. venue the Roxy for Decades, an online streaming series chronicling their 40-year career. The first event focuses on the ’80s, with the band playing songs from that era, as well as sitting down for exclusive interviews.
A joint production between No Cap Shows and the members of Bad Religion, Decades is truly an ambitious project that transcends generations of listeners. With the first installment happening Dec. 12 (and the other three events to follow on succeeding weekends), the band have put together a concise time capsule that outlines their musical history and personal mindsets about their career through the greater prism of punk rock.
Bassist/founding member Jay Bentley spoke with Alternative Press to discuss the making of the series, the key to Bad Religion’s continuous legacy in motion and the burden of having to learn 40 years’ worth of music to play in one weekend. “Two concerts a day for two days,” Bentley reveals. “We filmed one, took a break, [and] we filmed another. We all went home, came back the next day and did it again. After that, I didn’t remember a lot of things for about three or four days. I don’t remember where I live. I had to lay down for a while because, seriously, it just sucked everything out of my brain. Seriously, I had to forget everything and only remember music.
Whose idea was “Decades”? Was somebody in your band watching the Beatles Anthology DVD box set and said, “Oh, we should do that?”
This was our 40th year. We did have a lot of plans, pre-pandemic. Obviously, all that went away. The original Decades idea actually came from the promoter at Irving Plaza for our 30th anniversary. I was on the phone with our booking agent and him. He wanted to present this idea to do three nights at Irving Plaza. The first night is the ’80s. The second night is the ’90s and the next night is the 2000s. And I went, “OK, why not? That sounds like fun.” And it was super-challenging. We had to learn a lot of weird songs.
So when we started talking about joining the virtual concert revolution, we didn’t really know what to do. Some people have done shit in their living room, and some people have done stuff remotely from a stage. And I think we probably spent a couple of weeks trying to figure out what we were going to do. [Vocalist Greg] Graffin said, “What if we just did four shows for Decades?” I think that’s what we all wanted to do live, anyway. At some point leading up to this, we were doing these things like playing the entire Suffer album as an encore. And playing the No Control album as an encore because they were turning 30, and we were celebrating this album in weird ways. So we did talk about maybe at some point [playing] four nights somewhere and doing something like this. But we didn’t play one show this year.
You ended up playing four sets to a bunch of cameras. Did you look at a bunch of similar events and discuss how bands and musicians were doing things on lockdown at home? Did you consider what things abjectly sucked and what could be improved upon?
I am going to be brutally honest and say, no, I never did. I never watched anything like that. I’m not going to tune in to watch that. I’m sorry.
For what reason? You just weren’t interested as a fan, or you just weren’t interested in how to convey that type of experience digitally?
Maybe both. It’s not that I’m not a fan because the bands that I’m friends with, I enjoy watching them play. There’s something about not wanting to participate in that way. I don’t like doing Zoom meetings. To be honest about the way Bad Religion functions as a band and a business, we really don’t pay much attention to what other people are doing or what’s popular. I think that’s what’s been working for us. We just make our own rules up.
Each [episode] is about an hour. But that’s just the music part. It’s interspersed with interviews, and there were parts where they were filming us [at] rehearsal. We were trying to learn songs that we haven’t played in 50 years. I saw the first edit of the ’80s, and I’m like, “This is great.” And I don’t like anything. [Laughs.] I think the ’80s will have more songs than, let’s say the 2000s, because the songs obviously got a little longer. They went from being a minute to three minutes, right? We tried to choose songs that you wouldn’t necessarily hear, even if you’ve seen the band live. “Oh, I never thought you guys would play that…” Well, maybe we didn’t want to play in front of people, but we didn’t have a problem playing in front of a camera. [Laughs.]
So there’s a warts-and-all vibe to this, as well.
There were times where we were playing a song, but I just went straight to “I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing” and just guessing at the next chord. Yeah, it was tough. I think we learned about 200 songs [from] the catalog. We just said, “Well, let’s learn all these songs so we have stuff to work with.” My brain stopped working at about 50. I’m like, “I can’t remember anymore without losing stuff.”
It’s such a big discography. How does one prepare for this undertaking?
Everybody was at home learning the stuff and just playing along. I think the weird part is we started writing a setlist, but they kept changing so much that we just were all learning everything. And when it came to writing a setlist, almost everything was like, “I’ve forgotten everything already. Now I can’t remember.” [Laughs.]
But you know, there’s muscle memory.
Totally. There will come a song on the setlist—and I write the fucking setlists—and I’ll look at it [and] go, “Oh shit. I don’t know how that song goes.” I’ll just close my eyes and go, “Fingers, go do your magic.” I don’t know how that happened, but sure. Whatever. [Laughs.]
Forty years of being a cultural fulcrum that is still been able to transcend generations. That’s not something like keeping a shelf of bowling trophies you earned in high school. There is something genuinely resonant about that.
Honestly, I never think about it. I really just don’t. I don’t think I’m supposed to think about it. One of the things that we attributed this to [is this question of] “How do you do this?” Well, we keep putting out new material. We keep pumping out stuff relevant to us and fun stuff to do. And that keeps us going. I don’t think of us as 40 years old. I only think of us as 2 years old because that’s how old Age Of Unreason is. It’s hard to fathom 40 years. Every now and then, I think, “This has been a long road.” But that’s awesome.
Can a band last that long moving toward the future and still have relevance? The way for bands to do business seems to be getting difficult with some regularity. But I remember bands who literally said to me, “Yeah, we were at it for two years, and it wasn’t happening fast enough.” And my response was, “Hey, fuck you.” Because “making it” was the only thing to motivate them.
Absolutely. The number of people that I meet out on the road that will say, “I used to be in a band in high school. It was great.” I go, “Why did you stop playing?” “Oh, you know, I got a job.” Well, I had a job. “I went to school.” And I went to school. “I got married and had kids.” Funny: I got married and had kids, too. Why did you stop playing? “It really just didn’t happen.”
OK, so the long and short story of Bad Religion was that we started in 1980. And we know that no one really gave a shit about us until 1993. It was 13 years until people started calling us saying, “You guys are pretty good.” OK, so we kept at it for 13 years because we just really enjoyed it, and we weren’t making money. We would go out and play for beer or a hundred bucks.
Bad Religion were my first real band. But in that time frame, I was in Wasted Youth, T.S.O.L. [and] the Circle Jerks. I played with other guys who were in popular bands. I did a lot of stuff, and I realized that Bad Religion had something special. It happened in a rehearsal room with no one, and it happened onstage in front of a thousand people. There was something inside me that happened when this band started playing that said, “God, this is different. This is special.” And we all felt that. And that’s why we were able to keep playing for 13 years without really having “the moment.”
What’s the big takeaway from Decades for fans and maybe people who were just on the periphery of Bad Religion’s existence?
That we’re fucking consistent.
I’m sure when the first episode goes live, you’ll get comments like, “They didn’t play this song” or you didn’t talk about whatever. But that’s a good thing. It shows that people are still invested and hungry for Bad Religion.
What I do for a living is live in a Peter Pan world. I don’t have to grow up. I get to yell into a microphone and slam on a bass guitar and think, “What the fuck am I doing?” We are literally just a working band. We work worldwide. That’s what we do.
Decades is more than enough proof. There’s your fucking résumé right there.
It’s pretty much my entire résumé. “Forty years: bass guitar, Bad Religion.” Actually, there are a couple of things there. Forklift operator at Epitaph Records is my second thing. So that’s what I’ve got. Bass guitar, forklift operator. Oh, and I worked at Orange Julius for a minute. [Laughs.]
The first Decades broadcast (“The ’80s”) begins Dec 12 at 2pm PT. “The ’90s” will be broadcast Dec. 19; “The 2000s” on Dec. 26, with “The 2010s” arriving Jan. 2, 2020. Tickets for the series are available here.