This is how Brian Baker ended up in Bad Religion over 25 years ago
In this excerpt from the new 'Do What You Want' biography, the legendary Washington, D.C. punk-guitar icon packs his bags and heads to L.A. to join BR's ranks.August 11, 2020
If there was a punk-rock hall of fame, Bad Religion would certainly belong in it. The long-running California punk outfit have maintained a positive agenda while creating some classic songs. But if the band drove up to the front door of said punk building, they’d probably look through the glass door, look at each other and then drive away. Their reasons for being are about the visceral and emotional. Definitely not the realm of the self-aggrandizing. That point comes through loud and clear in Do What You Want, the new band biography written by Jim Ruland and the band. Below, Alternative Press is running an excerpt from the book.
This selection from Do What You Want focuses on Brian Baker joining the ranks of Bad Religion in 1994. Baker (known for his reputation in the Washington, D.C., punk and hardcore scenes) turned down an offer to join R.E.M. to play guitar with the SoCal punk legends.
The night of Brett’s last show with Bad Religion, his replacement watched from the audience. Brian Baker was already part of the Epitaph family when he was invited to join Bad Religion. Brett had put out a record by Brian’s band, Dag Nasty, in 1992. In fact, Jay recalled that Brian started lobbying for a spot in Bad Religion while he was recording with Epitaph. “He told me, ‘If Hetson ever leaves, call me.’ He said to Hetson, ‘If Brett ever leaves, call me.’ It was really funny because when Brett left, both me and Hetson were like, ‘Brian wants the job.’”
Of course, Brian wasn’t as well known for his guitar work with Dag Nasty as he was for being one of the founding members of what was arguably the most important hardcore band to ever plug in an amplifier: Minor Threat.
Brian started playing guitar when he was eight years old. He learned to play at the same time as his best friend, Michael Hampton, another influential guitar player in the D.C. hardcore scene, who would go on to play in State of Alert with Henry Rollins and the Faith with Ian MacKaye’s brother Alec. When Brian was twelve, he joined his first band, Silent Thunder, which basically just played KISS and Aerosmith covers in the drummer’s basement. “I think we might have played one show,” Brian said, “but I know we had T-shirts!”
The Bakers moved to Michigan, where Brian formed a band called Hameron with some other kids at his school. This time it was Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent covers. When Carlos Santana came to town, the drummer’s dad secured backstage passes for his son, who brought Brian along. Before the show, they were given a tour of the entire backstage area where Brian made his presence felt by picking up one of Santana’s guitars and jamming on it. Instead of being escorted out of the building, the crew brought Brian an amp and encouraged him to keep playing. That would be the highlight of any kid’s night, but this was just the warm-up. Right before the second encore, one of the guitar techs slung a Les Paul guitar around Brian’s neck and pushed him out onstage. Brian ended up playing a couple songs with Carlos Santana in front of twenty-five thousand people.
However, Brian’s newfound fame in Michigan was destined to be short-lived because not long afterward he moved back to Washington, D.C., where all his friends were now into punk rock. For most kids, listening to punk made you an outcast, but at Georgetown Day School punk was cool. The first time Brian saw real punks outside of his circle of friends was when he saw the Cramps play at the Ontario Theatre on August 21, 1980. “I felt a visceral tingle,” he said. “I felt like I was on fire.”
After the Teen Idles broke up, vocalist Ian MacKaye and drummer Jeff Nelson started a new band. They invited Lyle Preslar to play guitar, and recruited Brian to play bass. This was approximately the same time that Bad Religion was forming on the other side of the country. Like his future bandmate Jay Bentley, Brian was a guitar player who was asked to switch instruments for the sake of the band. Brian was only fifteen years old, by far the youngest member of the band.
“I’d never played bass,” Brian said. “I was a guitar player. I suppose I was asked to join the band because there was no one else available who had an instrument and wasn’t already in a band. Our scene was so small. I went to high school with the guitar player who was two grades above me. I played bass because I was the last one there. I started playing chords on it. They told me, ‘No, you play one note at a time.’”
Most scenes are defined by one or two bands, but the D.C. punk community was exceptionally vital with a large number of bands for such a small city. Dischord, the label MacKaye co-owns with Jeff Nelson, was the epicenter for the scene, but it sometimes seemed as if everyone Brian knew was making music.
“I was part of this group of twenty or thirty people in Washington, D.C., and everyone had a band,” Brian said. “That whole experience was really profound. I was in Minor Threat and my friends were in the Faith. These guys were in Void and these guys were in Marginal Man. Everyone was in their own band. Someone would play a show and we’d all go watch. Our band would play and they’d come watch us. It was all the same. Minor Threat would play and it would be the same thing if Government Issue were playing. The same people would go to both shows. The only difference was who was onstage.”
Much like the L.A. scene, each band had its own distinct sound, but it was Minor Threat that broke out of the pack and rose to prominence in D.C. and beyond. As the youngest member, Brian downplayed his contribution to the band. “I could play and Lyle could play,” Brian said. “I mean we knew how to play our instruments, but we had the best drummer in town and Ian wrote great songs.”
With a mix of sledgehammer riffs and howling intensity, Minor Threat set the bar for hardcore punk. Musically, Minor Threat made other bands sound tame in comparison, but the clarity and coherence of MacKaye’s message was never compromised.Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, being in Minor Threat was a watershed moment that set the stage for the rest of Brian’s career. “It was a classic case of right place, right time,” Brian said. “It was a lightning-in-a-bottle situation. My high school band that jammed at the guitar player’s mom’s house after school got to be one of the most influential punk rock bands ever. And always will be.”
After Minor Threat broke up, Brian collaborated with Glenn Danzig in the infant stages of what would become Samhain, though Brian left the group before they played their first show. Brian also did a stint in the Meatmen while “sort of ” going to college before leaving school for good and forming Dag Nasty in 1985. After Dag Nasty broke up in 1988, Brian went on to join Junkyard, an L.A. hard rock band. They did two records for Geffen and toured extensively in the United States before being dropped in 1992. Junkyard fizzled out soon after that and Brian moved on to his next project.
Next, he started a band called Careless, an alternative rock band with what Brian described as “a weird crossover of styles.” Major labels were throwing around stupid amounts of money in the hopes of signing an alternative act that could deliver a hit. “We were Weezer before Weezer,” Brian said. “Not metal. Not grunge. Whatever the fuck we were. The problem was whatever the fuck we were didn’t get a record deal.” The band was very close to being signed—they had a publishing deal with Virgin—but it didn’t happen.
Brian decided to take a hiatus from playing music at this point. “I realized I’d been in a band consistently for fourteen years,” Brian said. “It was time to step back for a bit and recharge my batteries.” He started working full time at Cole Rehearsal Studios in Hollywood. Cole was a pro-am studio, meaning they rented to professionals and amateurs alike. A band like Danzig might have a practice space locked out for a month while a bunch of kids just off the bus from Tulsa rented the room right next to it by the hour.
“It was entertaining,” Brian said. “I was basically the front-of-house guy. When you came into Cole, I was the guy at the front desk. ‘You’re going to be in B. Your mics are set up, and if you need anything let me know.’ I was basically a concierge. I think it helped that people would recognize me. ‘Oh my god you’re Brian from Minor Threat!’ So that was interesting to them.”
Brian was a talented guitar player with an affable personality who was willing to do whatever was necessary to assist. It didn’t matter if you were on your way up or crashing back down to earth, Brian had been there and was willing to lend a hand. “I was a kind of goodwill ambassador,” Brian said. “Lending my experience and trying to be funny and lightening up the process. That’s what I did.”
At Cole, Brian struck up a friendship with Tommy Stinson of the Replacements, who’d formed a new band called Bash & Pop and was looking to recruit some musicians for a follow-up album. Stinson asked Brian to join his band, and for a while they wrote music and played shows together in L.A. Around this time Brian met Scott Litt, who was working with Juliana Hatfield. Litt enlisted Brian’s help during preproduction of Hatfield’s new record. It turned out that Litt had produced a number of R.E.M.’s albums, and he was so impressed with Brian he introduced him to the R.E.M. camp. The rockers from Athens, Georgia, were looking for a fill-in guitar player for their next tour.
Brian met with Michael Stipe and, like a lot of tryouts Brian had been on, the subject turned to Minor Threat. It helped that Brian was a really good guitar player, but Stipe and MacKaye were also friends, and Brian discovered he and Stipe knew a lot of the same people. Brian formally tried out and was offered the gig.
“I was still working at Cole and life was looking good when I got a conference call from Greg Hetson and Greg Graffin asking if I wanted to try out for Bad Religion. They had a new record coming out and they were touring immediately. They needed someone right now and they didn’t want some random person. Because of Brett’s importance in the band, they felt they needed someone with a pedigree.”
In a matter of days, Brian went from being a guy who worked at a rent-by-the-hour practice space to being offered gigs in R.E.M. and Bad Religion. Brian loved Bad Religion; they were his favorite West Coast punk rock band. “When I bought my first Bad Religion record, I got How Could Hell Be Any Worse? and Black Flag’s Jealous Again the same day. I really liked ‘We’re Only Gonna Die.’ I thought that Black Flag were more powerful, but I preferred the singing in Bad Religion.”
Despite his affection for the band, he felt the honorable thing to do was tell Greg that he’d already accepted an offer to tour with R.E.M. Greg countered by matching the salary that R.E.M. was going to pay him and offering him a chance to become a full member of the band. That made the prospect of turning down R.E.M. much easier.
“It meant being part of a team and not an outside guy,” Brian explained. “It meant being an equal partner in what we decided to do and where we decided to go. In some camps you can be hired for a tour and let go. You’re not pretty anymore or someone’s wife is looking at you the wrong way. There are all kinds of things that can happen. But being a member of the band you’re a partner. You have security you don’t have as a side player.”
In addition, he already knew several members of the band. He was acquainted with Brett and Jay from Epitaph when Dag Nasty’s Four on the Floor came out, and he knew Hetson from around town. “Hetson was a local Lothario barfly like me,” Brian said. “He was someone I’d see at bars. We knew each other from Circle Jerks and Minor Threat. He was a punk icon. I was a punk icon. We’d go to bars and be punk icons.”
Brian’s audition took place at Cole while Greg was in town, and he played with the full band. It was something of a foregone conclusion that he would get the gig because they didn’t bring anyone else in for a tryout. It was Brian’s job to lose.
“It was great,” Brian said. “They found out I’m a real person. I’m not just this myth.”
After the audition, he was officially offered the gig. Brian would now get his first taste of Bad Religion’s bicoastal arrangement. In L.A., he rehearsed with Jay, Hetson, and Bobby—or whoever was available. Then he flew out to Ithaca to work with Greg on some songs. The next time he would play with the entire band would be at his first Bad Religion gig for a one-off show in Germany. The airline lost one of the two guitars that he’d brought, which made his first trip to the European continent more nerve-wracking than it needed to be.
“I flew to Europe to play the Bizarre Festival with Bad Religion,” Brian said. “My first show was a forty-five-minute set at a big European festival with sixty thousand people. I walked out on the stage to play with Greg and the whole band for the first time, and I’d never played in front of that many people ever. It was insane. It was absolutely insane.”
A number of Epitaph bands were playing the festival, and Brett watched Brian’s debut from the soundboard. It was like the Epitaph Summer Nationals only this time Brian and Brett had traded places.
Brian’s performance at the Bizarre Festival changed the narrative from despair over Brett’s departure to excitement about Brian’s arrival. Minor Threat had never played in Europe, so Brian joining Bad Religion was a very big deal over there. Bad Religion received considerable media attention and a lot of it centered on Minor Threat.
“Publicly,” Jay explained, “when someone leaves the band and people want to know what happened, my answer is, ‘You’ll have to ask him.’ But when someone like Brett leaves and you’ve lost one of your songwriters, you can’t just go, ‘You’ll have to talk to him’ because that’s not going to fly. So having someone like Brian Baker from Minor Threat helped get us out of that awkward conversation. ‘What happened? Here’s Brian!’ It buffered the situation without completely ignoring that we’d lost a major player in our band by replacing him with another major player.”
The festival also opened Brian’s eyes about how Bad Religion was perceived in Europe. “I knew Bad Religion was a successful band. I knew they were a punk band, but I did not know they were a big band. I knew they played the Hollywood Palladium in L.A. and they could play Roseland in New York. I thought of them as nowhere near as big as the Offspring or Green Day, but at that Replacements, Soul Asylum level. Then I went to Germany and was like Jesus Christ. I had no concept.”
The Bizarre Festival, though intense, was just a warm-up. The moment Brian got off the stage, he had less than a month to prepare for what they were calling the Ain’t Life a Mystery Tour, which would take them to eleven European countries in five weeks.
Brian asked for help and he turned to an unlikely person: Brett Gurewitz. Brian didn’t have copies of Bad Religion’s back catalog, which he needed so he could learn the songs. Brian had avoided getting involved in the dispute between Brett and the band, and the two remained on good terms. That didn’t stop Brett from issuing Brian a warning: “Those guys are crazy. You won’t last three months.”
Stranger Than Fiction was released in early September, a few weeks before the European tour. KROQ put “Infected” into heavy rotation despite Atlantic pushing “21st Century (Digital Boy)” as the first single from the album. It was a less than ideal situation to have the most powerful rock and roll radio station playing one song while the record label promoted another. Neither song gained the momentum necessary to break out nationally, and it had a negative impact on sales.
Before Brett’s departure Bad Religion shot two videos for the album, both by Gore Verbinski. “Stranger Than Fiction” features a random cast of characters who have assembled for a book burning under a bridge in downtown L.A. The exceptionally strange video for “21st Century (Digital Boy)” required covering the band members with blue paint and submerging them in a pool of green slime, which would act as a liquid green screen. “Unfortunately,” Brett recalled, “the idea didn’t work and it looked like we were drowning in weird blue liquid.” Life isn’t always a mystery, but the video certainly is.
In late September, the band embarked on its first European tour without Brett. The tour started in France and proceeded to Spain. In San Sebastian, at a show at Discoteca Erne, calamity struck. When the band entered through the ground floor of the building, they assumed that the structure was being renovated because portions of the second story, where the club was located, were supported with jacks. Bad Religion had been touring Europe for six consecutive years, and they’d performed in plenty of dodgy venues. From rundown squats to buildings that weren’t up to code, the band had grown accustomed to playing in places that would have been shut down in the United States.
The band opened up with “Recipe for Hate” and the fans immediately started jumping around and dancing to the music. Right at the song’s climax, the left side of the floor suddenly collapsed. “We started playing the show,” Greg recalled, “and a big hole opened up in front of me on the dance floor and bodies started falling into the hole.” The people who had been standing in front of the stage disappeared into the space where the floor had been.
Bad Religion stopped playing and the people on the right side of the dance floor shouted in protest, unaware of what had happened. But the screams of those who had fallen or were in danger of falling drowned them out. A huge cloud of dust rose from the lower level and people continued to tumble into the pit.
The band was quickly ushered off the stage and out of the venue while fans and club personnel attended to those who had been injured. The hole that had opened up in front of the stage was enormous: approximately seventy feet long by forty feet wide and between fifteen and twenty feet deep. Hundreds of fans fell into the chasm created by the collapse. Between the lights and the dust and the screams from below it resembled a scene out of a disaster movie. It took twenty minutes for the first ambulance to arrive and two hours to get everyone who’d been hurt out of harm’s way. Although hundreds had been injured, thankfully there were no fatalities.
The band had questions and demanded answers. What happened? Had the show been oversold? Did the venue have the proper permits? The disco’s promoters insisted the venue had held events in the recent past with 3,500 and 4,000 guests. By the band’s count, fewer than three thousand people had come through the door to see Bad Religion. In retrospect, the presence of temporary jacks to help support the joists was a huge red flag that the structure was unsound and the venue unsafe.Bad Religion’s soundman, Ronnie Kimball, took photos of the scene to document the damage, but on his way out of the venue, his camera was confiscated and the images were lost. Neither the club’s owners nor the local police wanted word to get out about what had happened, and they were eager to see Bad Religion leave San Sebastian.
Much to the band’s surprise, the incident received minimal media coverage in the weeks that followed. Less than two weeks later, an incident occurred at a Pink Floyd concert in London where a section of the bleachers collapsed. Nearly one hundred fans fell but no one was hurt. This story generated major headlines across the United States and Europe. The silence out of Spain struck Bad Religion as odd.
“To this day,” Greg said, “when we go to Spain, people tell us, ‘I was there. I was at that show.’ We get asked about it all the time.”
It’s a minor miracle that the show will go down in history as one of Bad Religion’s shortest performances and not its deadliest. Although the tragedy was widely known in Europe, few fans in the United States were aware of it until the band discussed the incident in their newsletter, The Bad Times, which enjoyed an intermittent eleven-issue run from 1994 until 2001.
Although the band, the crew, and the majority of the fans escaped unscathed, Bad Religion had experienced enough upheavals over the last few months, and they were eager to leave behind the feeling of the ground giving way beneath their feet.
Excerpted from Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion by Bad Religion with Jim Ruland. Copyright © 2020. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.