In elementary school, running into your teacher outside of school was like watching your favorite television character walk right out of the screen. Our grade school teachers only existed in construction paper covered classrooms, between cursive writing lessons and popcorn reading. As we’ve grown, of course, it’s easier to see that teachers have lives too. They wait with us in line at Temple of Zeus; they peek at their phones during discussion. But Greg Graffin, a professor of evolution this past fall semester and former PhD student at Cornell University, forges new boundaries for the teacher-form. You might see Professor Graffin at the grocery store, but, more likely, when class time ends, he heads across the country for the weekend to rehearse with his punk rock band: Bad Religion. And if that’s not enough for an existential crisis, a community of paleontologists just named an ancient bird fossil after the professor-rock star-hybrid. And, on March 10th, Graffin released his second solo album. Graffin transcends classroom walls with his ten track Millport, but, rather than assuming a punk rocker alter ego, Graffin retains an intellectual, paleontologist sense of self within each folk melody.
Despite what his students might think, Graffin’s Millport convinces me that he moonlights as neither a musician nor a professor. Like the recently excavated “Qiliania graffini” fossil, Graffin emerges in Millport as an impression of all his experiences, ventures and scientific findings. If his students listen to his new album, they might be surprised by how much he sounds like himself. And, at the same time, they’d regret how little they knew of him. Graffin describes the creative process of his album scientifically: “Like a huge tree with broad limbs, you can never predict what the crown will look like from the time that the roots are embedded in the soil.” In addition to being factually correct, this description fits Graffin’s lifestyle, as well as his academic and creative work. Graffin joined Bad Religion right out of high school and now remains in the group as the only founding member. He planted his roots and the rest of his career grew from that point. Then, leaves sprung out: a book deal (Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God), a PhD, a first solo album (American Lesion) and a teaching gig. Yet, Graffin remains rooted in one consistent form. Millport doesn’t so much unearth this root but clings on to a sense of constancy in Graffin’s ever evolving mold.
Millport and Graffin’s occupational philosophy work as an additive process. The album comes together by focusing on what can grow, rather than emphasizing what must drop away. Millport sounds like letting the leaves fall off a tree and then carefully pinning them back on. Graffin contends that the album represents “three distinct historical trends that came together in the span of only 10 days, during recording at Studios 606 and Big Bad Sound in April of 2016.” He cites the following as these three histories: the musicians, the musicianship and the people. Graffin’s three “roots” could be trees all in themselves and yet he resists breaking things apart. Instead, he brings opinions, occupations and instruments together. Millport characterizes no one specific moment, identity or period of life. It retains the professor, the high-school rock star, the mature performer and the author. And, most centrally, it adds the human qualities that these titles often leave out. Millport reveals what’s important to Graffin, without a syllabus or a tour schedule, without lecture slides or chapter titles. Millport patches together a sense of home—that place where everything fits and nothing falls apart—in his lyrics and instrumentals. He arrives at this place not as the un-ironic, penniless rock star reject, but as just another stop on his historical odyssey. He passes through pit-stops with more than emotional baggage.
Evolution, as a study, relies both on the idea of moving forward and falling back. We continue to ask ourselves what we once were only because we’re something different now. We wonder where we came from; because, if ashes go to ashes, we might return there again. Graffin’s Millport focuses on the progress from a starting point rather than the return to nothingness. He approaches his music like a paleontologist observing his field work, with a knowledge of the histories, theories and characteristics that lend important meaning to small findings. In the album, Graffin traces “historical roots,” which not only stabilize his music but support all of the experiences and moments he adds to them. When interviewers ask Graffin how he can make everything work in his tight schedule, Graffin answers that teaching “leaves plenty of time to head overseas on the weekends!”. Teachers have a way of compacting a lot of information into short periods of time. A prelim review section, after all, can transport you from pre-test self assurance to immovable horror. In Millport, Graffin shrinks, squeezes, compresses and packs things up in a magical, preservative way. I picture the professor arriving back in Ithaca each Monday morning and unpacking his weekend suitcase like a folk rock Mary Poppins. Graffin breaks all professor stereotypes, but, I’d still be surprised to see him in a grocery store.
Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]