Courtesy of Greg Graffin

August 20, 2020

‘Do What You Want’: An Interview With Bad Religion Frontman and Evolutionist Greg Graffin Ph.D. ’03

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In a San Fernando Valley garage situated north of the decrepit glamour and clubs that composed Hollywood, hardcore punk band Bad Religion set the stage for their next 40 years together. By amalgamating their interests in science and literature with unequivocal sonic riffs and support from the Adolescents and the Circle Jerks, the band has become one of the most pivotal acts in the genre’s history. At the forefront of Bad Religion is Wisconsin born, California raised and New York transplant, Greg Graffin Ph.D. ’03. In pursuit of receiving his doctorate in zoology from Cornell University, Graffin continued with the band despite being on the opposing coast. His work with Bad Religion now spans 17 studio records, and his other pursuits include three solo records, four books and hours upon hours spent at Cornell, where the former Ph.D. student now lectures on evolution.

To commemorate the band’s extensive history, Graffin has worked with past and present members of Bad Religion, other bands from the Southern California hardcore punk scene and co-author Jim Ruland on the autobiography, Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion, that was released Tuesday. Prior to the book’s release, I had the pleasure of talking to him about the correlation between his musical and academic pursuits, the unwavering memory of bass player Jay Bentley, and the timeless notions of human existence encapsulated on their records.


Ashley Ramynke ’22: What is the intersection between punk rock and evolutionary biology?

Greg Graffin Ph.D. ’03: That is a really interesting question because it’s not immediately obvious that they have anything to do with one another. I think you learn that by becoming a scientist, or becoming actually any kind of academic pursuit — you want to learn to think critically. But you also have to do that in songwriting. Even though the genre that we belong to is called punk rock, we’ve always considered ourselves songwriters, [and] I’ve always considered myself a singer. In order to do that well, you have to really construct ideas in a critical fashion. It’s very similar actually to academic pursuits — putting together a good research paper, for instance, or putting together a good composition in English, or whatever language you do. They are the same skills of creativity and critical thinking. In that sense, I’ve always found a nice parallel between the two worlds.

But more recently, I’ve been thinking a little bit more about the genre of punk, and I’m very surprised at its longevity. There’s something about it that is going to stick around a long time. It seems like there’s something universal about punk music that people gravitate towards. It’s not necessarily the things you would identify with it immediately. It’s not the nihilism; it’s not the violence — that’s not what’s interesting. It’s this critical thinking about the world and challenging the norms. This countercultural strain that goes through the music has been there in popular music for a long time, even before punk really hit the scene in the late ’70s with the Sex Pistols. There was this countercultural movement, and in that sense, I think evolution is a really interesting history because it had its start as a countercultural movement also.

Charles Darwin waited 20 years to publish his discovery about the origin of species. He had come to the conclusion that species originate by natural selection, but he didn’t publish it for 20 years. That’s because it was so foreign to polite Victorian society that if he were to publish it early, he and his family could have easily been shunned by the very scientific community that he was aspiring to. So he kept it quiet, but ultimately he published evolution by natural selection, On the Origin of Species [by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life] in 1859. When he did, there was a firestorm, [and] there was still a backlash. In a sense, it was against all the polite social interactions of scientists at the time to suggest that humans and chimpanzees, for instance, could be closely related by a common descent.

His countercultural revolt was overturning the currently held view that they call[ed] natural theology, which today we call creationism. But creationism was the norm when he published his theory, so there was a tremendous social backlash to the Darwinian story. That’s why it’s interesting to social scientists, as well as biologists, because, in a sense, he was partaking in this countercultural strain that’s been part of human existence ever since. Most theories that have been presented overturn the currently held view, and there’s something appealing about that if you’re a punk rocker.


AR: Why do you believe punk rock, and specifically Bad Religion, has had this longevity? 

GG: That’s a really tough question. I can only answer it from personal experience, and that is, I’ve seen our music grow in popularity, and I’ve seen it maintain its interest among people over generations. We get as many new fans every year who are coming to discover Bad Religion as we do old fans who have been there for 40 years. It’s interesting; our audience now is mixed of multigenerational families who come to the shows. But what I would say is that it’s because of, from our perspective, at least, we have not compromised on the songwriting. We’ve tried to write songs and write music that has relevance to human existence.

We started in a garage, in the San Fernando Valley at 15-years-old. We knew when we started that we didn’t want to be just a pop band that was writing about the current trends. We wanted to write about things that were puzzles of human existence. In that sense, there’s a lot of overlap between human evolution and our style of punk. One of the first songs I ever wrote was about human existence, and the song’s chorus was “We’re only going to die from our own arrogance,” and that was inspired by my studies in high school of human evolution. So we were always interested in writing about topics that were timeless. And we were lucky we stumbled upon the band name Bad Religion, because religion is one of those timeless topics, and there’s a tension between religion and evolution.


AR: In writing the book, did working with past and present members of Bad Religion, other bands from the Southern California hardcore punk scene and co-author Jim Ruland change your perception of the band’s history or bring to light things you weren’t aware of? 

GG: Nothing really surprised me, except that it is interesting to see what stories meant the most to the different band members. But none of us put any rules on this, you could talk about anything you wanted. And Jim [Ruland] spent so many hours with all of us — being out with us and staying at our houses. We, as a band, are pretty united in agreeing that what we’ve achieved so far is pretty impressive, and we don’t think any petty disagreements would be good … we don’t really have any petty disagreements. That’s a unique thing for a band that’s been together for so long. But other than that, I don’t think we actually were surprised by anything.

Except, we did discover that Jay [Bentley], our bass player, has the best memory of anybody, which is funny because he spent so much of the time being drunk. But he actually remembers all these details. He remembered the exact … in the book, you’ll read about when our first drummer quit the band. I’ve never quit, I’ve been there ever since the beginning, but I’ve always had the attitude like I do in general [that] if someone wants to quit, that’s their business [and] their prerogative. I’m not going to try to twist their arm.

But Jay [Bentley] remembers every detail of why [drummer Jay Ziskrout] quit. It was something really petty, and when I first read the first draft, I couldn’t believe that’s why Jay [Ziskrout quit]. I couldn’t. I’m like “He didn’t quit because of that.” Then I read the second draft, and sure enough Jay [Ziskrout] corroborated the story. It turns out that he quit because we were meeting without him to go over publicity photos, or something really stupid. And he [was] like “Okay, you guys, fuck you. I quit.” I thought, man, that doesn’t sound like a very likely thing to happen. But sure enough, he corroborated it, and Jay [Bentley] remembered it to a tee.

I would never have put that detail in there because I wouldn’t have remembered it.


AR: What are your thoughts on the current political climate? 

GG: We’ve always tried to write music that could extend beyond the now and touch on something that was elemental about human existence. Our ability to reason is something that obviously I have dedicated my life to [and] I feel that I am privileged that I can reach a lot of people by writing music. It’s an extension of my beliefs to continue to lecture at universities; it’s a belief that you can help people use their talents and develop their ability to reason. I feel like music and entertainment is an outreach of that. It’s supposed to be something that can be fun, it can be entertaining and in the meantime, you’re learning something, and you’re exercising a part of your intellect that makes you feel good.

That’s what Bad Religion always stood for, in the process of hopefully enlightening people and hopefully getting them to think a little bit about the world they live in. So it’s very disheartening when you see a world where people are not thinking beyond themselves. They’re not thinking of building a better society, and yet, they don’t have any alternatives to offer except “Do what’s best for me.” I think that’s what provoked us to write [our 17th studio record] Age of Unreason, when in fact, it’s the irony that we should be living in an age of enlightenment. But it seems like getting the basic elements that are necessary for enlightenment has become more and more difficult. That means stuff like getting facts straight and using those facts with logic — applying logic to our inferences. Those are things that are sadly lacking. So a lot of the music on the album centers on that.

One of the standout tracks is a song called “Candidate,” which is a song about faith, again, faith over reason. The faith that we put into our presidential candidates. Obviously, if the current administration was full of promises and people were completely hoodwinked, they overlooked some of the most basic traits of what a terrible candidate could be. That’s kind of what the song is about, too; we get what we’re willing to forget. Or we get stuck with a monstrosity when we should, in fact, be moving towards enlightenment.


AR: Do you think students have the capability to enact change? 

GG: Yes, of course, I do. I believe strongly in the youth and their ability to guide us to the future. But that means that they still have to think critically and they have to be able to analyze themselves. That’s the key — asking yourself “Am I committed to this idea because it’s good for me, or is it good for other people?” I think something as simple as wearing a mask is where that really comes into focus. “Do you really think we’re trying to take our rights away from you? Or are we asking you to think about other people for a minute?” That’s the kind of stuff that I think you learn that by going through … you can learn it anywhere really. But I think the student body has to be reminded of it, just like everybody else. What you learn in college, you take with you in life. In many ways, I’m always very hopeful because I had the experience myself, and I was a different person when I finished college.


Purchase the book, Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion, here.


Ashley Ramynke is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].