Brett Gurewitz has been flying the flag for punk rock since he co-founded Bad Religion in 1980. But his punk credentials go way further than that – from his co-founding of the essential Epitaph label to his relentless championing of dozens of young, worthy bands who may have never had a change to shine had he not given them their break.
Here, we pay tribute to the punk rock godfather himself.
1) His band injected punk with three-part harmonies
Bad Religion’s 1988 long-player, Suffer, is one of the most influential punk records of the past 25 years. Its fusion of three-part harmonies, political lyrics and punk-rock helped launch and influence a thousand bands, some of whom would later find a home on Gurewitz’s record label, Epitaph. “I think we definitely stood out, and we were the quintessential Californian punk band, because we started putting in harmonies that were clearly inspired by the surf sounds of the region. I am proud of [Suffer] and I’m proud of the influence my band has had on music in general. I think that record was the start of it.”
2) He helped to make 80s punk more intelligent
Since the release of their debut album, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, in 1982, Bad Religion have always tackled political issues head on. They helped make a whole generation of punk bands and fans more socially aware. “I think it’s accurate to say we were the ones doing it who attracted a broad audience, and so we get credit for it a lot of the time. But a lot of bands were doing it, whether you’re talking about Patti Smith way before us – who, to me, was very intellectual – or the Germs. I thought of Darby Crash as a philosopher back then, and I idolised him. And then there was also the [Dead] Kennedys. We’d come from a lineage of that, and I guess we popularised it by putting it with music that was a little more accessible.”
3) Epitaph Records is his label
Founded in 1980 to self-release Bad Religion records, Epitaph is now undoubtedly the most successful punk label on the planet. The phenomenal crossover success of The Offspring’s 1994 album, Smash, which has sold over 12 million copies worldwide, has helped enable Brett to continually invest in a plethora of new talent. “[Epitaph] is just this big organic thing. We started making records, the group got popular, and that enabled me to help other groups make records. It’s the greatest privilege of my life to be able to do work that I love and, hopefully, I have made some sounds in the world that other people have enjoyed… The Offspring were immensely important in terms of allowing Epitaph to have its staying power.”
4) He doesn’t stop at punk
Over the years, Gurewitz has launched and been involved in a number of Epitaph sister labels. These include Hellcat (ska, hardcore, oi!, psychobilly), Fat Possum (raw Mississippi blues imprint) and ANTI- (Tom Waits, Bob Mould, Solomon Burke), while Epitaph has also expanded its roster to include metal bands such as Parkway Drive and Bring Me The Horizon. “With ANTI-, I had the opportunity to sign the greatest artist in the world back in ’98, and that was Tom Waits. I didn’t think he would fit into the scope of Epitaph, and I was also looking for a channel to do something beyond punk-rock… I don’t have much of a philosophy other than ‘don’t get a real job’, but if I see an opportunity in music that I like, I’ll do it.”
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5) Producing? He does that, too
Brett has both produced and engineered a raft of great records during his career. Albums by Rancid, NOFX, L7, Down By Law, Pennywise, H2O and, of course, Bad Religion have all received the Gurewitz touch. “I like records to hit me very directly. I don’t want to feel like I’m eavesdropping on a room on the other side of a wall. I want to be in the record with the singer invading my space. I like sounds that poke out in a way that seems impossible. It’s about clarity and immediacy, and trying to make the louder stuff the stuff that strikes the emotional chord.”
6) He gets great tone with no fuss
Whether behind the desk or playing guitar himself, Gurewitz has always nailed killer sounds. The 16 songs across Bad Religion’s latest album, True North, are a case in point. “I’m really pleased with the guitar tones on this record, and part of that was keeping it simple. We didn’t f**k around with a lot of hi-tech amps. We used a lot of [Marshall] JCM800 and Les Paul combinations, but we were playing around more with guitars than amps. One thing that was really eye-opening, and actually really fun for me, was using the Kurt Cobain Jaguar, which I’d just got from Fender. It has a very unique, rich sound, and has a lot of harmonics because the bridge isn’t a through-body bridge. I wouldn’t use it on its own, but I would sometimes combine it with a Les Paul.”
7) He’s still punk at 55
True North is jam-packed with short, sharp, speedy punk songs, matching weighty political insight with aggressive immediacy. “I basically sat down and I tried to figure out the essence of what Bad Religion really is, and what really informed our early writing. And, of course, punk-rock was partly a reaction against the self-indulgence of the music of the time.
“So, I started rekindling all these sensibilities, and my co-writer Greg [Graffin] and I set a limit for ourselves of trying to write songs that were two minutes and under but packing everything we could into them, like we used to do. It’s a fun record with just song after song after song on rapid-fire… We had such a positive experience making this one, and everyone can expect at least one more from us.”