Bad Religion and the Age Of Unreason: Can punk rock save us all?

Bad Religion

A lot can change in six years. Cast your minds back to 2013 and you may remember the world as a very different place. Obama was still in office, Brexit was nothing more than a glint in Nigel Farage’s eye and climate change felt more like a vague threat than an ominous inevitability. 

A lot can change in six years. 

It was also in 2013 that US punk rock icons Bad Religion recorded their last album. Having taken the years that followed to concentrate on touring, and with each member busy with their own projects (guitarist Brett Gurewitz is head honcho of Epitaph Records; founder Greg Graffin exploring a career in academia and guitarist Brian Baker busy touring with Dag Nasty and others) it was when the chaos unfolding around them reached boiling point that they knew the time had come to fight back. The result is their 17th album, Age Of Unreason. A blistering takedown of the globe’s rampant corruption and spiralling inequalities, it’s very much an album of our time.

“We haven't recorded a record in over five years, which is a reasonably long lapse of time for Bad Religion,” guitarist Brian Baker tells Louder via a crackly line from America’s East Coast. “But the good news is that in those five years we've managed to see such unbelievable world changes, as a result of the chaotic new governmental situation that affects, seemingly, almost every country in the world, that there's plenty of information and plenty of things to write about. 

“So the good news is that by taking this time, we really had a lot to feed off,” he continues. “Traditionally, Bad Religion's job is to identify social trends that could use realignment, speaking up for the general idea of good versus evil. So here we are."

While each and every Bad Religion album has been an unflinching political statement in its own right, Age Of Unreason feels a little more urgent, that bit more direct than its predecessors. “What we're seeing now is a rise globally of this nationalism that I have never seen in my lifetime,” says Baker. “I mean, there's always been plenty to rail against, you know – governmental corruption, the hypocrisy of the church and all these other rich topics that have fuelled Bad Religion and others, but we're really at a crisis point here. 

“There's so many contributing factors to this,” he adds. “Availability of information, people feeling disenfranchised, people fearing technology. We’re at a real crisis mode, not a perceived one. And so, we're dealing with that accordingly within the framework of a punk rock band with a good vocabulary.”

But if Age Of Unreason is Bad Religion’s own piece of direct action, it’s also their rallying cry to the world’s optimistic and defiant. “It's actually a rather hopeful album,” says Baker. “I can't stress enough: I’m not just talking about the United States. Everybody knows about fucking Donald Trump, but this is endemic and it's systematic and it's all over. But, in general you still find that you're dealing with a minority vote and I believe – and the band believes, of course – that humans are decent. That this is a time that we will get through just like we have many, many times in the past. 

“This fascist rhetoric is cyclical and it's been happening all throughout history,” he adds. “Our album here is pointing out the hypocrisy, but also I think it's a rallying call for [people to do] the same.”

When Bad Religion released a new single, The Kids Are Alt Right, in 2018, the internet did what it does best and flocked to their comment sections with a flurry of feedback. Among the positive comments were social media followers who – mystifyingly – bemoaned the song’s politically confrontational stance. What does Baker say to those requesting that politics be left out of music? “My response is this: No,” he replies firmly. “I think it's interesting that only now, in the last couple of years, have we discovered that there are people online who are just discovering now that Bad Religion is a vigilant, left-wing, humanist band.

“If the cross with a line through it wasn't enough – which you think it might be – if you spent seven seconds on Google, Wikipedia, any kind of information page, you would instantly see what you're dealing with. Or listen to the lyrics of any song! We have like 500 songs, just pick one, any of them. But it's half-troll, and then the other half are people who are just bafflingly ignorant as to what we're trying to do.

“The best music has always had a political leaning – and we're talking about The Beatles here,” Baker adds. “It's not a new idea.”

Somewhere between the fervent fans and the anti-political critics lies a middle ground – listeners who perhaps aren’t sure where they stand when it comes to left vs right, or who they should believe when a President becomes embroiled in yet another slanging match with the media. It’s those people Baker hopes this album will reach the most. “[I want to reach] people who still believe that there are two sides to this struggle; people who still think that this is not just right and wrong, yes and no,” he says. “This is a black and white situation. You are either cognisant and a willing participant in the fact that humanity is equal, that all people are equal, that societies benefit from diversity, and that being free of prejudice is a path that will only enrich your life, or you’re on the other side of that.

“If you're on the other side where you're not quite sure if it's a good idea if we should have a gay public official, or not sure if it's a good idea that someone should be able to worship freely in any manner that they wish – what are you? I'm an atheist and I still say go for it! Open your churches and mosques. If you're still on the side where this is really not set in stone for you? Maybe Bad Religion is something you should check out.”

“I'm not trying to reach a new audience in a commercial sense at all,” Baker adds. “But I think an accurate statement might be trying to reach new ears. The point of all of this is to try to initiate discussion and to try to encourage people who hear a Bad Religion song to figure out, 'Where does that come from?’

A founding member of iconic DC punks Minor Threat and Dag Nasty, Baker has been creating politically-conscious music for the best part of 40 years and has seen the scene swell and develop over the decades. As a global upswing in nationalism has begun to take hold, has he seen the same mirrored within the musical spaces he inhabits? “You know, honestly, it's the same as it always was, there's just more of it,” he replies. “I mean when I started out playing this music, that was in 1980. The punk scene in my town was probably 100 people. When you magnify that over these 40 years, it may seem like there's more right wing punk music, but there isn't; it's the same percentage and it's very small. There is some quality to punk that seems to really speak to a rational side – the people who are not divisive and people who see the value in inclusion. 

“And the problem with right wing punk music – here's another little problem – it's not any good,” he adds. “The music is bad! It would be one thing if we had something to contend with. Like if you all of a sudden found out that Billie Joe Armstrong was a Nazi, you'd be like, 'Wow. Well, fuck. Never really knew that right wing music could be so good'. But the thing is, is that there is no right wing Billie Joe Armstrong. There's some guy in Iowa with a website with a bunch of fucking swords and shields on the front of it, and they're really not in play.”

If you cast your minds back even further, to 2005, you may remember an upstart rapper named Kanye West making headlines when he pronounced, live on television, that then-President George Bush didn’t care about black people. Now a multi-millionaire, West is firmly ensconced in Trump’s camp, proudly donning MAGA caps and posing for selfies with the President. It's a head-scratching 180 which helps illustrate the surreal reality many people find themselves in in 2019.

“Great celebrity, I think, corrupts entirely,” offers Baker by way of an explanation. “Kanye West's stock and trade is to be reactionary and edgy, and I must say that in our climate, the idea – as toxic as it is – of him having any sort of support for Donald Trump is equally, in his mind, as revolutionary as saying that the President doesn't care about black people. This is a narcissist dealing with a narcissist. And thinking of Kanye West as a serious artist at all is something that I'm not equipped to do. Every single thing is about is about likes, and it's about dollars and it's about perceived celebrity, to the expense of caring about people.”

It’s a trend that seems to have carried over to mainstream music as a whole. With a lack of popular music mounting any sort of visible protest, is there a role for punk rock to step into its shoes? “With popular music, the urgency seems to have dissipated entirely. There is no mainstream revolutionary – or even lightly-charged music for the general population – and it's really strange,” says Baker. 

“When you think about mainstream music in previous eras of struggle, obviously you have the Vietnam war era, but even during Bush you would have huge bands – Pearl Jams and these kind of bands – making statements,” he adds. “Now everything sounds like an auto-tuned car commercial. The lyrical content there doesn't really seem to have anything to say at all, which leaves a pretty large opening for punk and other other bands of our ilk, [to make] that same protest music. 

“It's almost that people are exhausted by this. That the Trump thing is just so numbing. It's just something new every single day. You cannot believe that this has deteriorated to the point where there's just this fucking crazy person sitting in a room and lying. This is what our democracy has boiled down to and people are exhausted. And so, they want to go listen to Ariana Grande on mushrooms in a desert and pay $700 to do so. It's not a great situation.”

The current charts aside, music has long been used as a potent tool in opposition to oppression. Where does Baker see its role in the resistance now? “I think music can provide a soundtrack, and I think that art and music are both very inspiring to people,” he says. “The basic sense when you see a piece of visual art, or you hear something, and you realise that you're not alone in your feelings, that other people share this and feel the same way you do. 

“If you don't feel that way, what you see is examples that could be quite beautiful of people who think a different way than you, and that in and of itself makes you explore further. There's something so unbelievably powerful about music that I think transcends the conversation of 'I want this, I want that' which is the base rate of politics.”

With this in mind, does Baker think his music has the power to truly effect change? “I’m on the fence about the actual music. I think it's part of the ground work,” Baker says. “I'm so keenly aware that it's just simply music, but on the other hand, I think that it really has a potential to provoke thought and that's the mission statement of Bad Religion. So in that sense, I would like to have what we sing about and the music we play motivate lots of new people to figure out that the kids are alt-wrong.

“The key here is the people; the listener rather than the music itself,” he concludes. “I think it’s the listeners who have the power to change.”

Bad Religion's new album, Age Of Unreason, will be released on May 3 via Epitaph Records. Catch them live at one of the dates below. Bad Religion will be celebrating 40 years in 2020 – keep an eye on their official site for dates and announcements.

May 03 May: Tanzbrunnen, Cologne (DE)
May 04 May: Faust Wiese, Hannover (DE)
May 06 May: AB, Brussels (BE)
May 07 May: Trianon, Paris (FR)
May 08 May: La Nef, Angouleme (FR)
May 10 May: Saarlandhalle, Saarbrücken (DE)
May 11 May: S’Oliver Halle, Wärzburg (DE)
May 12 May: Messehalle, Dornbirn (AT)
May 14 May: Wizink, Madrid (ES)
May 15 May: Altice Arena-Sala Teyo, Lisbon (PT)
May 17 May: Poble Espanol, Barcelona (ES)
May 18 May: Iradier Arena, Vitoria (ES)
May 21 May: Arena-Open Air Buehne, Vienna (AT)
May 22 May: Effenaar, Eindhoven (NL)
May 25 May: Slamdunk Festival, Leeds (UK)
May 26 May: Slamdunk Festival, Hatfield (UK)

Briony Edwards

Briony is the Editor in Chief of Louder and is in charge of sorting out who and what you see covered on the site. She started working with Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Prog magazines back in 2015 and has been writing about music and entertainment in many guises since 2009. She is a big fan of cats, Husker Du and pizza.