"In Minor Threat we had zero expectations... it was an after-school activity": why punk rock guitar hero Brian Baker is down for life

Brian Baker
(Image credit: Sergione Infuso/Corbis via Getty Images)

When he was a young boy, Brian Baker could often be found in a corner of what today he describes as a “grocery story slash sundry store” near his home in Bethesda, a Maryland commuter town close by Washington DC. As his mother and father did their food shopping, their son would mess around with the cheap Japanese guitar starter packs that were on sale to anyone who fancied taking a tentative first step on the road to becoming a musician. Shortly thereafter, after at last securing his own electric guitar in the form of a 1966 Epiphone Coronet, the nine-year old caused an explosion in the family living room after trying to use the Bakers’ hi-fi system as an amplifier.

But from little acorns mighty trees will grow. Forty-nine years later, the 58-year old speaks to Louder from a room in his home in southern New Jersey that is presently furnished by a full-sized drum kit, a compliment of amplifiers, 17 guitars, as well as a device that maintains the humidity at or around 50%. In other words, it’s a music-maker’s man-cave. Because despite beginning his career playing bass with DC hardcore trailblazers Minor Threat - later switching to guitar when the group briefly expanded to a quintet with the addition of Steve Hansgen - over the succeeding four decades Brian Baker has emerged as the most talented and tasteful lead guitarist on the scene.

As if being a member of one legendary punk band weren’t enough, his addition to the ranks of Bad Religion in 1994 added a level of sophistication to the group’s reliably superior material that endures to this day. Anyone minded to listen to Baker’s solos on songs such as Drunk Sincerity, Kyoto Now! and Live Again, to name just three, will hear a level of musicality that was lacking in this great band’s earlier years. 

On the first day of spring, however, Brian Baker is on the stump to discuss his occasional group Fake Names. With a line-up that comprises a who’s who of punk rock alumni, the quintet’s second album, Expendables, emerges today (March 3) on Epitaph Records. But before we get to that, we’ll hear some stories from a rich and varied life in music.

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Throughout life’s ups and downs, have you ever fallen out of love with the guitar?
“I continue to be enchanted with the guitar. One hundred percent. One just showed up yesterday that was made for me by a very talented man in the mountains of Georgia. I collect them. I play guitar, realistically, about two hours a day. That might be in snippets – 15 minutes, 45 minutes – but there’s not a day when I do not handle and play an instrument, which is why the house I wound up buying, which has this room you can see, is one in which I can do what I want with no neighbours. That was a big part of getting out of the city. This kind of thing would be impossible there. So, yeah, it is constant, it is necessary, and it is my true passion.”

When you began your career in punk rock, as a member of Minor Threat, were you aware that the genre at the time was shorthand for musical delinquency?
“I will say that I got really good on guitar really quickly, and then plateaued. I have not really gotten much better in the last 40 years or so, but I was really good at 12. I’m not going to use the word ‘prodigy’ because I wasn’t taught and I didn’t know how to read music… but I was very good for my age. And so the reason I played bass in Minor Threat was because they already had a guitar player. And that was the first time I played a bass.

“Lyle [Preslar, Minor Threat guitarist] and I were both pretty proficient at our instruments at that time, and that was unusual for punk. Some of the best bands learned to play instruments to be the band. They want to sing and they want to play so they learn drums, say, to be in the band. But Lyle and I, and Jeff [Nelson, drummer] also, had come in with previous experience. And I knew that punk was basically a pejorative. ‘Oh, punk is dumb, it’s easy to play’. But I always scoffed at that. Those people had no idea how difficult it is to be good at it.”

Did you have any idea of the group’s significance at the time? And 40 years later, how many hours a day do you dedicate solely to thinking, ‘Wow, I was in Minor Threat’?
“While I was in the band we had absolutely zero expectations of it having any long-lasting impact. This was an after-school activity [that helped cement] the idea that we were part of a community of like-minded individuals, but there was never a thought about monetising it or of it growing to a fraction of what it’s become now. And presently I spend zero hours a week thinking about having been in Minor Threat. Because it’s part of me now. Without that, everything that I do would be different. And also, when I’m thinking of Minor Threat, the thing to understand is that we are close. We talk to each other all the time. So I never get wistful. I called Lyle two days ago. So I don’t think of it as being the [adopts folksy voice] good old days… because what I’m doing now to me is much greater. I’m continuing to be curious and to push this music thing further.”

Minor Threat broke up in 1983. How did the rest of the decade treat you?
“The rest of the eighties treated me pretty well. What I managed to do in the eighties after Minor Threat was continue to play music, and to satisfy my need to do so. I was very fortunate that almost everything I did, people liked. And that’s something that’s uncontrollable.

“Between Minor Threat and starting [the group] Dag Nasty, which was only about a year and a half, I was figuring out what to do. I was playing with The Meatmen and some local bands, and trying to do things that weren’t really punk related, but with Dag Nasty in ’85 I thought, ‘Well I’ll do the thing that I know most, and that I like best, which is this punk music’. And Dag Nasty is definitely a punk band but it is much different from Minor Threat. It has different sensibilities… And although that band is inconsistent in its way, I would never change a thing. I was still playing music, ostensibly for a living. Of course I was living on floors because my needs weren’t that great, but I was doing it. I was actively doing it. And when Dag Nasty stopped being fun, that’s when [the] Junkyard thing happened.”

Junkyard were a band signed by Geffen in the wave of excitement that followed the success of Guns N’ Roses. Fittingly, by this point you’ve moved to Los Angeles. But is it true that you were recruited to the band in a Pink Dot convenience store? 
“It was a 7-11.”

So close!
“It was [guitarist] Chris Gates in a 7-11… who said, ‘Oh, it’s great to see you. We need a guitar player in this band I’m in.’ It was that simple. I was going probably to buy a six pack of Budweiser, so there I am. And I said, ‘Sure, that sounds like fun’. By that point Dag Nasty were starting to do things to get listeners rather than doing things that people would listen to, which was not the original intent, so it was becoming something that I just didn’t enjoy anymore… it was just sort of falling apart. It kind of had expired. So if I hadn’t run into Chris in the 7-11, I’m sure I would shortly have pursued something else.” 

Is it fair to say that in terms of presentation, Geffen wanted Junkyard to be a different band from the group you actually were? 
“I don’t know if that’s fair to say because they didn’t really do anything to us. They thought they had a more raw and real Guns N’ Roses on their hands, so they weren’t trying to change anything. Someone [at the label] was smart enough, and his name was [A&R mogul] John Kalodner, to see the authenticity that was there and didn’t really want to monkey with it.

“And we only started to fuck that up after our first record [Junkyard, from 1989] didn’t quite go. It got there but it didn’t quite bloom. And by then we had different A&R people who were looking at us and going, ‘Well how do we improve this product and make it more marketable?’ And like in every case, we became shittier. So the second record [Sixes, Sevens And Nines, from 1991] wasn’t as good as the first record because it wasn’t as natural. I hate the word organic, but you know what I mean.”

It’s easy to imagine that you were down on your luck at this point. Would that be fair?
“Not really. I was a guy who’d been on Geffen Records and had been a member of Minor Threat. I was living in apartments in East Hollywood and working at a rehearsal studio in-between [bands]. But that was the story of everyone in Los Angeles. And people would come to the rehearsal studio and say, ‘Wow, you’re the guy from Minor Threat!’ ‘Yes I am. You’re in room C. Let me know when you’re set up and I’ll get your mics going.’ It wasn’t sad. I was immersed in music. I wasn’t thinking long-term, but I was sure that something would come along.”

Which it did. In 1994, you were offered, and accepted, a gig as the touring guitarist with REM.
“Yes. Michael Stipe was friends with [former Minor Threat singer] Ian Mackaye, so he knew who I was. REM’s manager also knew who I was. So I was invited to audition for that reason, rather than the fact that I was a good rehearsal studio technician who had pretty hair.”

And then what happened?
“Basically it was, like, ‘Great, you have the gig and we’re all going to get together in a couple of months and start working.’ Great! So I didn’t quit my job at the rehearsal studio, you know? But very shortly thereafter – I don’t remember how quickly, but it might have been a week – I got a phone call overseas from Greg Graffin and Greg Hetson [singer and then guitarist with Bad Religion respectively] who were doing press in Europe, and basically Graffin wanted to try me out while Hetson was telling me that I could be in the band…

“Me and Hetson hung out in Hollywood all the time. We knew the same people. I was in the conversation and I was right there and available. And people were generally aware that I could play the guitar and that I was good at it. So it was very short. There was no formal audition. It was just a question of us getting together.”

You were a replacement for the band’s co-songwriter Brett Gurewitz, who has since re-joined the group. He would later say that with your appointment Bad Religion lost a writer but gained a musician. Do you agree with that?
“I think that’s fair.”

Did you imagine for a moment that your time with the group would last this song?
“I certainly didn’t think it would have this kind of longevity, but a big reason for me taking Bad Religion over REM… was that without a doubt I knew that my credentials with Minor Threat, and my ability to play punk music, was the best thing that I had going. And I was in a unique position because I had all of this experience, all this touring experience, so I had come from this tradition. So I thought the time had come to focus on that, and Bad Religion was an opportunity to do exactly that. I

“It doesn’t hurt that I was a huge fan of [1993 album] Recipe For Hate. So that was my Bad Religion ‘come to Jesus’ moment because that record is a guitarist’s dream. Because it’s still punk, but it’s not. Because of the intangibles and the levels of song-writing that Greg [Graffin] and Brett had attained at that time. It was just a win-win situation for me.

The Fake Names project, features past and present members of Bad Religion, Fugazi, Refused, Girls Against Boys and S.O.A. Are we going to use the word ‘supergroup’?
“If only there were a better word. But I would use the term ‘a collective of old friends who have some prominence in their works outside the group’. Although the band takes up the bandwidth that’s allowed by everyone else’s other projects, I don’t want that to be construed as it occupying a space on the backseat, if you will.

“We are having a really good time making music together, and with the addition of Brendan [Canty on drums] who is another person who [fellow members] Michael [Hampton, on guitar], Johnny [Temple, on bass] and I grew up with. Poor Dennis [Lyxzen on vocals], because the Washington DC quotient, has really grown on this one. But fortunately he’s such a student and fan of Washington DC hardcore from the era that we all come from that any downside is made up by the stories that he’ll hear from us first hand. Because it wouldn’t be Fake Names without Dennis.

“The way this happened, out of nowhere, without really much planning, has turned into something that’s very cool and that I love doing. Also we have a great record label [in Epitaph]. Brett [Gurewitz, label owner] is behind us as individuals. I think he’s at that point where he’s really interested in letting people pursue their art. And for him to have Fake Names was another chance to work with Dennis, who he loved and supported, and then there’s me, who might hold the record for groups on Epitaph concurrently, if I’m not mistaken… So what that means is that we can release music and people will know that it’s out. They can go to a store and find it.”

And now you’re back.
“Yes, we had the opportunity to make another record. We’re always writing, so we had tons of stuff. Unfortunately, our first album came out right as everything locked down, so in the meantime we couldn’t really do much, but we did do an EP that had Brendan on drums. So when it came to do the full album, Expendables, Brendan agreed again to play on it. So after we’d worked together for a couple of days, I basically Shanghai’d him and said, ‘Hey do you want to be in the band full time?’ And he said, ‘Sure’. Within 24 hours, [photographer] Danny Clinch was taking pictures of us, so Brendan couldn’t get out. I had documented proof that he was a member of the group.”

Fat Mike once said that he would retire five years after Bad Religion. Given that NOFX are splitting up this year, for how long do you reckon you can keep trucking?
“I will tell you this, and I speak for the members of Bad Religion. We are going to do this until we can’t. Now that can mean a number of different things, but we are, in my opinion, better now than we’ve ever been. The joy we get from performing is such a pure joy. It’s just a fantastic feeling. We just got back from Australia, where we were playing with Social Distortion, and that was such a fantastic tour… So unless we’re physically unable to do what we’re doing, at the level that we’re doing it, we’re going to keep doing it.”

Ian Winwood
Freelance Writer

Barnsley-born author and writer Ian Winwood contributes to The Telegraph, The Times, Alternative Press and Times Radio, and has written for Kerrang!, NME, Mojo, Q and Revolver, among others. His favourite albums are Elvis Costello's King Of America and Motorhead's No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith. His favourite books are Thomas Pynchon's Vineland and Paul Auster's Mr Vertigo. His own latest book, Bodies: Life and Death in Music, is out now on Faber & Faber and is described as "genuinely eye-popping" by The Guardian, "electrifying" by Kerrang! and "an essential read" by Classic Rock. He lives in Camden Town.