Having fronted the highly influential Bad Religion for twenty-five years (if you don’t know who they are, check the DVD reviews section!), Greg Graffin could be forgiven for wanting to try something a bit different.
So earlier this year, he recorded Cold As The Clay, an album of songs in a folk/country vein, featuring a few of his own compositions alongside covers of various American traditional songs. Alex Gosman spoke to him briefly whilst he was doing promotional work in Europe…
Hi Greg, how are you?
I’m fine, been over here for about a week…didn’t make it to the UK, though. I’m in Amsterdam right now, and it’s pissing down with rain!
So what made you decide to record a solo album? Been wanting to do it for a while, or just a recent idea?
Well, this kind of music has been around in my family for generations, from the earliest times – I can remember getting together with my family, and my uncle would break out the guitar or banjo and start playing old-time songs. That’s how I first learned to sing, to those kinds of songs, and I’d always play them at band rehearsals and during recording sessions…and one day, about three years ago, Brett [Gurewitz, Bad Religion guitarist and co-songwriter] said “Why don’t we make a solo record of that kind of stuff?”and I said sure, that sounds great, as soon as we find a break in our schedule.
Bad Religion came off the road late last year, and we’ll be writing a new record this year, so we had a nice little gap there to record the album.
You’re credited with playing piano on most of the tracks, and I myself didn’t know that you played piano until I saw ‘Live At The Palladium’ [Bad Religion’s recent DVD release] recently – have you been playing for long?
Yeah, that was my first instrument, actually – most of the songs that I wrote for our earliest albums were originally played on the piano! I used to adapt a lot of punk songs for the piano too.
Is there any particular reason why you chose to cover the American traditional songs that you did?
Well, the subject matter of all the songs – not just the traditional ones, but also the ones that I wrote – deals with the climate in America right now, and it dawned on me that that too is a tradition in American history: the idea that the common man, the working man, is always getting shafted by the corporation, by the government ignoring their needs. It leaves us feeling very destitute and alone, and that’s the imagery that I tried to weave into the songs.
So are the songs that you wrote inspired by people who you know personally, or are they more a reflection of what you feel the situation in America is like for a lot of people?
A little of both, really…lyrically speaking, I tried to use imagery that was timeless, but the song ‘Afraid To Run’ was inspired by a particular event; namely, the Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans. I was on tour in Europe when that happened, and all I could see were the broadcasts of news every night in my hotel room, and I tried to imagine what it must’ve been like for the families that got washed away or had to abandon their houses, only to come back weeks later, to find that the government had done nothing to help them.
A lot of families got separated during that time, and when they tried to come back for a reunion, I imagined that some of them may have only found a note taped to the door, with the advice: ‘Get the hell out of here, and don’t believe what any government agent tells you’…and so that’s kind of what inspired it, but I realised whilst writing the song, that it’s also appropriate for many other times in American history, be it the coal-mine disasters of the 1800s or flooding in the early part of the Colonial period; times when people were very much on their own, and a sad testament to the failings of the American government.
Your songs on ‘Cold As The Clay’ seem to have a more personal slant than your work with Bad Religion; was that intended?
Not really…I guess I only have one approach to songwriting, which is to try and say something meaningful and thought-provoking, and on this record, the meaning may be more hidden; but like I said with ‘Afraid To Run’, there’s a lot of thought and imagery behind it that I think shows it to be inspired by events that are larger than myself!
So after years of playing with the Bad Religion guys, how did it feel to play and record with a different band for this album?
It was very refreshing – I was nervous about it at first, but we got the whole album recorded and mixed in just seven days [as opposed to roughly six weeks for a Bad Religion record], and that’s a testament to how great these musicians are, but also to the spirit of production that Brett wanted to capture; namely, don’t overthink it, just play the songs as they’re meant to be played, and try to capture it as a moment in time. We didn’t do any overdubs or auto-tuning or anything like that.
Do you think Bad Religion fans will like ‘Cold As The Clay’?
Well, I think that if they only like Bad Religion for the punk genre, then they probably won’t find anything interesting in the record, but if they like the lyrics, melodies and the way I sing, then they might be more interested in how those aspects of the band translate to a different musical style.
What are your plans for the near future? Are Bad Religion on hiatus right now?
Well, we’re at a very early stage of writing the new Bad Religion record – that’s gonna take a while. We’re really looking at this year as a writing year, and that’s how I’ve found the time to get this record released.
I’d like to tour the record, but first we have to see if there’s actually any interest in it! If there’s any promotere that are willing to have me, then that’d be great, because I think the best way to experience this kind of music is to hear it live.