Here’s a line Greg Graffin sings at every Bad Religion show: “I don’t need to be a global citizen, because I’m blessed by nationality."
Timely, right? Truly inspired by our divisive, isolationist times — just like Bad Religion’s furious, anti-unenlightenment new album Age of Unreason, yes?
Actually, no. That line is from their song American Jesus, which came out way back in 1993.
“Bad Religion has never been reactive,” Graffin said by phone recently. "You can go back and listen to a Bad Religion song 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that will have some relevance today.
“That means two things. That means you’re writing about universals, things that are going to persist through time, and hopefully people will be talking about them in the future. But it also means that we are forward-thinking instead of living in the past. Those are two good things that all songwriters should strive for.”
Spoken like an expert, which Graffin definitely is, even in fields that go way beyond punk.
On the music side, Bad Religion is happy to be touring one year shy of their 40th anniversary, with a show Wednesday at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg. The Los Angeles veterans have influenced a generation of politically inclined groups, not only through brainy, melodic songs like American Jesus and 21st Century (Digital Boy), but through co-founding guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s seminal punk label Epitaph.
Outside Bad Religion, Graffin is one of rock’s great academic minds. He has a doctorate in zoology from Cornell and has lectured on evolution and paleontology there and at UCLA. Like fellow punk Ph.D.s Dexter Holland of the Offspring and Milo Aukerman of the Descendents, Graffin has put his curious mind to work both inside and outside the studio, inspiring countless fans to do the same.
“A lot of people who’ve been in academics their whole life, who’ve sponsored graduate students and have themselves trained professors, one way they measure their career is by how many academics they’ve created,” said Graffin, 54. "For a really exceptionally good teacher, he might have a handful, maybe 10, maybe 15 people who’ve moved on to become professors.
“It’s unbelievable how many people are on my list who have written to me. It’s probably, I don’t know, 500, maybe even 1,000 people who have gotten in touch with me, shaken my hand on the street, and said how much our work in Bad Religion has helped them to see the world in a better way. And because of that, they went to college, or they went into academics, or they went into being a schoolteacher. To me, that’s the most satisfying thing about being a multigenerational act."
Graffin has long been a musical omnivore, with tastes ranging from prog rock to Kraftwerk to pop bands like the Backstreet Boys. (“I Want It That Way, that’s an incredible song. That, to me, is, Why didn’t I think of that?”) He even likes some country music — he picked up the banjo as a teenager and still plays it on his solo albums.
“What I hear coming out of Nashville is incredibly good production,” he said. “There’s not a lot that I would consider innovative. What I see is people in cowboy hats who want to be in a rock 'n' roll band, and they’re somehow calling that country. I don’t really get it. But I’ve heard some of the more legitimate stuff that’s focused on songwriting, and that’s what I always have liked.”
That’s obvious in Bad Religion’s philosophical, often wordy lyrics. Age of Unreason, for example, tackles the head-in-the-sand hysteria of America’s “extraordinarily unreasonable” political climate, which he likens to the blind idolatry of religion — long a favorite Bad Religion subject.
“There’s a lot of great things about religion, but if you think about what the most flawed, potentially damaging aspect of religion is, it’s that it’s unreasonable," he said. "It doesn’t use verification. It doesn’t use the traditions of the enlightenment to advance its cause.”
Graffin said he and Gurewitz, Bad Religion’s other songwriter, occasionally talk politics, “railing against the things that piss you off in the world,” but no more than any other friends might.
“Friends are supposed to reminisce and have fun and do things,” he said. “There should be some sort of discourse and daily enjoyment of each other that has nothing to do with what the latest tweet of the president was.”
Graffin himself doesn’t spend much time on Twitter, “a place where people exercise their anger and hatred — or worse yet, their boring lives.” When it comes to molding fans’ opinions, he’d prefer to let his music do the talking — and for those fans to make up their minds for themselves.
That said, over the last few years, he has enjoyed watching more Bad Religion fans bring their kids out to shows. Just like all his former students who went on to become academics, he’s thrilled a few punk parents are trying to turn a new generation on to his music.
“I always stop the show and call out the little kids in the front row that are 9 and 10 years old, little kids sitting on their dads’ shoulders,” he said. “That’s really touching. I always try to make a comment about that at shows, or try and shake their hands on the front row.”
With Emily Davis and the Murder Police. $29.50 and up. 7 p.m. Wednesday. Jannus Live, 200 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 565-0550. jannuslive.com.