Bad Religion Discuss ‘Christmas Songs,’ Explain the ‘Desecration’ of Punking Up Religious Favorites
Speaking with Brett Gurewitz, founding songwriter and guitarist for Bad Religion, it's easy to forget about his other credentials. Namely, he's the owner and operator of Epitaph Records and its sister label Anti-. In fact, in the '90s, following the success of NoFX and the Offspring, Gurewitz left the band for a couple albums to focus on the company. To this day, Epitaph has an amazing roster of acts, including Converge, Refused, Weezer and Rancid.
Another of Epitaph's acts, of course, is Bad Religion, so getting approval to make a Christmas album, titled 'Christmas Songs' and released last month, was not difficult. What likely has been difficult is dealing with baffled fans. We spoke with Gurewitz about the confusion the album has caused and why it should be heard as a desecration to the church. To wit, 20 percent of the proceeds go to a charity for children abused by priests.
Just looking at the cover of ‘Christmas Songs,’ the reaction is that something must be up. Why would your band do a Christmas album?
I think the main reason is that we all thought it would be super funny and perverse. Over the years, we’ve played a lot of festivals that fall around Christmas, like the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas, so we’d already worked up some live versions of Christmas songs for those events. And we had joked that one day we should do a whole Christmas album, if only because it would be so out of character. And this year, it went from being a joke to not. We had so much fun making the 'True North' album, and it was such a successful recording session, with everyone getting along great and wanting to record more, so we thought we’d do that Christmas album.
There’s a subversive element to doing the album, particularly if someone is familiar with your band and history, but for the uninitiated, that subversive element isn’t as effective. A listener not acquainted with Bad Religion might hear the songs as regular Christmas tunes.
Maybe. If that is true, it is a testimony to how far the world has come. Because, the songs are played in the style of punk rock. Maybe punk rock has become so respectable now that no one would bat an eyelash to hear a traditional Christmas song played in the punk style. But, part of the intention is that should be a jarring thing for the listener to hear. I think people like you and me, people who listen to Bad Religion songs, or to Slayer, or to Converge, it’s pretty palatable music. But, maybe for the local pastor or someone like that, maybe someone might raise an eyebrow.
You’ve also mentioned a desire to have the songs heard outside of a religious context for their beauty. But, some of these songs are inextricably linked to religion -- they're about baby Jesus being born.
Oh yes, they are deeply religious lyrics. Let me clarify: A lot of people were shocked that we weren’t making jokes out of the songs, and they are either reading too much or too little into that. For Bad Religion to perform these highly religious Christmas songs is, frankly, a desecration. We don’t subscribe to any organized religion. We don’t believe in anything supernatural. At all. Quite the opposite, in fact, so for us to perform the song, to me, that is comparable with a heathen taking the pulpit and giving a sermon, or a black metal band burning down a church. What it says is there is a fly in the ointment. That’s the point of it. To me, it is fairly obvious.
So for me, to make jokes out of the lyrics would lose some of the power behind the songs. It wouldn’t make it more of a desecration; it would make it less of a desecration. We would just be acting like buffoons, and who is going to take the buffoon seriously? Treating the songs respectfully and playing the shit out of them in our Bad Religion style is our way of saying a church is just a building, holy water is just water and a Christmas song is just a song. There is no magic there. Oh, well, there is magic there because it is music, like the magic of poetry, but there’s nothing supernatural or metaphysical going on.
Or, like, the idea of a concert, with many people gathered in a building to fixate on the same thing. There is a parallel there with church, and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing in and of itself, but a concert doesn’t claim any supernatural or metaphysical properties otherwise.
To me, what is beautiful about a church, or what is beautiful about religious art, is not that it is the depiction of god. What is beautiful to me is that from a human standpoint, it is so touching that so many of us yearn for something more than there is. Something more and something greater. There’s a poignancy to that, and it is all the more poignant if you are a humanist, or you believe there is nothing more to it, or you are 50-50 but certain that no one you know has the answers, especially not the barely literate people that wrote the New Testament. So, yeah, to me it is these monuments to man’s loneliness within the universe and man yearning for something more in his ignorance. That is what is poignant about religious art, buildings and songs to me.
Now, for a religious person, those things have much more meaning. They are not poignant, but sublimating, and uplifting. That’s not how we intend them. But, the fact that we did the songs respectfully at the least creates a lot of conversation, like what we are having now.
One thing with Christmas songs, or even Christmas in general, and that it's just one part of the Christian tradition. On the other side of the spectrum, you have war and some truly awful consequences of religion. You guys are kind of speaking to that with what you are doing with the charitable donation from each album sale.
The donation is, if anything, just a little reminder for the folks who are really not getting it; they can look at the charity we chose and know that we are the same old Bad Religion that they grew up with. But it’s been interesting. I thought people would hear it and get it instantly, but there have been some really surprising and confusing reactions about it, some people really up in arms on it.
Is that disappointing to you as a band, that some people still don’t seem to get you?
At this point, I’m used to it. Lots of people don't get us. We’ve had neo-nazi fans before. They obviously don’t get us. You can’t pick your fans; you can just do your best to get your message out there.
Especially once Bad Religion started getting that 'Stranger than Fiction' radio play, it opened your band up to such a bigger audience. Suddenly, you have people that aren’t going to engage music on any level. They hear a song on the radio and it's catchy and that is all that matters.
That’s true. But, for better or worse, there is nothing subtle about our band’s name, or our band’s logo. But you’re right, if someone hears it on the radio, they might not see the logo, just hear the name, and maybe not even that. Maybe just the song.
It’s remarkable how easy it is to hear the words “Bad Religion” and not think about the words you are hearing.
Oh I get it, nowadays there is so much marketing in the world, there are even jeans called True Religion. Frank Ocean has a song called 'Bad Religion.'
Any plans for after the Christmas album?
Nothing major in the works. We’ll play some shows next year, not heavily. I think 2014 will be when we start writing the next album, too.
If you name a song 'Frank Ocean,' it would only be fair.