Interview: Brian Baker of Bad Religion and Minor Threat

Brian Baker is an outspoken punk rock musician. He is best known as one of the founding members of hardcore punk band, Minor Threat, and as a guitarist in Bad Religion since 1994. At our invitation, Brian Baker sat down with us for an engaging interview where he holds no punches while discussing the 2016 election, why he's so excited to play in North Carolina (despite the passage of the controversial HB2 law alleged to discriminate against gay and transgendered citizens) and how punk rock Abraham Lincoln and the Roosevelts were. If you are interested in volunteering with HeadCount and registering voters on Bad Religion's Fall Tour head here, and if you need to register to vote you can head here.

HeadCount: Who are some musicians and activists who have inspired you throughout your life?

Brian Baker: Bad Religion actually, was one of the first bands that I really got into – obviously long before I was in the band – that managed to have this global perspective, and the music was also fantastic, I always loved Greg’s voice. So that was kind of an interesting thing that I wound up being in the band, I have been in the band now for like 23 years, but obviously I heard them when I was a lot younger.

My first band Minor Threat was really more of personal political thing. I loved the band, but I really didn’t associate that [with anything in the greater world]. The kind of overview stuff was more like crass, Dead Kennedys, stuff like that. But really my favorite bands were a little more like The Damned when I was a kid. Which is really more of a fantasy thing. They really weren’t about global things.

But you know what, fuck it, The Clash, didn’t think of them. But when you were a kid and you’re in DC and its 1979 or 80, a lot of the things they were singing about we didn’t understand because we didn’t speak English English. So you didn’t really know what a council flat was. You kind of plugged in your own words and it didn’t resonate in the same way that it did when I grew up and understood parliamentary process a little bit better. But, yeah, The Clash are definitely a perfect primary example.

It definitely took a little bit of googling for me to understand exactly what they meant in “Guns of Brixton”

Yeah, anything that’s well done and thoughtful, it still has value today. It’s still relevant. You can just plug in a different scenario. But it’s all the struggle man, it’s real.

What do you think the role is of musicians to raise awareness about issues?

Well you’ve got kind of an interesting platform there because you’re on a stage in front of a bunch of people every night, and I understand that there are a lot of musicians who are hesitant to have their personal politics kind of leak onto the stage, but still I think that there is just the same obligation – where I’m not gonna play a slaughterhouse or a childcare facility that’s under investigation. There’s a personal responsibility with Bad Religion. We are a band that lyrically is sharing concern about the global politics, so it’s kind of a no brainer for us and I feel very comfortable doing it. If you’re not gonna be out there flag waving or flag burning, maybe take a PETA table. Maybe have voter registration at your shows. You know something like that? You know anybody?

I can make a couple calls.

That’s a good way to show what you’re about even if you’re singing about chicks.

I did notice that one of the tour dates is in North Carolina and especially with Against Me! on the bill. What was the process behind deciding to play a show there vs boycotting?

Oh, god, no [we weren’t going to boycott]. Because we’re gonna go down there with Laura Jane to that fucking backwards god damn place – fuck, that’s the best. That’s just punk rock my friend. You go right into the eye of the hurricane. What was big when we first started even thinking about this tour is we wanted to try to get into controversial markets because everybody in North Carolina isn’t a homophobic Republican psychopath. Everywhere all over the world there are people who care deeply about the same things that we do and I think it’s absolutely appropriate. We haven’t been to North Carolina in… I have no idea, I do not remember the last time we went. It’s just perfect timing. They need to get their rudder in the water the right way, because you’re not stemming the tide of history with this ridiculous ill-informed basically hate speech. We're not going down there as a form of protest, we're going to educate.

This is the voice of the people tour. Up until Election Day we’re trying to present a kind of united front of sanity, and Against Me! are so perfect in this place. Nothing to do with Laura’s sexuality. Listen to their music. This certainly transcends what she has done with her life, so it’s a great thing.

If you go out and play a show to 500 people, the fact is that 5,000 people know about it. That’s how this thing works and especially now. Making noise is what I’m trying to do and that’s what we specialize in.

Are there any musicians that you have not shared a stage with that you would love to? What’s the dream list?

Well, it’s kinda weird because you [in practice] you gotta be appropriate. I would love to play with Morrissey, but I’m not really sure if the Crossbuster, Voice of God is Government band is really gonna be a good fit promoter-wise. We do a lot of festivals where you kind of get that dream thing, but I’d like to rock with Iron Maiden. That’d be pretty cool, to go on a Maiden tour to see what that’s about. There are so many options, it’s really tough. I think it would be fun to tour with The Descendants because I love them and that would be kind of a cool bill, just to do us and Descendants would be fun because everybody would be such good friends. It all dovetails nicely. That’s a great tour. I’ll make the call.

How did growing up in DC and coming of age during the Reagan years affect your music and the growth of the DIY punk scene.

When we were kids, there really wasn’t a music scene [there] and DC was really much more purpose built toward the business of government. Basically this punk scene thrived because it was pretty much invisible. There was really no oversight. Nobody was paying attention to what we were doing and so there was a lot of opportunity. We were pretty early in that, “let’s find a space and just do a show” I guess you would call it pop-up now,  but then it was just, I work at this office and then everyone goes home after 5 and no one would know if we had a show. That kind of thing.

And the climate of government in DC, it changes everything. The vibe depended on who was in office. People come there to work for whatever administration, and you are kind of in the epicenter of everything and it definitely leaks into your perception of the world. People were developing political stances that they may not have had if they weren’t exposed to the same day-to-day that we were in DC.  Now of course, with the connectivity of everything, it’s not that as much a geographic thing, it doesn’t have the same effect.

Did you watch the first presidential debate?

Absolutely. Intently. And with, I even refused to have my phone in the room because I didn’t want to be reflexively hitting [retweet on] all the smartass lefty journalists who I follow on Twitter. I just wanted to have a filter free experience with this monumental trainwreck. It was absolutely everything I wanted. It was great.

Which journalists do you think are covering the election well?

Eugene Robinson is really good. He’s doing a great job. I am kind of biased towards the Washington Post people. I like David Corn. My favorite. I have Sirius Radio and I love Julie Mason. She’s on POTUS. She does this thing called the Press Pool in the afternoons that’s very great. Supremely unbiased. She does a very good job, she’s a grown up. It’s really fun to listen to her.

Of all the Presidents in American history, which President was the most punk rock.

Lincoln, very punk. He was punk, kind of quietly straight edge, like he was running a straight edge program and didn’t want to turn everybody off immediately with the no sex thing – but eventually he was like, “What I really meant was the United States can’t sustain slavery. I’m really sorry, but you’re going to have to completely change your cultural way of life in the south. That’s just how it’s gonna be. I know I was kind of elected on the pretense because I’m not going to do any of that.” But it was great. He’s cool.

I also like [Franklin] Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a badass, I mean not only for just longevity, of course being in Bad Religion, a 36 year old band, I’m a big fan of people [with longevity]. I think Roosevelt was just that great combination of patrician arrogance with a genuine populist lean, and really did give a shit about people who were not in his socio-economic [sphere] and did a lot of amazing stuff for this country were still feeling today.

Teddy Roosevelt was definitely punk. But Teddy could have been a SHARP skin. He was just way more feisty, and he liked the outfits a lot too. Teddy was more crust. Like the king of crust, but still had an apartment. I like him because he definitely shot from the hip. He did think environmentally. I would definitely think of him as punk. You know, a skate park guy.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think facts matter, and that’s what’s really distressing. There’s a couple things that are distressing personally to me about this election cycle. One is that I honestly, in all of my naivety, did not understand that half our country are fucking racists. I did not get it. I was kind of hoping it was about 35 percent.

I am shocked to see now that this scab that has been ripped off this wound. It’s really disturbing. There’s got to be conversations here that get us out of these dark ages. The upside is that you can heal again and now that the scab is off and we see this festering, it’s got to be dealt. I don’t think it’s for the best. But maybe there is some positive with really understanding where we stand, and none of this bullshit like pretending stuff doesn’t exist because that’s not the way to get through to the problem.

The HeadCount blog is an open forum where all opinions are welcome. The preceding commentary reflects only the views of the interviewee and not of the HeadCount organization. Anyone wishing to write for the HeadCount blog, with any viewpoint, may do so by emailing [email protected]