Greg Graffin wears a lot of different hats. Most of us know him as the lead singer and songwriter for the legendary punk rock group Bad Religion, who for 35 years have been defining and redefining what it means to be a punk. He’s also, of course, an academic, earning a double major in anthropology and geology from UCLA, a master’s degree in in geology from UCLA, and a PhD in zoology from Cornell, where he currently teaches.
His experiences in music and academia have given Graffin a unique and fascinating worldview that has been explored lyrically for the past few decades, both with Bad Religion and as a solo folk artist. In addition to all his other works, Graffin is also an accomplished writer, who further explores his worldview with succinct clarity, bridging the gap between the layman and the master.
His latest book, Population Wars, serves as a sort of follow-up to 2010’s Anarchy Evolution. I recently had the honor of speaking with Dr. Graffin about his book, his studies, and the intersectionality between his art and academic work.
Population Wars is now available in bookstores everywhere.
James Roberts: Would you mind telling us a little bit about your new book, Population Wars?
Greg Graffin: The book is kind of the next in a series of books that I hope to write. About five years ago I released one called Anarchy Evolution. That one was sort of my world view of the conflict between religion and science. It’s, I feel, an important topic. This one continues to broaden my worldview. The subject matter of this one, however, is my view ecology, specifically the way that populations, [or] species, coexist together on the planet.
I’ve read the book, and coming from someone with zero background in any of the sciences and who knows only the broadest broad strokes evolutionary theory, it was a little difficult for to grasp the concept that you can almost view a lot of socio-political aspects and problems today from that perspective. Is this a problem you encounter a lot?
I don’t assume a lot of my readers. I try to explain things for just the average intelligent person. It doesn’t surprise me that some of it might be hard to grasp because it was a distillation. Some of those concepts are distilled chapters from major subjects. I think if you read it twice, the more confusing parts might come into focus. I also believe that you don’t have to understand all of the science to understand the general gist of the book. And that’s part of the challenge of writing a broad worldview book. You can’t always expect every detail to be absorbed by the reader, but you can try your best to put it into a narrative that is understood.
To that end, I do think you did a pretty great job. Even as much as I don’t have that science background or the knowledge that a lot of people might assume I needed to go into it, I did understand mostly and I think that you make some very compelling points. It was just kind of hard wrap my mind around. I’m curious though, when, for you, did the concept of the intersectionality between the sciences and the socio-political structure of the modern world start to form?
It really formed throughout my 35 years of writing songs for Bad Religion. During that time, I was always continuing to study and pursuing education. Bad Religion songs are not pop songs, even though they have pop structure and they have catchy melodies. The topical matter, you called it “socio-political,” I accept that, but I also think it’s just philosophical. We always touched on philosophical issues and big picture issues that I think most songwriters don’t use in their music. This book, Population Wars, is really a culmination of many, many years of thinking about these ideas and fusing some of my formal academic background with my songwriting background.
You touched on the bigger picture and looking at things in a broader scope, I think that the book kind of worked well with my personal philosophy, that there’s a lack of cooperation and coexistence among politics and society in general. I was wondering what we as individuals can do to foster the spirit of cooperation and coexistence in a political climate that’s increasingly vitriolic and paints us into us vs. them corners.
Well, first thing you can do is not buy into it. Look for an alternative explanation. Buying into it and believing that we have enemies all around us, you don’t have to make the choice to accept that. Even though the book isn’t a self-help manual, I do believe that there are things individuals can do in terms of rejecting the commonly held view. [It’s] even as simple as talking about it with your friends and challenging your friends to make their point more clearly. That’s a valuable way of not accepting the held view.
As a long term fan of yours, as both a writer and from Bad Religion, I’ve always been very aware of how your academic and musical career informs and influences each other. I was wondering how you balance that dynamic.
I feel like I’m a single person, I don’t feel like it’s a split personality or anything. For me it’s always been about just juggling the time. You got to have time for studying, you got to have time for singing, you got to have time for rehearsing. You just got to juggle a lot of things. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that. I’ve got a good level of energy. I’m very lucky to have that. And of course, great support from my friends and family. And my professional relations too. I’ve been very supported. I also believe strongly that you got to subscribe to a, maybe naïve or almost childish notion, that every day is a learning opportunity. As you get older, you’ve got to continue to force yourself to learn something new. That kind of curiosity is what drives a lot of my motivation.
That’s interesting. I mean you called childish, but to me it’s almost like a grown up perspective and evolution of the childish punk rock philosophy. It’s interesting to see how that grows as we get older.
[laughs]. Thanks. I’m trying to continue that tradition.
So fans who pre-ordered Population Wars, some of them get the 7” of rerecorded Bad Religion songs that you did acoustic. Like I said, I know your musical work and academic work plays off each other, but I’m wondering how you decided on these four songs in particular for the 7”.
Well, we’ve got something like 320 songs to choose from, and the truth is it’s way more than just four of them that inspired the book. But these ones were ones that I had worked out originally as acoustic songs, and I think they have deep meaning to me. They’re personally meaningful. They’re really songs that have topical matter that touches on the same inspirations I used in the book. I got to say also, I could’ve chosen more songs, but on a 7” EP, you’re limited in the amount of time you can put on there. It’s a piece of vinyl so you can’t fit more than four songs on there. That also played into it. [laughs]
So given the vast back catalogue of Bad Religion songs, and the success you’ve had with previous reworkings—like with “Sorrow” and “Cease”—do you think that there’s a chance that you might do a full album of acoustic Bad Religion?
It’s not in the works, of course I never say never. I am going to start working on another solo album for next year. That’s going to have new songs.
I understand you’re doing a brief little tour in support of the book and that it’s being described as sort of multimedia presentation. Can you tell us anything about that?
It’s going to be an appearance that celebrates the release of the book, but it’s going to be music, acoustic music, some readings from the new book, and some Q&A with the audience. So it’s kind of an intimate show and I hope to engage the audience with the songs that I sing. Ultimately, I’m an entertainer and I also take my writing seriously. It’s a very rare opportunity for me to share both of those things.
Can you go into it without having read Population Wars or does it help to have knowledge of the book?
There’ll be a quiz at the beginning. [laughs] No, I’m joking. I’m trying to engage the audience regardless if they have the book or not. It should be entertaining. My first objective is to make it entertaining, so you don’t have to have the book.
So you said you’re working on a new solo album. That’s going to be more in the folky style you’ve done or are you doing a new thing?
Yeah it’ll be like Cold as the Clay, my last one.
Are there any new plans with Bad Religion in the future or are you still working that out?
Bad Religion is ending the tour that we did for True North. It ends on October 10 in California.
So no plans on a follow up to True North yet? I guess you’re probably still decompressing after the tour and everything.
The end of one album cycle begins the next cycle. It’ll be a while before we record and then a new album will be out. I don’t know when that will be. Probably late next year.
Is it weird balancing the bi-coastal relationship you have with your bandmates? You’re in New York and they’re in LA.
I jump on airplanes like most people get on the bus. For me it’s a commute. I still spend a lot of time in Southern California. It really is a bi-coastal existence.
The 40th anniversary of Bad Religion is coming up probably quicker than you would like.
[laughs] Five more years! We’ve got nothing planned. I hope punk is still enjoyed in five years. I think it will be. I think Bad Religion preside over a pretty interesting anniversary at that time. But it’s five years away.
From my perspective, Bad Religion was sort of the, maybe not the one single kick off of the new school, but Suffer was such an influential album that informed the sound and direction of punk even to this day. Is that weird a thing to be a steward of? Do you even think about?
I don’t really think about it because it’s self-congratulatory and I just try to live my life and do good work. If people see that as the beginning of something then I appreciate their acknowledgement. But for me it was one of the episodes in my life that I can look back on and be satisfied with.
Greg Graffin Population Wars: an event to celebrate the release of his new book:
Fri 9/18/15 Washington, DC – Rock N Roll Hotel
Sat 9/19/15 Philadelphia, PA – Coda
Sun 9/20/15 New York, NY – Gramercy Theater
Wed 9/23/15 Portland, OR – Hawthorne Theater
Fri 9/25/15 Los Angeles – Bootleg
Sun 9/27/15 Santa Ana CA – Constellation