When Riot Fest called up Brian Baker — guitarist in Bad Religion, founding member of hardcore punk legends Minor Threat, and cornerstone of the D.C. punk outfit Dag Nasty, just to name a few of his credentials — the punk guitarist was hard at work on his newest project: installing shelves in his new refrigerator.
Baker is particularly enthused about his new kitchen appliance because of its interior removable panels. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh my God, this refrigerator’s like a dry erase board! No, wait, I could take the panels off, and I could send a panel to an artist that I really love and commission them to paint it.’”
The punk icon won’t have much time for home improvement for the next few months. In August, Bad Religion is heading back to Europe to tour the festival circuit before taking the stage at Riot Fest 2022. Until then, read on to learn about Baker’s most embarrassing Riot Fest memory, the journey that lead him to join Bad Religion, and some of his favorite new hardcore bands.
You’ve just returned home from a European tour. How was it?
Fantastic. It’s so great to get out and play. The tour was long, and I’m so grateful. I’m grateful that it was too long because my old school, old man complaining just wouldn’t stick—I just kept having a great time. This return after COVID was fantastic. We fulfilled a lot of our dates that we had postponed for a couple of years. We’re going back to Europe for most of August, and that’s pretty much all festivals. Once we get back from that, I’m doing a lot of weekend festivals. And of course, the best and my most favorite one is Riot Fest. We’ve played it so many times for so many years, and every single time it’s been a blast.
You’ve been with Bad Religion for nearly 30 years now. Is the band received any differently in Europe now than when you first joined the band?
Bad Religion did a lot of hard work before I showed up. I cruised in when it was all tour buses and champagne. Because they did all that hard work in Europe in the late 80s and early 90s, Bad Religion has been a really big band for a long time. Touring in Europe is joyous because we play to a lot of people who grew up with us.
It’s an interesting thing: Bad Religion is really just a regular band over there. We’re not necessarily [perceived as] a punk band. We certainly come from that punk background, but the perception in a lot of these countries over there is that we’re, I don’t know…science-y rock and roll? Something like rock nerds who listen to too much Van Halen.
Before joining Bad Religion, you had been picking up work as a musician for hire and were about to tour with R.E.M. What was it about Bad Religion that made you commit to being in a band full-time again?
I was a guitarist for hire, but only during the brief periods of time when I wasn’t in a band. The reason I wanted to be in Bad Religion was their offer was to be in the band, and the R.E.M offer was great, but it was to play with the band as just a live guy and to help them out on tour, which was an incredibly cool opportunity that I certainly would have taken, except the Bad Religion thing coincided with it.
Dag Nasty broke up in 1988, and when I discovered Bad Religion in the early 90’s I was always so pissed because I felt if maybe Dag Nasty had just stayed together, maybe we would have been able to turn into something like Bad Religion. And this is before I even knew the guys. It was an interesting circle that came around to me joining the band that I was so impressed by so many years before.
What specifically impressed you about Bad Religion?
Oh, the songwriting and Greg Graffin’s voice. Greg is still my favorite punk rock singer, and he still can fucking sing, which is a blessing.They were on a higher level in terms of what they were singing about, and the way they sung about it was so incredibly engaging, but there’s also this persistent sense of melody. Even the earliest Bad Religion records — even in “We’re Only Gonna Die,” Greg sounds like Elton John, he really does. It’s just clever as fuck with this melodic tunefulness.
You grew up and started playing music in the DC punk scene. Now that you’re in a commercial punk band, how do you stay true to those punk roots?
Looking back, I can see that what you would call punk ethics is really just having a defined sense of direction that comes from inside, a general disdain for being told what to do, and a sharp eye for confidence tricksters, be it an entire government or just shady people or people without any kind of artistic spark. Maybe that’s a good way to define it: being punk means you’re not filing it in. You’re not witnessing life, you’re living it. And that’s the exact same thing I do now. That was what was so attractive to me when I was just a little fucking baby when I discovered this insane information source and this community. A light turned on and I I just knew. It still informs me.
The way I dress now is still punk, but it’s obviously more user-friendly. You get to a point where you realize that wearing leather pants and a leather jacket in summer isn’t really necessary to express your feelings about, let’s say, organized religion. But every time I get a new jacket, I immediately stick a couple pins on it and my wife says, “Oh, that’s nice. You just ruined that jacket.” But no, now I just have a Discharge pin on my jacket.
Are there any up-and-coming punk or hardcore bands you’ve been listening to?
I haven’t lived in DC in about six years now, but when I left my favorite band was Turnstile. They’re only new to me; obviously they’ve been around longer than six years. But I’m so proud to see how that band has grown and how well known and appreciated they are now compared to back then. It’’s not really that same strict DC hardcore scene that they came from, because they didn’t need that. They weren’t just archivists. They’re doing this new, amazing thing. I was making a Fake Names record right around the same time, and after hearing their album I immediately thought that maybe we should hire a producer. They’re just fantastic.
I definitely clocked Sleaford Mods from the UK in 2014. That’s another band I’m so glad people are paying attention to. I also really like Amyl and the Sniffers. I got into both of those bands early enough where I could have had them come out with Bad Religion. I love bringing something to a Bad Religion concert that people need to see because that’s part of what makes the shows great. I’m sure that there are so many other bands there that are doing new stuff, but I just don’t know who they are because I’m not always home and you have to go to shows. You have to go to the weird church show and the basement show to see what’s actually happening. You can’t read about it or click through it.
When I say I’ve found a new band, they’ve usually been a band for 10 years. But I just saw a band a couple of nights ago called GEL in Asbury, and I might have actually found a relatively new band. They’re fucking amazing. My band Beach Rats had opened for them, and they were about five times louder than us. It was overwhelming. I went back in the audience after our set to talk to people and it was just this wall of this fucking enormous loudness, but it wasn’t painful loudness.
GEL has this persistent pocket, this rhythm and tempo that I’ve heard the last year or two. It’s hard to describe it, but there’s this sort of aggressive, not fast, but not slow groove pocket—Turnstile does it, too—that really is just a body mover. They’re also no-bullshit. Those people meant every second that they were up there. The woman who was singing was fucking incredible, and it was not performance — this was sort of an exorcism.
I saw GEL play in Chicago above a Harold’s Chicken at a small apartment show a few months back, and I remember I had a strange sensation after seeing their set. Of course I was tired and sweaty, but I felt so emotionally exhausted after watching them. It was like the vocalist had drained herself of everything. It was all gone, and I felt that just from watching them.
That, my friend, is exactly what it felt like in 1981 when I would go see Black Flag with 300 people at the 9:30 Club floor; it was that exact level of intensity. And the way you felt afterwards, it’s still the same. Maybe that’s why I keep going back and looking for it. I don’t do drugs, but I sure do music.
Are there any other names on the Riot fest lineup that you’re excited to see or play with again?
There are two bands that I’m really excited to see. I’ve been going to see the Misfits since 1981, so anytime I can be near a Misfits show, I’m in. I’d watch Glen Danzig do anything — I’d watch him wash dishes. I don’t care, he’s a fucking genius.
The other band is My Chemical Romance, who I already liked, but since I moved to New Jersey, I love them so much more because they’re good Jersey boys.
Bad Religion has been playing Rio Fest since 2010. Do you have any favorite memories about Chicago or the festival you’d like to share?
The most asshole move I did without even trying was the first time the Misfits played in 2016.
The Misfits are playing and they have a completely closed stage. Nobody gets up there. I totally get it, because I think it was their first actual show back, and there’s a lot of expectations and a lot of tension. But then again, I’m buddies with people, so I get back there and I’m posted up on the side of the stage sitting on top of a PA monitor, and I’m the only person back there who’s not working. I’m so super jazzed.
Afterwards, I see pictures of the stage and all you see is this pair of fucking white pants. I was wearing white pants, and it was completely distracting. They had these incredible stage sets, all this spooky gloom and doom shit. It was so perfectly curated, and then this asshole shows up where he’s not supposed to be, and with white pants.
Chicago was a big place for me when I was a kid because it was one of the only a handful of major population centers that even accommodated punk rock. I’ve been playing Chicago since 1981, so I’m a Cubby Bear and Metro guy; that whole neighborhood there was always so great to me. I like how “not New York” Chicago is, but still has the gravitas. All of that stone and those buildings, it’s a completely different vibe than New York but it has everything New York has. And it’s crazy it’s just in the middle of the country like that. How incredibly diverse and constantly engaging Chicago is. You would need a month visiting Chicago to even get your finger wet. I just love it.
This September, if a young Bad Religion fan gets to see you for the first time at Riot Fest, what do you hope they’ll get out of your performance?
I think the most important thing is that they’re looking at people who truly love what they’re doing. It’s as exciting for us as it is for the audience. There’s nothing I hate more than going to see, shall we say, a senior group, and seeing a bunch of guys stand still and stare at the ground like they have somewhere better to be. There’s no place better for me than to be on stage playing Bad Religion songs. It is like a fucking religious experience, if you’ll forgive the comparison. I would hope that they would be impressed that no matter how old you are, if you believe in something and you’re proud of it, you can fucking mean it. You can put it out there with the same passion as you did when you were a teenager, and that’s exactly what we do. The thing I’m most proud of is just getting out there and fucking kicking ass.