Monday, January 19, 2009

Interview with UCLA Biology Professor and singer of Bad Religion

For 29 years San Fernando punk band Bad Religion has released some of the most imaginative punk albums. They are considered by many to have jumpstarted the second- generation punk movement, which includes such bands as The Offspring, Green Day and Pennywise, with their 1988 album “Suffer,” featuring songs laden with three part harmonies.

Bad Religion remains at the forefront of the punk scene, as relevant today as they were in 1980, when they were just one in a nation full of bands lashing out at the onset of the definitive Reagan years and the influx of religious fervor that accompanied them.

The bands singer, Greg Graffin, rhythmically delivers prescient and thoughtful lyrics with a powerful voice that is just at home with his old-time music project, under his own name, as it is with Bad Religion.

Along with his music endeavors, Graffin is currently a part-time lecturer at UCLA. He earned his doctorate from Cornell University in Evolutionary Biology. Though the union of accomplished musician and academic is a novel juxtaposition for some, the analytical subject matter of Bad Religion’s 13 albums points to the contrary.

On July 10 2007 Bad Religion released their 14th studio album, co-written by Graffin and his longtime songwriting partner, guitarist Brett Gurewitz. I had the chance to interview him about the album for my college’s newspaper; however, due to panties shoved far up the editorial staff’s asses, the interview wasn’t boring enough for them to print it.

“Our new album is a collection of songs that depict a world-view that has matured from our original album,” Graffin said. “We still think hell exists only as a concept for the living but today we have more life-experience than we did when we wrote our first album 26 years ago.”

As a biologist, it is likely one would find Graffin discussing purpose in life arising from an organism’s need to propagate its DNA, but he believes that for humans there is a cultural purpose as well.

“Experience has led us to many cherished notions of meaning and purpose but it hasn’t dissuaded us from the view that we only live one life and there are no Gods who offer us any hope,” said Graffin. “Our hopes come from a desire to leave the planet in better shape than when we arrived on it; ultimately in the interest of improving conditions for humankind.”

In order to stress the band hasn’t deviated from the world-view accentuated on their first album “How Could Hell Be Any Worse?” which includes songs titled “Slaves,” “Voice of God is Government,” and “American Dream,” the new album is called “New Maps of Hell.”

“We wanted to show the world that we are still committed to the idea that we expressed in our first album, but that we have new road maps or lyrical guides to the neighborhoods of human existence,” said Graffin.
“Maps” is comprised of songs such as “New Dark Ages,” “Grains of Wrath” and “Heroes and Martyrs.” The first single “Honest Goodbye” has already received airplay on Southern California’s KROQ.

What’s the most valuable lesson that Graffin has taken from his education experience in the sciences?

“That no organism was born for any particular purpose. Meaning in life is something that comes from culture and whatever culture you come from determines your sense of purpose. The same baby raised in two different cultures will have different sets of values. This is a very profound fact.”

In his dissertation, “Monism, Atheism and the Naturalist Worldview: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology,” Graffin surveyed some of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists about their world-views; Almost all of whom expressed a naturalist world-view.

He found that 87 percent of the participants find some way to make religion congruent with the tenets of evolution. They contend that religion is a part of evolution rather than something bestowed upon us by God.

“Naturalism is more of a way of looking at the world and since it doesn’t really teach about what is sacred I guess it’s not much of a religion,” Graffin said. “But basically it says we should have no faith unless it is verified by observation and justified by probability.”

He continued that though this doesn’t help us in interpersonal relationships, where you have to have blind faith that your partner really loves you and will always be there for you, he thinks that stepping outside the traditional practices of religious faith is important.

“Naturalism allows us to break down barriers of belief that are so much a part of traditional religions,” Graffin said. “Scientific facts can be verified by anyone, regardless of cultural background, so long as you agree on what exists and what doesn’t exist, [which is] a difficult thing to do with some groups of people.”
In August an article Graffin penned along with his advisor at Cornell, William Provine, will be published in American Scientist. He also plans on making progress on a book he has been pondering to be called “Population Wars.”

Aside from Bad Religion, Graffin has released two CD’s under his own name, 1997’s “American Lesion” and 2006’s “Cold as the Clay.” The latter is a collection of Old-time American songs recorded with period instruments and Old-Time Ribbon microphones, alongside many originals which were written to sound like they were from the 19th century.

We're widespread and well fed,
The earth's rotating fate is in our head, oh yeah.
We're dominant and prominent,
And our diety's omnipotent, oh yeah.
And immortality's in our mastermind,
And we destroy everything we can find.
And tomorrow when the human clock stops and the world stops turning,
We'll be an index fossil buried in our own debris.
We're listless, promiscuous,
And life to us is either hit or miss, oh yeah.
We're savoir faire and debonaire
And things we do are done with pride and care, oh yeah.

Index Fossil from "Suffer"

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