On the eve of the release of The New America, Bad Religion bass player Jay Bentley couldn't remember exactly how many albums the band has recorded.
"It's somewhere between 10 and 15, how's that?" he said, chuckling, trying to count the releases on his fingertips.
Actually, The New America is the 14th studio full-length from the group, which formed in Los Angeles in 1979. The new LP, which retains the band's tuneful, aggressive punk and intelligent lyrical skepticism, was produced by Todd Rundgren and features the return of former guitarist Brett Gurewitz for one track.
While 1998's No Substance was recorded in Greg Graffin's studio in Ithaca, N.Y., where the founding vocalist is finishing his doctorate in evolutionary biology, Bad Religion Graffin, Bentley, guitarists Greg Hetson and Brian Baker and drummer Bobby Shayer traveled to Kauai, Hawaii, to record The New America with Rundgren, a lifelong idol of Graffin's. As a member of early psychedelic pop group the Nazz, a noted producer (The Band, Badfinger, Grand Funk Railroad) and solo artist, Rundgren made an early impact on the Bad Religion vocalist.
"Todd Rundgren has been ground zero for Greg Graffin since the day I met him," Bentley said. "I guess since Greg was 7 or 8 years old, old enough to kind of get into music as a kid, Todd Rundgren was his guy."
Despite Rundgren's experience, his production style was laissez faire. "I think Todd's contribution to this album was more lyrical than anything else," Bentley said. "He just spent a lot of time with Greg on the lyrics. As far as music was concerned, he was like, 'This is what you guys do.' We were pretty much on our own."
'An Awakening To A New Era'
On The New America, Bad Religion mix life-affirming wordplay, on such tracks as "A Streetkid Named Desire" (RealAudio excerpt), and humorous social commentary, as on "I Love My Computer" (RealAudio excerpt), with optimistic, progressive anthems, including "You've Got a Chance," "There Will Be a Way" and "Let It Burn" (RealAudio excerpt).
"As opposed to being full of warning and vitriol about how terrible times are, [this album is] more of an awakening to a new era," Graffin said in January. On the title track, Graffin sings, "We are just a step away from realizing/ What we strive to be/ But we've got to break out from this insulated/ Blind and lame senility/ Wake up the new America!"
Graffin also reunited with founding guitarist and Epitaph Records head Gurewitz, who co-wrote and played guitar on the track "Believe It." Gurewitz left Bad Religion shortly after the band signed to Atlantic in 1994, and animosity had developed between Bentley and his old friend.
To Bentley's disappointment, Gurewitz didn't travel to Hawaii. "I was looking forward to seeing him, so I was kind of sad that he didn't come to play," Bentley said. "But I talked to him after we were done with it, and I think the relationship between Graffin, myself and Brett seems to be a lot better. So maybe we'll see some more songs in the future.
" 'Believe It' has special meaning because it's almost like notes from the past," Bentley said. "When Brett comes in and writes the way that he writes and does the things that he does, it's something new, but like something you know from before. It's almost nostalgic."
Matt Ashare, music editor of the Boston Phoenix, praised The New America, saying, "If those guys were in their twenties, they'd be huge."
Influence On Tour Headliners
Bad Religion have made an undeniable impact on younger bands, some of whom have experienced rapid ascents to the kind of commercial success that has eluded Bad Religion.
One such group, San Diego's Blink-182, will begin its North American tour May 11 with Bad Religion as an opening act. "It's definitely a weird thing [having such an established act open for us]," Blink-182 singer/bassist Mark Hoppus said. "But we don't think about that stuff anyway. Hopefully it's not an ego thing with anybody, 'cause we're just stoked to be watching Bad Religion on tour."
It's no problem for Bentley, who said, "On tour, we've only ever opened for Pearl Jam, and that was weird because [they're] nothing like us at all. But they're our friends, so it was like, 'Let's go and hang out and see what that's all about.'
"Going out with Blink is like, yeah, why not? They're closer to what we do than Pearl Jam."
Hoppus continued, "I was actually looking through old ticket stubs recently, and I found this old ticket from a Bad Religion show at the [Hollywood] Palladium in 1991. The first punk album I ever heard was [1988's] Suffer by Bad Religion."
Giving Something Back
Graffin, Bentley and company will headline their own tour after the Blink-182 trek, and they're making a special offer to fans. Those who purchase The New America within six days of its Tuesday release can mail in the proof-of-purchase card included in the CD and get free tickets to one of the headlining gigs.
"We were trying to think of something cool to do," Bentley said. "Everybody puts out records, so you think, 'How could we do this differently?' It's obvious that you can't do things like, 'Let's have our records at the stores for $9,' 'cause you can't tell the retailer what to charge. But what's something that they can't control? 'Let's put something inside the record.' We try to think of ways to reward people who go out of their way to buy our records."
That kind of grassroots approach may be one of the reasons for Bad Religion's longevity and importance. Fans, Bentley noted, aren't a "demographic" or a "market."
"That's part of what punk rock is all about to me," Bentley said. "There's no separation between the audience and the band. So we look at our fans like, 'These are our friends. How do we invite our friends to come and hang out? We'll put an invitation in the record.' "