The idea to write NOFX’s “The Decline” for an orchestra is a crazy idea. No crazier, maybe, than a record with one 18-minute song about what was wrong with the world in 1999.
It started with France’s B.A.Z. creating crazy beautiful YouTube vocal medleys of artists from NOFX to No Use For A Name to Rancid. It ended with him playing xylophone with the Colorado Symphony and NOFX on one of the greatest stages of the world, the stage that hosted U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” music video.
Crazy, weird, and as “Fat” Mike Burkett contextualized, pretty great. He asked, “Did Bad Religion have a fucking bassoon?” The answer is no. Neither did U2. The crowd was launching beer after beer at NOFX as they launched into “The Decline” with B.A.Z. Here’s how it all happened.
The idea came early in life to a French punk drummer simply known as B.A.Z., a teenage nickname that stuck. That idea was to convert The Decline EP into a symphony. It’s certainly a feat, and something Burkett must have liked.
Twenty years later, in the summer of 2019, “Fat” Mike, NOFX and B.A.Z. performed “The Decline” live twice, once in Portland, Oregon, and a second time at the legendary Colorado venue, Red Rocks Amphitheater. Those performances combined NOFX’s original with B.A.Z.’s score. The performance in Colorado was recorded live, and that record is out now on Fat Wreck Chords.
“NOFX came very late because I’m younger, I mean, I’m 29. I’m from this generation that was later we grew up with second wave of punk, second or third, Blink  and Offspring, like all the mainstream people at the end of the ’90s,” B.A.Z. recounts in a strong French accent.
“When I did my first punk rock bands when I was like 15, 16, and I think I heard ‘The Decline,’ I was 18. At this point, I started to unroll the philosophy story and went back to the originals. NOFX, Bad Religion, Pennywise, and old story, I really started to get into Californian punk rock when I was 20.”
At that age, B.A.Z. was already a jazz musician, but not a trained symphony conductor. He says he’s not a trained conductor, but his love of classical music was strong.
“I won’t be able to answer all your questions about conducting because I’m not very trendy about that,” he explains. “I feel like when I heard ‘The Decline,’ I was like anybody else, from my passion of classical music, it struck me right away. I was like, ‘That’s the same thing,’ but I didn’t think about making it right away, after maybe two or three years as the idea grew.”
B.A.Z.’s idea visualizes “The Decline” in a new way, but it also stays true to both the ideas of a good symphony and great punk rock.
“NOFX is different pictures, different tempos; there’s moves; it’s catchy, there’s everything in this song, and it’s only 20 minutes,” he says. “It’s what different composers, like [Felix] Mendelssohn, do—it’s not exhausting to listen to, as a symphony. [A symphony] can be long, 40 minutes, 50 minutes, one hour from start to finish, which is too much, you know? I was like ’20 minutes,’ perfect.”
B.A.Z. has a unique assessment of his own motivations. He remembers not really sleeping for a week.
“It was a creative madness,” he says. “I remember I was living on coffee, French coffee, cigarette, coffee, cigarette, wine, more coffee, cigarette. I think it was on Abelton, using all these media. I speak music, but I’m not really good at reading or writing music. I can hear a melody and transcribe it. So, it took me, like, a little time; I had to play with media instruments and figure it out.”
B.A.Z. took each note of the “The Decline” and reverse-engineered it on MIDI.
“I usually would take part of the song and say, ‘Oh, this melody could be a clarinet,’ then you can say, ‘Oh, what would be nice? Some violins come to that,’ and you build a song this way,” he says. “I had to go with MIDI because it was my first attempt as an orchestration for an orchestra. So, I had to be able to hear what it’s going to sound like.”
Even at that early stage, B.A.Z. had already begun to critique his work: “I had to be able to hear what it’s going to sound like; that’s why I used the software. The first time I hear it, it was not that great.”
He sets the scene for the rise of B.A.Z.’s Orchestra.
“I was smoking, trying to chill, because I’m getting slowly but surely older,” he says. “I was in my little apartment, 19, no neighbors, and I was extra excited.”
After his composing and computer work was done and introduced to the web, the energy to finish came easy.
“I think it was three months [until] the first time, on the internet, my work was viewed with the NOFX vocal medley,” he says. “It motivated me. That’s when [I got] really passionate. I wasn’t, like, planning to do anything with it. It was really like, ‘Oh, I should do that.’ You [write] that symphony. Good. Let’s do it.’ One week later, it was done.”
B.A.Z. feels a kinship with punk music and to punks; he’s refused to perform at weddings or do music as a job; he was able to leave France to travel the world, meeting likeminded people. Meeting Mike Burkett for the first time, they clicked on the ideas “The Decline” puts forth, one of which is the “absurdity” of the world.
They’ve taken punk concepts, punk tunes, words and guitars, and translated them to the symphony, including his classically-trained orchestra in the translation. It’s been a learning experience for everyone.
“The musicians, it’s pretty cool for them because they are learning, they are learning something, it’s super hard to get the feeling, the punk rhythm —da ta da ta da ta—it’s really overwhelming for classical musicians,” he says. “We are explaining, in those situations, they’re like, ‘Oh, cool. I never thought about it this way.’”
The inverse of a classical musician learning punk, punk B.A.Z. is learning and growing in his love of classical.
“I’m learning too, because I don’t know [too much] about the classical orchestration,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, how can you play that thing?’ like the inclusion of the bow on the violin is very interesting for both of us.”
B.A.Z. is now taking his ear for music, and his love of legacy punk, to the future, with bands like Days N’ Daze. From a 19-year-old kid in a French apartment, to 29-year-old kid on stage with NOFX and the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks, he’s handled his conducting duties well and remains punk as fuck. To B.A.Z.,
“The Decline” is a childhood dream come true, he’s built his orchestra and woven himself into the fabric of punk with the evolution. The world may be spinning at the same speed as 1999, and the problems may be similar. Nonetheless, B.A.Z. has elevated symphony with his youthful approach – who knew it would come in this form.
“When you play at Red Rocks, you don’t want to fuck it up,” he concludes. “The Colorado Symphony, when you’re playing with this kind of super-on-point musician, you don’t want to look like a 19-year-old kid that doesn’t know what he’s doing. This beautiful venue and how lucky to be there—every time I’m watching—I feel like how damn lucky I am.”
Photo by Josh Maranhas