Interview: Author Jim Ruland on ‘Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion’

Forty years, 17 albums, one of the most influential punk bands in history. Yeah, Bad Religion is well deserved of a book delving deep into their fruitful and enduring career. Jim Ruland’s Do What You Want (Hachette Books), is extremely engrossing and informative, and just full of interesting anecdotes that any Bad Religion fan will feel giddy learning about. As a result of conducting “tons and tons and tons of interviews,” Ruland paints an engaging picture of the band. Here, the author discusses some aspects of the book and what he’s learned about the band who started out as teenagers in 1980 in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley.

Obviously, this was a good time to write this book, the band’s 40th anniversary. How did this all come together in the first place?

The band was thinking about their legacy and they were interested in working with somebody to tell their story, and I had just written a book with Keith Morris of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Off! I worked on his memoir, My Damage, and it had come out fairly recently, so I guess maybe because of Bad Religion and Circle Jerks running in a lot of the same circles, when they were asking around, everyone kept recommending me. So, I met with the band members individually because they all live in different cities, kind of like a get-to-know-you thing, and after that I started interviewing people.

Right. When did they first get in touch with you?

I think it was spring of 2017. I went to see Bad Religion at the House of Blues in San Diego, which is where I live, and beforehand I met with [bassist] Jay [Bentley] and [guitarist] Brian [Baker] and asked them a bunch of questions that we used for part of the book proposal.

And even though it’s a whole great history of the band, you also get a primer of the L.A. punk and hardcore scene at the time and just in general.

Yeah. I love L.A. punk rock. I grew up on the East Coast outside of Washington, D.C., but when I moved to L.A., I started writing for the zine Flipside, and then when that folded, some of the people involved with that started Razorcake, and I’ve been writing for Razorcake for 20 years now. So, it was just a really great way to have access to the music that I love and just like zine writers have been doing since the ‘70s—I mean, Flipside was actually one of the very first L.A. punk-rock zines. There were other zines before that, but it was one of the first dedicated to L.A. punk rock. So, it’s been a passion of mine and also an interest. I love reading all the books and it was really interesting the way the Bad Religion and Keith story intersected in different ways. It wasn’t like I was writing about a band from England. It was the same turf.

That just reminds me, like I said how many great little anecdotes you have and that you get into the origins of some of the songs, and then that how they got—obviously they were friends—but having Keith Morris on “Operation Rescue” because they liked the song “Operation” [off of Circle Jerks’ Group Sex]. [Laughs] Something I never knew.

Yeah, that was pretty funny. There are a million throwaway lines like that, and it’s funny because musicians tend not to like to talk about the origins of songs because it’s just not that interesting to them, especially when you’ve written hundreds if not thousands of them. Every artist is different. Every artist has a different relationship to it. I found that Brett [Gurewitz] was very forthcoming about [the formation] of songs. And I know fans really like that. It’s also, you know, you’re a reporter, you can’t sit down with a band and say, “What are your inspirations, where did you get the idea for this song?” because they’ve been asked that 10 million times already. It’ll just kill any goodwill you have with the band. So, when you do find someone who shares or when an anecdote just comes about, I would pounce on it. [Laughs] Because first and foremost, I’m a fan and I love that stuff.

I picked up on that—Brett was very informative. “Infected” and “Sorrow.” And how he said [his cousin mentioned to him in the early stages that ‘Sorrow”] sounded like Pat Benatar and so he changed it. It’s just awesome to learn these things.

Yeah, I totally agree. I did that quite a bit. I felt that, that’s the kind of stuff I like to learn about. I like the ways that bands interact with each other. You don’t want a book to be a bunch of namedropping and not have any real substance. It is interesting to know that when bands have played with each other and the friendships that come out of it.

Yeah. You also made the point that, they weren’t a band that was always together. They would tour and play, but then they would go to their own family life or what have you.

Yes. One of the things that I think sets Bad Religion apart even today is that they are an international touring band. They’ve been touring Europe for example since the late-’90s. I think there were only one or two years when they did not go to Europe. This will be one of them. As you know, their breakthrough in Germany was a huge part of their ongoing success, and they’ve cultivated those relationships they have with their fans. They don’t go to places like Australia or Asia or South America as often, but they still go, and they tour the United States, they tour the West Coast. They go to Europe sometimes twice a year. They’re a very hard-working band, and when you’re on the road that much, you need time away. You need time away to recharge, to be with your family, to be creative, to walk on the beach, or work in your field, or play with your kids. It’s very essential stuff.

And like you mention about how Europe embraced them from when they first went. They kind of had a little apprehension. I forget exactly who told them, “You guys are going to do well there,” and they went and couldn’t believe the crowd sizes. How the people in a lot of the European countries really loved the band.

Yeah, and it really snowballed from there. Brett’s pretty articulate about what he thinks the reasons for that are. But I think it’s helpful to remember they put out [1988’s] Suffer and it was incredible. It was a really, really good record and they knew it. But the world had kind of written Bad Religion off and they were building up their fan base again, and that first tour for Suffer was not good. They lost money. They played to empty halls. It was not a very life-affirming experience. So, then to have that big, unexpected success in Europe, it was like, wow, this is the audience we’ve always wanted.

Just about Suffer, you make a lot of key points in the book that keep coming back and one is about how Suffer bridged the divide between the early L.A. punk and what was to come in the future. That they’re that missing link or whatever you’d want to say. You mention how Nirvana got a lot of credit because they broke at the time…

Yeah. With Nirvana, it’s not that it wiped out independent music because it absolutely didn’t, it continued to thrive. But now there was no longer as big of a difference between what was on the radio and what was being played at the corner bar. So, it just kind of wiped away that difference, and now all types of bands, guitar-rock bands could step through. But before that, the two biggest bands in the very early-’90s were Fugazi and Bad Religion. The two biggest indie-punk bands in the country. They built up a lot of that audience and made that success possible. When Suffer came out in ‘88, there was no pathway for financial success for a band that played skate-punk or thrash-punk or their brand of hardcore, something really hard and fast like that. There was just no way, and then that changed just in a few years.

And you mention how it led the way to [bands like] Pennywise and Warped Tour and you’d hear it on the radio and Rancid. Well, Brett [as head of Epitaph Records] had a lot to do with that. [Laughs]

Yeah, Brett had a lot to do with an awful lot of it, when you think about it. With Pennywise, with Rancid, with Offspring, Bad Religion. And Green Day was doing their own thing. They had already signed a major, big deal, but they opened up for Bad Religion.

Also, what Bad Religion had to go through, putting out Suffer, that it was so momentous, and then having to approach the next record. They didn’t want to be just a one…

A one-hit wonder.

I don’t wanna say that because the earlier stuff was awesome too. But you know what I mean…

Yeah. They were on the precipice. There was a feeling in the band that they’d been here before and they wanted to keep going, they didn’t wanna take more steps back. 

They carried that with them. I hope most bands feel that way—put a lot of pressure on themselves to keep up the quality and perfectionism. It’s interesting hearing how they approached each record, following up with No Control [1989], and then with Against the Grain [1990],they wanted to do it somewhat different but keep it the same strain.

It was an incredibly productive period.

And you wrote something, that throughout all their albums they try to put hard-hitting [songs] first to let fans know they’re keeping their roots even if they diverge a little bit.

Bad Religion, they’re like The Ramones. You put on Bad Religion and you know it’s Bad Religion right away. And yet Bad Religion compared to other punk rock bands or even other Epitaph bands, they’re incredibly diverse in their sound and their approaches. Yeah, they have a format but they do a lot of interesting things with it. If you could put together a playlist of songs and pull out outlying songs you could make a whole record of things that are just very weird but yet unmistakably Bad Religion. Stuff that’s almost metal, stuff that’s got the lap guitar and the country twang. It’s very diverse.

That’s why it’s frustrating when you get detractors, “Oh, it’s all the same.” Ok. No. Where people just have that thought of what Bad Religion are and obviously they don’t listen to the records. I guess it’s kind of you have your signature sound and you get hit both ways—if you stray too far from it then people don’t like it.

I think few bands have paid the price for straying from it like Bad Religion did with [1983’s] Into the Unknown [the follow-up LP to How Could Hell Be Any Worse?], but they’re also very grateful for the fact that they were able to come back. Yeah, they wanna experiment, yeah, they wanna do all kinds of things, but they’re not gonna do that to their fans.

Another point that comes back a lot is—well, it’s core to the whole band anyway, that they “wrote songs that demand its listeners think about the world around them and their place in it. This was a band with a unique worldview that had something to say,” and about personal accountability. They’re a very unique band.

They’ve always been outspoken. And they used to get in trouble for it. Like in the ‘90s before 9/11, before the Bush years and the wars in Iraq, you had a lot of complacency. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, that’s what the whole grunge years [were]. Grunge wasn’t political, it was personal. But Bad Religion was there before it, during, and after it. It was, no, it’s both.

And just even starting it as young teenagers, I’ll use another one of your quotes because it’s good. [Laughs] It was “a reaction against adopting a system of thought.” Thinking for yourself. They always had their mission.

It’s just cool to go—I had the opportunity to travel with the band and go to places in the United States and abroad, and it was really cool just to see kids, I mean, 15, 16, 17 years old wearing Bad Religion shirts. When I talked to them, a lot of them would talk about how their parents got them into the band. You’d think it would be, “My dad’s really religious, and this is my way of fighting back,” and there’d be some of that. But mainly it was, no, “My dad got me into this, and he’s here now.” It was really cool.

And hearing about all the challenges and the setbacks they’ve had, that they have been able to persevere and come out on top. At the end [of the book] you feel inspired, I think.

I’m really glad to hear that. They’re an inspiring band.

Yes! Even at the end you mention about how Greg [Graffin] is, even at this point in history, he’s actually optimistic. That’s interesting to hear. I think you leave it on a good note.

Thank you very much. I asked him that. It’d be so easy to be cynical because so many of the things that they talked about 40 years ago on their very first record, we’re dealing with now: the Christian right has a stranglehold on the Trump White House, climate denial of science. Climate science is a really big thing for these guys who are rational. They’re not against Christianity, they’re against dogmatism and any kind of way of being in the world that tells you you have to act a certain way and think a certain way. They reject that. And they always have.

You’re right. So many things they were railing against back then are back with a vengeance.

I’m not that much younger than the band. I’m in my early-50s and I have a daughter who [will be] a senior in high school in the fall, and I’m optimistic for the future too. She sees through all that and she’s so no bullshit. I think the previous generation got screwed but they know they got screwed. This generation knows this is just a mess and they gotta fix it.

Just again about little anecdotes that [you write about]. It’s so fun hearing about certain shows you mention that went on. Oh man, the Tijuana place…

Yeah, Iguanas. I never actually got to go there. But yeah, it’s funny because I like all that stuff, learning about milestones—the first time a band played here or there, different places. Also, I’ve been going to shows in Southern California and all over the world all my life, so I like seeing those places mentioned too.

Another thing about their shows, though, I didn’t realize how much thought they put into their setlists. What an intricate process that is.

Oh yeah. And I watched it with my own eyes, and it was like, wow, they really do agonize over this. It’s funny. But then again, it’s also amazing. When you catch up with them and they pull out a song from Into the Unknown and shorten it up to lose the keyboard solo and made it into something that fits really well into their set. There may only be a couple dozen people who know what that song is or what that’s all about even amongst Bad Religion fans because for so many years Into the Unknown was not available. So, for some people those songs are not a part of their memory of Bad Religion, although you can listen to it now on YouTube. So, it was pretty amazing when I was doing research, you’d find these different videos fans had made or put together. Like, one guy had made a video of some songs from Into the Unknown, with audio from [the album] and video from other shows and so it was so bizarre to watch those videos and be like that’s [guitarist] Greg Hetson. He wasn’t in the band when this album came out. What is going on here? And then you figure it out that it’s a fan who just went off the deep end with it.

“Went off the deep end.” [Laughs]

If you like learning about all this stuff then it’s a lot of fun. I did tons and tons and tons of interviews with them. And they were constantly telling me about bands that I didn’t know about or bands I knew about but I didn’t know the record that they toured with or they’d reference a song or they’d reference a venue. My favorite part of the whole process after spending time with the band was transcribing it and looking up all the things I didn’t know about. It was amazing how many times you could find the exact show one of the members was talking about. It’s time consuming but a lot of fun.

I feel bad with the 40th anniversary they can’t even play anywhere now.

What’s cool about Bad Religion, though, is that they celebrated their 10th, their 20th, their 30th, there’ll be other anniversaries. And plus, there’s always gonna be the 40th anniversary of one record or another. They did the 40th of Suffer and then No Control.

If I can just get personal for a second with you, you mentioned about writing for Flipside early on, how did you start writing in the first place?

It was writing for zines, is where I got my start, but I also write all kinds of things. I’m passionate about books and music. I do book reviews and I do profiles for the LA Times of various authors. I write my own stories and novels, and I’ll be doing another music book after the Bad Religion one, I just can’t say what it’s about yet. I’ve always been a writer and I just kind of stumbled into this writing about punk rock bands and scenes, and I love it.

Pre-order the book here

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