Bad Religion

Bad Religion

They said it was done. They swore it would never return. After 24 successful years, 2018 was supposed to be the final year for the Vans Warped Tour, a traveling circus of punk rock, skateboard ramps, motocross, wrestling, human cannonballs and other forms of semi-acceptable anarchy that had been making its way around the country since the mid-’90s. Yet somehow, like a freshly awoken zombie tearing itself from its grave, the Vans Warped Tour is back this summer for another round of mosh pits, mohawks, and mayhem, and the only spot on the East Coast where you can see it is at noon Saturday and Sunday, June 28 and 29, on the beach in Atlantic City. Over 70 bands will be there with everything from newcomers to Warped Tour vets like Bad religion and The Offspring.

Non-believers Bad Religion skate into Vans Warped Tour

Thomas Paine, the 18th-century author of “The Age of Reason,” once claimed that arguing with someone who’d renounced the use of reason is as effective as “administering medicine to the dead or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”

Bad Religion, as their name suggests, have no interest in converting atheists. But on their new album, “Age of Unreason,” the L.A. pop-punk stalwarts do share a similar exasperation with what Paine famously called the “times that try men’s souls.”

The album is the band’s first collection of new music in six years. Not surprisingly, it includes more than a few less-than-veiled references to our current commander-in-chief. “I don’t believe in Golden Ages, or presidents that put kids in cages,” sings frontman Greg Graffin in “End of History,” one of the album’s few songs to approach the three-minute mark.

But Bad Religion’s primary target isn’t President Donald Trump so much as that special combination of bigotry, nationalism and apathy that continues to enable him, which is part of the reason last year’s sarcastic shout-along single, “The Kids Are Alt-Right,” didn’t make it onto the album. That may come as a surprise to those who recall guitarist Brett Gurewitz’s widely circulated quote about the band having “an album’s worth of ‘FTrump’ songs” up its sleeve.

“I hope it’s not that singular,” said Bad Religion bassist, vocalist and co-founder Jay Bentley. “In my mind, using Trump as a metaphor works for many things, but historically we haven’t been too focused on any single individual. Because in 10 years time, who the fis gonna give a sabout Donald Trump?”

Musically, the album finds the band working for the first time with Carlos de la Garza, the Grammy-winning producer whose recent credits include Paramore, Ziggy Marley and Cherry Glazerr. But the British punk and L.A. hardcore influences, which have worked so well for bands like Bad Religion and their less-cerebral Northern California counterparts, Green Day, are still very much in evidence. And Bentley, who holds the distinction of playing on all but two of the band’s 17 studio albums, is uncharacteristically enamored with the results.

“I’ve listened to it many times and that’s rare for me, because I don’t like us,” he said, only half joking. “And that’s because I’m in the band, so I’m too close. It’s really hard for me not to listen with that critical ear, instead of just enjoying it. So when I can just sort of tap my foot along and go, ‘Damn, this is good,’ that’s shocking to me. And this album is front-loaded with great songs, and then by the end, it’s just screaming.”

While “Age of Unreason” is best listened to loud, standout tracks like “Old Regime” and “What Tomorrow Brings” also showcase the three-part harmonies that Bad Religion originally modeled after their favorite Orange County punk band.

“If I’m to be brutally honest, we got all our ideas from watching The Adolescents, who were all phenomenal vocalists,” said Bentley. “We were also fans of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Elvis Costello, and other music where background harmonies were important, which wasn’t so much the case in punk rock. So when we saw The Adolescents, we thought, ‘If they can do it, we can do it.’ It just took us a long time to figure it out.”

Hot dogs, hot sauce, hot times —
The Offspring's Holland is much more than a bratty punk

“I think that, down deep, every band secretly wants to be U2, right?”

Bandleader for The Offspring Dexter Holland is reflecting on his group’s pioneering role in the ’90s “bro band” phenomenon, thanks in large part to frat-boy favorites like “Self Esteem” and “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy).” In the near future, he’ll go into the studio to record a new Offspring song, tentatively titled “It Won’t Get Better,” which is about the current opioid epidemic. It’s actually one among many Offspring songs that can be characterized as socially conscious.

“The songs that people mostly know us for are the fun ones,” acknowledged Holland in a recent phone interview. “But we also have some more serious songs like ‘Gone Away,’ which is about losing someone who’s close to you, and ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright,’ which is a song I wrote about driving through my old neighborhood and realizing that all these kids that I grew up with ended up having lives where really bad things happened. So there’s some seriousness there, as well.”

The same can be said for Holland’s extra-musical activities. Two decades after he dropped out of college to devote his time to the whole rock ’n’ roll thing, the singer-guitarist decided to take a break from The Offspring to finish up his doctorate in molecular biology. It was a sensible thing to do for a rock star who’d published a paper on HIV genomes in the peer-reviewed science journal “PLoS One” called “Identification of Human MicroRNA-Like Sequences Embedded within the Protein-Encoding Genes of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.”

“I’m specifically interested in virology, and I felt like HIV, which is literally a worldwide pandemic, was the most worthy place to put my efforts,” said the Orange County native. “I’ve been getting a couple of interesting offers from places like UNICEF, but just getting the degree took so much time that I felt like I had to go back to my day job, which is my band.”

As day jobs go, Holland’s doesn’t seem all that bad. Last year, he and his band set sail from Miami to Key West and on to the Bahamas as part of Flogging Molly’s Salty Dog Cruise, alongside The Buzzcocks, The Vandals, Lagwagon, The Adolescents and other acts with punk-rock pedigrees.

“When we started, we liked The Ramones and The Sex Pistols and The Dead Kennedys and stuff,” recalled Holland. “We weren’t trained musicians. The only way that we could have been a band that anyone actually knew was to do it the way we did it. We had to do it bratty and punk. So we wrote what came naturally for us at that age, and I’ve come to appreciate that we have these really great live shows where the music is upbeat and fun. So I’m actually very pleased with the way things have gone.”

In addition to working on their 10th album, The Offspring have just wrapped up a short run of acoustic dates and will play the Vans Warped Tour 25th Anniversary Festival on June 29 in Atlantic City.

There’s also another activity outside of the band that remains a going concern — Holland’s line of “Gringo Bandito” hot sauces nearly a decade ago that began as a casual endeavor.

“I just always liked hot sauce and, being a white guy, there’s no family recipe, right?” he said.

So Holland decided to develop one of his own and, after a couple years of trial and error, bottled some to give to friends as a Christmas present.

“I just kept going with it, and the response has been so great that it just feels like it’s a real thing,” he said. “I don’t think I would be passionate about making a salad dressing.”

But the ultimate endorsement came during a subsequent tour. “We went and played Japan maybe eight years ago and Kobayashi, the famous hot dog eater, was there.”

For those who don’t follow competitive sports, Kobayashi is a World Champion Eater, which, according to Holland, is kind of a world unto itself. The musician gave Kobayashi a bottle of hot sauce and was thrilled by his response.

“He took the bottle and he guzzled it — because, of course he would guzzle it, right? — and then he turned to his interpreter and said something in Japanese, which she translated for us,” Holland related. “She goes, ‘He says he can drink 15 of these bottles.’”

Holland invited Kobayashi to host a West Coast taco-eating contest, which has now been going on for five years, and subsequently gave birth to the Sabroso Craft Beer, Taco & Music Festivals that were staged in several cities earlier this year — with The Offspring heading up the bill.

As if all that weren’t enough, this past November marked the 20th anniversary of “Pretty Fly,” the song that, despite its underlying sarcasm, became one of the indie-rock world’s defining anthems.

“I always took ‘Fly’ to be this kind of word that white people co-opted from the black world, going all the way back to “Superfly” and other blaxploitation movies,” said Holland, who was determined to write a song about it before the Beastie Boys beat him to the punch. “Once it has been taken up by white culture, it was kind of the opposite of fly, right? I knew that some people would pick up on the obviousness of the fact that the song was taking the piss out of a certain kind of person. And I figured that the guys who thought it was about them would think it was cool and like it. Even if they didn’t get that the joke was on them.”

A ‘warped’ reminiscence

While the Vans Warped Tour may be new to Atlantic City, for me, its roots are based in nostalgia. Though I struggled to believe it, I crunched the numbers, and the promoters are correct — somehow 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the Warped Tour.

The Warped Tour began in the mid-90s when skate punk – a loud, in-your-face, aggressive, yet highly melodic form of punk rock — was slowly beginning to take over the underground rock scene in America. Bands like NOFX, Lagwagon, Propaghandi, Pennywise and Face to Face suddenly found their three-chord punk songs becoming the anthems for a modern subsection of youth culture that embraced the anti-authority values that the music seemed to stand for. More upbeat and (slam)dance-able than what grunge bands were doing, this sub-genre of the alt-rock movement gained speed quickly. Eventually even mainstream radio and MTV became infected with its sound, as groups like Green Day and The Offspring began taking over. Punk was back.

And if you were a punk in the ‘90s, The Warped Tour was your Woodstock.

For a teenager, attending the Warped Tour was like something out of a dream. When the tour made a stop in Asbury Park in 1996 my best friend Mike and I bought a pair of tickets and drove into town, not knowing what to expect. To our amazement, they had shut down Ocean Avenue entirely to set up two stages, several giant half pipes for skateboard and BMX riders and loaded up the rest of the space with vendors selling cds, stickers, backpacks and just about anything else an almost-broke, angsty teenager could possibly want. There was a list of punk and ska bands a mile long that would each perform a quick, rapid-fire 30 minute set with no delays between, thanks to the two stage format. Some of those bands I knew, some I had never heard of. It didn’t matter. I saw a then-unknown band called Blink-182 play on the smaller stage to a crowd of kids who had no clue who they were, but loved what they were hearing. It was perfect.

The Warped Tour was unlike any concert or festival I had attended before or since. There was a tangible sense of magic and the fury of youth each making its presence known. But most of all, it was about having fun. The kind of fun that’s just not possible to have after you turn 25. Against the backdrop of a faded, pre-revitalized Asbury boardwalk, multi-hued Manic Panic-ed kids of all ages swarmed the streets and stages en mass like ants to a wad of Hubba Bubba, moshing and crowd surfing their way through one of the best days of their lives. For one afternoon, the outsiders felt like insiders and those three blocks on the Jersey Shore seemed like the only streets that mattered in the whole world.

Is there any way the 25th Anniversary show can capture that same magic that was there in ‘96? For an old guy like me, probably not. But somewhere heading down the Parkway on Saturday will be a couple of kids who don’t know it yet, but may just remember this show for the rest of their lives.

— Ryan Loughlin

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