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Bad Religion | The Empire Strikes First | interview | Jay Bentley | punk | Lollipop
The Empire Strikes First (Epitaph)
An interview with bassist/backup vocalist Jay Bentley
By Tim Den
Seems like, ever since Brett (Gurewitz, guitarist/backup vocalist) rejoined, you've been avoiding playing material that he wasn't involved with.
I like The Gray Race a lot, but I know some of the songs are hard for Greg (Graffin) to sing. They're in a very high register. As for No Substance and The New America, we feel that the songs are okay - they certainly weren't our strongest records - and if we're going to have an hour and 25 minutes to present ourselves, we should choose songs that are more interesting.
Does Brett ever play live with you?
He'll play when we get to Las Vegas and L.A. He'll play when he can drive to the show and then go home afterward. He has to go to work.
You still work at Epitaph?
No, I haven't worked there in 10 years.
Have you read or are you familiar with the book American Hardcore by Steven Blush?
Yeah, I know it.
One of the funniest stories in it is this supposed episode where one of the guys from The E Street Band shows up at Epitaph with a bag of cash, offering to re-record and re-produce Against the Grain. Any of this true?
Yeah, the keyboard player. (laughs) It's a true story. He came in with another guy who had the suitcase. (laughs) This was back when Epitaph was really small and it was just maybe Brett, Jeff Abarta, and me working there. The guy called, said he wanted to make an appointment, and we were like "why does this guy want to meet us? Whatever, it's cool." So he came in, we talked, and he told us how great he thought Against the Grain was, BUT how much better it would be if he rewrote it and reproduced it his way. (laughs) I started laughing right away. He was totally serious. "We have the money right here and we can go into a studio immediately." Brett and I both started laughing, and Brett turned to me and said "uuhhh... YOU handle this" and walked out. I was still laughing when I told the guy "you have to leave now. You can't be here anymore."
Did something similar happen to the band during the Atlantic years?
No, but I think the best producer we ever worked with was Andy Wallace. He was absolutely interested in the music. He had an opinion about what it was we were trying to accomplish. Todd Rundgren couldn't've given a fuck WHAT we did: "fart into the mic, kids." He was gnarly. Ric Ocasek was great, a lot of fun. I think he was kind of hoping that we would figure out what we were doing. (laughs)
I'm much happier with the production values we achieved with The Empire Strikes First than anything else. There's so much more programming and textures, Theremins and shit all over the place. When we made The Process of Belief, it was very straightforward. We were very wary of each other's toes. We played it very safe, and that was okay, cuz everybody was comfortable with it. But by the time we made this record, it became okay to say "alright that SUCKED. Do it over." (laughs)
I've heard from Sage Francis that, when he recorded his vocals for "Let Them Eat War," he knew none of you except Brett, and that he wasn't sure how down you guys were with having an MC on a punk record.
I was all for it. I don't know him, but I know who he is and I have an unbelievable amount of respect for what he does. When Brett was writing the song, he said "I have this breakdown that I don't know what to do with." No one else knew, either, until one day he showed up with this tape that he and Sage made in his basement.
What was everyone else's response?
Uuuhhh... varied. (laughs) But I was into it because I "got" where it took the song. It put the song into a mind frame of someone who would think that "Let Them Eat War" is more than just a bite on the Marie Antoinette statement. "This is really what you're going to get. We're not kidding."
You've been in the band since day one. While the press seems to focus on the songwriters (Greg and Brett), you have emerged as sort of the middle man, buffer, peacemaker, neutral guy who helps the two sides meet in the middle.
When we were kids, Greg and I were inseparable. And then there was a phase when Brett and I did a lot of drugs and we were inseparable. (laughs) I think as the band kept growing, I became the middle voice. Greg and Brett would each write their own songs and have their ideas, but there needed to be someone with an unbiased opinion. I didn't write the songs, I don't care who wrote the songs, and I'm not going to play favorites. I listen to them objectively and say "how do they fit into the context of Bad Religion?"
I think we all really like being in Bad Religion. We don't want to be in another band or pretend that we're in another band. But when you do something you like, you can't keep doing the same thing over and over again. I know some people say we do...
Which is a crock of shit...
...But the goal has been to expand the envelope that is Bad Religion. Not to get out of it, but "how big can we make it?" What are the parameters of what Bad Religion can be? It's not Into the Unknown, which would be jumping right out of the box, right?
In American Hardcore, there's a quote from you about the first and only recording session you attended for Into the Unknown. Supposedly you came in, recorded your parts for one song, and then said "okay let's move on" only to have Greg and Brett keep adding overdubs for that ONE song the entire day.
It's true. When we made How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, we did six songs in one session, stopped for a few months, and then six more in another. The thought was to do the same for our second full-length: We had six songs, and we were going to record them and then write more.
So we went in, and on the first day Pete (Fine, former drummer) took forever to get the drum take. I finally laid down my bass and was like "okay, let's MOVE ON to the next song. I'm sick of this one." But instead, (already starting to laugh) Greg and Brett started putting more and more overdubs on the same song! When they brought out that fucking wooden thing with the ball on it...
(laughing) Snake rattle?
...When that thing came out of the treasure chest of rhythmic things, I said "okay, I have to leave now, and I'm NOT going to be a part of this." (hysterical laughter) I later told them that, if they used any of my stuff, I was gonna sue 'em (more hysterical laughter).
I paid $50 for a CDR copy on eBay.
And was it worth it?
Hells fucking yeah! Just the expression on my face when I first played it was priceless. I heard you guys sometimes play those songs in soundcheck?
We have! We've played "Billy Gnosis," "Chasing the Wild Goose," "Time and Disregard"...
That song's over seven minutes long! (laughs)
Yeah, isn't it? (laughs) It's one of those things where you know it all cuz you're supposed to.
The quote from Brett in American Hardcore was something like "have you HEARD the fucking thing!? It's got songs about trees and nature and a wife-killing misanthrope!"
(hysterical laughter) It's pretty twisted. We can look back now and say "okay, that was pretty out there." At the time, I didn't think it was the right thing to do. Now? Sure, why not? I'm old enough now to believe that everything's "the right thing to do." Everything happens for a reason, and that album happened for a reason. (pauses) I just still don't know what it is. (laughs)
Are you in touch with Bobby (Schayer, former drummer)?
I talk to Bobby a lot. He's the drum tech for Interpol now. He can still play, (Schayer suffered serious rotator disc injuries that forced him out of Bad Religion - and possibly drumming in general - prior to The Process of Belief) he just can't play for Bad Religion. To play this kind of stuff for an hour and-a-half eight months out of the year for over 10 years, it's grueling. Wears you out. I have no idea how punk drummers do it.
What about Pete and Jay (Ziskrout, original drummer)?
Pete is the drummer for Jackass The Band. They're like country punk. We play with them every now and then. Ziskrout: NO IDEA. He was in South America the last I heard. In '96, we went down there to play some shows and he came out.
Why did Jay quit in the first place?
This is a true story... We did a photoshoot one day, and Brett picked up proof sheets just to look at them. Brett, Greg, and I were at Greg's house looking at them, saying "oh this one's cool" but not making any decisions. That night, Ziskrout called me and said "I heard you picked pictures without me." "Well, we didn't really pick anything..." "That's FUCKED!" "We didn't pick anything!" "I QUIT!" (laughs) So I started laughing and said okay and hung up. I called up Graffin and said "I think Ziskrout just quit." "Why?" "He thought we picked pictures without him." "Well, fuck him then. He's crazy." And he kinda was crazy. (laughs)
Pete was Ziskrout's drum tech. Well, we didn't have drum techs back then, he was just there. He was always hanging around. (laughs) Pete was taking lessons from Lucky Lehr from Circle Jerks, so he could play, and since he was always hanging around with us, we asked him "well, you know all the songs?" "Yeah, I know all the songs." "Pete's the new drummer!" (laughs)
Okay, now for the most overused but still-necessary question: The state of music - specifically punk rock - and your thoughts on its future, its relevance, its integrity, etc.
There's the Hot Topic mentality, which I think is dangerous. Kids can actually believe that this is a career option. When you strap on a guitar and want to become as big as Good Charlotte, that's a dangerous thought process. To me, I think the next big wave - maybe not in punk rock, maybe IN punk rock - will involve TALENT. Being untalented won't work anymore. Strapping on a guitar and slamming it will no longer be enough. The reason punk was so big and special in the beginning was cuz anyone could do it. But now everyone is doing it, and it's just... so stale. So what you have to do now to separate yourself is play and write songs that other people can't.