guitarist, Brian Baker
started out his musical endeavors back in 1980 when he co-founded the short lived but legendary punk band Minor Threat
. He then moved on to start a band called Dag Nasty
. In 1994, Brian joined up with Bad Religion where he has remained ever since.
That is not to say there haven't been other projects when Bad Religion is not touring or recording, Brian stays busy with bands like Junkyard
, Government Issue
, and a rather recent Dag Nasty reunion show.
In this exclusive interview, Brian talks Minor Threat reunion, new Dag Nasty material, dispels some long-running internet myths, guitars, and of course the new Bad Religion album "True North
" which came out on Epitaph Records on January 22nd, 2013.
UG: Take us through the writing and recording process for the new record "True North".
: It's pretty simple; Greg
] and Brett
] are the songwriters. Historically, they have about a 50/50 input on the records. But basically, they did their own demos at their separate recording facilities. Then the band gets together and performs these rough sketches. In this case, we recorded the whole album onto two inch tape. But our process is pretty simple.
I understand that you do the majority of the playing on the Bad Religion records. Is that true?
Yeah, I do. I was trying to figure out a mathematical ratio of how much of the guitar parts are mine but I'm not that good at math. But I do the majority of the stuff. I do all the main guitar parts and then Brett comes in and sprinkles his parts in the seams - he comes in and ices the cake, basically. Brett has a really signature sound that I love.
How would you describe the songwriting partnership between Greg and Brett?
"In Bad Religion, I don't write any lyrics at all. When you listen to a record, you'll hear some little parts that I added but Greg and Brett are our songwriters. I just play the guitar."
Yeah, it's the punk version of a lot of classic duos. They're very different people but when they come together and combine their efforts, they become more powerful. It's an interesting dynamic, similar to what I would assume a connection would be between two brothers where they finish each other's sentences and when you watch them work, one of them will be moving ahead with an idea that hasn't even been expressed yet by the other. It's great to watch. I've been in this band for 19 years now and I've had enough experience to where I'm able to get in on that uptake myself and help to move things along smoothly.
Was there any collaboration with any other musicians on "True North"? I know there was a Heartbreaker on "Empire Strikes First".
No, I guess Mike Campbell
wasn't available this time.
How did that collaboration happen anyway?
Mike and Brett have been friends for a long time - it was a professional thing I guess. These things just kind of happen. We were in the same place at the same time and somebody bumped into somebody at the coffee machine, you know how it goes, and collaborations happen. But Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
) played guitar on "Los Angeles is Burning
" on the "Empire Strikes First" album. It was fantastic. But there were no collaborations on this album - I guess we weren't having coffee in the right place.
In some of your previous bands, you did a bit of songwriting. Do you contribute to the writing process?
No not at all really. In Minor Threat, most of the stuff was written by Ian MacKaye
. In Dag Nasty I was the main songwriter. In Bad Religion, I don't write any lyrics at all. When you listen to a record, you'll hear some little parts that I added but Greg and Brett are our songwriters. I just play the guitar.
Is it liberating for you to not write as much?
"I have a lot of stuff I've been writing (for Dag Nasty) on and off through the years and I think I'll be able to put it to some use after the Bad Religion season calms down which won't be for a while."
Absolutely, I love the aspect of being able to come in and play on the canvas after they've painted it. It's a much different experience as a musician to do that rather than to nurture your own brainchild and direct other people to do what you had in your mind. It's a pleasure and it is very liberating.
Do you ever miss the writing aspect of making music?
Yeah, I still have other stuff that I do where I get to wear the writing hat. Those projects just aren't as interview worthy as Bad Religion. I just did a Dag Nasty show over the holiday and I've been playing with Government Issue. There's always plenty to do. Bad Religion has been on a bit of a hiatus as we were getting this record together so I can't wait to get back out and play every night and get back into the Bad Religion swing. I get the best of both worlds.
Dag Nasty played a reunion show just a month ago, how was that?
Dag Nasty reunited for a benefit for a film called "Salad Days
" which is in production and will hopefully be a definitive retrospective on the Washington DC hardcore scene from say '81 to '85 and that's right in the belly of Dag Nasty's years. The film is being made by a guy we've known for many years and we played that show to help this guy raise some money, apparently making movies is much more expensive than I was told. The band hadn't played together since 1988 but the lineup we put together was the original lineup that started the band with Shawn Brown
as vocalist and that group hadn't played a note together since 1986. Surprisingly it was a fantastic time and it's led me to think more seriously about doing some new material. I have a lot of stuff I've been writing on and off through the years and I think I'll be able to put it to some use after the Bad Religion season calms down which won't be for a while. But it was such a great time I can't see any reason not to continue with it.
Is there any hope of a Minor Threat reunion?
No. That would ruin it I think. Minor Threat was a product of its time and we aren't minors anymore and we certainly aren't threatening. I just think to destroy the myth wouldn't serve anybody. Minor Threat wasn't very popular until years after we broke up so I just don't see any reason to tarnish the idea that people have developed over the years about a band they never saw.
We need to answer this question once and for all - were you ever offered an audition for Guns N' Roses?
No, that's one of the biggest internet myths in the world. My friend Tommy Stinson
who I played with for a little while in a band called Bash & Pop
had just joined Guns N' Roses and I think they were going through a number of different guitar players and he casually mentioned, or asked rather, in conversation if I would ever consider trying out for Guns N' Roses. I've been trying to get that sh-t off the internet forever. I've been emailing the Wikipedia people repeatedly. Do you know how difficult it is to edit yourself on that site? It's awful let me tell you. So anyways no, I did not miss the chance to welcome myself to a jungle.
I'm glad we can put that rumor to rest. That's been bothering me since I first read it in a zine several years ago. Its no myth however that all of the members of Bad Religion are well into their 40s yet the music you make is still relevant to the youth of today. Why do you think that is?
I think the reason is pretty simple, the songs are good. The people writing the music are still inspired to do so and Bad Religion at well over 30 years, is not trying to be a heritage act and releasing records just so they can go on tour and sell t-shirts. Each record exists and remains relevant because the people who write the music want to share something with people. The consideration of adding to the band's catalogue has absolutely nothing to do with it. I am very lucky to play with people who seem to be pretty damn good at writing songs that resonate with people.
Let's talk about the guitar tone of Bad Religion.
"The people writing the music are still inspired to do so and Bad Religion at well over 30 years, is not trying to be a heritage act and releasing records just so they can go on tour and sell t-shirts."
Well you know it's weird, we've been through so many phases of having studio gear and not and basically for this record, I just played what I play live. I believe I'm the only punk rock guitar player who has not one but two Jimmy Page
Number One Les Pauls. I think my serial numbers are 690 and 282. I don't think I need to educate the readers of Ultimate Guitar
about the difference between the first run of Jimmy Page signature guitars that Gibson made, the Jimmy Page Number One and the most recent run of the Jimmy Page Number Two. Everyone knows what they are. They both sound almost exactly the same and I plug that into a white JCM800 Anniversary 100 Watt Head which is then run through a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier
4x12 Cabinet. In that cabinet I believe are 65 Watt Celestions - I've never taken the back off of the cabs so I'm not sure. That is the guitar sound at our live shows. And on this most recent record, I swear to God I have no idea what Joe Barresi
(Producer on "True North") does from track to track and even sometimes within the same track but he uses his incredible collection of pedals and recording equipment to change the tone of the guitars in the studio. But the basis of it all is just the rig I use live and mainly it's the two Jimmy Page Les Paul Number Ones.
Those are beautiful guitars.
They're just awesome. I know the whole aging and relicing is a big deal these days but mine were perfect when I got them and now they're so beat to hell, but it's real. My nitro checking is not done with a razor blade or a freeze spray, my friend. It's from playing in the snow in Germany and the next show being in Italy on the coast. It's great.
Have you had any issues with headstocks breaking off with your Les Pauls?
I have not broken either of the Jimmy Page's - I got the first one in 2008 and it was so good that I got another to use as a backup in 2009. But before I got those I had two almost identical '71 through '73 Deluxes that had been routed for humbuckers. It's really hard to date guitars between those years. Both of those had headstock breaks. But you just fix it and move on and they'll go on forever, it's a piece of wood. One of my Deluxes I broke the headstock accidentally at soundcheck, it just fell off the guitar stand, and my guitar tech just glued the headstock back on and I played it that night. I don't know what he had in his tool kit, I'm sure it was a very good glue he used. I love a repaired guitar! Because that means that if it has any real collector value, I won't have to shell out big money for it. If I played SGs I could have broken headstocks and neck joints all day.
You know, we get so many people who hold up certain guitars like idols and worship them; it's refreshing to see someone use them as tools because that is what they are - albeit some beautiful tools.
I'm very into guitars and I have a budding collection. I've loved guitars my whole life, I'm on the forums and I like to educate myself with regard to guitars. I just think it's neat to play these pretty high end guitars doing the kind of music that we play. I'm not even really a Jimmy Page fan per se, I mean I have an ultimate respect for him and I like a lot of Led Zeppelin
but I didn't get these guitars because they were Jimmy Page's guitar, I got them because they have the smallest neck you can find on a Gibson Les Paul. If it had been the Boz Scaggs
Les Paul, then I'd be playing a Boz Scaggs. I have a Gibson deal of some sort but they don't really care about me or talk to me anymore. But I asked them if they could whip up a couple Standard Les Pauls with the Jimmy Page neck profile and they said "No, its proprietary. We can't do that, almost unknown artist Brian Baker
." So I was like fine, keep giving stuff to Kenny Chesney
, f--k you.
What was your first guitar?
My first electric guitar was about a '64 or '65 Epiphone Coronet. I got this guitar when I was 9. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to play early on which was pivotal for me. The guitar I got after that was the one that started it all. The Coronet was kind of a student guitar but I had a Princeton Reverb and was starting trying to figure out how to sound like people I liked but the Coronet pickups just weren't doing it. So my dad took me to a local music store in Washington DC called Chuck Levin's Music Store which is actually still there today and at the price range that my dad could afford I was looking at a Gibson S-1 and a Marauder - this was in about 1975 I think. So, I'm looking at these two horrible guitars - low points of the Norlin Era. But there is a used early seventies Les Paul Deluxe there on the wall as well and my dad notices that the used Deluxe was less money that the new S-1 and the new Marauder and points me to the cheaper guitar. My dad knew nothing about guitars, but that's how I got my first Les Paul. I think it was a '73 Tobacco Deluxe and within three months it had three DiMarzio Super Distortions in it (thank you, Ace Frehley
) and that's what started it all - totally true story.
Do you still have it?
No but I do have pictures of me playing it and it's so funny - I think the guitar was taller than me. I didn't get to start not selling guitars for food until I was like 30, so I lost all of the cool old stuff. Over the last 15 or 20 years or so, I've been just trying not to sell any of my old ones and just buying more new ones. I no longer sell guitars I already have so I can afford new ones - I just save up until I can afford it because the old guitars are important to me. I do have an unreasonable emotional attachment to some of my guitars.
Do you use any of those old guitars you've collected in the studio?
I used to do that a lot. But as I get older I realized that the reason I play those Jimmy Page's is because that really is what does everything for me. I can get different tonalities by the way I handle the guitar. In extreme cases, Joe Barissi
has a fantastic guitar collection, so for overdubs or spikes, I often dip into that collection. I've also got a couple of really fantastic guitars made by Nash
. Britton Nash
, Bill Nash
's son, is a good friend of mine. So I've got a couple F-Body Nash guitars that I did use on the new record. I've only had them for the last year or so. They add to the sound but the basis will always be the Les Paul - Marshall sound. I don't know what it is about the Jimmy Page guitars but they are certainly special.
Are they completely stock?
"Minor Threat wasn't very popular until years after we broke up so I just don't see any reason to tarnish the idea that people have developed over the years about a band they never saw."
No, both of those guitars [The Jimmy Page Number Ones] have DiMarzio Super Distortion pickups. One of them has a double white that is a 1977 and the other has a double black that's old, I'm not sure on the year though. And also I'll be quite clear, I don't know if there's any difference between a 40 year old DiMarzio pickup and one I can get in a box right now. I just think its cooler that they're old but that's what they are and they're wired directly a 500k pot for volume so there's no tone control. The rhythm pickup is whatever came stock on the Jimmy Page Number Ones.
Tell me about the Nash Guitars.
The Nash is a T2HB - it's a double humbucker tele with an ash body and it's a f--king amazing guitar. Britton Nash had DiMarzio make me a prototype Super Distortion pickup with a nickel cover and a slotted pole pieces so it looks like an old PAF but its actually a Super Distortion and that's the coolest thing in the world and as far as I know there are only two of those in existence - I have one and Britton Nash has one. I love Nash Guitars by the way.
What are some of the guitars that you keep at home?
Two of my favorite guitars that I keep at home off the road are my 1972 Deluxe that I used in Bad Religion from 1998 until 2008 when I got my first Jimmy Page and my 2006 Historic 61 RI SG that was painted and aged by Nash Guitars. They both have vintage DiMarzio Super Distortions in them, of course.
So, Greg is a college professor, Brett owns the Epitaph record label, what do you do in your spare time?
"I love a repaired guitar! Because that means that if it has any real collector value, I won't have to shell out big money for it. If I played SGs I could have broken headstocks and neck joints all day."
Well, up until recently I used to just lie around drunk but that wasn't working for me. So I stopped doing that a while ago. So now I enjoy my time off thoroughly. I've got plenty of projects going on to keep me busy. I live in a house that is 120 years old that falling apart. It's a "the door just came off in my hand
" kind of house. I like f--king around with the house. My wife runs a non-profit art organization in Washington called Transformer. So when I'm not on tour with Bad Religion or other bands or trying to duct tape my house back together, I'm pretty much a go-fer for her, husband stuff, you know. I don't have a separate job or anything like that. That would be counter-punk; being gainfully unemployed - that's winning.
It seems like you guys still have fun. Does Bad Religion ever feel like a job for you?
Never. It's really just like being in a band 20 years ago, it's just hanging out with some of my closest friends - that includes the crew too. It never feels like a job ever. I think you touched on something earlier that everybody has something else they do and because we only work together 6 months out of the year, we're excited to see each other. There's an energy there that's great. If it was ever like, "Oh, I gotta go play No Control again, f--k you
." Then I don't think the music would sound as good as it does.
Interview by Justin R. Beckner