Greg Graffin has never been one to stagnate. For 34 years he has fronted punk rock juggernaut Bad Religion, gnashing his teeth and vocal chords at just about every piece of conventional wisdom in his path.
The band’s latest offering True North attacks the alienation that many people feel living in that conventional wisdom. The title refers to the direction which points towards the earth’s real north pole – the spot that the earth actually spins around.
The more conventional magnetic and grid north do not point towards this spot, and Graffin cries out on the album that people must leave these behind and instead search for their own direction in life.
Why does conventional north lead us astray? Well, he asks in kind, “why is it that the map that our parents and teachers and religious leaders give us when we start off in this world, why is it that they don’t feel right to us? That to me is kind of a nugget of truth that resonates in this album.”
He calls this one of the great human mysteries. When asked for explanations and solutions to this mystery, Graffin is hesitant to make prescriptions: “If I knew the answer to that, or even if I pretended to know the answer to that I’d go flying in the face of everything that I think is lasting about Bad Religion.”
“I’m not a religious leader and I don’t think that people who claim to have the answers really do have the answers,” he adds.
“True north can really only be discovered by yourself… The hope comes from people who are the antithesis of the religious zealot,” he continues. “The hope comes form the people who are permissive. From the people who say ‘you’ve got to keep searching, you haven’t found it yet.’” “It’s brought me no end of meaning in life. So I would say if you’re a little bit lost or you need a little direction, study natural science!”
“If you commit yourself to trying to find truth in this world. If you commit yourself to challenging the prevailing dogma, then I think you’re gonna turn out okay,” he concludes. “For me at least, that’s what punk rock stood for and hopefully still does stand for.”
Graffin says the Bad Religion album’s truth about the need for a personal quest for meaning resonates across generations, both with the band members themselves and their mostly teenage kids, and he is proud of it.
“If you can actually make something valuable that transcends the generations then you’ve actually made something that’s lasting as opposed to so much of the crap out there that doesn’t last at all.”
His search for meaning has led him to the natural sciences, including teaching stints at The University of California and a number of published books.
“To actually go out and study the world is one of the greatest privileges,” he reasons, “it’s brought me no end of meaning in life. So I would say if you’re a little bit lost or you need a little direction, study natural science!”
His studies inspired Graffin to write long time Bad Religion favourite “We’re Only Gonna Die”.
Something in the book Origins by paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey resonated with him, and he scribbled it down in the little notebook that he carried with him for song ideas.
“He said that there’s a lot of hope for humanity, but if we continue down this path of arrogance and sort of ignoring the fact that we’re a part of nature, not apart from nature, then we’re certainly destined to [become] extinct much quicker.”
Speaking more broadly of the potential for people to be creative, Graffin says, “the political climate under which we live I think has a big influence on the way we approach creativity.”
“I think it’s natural for human beings to be creative so I don’t fault individuals,” proffers the frontman. “I do fault the structure of society. I think maybe that can be changed.” “If you can actually make something valuable that transcends the generations then you’ve actually made something that’s lasting as opposed to so much of the crap out there…”
The need to make a profit discourages a lot of people, and he says this needs to change for people to unlock their natural creativity. “You might not make a cent for what you’re about to do, but the feeling that you will get from having accomplished the project is far more valuable than money can buy.”
When pressed about the political climate that hinders this creativity, Graffin elaborates, returning to the theme of arrogance and extinction.
Speaking of his native USA he says he does not believe “that countries that are so opposed to socialism and socialist programmes put so much pressure on individuals to make a profit.”
“In our country it’s outta hand and I think that’s gonna be the end of us really,” he prophesies, “if we don’t figure out a way to stop having such a knee-jerk reaction to socialist programmes.”
Unhappiness is also rife in America, he says, in contrast with his experience of Australia. “When I go and visit you guys, you’re a lot happier than our people are. I just find that there doesn’t seem to be as much individual desperation.”
“You can go to places in America where you will see nothing but scowling faces. You can go to small towns in America where there’s not a single smile. The culture breeds that, and that’s what’s gotta change.”
Asked when he might be seeing some more of the Australian smiles that a Bad Religion visit would surely inspire, he says that the band wants to come in early 2014 but are waiting for promoters to “get their act together” – to get on the phone and make an offer.
With a year chock full of touring, a new book in the works, and plans for another solo album (following 1997’s American Lesion), Graffin is showing no signs of the stagnation that he has always aimed to avoid.
Indeed he warns us against it: “culture and life around us is changing faster than ever before and if we want to participate in that process and really live life to the fullest, we can’t be too comfortable in our current situation.”
“I guess that’s just a warning to people who think they’ve figured it all out.”