Brian Baker is a very busy man these days. His regular “day job” is playing guitar in Bad Religion, the legendary punk band who just returned from South America where they played Lollapallooza in Brazil, Argentina and Chile. He’s getting ready to tour Europe in April with his side-project Dag Nasty, a band he formed in 1985. Baker’s musical pedigree reads like a historical timeline of underground Rock ‘n’ Roll. He was a founding member of DC Hardcore band Minor Threat with Ian MacKaye, moved to LA and joined the metal band Junkyard before taking over guitar duties in Bad Religion in 1994. And now he’s here to dispel some long standing myths about the DC Hardcore scene, and lament some things that aren’t there anymore.
GOING BACK TO YOUR ROOTS AMD GROWING UP IN THE DC-HARDCORE SCENE, WERE YOU BEHOLDEN TO A STRONG MORAL FABRIC OF THAT GENRE? HOW DID THAT SCENE SHAPE YOU AS A PERSON?
Brian Baker: People hypothesize that DC is the cradle of straight-edge, so there was this ethical sidebar that was part of everything, but DC was really just like any small town scene. It wasn’t just a straight-edge town. Moral code, I don’t really think it existed. What it did teach was this D.I.Y. ethic, and it was very true.
Being a musician in a band in a small town scene, especially way back then, you had to do everything yourself. There was not the infrastructure for bands and for underage kids to go play concerts. There was no place to do this. It was the era of figuring out if you could rent some dilapidated building from somebody to put on this weird art experience. That’s kind of how it was. It was the very early beginnings of this D.I.Y. ethic. Nothing was monetized. It was actually doing it for the sake of doing it, and making it happen on your own. And that’s something I’ve taken with me forever. Even to this day. A “can-do” pioneering spirit is more apt to say than a moral structure. That’s how I grew up, and that’s how I am now. Good lessons learned.
BEING THE REAGAN ERA, DO YOU THINK THAT POLITICS PLAYED INTO THE SCENE?
No, I don’t. DC was not political. We were not “Fuck Reagan.” DC is the seat of government, but basically the punk scene really rolled completely under that radar. Our stuff was personal politics and dealing with being outcasts and outsiders. Bigger picture stuff than “How Dare You Deny These Grain Subsidies to Families In Nebraska.” I think that DC was a surprisingly a-political punk scene, at least lyrically. I’m sure when one agitates there has to be a number of things that come into play. But, in general, DC was not that kind of thing.
AND NOW IN 2016, WHAT DOES BRIAN BAKER HAVE ON HIS PLATE?
Well, right now I am preparing for a big year. I have a lot of Bad Religion to do, and we have a new drummer, Jamie Miller. I have a bunch of Dag Nasty shows in Europe that I am really looking forward to as well. We’ve got the original line-up together, and even recorded new music. And I managed to make sure that none of the shows are at the same time which I think is going to make it easier for me and all the band members in the various bands.
THAT’S KEY. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN TOURING WITH DAG NASTY AND TOURING WITH BAD RELIGION? IS IT THE VAN VS. BUS DYNAMIC?
Um. Well, Bad Religion is more popular. And you know what that leads to.
The Van vs Bus thing, the experience is different. If you’re on tour in a van, you drive it yourself all day and see lots of great stuff you’d might miss on a bus. Then every night you’re stopping at a hotel. When I was 21, we would get 2 hotel rooms for 7 people and that was totally cool. Now that I’m 50, I could probably share with one person, but I can’t really go with the full group sharing. I think you get creaky and spoiled.
You can live on the tour bus which is way more Partridge Family. On a bus tour, you drive at night and when you wake up you can go explore wherever you wound up until you have to load your gear in. The big difference being that in theory you’ve got a bus driver who hasn’t just played a show and who isn’t drunk, and who is familiar with the Czech Republic or rural Oregon, or wherever you may be. So for my money I’m good with sleeping on a bus and skipping the whole Motel 9.
Either way, most of the fun of the travel for me is to look at new stuff and meet new people and poke around. If you go to Berlin enough you don’t just hang out at the Reichstag, you figure out cool new things to do. I carry a bicycle with me now, so I’ve expanded my horizons. I can wake up at whatever club we’re playing and get on a bike and ride 20 miles away and that’s where the really cool stuff happens.
WHAT’S THE WORST GIG YOU’VE EVER PLAYED?
I think my worst gig ever was a show that Bad Religion played in the mid-90s. We were playing in San Sebastian, Spain. The place was way oversold. The show was in this janky nightclub/disco come punk rock show. It was just a big weird place a bit out in the country. Some bands had played, and we got on and played about 45 seconds of Recipe For Hate, and suddenly half the dance floor just caved in and disappeared.
The venue was built over an underground parking lot. And people just got fucked up. Nobody died. But it was just this unbelievable thing because first you’re like “Where the fuck did the people go? What the fuck happened?” Then the stage started to slide toward the hole and it’s just absolute fucking chaos. And it’s all happening all at once. I’m still playing on my side of the stage. I’m not even noticing that over on the left side [of the stage] the band’s not there anymore.
It was crazy. So that was a terrible gig. There were obviously some bumps and bruises, and I’m really glad that nothing really catastrophic happened.
I will say that ever since then, and that was 22 years ago, I’m always kind of looking at the room I’m going to play, especially at load in, just thinking, “What’s under the stage?” or “What is the scene here? Can this place hack it?” It was a terrible lesson.
IN STARK CONTRAST, IS THERE A BEST SHOW OR VENUE YOU’VE EVER PLAYED?
I really loved the old Roseland Ballroom in New York City. And we played there pretty much until it got torn down. And it was just an amazing 1930s huge ballroom. It was on the westside on like 53rd or something. You could just see the Jitterbug competitions and taxi dances during World War II taking place there. This place was so great. It had retained all its original stuff, kind of like the Palladium in L.A., if the Palladium in L.A. was much older and East Coast. No offense: but cooler.
I remember the first couple of times we played there, it was just so amazing, and such a great room. This is where Frank Sinatra played. This is where Elvis played. And you really felt that vibe. Not Elvis’ vibes specifically, but the kind of respect for the building and how you were playing after this whole lineage of live music, and it was really special. I really loved that place. Of course, like everything cool, it got torn down. And I’m sure there’s 3000 people living inside glass-fronted 500 square foot studio apartments in it now.
DID YOU HAVE ANY MONUMENTAL SHOWS AT THE ORIGINAL 9:30 CLUB? THAT PLACE IS ALSO NOT THERE ANYMORE, RIGHT?
The original 9:30 club is now a J.Crew. I’ll let you gag. The original 9:30 Club was in a terrible part of town and held maybe 300 people, if you were crazy. The club was in the bottom floor of this late 19th Century not-special brownstone-looking office building. I don’t think it was ever really residential, I could be wrong. It was just a fucked up old building in a bad part of town, kind of where all the porn theaters and stuff were back then.
The 9:30 Club needed to expand, and they moved to another cool place, maybe 15 blocks away. They took over an old dance hall, where they used to broadcast big band stuff. So the soul of 9:30 really did continue by moving to this different venue, which now holds like 1200. It’s awesome, I just played there.
But the old 9:30 Club was like a dungeon, and it was just so small, packed and climately challenged, sweat dripping off the walls kind of thing. I played there a bunch of times.
I think an interesting story is that the first time, I’d like to think it’s the first time, I played the 9:30 Club. It was the day I got my driver’s license, so it might have been my birthday, in 1981, and we (Minor Threat) were opening for the Circle Jerks. So I drove for the first time by myself to the 9:30 Club to play my first show opening for this insane California band that was huge and legendary to us. It was kind of the culmination of everything that could happen on your birthday.
And all these years later, I’m really into driving, and I still really like the Circle Jerks. And it was also the first day I bleached my hair! Oh, and I lost my virginity that day. I’m pretty damn sure of it.
You know how you can kind of rebuild memories so they’re all the same thing? I know, it may not have actually been my birthday, but it was the day I got my driver’s license. I’ve been through this story before, I was talking to Ian (MacKaye) about it. He was like “No, no, that show was 4 days after your birthday.” Because he knows everything, since he never had that oozy period that some of seem to have gone through and have come out the other end of. So I look to him for the actual information. Although I would like the record to show that all of these things happened on the same day.
Bad Religion will be touring Europe on the Summer Nationals Tour with The Offspring, Pennywise and Good Riddance. And catch Dag Nasty with their original founding line-up in Europe this April, and a both Punk Rock Bowling events in Las Vegas, Nevada and Asbury Park Lanes, New Jersey.
photos: Opening image by Jennifer Leazer, courtesy of Double Cross xx