Ever since he was 15, Greg Graffin has been good in a room. From sweaty rock clubs through countless theater and arena tours, the punk rock philosopher and Bad Religion mouthpiece has always had the attention of an audience. But when reached by phone last week, Graffin, 50, was prepping for an entirely different crowd than the fans who grew up bowing before latter-day classics like Suffer and Against the Grain.
“In fact, when you called I was thinking about my lecture tomorrow on Charles Darwin,” Graffin says. “Every fall I teach evolution with a guy named Rick Harrison, a geneticist here at Cornell. It’s an engrossing course.”
The thought of a seasoned rocker assuming the role of college professor might strike some as an unusual career change, but the truth is Bad Religion’s thought-provoking brand of highbrow punk has never been more than a shade or two away from academia. While many of their peers continue to rant on about girls, beer bongs, scene unity, and other punk and hardcore tropes, Bad Religion songs continue to play like lectures on philosophy and evolution at 150 beats per minute. The L.A. vets are as fiercely in their element today as ever, but these days Graffin is also applying his studious curiosity to writing in its purist form. His third book, Population Wars, hit stores on September 15. Ever the contrarian, Graffin uses the book as a platform to call into question the commonly held belief that human evolution is driven by competition, and further discusses how the theory of “survival of the fittest” is used to justify war.
Graffin began work on the book five years ago. He calls Population Wars “a pop culture book written from an academic perspective,” and said despite the lower decibel levels and lack of singalong choruses, he sees his writing as a logical extension of his work with the band.
“The long tradition of Bad Religion has been about raising public awareness in a medium — punk rock — that most people associate with violence and anger,” Graffin says. “But if you look at our body of work, which is over 300 songs, you rarely find a song that is nihilistic or combative. I’ve always tried to write in such a way so as to raise people’s awareness and get them to think.
“I think [writing] fits my style to a T,” he continues. “I feel no different standing before a group of students than I do performing onstage with Bad Religion. I feel it’s my calling to share ideas and hopefully get some feedback from them.”
It’s that free flow of ideas Dr. Graffin hopes to inspire with when he stops by the Gramercy Theatre on September 20. In addition to reading from his new book, Graffin will entertain questions from the audience and also perform acoustic Bad Religion songs. Fans who preordered Population Wars also received a seven-inch single of four Bad Religion tunes performed by Graffin on acoustic guitar. The songs, “Faith Alone,” “My Poor Friend Me,” “The Answer,” and “Changing Tide,” were among the works in the outfit’s extensive back catalog that helped inspire the themes of the book.
“I’ve always said that a great song starts on an acoustic guitar or piano,” he says. “That’s true with Bad Religion songs. We usually start out writing them and present them to each other as stripped-down versions. It just so happens that the themes I’m covering in Population Wars, I’ve been writing about them in Bad Religion for many years.”
While he’s getting older, the singer-turned-lecturer shows no signs of slowing down with age. The New York show is one of six Graffin has slated to promote the book through September, while he will continue to rip it with Bad Religion on select dates through the rest of the year. The band’s boundless energy suggests it still has plenty of gas left in its well-traveled tank, but Graffin’s gotten pretty good at wearing both his singer and lecturer hats.
“Now that I’m getting into old age, it’s something I hope to continue,” he says. It shouldn’t be a problem given how easily his music and his educational work mosh together.
Greg Graffin will discuss Population Wars and perform acoustic Bad Religion songs at the Gramercy Theatre on September 20. For ticket information, click here.