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culture

Bad Religion Celebrates True North

As the legendary California punk band unveils a new album, drummer Brooks Wackerman talks about his history with the group.

Jay Bentley and Greg Graffin.

Jay Bentley and Greg Graffin.

In preparation for an upcoming tour and to mark the release of the band’s 16th studio album, True North, punk-rock innovator Bad Religion played an atypically intimate show at the Horseshoe on Sunday night. While the album’s title track is about finding one’s inner compass rather than, say, how great Canada is, the crowd of 102.1 The Edge contest winners (the show was exclusively for them) hardly seemed to care as they fist-pumped along to a blistering performance.

Playfully teasing the crowd about the abundance of new songs in the set list while bantering with bassist Jay Bentley, animated lead singer Greg Graffin also fulfilled his promise to play some of the group’s classics. At one point, he introduced the song “We’re Only Gonna Die” by declaring it “older than most of you.” The evening culminated in a powerful rendition of the band’s ’90s breakout hit, “21st Century Digital Boy.” It was a final reminder of the the band’s vitality, even after over 30 years together.

When Bad Religion formed in Los Angeles in 1979, the group’s current drummer, Brooks Wackerman, was living nearby—except he was only two years old at the time. As the youngest son of renowned Orange County music educator Chuck Wackerman, it was almost preordained that he would follow in the footsteps of his older brothers, one of whom was the drummer for Frank Zappa’s band. In fact, Wackerman says that even as a child he was already making strides.

“As soon as I started walking, that’s when I started banging on things,” he remembers. At the age of six, the studies became a little more formal. “My dad was my jazz band instructor throughout adolescence. He was the one that took me to my private lessons. He would drive me an hour every week to go to specific teachers.”

Speaking with Wackerman at the Metropolitan Hotel the morning after the show at the Horseshoe, he’s anything but the archetypal unhinged rock drummer. Where Keith Moon was brash and uncouth, Wackerman is soft-spoken and affable. In a genre of music built on rebellion and questionable talent, his gratitude to his parents and his extensive training fly in the face of many notions of the punk-rock aesthetic. But he has spent his share of time paying his dues on the road. In fact, he did that while he was still in high school. It was then that he first heard a Bad Religion album: Stranger Than Fiction.

“I was in a van with The Vandals. Joe Escalante, the bassist, threw that CD in my lap and he said, ‘Listen to this.’ I was blown away when I first heard it. I had never heard harmonies in punk-rock music like that. And really well-crafted songs. Those were the two things that grabbed me.”

Brooks Wackerman in his element.

Brooks Wackerman in his element.

In 2000, after Wackerman had stopped drumming for the band Suicidal Tendencies, mutual friends put him in touch with Brett Gurewitz, guitarist and—along with Graffin—chief songwriter for Bad Religion. (Gurewitz was absent in Toronto, as he rarely plays shows outside Los Angeles.) Wackerman recognized that he was being called in to audition at a crucial time for the band. “They had just finished their contract with Atlantic. [They eventually signed with Epitaph.] And Brett had been out of the band for 10 years. He was coming back into the picture. [Drummer] Bobby Schayer had just left the band. I think they were going through a lot of transitions.”

Over the 13 years Wackerman has now been in the band, he says there have been changes in the group’s sound. “Especially [2010's] The Dissent Of Man versus the new record. To me, in the Bad Religion world, it’s like day and night. Dissent had almost singer-songwriter songs on it—a little slower and longer songs, too. On True North, I think we get to the point faster. There’s no song really over two-and-a-half minutes.” At this point, he feels he and his band mates have developed strong chemistry.

“There’s definitely been a progression. I think as a band, we’re playing better than we have since I joined. I think we know each other’s tricks a little bit better now. Just like anything, when you play with guys for 13 years, you hope there will be a better cohesion.”

Because Graffin, a PhD scholar, regularly teaches paleontology and life sciences courses at Cornell and UCLA, Bad Religion has downtime. Wackerman keeps himself busy by playing with a number of bands, including acoustic-metal act Tenacious D. “You couldn’t really pick any two more different bands than Tenacious D and Bad Religion,” he says. “I can get off on that fact that they’re stylistically so different and really on the opposite end of the spectrum.” Still, the transition back to the breakneck pace of Bad Religion songs can sometimes be a little jarring for him.

“It is tough if you haven’t played punk drumming in a year. I’m usually on a pretty good practice regimen when I’m home. I guess you could compare it to an athlete when you’re getting ready for a meet, or the Olympics.” In discussing the many ways he combats the accompanying toll on his body, he addresses a pressing concern in an appropriately punk-rock manner.

“It’s a pretty physical job playing punk music as a drummer. And I’m not getting any fucking younger.”

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