Catching Up With Punk Rock Legends: Brian Baker
By Jeff Alexander
Guitarist Brian Baker’s versatility allowed him to refine and transcend the barriers of punk yet he humbly rejects any notion of being the sole creative force behind the legacies of Minor Threat, Dag Nasty, and Bad Religion. Bad Religion celebrated its 40th anniversary with the autobiography Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion and offered intimate glimpses into a group long known for maintaining privacy. Baker has served as Bad Religion’s guitarist for 27 years and remains proud of the group’s longevity and relevance.
“When you stop and think just how long Bad Religion has been together that’s incredible! But we’re still curious and the themes we address are deserving of discourse and we’re still growing. The fans don’t just go away, many have grown with us and some of them even bring their children to shows!” he exclaimed.
The bonds Baker created with friends led to enduring relationships, captured on record with fiery tempos and sincere lyrics. Minor Threat also celebrated its 40th anniversary and offered Baker the unique opportunity to celebrate two iconic groups he had the privilege of creating with. He still remains surprised with how much Minor Threat’s legacy has grown. Simply defining his introduction to punk and hardcore as “Being in the right place at the right time,” Baker reflected on Minor Threat’s early years.
“I feel the origins of Bad Religion mirrored Minor Threat; both bands were started by close friends and played after school. However, I joined Bad Religion much later on but through years of touring and recording we created such a strong bond. I was always playing music after school because that was the biggest part of my life. I originally joined Minor Threat playing bass because they needed someone and I knew how. We would rehearse at Ian’s parent’s house. The impact of Ian Mackaye’s lyrics was so strong and us getting together and playing as best we could was really a lightning in a bottle situation! I’m so grateful to have been a part of it.”
In the three years Minor Threat existed, their imprint upon hardcore is undeniable. Kids that were once disaffected and too willing to accept the rock & roll cliché of live fast, die young found themselves drawn to Minor Threat’s intensity and the rejection of substances as coping mechanisms. Suddenly, the cliches died and gave birth to a subgenre of youth-driven hardcore. Featuring many underage supporters and artists in the D.C. area, the new subgenre slowly offered more positive lyrical themes, coupled with even faster tempos and more organized bridges and break-downs. Mackaye reinforced the rejection of substances within the song Straight Edge and its theme was inadvertently embraced by many as a new rock & roll ideology.
“That ideology, if you will, was quickly embraced by the Boston music scene. They kind of took it and ran. I don’t remember people strictly referring to themselves as straight edge early on. What I still feel strongly about is just how hard Ian worked! He created a social structure within hardcore and it became long-lasting. He really believed in the do-it-yourself mentality, as shown with creating Dischord Records and it was so great to see!” exclaimed Baker.
As more groups gravitated to Minor Threat, it seemed the group was poised to make an even bigger leap as Baker transitioned to guitar in 1982 and Steve Hansgen took on bass duties. The group played packed DIY shows and earned a loyal following. However, Minor Threat disbanded only a year later, due to musical differences. Asked if increasing aggression and violence at shows were contributing factors, Baker stated “People that were not from the original crew were more aggressive but I personally didn’t experience violence toward me. We broke up in 1983 because Lyle Preslar (guitarist) and I had actually discovered U2 and really wanted to move in a similar direction because it was new, unique, and powerful with political lyrics. Ian understood and it was just an agree to disagree and part ways. Being in the moment, I obviously couldn’t tell just how much Minor Threat was going to mean to people,” stated Baker.
A second wave of hardcore picked up the proverbial torch, energized by Minor Threat and DIY ethics. The theme within straight edge was widely embraced and subsequent bands chose it as a recurring topic within their lyricism during the mid to late ‘80s.
“By that time I was disengaged with hardcore because I was playing in a Metal-based band Junkyard, who were on Geffen Records. That was definitely a different sound than Minor Threat and Geffen was obviously a very different setup than Dischord. Again, me joining was a case of right place at the right time. I was making a quick stop to the local deli across from where I was living and one of the members was talking to me and how their current guitarist wasn’t a good fit. They asked me to come to the studio to ‘try out’, even though they already told me I was in,” laughed Baker.
Asked if he ever felt any resentment to the newer, straight edge hardcore artists, Baker carefully responded. “I think artists and supporters showing up with varsity jackets and white sneakers put a new twist on things. However, I did not have the maturity and wisdom at the time to understand that these newer bands were attempting something positive and were creating something just as valid as I did. However, I didn’t think the politics of that scene applied to me at that time and many people have talked about how things got militarized. I didn’t realize until much later that they were influenced by early hardcore and worked to create something new and I think that’s fantastic!”
For Baker, he remains a unique guitarist with a storied background that always managed to create something new without straying from the foundation that first attracted him to songwriting. For many, Baker’s first post-Minor Threat group, Dag Nasty remains equally vital to the subculture and is oft credited for spearheading the melodic, post-hardcore sound. Mackaye’s post-Minor Threat group, Embrace focused on melodic guitar lines and his vocal delivery became less aggressive, featuring lyrical themes that were eventually labeled ‘emo-core’, which he quickly denounced.
Hardcore was evolving, much to the chagrin of its earliest supporters. Fast tempos gave way to melody while once shouted vocals progressed to more harmonic deliveries. 7 Seconds’ New Wind (1987) further reinforced a progressive shift in hardcore’s sonic and lyrical identity and another subgenre took form. It’s been noted that 7 Seconds thanked U2 ‘for inspiration’ on the liner notes, perhaps singer Kevin Seconds found them just as engaging as Baker did. Dag Nasty’s contribution to the burgeoning subgenre was 1986’s Can I Say, released on Dischord Records, and though it had remnants of hardcore vocals from singer Dave Smalley, the record steadily featured melodic deliveries that ultimately endeared them to their niche crowd.
“I was progressing with songwriting and doing what felt natural and wanted to start something playing to my growing strengths as a guitar player. I also wanted to tour and meet new people and experience new places and Dag Nasty was going to satiate that! It wasn’t going to necessarily pick up where Minor Threat left off though there are some elements with the faster tempo songs,” reflected Baker.
Dag Nasty created a niche following but quickly broke up however, Baker resumed the group in 1987 with singer Peter Cortner. Smalley would return in 1992 for Four On The Floor and again, in 2002, displaying a more hardcore style. Minority of One was released in 2002 via Revelation, marking the group’s most recent studio record but they have played a number of live dates, including a brief European tour in 2018.
“I’m still in Dag Nasty! We’re active but as for the starting and stopping, it happens, sometimes life can get in the way. I never experienced, or maybe was not aware of anyone demanding a Minor Threat part 2 when we began. We’re still a band and hope to play in the near future,” said Baker.
With a storied career, Baker could easily rest on his past but he speaks sincerely of creative restlessness and how remaining idle is counterproductive. Bad Religion released the aptly titled Age of Unreason in 2019, marking their newest studio output since 2013’s True North and it earned widespread praise as a true return to form.
“I always feel things sound fresh within Bad Religion because it always comes down to the strength of the songs and Greg (Graffin) is an incredible lyricist and Brett Gurewitz(founding guitarist) is a talented engineer that gets the most out of us. Of course, I love and respect what he did with his label, Epitaph. Brett rejoined as a songwriter back in 2000 but he didn’t want to rejoin as a full touring member, I mean he didn’t wanna be in Tulsa on like a Tuesday night and I get that,” laughed Baker.
Baker’s guitar duties don’t stop with Bad Religion. Launching Beach Rats with Bouncing Souls alumni Bryan Kienlen and Pete Steinkopf, Baker cites his desire to still celebrate the hardcore sound he embraced when he first joined Minor Threat. Their debut EP, Wasted Time was released in 2018 via Bridge Nine Records.
“It can seem like a full-circle thing. We have Ari Katz from Lifetime singing, so how much more Jersey can you get? I live in Jersey now and everyone is close by and it’s just fun to sit around and create without any pressure. They all have kids so what better way to spend your limited leisure time than starting a new band? It’s been rewarding,” said Baker.
“If having all this wasn’t enough, I also started Fake Names with Refused singer Dennis Lyxzén,” laughed Baker.
Fake Names released their 2020 self-titled debut via Epitaph Records and features another D.C. hardcore alumnus; Mike Hampton. Hampton previously played in SOA, The Faith, and Embrace. Perhaps Baker’s longevity can be attributed to how he approaches songwriting with the same excitement as his youth?
“I don’t feel the excitement for me ever stopped! Even if a group I was in was on hiatus I would still write. Looking strictly at Bad Religion, we want to maintain our perspective and I feel Bad Religion is global, informative folk music. We’re still interested and passionate and we’re lucky to have such support from all walks of life,” concluded Baker.