Music Interviews
7:58 am
Sun December 8, 2013

Bad Religion Celebrates 'Christmas'

Originally published on Sun December 8, 2013 11:50 am

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ah, Christmastime, the season when you and your family gather around the tree, join together in a Christmas carol like this classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. Joyful...

MARTIN: But listen closely, there you are closing your eyes and swaying to the a capella version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and a few seconds later, you find yourself engaged in a spontaneous episode of fist pumping. Maybe a family mosh pit because things are about to get rowdy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING")

BAD RELIGION: (Singing) Christ by highest heav'n adored. Christ the everlasting Lord. Late in time behold Him come. Offspring of a Virgin's womb. Veiled in...

MARTIN: And that is how the esteemed punk band Bad Religion does a Christmas carol. The group's newest album is called "Christmas Songs" and that's exactly what it is. The founders of the band join me now, Greg Graffin from studios at Cornell University, and Brett Gurewitz from our studios at NPR West. Hey you guys, thanks so much for being with us.

GREG GRAFFIN: Hello.

BRETT GUREWITZ: Thank you. For having us. Sounds great.

MARTIN: So I'm guessing these are songs, I mean maybe this is an assumption on my part, that you guys genuinely have a connection to these songs? Did you sing a lot of Christmas carols growing up?

GUREWITZ: Well, wouldn't it be strange if I said this is the first time I've ever attempted to sing these songs?

(LAUGHTER)

GUREWITZ: We sort of joked about it for many years and finally we put our act together and said let's finally release this Christmas album we've been talking about.

MARTIN: There's a little humor and irony in doing a Christmas album. I mean it's like that old standby that, you know, every musician who has been around the block a few times comes out with a Christmas album. This is something that you're doing a little tongue-in-cheek.

GRAFFIN: Oh, absolutely. The band's name is Bad Religion and we have a long history of questioning religion and social norms and being skeptics and so forth. So we thought that that would make it a really fun thing to do.

MARTIN: And these are not secular songs, we should point out though. You could've done, you know, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." These are religious Christmas hymns.

GUREWITZ: I would disagree. I think that all of these songs are secular. Even though they have their roots in the pulpit or in the church setting, virtually everyone who celebrates Christmas has heard these songs. And so, it's not Bad Religion that has made them ironic. It's kind of a secular society that's made Christmas ironic.

MARTIN: So you wouldn't think that Christmas carols would necessarily lend themselves to the punk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL")

MARTIN: I want to play your version of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and we'll talk about it on the other side. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL")

RELIGION: (Singing) Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here. Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel...

MARTIN: There is this dark element to this arrangement that you tease out in a really interesting way in that bass line - that's a haunting bass line.

GUREWITZ: You know, these songs are epic. There's a timelessness about them and I hear these songs and it just brings an instant smile to my face. And as Greg will tell you, I've always had a sort of a twisted sense of humor. And it was just a lot of fun making these things. It was just like, wait till people here this. This is hilarious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")

RELIGION: (Singing) Angels we have heard on high. Sweetly singing o'er the plains and the mountains in reply echoing their joyous strains. Gloria in excelsis Deo. Gloria...

MARTIN: How did you decide what songs to put on there?

GUREWITZ: When we come to put together a collection of songs like this, we first would ask each other is this really the kind of song that would lend itself to our sound? And so I think that the ones that we ended up choosing were the ones with some of the more minor melodies...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

GRAFFIN: ...because we enjoy putting harmonies on punk songs. These songs also went itself to great harmonies and great arrangements. And so, maybe this is ingrained in my upbringing because I was in school choirs ever since I was in third grade.

MARTIN: There are some really lovely harmonies on here, especially that "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" we heard at the very top, that's a very tight, lovely produced harmony at the top.

GUREWITZ: That was the most challenging harmony I've ever sung. Greg arranged that harmony. And I can only attribute it - and, Greg, correct me if I'm wrong - but I attribute that to your experience singing in choirs as a kid. Because those were the most complicated harmonies I've ever sung and the most challenging.

GRAFFIN: I can't say I'm classically trained in any way but I do have a propensity to be able to figure out the correct notes to use in harmonies. And sometimes I can hear a choral piece and I can choose the alto or the baritone, and I can sing that part all the way through even without rehearsing it too much.

MARTIN: I want to play another carol that you give a very unique twist to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN")

RELIGION: (Singing) Oh, tidings of comfort and joy...

MARTIN: That is an awesome guitar solo.

(LAUGHTER)

GUREWITZ: Just Brian Baker.

MARTIN: I will never hear that carol the same way again.

(LAUGHTER)

GUREWITZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: Was there one particular song that the two of you really just loved playing, putting together and arranging and turning into something different?

GRAFFIN: You know, I think my favorite on there is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and I think it's the one that sounds the most like a Bad Religion song. It was a lot of fun to do and I think it came out really, really well. The other one I want to comment on because it just kicked everybody's butt, was "Little Drummer Boy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE DRUMMER BOY")

RELIGION: (Instrumental)

GRAFFIN: That thing is impossible to play. It's not like it might be easy because it's very sort of...

MARTIN: There aren't that many notes in that song.

GRAFFIN: Right, it's a bolero. It's linear. There's not a lot of notes. The timing of it is so confusing if you're playing it on guitar because it's a classical piece. It literally almost drove every guitarist in the band to complete distraction...

MARTIN: Really?

GRAFFIN: Yeah, to the point where we were in tears.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE DRUMMER BOY")

RELIGION: (Singing) Oh, me and my drum. I will play for you right now.

MARTIN: Do you guys celebrate Christmas? What do you do? Do you have family traditions?

GUREWITZ: Well, my wife Gina loves Christmas. So we do it up. We have an Advent calendar. In fact, I opened...

MARTIN: The Bad Religion guy has an Advent calendar?

GUREWITZ: Ugh, well.

(LAUGHTER)

GUREWITZ: So we do it up. And then we usually go to the mountains and celebrate Christmas in the snow.

MARTIN: Greg, what do you guys do?

GRAFFIN: As far as I'm concerned, it's really mostly about the kids. You know, having kids myself, it gave me a chance to continue to buy trains and toys...

(LAUGHTER)

GRAFFIN: ...around the holidays 'cause I really like electric trains.

MARTIN: Greg Graffin and Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, their new album is called "Christmas Songs." Thank you so much for talking with us you guys.

GUREWITZ: Thank you so much for having us.

GRAFFIN: Thanks a lot. This is a lot of fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL")

RELIGION: (Singing) O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant. Oh come ye O come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him for the King of Angels. Oh come let us adore him. Oh, come let us adore him. Oh, let us adore him, Christ the Lord. Yes. Sing, choirs of angels...

MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.