By Gilbert Garcia
Bad Religion guitarist Brian Baker ponders the notion that this summer's Vans Warped Tour could make for a potent election year vehicle.
"You mean playing for nine weeks every day to primarily 18-to-24-year-olds for the first time? Absolutely," Baker says with a laugh. "You can't have a better demographic and you can't have better timing. It's all part of the grand plan."
Over its two-decade-plus history in the punk rock trenches, Bad Religion's "grand plan" has included countless indictments of political idiocy, and the group's recently released 13th studio album, The Empire Strikes First, might represent their most incendiary musical missive, a series of furious responses to what Baker calls "the most destructive administration in my lifetime." The anti-Bush anthem "Let Them Eat War" defines the collection, with singer Greg Graffin spitting out: "Anybody can feel like a winner when it's served up piping hot/but the people aren't looking for a handout/they're America's working corps/can this be what they voted for?"
The Warped Tour celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer, having grown from a modest skate-punk, parking lot gathering to the most consistently successful American summer music festival. Baker cites the tour's dual emphasis on maintaining good value for fans - bolstered by lucrative sponsorship deals - and fostering a non-competitive environment for the bands as the primary reasons for the tour's longevity.
"As far as the people who are coming to the tour, you don't get better bang for the buck," he says. "It's like 12.8 cents a band, basically. There's so much to see and do, as a concertgoer, I think it's exciting every year. It is a joy, it truly is a punk-rock summer camp for adults. This will be the third one we've done, and the performance aspect is fun, but I'm also hanging out with 10 bands that I've known for 20 years.
Baker joined Bad Religion in 1994, at a crucial juncture in the band's history, when founding member and driving force Brett Gurewitz departed to devote all his attention to running Epitaph Records. He reveals that he was a longtime Bad Religion fan who openly lobbied for a position in the band.
"I would make it my business, every time I saw `guitarist` Greg Hetson at dinner or at a bar, to say, 'Hey, if Brett ever leaves, call me.' Conversely, I did the same thing with Brett Gurewitz every time I saw him: 'If Hetson's ever gonna get out of there, give me a ring.'
"I'd been working this plan for like a year, and then the phone call comes and it turns out that it's Greg telling me that Brett left and asking if I want to be in the band. The result is I get to join this band that I'm totally a fan of, and the downside is that I've got to learn 194 songs in a month. And 160 of them are the same song."
Gurewitz returned to the band in 2002, assuming a Brian Wilson-like role, in which he writes and contributes to the recording sessions, but refrains from touring with the band. The resulting three-guitar lineup could lead to sonic overkill, but Baker says that the last two years have been the creative peak of his stint with the group. He says Gurewitz most often gives him musical direction and simply turns him loose.
The Warped Tour's booking strategy usually includes a mix of venerable punk godfathers and callow up-and-comers. In the latter category, a band to look for is the LA all-girl quartet Go Betty Go. Four Latinas (two Chicanas, and two Argentinian sisters) in their early twenties, the group's catalog of bilingual-punk tunes like "No Hay Perdon" and "Mis Locuras" has created a buzz on the Sunset Strip scene, and drawn fan mail from the Mexican side of the border.
"We've played in Tijuana and Tecate, at the border of California, but we'd love to do a real tour in Mexico and Latin America," says drummer Aixa Vilar. "It'd be a great experience for us, especially with what's going on today. There are so many Latin kids who are second, third, and fourth-generation just like us. They're growing up here and they're growing up in both worlds and we're just kind of a little taste of that. You are what you are, and this is what this country's become: a scramble of everything."
Go Betty Go recently hooked up with respected indie SideOneDummy for a five-song EP called Worst Enemy, and their song "C'mon" is included on the label's Vans Warped Tour 2004 compilation CD which debuted at number eight on last week's Billboard album chart.
"Last year we did the California shows, and those were awesome," Vilar says of the Warped Tour. "We've always gone to them as fans of the other bands, and to say we're actually going to be part of it this year is really cool." •