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Back in 2010, legendary melodic punk band Bad Religion celebrated its 30th anniversary without much fanfare. "We basically said to everyone at the shows, 'Hey, it's our 30th anniversary, and here are some songs,'" recalls bassist and co-founder Jay Bentley.
This year, however, Bad Religion is making a bit more fuss about turning 35 by playing special career-spanning two-night stands in six cities. The group is calling the event "The Battle of the Centuries"; the first night is the 20th Century Set, which features material from Bad Religion's self-titled 1981 EP up to the album New America, which came out in 2000. Night two, the 21st Century Set, consists of songs from 2002's The Process of Belief up to 2013's True North.
"Usually, when you go out on the road, people are excited to hear your new record, but they also want to hear the classics," Bentley says. "So there are a lot of old songs that just never get played. And now people are excited about that stuff because when you get enough years away from something, it's suddenly a special thing."
On average, Bad Religion has maintained an arsenal of 50 songs for any given tour. For The Battle of the Centuries, the group significantly ramped up its repertoire and put together a list of 160 songs to choose from. "Every night I want people to go, 'Wow, I didn't even know you knew that song!' Bentley says, then jokes, "'Yeah, we didn't until soundcheck.'"
Bad Religion can't take full credit for The Battle of the Centuries. Several years ago, the promoter for the New York venue Irving Plaza asked the band if it would play the club three straight nights. When Bentley expressed skepticism that the band could sell out all the shows, the promoter suggested Bad Religion do a set from a different era each night. "I thought that was a great idea," Bentley says. "Honestly, that's what got this whole thing started. After we did the shows, so many people said, 'Hey, how come you never do that in other cities?' And we said, 'Well, it would make our tours last for five years.' So we decided to do these special shows in select cities to celebrate our 35th anniversary."
The first Battle of the Centuries took place in Denver on March 28 and 29, and Bad Religion played 60 songs over two nights. For Bentley, the hardest part was relearning songs the band either never played live or dropped from its set after performing them only a few times.
"When you go out on a tour and you play the songs a lot, they go into your memory and it's kind of like riding a bike," he says. "Even if you haven't played something in a lot of years, it comes back to you. But the songs that you've only played three or four times and then stopped because maybe the reaction wasn't so great, those are the ones that are really lost to memory."
As challenging as the process has been for Bentley, original band vocalist Greg Graffin and guitarist Brian Baker — who joined in 1994 after main songwriter Brett Gurewitz stopped touring — tackling the old songs has been hardest for guitarist Mike Dimkich. The newest member of Bad Religion, Dimkich joined in 2013 Greg Hetson quit for personal reasons.
"When Mike came in, we handed him our 50-song platter and said, 'You need to know these songs because it's the guts our performance,'" Bentley says. "So once he was proficient at that, I hit him with another 80 songs and said, 'Here you go. Learn these, too!' But he's been a pro and really picked them up quickly."
While Bad Religion is celebrating its 35 years as a band, it should probably get one more candle ready for its birthday cake in order to celebrate its popular and influential record Against the Grain, which came out in 1990. Many songs from the disc, including "Faith Alone," "Anesthesia," "Walk Away," "Modern Man," and the title track, are still staples of Bad Religion's show.
"We were literally doing a new album a year back then," recalls Bentley. "When Suffer turned 25 in 2013, I thought, "Man, that's amazing.' Then No Control turned 25 and we didn't even talk about it. I thought that was kind of sad. And now, Against the Grain's going to be 25. It's kind of weird."
Against the Grain was a noteworthy album for a couple reasons. It was Bad Religion's biggest record, selling more than 100,000 copies, and it was the last record the band recorded before shifting its musical direction in a slower and darker direction.
"Everybody has their own idea of what was the most important album," Bentley says. "I think Suffer, No Control, and Against the Grain all seem to be sort of this package deal for a lot of people. Those three records came out within three years and I think they illustrated who we were and what we were doing as a band. Against the Grain turning 25 is sort of an indication of the end of that era."
History has a way of presenting a warped or over-inflated perspective of a certain period in a band's career. Those who cherish Against the Grain probably picture 1990 as a groundbreaking time for Bad Religion, filled with sold-out nationwide tours. Reality offered a far different picture.
"Greg was still in school back then, so we would really only tour during summer, Easter break, and a little bit over Thanksgiving," Bentley says. "Then Greg moved to New York to go to Cornell. I was working at Epitaph. We were doing what we wanted, but there wasn't really much to it. And it was a strange time because we could play places like Fender's Ballroom in Southern California and have 2,000 kids show up, but once you ventured into the real world and tried to play somewhere like the Midwest, there would be 18 people at the show staring at you like didn't know who you were."
So Bad Religion played its comfort spots on the East Coast, West Coast, and select cities in Europe, and the underground press continued to rave about the band. At the same time, its fanbase grew exponentially. In 1993, the band signed a deal with Atlantic Records, who brought producer Andy Wallace into the Bad Religion's world. The combination brought the band its first and only gold record, Stranger Than Fiction, in 1994.
"After Against the Grain, we decided that we wanted to expand the box we were in and not jump out of it completely. But we hit the glass ceiling of what we knew, and we needed to move on. So having Andy, who we'd never heard of, come in and introduce us to these ideas we'd never tried before, helped us discover a totally new way of doing things. And we've taken those lessons with us ever since."