“Punk Will Always Speak To Young People”: Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén And Bad Religion’s Brian Baker Face Off
Less than two months after forming, on December 6, 1980, State Of Alert played their first ever concert. Appearing onstage at DC Space, in the band’s home city of Washington DC, the teenage band were fronted by Henry Garfield. In time, Garfield would move to Los Angeles, change his name to Rollins, and become the fourth singer with Black Flag. On guitar was Michael Hampton, a pivot of the DC scene.
Almost 40 years later, Michael returns to the punk rock game with Fake Names, a – for want of a better word – supergroup that also features Dennis Lyxzén from Refused on vocals, Brian Baker from Bad Religion on guitar, Johnny Temple from Girls Against Boys on bass, as well as drummer Matt Shultz.
“We all hit it off and the rehearsals went great,” says Michael of this freshly minted union. “We found that we had a lot in common beyond ‘punk’ and had a unified vision of what a collaboration between us could sound like.”
Listeners can discover exactly what Fake Names sound like with the unveiling of the group’s self-titled debut album (coming on May 8). Released on Epitaph, the 10-song set is a rollicking collection of garage-punk rock’n’roll that combines melody with swagger to an expert degree.
Seeking the skinny on this transcontinental punk rock collaboration, and on much else, Kerrang! spoke to Dennis Lyxzén and Brian Baker. As far we can tell, these are their real names…
Brian, you have a personal genesis with Fake Names. Could you tell us about that, please?
Brian: “Of course. Michael Hampton is my favourite guitar player. And I also went to school with him; we met each other when we were seven, I think, or whatever age you are in second grade. Not only have I known him my whole life, I have been stealing his guitar work, quite successfully, for many years. And were it not for Michael I would never have found punk rock; or if I did, it would have been much later. So he is also the person who gave me the entrée to this kind of music. I owe him a whole lot.
“Michael lives in New York City, and I moved to New Jersey three years ago, so I’m now close enough that we can go out for lunch. So we’ve been seeing each other more since I moved up here. He’d not played live music in about 20 years, but I said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get something going here? Why don’t we see if we can write some songs – just something to get you out of the house.’ He’s a bit of a homebody, and he’s a composer so his job is at home. So I went over to his house one day – I don’t even think I had a guitar – and he played me some ideas he had… and I thought, ‘Well that’s fantastic, that just sounds like Michael Hampton.’ Basically, that day we ended up writing a couple of songs together that came together so quickly and so easily, and that’s really how it started. But it was a vague idea: maybe we’ll put a band together, I don’t know.”
And how did you come onboard, Dennis?
Dennis: “Brian asked me if I wanted to be in a band with him and I immediately said ‘yes’, and I think that was it. Were we known to each other? I think it’s always been peripheral. I’ve known about Brian – ‘I kind of know who that guy is!’”.
Brian: “Every punk rocker who’s ever played a festival knows every other punk rocker [on the circuit]. You may not have their phone number, but you know that they’re one of us. We had chatted, but we certainly weren’t plotting.”
It seems obvious that Fake Names would be released on Epitaph, on which Bad Religion and Refused albums have emerged. Was there any doubt about this?
Brian: “When we were making [the 2019 Bad Religion album] Age Of Unreason, I played some of the demos to our engineer, Carlos [De La Garza] during some downtime. And Brett [Gurewitz, BR guitarist and owner of Epitaph] said, ‘Oh this is really cool.’ And I said, ‘Thanks, this is my band.’ There was no hallelujah moment, no ‘You must send me these tapes, son!’ Nothing, right. I thought I was playing it for the engineer so he could hear the guitar tone I was trying to get for the next song. When we had completed what we thought was a great demo – and we were catching cheap time in the studio, over the course of about a year – I spoke to Brett, specifically to ask him if he knew of a small label who would like to put it out, and he came back and said, ‘I want to put this out. I love this, it’s fantastic.’ I was really shocked, because I really wasn’t asking for that.”
When you first stepped onto the stage in the name of punk rock, would you have been heartened to learn that you would still be in the game so many years later?
Dennis: “I would say wildly surprised. Even when we had Refused going in the nineties, my plan was to do this for a couple of years and then get my shit together before going to university and then becoming a teacher in political philosophy. But I’m a high school dropout so the university told me that they weren’t having me, and then I just kept playing music. You wake up one morning and go, ‘Well I guess this is my life now!’ It wasn’t an intended thing. But there’s no ambitions beyond playing the next show, you know. When I was 17 I would look at someone who was 25 and say, ‘Fuck that old piece of shit, he doesn’t know anything!’ And here I am, I’m now pushing 50. It’s a weird process.”
Brian: “For me there was no chance at all that it was going to amount to anything. It was so far off the radar that it was an impossibility. As a matter of fact, when Minor Threat broke up the first time it was so our guitar player [Lyle Preslar] could go to college. The only reason I didn’t go then was because I was a year younger than he was. It wasn’t my time yet. So Minor Threat was my high school band. We would go to rehearse at someone’s mom’s house after school. We would drink Coca Cola.
“I honestly did not realise that I was playing music for a living, for real, until I joined Bad Religion. So it took me 14 years to go, ‘Wait, this is what I’m doing.’ I was working in a rehearsal studio and doing odd jobs for print shops before joining Bad Religion.’ I was just living, I didn’t have a plan. And it kind of found me, for which I’m very grateful, of course.”
What was your first punk show, both of you?
Brian: “My first punk show was Teen Idles and The Cramps at Ontario Theater in 1980. I don’t know the exact date.”
Dennis: “That’s way better than my first show! Do you remember a band from the UK called Dr And The Crippens? Well that was my first show. In 1988, they played the local youth centre. So that was the first punk show I went to.”
What is it about punk rock that has kept you nourished for all these years?
Brian: “For me, I’m still learning how to do it. I’ve spent a lot of time at this. It’s thrilling today to stumble onto a new way to approach something, or a new way to play guitar, as it was when I was 15 years old. And I practice within the genre that I know best, which is very satisfying to me. But I play all different types of music. One upside of this lockdown is that I’ve been really trying to inform myself about the fundamentals – playing slide, playing acoustic, bluegrass… I can’t think of a better use of my time.”
Dennis: “For me it’s a love of music, basically. Refused is weirdly metallic hardcore; I had International Noise Conspiracy, which was a garage rock band; and INVSN is more of a post-punk death rock group. But all of these things are rooted in my understanding of punk and how I got here. But I just love music. I get to play and I get to be creative, and as Brian said, every day I get to feel like I’m learning something new about my voice, about my language, and about how I can use this… and it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m playing to a thousand people, or to 50 people. I mean, Brian came to see me play a show in New Jersey with INVSN at which about 15 people showed up.”
Brian: “That’s really true, Dennis delivers no matter the circumstances. That’s one of the things that I love about him, there’s no bullshit. This is one of the many reasons why this has worked out so well.”
Brian, what was it like being a part of the early-day Washington DC punk scene? There was State Of Alert, Minor Threat, Bad Brains – so much great stuff.
Brian: “From an outside perspective it was obviously a very romantic story. It’s teeming with excitement. And this is the same thing that I would suppose if I were thinking of London. I’d think that we were hanging out at [the shop] Sex with Billy Idol, and I’m sitting across from Sid Vicious while he’s playing with Siouxsie Sioux. But in my case, in [DC] there were very, very few of us. And there was kind of a sense of being this tiny subgroup and of the rest of the world being entirely insignificant. It’s a stupid phrase, but it really was lightning in a bottle. It’s a happenstance thing that Washington developed in the way that it did, that this group of about 50 people gathered together in 1979-80 and made this. And pretty much every single person who’s still alive from those days is still in contact. I’m still great friends with Ian [MacKaye, singer with Minor Threat] and with many others. But it’s fun also to talk to many of the people who just happened to be in a room with me from those times. I love it.”
What are your favourite punk records?
Dennis: “I would recommend Minor Threat, who are my favourite band. I would recommend the Roir Sessions by Bad Brains, which is something that everybody needs to listen to. It’s funny because one of the first things that happened when Brian and I met [for Fake Names] – they’d sent me some demos – and the first thing they did was they took me to Michael’s house and said, ‘Do you like The Ruts?’ And they forced me to listen to The Ruts all night… But I was influenced by Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and Black Flag; then also by what followed that which is the Cro-Mags of this world. So that was how I discovered punk and hardcore.”
Brian: “The Crack by the Ruts is required listening. Everything I know has come from that. I would also say that Give ‘Em Enough Rope [by The Clash] was also a huge album for me when I was a kid. I had the first Clash record, but I think it was the way the guitar was presented on that other record that inspired the way I play the guitar. I would also say without question that Machine Gun Etiquette by The Damned should be right up there, too, as to why I’m sitting here talking with you.”
Could you please both nominate the best punk rock show you’ve ever seen?
Brian: “Mine was the Misfits at the Ukrainian Centre [in New York] on October 30, 1981. Everything about it is stored so intensely in my mind. Why I was there. How I got there. The people I was with. The intense energy of the show. I mean, the Misfits were never good in a technical sense, but that’s not what it was about. It was about their performance arc, and that volume, and that attitude. I’ve seen so many great shows, but I think I would pick that one because it really, really hits me. And those guys were still kind of kids – they were, what, 21 or 23? - but we thought they were Monster Men. It was overwhelming.”
Dennis: “I’m not sure this classifies as a punk show, but I saw Rage Against The Machine in 1992, like a month after their first record came out. And they played in Stockholm to maybe 60 people. I don’t know if it was the greatest show I’ve seen, but it changed the way I thought about how I perform. It was a really good show, and it definitely left a mark on me.”
In the 20th Century, punk rock was the vanguard. If you had something to say, you could form a band and be on a stage within a week. Today there are even more immediate avenues of expression. How has that changed the game?
Brian: “Punk rock has proven its point. It is a music that has been with us for 50 fucking years. It’s protest music, which is why it will always have value. I think the difference from my time coming up is that I don’t think people find a tribal identity through music anymore. There are now so many options that it’s no longer necessary to commit to one style or another to define your life. We have everything we could possibly need or want right in front of us, and for the most part that’s been beneficial. So the idea of a punk crew being a collection of outcasts is no longer prevalent anymore.”
Dennis: “I actually think that young people today play music probably more than ever. It’s just that the way we make music, which is four or five guys in a room, people don’t do that anymore. I think if you do have something genuine to say, then music is one of the biggest factors in your life. I think we consume more music than ever. Music is more accessible than ever. It’s a bit scary because for us, if you saw another guy in a Ramones t-shirt you knew he was your friend. But young kids today listen to everything, and it’s kind of scary because I think, ‘Just pick a fucking style, man!’ But it’s also beautiful, because people are expressing themselves how they want to. That being said, I still go to local punk shows all the time, and there’s still loads of young people playing punk. They’re getting into it every day, because at its core it’s rebellious music. And that will always speak to young people.”
Fake Names’ self-titled album is released May 8 via Epitaph.
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