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“I’m very wary of being part of the reunion bandwagon,” Brian Baker says, “which seems to be prevalent these days—especially with this kind of music.” Decked out in a gray Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt, faded bluejeans, and a yellow Redskins cap, the 37-year-old guitarist is sipping a glass of red wine and talking up the new album by his band Dag Nasty. It’s a rainy spring day in Adams Morgan, and Baker is staying dry inside his swank Biltmore Street apartment, surrounded by electric six-strings, eclectic furniture, and Civil War art.
“I didn’t need Dag Nasty,” Baker says. “I wanted to do it [again] because it sounded like fun.” Originally formed in 1985—just a few seasons after the breakup of the legendary Minor Threat, of which Baker was a founding member—D.C.’s Dag Nasty split from the hardcore status quo with a more melodic, less aggressive approach to punk. “I started to be more drawn to punk stuff that was not fast,” Baker says. “I became interested in stuff that wasn’t even punk at all. I remember that was when I discovered Hoodoo Gurus and Lime Spiders and the Smiths.” Surviving numerous lineup changes, Dag Nasty recorded three full-lengths of old-school pop-punk—Can I Say, Wig Out at Denko’s (both on Dischord), and Field Day (Giant)—before calling it quits, in 1988.
After a less-than-distinguished two-album sojourn with Guns N’ Roses-lite Geffen act Junkyard (“we really just weren’t that good”), Baker reunited with the rest of Can I Say-era Dag Nasty—vocalist Dave Smalley, drummer Colin Sears, and bassist Roger Marbury—for 1992’s Epitaph full-length, Four on the Floor. But it was only “just for kicks,” and Baker, the sole consistent member of the band, soon found work with Southern California punk institution Bad Religion.
“I have this history of being able to jump into things after all the hard work’s been done, and this is another great example,” the guitarist says. Bad Religion spent years and years driving around in vans, sleeping on floors, and packing T-shirts in guitar cases; Baker joined the band in 1994 on the verge of a sweet post-Nirvana payoff courtesy of Atlantic Records.
Quick to label himself a professional guitarist, Baker saw the move to the now-two-decades-old Bad Religion—which tours eight months a year and “sells a couple hundred thousand every time”—as an opportunity for a steady day job. “It definitely puts food on the table,” Baker says. “And I feel as I did in 1991 [with Junkyard]: that it is amazing that my job is to play guitar and I feel incredibly lucky.”
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Baker, who plays all the guitar parts on Bad Religion records, initially tried his hand at writing for the band but ultimately couldn’t adapt his guitar-centric style to its vocal-driven sound. “It really is a different type of music than what I’ve excelled at, and it’s very hard to write for our singer,” he says. “I just sort of stopped writing for Bad Religion after 1998.” Which was right about the time he began piling chords for Dag Nasty again.
“A year or two ago, Dave, the singer, called up and said that there was a compilation that was being put out by a small label, and it was to benefit handgun control,” Baker says. So in December 1999, Dag Nasty reunited again at Inner Ear studios in Arlington to record “Incinerate” for the Disarming Violence compilation on Fastmusic Records. “After that, we said it would be fun to do another record,” Baker recalls. “So we said, ‘Yeah, if that ever comes up, let’s do it.’”
It was Portland, Ore., resident Sears who turned the record from nebulous idea into renovated punk reality: “Colin had some friends at [California label Revelation] who said, ‘Hey, if you’re ever going to do Dag Nasty, you know, we’d like to put the record out.’” So Baker wrote music for the new Dag songs over a month’s break from Bad Religion. “One of the main reasons we did this new record is because I haven’t really had a creative outlet for songwriting in three or four years,” he says. “And I really wanted to write some music—and all that that entails. I get a kick out of writing music.”
Recorded in early January 2002 at Inner Ear, the first new Dag Nasty album in 10 years, Minority of One, was “an opportunity to do something that’s fun,” Baker says. “My life isn’t dependent on whether anybody likes it.”
Coincidentally, Minority of One will be hitting stores this summer shortly after Dischord’s remastered and extended versions of Can I Say and Wig Out at Denko’s. Though Baker is certain of his love for recording—”I’d rather be in the studio than on tour with Bad Religion”—he’s less sure about the new disc’s place in Dag history: “I don’t know whether it’s better [than the Dischord records]. It’s probably not. You know, there are moments in time that you just can’t improve on.”
Regardless, Dag Nasty fans definitely won’t be hearing any of the new songs coming from the stage anytime soon. “I just don’t want to go and do the commercial,” Baker says. “I think the art really stops once the record is recorded, and from that point on, no matter what it is, it’s marketing.” Capitalism issues aside, the members of Dag Nasty just have better stuff to do right now. “Everybody else has their other means of support,” Baker says. “They’re happy in their jobs. They’re married. Nobody wants to get in a van and drive around the country. It doesn’t sound like fun.”
But the public will be able to see Baker on the road soon with Bad Religion. Touring in support of their 2002 full-length, The Process of Belief, the elder statesmen will be hitching up this spring with the skate ‘n’ punk Vans Warped Tour. “We’ve got this Grateful Dead aspect,” Baker observes, taking another hit of wine. “There are people who’ll go to Bad Religion concerts every year who haven’t bought a record since 1983.” The irony is not lost on him, though: “I used to be punk, and you just can’t like the fuckin’ Grateful Dead.” —Brent Burton