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November 16, 2007

Bad Brains share deep thoughts on punk today

Bad Brains’ career has been as volatile as their music. Over the last 30 years they’ve found Rastafarianism, split up and regrouped too many times to count, and fused jazz, reggae, funk, and heavy metal with hundred-mile-per-hour hardcore punk. I caught up with bassist Darryl Jenifer to find out what the punk-rock godfathers Bad Brains are up to now.

Supriya Sinhababu: Hi, this is Supriya from the Chicago Maroon.

Darryl Jenifer: Supriya? That’s pretty.

SS: Thanks! So, the last show you guys did was in London, right? How was that whole mini European tour?

DJ: It was cool. It’s a pain in the ass traveling, you know; I’m sort of a studio hermit. So I didn’t really enjoy the long flights, stuff like that, but at the concerts, it was real great to be able to bring some of our older songs to the newer bands. And then the older bands can check it out and see we still do our thing.

SS: You guys are playing Riot Fest in Chicago. Are you excited about any of the other bands playing on the bill?

DJ: I don’t even know any of the other bands.

SS: Yeah, me neither. That’s why I thought I’d ask you.

DJ: I never knew a lot of bands, to tell you the truth. Back in the day my friends—like I’m friends with Ian MacKaye and these guys—I never knew their songs or their bands. Like Minor Threat or Fugazi. [Laughs] We always had tunnel vision with this music, inventing the punk rock music that we play.… Not being selfish to the fact that other bands are around us and other brothers that are doing shit, but just as an artist, I keep my focus looking forward like a horse…. It keeps me, probably, original, because I don’t really have that many influences.

SS: Do you have any shows lined up after Chicago?

DJ: Nah. Not that I can say. I’m doing a solo record, finishing that up, probably going to be doing some solo performances [in] early spring. I’ve been making it for a long time because the Bad Brains release kind of got in the middle of it.

SS: So Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys produced the last Bad Brains album. Do you like what he did with it?

DJ: Well, it’s not so much what he did with it as what we did together. I thought that the element that he brought and the elements that we brought came together to build a vision. And it’s just what the Great Spirit had coming from us. We get together, we build a vibe.…It’s like a peace offering to the cosmic.

SS: Do you as a band pick the shows you’re going to play?

DJ: Well, it’s more like offers. Like an offer may come in like, “Hey, Brains, do you want to play the Riot Fest?” So the e-mails go out, and the next thing, “Sure, we’re playing the Riot Fest.” […] We really sit around and wait to see what’s next. And I’ve got to be ready being a part of it. So where the Bad Brains go, I go. Sometimes the Bad Brains don’t go nowhere.

SS: Is there anywhere specific you’d like to see Bad Brains go?

DJ: Yes. Into retirement. [Laughs]

SS: Oh. That’s sad.

DJ: Hey, the band’s worked long and hard!

SS: Well yeah, that’s certainly true.

DJ: I mean, it’s a joke. But really though, our band’s worked a long, long time! We’ve had our ups and downs and arounds and arounds but our main mission and our main message have always remained the same. But you only retire from a job. You can never retire from a lifetime, or a lifestyle, or a mission…. I love making music, so that’s what I do. A missionary. A musical missionary. Now you got me telling jokes.

SS: Have your audiences gotten more diverse than when you started out?

DJ: The audience seems to be a core of people that’s known us for over 10 years, like old fans…. Then you’ve got people who’ve heard about us, younger kids and stuff…. They didn’t see us when we were like privates, running and scrambling around to make this music. Scrambling meaning the music is fast, it can be technical at times, the message, all that goes along with being Bad Brains—it’s no joke, especially back in 1982. So these fans, they never got to see that. Maybe they can rent the DVD and get the gist of it.

SS: Yeah.

DJ: Supreme Supriya. Super-duper Supriya. If you ever get into boxing let me announce you. I’ll be like, “And here’s SUPRIYAAAAAAAAAAA!”

SS: [Laughs] Deal. Do you feel that when audiences have only heard either your new stuff or your old stuff, that they’re kind of missing out on an important part of your work?

DJ: I think that people should just understand that we’re a group of musicians that’s been around.…When people come to see us, they should just say “Damn, it’s cool to be able to see these guys,” not say “Oh, they suck, it’s not like ’82,” or, “Oh, I wish HR wasn’t just standing there smiling.” […] If you paid for tickets to see the Bad Brains, I’m gonna tell you right now, if we played and performed like it was 1982, after about a month of that, people would be laughing at us.

SS: You think so?

DJ: Yup. It wouldn’t be real. All the people that feel the realness, would be like, “There’s something strange about this.” [Laughs] So people have to look at it like, we’re all different people, it’s been like 30 years for Bad Brains. I’m 47 years old. And I started playing in Bad Brains when I was a teenager. I want to say to people who want to see the Bad Brains, come down and see us, and see what we have to offer.… I’m not gonna go draw the curtain, let me run out here like it’s fucking ’82. [Laughs]

SS: Are you still in touch with guys like Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins?

DJ: Yeah, you know, we exchange e-mails, we’ve always been brothers. Notice I don’t say friends. Friends is something else that comes and goes…. We went through a period of time in our lives that was very unique, the late ’70s and early ’80s, and we’ll always be brothers in that. Ian stays working, and Henry’s out in L.A. doing something like TV. I’m producing, doing Brains shows, and solo shit. But it’s still D.C. We don’t have a wrapper in D.C., we’ve just got dudes like us.

SS: Do you think punk rock is still alive today?

DJ: There’s always a new generation of rebel youth. And I don’t mean rebels like running out and throwing shit, but yeah, some places it’s like that too. The problem with being a kid growing up is you want to be hip-hop.… How about a kid who says, “I hate hip-hop”? How about a kid that says “I hate hip-hop and I hate fucking punk rock”? Now those kids are your new punk rock. And I know they’re out there because I was one of them. But we said, “I hate disco. Disco sucks.” [Laughs]

SS: Yeah.

DJ: New punk—it’s got all these kinds of flavors I don’t even know. I was talking to these kids in Amsterdam, they’re telling me about these kinds of music, like emo—you probably know more than me.

SS: Eh, I don’t know.

DJ: My youngest kid is 19, he doesn’t listen to that shit….He listens to Citizen Cope, Mos Def, mostly old R&B shit. But then again I’m his dad, so he got into a lot of different wild shit.

SS: What are you listening to right now?

DJ: I listen to old reggae styles like Rub-a-Dub. When I’m recording my own music I don’t listen too much, to tell you the truth. I listen to stuff that’s bland…. As a musician and an artist I like to listen to something, oddly enough, like the Carpenters.… It’s like I don’t want butter on my bread, I just want a piece of bread to remember what bread tastes like. So that’s what I like to do with the music in my creative palette: Carpenters, stuff like that. Top secret DJ information here—you should keep this for your memoirs. [Laughs]

SS: Aw, no, it’s great!

DJ: Have you listened to the Carpenters?

SS: Yeah, a couple times.

DJ: But you’re young. You’re like a teenager, right?

SS: Yeah.

DJ: Go on the Internet and download the Carpenters, find out what DJ’s talking about. And that girl’s perfectly intonated voice, Karen Carpenter, and the way they recorded her is very intimate—I’m telling you, go listen to it! So whatever you do, sit there with your headphones, you’ll be able to hear it.

SS: Okay, if you say so.

DJ: Yeah. Go listen to it!

Bad Brains will be headlining Riot Fest on Sunday at Congress Theatre.