The Oral History of Epitaph Records

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Dave Smalley of Down by Law, 1995 / Photo by Lisa Johnson
WRITTEN BY
Jason Buhrmester

The original Los Angeles punk rock scene lived fast, died young, and left behind hair metal. Meanwhile, Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz started Epitaph Records in a closet in the back of his recording studio, eventually sending punk up the pop charts and everyone from the majors to Madonna scurrying for a piece. But keeping the scene -- and himself -- together during the chaos proved nearly impossible. For the first time ever, the people behind the explosion -- and implosion -- celebrate 30 years of dragging punk kicking and screaming into the mainstream. [Magazine Excerpt]

Four teenagers from El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California, Bad Religion play their first show in 1980, opening for Social Distortion at a warehouse party.

BRETT GUREWITZ (guitarist, Bad Religion): We only had about eight songs, and most of them were, like, a minute long, so we probably played for about 15 minutes.
JAY BENTLEY (bassist, Bad Religion): I remember throwing up and thinking I was so nervous that I was going to pee my pants.
JENNIFER FINCH (bassist, L7): I thought they sucked. And I felt like they were coming late to the scene. There were already Circle Jerks and Fear and these stronger, local acts. They were kids from the Valley up against these more hardcore, punk rock guys. Those bands really had a violent edge to them, while Bad Religion had this goofy and melodic feel.
EDWARD COLVER (photographer): A lot of that stuff just sort of evolved out of the muck: "We got a band together, we're playing next week!" The scene back then was a collection of about 200 misfits.
BENTLEY: Watching bands like the Adolescents do three-part harmonies was a big push for us. We would watch them with jaws to the ground thinking that's what we wanted to do.
GREG GRAFFIN (singer, Bad Religion): Society shunned punk because they didn't think we had anything to offer. So from the earliest get-go, I was interested in writing songs that had some substance to them, not something just to slamdance to.

Bad Religion record a self-titled EP in '81. Gurewitz borrows $1,000 from his father to press it, and Epitaph Records, named after the King Crimson lyric "Confusion will be my epitaph," is born. Their debut album, How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, followed the next year. Loaded with articulate songs about the separation of church and state and nuclear war, it reveals song-writers Gurewitz and Graffin were smarter than the average punk.

GUREWITZ: I wasn't a good student and I was kind of a loser in high school. But my parents encouraged me to take a shot at making some records and selling them.
BENTLEY: We all were shocked at the number of records we sold. I think it was 10,000 copies. So I started going, "Where's the money?" It came to light that Brett had a serious drug problem, and the money was gone.

Drugs and violence rapidly destroy the punk scene, and by '83 most L.A. venues refuse to book punk bands. The LAPD finish off what is left of the scene.

FINCH: In '84 in Los Angeles, you had the Olympics. A lot of the SWAT team's practice for the Olympics' public control was done on punk rock shows. They were showing up in full riot gear. We suddenly had helicopters here. A lot of ordinances regarding curfews and things went down.

With nowhere to perform, Bad Religion stall while writing their second album. The resulting record, Into the Unknown, is a keyboard-driven, proggy mess the band has all but disowned. Gurewitz leaves Bad Religion to attend recording school. He opens Westbeach Recorders and begins producing and releasing bands on Epitaph, including L7 and Little Kings, a local punk band featuring guitarist and future Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski.

VERBINSKI: Brett had this house on Hollywood Boulevard. We'd play there and drink in an alley across a street covered with glass from smashed-out cars. Brett's model, which is great, is to make a record that doesn't cost any money and then get in a van and tour. I was starting to direct and it was taking off, and I wasn't going to jump in a van. We had this record and there was no band, so that was a disaster.
FINCH: Brett was great to hang out with. A real oddball character. He has a lot of different interests, speaks really fast, and is very energetic. He's entertaining and on top of the social group. I think psychiatrists call it narcissism.

Graffin, now enrolled in the geology program at UCLA, keeps the Bad Religion name alive through sporadic performances with Greg Hetson from the Circle Jerks on guitar and a revolving roster of bassists and drummers. By '87, Gurewitz, Bentley, and drummer Pete Finestone rejoin Graffin and Hetson. Released in '88, Suffer was a cynical blast at the conservatism of ?'80s America. More impor-tant, the tempo and tone redefined Southern California punk, and Gurewitz's increasing skills behind the console meant the band -- and SoCal punk -- suddenly had a proper producer, even if they weren't sure there was an audience.

FLETCHER DRAGGE (guitarist, Pennywise): Suffer single-handedly restarted the movement. It's definitely one of the greatest punk records ever written. Not to mention that it inspired so many bands to get back into the scene.
DEXTER HOLLAND (singer-guitarist, the Offspring): We were hanging out with the Operation Ivy guys -- who ended up becoming Rancid -- and they were listening to that record a lot. It stood out because it had a lot of melody to it.
TIM ARMSTRONG (singer-guitarist, Rancid): It was the best sounding punk record I'd ever heard.
LARS FREDERIKSEN (singer-guitarist, Rancid): Suffer came out, and it never left the turntable for the whole summer.
DAVE SMALLEY (singer-guitarist, Down by Law): One of my favorite groups in the world to this day is Chicago. They have these beautiful harmonies. [Bad Religion] were better than Chicago, and they were a punk band.
FAT MIKE (singer-bassist, NOFX): I remember thinking this is the punk rock I used to love when I was a kid. Southern California melodic hardcore! We should be playing more like this.
JIM LINDBERG (former singer, Pennywise): All of a sudden we went from an off-the-hinge beach-punk band to sounding very similar to Bad Religion.

Encouraged by the success of Suffer and excited about the resurgence of California punk, Gurewitz rededicates himself to Epitaph, producing and releasing albums by NOFX, Down by Law, and Pennywise. Gurewitz also signs the Offspring and Rancid.

GUREWITZ: We had a good little thing going. It was organic and real. It was growing.
FAT MIKE: NOFX were the first band on Epitaph when it started up for real. I worked there during Easter vacation -- I was shipping 100 copies of [Bad Religion's] No Control, 100 copies of Suffer, and five copies of our album.
VERBINSKI: I directed the video for [NOFX's] "S&M Airlines." We went to LAX and hopped a fence and filmed a bunch of airplanes. I never shot green-screen before, so we found a green wall and shot the band. It was half painted green and our paint didn't match. It was just scrappy.

JEFF ABARTA (first Epitaph employee): Around February '91, Brett finallysaid, "Okay, come in for an interview." It was very weird. I worked at Sav-On drugstore at the time, and we wore ties. So I showed up with my tie on. Fat Mike answered the door and was like, "Who is this yahoo?"
DRAGGE: Everyone wanted to be on Epitaph or sound like Epitaph. I remem-ber Brett telling us he wanted to be the Dischord of the West Coast.
SMALLEY: The bands all liked each other. We all sang on each other's records or produced each other's records or hung out while they were recording and went to each other's shows.
FAT MIKE: I finished real estate school after NOFX went to Europe. I never sold anything. Right after that, we put out Ribbed, which was in '91. I made $8,000 that year and thought, "Shit, I can live off this."
HOLLAND: I remember sitting down with Brett, and he said, "I think you guys could be a big band. I don't mean Nirvana big. But kind of big."
LINDBERG: Brett had a perfect ear for what he wanted and which bands would fit the label. We would have these Epitaph nights at the [Hollywood] Palladium after our second record came out. It was all the bands you wanted to see, and they all happened to be on the same label.
GUREWITZ: The first Rancid record sold 30,000 right away. Punk was huge, and the media didn't even know it. We got to the point in the late '80s and early '90s where Epitaph was selling a million records a year, and yet no one knew we existed except the kids buying the records.
BENTLEY: One day [E Street Band keyboardist] Roy Bittan called and made an appointment at Epitaph. Brett and I sat and talked with him, and he laid out this whole plan that [Bad Religion's 1990 album] Against the Grain could be a great record if we just re-recorded it and rewrote everything under his production. It was a monumental insult to three people who were working at a warehouse pushing out 100,000 units by hand and really had a lot of pride in their work. [Bittan's publicist did not respond to requests for comment.]
GUREWITZ: To the rest of the world, we were like Civil War reenactors. "You guys are still doing punk shows? How cute."
LINDBERG: It wasn't until the surfers and skaters started putting our bands into their videos that this spread beyond Southern California. We went on our first European tour and our first Australian tour, and we had 1,000 people coming to our shows. They all talked about the videos.
HOLLAND: I guess no one put it together -- all the kids that liked to skate and surf would love bands like Pennywise. It took, like, six to nine months to sink in, and all of a sudden all these orders start coming in. We were recording Smash at the time, and you could see it growing every week.
GRAFFIN: I had legitimate concerns with Epitaph focusing on us. Brett was already divided. I met with people from Atlantic who said, "No, we'll focus on you." What did I know?
GUREWITZ: One night I was driving home and didn't want to go in the house because I didn't want to stop listening to [the Smash mixes]. I started circling the block listening to the record over and over on ten in my old Volvo station wagon. My wife greeted me at the door, and I said, "Honey, we're gonna be rich."
GREG HETSON (guitarist, Bad Religion): I don't think Brett had the resources to sell more records or to even produce the demand that was coming. About ten seconds after we signed [Bad Religion's] deal [with Atlantic], the Offspring blew up.
DRAGGE: I don't know how many weeks later I was sitting in a Japanese restaurant and "Come Out and Play" came on, and everyone started playing along with chopsticks on their fucking glasses. I thought, "What the fuck is going on here?"
GUREWITZ: Over the course of a couple weeks, everything changed.

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