As one of the principle songwriters and the sole consistent member of the seminal LA punk band Descendents, drummer Bill Stevenson is one of the primary architects behind the more lighthearted, though still angst-y, style of punk that came to be called pop-punk (or punk-pop).
With his thick-rimmed glasses and short-cut hair, Descendents vocalist Milo Aukerman may look like the Buddy Holly of punk, but his songs coupled an unbridled teen angst with a corny goofiness, all backed by the drive of the LA underground. Which is to say, they were anything but sappy and sweet.
Recently, Consequence of Sound caught up with each member to separately discuss both music and their personal lives. Stevenson shared his intense medical nightmares, touched upon his philosophy of ALL, discussed new material from the Descendents and Only Crime, and finally gave an answer to the “-age” question.
Aukerman, on the other hand, offered us a chance to probe his mind: Is he still the caffeine-fueled spaz who screamed his order in “Weinerschnitzel”? Or the punk swooning over a new wave girl in “Good Good Things”? Or has he grown up despite decrying against it with album titles like I Don’t Want To Grow Up? You’ll be surprised at his answers.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
A couple of years ago, you were on the verge of death, literally. You had the embolism, you had the brain tumor, and you have various other medial ailments. Your recovery from that is nothing short of miraculous. I found it really interesting when you said during recovery, and you’ve said it a few times, that you felt like you were 20 again.
Yeah, or 24, 25. Yeah, I really do. It’s a really fortunate thing. I suppose my outlook on it is certainly a comparative one. And after having been impaired and impeded and muted during part of 2007 and then 2008 — and then really, really impaired in 2009 and 2010 until they got the brain tumor out. Comparatively, it feels like I’m reborn. So, yeah, I went from being 46 going on 70 to being 49 going on 25.
Was this more of a mental feeling or also a physical reinvigoration in your body?
Well, it’s physical, too, because the attendant domino effect of health problems that the brain tumor brought on led me to a state where I was diabetic, at 400 pounds, with sleep apnea and with a very large pulmonary embolus in my lung, so I was even on oxygen tubes. And with my brain, my emotions, and my physical actions being impaired by the brain tumor itself, I was pretty much ineffective in all capacities. So, to then come down to a modest 250 pounds [laughs], there’s obviously a direct physical connection, because when you weigh 400 pounds, it’s a big job just to get into and out of a car. So, yeah, there’s the psychological thing, the physical thing, the mental thing. I think having that big grapefruit-size tumor right up there between my two lobes, pushing on my frontal lobe, pushing on my optic nerve, it was the perfect storm. To have that no longer be present is quite a relief, a relief that I would have a hard time even describing to you.
Did you have any amnesic effects, or did you lose any memories?
I don’t have any amnesic effects per say, although it should be noted that I’ve always had a poor, or a selectively poor, short-term memory. I’ve always had that even though I’ve never tried pot or anything in my life. I’ve never tried any drug. And that’s still that way. That’s always been that way, my whole life. There’s a little patch of time when the tumor was really impairing me, where my memories during that patch of time are scrambled. Let’s call it the two-year period centered around June 2009. I have some patchy memory there, but I can tell you when Descendents played a show in 1983. I can give you that data no problem.
Speaking of performances, last year you performed as All in Las Vegas with Karl and Stephen, and you had all three of the guys who sang with the band join in. In an interview with Spinner, you said, “I really couldn’t see us not recording more.” Has anything developed or been discussed?
I think the way things have kind of shaped up… I think the first thing to happen will be a new Descendents record. We’re kind of nonchalantly strolling ourselves toward that. Probably the most important piece of that, we’ve got Milo. He’s very engaged in it all now. He’s already written more than his share of songs. He’s already got eight songs. Karl and Stephen and I are all getting our songs together. So, we’ll end up having 25 or 30, and we’ll pick the best ones, and we’ll make an album.
But you aren’t playing any of those right now. Those are still in the rough stages?
No, not yet, not yet.
What about Only Crime? In that same interview, you mentioned you were getting ready to go into the studio and record with them.
The new Only Crime record is pretty close to being done. It’s about 85% done.
Recording-wise or post-production?
Sort of both. We have some things to fix. We’re going to fix them in November. I would like think that I’ll have it all mixed and done by the end of the year
And it still has the “supergroup” lineup?
The lineup has evolved a bit over the years, but to call it a supergroup is a little funny to me. It’s me and Russ [Rankin] from Good Riddance and Aaron Dalbec from Bane and Converge and Matt Hoffman from Modern Life Is War. And we have Dan Kelly, who’s the new bass player. I don’t actually know what famous-ish bands he’s from, if any. It was never really about that. We just happened to know a lot of people in bands because that’s what we all do. Everybody we know is in that world. We weren’t trying to make a supergroup or something.
But you can’t deny that it is. Look at the lineup, like you just said.
Sometimes things are how they are because those are the people that got involved. It wasn’t calculated.
I didn’t mean to imply supergroup meant that it was manufactured by the machine.
Oh, ok. I guess the punker in me almost sees a negative connotative inflection with “supergroup,” but I see what you mean.
Yeah, I was just referring to the fact that you had all this talent from all these other bands now in one band.
Yeah, it’s really crazy that way. It’s so cool.
Speaking about members of the scene. I want to go back to when you first started Descendents. When you arrived, other bands like Black Flag, Germs, and Dead Kennedys were far more serious with their political and social issues, and the Descendents sang songs about coffee and girls. Did Descendents ever have to fight for acceptance? Did anyone ever think of you guys as just mocking the scene, or did they treat you with legitimate respect? Did you have to earn that?
When we would play a show with specifically the Germs or some of those types of bands, oftentimes it would come to pass that their fans didn’t take us seriously; or their fans would try to beat us up while we’re playing. That having been said, we were never trying to pander to the punk rock scene. I mean, that’s the most un-punk rock thing I can think of, would be to try and get acceptance from the punk rock scene. We were just doing our own thing. There again, we weren’t consciously being overtly poppy, it’s just that there was a lot of melody in the music that we grew up listening to.
So, it seemed, and it still seems to me, that if you limit your music to just rhythm and chords, you’re short-changing yourself by 20-30%. So, the melody always seemed imperative except in some cases where you feel like it’s just a yelling thing; that can be fun, too. “I Like Food” is just a yelling thing. So is “My Dad Sucks”. But even “I’m Not a Loser” has a little bit of melody in it, a slight tiny bit. Those end up being my favorites, the little, I call them “Ian melodies.” You know how Minor Threat would have these teeny, tiny, little melodies, and sometimes that’s enough to get the emotion across. Instead of the hardcore bands, particularly of this day and age, there’s not even any sensibility of inflective distinction between syllables; it’s just yelling the whole time.
To me, that leaves me cold. It’s not like I want everything to be the Beach Boys or something, but if there’s not any kind of humanity to it, and a lot of times humanity is expressed by inflective differential or melodic differential, harmonic differential. You take that away, the music’s just not as interesting to me. Although I loved the Germs, they seemed to do it pretty well. There’s not really notes per say, but I think Darby [Crash, Germs vocalist] had his own way of expressing himself. Just the lyric sheet alone is enough to blow your mind.
When Milo left to go to school the first time around, why not continue the band with another vocalist?
Well, we did. Ray [Cooper] was singing. We played a few shows with Ray singing, but that didn’t seem to be working quite as well as we thought it would. And then Milo was just in San Diego anyways, so he would just come up, and we started doing shows again. We would always kind of not play anymore but then we would just start playing again.
What led you to join Black Flag?
We all grew up in the same small neighborhood. I could throw a rock to Greg’s [Ginn, founder of Black Flag] parents’ house from my house. We always shared practice rooms. We were kind of like brother bands, I guess. It seemed like I was always filling in for whoever, and there was always this standing offer that I could join the band whenever I wanted. And I think as I was wrapping up some college, I was at some juncture with my college journey, they had a bunch of touring planned, and I [thought], why don’t I just do that? Descendents were kind of less than potentially active at the time. I saw it as a way to join a band that I love with people that I love, who I respect and admire, and to continue playing music and start to play music on a full-time level; as opposed to Descendents, which is what you’d call a very, very serious hobby. Serious in the sense that we practiced five, six days of the week but hobby in the sense that we weren’t really touring. We would just do shows occasionally when we could find one in town. It wasn’t until I left Black Flag that Descendents did their first proper tour.
What brought about All? Was it just a desire to be in a band after Descendents broke up?
That’s the thing; Descendents didn’t break up. Milo just got tired of touring and wanted to finish his school stuff and become a biochemist. But the three of us were far from done, so it made sense. We had so much momentum, the three of us. Crazy amounts of momentum. It would seem weird to just break the band up, because it was like we were just getting started, so it seemed like it wasn’t the right time to quit.
Why did you name it after a one-second song?
It’s not like that. It’s more like All, the band and the Descendents song “All” and the “All-o-gistics”, all of those things are in reference to my concept of “All.” All didn’t name their band after a Descendents song; the Descendents and All have named various things after this idea of “All.” The idea of “All” overrides or supersedes all the other concerns that came from it.
Is the idea of “All” kind of like the hip-hop/soul concept of “being on the one”?
“On the one”? I don’t know this. Tell me about this.
My understanding is like one love, you’re all on the same page, you’re all together with it. It’s a bit vague.
“All,” you can see it as vague or as the most complete thing you’ve ever heard of. The word all is that way. The Japanese use the same word for the word all and the word none, because they’re kind of the same thing. If you have all, then none remains. The concept of “All,” it means the total extent, the utmost possible. So, how you apply that to daily life… each person applies it differently. It’s attendant to the idea of never giving up, trying your very, very hardest, achieving greatness, this kind of thing. I don’t know if it’s the one spirit hippie mentality exactly. This is a little more, not really self-centered, but it’s more for each one of us to get our own satisfaction as we try to do something that we think is valuable with our life.
You are the sole consistent member throughout the Descendents’ entire career. You’ve also written some of my favorite Descendents tracks. What’s with titling so many songs ending with -age?
It was surfer beach slang at the time, and I grew up as kind of a beach surf kid. That’s how we would say things, with an –age suffix.
That’s what I did as a kid, too. I grew up in Southern California, and I remember PaulyShore and “grindage,” so I was wondering if it was the same…
Yeah, it came from that, but we just made it silly. The first song that was called that might explain it the best as to just how exactly asinine and trivial it really is. I got this bass out of my neighbor’s trash on trash day, and I learned how to play bass. I had my grandfather’s acoustic guitar, and I learned how to play guitar. And I wrote my first song on bass and guitar. I wrote my first song ever, and I didn’t have a title for it; I just called it “My Song”, like let’s play my song, at practice. So, that got shortened to “Myage”. You see what I mean? So, that’s totally, how do you explain that in an interview? It’s so retarded, but that’s how we were. We never even thought anyone would ever hear any of our stupid songs anyways, so, yeah, let’s play “Myage”, or let’s play “Bikeage”. I don’t even remember what the bikeage reference was. Obviously, it had something to do with a bicycle, but I don’t remember. Tony [Lombardo, original bass player] wrote the song, so we called it “Tonyage”.
And you had the Liveage album.
It was us being silly.
Well, good luck with everything. I hope to hear some new material from you guys soon.
Yeah, we’ll get there. Milo’s songs are really good, and Karl and I are just starting to get ours demoed. Yeah, it should be fun.
Click over to read our interview with Milo…
Photo by Heather Kaplan
You’ve said that if you were to record again, it would probably be piecemeal, doing a little bit here and a little bit there over an extended time. Was that how you approached Cool To Be You and Everything Sucks?
Both of those records were recorded over a span of a few months, but in particular, the vocals were very rushed, recorded in about a week’s time. In each case, I was taking time away from my normal job, “moonlighting” to lay down vocal tracks, so we didn’t have a long period set aside for it. For Cool To Be You, my voice essentially was blown out and had a somewhat degraded tone, due to these time limitations. I was losing my voice, but we had to press on with the whole process. There was no time to give my voice even a few days’ rest. This time around, we’re asking ourselves, “Why impose such a time restriction at all, if it’s going to negatively affect the vocals?” That’s where we’re at right now. Plus, we’re all very busy with our day jobs and family, so it seems to make sense to not rush things.
On the song “When I Get Old”, there are many questions asked about the protagonist’s future. Fifteen years later, how would you answer them?
Although we are grown up, the band exists as our link back to our teen years. So, we do have to do all the grown-up bullshit, but still get to have some fun and feel young. OK, so we don’t sleep on the floor anymore, we don’t have girlfriends, but rather wives, for most of us, anyway. But I still totally hate cops. To the max. It’s all this fucking pent-up shit, man. A few Eugene quotes there, just kidding.
Obviously, the Descendents are now a well-respected band. However, when the band first formed, groups like Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and Germs were tackling heavy topics, such as social and political concerns. Your songs instead revolved more around food, coffee, and girls. Was there ever any indication that those “more serious” bands thought of you guys as mocking what they did, or was Descendents immediately accepted?
The beauty of that period was that individualism still reigned supreme in punk rock. Almost every band sounded different than the others, which was part of the appeal for me. For sure, a lot of bands were mining sociopolitical situations for song fodder, but then a band like Saccharine Trust would bust out Pagan Icons and make it OK to be weird and different. We never had any desire to write political songs, and no one ever gave us any guff for that.
Conversely, we weren’t mocking other more political bands with our song subjects. It was just what inspired us, food, girls, coffee, etc. In retrospect, I really appreciate the Minutemen for taking us seriously and helping us out, because here we were, writing about chili dogs, while they’re expounding on El Salvador, and they still considered what we were doing to be valid.
From what I can gather, any political songs you did have come late in the band’s career. 1996’s “Caught”, off Everything Sucks, mentions Clinton, and the track “’Merican” from 2004’s Cool To Be You is a statement in its own right. But both of those songs were written by latter-day member Karl Alvarez. Was there a conscious decision to avoid such topics?
You forgot “Hey Hey” off the Fat EP, written by Tony Lombardo. We don’t intentionally avoid politics, but we tend to just write about our own lives, what’s affecting us in our immediate surroundings. Not that politics don’t affect us, because they do. But it really takes a fair amount of emotional turmoil for me to pick up a pen and write lyrics, and politics tend to get my intellectual side engaged, rather than my visceral side, so I’ve never really tapped into it that much. Something else about politics and music…we are diametrically opposed to all forms of preaching in our music. Except for the song “ALL-o-gistics”, where that’s all we do. And that’s a danger of mixing those two. Our band has always existed as merely an outlet for our emotions and not so much to “get out a message.”
Regarding school versus the band, the timeline suggests you were in the band, then in school, back with the band, and then left to get your doctorate. How difficult a decision was it for you when you left the band to attend college?
It was a foregone conclusion, really. And everyone in the band knew it and were okay with it. Music started out as a hobby for me, although a very serious hobby bordering on obsession, but it was never anything I considered doing long-term.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Did you have any concerns that music was not a viable long-term career choice?
At that point, 1982, punk rock didn’t seem like a viable career option. It was still very much a “fringe” culture. It didn’t really concern me at all, because I had this other thing (biology) that I wanted to do anyway.
Did you always plan on coming back to the band?
Not really. Every time I’ve left the band, and it’s been many, I’ve thought, “well, that’s it then…” Only to find myself back with them a few years later, or even a decade later. The thing is, our band is forged around some pretty serious friendships, which have stood the test of time. I know I will always be friends with these guys. Add to that bond the underlying “need to rock” and that pretty much explains my eternal prodigal son role in this band.
When did pursuing your doctorate enter the picture?
That was 1987, again somewhat of a foregone conclusion. As obsessed as I’ve been about music, I’ve been equally obsessed with the idea of doing research on DNA. My thinking was, how can I get creative satisfaction from biology, like I do with music? And the answer for me was, get a Ph.D, because after that you are running your own lab, calling the shots. It’s like it says in the “ALL-o-gistics” line, “thou shalt always go for greatness,” meaning go for the ultimate extent. If there was a higher degree than Ph.D, I’m sure I would have done that, too.
In a recent interview, you were asked about your favorite Descendents songs or at least ones a newcomer should check out. On a similar note, when playing live, are there any songs that you purposely avoid or will never play?
It’s a pretty long list, actually. We have really gone out on a limb in some of our songs, with embarrassing results in some cases. I can state with near-certainty that we will never play “Schizophrenia” or “In Love This Way”, unless some other dumb schmuck gets up there to sing those god-awful lyrics.
You are a father, and you are also at least partially responsible for “My Dad Sucks”. Has that ever come back to bite you?
Not yet, but my kids haven’t reached the teen years yet. I know it’s only a matter of time before I’m the dad that sucks. That’s partly why I rejoined the band a year or so ago. They were asking, “Daddy, when can we see you play?” So, Daddy is cool right now, and I’m milking it for all it’s worth. Once they’re teens, I know I’m going to suck no matter what. “Daaad! That Rolling Stone cover with you on it was so lame! What am I going to say to all my friends? I’m sooo embarrassed!”