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Interview: Bill Stevenson and Milo Aukerman (of Descendents)

on October 30, 2012, 12:01am
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Milo Aukerman

riot fest sat descendents 9 Interview: Bill Stevenson and Milo Aukerman (of Descendents)

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.

riot fest sat descendents 8 Interview: Bill Stevenson and Milo Aukerman (of Descendents)

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!”

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