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 youve said it a few times, that you felt like you were 20 again.
Yeah, or 24, 25. Yeah, I really do. Its 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 Im 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, its 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], theres obviously a direct physical connection, because when you weigh 400 pounds, its a big job just to get into and out of a car. So, yeah, theres 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 dont have any amnesic effects per say, although it should be noted that Ive always had a poor, or a selectively poor, short-term memory. Ive always had that even though Ive never tried pot or anything in my life. Ive never tried any drug. And thats still that way. Thats always been that way, my whole life. Theres a little patch of time when the tumor was really impairing me, where my memories during that patch of time are scrambled. Lets 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. Were kind of nonchalantly strolling ourselves toward that. Probably the most important piece of that, weve got Milo. Hes very engaged in it all now. Hes already written more than his share of songs. Hes already got eight songs. Karl and Stephen and I are all getting our songs together. So, well end up having 25 or 30, and well pick the best ones, and well make an album.
But you arent 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. Its about 85% done.
Recording-wise or post-production?
Sort of both. We have some things to fix. Were going to fix them in November. I would like think that Ill 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. Its 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, whos the new bass player. I dont actually know what famous-ish bands hes from, if any. It was never really about that. We just happened to know a lot of people in bands because thats what we all do. Everybody we know is in that world. We werent trying to make a supergroup or something.
But you cant 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 wasnt calculated.
I didnt 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, its really crazy that way. Its 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 didnt take us seriously; or their fans would try to beat us up while were playing. That having been said, we were never trying to pander to the punk rock scene. I mean, thats 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 werent consciously being overtly poppy, its 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, youre short-changing yourself by 20-30%. So, the melody always seemed imperative except in some cases where you feel like its just a yelling thing; that can be fun, too. I Like Food is just a yelling thing. So is My Dad Sucks. But even Im 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 thats enough to get the emotion across. Instead of the hardcore bands, particularly of this day and age, theres not even any sensibility of inflective distinction between syllables; its just yelling the whole time.
To me, that leaves me cold. Its not like I want everything to be the Beach Boys or something, but if theres 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 musics just not as interesting to me. Although I loved the Germs, they seemed to do it pretty well. Theres 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 didnt 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 Gregs [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 dont 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 youd 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 werent really touring. We would just do shows occasionally when we could find one in town. It wasnt 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?
Thats the thing; Descendents didnt 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 wasnt the right time to quit.
Why did you name it after a one-second song?
Its not like that. Its 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 didnt 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 dont know this. Tell me about this.
My understanding is like one love, youre all on the same page, youre all together with it. Its a bit vague.
All, you can see it as vague or as the most complete thing youve ever heard of. The word all is that way. The Japanese use the same word for the word all and the word none, because theyre 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. Its attendant to the idea of never giving up, trying your very, very hardest, achieving greatness, this kind of thing. I dont know if its the one spirit hippie mentality exactly. This is a little more, not really self-centered, but its 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. Youve also written some of my favorite Descendents tracks. Whats 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. Thats how we would say things, with an age suffix.
Thats what I did as a kid, too. I grew up in Southern California, and I remember Pauly Shore 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 neighbors trash on trash day, and I learned how to play bass. I had my grandfathers 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 didnt have a title for it; I just called it My Song, like lets play my song, at practice. So, that got shortened to Myage. You see what I mean? So, thats totally, how do you explain that in an interview? Its so retarded, but thats how we were. We never even thought anyone would ever hear any of our stupid songs anyways, so, yeah, lets play Myage, or lets play Bikeage. I dont even remember what the bikeage reference was. Obviously, it had something to do with a bicycle, but I dont 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, well get there. Milos 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
Youve 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 weeks time. In each case, I was taking time away from my normal job, moonlighting to lay down vocal tracks, so we didnt 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, were asking ourselves, “Why impose such a time restriction at all, if its going to negatively affect the vocals?” Thats where were at right now. Plus, were 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 protagonists 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 dont sleep on the floor anymore, we dont have girlfriends, but rather wives, for most of us, anyway. But I still totally hate cops. To the max. Its 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 werent 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 theyre 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 bands career. 1996s Caught, off Everything Sucks, mentions Clinton, and the track Merican from 2004s 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 dont intentionally avoid politics, but we tend to just write about our own lives, whats affecting us in our immediate surroundings. Not that politics dont 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 Ive 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 thats all we do. And thats 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 didnt seem like a viable career option. It was still very much a fringe culture. It didnt 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 Ive left the band, and its been many, Ive thought, well, thats 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 Ive been about music, Ive 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. Its 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, Im 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?
Its 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 havent reached the teen years yet. I know its only a matter of time before Im the dad that sucks. Thats 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 Im milking it for all it’s worth. Once theyre teens, I know Im 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? Im sooo embarrassed!