By Patrick James; interviews by Mike Watt + Chris Shary on January 1, 2013
YOU WANT TO CELEBRATE THIS THING THE RIGHT WAY, so you’re standing in the kitchen, listening to Milo Goes to College for maybe the 100,000th time in your life, preparing to brew a “Bonus Cup,” the maelstrom of instant coffee and sugar concocted around 1980 by the members of Descendents, back when they were just a bunch of awkward kids suffering the slings and arrows of teenage heartache at Manhattan Beach’s Mira Costa High School in the suburbs of Los Angeles.
The label on the Safeway brand jar recommends you use one teaspoon of coffee crystals, but a Bonus Cup calls for a third of a cup, and it requires five spoonfuls of sugar, because why the hell not? So you pour steaming water into the mug, and instantly—as advertised!—the crystals dissolve into what looks like motor oil and smells, oddly, like burnt bacon grease. Apparently they’d consume these Bonus Cups at practices before unleashing a series of absurdly spastic 10-second songs, each one a sonic detonation of hormones and hopelessness. As you drop spoonful after spoonful of sugar into the mug, Milo Aukerman’s unmistakable, adolescent snarl screeches and crackles through your speakers. “Parents,” he yells, “why won’t they shut up?”
You take your first sip, and your pulse quickens. This is eye-rattling, heart-palpitating stuff, and the only thing harder to comprehend than why you’re drinking it is the notion that on January 1, 2013, Milo—the kid yelling “I’m a boy and not a toy, I will kill and I’ll destroy”—turns 50. And not only is he 50, and now a parent himself, but he’s still storming the stage with Descendents, singing his heart out along to the band’s trademark blend of surf-meets-hardcore-meets-proto-pop punk.
Caffeine is a helluva drug. And Descendents are a helluva band. Thirty-three years since their inception, they’re one of punk’s most enduring and beloved outfits. And what distinguishes them from their peers and the generations of bands they’ve influenced is their honesty. Not just lyrically, but musically: Descendents play it like it matters, because it always matters, even when the “it” is a song about fishing or fast food or farts. It always matters with Descendents because it always matters to their audience, whether that’s 10 people at a party in San Pedro in 1979 or a crowd of thousands at the Riot Fest in Chicago last summer. It matters because of the gravity of adolescent isolation: when you’re being bullied by jocks and it feels like no one in the world gives a damn whether you live or die. It matters when your heart is broken, whether you’re 15 or 50, and you need—yes, need—to hear “Bikeage” or “Clean Sheets” or “Hope,” especially “Hope,” and shout along with vehement defiance to that girl who’s crushed your soul and to no one at all, to tell her, even if she isn’t listening now and likely never will: “My day will come. I know someday, I’ll be the only one.”
There’ve been lineup changes a-plenty and more than a few hiatuses, but the through-line is drummer Bill Stevenson, who teamed up with bass player Tony Lombardo and guitarist Frank Navetta to play surf-inspired new wave songs just before the dawn of the 1980s. Navetta, who passed away in 2008, had already come up with the name and laid out the band’s iconic all-caps lettering before he and Stevenson united. With the addition of the aforementioned Milo—who, as the band’s first full-length record title suggests, really did go to college to become a biochemist and now works for DuPont in Delaware (and these days prefers espresso to Bonus Cups)—Descendents honed their spastic, gritty, pop-punk sound.
Over the years they’ve grown as musicians and songwriters, and Aukerman has come and gone and come back again, but Stevenson’s faithfulness to certain themes, sounds and suffixes (note the -age in the title of so many of their greatest tracks) has preserved a cohesive identity: Consider the iconic artwork, the simple, contour line portraits of “Milo” on album covers and their uniquely fantastic merch, which convey such a unified aesthetic that it’s hard to believe Stevenson when he says everything with Descendents is haphazard and chaotic. The current lineup of Aukerman, Stevenson, bass player Karl Alvarez and guitarist Stephen Egerton was established in 1987, when the band recorded its fourth record, All, on which they articulate the philosophy of the same name established by Stevenson and friend Pat McCuistion, who passed away the year the album came out. For the next eight years, the band went on hiatus as Aukerman got his doctorate; though the other three kept playing under the name All, with a few different singers. The philosophy behind All (and All) was simple: to relentlessly pursue excellence, in whatever form you find it, always.
Stevenson, however, has joked that the quest for All went on temporary hiatus from 2008 to ’10, when the onset of a grapefruit-sized brain tumor threatened to kill him—not just on its own, but by begetting a series of life-threatening conditions: weight-gain, depression, diabetes and a near-fatal pulmonary embolism. It was the darkest period of his life, and even when he lost hope, his family refused to. And in this case, family includes his Descendents, notably Milo, who was so thrilled at Bill’s recovery after removal of the tumor that he agreed to reunite the band and play shows to help offset the cost of Bill’s surgery.
But regardless of the circumstances, whenever Descendents reunite it feels like hearing from a dear friend—a little older, a little greyer and a little wiser. Granted, it’s worth asking what it means for them to grow up and become husbands and fathers and own the suburban homes they once lambasted, especially when so much of their catalog is dedicated to the idea of never wanting to turn into your dad. In the spirit of that sort of self-reflection, this year the band gets a chance to appraise their lives and careers with the release of Filmage, a documentary exploration of how they went from being incapable of selling out a phone booth to being the standard-bearers of pop-punk—that, and a bunch of dads. (Milo, who’s still employed at DuPont and scheduling concerts on weekends and vacation days, had just returned from a few days of camping with his son when he sat down for this interview.) To wit, the image of current shows offers a uniquely punk sentimentality: fathers, who might have seen the band open for the Minutemen at The Masque in ’83, standing alongside sons getting their first taste of Descendents, sweating and screaming and bobbing their heads in unison.
To tell the story of Descendents, FILTER enlisted the help of folks who have been in the trenches with them over the years: Mike Watt, the legendary bass player from Minutemen and fIREHOSE who currently tours with Iggy and the Stooges and whose New Alliance Records originally released Descendents’ first three full-lengths, focuses on the early years; and covering the band’s post-1996 existence and all things current is longtime All and Descendents artist Chris Shary, whose iconic album and merch art are indelible aspects of the bands’ legacies (and can be seen on the cover of this magazine). This is a story of friendship, fast food, fishing, failed attempts at love, faith in the face of rejection and the fortitude to live life to the fullest, free of bullshit, even if it means finally kind of maybe actually growing up. It’s also a story of deep bonds of a family; not the one you’re born into, but the one you forge all your life. So grab yourself a Bonus Cup and come along for the caffeinated ride. Don’t worry: thanks to modern chemistry, sleep is now optional.
Spoiler alert: for a band that dedicated half a record to flatulence, there were sadly few audible farts during these interviews. I guess you can’t have it all.
I DON'T WANT TO GROW UP: 1978 to 1988
MIKE WATT: Southern California was really Balkanized when we were young, but what united us was being punk rockers—that and the music. To start, I want to ask Billy, how did you get started with music?
BILL STEVENSON: I guess tapping on books and notebooks and pots and pans was first. When I was a kid, my folks were thinking about sending me to a specialist because I was just so banging on everything. I was just really stoked on music in general. I remember one time my mom brought me to see Louis Prima. He was playing “Old Black Magic” and I was screaming “that old black magic!” so loud that I was drowning him out, and he reached down and picked me up and brought me up on stage with him for a little bit.
WATT: So it’s your first gig.
BILL: Yup, that was my first gig. Eventually, my dad decided it would be OK to get me a snare drum. I’m pretty sure the drum set was ninth grade. You know, we started the Descendents just a few months after I got the drum set. I could only play three or four beats when we started the band, which was Frank Navetta’s brainchild. I think I met Frank through fishing, and just being two of the people who didn’t fit in in high school. Because the people that don’t fit in have a way of finding each other. So, Frank and Dave Nolte [of The Last] were practicing down in Long Beach in Frank’s sister’s garage, and they kept hearing this bass from a half block away. They eventually just walked down the alleyway and they see [Tony Lombardo] in this garage playing this bass through a Peavey amp, playing the tell-tale quick eighth notes that would signify he was a punker. They were like, “Oh, you play bass? Why don’t you come play bass with us?”
WATT: Milo, how did you get connected?
MILO AUKERMAN: Billy showed up at school with the “Ride the Wild/It’s a Hectic World” single, where he was selling it to the students.
WATT: He was slinging!
BILL: Yeah, but I was more interested in trying to get attention for myself than anything else. I remember that Milo and I had this PE coach who was also our environmental studies teacher. He was very cruel to Milo, the typical thing of a jock picking on a nerd. And it endeared me to Milo because I sympathized with his position: here’s this idiot picking on the smartest guy in the class. Soon, Milo became a fixture at our practices, like part of the furniture. Frank didn’t want to sing and play guitar at the same time, and one day at practice Frank said something in his high Frank voice: “Ah, fuck it, we should just make Milo sing the songs.”
WATT: So then you’re in and you guys make a record. Is there a concept behind the Fat EP?
BILL: I don’t think so, we were never organized enough to have concepts. The fact of the matter is that I was 250 pounds and obsessed with chiliburgers and stuff. And Frank was a little overweight at the time, too. So we were embracing our gluttony.
MILO: Well, there was that and the coffee. The coffee probably provided a good concept, too. There was no song about coffee, but it was clearly influencing what was going on musically.
WATT: Descendents was, in my opinion, coffee music. But next comes Milo Goes to College.
MILO: I think with those songs we were expanding beyond the kind of fast-fast-fast-fast thing. There are some of the similar coffee-driven songs, but I know that melodically there was actually an attempt at singing and making more pop-flavored music. Obviously we all really loved that, growing up with The Beatles and stuff.
WATT: You were singing, but were you involved in composition?
MILO: I wrote one-and-a-half songs. I had to interpret a lot of stuff. But I think the fun thing for me is that I just loved all the songs. It’s just one of those things where we were all dealing with the same themes. Lyrically, I could totally get behind Frank’s lyrics. It all spoke to me.
BILL: That’s something that we’ve been fortunate with the whole way through. Because it’s always been four songwriters, and I think there’s a ton of mutual respect for the other guys’ songwriting. I mean, even now it’s all four of us: me, Karl, Stephen and Milo. We all write.
WATT: I know, and it goes back to the beginning. It was always a democratic thing with Descendents. I always felt that. Moving to 1982, what happened after Milo Goes to College?
MILO: Uh, I went to college. So, basically, I was down in San Diego, and I would occasionally come up and play a show with them, but they also had started taking on a new singer, Ray Cooper. Ray was singing for them and I would occasionally show up and do guest vocals or whatever. And Bill was playing with Black Flag at the time.
BILL: I look at Descendents in ’83 and ’84 as: There were enough distractions from it that it was operating in a low gear, with or without Milo. When I left Black Flag, I tried to do more Descendents stuff. And that’s when we started practicing for I Don’t Want To Grow Up. That was with me and Tony and Ray on guitar and Milo singing. Frank had left the band. We recorded with David Tarling, who was the engineer of late-period Black Flag records: Loose Nut, In My Head. He was really fond of those ’80s production trappings and the record is polluted and corrupted with them.
WATT: Reverb on the kick drum and stuff. It’s OK, it takes a lot of paths to get to where we are now. I hear that on the last Minutemen record. They used to put that ’80s Duran Duran reverb on that snare, oh my god. So then comes Enjoy!, which is just a whole different vibe.
BILL: Enjoy! to me is wearing the ’80s new wave influence really boldly on the sleeve.
MILO: Well, it’s a combination of that and that we’d been on tour for so long that we wrote some messed-up freakazoid songs like “Days Are Blood” and all these weird things.
BILL: Yeah. And farts.
WATT: So that was the end of that incarnation of Descendents, and then comes Karl [Alvarez] and Stephen [Egerton] and All gets started.
BILL: Well, no, you skipped an album. The arrival of Karl and Stephen was synonymous with the album All, not the band All. The album had “Clean Sheets,” “Coolidge” and “All-O-Gistics.” And though you didn’t release it, Mike, it still happened nonetheless.
WATT: [Laughing] Karl, Stephen, you were in the early hardcore band Massacre Guys?
STEPHEN EGERTON: Yeah, I had met the guys through touring.
KARL ALVAREZ: Stephen was your promoter, right, Mike?
WATT: Yeah, when we were in Salt Lake with Black Flag. How did you get involved in Descendents, Karl?
KARL: I just took the train out from Salt Lake City with my stuff in a garbage bag so I could play with Bill. I think Stephen flew out. I’d known Stephen since junior high, and he was kind of the man in the Salt Lake City scene at the time.
BILL: I thought it was really cool that when we first did our record with Karl and Stephen, Karl came in with the song “Coolidge,” and that’s proven to be one of our identifying songs. Here he is, new to the band, he walks in and writes one of the songs that would define us.
MILO: It was so Descendents. It was such a Descendents song. Totally.
WATT: But after All comes a lot of touring, and then comes the band All, when Milo takes a break.
MILO: I’m thinking about that in the context of being together now: We take these long breaks and it doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but people still want to come see us and not only want to come sees us but really want to come see us play these big shows. And we’re just enjoying it while it’s here. Part of it is also that people have this desire to connect with this past that we share—obviously, with [Watt]—this past of early LA punk rock, which was this magical period for all of us.
WATT: It wasn’t like Fonzie and Potsie and shit like that. It was a small scene, kind of beat down. It was special. I would not be who I am without it.
BILL: It was all I had. These guys were my family. The first time I went to [historic Hollywood punk club] The Masque it was life-changing. It was one of those shows where it was like Go-Gos, Germs, Weirdos, Slugs. Every band was playing and it was five dollars or whatever. And when I walked out of that place four hours later, I was a different person.
KARL: The whole world was smaller back then.
STEPHEN: But punk reached its tentacles out to us as far as Salt Lake City. We were a bunch of people experimenting wildly because no one knew what they were after.
BILL: I still don’t. But here we are.
HAVING IT ALL: 1996 to PRESENT
CHRIS SHARY: There had been various lineups before, but when Karl and Stephen came in, it seemed like something really clicked. What do you attribute that to?
KARL: I just wanted to play bass with Stephen. Seriously, our style, if we can accuse ourselves of having such a thing, is largely based on us learning how to play around each other as I was learning to play. So by the time we ran into Billy, we already had a kind of highly evolved vocabulary of licks and riffs.
STEPHEN: Yeah, just our own little art. What was interesting about putting that band together at that time was that there were two already functioning chemistries that existed—Milo and Bill, and me and Karl.
BILL: Now that I look back at that particular period, I kind of wish I could transport myself back to it. We were too busy having fun in that little sweaty room with no air to be really self-aware.
SHARY: That’s where you crystallized the All philosophy. Where did it come from?
BILL: Like all philosophies, the concept of All came about by fellas getting together and drinking too much coffee. And it was just the combustion of a fit of rage where Pat McCuistion and I were out fishing and were trying to fill the boat up with fish to where it would sink. And we were deciding when we should stop, because it was getting really full and the sideboards were like only about three inches above the water. And I remember saying, “We gotta go back in, Pat.” Pat just goes, “NO! ALL!” And it was like, there it was.
SHARY: How has the concept of All evolved today as opposed to when you guys were in your mid 20s?
BILL: The thing about All is that it’s timeless. It defies age. It defies era. It defies everything…to put it in practical terms. We all—or, 75 percent of the band—have kids now.
MILO: So you’re never going to achieve All, but you always have to try. So part of trying achieve All now [is knowing] we can improve on the way we were raised. I think about the best way that I can be a parent, and that’s my version of achieving All.
SHARY: Has the recent batch of shows inspired more writing on a personal level?
MILO: I guess I started writing songs again when Bill got well again from his brain tumor. The enthusiasm coming off of that spurred me to put forth a few new songs.
BILL: I went through a long period where I didn’t write. Or I didn’t finish any songs while I was sick. So, I think that Milo having finished a whole big batch of songs and kind of anteing up with a statement of his enthusiasm level at this point kind of jostled me. I’m just glad to be alive. To bring up the band All is maybe relevant right now because All just became so very unpopular. We would do these records and work really hard on them and not even sell 10,000. That becomes a negative reinforcement after a while: where to put a song in that area is to have it negatively reinforced, whereas to put that same song in a Descendents context is to have everybody kiss your ass and embrace it. And so that’s a tricky kind of mindset to be navigating, if you will.
SHARY: Since so much of your work tends to be autobiographical, do you ever get to a point where there was a song that was really special and meaningful at a moment, but [now] time has gotten
to a point where it’s difficult to play that song because of the subject matter?
BILL: To me, most of the really great songs that this band has released have that element to them. They were a moment in time, freeze-dried in the most perfect manner, so when you regurgitate that live 20 years later, it may or may not make you feel a little funny. Because maybe the person you wrote it about you don’t know or even think about at all. But the song is a time capsule.
SHARY: Well, you guys have been very autobiographical about so much you’ve written, which is I think why it’s been so appealing to so many people. It’s very personal but it’s also very honest.
MILO: I’ve had people say “your songs were like therapy to me” and that’s partly why I wrote them. If I write a song and it’s something that I do for myself, that’s really what they are: they’re for me, they’re therapy for me.
KARL: Music to me is like magic. There’s no real reason on Earth why the vibration in the air should make me change my emotional state. There’s no rational reason for it that I can discern.
SHARY: Describe the feeling of having the size of audiences that you have now as opposed to what it was like in ’87. It’s a very, very different type of audience.
BILL: What we’re trying to do there is bring our little tiny club show—or I’ll even go so far as to say “to bring our practice room vibe”—up onstage with us. Because it seems to me that when your nerves and anxiety and adrenaline get going, the first thing to go out the window is that tight band communication and rapport and the funny looks that you give each other. That’s the first thing that goes out the window when you get up on that big stage. We’re trying to preserve that. It’s a necessary part of who we are.
KARL: I think there’s a little bit of the situation of low expectations. There’s a lot of really hyped-up stuff that’s not even a fifth of what it used to represent, as far as nostalgia acts. There’s a lot of bands that are just slogging their way through it and getting with whatever pick-up band.
MILO: We take the live performance very seriously. We’re not wringing the rag. We’re not doing this as some kind of nostalgia act. We want to be relevant. So you gotta take yourself back to the practice room of 1982 and get that same intensity going.
SHARY: Well, clearly that works. Let’s talk about Filmage. It seems like [filmmakers Matt Riggle and Deedle LaCour] have a pretty good feel for who you guys are. And having a voice that matches the bands.
MILO: You know who came across really great was Tony. I mean, he’s Tony, and interviewing the guy is pure brilliance. And humor, too. That, plus Bill imitating Frank…I felt that Frank and Tony were really well represented in the movie.
KARL: That’s the thing that’s also good: laying out the whole history. Just because someone is no longer in the band does not mean they are not close to us… And at the same time, at the heart of it is the fuck-you impulse of the bands.
MILO: Frank Navetta’s bitter resentment. That is the essence of the group.
KARL: And maybe it’s hope of romance in spite of the bitter resentment. That was always compelling to me before I was in the band.
BILL: One of the things that I pride myself on, if I’m ever in a situation where I’m scrutinizing my character, just to decide whether I’m worth my salt at all…I think of the fact that I’m still really good friends with everybody that’s ever been in the band. Most bands, once somebody leaves, there’s this quarreling and fighting. We’ve never had that. Everybody that’s ever been in the band is friends with everybody that’s ever been in the band.
SHARY: That extended family is important. You don’t have this kind of longevity if you’re total turds to work with.
BILL: I’m nothing if not loyal.
KARL: I think we’re loyal often to our own detriment. But that’s the way it goes.
SHARY: At the end of the day, what’s better than loyalty?
MILO: Hmm. A ham sandwich? One other thing about loyalty and how we deal with each other: It’s just another reflection of how we deal with music in general, which is wearing our hearts on our sleeves. We do that with each other as friends and we also do it with our music. It’s all part of the same outlook on life. F
Photos courtesy of Bill Stevenson + Chris Shary
This article is from FILTER Issue 50