Interview by Andy Nystrom. Photo by Chris Shary. Originally posted on There’s Something Hard In There .
I heard through the punk-rock grapevine that the Descendents would be playing a gig one early evening in the summer of 1981. Not at a club, but at the beach. You gotta go where the music takes you and I wanted to check these guys out for the first time.
So I cruised on my skateboard from my Redondo Beach home along the Strand into Manhattan Beach, and there they were, blasting away in someone’s front yard to a small gathering of people with the sand nearby and the surf in the distance. Some folks were bobbing their heads in approval while some passersby were scratching their noggins, wondering what the hell was happening. Thanks to a member of a Mira Costa High sports team for hosting this end-of-year party. Epic stuff.
After their set, I passed drummer Bill Stevenson as we walked along the sand. I tossed him a nod and he shook his head back at me.
A few years later, I encountered Stevenson again, this time while jamming at SST with Ray Cooper on bass, Greg Cameron on drums and me on guitar. After trying to keep up with these guys on a few songs, I surrendered and Stevenson walked into the room and joined the session. Cooper moved to guitar and Stevenson took over bass duties, and the trio let loose on instrumental versions of “I Wanna Be a Bear” and a few other Descendents tunes. I sat in the corner, mesmerized at how Stevenson led the charge while my buddies locked in just right with the bassmaster general.
So, yeah, I was replaced by Stevenson, but that’s not a bad thing at all.
Fast forward to May of this year and there I am standing next to Cameron, side stage right with Cat digging the tuneage nearby, as the Descendents tore through a mammoth set at Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas. And there was Stevenson, drumming away with power and precision, smiling and grimacing the whole way. Just perfect.
A new Descendents album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, makes its appearance July 29 via Epitaph Records. It’s been 12 years since Stevenson, vocalist Milo Aukerman, guitarist Stephen Egerton and bassist Karl Alvarez released an album. People are stoked.
I phoned Stevenson on July 19 to get the lowdown on what’s happening in the Descendents camp. Behold our interview, which was insightful and filled with laughter:
Why is it time now for a new Descendents album?
Ha! Yeah, usually people ask, ‘Why didn’t you put one out sooner?’ and I think your question is maybe more relevant. It seems when bands put out records really often, I feel like the songwriting quality almost always suffers. Basically, we just put a record out whenever we feel like it.
It usually starts with some demos, some of us have some songs and we start putting things together. Really, I suppose one of the reasons that we’ve managed to still be a band after 38 years is the fact that we haven’t tried to cram it all into this really compact, dense thing. There have been periods where we were operating pretty intensely, you know the whole climb in the van for the better part of the year. We’ve done some of that, but by and large, it’s been a labor of love and something that we do whenever we can all mutually make time for it and enjoy it. It’s cool that way, it keeps everything enjoyable to where, for instance, even when we see each other for shows, it’s like everybody’s happy to see each other and we have fun. I guess the example I use is a lot of times after the shows, even though we all have our own hotel rooms, we’ll all end up in one guy’s room, all sitting on that one guy’s bed, sharing a few beers or a bit of a scotch or something.
This is the kind of camaraderie that was the reason we started the band, and the reason that we loved it so much. This friendship and this camaraderie — I feel like it’s kind of come full circle in that way, it’s a real pleasure now to just be doing stuff. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that for whatever reason, we got these larger audiences or fan base, and that just makes it kind of easier financially, I guess, if you will, but it just feels better to me now than it ever has in terms of the camaraderie thing.
Are these tough or are these easy albums to write?
These songs are as difficult or as easy as we choose to make them. I suppose part of being a 52-year-old in a punk band is maybe I’ve learned that there aren’t any rights and wrongs, you try different things and if something feels good to you and it seems to satisfy you, then it’s probably valid art. At least valid to those who may stumble upon it.
Lyrically, when you don’t put a record out for eight, 10, 12 years, obviously a lot has piled up on the brain in that time for each of us. In my case, specifically, since we last did an album, I almost died four times — had a brain tumor, two craniotomies, an open-heart surgery and a pulmonary thromboendarterectomy, which is basically an open-lung surgery — so I’m a completely different person than I was 12 years ago. I don’t look at the world through the same eyes, and I have all those experiences that I’ve accumulated along the way. Each of us do.
I’m just happy to still be alive. Maybe brushes with mortality, perhaps they taught me things that I couldn’t be taught by any other means.
Descendents albums mean a lot to people. What does this album mean to you?
An album is sort of a unit of measurement, it’s like a foot or an inch or a yard. It’s just a group of songs. It’s almost more like the album itself is a subset of the band’s conglomerate, creative output at any given time. We recorded 36 songs and 16 of them went on the album, and then we took another five and there’s a little EP that accompanies the album. And that’s about half of what we recorded, but all 36 of them, if you put ’em all together, that’s like everybody’s life since last time we spoke, and that’s pretty cool. Or at least it’s the part of everybody’s life that they choose to share, you know, the good, the bad, etcetera.
The album itself doesn’t mean anything, but the songs are a picture of our lives.
It takes a lot of guts to pour your emotions into a song like you guys do. What pushed you to do so? Songs like “Silly Girl” (Stevenson) and “Get the Time” (Aukerman), things where you’re really putting yourselves out there. I don’t know if I would have the guts to do that, and I commend any songwriter to do that.
I guess some wise person probably said, ‘You don’t talk about what you don’t know about.’ As much as I might fancy the idea of being able to write a very clever, witty song, or a song that had deep sociopolitical meaning to it — help the world or something — I can’t, because I don’t have the knowledge or the ability to write in that way. The only way that I know how to write is about things that are very personal to me. I always joke about if somebody doesn’t pass away, there’s not a new Bill song. And while that’s not true literally, what I’m getting at is I don’t seem to be able to write from imagination or to make up fictional stories. Even with the guitar, I’m not a craftsman, I don’t pick up the guitar and plink around on chords until, ‘Oh, a song. Oh, now let’s make some words for it.’ I don’t operate that way.
It would be cliche or cheesy to say that I work by divine inspiration, but I don’t know different words to use for it. What happens is usually, right when I wake up, before the world has gotten into the brain… right when you wake up, there’s like that minute or so when you’re still kind of in a halfway conscious state. A lot of times, I’ll have some sort of an idea that just kind of came to me and it’s in my head and then I’ll quickly … if it’s lyrics, I’ll write it down, and if it’s a melody, I’ll hum into my recording device. These songs just sort of come to me. I feel like they’re little things that I have to get out of myself. I’m just kind of like the middle man between the song that lives out there somewhere in the world and the listener who’s gonna hear it.
I hear the chords in my head and then I’ll go to the guitar and find those chords. The typical unit of measurement is: I’ll get a whole chorus, with the melody, with all the words and with all the chords — that thing will just zoom itself into my head. Right when I wake up, there it is. But if I wait three minutes. Like if I get up to pee or make the coffee, the idea is gone. Because then, what are you thinking about? You’re thinking about your mortgage or the fact that you need new brakes on your car, and then it’s done. If you’re me.
Sometimes, it’ll happen right when I’m falling asleep, too. And I’ll wake up, ‘I gotta write that down.’
I agree with that wholeheartedly, because I wake up quite often with lyrics or a tune, a chord, a verse or something in my head. I’m not in a band, I’m not a songwriter, but I’ll write something down or I’ll record something just to have and maybe to use someday. That’s definitely a very creative time, I can relate to that.
It’s interesting that you can relate, because I feel like eight out of 10 times when people ask me about the writing and I tell ’em how it works, I think they think that I’m trying to be clever or I feel like I’m gifted or some shit that I have some special magic power. It’s not that, it’s just once you’re fully awake, the world just crushes you.
Milo, for instance, he told me he’ll decide that there’s a topic that’s worth writing about to him, something that he needs to get off his chest, and he’ll write the lyrics and maybe he’s got a catch phrase, maybe he’s got a couplet. Let’s say there’s a couplet that he’s anchoring it all on, a hook, and then he’ll write the lyrics and then he’ll go to the guitar and find chords for them.
And then I think about other people I know, they only write from a musical standpoint. Stephen, very rarely does he write lyrics, so usually he’s bringing us music and then we’re writing lyrics to his music. Karl maybe does it somewhere between how the three of us do it. I feel like he’s tapped into this kind of like…you get this inspired, complete thought, then he fills in the blanks. I’m sure there’s exceptions to all of these things, but it’s interesting to just discuss it even if I’m not describing each of the members’ things perfectly.
It just sounds like it runs the gamut there with the different styles and inspiration.
The album’s got four different songwriters. They’re not thematically consistent, there’s no strategy to it. We didn’t sit in a room three years ago and go, ‘OK, what’s gonna be the direction of this album?’ We don’t have a direction, we just bring songs in that we think are cool. The ones that everyone likes the most, we put ’em on the record and then you have an ‘album,’ whatever that means.
When that album’s released, what do you hope people get out of your music?
The (best) reward for me, personally, seems to have come from when something that we wrote that was very personal to us specifically, had a way of resonating with someone else. Even if that thing didn’t happen to them, they could feel what we were talking about and they could tell that it was genuine, they could tell that it wasn’t a made-up song. And it somehow maybe helped them get through some maybe tough period they were having because they felt comfort in knowing that maybe somebody else had similar feelings or a similar hardship or whatever it is.
That’s gotta be a great feeling when you can make an impact on someone.
Or you can help. I can’t help the world, I’m not intelligent enough, but I can maybe help three or four people. If everybody helps three or four people, we’d all be alright.
When you guys are playing, when you guys are recording, you look out at your bandmates and what are your thoughts with this unit? To me, it’s gotta be a good feeling to have these guys on your side.
Yeah, I even kind of referred to that feeling in one of the new songs. I wrote a lyric for one of Stephen’s songs, the title is ‘Beyond the Music.’ It talks about how we started out in the carpet cave, you know the little rooms with the carpet on the walls so cops wouldn’t come. It’s the story of our band, and at the end of it, it says, ‘Here we are today, still look each other in the face, not expecting a single thing beyond the music.’ It’s kind of like how the only thing we ever wanted out of this was just to be able to play and enjoy each other’s company. But we got so much more out of it — we got a family. We got really a second family. Or for some of us with really broken-up families, we got a first family, which is our band.
As far as your work ethic goes, you’ve been doing this you said for 38 years, and you’ve still got the crazy work ethic what with FLAG, with Descendents, with ALL, with producing. Where did that work ethic come from, does it go back to those early Black Flag days?
I think there was a general climate floating around those first practice rooms between us and the Black Flag guys and Minutemen… just like, well, you have to practice a whole lot if you wanna have it really amount to anything. So that kind of work ethic… but I’ve got guys building houses across the street from me here — that’s the work ethic. I mean, they swing hammers all day. We’re just playing music on a really regular basis. I guess it’s a work ethic in some ways, but in some ways it’s pure pleasure.
You like having a lot on your plate, it’s gotta be rewarding.
My paradigm on that has kind of shifted as I’ve gotten older. But oddly enough, my needs, too, shift. I went from being, say, in my teens, 20s and 30s, one of these kind of workaholic, overachiever sort of … I had an entrepreneurial side — and I don’t mean like business. I wanted to do lots of things and really kind of (have) a pioneering spirit. It was my best thing in the world to like work 19 hours and sleep for (five) hours and do it again.
Definitely after all my surgeries and stuff, and really even before that, I don’t really have that workaholic thing anymore. That’s been replaced by a wife and two children, so the economics of it are that I do have to keep moving, I have to keep pretty busy just to make the ends meet. I don’t mind it. But the whole thing of just working for work’s sake, I don’t have that anymore, I’d rather throw the football with my kid, if possible.
Speaking of your family, what do they think of the tunes? Do you ever bounce any ideas off of them?
In our house, I feel that everybody gets to hear it when it comes out, like how the rest of the world does. Maybe because I’m not very good about showing people unfinished thoughts, so that’s probably insecurities of sorts. They just hear it when it’s completely done; they can hear it as a complete thought, not as little bits and pieces.
Are they big fans of your music? I’ve talked to some musicians, and it’s not always that way.
My wife was like a 50 percent punker, 50 percent kind of ’80s music or even electronic and things like that. So she was a Descendents and ALL fan a million years ago. My son, he’s really getting deeper and deeper into just music with guitars, whether it be Motorhead or Rise Against or Descendents, so he’s really into it, if you will. And then my daughter totally is not into it. She likes pop music, she likes Drake or whatever.
What inspires you musically to keep doing this for 38 years?
Ha, ha! You know what’s funny is the really base-level, crude answer is one time I asked Keith (Morris) the exact same question, and he just goes, ‘Well, Billy, what the fuck else am I gonna do?’ (in a spot-on Morris impersonation). And I thought it was so genius, because was being very honest: this is all that I know, this is my life.
With me, I definitely wouldn’t phrase it that way, but it’s kind of like I have a triple Ph.D. in music, if you will, and so it seems it has proven to be the thing that I excel at and so, as long as I remain enthused, which I very much am, then I have no reason to stop or to question how long I’ve been doing it. As long as I wake up and wanna hear those Marshall (amps) in my face, which I totally do, as long as that’s happening, I can still play in the Descendents. But maybe I’ll wake up one day and it’ll be like, ‘Hey, man, I’m gonna play drums with brushes and I’m gonna be in a little jazz band and play at the fancy restaurant here in town on Friday.’ Who knows?
Greg Cameron was pointing out at the Vegas show that you had a new drum kit. How’s that working for you, when was the last time you had a new drum kit in front of you?
Oh, it’s been 12 years. I tend not to be real acquisitional; I don’t collect drum sets. I reckon most guys in my walk of life, they might have 10-20 drum sets. We have a few at the recording studio, that’s ’cause we need to have a lot of variety. I haven’t had very many drum sets, just ’cause I’ve never been the kind of guy to like… I don’t like to get a new iPhone every year or whatever it is, or a new car every few years …I just like to use what I have, and try not to waste things.
So, it was very exciting to get a new drum set. The SJC drum people, they called me and said, ‘Bill, we’ll build you two sets, no strings attached. One for you to play your shows with and one for the studio. It’s gonna be better than any set you have in your studio.’ So, I said, since I’ve got all these (FLAG) shows coming up with Chuck and Keith and Dez, ‘Hey, build me a clear one, ’cause if Robo sees it or even if Robo’s son sees it, they’ll be proud. They’ll get a good kick out of that.’ ‘Cause the drums Robo had were clear, and when I was a little kid, Robo was one of my heroes.