Written by Andy Nystrom. Originally posted on “There’s Something Hard in There January 7, 2019.
The young man who was so shy that his eyes were fixated on the floor during most of his early performances is now leading the charge — face forward with bolts of confidence — as the Descendents unleash their music to thousands of fans at a time.
At age 18, Milo Aukerman’s enthusiasm earned him the vocal spot with the Manhattan Beach, CA-based band and those initial gigs and small crowds were tough to get a handle on, but the bespectacled singer forged on. While at first they “couldn’t sell out a telephone booth,” the times and crowds soon caught up to and latched onto the Descendents. Early fans’ pocket band has become a group for ALL, and Aukerman notes that they continue to satisfy and challenge themselves and their followers as the years add up. It’s go time… all the time… for all times.
Presently, the band is writing a new album and Aukerman is stoked to call music a career. He put his doctorate in biology into action at places like DuPont in his now home state of Delaware, but his science gig is now a piece of the past.
On the full-time music career choice, he said: “That’s what I’ve been kind of dancing around for the past, at least for the last 10 years. Because we started the band back up in 2010 and it’s been just a blast ever since, so much fun, so why not just do it whole hog and just go for it?”
I caught a bunch of the band’s raucous and ultra-sweaty early gigs in the SoCal area — including a killer one on the Strand on the beach in Manhattan in 1982 — and my wife Cat and I continue to check them out to this day.
I phoned Aukerman, 56, last Sunday and here’s what we gabbed about. It was a talk filled with energy and laughter about how we’ve all grown into top-notch adults. Well, maybe.
Can you remember your intro to music, maybe hearing stuff on the radio with your parents back in the day?
I was a big AM radio fan. Growing up, it was ‘KHJ! 93.’ And I think that was before FM kind of really expanded it’s whole deal. Once FM was more of a thing, then it was KROQ, and KROQ, of course, then just became Rodney’s (Bingenheimer) show for me. You know, Rodney on the Roq. A lot of radio listening, and I, curiously enough, I still listen to radio a lot even though there’s so many other options. I could stream, but I still find myself listening to radio. There’s something very appealing about just turning something on and, for free, listening to music, and they’re gonna throw something different at you, hopefully, if it’s a good station.
I was definitely raised on AM radio and the Beatles and all that stuff that was happening. Some of that bad ’70s music still sticks with me, and when that gets played, you go, ‘Yeah, this sucks,’ but it’s in your blood a little bit and you gotta listen to it anyways.
The punk rock movement for me didn’t kick in until probably ’79, I wasn’t really that exposed to it before that point, so I was listening to more pop music. I had a brief dabble into kind of prog rock and came out the other side of that and wanted to hear something harder and then started listening to new wave at that point. So KROQ definitely primed me for the new wave. And then the new wave music was great, but it didn’t have loud enough guitars and wasn’t fast enough, and ended up listening to X and the Germs and that kind of stuff and Black Flag.
That’s kind of where I was primed and receptive to listening to a single that Bill (Stevenson) sold me at school, which was the Descendents as a trio. I was like, ‘Cool, these guys are my friends and they’re like making this music, it’s cool.’
When did you first start singing? Were you singing around home, like school choir, anything like that?
No, not really. I took a little piano growing up, I dabbled in a variety of instruments… literally just dabbled in because I would take a lesson and be like, ‘This is boring.’ (laughs) I think I took piano maybe for about a year, but I think I took sax for half a year and I took guitar for A lesson.
I kind of sang in the school choir for a year and did A musical with the local repertory theater. Not playing a major part or anything. So I dabbled in theater and musicals, but it wasn’t really my bag so much, especially when I became a teenager. When you’re younger and you’re not self-conscious, you can do that kind of stuff, and then the teen years hit and you’re just like, ‘This is so uncool, I can’t do it anymore.’ (laughs) So that kind of stopped pretty much around age 12. Then I kind of was just a music listener all through high school and then senior year essentially, I wanted to be more than a listener, I wanted to kind of participate.
That came about, obviously, through the Descendents. And it came about without me really even thinking about it. I just saw that everyone else was in it. Bill and Frank (Navetta) and Tony (Lombardo) were doing it, I thought, ‘I could probably do this, too.’ As a trio, they were doing a practice, and I would go watch them practice ’cause they were all of a sudden my favorite band after I heard that single. They had a mic set up and I said, ‘Look, I’ll sing this song, just ’cause (I’ll) give you a break.’ Almost a boastful kind of thing, ‘Hey, I learned the words to this, so let me give it a crack.’ I think in their mind, ‘Well, he can’t sing, but he’s got a lot of energy…’ It wasn’t really even a tryout, it was more just me having some fun, but they obviously thought, ‘Well, maybe this guy should just do it.’
You never know the way things happen. I’m always interested in things just happen naturally and maybe it was meant for you to jump up there and give it a shot, and there you go.
If it was a formal tryout, I think it would have maybe even ruined the energy. Because we were friends, and because I was obviously doing it out of sheer enthusiasm and joy of doing it, they saw it kind of fit the modus operandi of the band, which is just go out there with a bunch of energy and have fun and not worry so much if you’re hitting the notes enough. At that point, I was definitely not hitting the notes (laughs).
What was the musical you were in?
Down in Manhattan, on I think it was Valley Drive had a little theater, it was right next to this big baseball diamond. They would put on plays now and again and I did ‘The Music Man,’ I was in the chorus. I did ‘A Christmas Carol,’ I was Tiny Tim in that; of course, I was very young, I was like 10 years old. Those are the two that I can remember.
As I got older and it became less cool, I was gonna try out for this one, and this is just a completely random memory, called ‘The Globolinks.’ And just having to sing the main song, which was like, (chants) ‘The Globolinks! The Globolinks!’… I said, ‘No, I’m not gonna do this. Nope, not gonna do this.’ It was a little too much. So I was not cast in the ‘The Globolinks.’ And that was the end of that.
The one that got away.
The one that got away, yeah. (laughs)
What singers really made an impact on you, especially when you started to go see live music? Who really turned you on there?
From the new wave period, of course, Mark Mothersbaugh, loved DEVO. Once I started listening to punk, John Doe, he’s such a great singer, he can sing anything and it’s just gonna sound like he’s seducing the hottest woman in the room or whatever. (laughs) He’s just got that killer voice. You know, Darby Crash, his lyrics… He kind of also just brought in the whole notion of like, just fuckin’ belt it, don’t worry about singing a note; but if you’ve got these great words and this great snarl, you can just bring it.
Of the Black Flag singers, for me it’s Dez (Cadena) only. It’s gotta be Dez. And Dez is someone who… I listened to ‘Police Story’ (and other songs) and then within three months, I joined the Descendents. There’s some obvious Dez kind of rubbing off on me on the early Descendents recordings, for sure.
Dez is the one for me. Whenever the conversation comes up about favorite Flag singers, I always go with Dez.
He sounds like he’s gonna axe murder you every time he opens his mouth. It’s so good.
The first time I saw Black Flag was Polliwog Park. At that point, I was still a new waver, completely new wave, and I listened to this band and was like, ‘Whaaaaat?’ It was totally over my head, but look back and go, ‘Wow, that was kind of a historical moment and everyone talks about the Polliwog Park thing.’ I witnessed it as someone who didn’t really get it — yet.
But then when Dez started singing, I started listening to recordings. And the second time I saw Black Flag was actually at the Church when Dez was practicing with them. I remember they’d have these rehearsal rooms that were the size of your closet, and all four of them are piled in there and I’m kind of cowering in the corner, leaning up against a stinky carpet that they hang, and Dez is just spitting out words above me, and it’s just like, ‘Fuuucccck!’ It was like, ‘OK, this is how it goes. This is how they do it.’ It was so in your face. So that was my first encounter with Dez in the practice room, just hearing him lay it down.
Your first gig with the Descendents, let’s go back a little. What was it like on stage for you at first? Did you exude confidence or were you maybe just kind of going with it to see where it takes you?
I probably stared at the floor the whole time or faced the band. Those are my two options, what else can I do?
The two that I can remember the best as being candidates for the first show: one was at the Hong Kong Cafe opening up for the Urinals, where there were like maybe 20 people in the audience. There is no kind of raised stage, as far as I can remember. If there was a raised stage, it was like five inches, so you’re literally just on the head level as everyone in the audience, so I just couldn’t look out there. Even though it was only 20 people, I was so inhibited, so I must have stared at the floor the whole time.
The other show that I can remember is that we used to practice down in Long Beach… this band The Stingers had a rehearsal area that also had a stage, so we would actually rehearse on their little baby stage. And occasionally, they’d do shows there, so we opened up for The Stingers. That probably was the first show, even though it was more of a rehearsal spot as opposed to a real club.
Having done some of that musical stuff, I knew that performing was a thing that could be done, but because of the onset of adolescence, I actually became shyer as an adolescent than I was prior to being an adolescent. So I was fairly shy through high school, and when I joined the band, I was still a shy person, so I was the least likely person to be considered the frontman of a band. It was definitely not something that came naturally to me. I would say, over the course of many, many, many years, shed some of that away. The way I shed that shyness away is to kind of put on that aggressive, angry, punk outlook. Obviously, the lyrics were that way, and that’s just the way I tried to break out of that shell, just to be angry. There was not a lot of banter with the audience, it was more like, ‘Here’s our shit, deal with it and we’re just gonna be in your face.’
Kind of growing up even more through the band.
Yeah, I can credit the band with so many wonderful things in my life, and one of them is just that it helped me kind of get out of my shell and helped me to combat that shyness that everyone feels in them, I’m sure. I wasn’t gonna break out of that shyness in any kind of a school environment or any kind of a social environment. It was gonna be music, basically. It was something that allowed me to grow as a person, and be more open and be more out there. Interact with people.
What are some of the other things that you learned about yourself and about life through the band over the years?
A lot of the learning has been in more recent years. I had a misperception about what a career in music could be like. I didn’t wanna even entertain or delve into what a career in music could be. I’m learning now that rather than being something that’s gonna bring you down or cause you to be a drug addict or something that’s just gonna put you in the poor house — you take it on as a challenge. (Bill was worried and asked him if this new career path was going to stop satisfying him intellectually, but Milo said it was more challenging than ever.) You find challenges in whatever you do and you’re always trying to better yourself, and so with music, it’s no different. This music ‘career’ thing can be a good thing for me and could be a good thing for my family and could be a good thing for me as a person.
What do (your kids) think about you doing this? Are they stoked that their dad’s a singer? (He has a 14-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son.)
When we started back in 2010, my daughter was 6 and she had heard some of the music. We started playing her punk rock pretty early, and she actually liked a lot of that really early punk rock. She actually plays the French horn herself and she’s got a certain musical side of her, and she was listening at the age of 6, going, ‘That’s cool, why don’t you go play this live?’ And I thought, ‘Oh, well OK then.’ (laughs)
We hadn’t been playing live. Obviously, Bill and the band ALL had been doing ALL for awhile, and ALL had kind of fizzled out in probably the mid-2000s. Bill was producing bands and that’s all he was doing and then he had his health scare in 2009-2010. When my daughter said that, I thought this could be a good time to do this. I had kind of reconnected with Bill. When he recovered from his brain tumor, the whole band was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ It was like this epiphany for us, ‘We got our drummer back.’ And I’m like, ‘Let’s go play with our drummer who just recovered.’ It all just seemed to make a lot of sense at that point.
I rediscovered my love for them as people. We had never not been friends, but because I was pursuing another career, we had lost touch with each other to a certain degree. And when we started back in, it was just like, this is so right and we need to just keep doing it. To make a long story short, my daughter was the one who kind of spurred me into thinking, ‘Let’s play some shows out and do this.’ (His son and daughter attended the gigs and watched from side stage and came out on stage to recite the ‘All-O-Gistics.’)
(Along with punk music, his daughter plays classical music and his son is a big hip-hop fan.)
Do you ever find yourself singing together at home or humming a tune or sharing that love for music with each other, like a family thing?
I’ve done that occasionally with my daughter. I’ll strum a song on guitar, if it’s a song that she knows and likes, I’ll say, ‘Hey, play that on French horn.’ ‘Cause she can kind of pick it out. I’m on an acoustic guitar and she’s on her French horn and I’m singing or she’s singing, and that’s totally cool. And of course, now I’m scheming, I’m like, ‘OK, how can we do a Descendents song with some French horn in there?’ (laughter)
I was totally gonna ask you that and you went right around to it. Maybe it’s in the cards.
We’re writing a record now, so that’s the thing, I’m thinking about the record and we’ve got X number of songs, and on every song, I’m thinking, ‘Is this a good spot for a French horn?’ (laughs)
That’s the goal now, that’s the real challenge. I played some trumpet when I was a kid. I tried. I wasn’t very good at it, but I remember this one time I was hanging out at SST over there on Phelan (in Redondo Beach), and Spot was really getting into me: ‘You gotta get that trumpet out and figure out some Black Flag songs.’
That sounds like Spot, that’s Spot for ya. (Discusses the Minutemen adding some anarchy sax and trumpet to their songs.)
You’ve guys have come a long way, not just as people and music-wise, but you’re playing the big shows now. The ones that you probably never thought of back then in the practice room. How does it feel to play these big shows and how do you prepare for those? Do you get some nerves playing in front of those crowds?
Yeah, it’s a little more nerve-wracking, but I also treat them as it’s our chance to be a little more kind of yell to the back row. I try to stay away from the real cheesy stuff, ‘Heeeey, heeey, how ya doing!?’ You wanna drag as many of those people into the spirit of the moment as you can. I wanna try to make the connection with people even if they’re not near the stage.
It’s a different thing. What we used to do when the shows were real small, we were in this kind of small bitter band mindset of, ‘Oh, we’re just playing for ourselves anyways, doesn’t matter,’ ’cause we’d play shows where there was no one there. Rather than letting it get to us, we get out there and we stare each other in the face and put out the best show we could possibly put out. As the shows get bigger, you realize, ‘Wait a minute, these people are here to have a good time and we wanna have a good time, too.’ So it became more of like, let’s get the party started. And that changed the mentality of what we were doing on stage. It brings new energy, too, ’cause the energy is not so much of an internal energy, but a feeding off-of-the-crowd energy. But I like it that we started out with this other kind of energy, ’cause that’s the energy that’s kept the band together: the energy of just being us against the world, that’s a good energy when it’s like the Three Musketeers and we’re bros for life. We don’t need the crowds to be together, we can just be together, and the crowds are just an added kind of cherry on top.
The nice thing about the crowds now is that we’re older now and we want to stay relevant. It’s affirmation that we can still put it out there.
I’m thinking we’ll kind of just keep going with it. I don’t wanna stop. I don’t think we have any issues with the creative perspective, I think we tend to keep evolving as songwriters and as players. I feel like that part of it is taken care of, it’s more like, ‘Stay healthy everybody. Everybody, don’t die.’ (laughs)
How’s the voice doing after all these years, still feels good in there?
I have a better range than I did as a young person, and that’s probably ’cause I learned how to sing better. I just learned some techniques to be able to sing and preserve my voice and doing warmups. Now I can hit those high notes I couldn’t hit before, and that’s the kind of thing where making it a career and taking on that as a challenge means taking it more seriously. Means that I can do things I couldn’t even do when I was younger, so that’s nice.
That’s good to show that as we get older, we can improve and be just as vital as we were growing up, if not better.
Really, it’s an attitude of like, when you’re young you just kind of go, ‘Ehhh, I don’t need to do that,’ but when you get older, it’s like, ‘Shit, if I wanna keep going with this, I need to do whatever it takes, I need to learn those techniques.’ It’s kind of an old person’s maturity that actually benefits the music essentially. (laughs)