Everything Doesn’t Suck Today:
The Descendents’ Bill Stevenson Didn’t Want to Grow Up, But He Did
Way back in the Paleolithic, proto-hardcore daze of 1982, the Descendents for all intents and purposes started their career by ending their career. The band’s debut LP, Milo Goes to College, was a revelation, a “hardcore” (well, that’s how they were classified then, really) band whose core was really pop – and whose heart-on-their-sleeves sincerity and, yes, even vulnerability was antithetical to the tough guy posturings of the California beach-core scene from which they emerged. When Milo was released, the punk world loved it immediately. The thing is, the album’s title was a prima facie portent of the band’s immediate future. Lead singer Milo Aukerman was indeed going to college. And the band, for all intents and purposes, was pretty much shot for a while. This off kilter, non-linear non-strategy for, ahem, success in the music business would become the band’s template for success – a success realized through sporadic bursts of creativity and subsequent retreats to “everyday life,” whatever that is.
For nary on four decades, the Descendents have built a sturdy career by doing whatever they damn well please, whenever they see fit. The end result of this topsy-turvy tenacity is a body of work that continues to defy clichés, continues to be fun, and continues to draw from a wide fan base that spans several generations.
“As strange as it may sound, we’ve never really had any grand plans or long-term sort of goals as a band,” says drummer Bill Stevenson, who, by the way, also just so happens to have served a long tour of duty with Black Flag during that band’s most prolific and ambitious period of the early 80s – while Milo went to college. “And I would have to say, the fact that we’ve never had like an ‘agenda for success’ or whatever has been a big reason that we’ve remained in the band and continued enjoying it and continued enjoying being in each others’ company. We don’t work with a plan or a schedule. We just kind of do stuff when we feel like it, for the music’s sake.
“And, you know, the world doesn’t need another Descendents record every 18 months,” Stevenson continues. “A lot of bands keep putting out tons of records all the time, and I wonder if that hurts the quality of the songs. When you do a whole lot of releases the songs seem to suffer. So our plan is to just kind of keep on keeping on; playing shows when we feel like it, and writing songs when we feel like it and recording when we feel like it.”
Long since a deeply entrenched, unquestioned and unimpeachable “given” of the American rock underground, the Descendents have enjoyed an enduring and reasonably profitable run as elder statesmen of American punk. And considering the band’s original seat-of-the-pants DIY ethos, well, success is sweet indeed. They’re not gloating about it. But their present touring and recording schedule, such as it is, is more comfortable, more do-able and more befitting their hard-earned and well-deserved status. These days, the band plays big shows on brief tours that involve jets and hotels instead of vans and sleeping bags.
“We’re not really trying to climb back in the van and do like three months of shows in a row,” says Stevenson. “I think whenever we did that in the past, the shows became sort of robotic night after night, where we’d start to take things for granted. So now, every few weeks we fly out and do a few shows – and then we come home and, you know, do the other things in our lives that are important too. Then a few weeks later we’ll fly back out and do it again.”
It’s been two years since the release of the Descendents’ last album. And while they continue working ambitiously on new material, they’re not exactly falling over themselves to release new, ahem, product.
“We just started actually recording two new ones and we have demos for about 15 more songs,” says Stevenson. “We’re beginning to pick up speed, getting the recording thing going now. It kind of starts with me. I mean, I do the drums, and once we have demos we kind of pass the hard drives around. Everybody’s got some kind of recording setup at their house, where they can play around with the songwriting on their own.
“But, even with that going, we don’t have a deadline,” Stevenson continues. “It’s not like, ‘oh, we’re gonna have an album done in two months.’ It could be two years even, before we’ve got it all the way we like it. I mean, we tend to record, like, way too many songs. For our last album [Hypercaffium Spazzinate, which actually included 21 songs – on the deluxe version with the bonus tracks, that is] we actually recorded 36 songs. And then we had to weed through all that. So sometimes it can take us a minute. I mean, it’s not gonna take us 10 years between albums, but I can see it taking a couple.”
Ten years ago, Stevenson really did take a couple of years hiatus from the band – but it was definitely not by choice was certainly no vacation. Stevenson faced some damned serious and (again, not by choice) much publicized health issues.
“The lion’s share of the serious health stuff was in 2009 when I had a massive brain tumor and several huge pulmonary embolisms that led to all kinds of smaller health problems that I had to deal with too – including diabetes and various other things,” explains Stevenson. “I had a bunch of surgeries in 2010. So here we are almost 10 years later and I don’t have a brain tumor anymore. I had surgery on my lungs to remove the pulmonary embolisms. I had heart surgery, a triple bypass. I got rid of the diabetes and most of the other minor things that came along with all that.
“So I’m doing good now and I’m feeling good,” Stevenson continues. “I get regular exercise. And drumming’s good for me too, really. And I try to eat better than I did when I was younger. That’s about it.”
And here’s where the story gets weird. Well, not “weird” exactly.
At this point, our interview took a conversational turn from public to private. Up till then, Stevenson and I had followed the typical music reporting route – talking about music, shows, albums, tours – you know, the predictable rock ’n’ roll bullshit. But it just so happened that I have a relative who was recently diagnosed with the same kind of brain tumors Stevenson had. And at this point, the proceedings kind of morphed from a conversation between a music hack (me) and rock star (him) to two regular people talking about some really, really serious stuff. And I’m not going to include that conversation here. Let’s just say that Bill was really kind and patient, and filled me in on some icky details about brain surgery, chemotherapy, insurance and the like. Seriously, it was cool and helpful – and kind of touching, even, that Bill Stevenson, drummer of the fucking Descendents and fucking Black Flag (two of the favorite bands of my entire life) took the time to offer a few words that were as reassuring as possible, given the situation.
OK, enough of that. Let’s get back to Bill Stevenson, drummer of the Descendents and human being.
“I’ve had medical bills in the last ten years that would probably total $1.5 million,” says Stevenson. “Luckily, I had health insurance. And the part I had to pay was probably, uh (with an audible sigh and moan), probably around $300,000.
“But I’d really kind of prefer it if you didn’t turn this article into, like, Bill Stevenson’s Health Journal or whatever. I mean, that’s old news and I don’t wanna beat a dead horse to death, hahaha!
“Oddly, even though I just said to not make the article about my health or whatever, I had to have two months of radiation on my brain in February and March of this year, sort of to re-kill a tiny little piece of that brain tumor that was rubbing up against my optic nerve and making it hard for me to see. And so I had two months of radiation and then a couple more months of kind of recovering from the fatigue of that. But now I’m recovered from that and I feel really good.”
So, the last decade has been an especially tough period for Stevenson, who, by the way, looks great and is playing better than ever these days. Health travails and the unyielding erosion of time seem to have softened Stevenson just a bit – and all for the better.
Beloved by generations, the Descendents are a band whose music rings especially true for those of us who are, shall we say, “of an era.” The funny thing, though, is that they’re not only of my era, the aforementioned, Paleolithic proto-hardcore era. They’re also kinda/sorta thought of by another bunch of kids-who-aren’t-so-young-anymore, either, as being of their era, that weird, post Greed Day (sic) space in the late ’90s when Fat Wreck Chords-style pop-punk was morphing into second wave emo. That was one of the several times when the mad scientists at Descendents, Inc. reanimated the Milostein monster to release Everything Sucks, a “comeback” album that, oddly enough, now seems to be overshadowing Descendents Mach I classics like Milo and I Don’t Want to Grow Up to become what is probably the fan favorite these days.
“Yeah, that one [Everything Sucks] and Milo Goes to College are the albums with the songs people seem to get into the most at the shows,” says Stevenson. “And the songs from Everything Sucks might be the favorites right now. But I wonder if it’s just a generational thing.
“I mean, the people that were into Milo Goes to College, you know, they’re 55 now or something. [Boy do I ever know.] They might not be at the show,” he acknowledges, laughing. “Whereas, like, people who got into Everything Sucks when it came out, well, they’re only 40 now – and they still come to shows. The Milo Goes to College people are at home with their kids watching a movie while the Everything Sucks people are still going out, you know? I guess maybe the Everything Sucks people are still single.”
The band’s most recent release, the digital single “Who We Are,” is something of an outlier – not only for its format, but also for its lyrical content. (The song was subsequently released on vinyl with two additional new tracks to coincide with Record Stord Day 2018.) Here, the Descendents are coming from a kinder, gentler place – but they’re characteristically, furiously rocking, still catchy-as-hell, and still mad-as-hell. The song is a deftly executed bit of “come on, everybody” backlash to America’s recent turn to the right that is pretty righteous, but is neither self-righteous nor cloying as a cynic might suspect. True to form, the band donated the proceeds from the single to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Anyway, “Who We Are” is a far cry indeed from songs like “My Dad Sucks” off the Bonus Fat EP and “No FB,” from I Don’t Want to Grow Up, for example. (“FB,” incidentally, stands for “fat beaver,” a not-so-PC description of femininity if ever there were one.)
And as to future albums, well, it’s a different world. In the present download-everything milieu, albums might not be the most expedient strategy. Then again, the Descendents have never really had a strategy, right?
“We’ve been talking about whether to release individual songs or do albums, and I really don’t know where it’s going,” explains Stevenson. “Stephen [Edgerton, the guitarist] likes the idea of releasing a single every now and again, but I still like the idea of inviting people to have more of a relationship with the band that you get with a whole album’s worth of material. I mean, a single, to me, almost seems like more of a little commercial for the band or something.
“It might just be my age and a matter of what I grew up with. But I kind of prefer the idea of an album, I really do. With an album, people can take time with it and get into it and digest it.”
Stevenson himself is reluctant to name a favorite album of his own oeuvre.
“I think I’m just terrible with favorites. You know, with the Descendents I just like that we’ve had the opportunities at different times to go in different directions – within our style, that is. I mean, we realize that we have a certain style and we’re OK with that. But we like to have some wiggle room or some latitude to try different things. I like the fact that there are several Descendents records and that they’re all somewhat different. I really don’t have a favorite.
“And I think it’s impossible to judge your own art or your own music. There’s no way you can do it.”
Still, there’s the matter of some of the lyrics of Descendents’ early work, lyrics which could be described as hilariously, purposely puerile, or as blatantly sexist and unkind – or both. Clearly, the band moved far beyond such foolishness decades ago. And they don’t play several of those songs anymore. And the ones they do play, well, they’ve changed the lyrics just a little bit. Specifically, they don’t use that word in that song, you know, the song on the Milo album that’s among everyone’s favorites that they still play – albeit without that word.
“It’s kind of weird,” explains Stevenson. “People do kind of latch onto things. And it [the onus of the early recordings with, ahem, those lyrics] is almost like having a document of what a douchebag I was when I was young.
“I mean, we grew up in a suburban, affluent area of L.A., on the beach. And I personally was raised by my father – who was sort of a narrow-minded person: a little bit bigoted, a little bit chauvinistic, a little bit racist. That was the house I was raised in. Fortunately, I was able to meet people when I got a little older that were not narrow-minded. And they were able to help me change my views and to really become a better person. But when I was still living under my father’s roof, I thought in a lot of the same ways my father did. And I think a little bit of that narrow-mindedness made its way into some of my earlier lyrics.
“I mean, I’m not ashamed of it but it’s… not everybody has a recorded documentation of what an idiot they were when they were a teenager. But I do.
“I’m not trying to discount all that stuff, either,” Stevenson continues. “There was some meaning and some depth and some validity to some of it. And you can’t go back and redo it, anyway. It is what it is.
“Sometimes people will ask me about some lyric that I wrote like 38 years ago. And, I mean, they’re questioning me about the validity or moral compass of a particular line. And I’ll say, ‘Look dude, what were you doing when you were 15?’
“I can only speak for my lyrics because I’m not trying to judge the other guys. But with my lyrics, I really feel like a big majority of the early songs are just bad high school poetry. Or I would rhyme the same vowel sound eight times in a row – just stupid things. I mean, we started when we were just 15. We were dumb kids. And I think I was the dumbest, for sure. There are a lot of my lyrics that seem juvenile. But when you review your art from the past, I think it’s like it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. It should make you uncomfortable – because that’s the way you know that you’re growing as a person.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon.