Another Descent

The Descendents live to punk again.

"We're all about nerd lib," declares Karl Alvarez, bassist for the recently reunited punk act the Descendents. "Be proud of your nerd."
"We are the champions of the nerds--no doubt about it," concurs Milo Aukerman, Descendents frontman and star of the new Epitaph Records release Everything Sucks. "'Revenge of the Nerds' is definitely the concept."

Obviously, it's a popular one. While comeback efforts by punk bands such as Fear and the Circle Jerks were greeted by decidedly mixed reviews, the return of the Descendents, one of the best outfits to come out of the late Seventies/early Eighties Los Angeles punk scene, is earning raves and selling plenty of tickets. Speaking from L.A. in the midst of a week of sold-out shows at one of the city's most famous nightclubs, the Whiskey, Aukerman puts it as simply as he can: "It's been really fun."

The Descendents were formed in 1978 as a three-piece that featured Bill Stevenson, Tony Lombardo and Frank Navetta. After recording a seven-inch titled "Ride the Wild," the three enlisted the services of Aukerman, Stevenson's high school classmate and comrade in geekdom. Aukerman recalls those halcyon days as a time "when Bill was just as much of an outcast as I was; it was something that bonded us together. My head was always buried in a book, and he was always getting kicked out of class because he smelled so bad. He used to go fishing all night and then come to class the next day wearing his fish outfit that was covered with fish guts."

Combining the ferocity of Black Flag with the pop-tinged harmonies of the Beach Boys, the Descendents went on to parlay their teenage angst into pimple-faced anthems like "I'm Not A Loser" from Milo Goes to College, a 1982 full-length (on the SST label) that's widely regarded as a punk-rock classic. But the disc's title proved prophetic: Just as the Descendents were on the cusp of achieving underground superstardom, Aukerman did go to college--and while he studied biology, the rest of the band went on official hiatus. He returned to the fold in 1985, contributing mightily to a swarm of caffeine-charged "girl songs" issued under the apropos moniker I Don't Want to Grow Up. World domination followed, with the band rigorously touring behind two subsequent blueprints for Nineties pop punk, 1986's Enjoy! and 1987's All. Joining the fold for the last release were two guys from Utah: guitarist and human tattoo site Stephen Egerton and Alvarez, who quickly became the act's bassmaster general.

Before this new lineup could cohere, however, Aukerman again felt himself drawn to the glamorous world of hard science. He left the Descendents in 1987 to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry, which he received from the University of California at San Diego in 1992. As for the other Descendents, they decided to go forward together: Labeling themselves All, after what seemed at the time to be the final Descendents' platter, they made eight albums between 1988 and 1995. The most recent of these, Pummel, was recorded at All's Blasting Room studio in Fort Collins, where the musicians had relocated because Stevenson's girlfriend lives there.

But even though Pummel was released by a major label (Interscope), it didn't achieve the success of albums by newer acts such as Green Day, who became popular in part by using the Descendents' thrash/pop formula. Alvarez claims not to resent this state of affairs, noting, "Rock and roll is a continuum. Each generation kind of gives something to the one after." But, he admits, "even if I had a strong negative opinion about it, I'd be powerless to stop it."

In the meantime, Aukerman felt as if he were being torn between two muses. At the same time that he was engaged in post-doctoral research work in plant genetics at the University of Wisconsin, he says he was receiving "e-mail from kids who were basically saying that there's all these bands out there that sound like you. I was flattered, and in some sense it kind of helped invigorate me to start thinking about my own music again." Before long, he continues, he began "to really regret that I ever gave up music in the first place. I felt ten years older while doing labwork and ten years younger while playing music."

In January Aukerman decided to put science on the back burner, at least temporarily, and started writing music "in a serious way" for the first time in ages. He then called Stevenson, and this conversation resulted in Aukerman making numerous flights to Colorado in order to rehearse with the once and future Descendents.

"It just kind of went from there, and it turned into a full album with those guys also contributing a bunch of songs," Aukerman explains. "We had about thirty-odd songs of just completely done material to practice and get really tight and then go into the studio to record. We didn't have to come up with some songs to do the record. It was all kind of there."

When the folks at Epitaph Records, run by Bad Religion veteran Brett Gurewitz, heard that the Descendents were about to rise from the ashes, they immediately made an offer to sign the band. As Aukerman reports, the contract was later broadened to include All. "While Bill and I were working out the details of the collaboration, All was on Interscope--and basically, they were not being handled very well. They were looking to make a move, and Epitaph happened to be the most desirable place and the most enthusiastic of all the people they talked to. So it was a pretty smooth move. What they did is move both All and the Descendents over to Epitaph--so the next record that comes out could be an All record or a Descendents record."

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