Bill Stevenson of Descendents: "Maybe it's just all of our fans are paying us back for some good music we've given them "
Descendents (due tomorrow night at the Fillmore Auditorium) didn't exactly invent pop punk, but the band's musical influence can be heard throughout that movement whether latter day poppy punk bands know it or not. Starting in 1978, Descendents were early compatriots of what later became the hardcore scene in southern California, including bands like Black Flag and Circle Jerks. Instead of the angry and brutal music of some of their older brethren, the guys in Descendents wrote music that had the same energy, but the subject matter was more steeped in the honest and heartfelt inverted sadness felt by anyone who felt like an outcast, didn't get the girl in high school and maybe felt like he or she simply didn't fit in.
For the last three and more decades, the band has toured sporadically, but its music has touched an ever increasing circle of fans with its exuberance and humor. We spoke with drummer Bill Stevenson, who has discovered a new lease on life after battling major health issues in the last two years, about the band's early years, how the now classic line-up came together and his settling down in Fort Collins.
How did you get into punk rock and was there an experience that inspired the formation of Descendents?
There were a couple of people when I was in my early teens that were exposing me to sort of things that were before punk rock but also to punk rock itself. Whether it be The Ramones or let's say something like The Sweet or The Stooges, even. And a couple of those people were Frank Navetta, he and I went to the same high school, and another would be Keith Morris, who I had a connection with through fishing, of all things. His father owned a fish and tackle shop right by the Hermosa pier, where I grew up. So that fishing bond, which Frank was also a part of that, was kind of the seedling of the South Bay punk scene, I suppose.
Keith was telling me about, there wasn't really punk rock yet, but yeah he was telling me about things pre-punk when I was twelve and that kind of thing. So we started the band, it was one of those things, you know, we're in high school and one dude plays drums, one dude plays guitar and they don't have anybody to play with so you start a band. It was very informal. It wasn't really planned out.
What was it like in the early days of playing out with the band?
We didn't really have any shows for the first quite a while because we had the minor detail yet to tend to which was to learn how to play. We really didn't know. I mean we barely knew how to play. But we picked up speed quickly, I have to say that. I got to be basically the drummer that I am now, I got to be something close to that after I'd been playing for about two years. I mean, more or less.
So it was really a couple of years of learning how to play and maybe also a lot of exploration as far as, "What do we want to sound like?" Sometimes when you're kids, you're motivated by a reactionary thought process. It's like, "What do we not want to sound like?" I think the reactionary thought process is kind of one of the best things about punk rock. And the other being the kind of not needing to be explained bitter resentment towards humanity at large. We had a lot of that going because we weren't getting laid, you know? We were like ugly kids.
When we did get shows, there wasn't, at that time, a proper venue per se for punk rock. Unless it was the kind of groomed kind that was in Hollywood and then you could play at The Masque or at a few different clubs. But with our kind, which is just dudes that are up there in their street clothes or their torn shorts or whatever, there wasn't really a venue so we would end up playing...Like some of us would get together and decide to rent like a VFW Hall or something like that--an Eagle's Club. And we would just find a P.A. or throw a P.A. together of various guitar amps and things.
This is something I give a lot of credit to Black Flag for that. They would set up shows in the most unlikely of circumstances because it was kind of like all we could do. So Black Flag would often include us on their shows. I would say that if it weren't for Black Flag, we wouldn't have had many shows until we got really, really good. Because we got pretty good at a certain point, I think, to where people wanted us on their shows.
Black Flag and us grew up in that same small community there, you know, Hermosa Beach. So it was kind of all in the family there, I suppose. We would end up sharing rehearsal rooms and that kind of thing, which was wherever we could find. To call them "rehearsal rooms" is kind of a joke. Whatever weird, abandoned office space. There was that condemned church we practiced at for a few years and all of that. So the two of us were kind of unspoken brothers in arms in a certain sense.
How did you meet the guys in Black Flag to begin with?
Well, I mean, Greg lived like a block from my house--his parents' house and my parents' house. Then there was The Last. The Last were kind of our best friends and I think it was with Dave Nolte, the bass player for The Last, he took me over when I was very young--that was the first time I ever played any live music with anybody. I went over and played with, I guess it was, Greg was there and Dave Nolte and Joe Nolte from The Last. Kind of a who's who of what would become the South Bay punk scene. But at that point we were just a bunch of kooks. Yeah, I think it was the Nolte's that introduced me to Black Flag. At that time I reckon they were called Panic, technically. I can't really remember.
Did those crowds receive your music differently than they did other punk bands of the time?
In our earlier years, we were undergoing somewhat of an identity crisis. I think Milo Goes to College actually reflects the identity crisis pretty well, maybe not the extreme ends of it. We had some material that was basically power pop. Then we also had material I would call punk rock, some would call it bordering into hardcore. But we weren't a band with a sound. It was at that point three dudes, this was before Milo [Aukerman] joined the band, three dudes with songs. Like, "Okay, I've got a song. Hey check this song out." There wasn't ever any kind of agenda to sound a certain way. With that many songwriters, we were kind of all over the place. I suppose that's a good and a bad thing.
Punk rock, as I remember it, as I was first exposed to it, it was really very much all about the freakshow expression of individuality and, "Hey man, I've got a different way of doing this." And so for there to be a show where it could be, let's say, The Minutemen, The Descendents, The Scremers, The Plugz and X all on one bill. That made good sense to us. Instead of like five of the same thing over and over. But even most of those bands were schizophrenic in and among their own material. Then you get five schizophrenic bands and it's as if fifty bands are playing.
Why did you think Milo [Aukerman] would be a good fit for what you guys were doing or wanted to do with the band?
That's another one of those things that wasn't really conscious. What Milo was, was The Descendents' number one fan. He would make me pick him up every day at his house and he lived in the other direction too--he lived up in Manhattan Beach. I would have to pick him up every day and bring him to practice so he could watch us practice. He kept doing that and doing that. I bonded with him at school because he was completely not liked. Some of our friends and acquaintances draw that little stick figure on the desks, kind of making fun of Milo. We turned that around on their ass. We turned it into one of the coolest symbols in punk rock. But that was something that you would draw on the desks kind of making fun of how Milo looked.
Roger Deuerlein, the guy that kind of invented the little Milo guy, he made these little cartoon strips like "The Mishaps of Milo." This is like people making fun of the nerdy guy. So we bonded with him because he didn't fit the same way we didn't fit in. After him coming to practice a lot a lot of times, what I remember is that one day Frank just goes, "Hey, why don't we just have Milo sing these songs? I'm sick of trying to play them and sing them at the same time." Because we were playing guitar and singing at the same time and maybe doing both poorly for lack of being able to focus on one or the other. So Milo just kind of, then and there, in that moment, stepped up into it and started singing. We didn't know whether or not if he could sing well, per se. We didn't really care. The band was so much more about camaraderie than it was about musical chops. So it was just like, "Yeah, Milo is going to sing. He's here every day." As it turned out, he has an awesome voice so it worked out well.
You played in Black Flag for while. How would you characterize your experience in the Flag as opposed to your experience playing with Descendents?
Well the thing about Descendents, with the exception of a few different spurts where we were a full-time touring band for a year or two at a time, aside from those spurts, Descendents was always more just for fun. Whereas Black Flag was very full time. I mean, full, full, full time. In that way the two things were different kind of in the intensity level. But also, probably the biggest difference for me was that in Descendents, I had very well-defined proprietary claim. It was "my" band or I felt I was one of the reasons that it was what it was. Whereas in Black Flag, I felt that I was the drummer. I didn't write very much material in Black Flag--hardly anything. In Descendents I've always been one of the main songwriters. So there's just that different kind of a feeling.
Plus, the other thing about Black Flag...
Plus, the other thing about Black Flag, probably the biggest point, the elephant in the room, is that I don't much care for the Black Flag stuff that I recorded with them. I liked Black Flag, a really long time ago, when they first, first started up until the Damaged album and then the material took a turn in a direction that I wasn't as interested in but that I happened to be the drummer for. I liked the stuff that Robo played on. I liked the line-ups, even when Dez was still in the band, whether he was on guitar or singing. Or with Keith singing or Ron or Henry. I liked it before I got into it. I think usually people will tell you that their fifteen minutes in something is the most important fifteen minutes, you know. The Black Flag stuff I listen to, it was all recorded before 1982.
What inspired the title of "Hürtin' Crüe"?
Just us trying to get from city to city without really being paid anything for the shows. Just like we're hurtin'. We are a hurtin' crew. Look at how pathetic our thing is. It's about being in a band. It's about us.
The umlauts make it seem especially funny.
With the " Crüe," there was a thing to tie it into Mötley Crüe as a joke because Mötley Crüe is all living high and riding high at that point and we were not. At that time in L.A. there were all these stupid bands with umlauts and spelling their names with a "y" instead of an "i" or whatever and it seemed like a funny thing to do.
How did you meet Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez and why did you want them to be in the band?
Again, it wasn't really a planned out thing. We got home from a pretty heavy year or touring to not much avail or fruitfulness. We were playing in front of fifty people a night or something. And we got home and the band had quit. That was already my second band. Frank and Tony were gone so it was Doug and Ray on the Enjoy! album and they both quit so I had no band. Milo wasn't even living in L.A. so it was like me with no band. But Karl and Stephen kind of came along at the right time. We really defied some odds there. I mean what band puts three completely different line-ups and then have the third line-up end up being the most known and the most respected. Who can pull that off? Me, that's who. I've always looked at it as when a door opens for someone to exit, it opens a really big window of an opportunity. Not to belittle whoever the predecessors were in any given case but it's a chance to upgrade so upgrade I did.
Did you name All after the Descendents album and if so why that particular album and what does that name signify to you?
No, we named the Descendents album and the band All after the concept of All. When we started all, it was basically an extension of the Descendents and so we thought to call it All would serve two things. One, it would expose people to the concept of All more and also it would let people that it was of or pertaining to, in some way, the Descendents. Because it's three quarters of the same people.
What is the concept of All to you?
All is the utmost possible. All is the total extent. All is when nothing else remains. In daily practice it just really means doing your best. Not in a work ethic way but even in your imagination and everything of just not letting some or none permeate. The idea that a lot of life is infinite and it is vast and it is without boundaries but we put those boundaries on ourselves and we just get some or none.
What brought you to Fort Collins and what keeps you based there?
You know the story of how the porridge was too hot and the porridge was too cold and the porridge was just right? What is that?
That's "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."
Goldilocks? Okay, so we lived in L.A. and on the trivial income we were making, we were living like sardines there for years. I mean were living, sleeping on the floor of our practice space. There wasn't even hot water there. No shower. So we decided to leave L.A. at a certain point and we ended up in a small farm town in Missouri for four years. Then we realized that although we were paying two hundred and fifty bucks rent for a huge house where were all living where we all actually had our own bedrooms--which for us, that would be the equivalent of a mansion in comparative terms, psychologically--after four years we were thinking, "Well, maybe not Brookfield, Missouri. There's four thousand people here and it's just completely devoid of culture." You know, there's not even a proper auto mechanic or something.
So we ended up with Fort Collins as being basically much smaller than L.A. but much bigger than Brookfield, so that's like with the porridge. Seemed like the right size. We had had fun here on tour coming through and we knew a few people. It seemed like a place where you can live and you're not just a number but at the same time you're not totally out in the sticks.
Did you name your studio The Blasting Room?
The members of the band All, we built it altogether. So that was our name for it. But the band All used to own it but over the years it's evolved to where my partner here, Jason Livermore, now own it. I think the person that actually came up with the name was Stephen. It just sounds good, right?
What do you think accounts for what seems to be Descendents long-term appeal with both your younger and your older audience?
You definitely got me stumped on that one because I can't figure it out. Every eight years we get together and do shows and lo and behold, the audience is five times as big as it was and cover a whole other generation than it did the previous time. I can't figure it out. I honestly can't make sense of it. I just think it's very fortunate for me because, not to look at things too narrow-mindedly or too practically-speaking, but I was extremely ill for a few years and I accumulated some pretty severe debt so this has been a blessing. Maybe it's just all of our fans are paying us back for some good music we've given them so they're helping me get out of debt after having been ill for so long. I can't think of a reason.
After the incredible last few years, you told Spinner last summer that you feel like you're 20 again. How do you feel you approach your creative work differently now than you were when you were chronologically 20? And, personally, what are the advantages of not being 20?
It's pretty simple, really. The advantage and disadvantage of not being 20 is that you know better. The advantage is that you know better. But the disadvantage is that you know better. What's really the difference between being wise and being jaded? Right? We try to find our youthful innocence wherever we can find it. If it's like sitting down and watching Bugs Bunny at the age of 50 or putting a song out where I put farts on it. I mean who knows what it is.
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