The pantheon of punk bands is littered with pretenders and wannabes; applying cultural significance to a band churning out three-chord approximations of pop tunes with ill-thought out and naïve shouted sloganeering will always be rife with problems. But punk bands that define a generation, define a sound and define the ideal ethos of ‘punk’ – musically, lyrically, thematically and even from a business standpoint – those are the ones that ought to be praised, if not deified. They ought to be championed as purveyors of an idealistic worldview that, in contemporary music, has been watered down so as to be almost non-existent. The bands that inarguably belong on the first-vote ballot to get into the hall of fame punk pantheon? The Ramones. Husker Du. The Saints. New York Dolls. The Clash. Black Flag. Sex Pistols. Pennwise. The Stooges. NOFX. Television. Joy Division. Greenday. Radio Birdman. Guns N Roses. Bikini Kill. Dead Kennedys. Nirvana. And… a little band from California that defined a punk ethos as much as anybody through history: Descendents.
The story of Descendents is one of the more unique in music history. Having formed in 1978, they crafted a style of punk that took the Californian surf-pop and hardcore musical traditions and knitted them together in a distinctive new way – essentially creating a blueprint for what would become the third wave of American punk – while singer and frontman Milo Aukerman (who joined the band in 1980) would constantly break from the band to continue his alternate career as a research biochemist. Such that, when their debut record of 1981, Milo Goes To College, was released, Milo really was going to college.
This strange situation of the band’s talismanic frontman (who also provided the band’s iconic album artwork, based on his doodled, cartoon self-portraits) of having a concurrent career outside of the band would continue to affect the consistency of Descendents’ musical output.
It would also lead to drummer Bill Stephenson playing with Black Flag, and, eventually, the other three members of Descendents (Stephenson, guitarist Stephen Edgerton and bassist Karl Alvarez) forming a completely different other band with another singer (Dave Smalley, then Chad Price), they’d dub All. Stephenson would also go on to become one of the most in demand punk-rock record producers in the world – helming albums by NOFX, Rise Against, Anti-Flag, The Ataris, Bodyjar, Lagwagon, The Lemonheads and many more.
That, however, never stopped Descendents from being one of the most iconic punk bands in history. Their nerd-ish, yet brutally-proficient musically aesthetic across albums like I Don’t Want To Grow Up (1985), Enjoy! (1996), All (1987), Everything Sucks (1996), Cool To Be You (2004) earned them a legion of fans the world over – the furious pop aspect of their brand of punk perfectly married to their post-adolescent life views on skating, relationships, girls, politics and the vagaries of a world that’s as confusing as it is fun. Descendents would help define the idea of the past three decades of American music, and, with their ever-changing status as an active touring unit, they managed to never make it to Australia.
It’s an unbelievably bright and positive Bill Stephenson who’s brimming with excitement at the idea of finally having Descendents tour for the upcoming No Sleep Til festival… but he’s also got a far more serious reason to be over-the-moon about life. “At this very second, I’m walking down the street,” he grins, “but in a more general sense, the big thing is that we decided to do these shows in Australia, that’s fun, and I’ve been preparing to start the new Rise Against record… but the big news with me is, after being pretty ill for about a year and not knowing what was going on – almost like an episode of House – I had neurosurgery. During which they pulled out a meningioma from the front of my head, which was non-cancerous, thankfully, but was sure taking up a lot of real-estate,” he chuckles. “It was pushing on my brain, and making it hard for me to do things ‘normal Bill’ does.
“So they got that sucker out of there… and not only am I back,” he grins happily, “but I feel like I’m 15… I don’t know what the neurosurgeon did while he was in there, but the only way I can explain it is in automobile terms. It’s like he re-did the top-end of my engine, and he put a hemmy in there… alongside, like, a nitrus-bottle,” he laughs.
“Oh man, I can’t even believe it,” Bill gushes delightedly. “It’s like when I woke up from the surgery, someone handed me my life back on a silver-platter.”
With the previous twelve months seeing Bill deal with that meningioma as well as a pulmonary embolism that went through his heart and settled in his lungs, meaning he had to some lung rehab, it’s quite understandable that he’s possibly in higher spirits than Charlie Sheen was with getting away with his Plaza Hotel shenanigans. Hell, he’s happier than the pope if a zombie Jesus rose and said ‘hey ya’ll, you know what? Catholicism was bang on the money’; he’s nothing short of elated at the prospect of life.
“It’s crazy to think about it,” he says in relation to the fact that he’s healthy again, and his band have been together for over three decades. “I mean,” he grins, “I’m 47, but with this happening (the meningioma being removed) I feel 22 – so it’s weird to think about it…But it’s going to be fun,” he says of the band’s impending reunion and Australian jaunt. “We haven’t played live together for a while, but we’re going to have a good time,” he smiles. “We’ve always taken pride on being prepared for shows – we’re not one of those lazy bands.”
Which is a fair point – they’re a band who have had both 12-month and almost-decade-long gaps between records – so sure, Descendents aren’t lazy… when they’re actually in the same state as each other, but for a long time it’s been tyranny of distance limiting the band’s time together. “For many years we all lived together,” Bill explains, “so that was easy, and then for many years after that, the whole band All lived together while Milo lived elsewhere. Now Stephen has moved elsewhere as well, we have to fly to get everyone in the same place… so it’s difficult to assemble ourselves.”
Like the proverbial Voltron. One that isn’t able to coalesce its parts to fight interstellar monsters as much as it once was.
“The geographic part of it isn’t actually that much a hindrance,” Bill figures, “it’s more that we all have families now; we can’t just pile into a van and go play 300 shows a year… it just doesn’t happen like that.
Which does bring up the idea that, while Descendents have released only two albums in the past twenty years, they could do just that; they still seem to be as popular than ever. “Well,” ponders Bill. “What we have going for us is that we started this band for the right reasons. That was,” he figures, “for the joy of musical discovery and the willingness – or urge I should say – to create and express ourselves. To communicate and relate.
“We didn’t start the band to become rich and famous, or become rock stars… or for chicks,” he chuckles. “We didn’t start it for any of those reasons, and because of that, the integrity of the band and longevity has held up over the years. In fact,” he laughs, “for some reason – a little bit unbeknownst to me – it has seemed to be increasing while we’re inactive!”
Which they have been, on and off, for most of their career. Which, once you think about it, is pretty amazing in itself. There are precious few bands that could put aside their egos and simply pick up where they left off. “The other thing we’ve got going for us,” Bill explains, “is that we’ve never had any falling outs… any personal problems; so it’s been easy for us to come and go from it, as there doesn’t have to be any of the ‘oh, so and so has to apologise to this person’ as we’ve never had any problems like that.
But that longevity also owes more simply to the fact that Descendents have spent the past thirty years writing songs that are immensely relatable – their honesty avoids the pitfalls of the preening, posturing, self-important pretentious veneer of the litters contemporary music. Which, in itself, is meant to be one of the main tenets of punk music – an honest expression of oneself.
But better yet is the fact that Descendents always grew and matured basically in front of your eyes – they are a band that grew up with their fans. “Yeah, how weird would it be for me to now be writing songs about teenage girls,” laughs Bill, “which is what I was doing on Milo Goes To College.
“We found a way to grow, without, ah, betraying what it is we intended to do in the first place. So on Milo Goes To College you’re writing about high school issues, then on whatever the album after Cool To Be You is, I’ll be writing about things my daughter is having problems with in high school!”
Which is something a new fan will probably relate to. “And that’s called being honest,” Bill nods. “I think Descendents lyrics have always been uncomfortably honest, or awkwardly honest. I think there’s a little part of people that enjoys that, that needs that; to be like ‘hey, somebody else feels unsettled about these things, the same way as I do’.
“I’ve gotten into the habit,” he continues, “of thinking ‘I’m 47, I don’t have too many trite lyrics in me… like, if somebody doesn’t die, I’m not writing a song’,” laughs Bill. “That’s almost how it’s been for me; the last two Descendents or All-type songs I’ve written were One More Day when my father died, and a new one because my mother also died. These are the things that are important to me now, whereas in high school what was important to me was ‘what do I do about this 24-7 hard-on I have that I don’t have any way of getting rid of’. So things change – hopefully your writing reflects that.”
They reflect, in other words, real life. The life of a teenager, of the post-adolescent trying to find a way in the world, of a confused thirty-year-old figuring out life, of the family man dealing with politics, mortality and family.
It’s in this regard that Descendents ability to disappear for eight-nine years in a stretch helps; each time they re-emerge fresh and full of fight. That, in turn, means we get to wonder what comes next for the band. After the trip to Australia for No Sleep Til, where they’ll be alongside Megadeth, NOFX, Dropkick Murphys, Gwar, Parkway Drive, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes and a slew of other bands whose longevity is down to their connection with their fans.
As Bill explains, this is all in the finest honour of Descendents tradition, “We haven’t made any concrete plans other than the two we’ve got that were serendipitous; when I got out of surgery, people were calling me and were like ‘how did it go Bill?’ and all the band guys were calling me, so there was a spirit there. We got the offer to go to Australia and I called Milo and was like ‘you want to do this?’ and he was like ‘yeah yeah, let’s do it!’ So we didn’t plan it; it planned us. Then we also decided in 2011 we would do some shows in North America but they’re not quite concrete yet… so we’ll take it one step at a time and let it evolve.
“Milo, you know,” Bill continues explaining, “he’s still completely committed to his research, so for him, he can’t be taking months off work to tour, but he can takes days and weekends where we can fly in, and fly to Australia for a week. But those are our only two plans… but we’ll see how things go.”
Whatever happens, they’ll emerge into a world that’s drastically different to anything they’ve experienced. Punk music is so widely dispersed that it’s tough to get a handle on over-arching themes it possesses – it’s down to individual bands being good. Bill is philosophical when it comes to contemporary punk music, saying “The only adjective that comes to mind is ‘exciting’,” he laughs.
“It bears no resemblance to the late-‘70s punk movement from which we came, but why should it? Things are evolving. Being at the studio we get fresh faces coming in every day, and particularly since my surgery as my brain needs to be fed information, I ask band members to make me a mixtape. Back in ’77 that couldn’t happen! I’d go broke trying to make that happen – it couldn’t work. So I think it’s an exciting time, and while there’s on the one hand a lot more competition in music, that’s good! Does the world need another shitty record? No, it doesn’t! So if you make a shitty record, you’re gonna get left behind.”
Everything Sucks , it’s not quite, yet that defining album’s sentiment still rings true. Everything sucks, sure, but you just have to appreciate the times bands get it right. And Descendents have spent their career getting it exactly that.
Punk legends DESCENDENTS headline the NO SLEEP TIL festival – alongside Megadeth NOFX, Dropkick Murphys, Gwar, Parkway Drive, A Day To Remember, Me First & The Gimme Gimmes, Frenzal Rhomb, Atreyu, Katatonia and heaps, heaps more. It takes place at the Melbourne Showgrounds on Friday December 17 tickets from ticketek.com.au, 132 849, moshtix.com.au and 1300 438 849. We’ll see you the front (just don’t tell the boss). Go and buy the entire Descendents back catalogue – which is available at descendentsonline.com – if you know what’s good for you.