Descendents: Believing Their Own Hype
It was nearly 40 years ago that Bill Stevenson got behind a drum kit at the ripe old age of 13 and began one of the most influential bands in the history of punk rock, hardcore and pop-punk. In the ensuing years, Descendents went from yelling at their parents to becoming parents themselves; issuing in a new wave of angsty, cutthroat songs that also rode in on righteous choruses and hooks. The best part? They’re far from finished – we have just seen the arrival of their first album in 12 years, entitled Hypercaffium Spazzinate. Ahead of its release, BLUNT spoke with Stevenson about survival, family and enduring his infamous Blasting Room.
Bill Stevenson is a man who is just as at peace with his past as he is with his present. At the time of calling, he has just finished a show with FLAG – the punk-rock supergroup of sorts, comprised of alumni that have performed under the name of Black Flag in the past, but these days are legally forbidden to do so thanks to one Greg Ginn. Regardless, the rag-tag group still gets together at least a couple of times a year to play from the Black Flag catalogue to packed, sweaty rooms full of veteran punks and kids who never got to see the quote-unquote “real thing.” At the same time, however, Stevenson is gearing up to start touring with his band, the Descendents, yet again – and this time, they’re not just playing the hits; wheeling out brand-new material for the first time in over a decade thanks to album number seven, the ridiculously-titled Hypercaffium Spazzinate.
“The thing about Descendents, about FLAG and even about [Descendents off-shoot band] ALL is that they are all made up of my oldest friends in the world,” says Stevenson. “Milo [Aukerman, Descendents vocalist] and I have been friends for something like 35 years now. I have known Keith [Morris, FLAG/OFF!/Circle Jerks vocalist] since I was eight years old. This really is my family. We all stay in contact with one another constantly. We barely need to rehearse anything when we play shows – we don’t need to get to know one another again, because we’re always seeing one another.”
Descendents began in Manhattan Beach, a south-west suburb of Los Angeles, around 1977 and properly became a fully-fledged band in late 1978. Since the band’s inception, Stevenson has seen various formations of the band come and go – indeed, he is the sole original member – but the band finally found some solid ground in 1986, when guitarist Stephen Egerton and bassist Karl Alvarez joined both Stevenson and Aukerman as new recruits. 30 years and four studio albums later, this incarnation of Descendents has remained in-tact. According to Stevenson, it was the rebuilding of the band with these two as a part of it that ultimately saved them from completely falling apart.
“That was a very critical moment in the history of the band,” he recalls. “We got home from tour, and we had both Doug [Carrion, former bassist] and Ray [Cooper, former guitarist] quit. Milo went back to school in San Diego, so I was all on my own. It hit me – there’s no band. It could have all ended there, but look what we made of that opportunity. It’s just like that old saying about doors closing and windows opening. Whenever I’ve been in a band in the past that has had a line-up change, I’ve always seen it as an opportunity. I try not to see it as a negative thing. Karl and Stephen showed up, we had a jam on the first night I met them and within that first jam we’d written half of the blue record [1987’s ALL]. We just got right into it. It felt fresh and it felt new. It was really cool.”
Hypercaffium Spazzinate – much like every Descendents album, save for their iconic debut Milo Goes to College – was produced by Stevenson himself. As a producer and record engineer, Stevenson has gained just as much respect and accreditations than as his time as a drummer. His list of artists produced include such heavyweights as NOFX, Rise Against, Propagandhi and even Australia’s own Frenzal Rhomb and Bodyjar. Many of these recordings have taken place in The Blasting Room, a studio co-owned and run by Stevenson out in Colorado, and Hypercaffium was no exception; being utilised as one of three studios where the album was recorded. Although both drumming and producing are considerably different skills used in different aspects of his day-to-day life, Stevenson doesn’t find it all that conflicting when they come to cross over.
“When I’m wearing the hat of producer, I try to produce as much or as little as is needed for the project,” he says. “In the case of Descendents, it’s usually quite little. Everybody is responsible for their own part of it. I don’t really produce in the typical sense – maybe I’m more of the organiser. Stephen has his own little studio set up at his home in Tulsa, Milo has a Pro Tools rig in his basement… everyone had their own part in the recording and the creation of this record.”
So, after decades of decadent behaviour, Descendents are once again the new old guys on the block. They’ll tour extensively – again – in support of Hypercaffium, wheel out their coming-of-age anthems and then… well, who knows. 12 year separated Hypercaffium and Cool to Be You – itself 8 years separated from its predecessor, 1996’s Everything Sucks – which leaves the possibility of seeing another Descendents album this decade fairly unlikely. Still, after everything that Descendents have been through, most folks are just grateful that they’re still here to tell the tale – least of all Stevenson.
“I almost died – I had a brain tumour – and we all rallied together at that time,” he says, his tone shifting with the weight of his words. “We knew that we had to start playing again – life can be short, y’know, and we’re not always going to be able to play. We go through changes, we go through phases and through transitions. Some days you’re happy, some days you’re sad, some days you’re happy in the morning and you’re sad at night. If it’s a real band – if it’s a real, living organism – then it kind of has its own personality, in a way. To be honest and to be aware of that personality… that’s where I really get the satisfaction out of being in a band.”