Bill Stevenson of Descendents: "Maybe it's just all of our fans are paying us back for some good music we've given them "
Chapman Baehler Descendents
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...