Everything Sucks (Epitaph)
An interview with drummer Bill Stevenson
by Scott Hefflon
Excuse me while I fawn a moment. I’ve repeatedly driven entirely too fast while blasting “Pep Talk” and “Clean Sheets. I’ve gotten choked up and wept, yes wept, during those emotionally vulnerable times while playing “Good Good Things,” “Get The Time,” “Christmas Vacation,” “Can’t Go Back,” “Silly Girl,” and far too many others to mention. Not that I weep frequently (and even when I do, it’s a manly sort of weep), but ten fucking years of my existence has been made bearable by the Descendents. Sure, hardcore punk songs like “Hürtin Crüe,” “I Like Food,” “Weinerschnitzel” (the song so short and tasty they played it twice in Pump Up The Volume), “Pervert,” “I’m Not A Loser,” and countless others have been teen anthems shouted at the tops of our lungs on road trips for years, but it’s the poppier, more sensitive side of the Descendents that makes them such a seminal band. I hate that word, too, but damned if it don’t work in this case. Descendents effectively carved a niche into the wonderful world of ’80s punk, one that, to this day, hasn’t been filled. Hundreds of bands have played melodic punk, punkpop, pop punk, and various interpretations of nerdcore, geekcore, and sensitive-guy rock, but only one band’s songs are almost magical – that’s the Descendents. While others lament and whine about their pain and loneliness until you want to slap the sissies upside the head (preferably as they’re cashing their royalty checks), only the Descendents effectively muster the courage to dig deep into their hurt, phrase it elegantly, and perform it so fluidly, that it’s not sap. In 1996, when we need the real thing more than ever, the Descendents return to show everyone how it should be done. Everything Sucks (Epitaph) is as poignant as ever, with songs of hardcore, softcore, and legendary Descendents humor. This record will be in heavy rotation, both on road trips and in those quiet moments, for years to come.
First things first; tell me the story behind Descendents getting back together. It’s been nine or ten years since you’ve used the name.
It’s been nine years since Milo left, and he just wanted to come back. He’s been my best buddy for 20 years, so when he wanted to come back and play, it seemed the best thing to do was to have two bands. It’s like we have one engine with two carburetors. We have Descendents when Milo’s around, and we have ALL when Chad is around. The whole reunion idea doesn’t really work. We never completely separated, so it’s not like we reformed. Milo just wanted to come back into the picture, so we made room for him.
Milo’s done back-up vocals on ALL songs over the years, right?
We’ve always had, for lack of better words, an open-door arrangement within the band and the extended family of the band. At one point, ALL actually did an album of all Tony’s songs (TonyALL). Tony (Lombardo, former bassist) had been in the band for something like eight years, but after a few years, he wanted to put out an album. There’s no real juicy story behind any of this; we just wanted to play. Milo wanted to play, but we also want to play with Chad, so we used the other band name that was available to us, the one we used with Milo when we were kids.
Did Chad do back ups on all the songs?
Yeah, all of them. Normally, recording backing vocals is like pulling teeth, but with this record it was cake. We had the two best singers in the world doing all the vocals – it was killer.
They recorded separately, though, right? It’s not like they did a duet with their arms around each other in manly love and global harmony.
Right. We usually do one voice per mic per channel on tape. That just seems to work out the best.
While you have ex-guitarist Frank Navetta and ex-bassist Tony Lombardo on the new record, you never really have ex-singers stop back in. Except Milo. Why is that?
(Nervous laughter, like when someone playfully waves a red-hot poker mere inches from your eyes.) Singers can come into our band, get some attention for themselves, and then build, like, a mini-career out of it. A bass player or guitarist can’t really do that because people usually focus on the singer. The media, especially, want to create a star out of the singer, while the rest of the band remains obscure, almost like a back-up band. We’ve done what we could to diffuse that ethos, because what that does is focus on visual elements and elements of fashion, rather than music. We try to make each member an equal 25%.
I noticed neither ex-guitarist Ray Cooper nor ex-bassist Doug Carrion popped in for the recording.
No, they didn’t. See, Frank is living with me. In my garage. Frank and Tony were the original people I started the band with years and years ago, even before Milo was in the band. We didn’t want to do a Descendents-retro thing and have that line-up play on the record, because that’s not the line-up that’s playing music together.
With that many people offering up songs they’ve written and the ability to play them, were there choices to make as far as what’s Descendents territory and what’s ALL territory?
We don’t really look at it like that, honestly. The only real difference between the two bands is the 25% variable of one different person.
You never write a song that seems more fitting for Milo to sing?
That’s what I mean by the 25% variable. Some songs are more appropriate for Milo’s voice, and others are more appropriate for Chad’s. We have recordings of these songs with both guys singing. Sometimes we say, “Yeah, I like that version, but man, I like this version too.”
You actually have two versions of every song on Everything Sucks?
One thing you’ve got to understand, there wasn’t a lot of slick planning behind any of this. We were about to start on the next ALL album, and we had 21 songs ready. Then Milo called, and he had nine. So he comes down, and here we are with 30 songs. What we ended up doing, and this is going to sound totally stupid, but remember at recess, team captains would line everyone against a wall and go back and forth to pick teams? Well, that’s what we did. We put all the songs on a list, and Milo and Chad chose them, one by one. That’s how we divided up what’s on this album and what’s going to be on the next ALL album.
Do you remember what Milo’s first few picks were?
Wait, let me find that scorecard. As they picked, I took notes. Shit. It’s on one of those phone message deals. Hang on… OK, let’s see: “I Won’t Let Me” was his first choice, “Sick-O-Me,” “When I Get Old,” then “Caught,” “Hateful Notebook,” and “She Loves Me.” Later on, he aborted three that weren’t in his vocal register, and at that point, he took on “Everything Sux,” “I’m The One,” and “Thank You” which Chad had originally picked.
Wow, you almost get your title track and first single!|
We don’t care about stuff like that. Not in those terms, at least. It was captains picking their teams.
What about stylistic changes between Descendents ALL in 1987 and Descendents Everything Sucks in 1996?
I don’t think you can separate styles. Different songs sound like they could’ve been on other albums, either Descendents or ALL.
Was “Eunuch Boy” an afterthought?
That’s an old song. That was written in, like, ’81. And I think “Rotting Out” was in the late ’80s. There were a few things we dug up that we thought would be cool. That was more in Milo’s camp. His songs were written over the last few years. Our songs were written since Pummel. The changes occur song by song, not album by album, and trying to determine any concrete difference between Descendents and ALL is just plain ludicrous. I don’t see the point in trying to define stuff like that.
By the way, it was sooo good to see an illustration of Milo on the cover of a Descendents record. ALL kinda phased out Allroy.
At a certain point, those gimmicks seemed to define us more than the music itself, so we pulled the plug on them. It’s not that I’m on this crusade to be a serious musician or anything, but I thought people were a little too obsessed with that kinda cutesy thing. We weren’t sick of the Descendents covers because we hadn’t done one in almost ten years. It also served as an instantly recognizable image.
You’ve played a few weekend shows, how is it to be back with Milo?
Actually, we’ve played with Milo quite a bit, even as ALL. Whenever we go through his hometown, or whenever there’s a serious problem. That’s one of the cool things about having had four singers, if someone can’t sing for some reason, I just fly someone in. Again, that’s one of those things I don’t recommend other bands try. I remember a few years ago, Chad got a throat infection and he couldn’t sing. We had this really super-important show sold out at this really big venue, so I flew Milo in and had him sing. It was hysterical.
Milo keeps up on all the vocals to all the ALL songs?
Well, no, he faked a lot of it. But it was cool.