Descendents – ‘Merican – Interview


‘Merican (Fat)
An interview with drummer Bill Stevenson
By Tim Den

It’s the fucking Descendents. They were around before you were born, they kicked mad ass before you learned how to use a potty, and they are that one-in-a-million band whose touch turns the simplest of melodies and riffs into gold. After all, they’ve had 20+ years of practice. Well, not a solid 20+ years, I guess: Milo kept going to college, Bill and the gang pushed onward with All… but the point is that these guys are veterans and – like village elders – they prove their standing by being the fucking best at what they do.

‘Merican might be the band’s first release in seven years, but time has not aged the masters one bit. Even at four songs, you’ve got the angry, old-school O.C. sound (“I Quit”), the fun ditty (“Nothing With You”), and, of course, the “sentimental” tune (“Here With Me”) which Descendents practically wrote the book on. They’re flawless. What else did you expect? The musicianship, Milo’s throaty-yet-melodic delivery, lyrics that are equally blunt and ultra-intelligent… the perfect package. When the full-length hits, it will bring with it a magnificent tidal wave, washing mall punk and emo fudgecakes off the face of the planet.

Is it true that you guys recorded two full-length albums’ worth of material this time around?
We always do maybe a half dozen extra, but this time we did a dozen extra. I guess when we get too damn old and decrepit to keep writing cool songs, we can put a little spit shine on those b-sides and release ’em.

How old are you guys these days?
(laughs) What are you trying to say!?

Uh… I’m saying you’re in the prime of your youth!
We’re all 40… going on nine.

Why did you guys chose to release the new stuff on Fat as opposed to Epitaph (who released ’96’s Everything Sucks)?
Epitaph did a remarkable job with Everything Sucks, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. I have a lot of friends over at the label. But when it came down to it, Fat showed an unprecedented enthusiasm, the most obvious reason being that Descendents are Fat Mike’s favorite band. In prior years, Fat wasn’t of the caliber that would be necessary to do a Descendents record, but now they certainly are. They’re one of the top labels in this “field.” And with him being so terribly enthusiastic about the band… (chuckles) if you think about it, it’s every band’s dream to be the favorite band of the label president.

Is there any truth to the rumor that Epitaph wouldn’t take the new album(s) without you commiting to tour?
We never discussed touring. There wouldn’t’ve been anything to discuss. We never know what we’re gonna do until we do it. We would never plan or contract ourselves to touring.

With a song like “I Quit,” it’s pretty obvious that Milo isn’t into touring anyway…
If you look at Descendents’ 26 years, there was an 18-20 month period from late-’85 to early-’87, and then another 10 month period in ’97 when we toured. Other than those times, we never toured! (laughs) It was always something we did for fun. Whereas with All, we did a tremendous amount of touring. Milo’s has always been really commited to his science. Music’s not a job to him, it’s a “fun” thing. The rest of us have other musical endeavors that we’re involved in. So it works out for everybody.

As of right now, are there any touring plans at all?
As of right this second, Milo had a baby two days ago. So we’re kind of in babyland, cuz Stephen’s (Egerton, guitarist/backup vocalist) wife’s also pregnant. When the babies are taken care of, then we figure out what we want to do show-wise.

Are you married?
Yeah, I have two children: Mattie (daughter) is six and Miles (son) is three.

Are they into music yet?
Yeah! Mattie took a liking to a lot of late-’70s punk, if you can imagine that happening in my household. She knows The Germs, “Six Pack,” things like that. Miles is a little young to get it. I don’t think he’s totally cognizant of the socio-political implications of the late-’70s punk movement. (chuckles)

So no mainstream Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake for Mattie?
Luckily, I haven’t had to buy any Britney Spears CDs… yet. I’ve skirted that – albeit narrowly – a few times. I’m sure it’ll happen eventually, but for now I’m pulling the strings. (laughs)

How is Owned and Operated Records (owned and run [duh] by everyone in Descendents except Milo) doing?
O and O is small and futile in many ways. (laughs) It’s pretty hard to keep the label going… Seems like everyone’s stealing (downloading) everything now for free anyway. I’m not passing judgement on that, but it does make it harder to have a label when you think “well shit, I’m only going to sell 2000/3000 of these anyway.”

But I think we’ve done good for a few bands, and at least offered the community here at Ft. Collins, Colorado some semblance of a punk rock scene. You guys at Lollipop were actually one of the best to us.

A label like O&O: None of the releases had anything in common. That’s been difficult in a whole different way. A lot of successful rock/punk labels have a strict adherence to one of the first principles you learn in marketing class: It’s easier to sell someone the same product again than to sell them a different product. And so you’ve got these labels putting out the same record over and over again with different band names on ’em. That’s fine cuz it seems to be working for them, but creatively, I find that pretty boring.

But you run Blasting Room and you record a lot of these unoriginal bands. Not to say you’re contradicting yourself by taking on clients to make money and feed your family, but does it ever feel “not right”?
Producing is different. The producer’s worst enemy is to pass judgment. The producer needs to assimilate and improve, not judge. So I get these bands, and it’s like “well, how can I effect a positive change” and not “I shouldn’t record these guys cuz they sound like Lagwagon.” No, I’ll record ’em: I gotta feed my kids. But how can I improve the situation?

Would you say Blasting Room ends up taking most of your time?
The whole thing ends up being very seasonal. Between September and March, I always have about 80 million bands that want to record because they want to get with Warped Tour during the summer. So I don’t do as many records between April and August, and that’s when I work on my music.

I also have a new band called Only Crime. It’s me on drums, Russ from Good Riddance singing, Aaron from Bane on guitar, and Zach and Donnie from Hagfish/Armstrong on guitar and bass (Zach was in Gwar for a while, too). That’s more of a My War or Slip it In-era Black Flag, but played at Damaged Black Flag speed. So it’s got the depth of the later Flag stuff and the earlier Flag energy, with a quarter-teaspoon of melody thrown in on the vocals.

How are your relationships with your former Black Flag bandmates?
They’re really good. I see or talk to Dez a few times a year. Robo, not as much. He comes and goes (between the States and South America), and he sometimes plays with the Misfits guys. He’s my favorite drummer, and a very dear friend. Greg and I talk at least once a month, Chuck and I do a little bit of emailing, Henry and I do a little bit of emailing… You know, birthdays, that kinda thing. “Dude, I got to sing ‘Paranoid’ with Black Sabbath during their soundcheck,” that kinda thing. You know how email is: You can just write when you did something that reminded you of them. So yeah, we keep up.

After having done everything – Descendents, Black Flag, ALL, O&O, Blasting Room – how have you been able to keep your interest in and loyalty to punk rock? Especially after almost 30 years in the art form and witnessing later generations beat its corpse into a flaccid, mainstream brandname…
Maybe this will end up being the real charm of Descendents and All: We don’t grow out of punk rock, we grow into it. Like “well, how can we work a little Charlie Parker into this? Or maybe a little Ornette Coleman into the pre-chorus of “Anchor Grill” (where we got the atonal half-steps)? Or some Billie Holiday into the bridge of “Mattie.” Let’s do something with this monster we’ve created. Let’s make it work in 2004 and not just throw it in the fucking shitter!

You’ve certainly got the musicians for it, considering Stephen and Karl (Alvarez, bassist/backup vocalist) are two of the genre’s best.
The new record is deceptively broad, harmonically. You can sing along most of the time, but pick up a guitar and try to play some of the parts I mentioned. It would take you quite a long time to even figure out what the hell is going on. So yeah, I’ve been listening to free jazz. How does that relate to what I’m doing? Obviously, Descendents aren’t gonna do a free jazz album, but I can take with me what I’ve learned along the way. And I can be creative enough to not just regurgitate what I’ve inherited.

That has definitely (and especially) been the case with All. Some of the arrangements are so complex, they often go over the average punk rocker’s head…
Problematic was so kick ass that way. We had these superficially – overtly obvious – catchy, poppy melodies. But the counterpoints in the arrangements between the instruments were just ungodly. (laughs) It’s the responsibility of the artists to not let the art get too fucking lame.
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