It's not often that you get to speak to someone who's work you have admired since a friend handed you a copy of "Milo Goes to College" when you were 12 years old, but that's what when down yesterday when Rogue Inc had a chat to legendary drummer, songwriter and producer, Bill Stevenson from Descendents. It was a drummer-on-drummer interview, with Rogue's very own Nick Andreopoulos taking the reins, chatting to Bill about "Real" jobs, health issues and Frenzal Rhomb in this in-depth tell all interview.
Through nearly 40 years and after 7 studio Albums, 3 Live Albums and a hand full of E.P’s and Compilation Albums under your belt, you guys are still going strong. That is very impressive in today’s throwaway society. What’s your secret Bill?
Well, I think that its because we do the band stuff only when we feel inclined to do so. It's not as if we have been grinding and non stop touring for 38 years. We have taken some big breaks at times. We try and make the band a fun thing, and only something we do for fun, not really let it be a job you know. The points there over the years when we were touring a whole lot, it felt more like a job. It was literally right after those points that we would take quite a bit of time off.
When we get off the plane and see each other, they are fun times..we joke around with each other and everybody is smiling. We just try and keep it that way, so that means that we aren't crawling into a van together and playing 250 shows each year.
So outside of the band, you all have you all have everyday jobs like the rest of us?
Member by member, I have a recording studio called "The Blasting Room" where I produce a lot of records that are prominent in the Punk or Alternative or Pop Punk genres. I split my time between playing drums and Audio Engineering/Producing.
Milo (Aukerman), he's been a scientist his whole life! His main focus has always been science, with the band kind of being behind that (as a career). But he quit his job as a scientist and so now we have been doing the Descendents a bit more than we have been.
Stephen (Egerton) has been doing a little bit of Audio Engineering and Mixing and Mastering as well in his studio where he lives in Tulsa.
And Karl (Alvarez), Karl always has a few different bands going. He sings in one band, he plays bass in another band, he has sung for a number of bands actually. He keeps himself busy with doing music full time. He is also quite a painter. I have several of his paintings. They are incredible. I have a few of them in my house.
Your latest album “HYPERCAFFIUM SPAZZINATE” captures the Descendents sound of old. How do you guys keep that signature sound so fresh?
It gets back to not grueling over it and grueling over it all the time. We take breaks from it. And as you go back to it, you really appreciate it for what it is. Not to compare us to The Ramones, but if you listen to nothing but The Ramones for a month, you'd get sick of them, even though they are the greatest band in the world.
But when you don't listen to The Ramones for like a year, and you put them on...whoa Jesus...it's like the best thing in the world.
It's that sound. It's that tight sound. And thats like our sound too. By not over exposing ourselves to it, we don't take it for granted and we appreciate it for what it is.
But at the same time, we try to make progress as players and as songwriters, so when you do a new record you will here a a few things here and there that we didn't do on the last record. We try to feel like we are moving forward, but without abandoning where we came from.
What's the writing process like for you guys? Do you all write individually or as a band?
We probably utilize each one of the "commonly known" songwriting methods. Some of the songs are very much written by one person. That member would make a demo where they played all the instruments, even playing drums on a drum machine. They then present it to the band and the band learns it. Sometimes the band might come up with a different version of it, maybe some different phrasing, or different things here and there. A lot of songs come in that way.
For the Descendents, there is always four songwriters, so on a typical album (16 songs) each member would have written about four songs.
We also write them collaboratively. Typically Stephen will have a dozen or so music tracks that he presents, that he has demoed, and then myself, or Milo, or Karl will write lyrics for them, like "Victim of Me". "Victim of Me", "Human Being" and "Beyond The Music", those are us writing lyrics for Stephen's music. "Shameless Halo" and "Feel This", those were Karl's lyrics and Stephen's music.
Sometimes, there is just a riff that we have going. You play it and then somebody else joins in on another part and then somebody else jumps in spontaneously on another part. Sometimes we do it that way.
We really use all of the different ways (to write our songs)
There are so many variables that come into effect in the writing process, even down to how you wake up in the morning having an impact on how effective your contribution to writing music will be for that day.
That's very true. I know for me that is annoyingly true!
I can't really craft a song together like : wake up, drink my coffee, turn the guitar on and be like "hey, I'm gonna write a song". I just don't work that way.
I have to have some kind of an epiphany, like a bolt of lightning, a jolt that kinda hits me like "whoa...there is song! I hear a song in my head!". Then I use a guitar to document it so that I can show the guys. I know some guys that can just sit down and craft a song together, but I have never had that ability. For me, there's got to be a moment. A spark. And that's why I don't write tonnes and tonnes of songs. If I had to be in a band where I was the sole songwriter, I wouldn't be able to deal. Because I write maybe a couple of songs each year, and there has to be something that comes over me (in order to write those songs).
There are bands that have like 20 albums, and there is only one guy writing all the songs..there is no way I could do that. I don't have that many good ideas inside me for that, and I am honest enough to say that. And not just to write songs about any damn thing. The world doesn't need any more mediocre songs!
How did the album title come about?
The album title came about when Milo was at the lab. He had a thing happen where a chemical mixed with his coffee and it made a reaction to it and made it stronger somehow. It explains it on the album (what happened in the lab). The reaction created a new element and the new element needed a name and he was thinking (along the lines of) Barium Nitrate or Hydrogen Sulfate or something, so we called it "Hypercaffium Spazzinate".
Such an original way to come up with an album title!
It just presented itself
“Comeback Kid” is quite a personal song. Can you tell us a bit about it?
When you look at it, they are all kind of personal.
Milo wrote "Comeback Kid" shortly after I came out of brain surgery once it was determined that I had not only survived the surgery, but that they had gotten all of the brain tumor and that I was thriving and doing really well and was back behind the drum kit, back behind the mixing console. Back to being happier, healthier and more positive than had been in years. The brain tumor had been inside me for years without anybody ever knowing it was there.
So I was like, reborn (after the surgery). Milo called me "The Comeback Kid" and so that's what that song is about. It's nice to have a friend like that. A friend who would write a song about you.
The one that I really love that he wrote, is probably one of my all time favorite songs that he has ever written, is another song called "Smile". He wrote for me as well. About me. It was written about a period where I was not feeling so good. Feeling sorry for myself. Feeling depressed. Not happy with my life. He wrote that song and sent me the demo and I could not really see what he was taking about because I was inside of it all. I was like "Why are you saying all those things about me? I'm fine. I'm not struggling" and he said "I just worry about you".
Now when I look back on it now, I see he was right. I had fallen into patterns of depression and even for a short while I was drinking too much and that sort of thing. Milo able to see all this and write a song about it, and that's whats good about having a friend like that. That's the best thing in all the world. Someone that can hopefully point you in the right direction and help you when you are having a hard time.
After inspiring countless bands over your 40 year career, who were your influences when you started out?
Well, there are three or four bands that come to mind.
One would be a band called The Last, and one would be a band called Black Flag, which I ended up joining at a later date. There was also another band called The Alley Cats. They were probably the most influential for me. Then behind those, there would be The Ramones, The Germs and X.
Going back into our childhood, there would be The Beatles and The Beach Boys, for rock, there would be Black Sabbath.
Being a drummer, do you find that different styles of music influence what you are doing in the Descendents?
Yes. They do for sure. For instance, when really got into Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and also into Cole Porter's songwriting, it was in that time that I wrote the three songs that are on "Cool To Be You", which are "Anchor Grill", "Maddie" and "One More Day", all of which use a tonal, or chromatic aspect as opposed to playing in once certain key. And I could not have done that if I had not found Charlie Parker, or Ornette Coleman or Cole Porter. I found different ways to do things.
Any advice on longevity for an up and coming punk band in today’s society?
Join a band with your mates. Your REAL mates. That will keep the band together instead of joining a band with whoever. You are getting into bed with bunch of other people . It's like being married to three other people, or four other people.
What can Australian fans expect from your tour which starts next week?
We usually end up playing about 28 or 30 songs, we try and play several songs from each our our records. We don't really focus on one record too much. We play all the songs that people want to hear. Our set lists are good that way.
What does the rest of 2017 have in store for you guys?
We are going to do a total of around 50 shows this year. The majority of the shows will be in the U.S and probably a few shows in Canada. We will do 10 days in Europe and a week with you guys down in Australia.
We have already started working on new songs too. We have a couple of new songs going already so that's cool. I don't think it will be another 10 years before we need to do another record, maybe just a couple of years this time.
Every Rogue Inc. interview is not complete until you take on the Quick Six. Are you ready Bill?
The Quick Six
What was your last "HOLY F**K" moment?
When I came out of open lung and open heart surgery one year ago during which they had to flat-line me, take me off life support., kill me dead in order to do the surgery on the lungs. So when I came up out of that surgery, and I was alive, that was definitely a moment.
If you could collaborate with any artist/band, living or dead, who would it be?
Cole Porter. He his the greatest master of chord progression and the most witty, clever, intelligent and fun lyricist that I have ever known. He is my all time favorite songwriter.
If you could make one cover song part of your live set forever, what would it be?
That's impossible to answer!
You are on death row. What is your last meal?
Chili Cheese burger with Chili Cheese fries
If you had to change your name for witness protection, what would it be?
The album or Artist playing in your car right now is?
The new Frenzal Rhomb album that we recorded here at my studio. I just blast it in my truck. Their songs are so fast and so high energy. I even told the guys that as soon as we mix this, I'm putting this into my truck!
TICKETS ON SALE NOW
Thursday 16th February – The Gov, Adelaide
Friday 17th February – Capitol, Perth
Sunday 19th Febrary – 170 Russell, Melbourne Second & final show
+ Nursery Crimes
Monday 20th February – 170 Russell, Melbourne SOLD OUT
+ Nursery Crimes
Wednesday 22nd February – Eatons Hill, Brisbane
Friday 24th February – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
+ Nursery Crimes
* Clowns appearing in Adelaide, Perth & Brisbane ONLY
# Nursery Crimes appearing in Melbourne and Brisbane ONLY
New Album Hypercaffium Spazzinate out now on Epitaph Records