Bill Stevenson – Descendents “Rehabilitation, Recovery and Punk Rocking the Fuck Out”

I recently saw someone write on social media that it would be almost impossible to find a punk band that doesn’t credit Descendents as an influence. And it’s hard to find a better way to explain how important they are to punk rock – and to alternative music in general. Starting out in California’s burgeoning hardcore scene in the late ‘70s the band went onto to redefine what a punk band could be – in fact, many credit them with outright inventing the pop-punk genre. Drummer and founding member Bill Stevenson is not only iconic for his work in Descendents (and their sort-of spinoff All) but also as a drummer for legendary hardcore act Black Flag. If that wasn’t enough Stevenson has also engineered and produced some of the most influential punk rock albums of the last couple of decades – The Sufferer and the Counter Culture by Rise Against, Supporting Caste by Propagandi and Feel Good Record of the Year by No Use For A Name – just to list a few. It took Descendents a good 30 years to make it to Australian shores, playing their first run of shows here in late 2010. Since then they’ve been back a couple of times and are now returning in support of their brand new album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate. Before they hit Australian shores in February we were lucky enough to have a chat with Bill Stevenson.

So what have you been up to for the last few months?

Well, the last few months, we did a South American tour and then we had a little time off for the holidays – I got to go to Italy with my family, and that was fun. And then I managed to squeeze in a knee surgery – which I’ll be rehabilitated from by the Australian shows. I think I get to start practising drums tomorrow. So yeah, that’s been about it for my last two months.

Wow man, knee surgery. It’s hardcore. I was reading an interview you did with Modern Drummer, just the other day and I read about all of the various surgeries you’ve had – ones that we didn’t see in Filmage. You’re doing some serious time with the doctors, man.

Well, this one… I finally got myself all fixed up and everything and I started going to this, kind of, CrossFit sorta thing. You know, a boot camp? Group functional fitness? And I think I just tore my knee out, I guess I wasn’t quite strong enough to be in that class. I should have started a little smaller. So I tore my knee out, and I just had surgery on it. But that kinda thing, that’s a pretty minor procedure compared to some of the surgeries that I’ve had haha. This was more just in and out of there.

Yeah well, I’m just glad everything is fine. So the new album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate is awesome. I know that it took some serious effort to put together, you know, recording all of the parts with you guys all living all over the country. How did you manage to keep the whole thing organic without being in the same room as each other?

We’ve been together 38 years, and it’s been the four of us for 30 years. So that’s just what we sound like. Even just comparing the recording process – if we recorded it all at one studio, and we all lived here – still you do the drums and then you overdub the guitars and then you overdub the bass. It’s not really any different. And we were together when we needed to be together. Stephen was with me through almost all of the drum recording. Which is how we did it when we all lived here – Stephen would always be with me for the drum recording to help me figure out parts and stuff. Then he did his guitars at his workstation in Tulsa. And with Milo I flew out for 8 or 9 days two different times to be with him, to help him with the vocals. And with Karl, I engineered the bass at my house. So the normal interaction when we record, we still have all that.

Yeah, that’s fair. It was a surprise to me when I read about it. I guess there was just this assumption that you’d all just go to The Blasting Room and do it. But it all turned out great.

This process, in the digital age, it’s very conducive for us to just work at our leisure, at a comfortable pace and not just be like ‘oh we gotta get all these songs done in 3 days’. We just work at a comfortable pace, for us. With the drums, I did three, five-day, sessions. Or something like that. Because we recorded 36 songs so it was just comfortable for me. And with the bass, Karl would just come over every day at about 11 and go home at about 5 and I would just work with him on the bass. And Milo had a similar schedule. He’d go in in the evening, after finishing work at Du Pont. So it was just comfortable, not big 12 hour long days of death.

That’s fair. So, 36 songs, does that mean there’s a bunch that may or may not appear in the future? 

Well, there’s 36 minus 21. So there’s 15 sitting there. We didn’t demo things and sit there and say ‘ok we have 36 demos but let’s only record 20 of them’ we recorded all 36 of them with 100% attention. And then we voted the four of us. And that’s how we do things in Descendents. If we can’t have a good, solid, majority vote then it doesn’t happen. So it’s not to say the other 15 songs are shitty, it’s just we voted for these 21 – these are the ones we voted for. So I can’t really say what the destination, or the destiny, of those other songs are, but when we start working on a new record we’ll start working with new ideas. It’s not like we’ll pick up those 15. You know what, here’s what’ll happen with those 15. When we’re all dead our kids can get together and release them ‘oh look, we found these 15 Descendents songs, they’re not so bad…’

Well… there’s something to look forward to. The album has been really well received by fans and critics alike. Maybe it’s because ‘90s punk fans are all grown up now and have families of their own and whatever and can relate to what you’re saying. Did you have any expectations of how it would be received?

I didn’t really expect or anticipate anything. Because I find it’s better just to create the art and then let other people judge it or let other people market it or let other people call it whatever they want to call it. We just write songs and record ‘em and play ‘em. I think, honestly, most bands when they’ve been together for more than a few years start to get worse and worse as they go. Not many bands get better as they go, most bands get worse. This is what, they 9th album or the 10th album? Like, who buys a band’s 9th album? I don’t haha. So the fact we put out a record and people really loved it and said how kick ass it was, to me that is the ultimate achievement. I would have been happy if it had come out and people had been like ‘eh, it’s alright’. I would have been happy with that because most bands 9th album is kinda ‘eh it’s alright but I’m kinda bored with these guys’. So I would have been fine if that was the response, people really like it and they appreciate it feel like maybe we’re not heading down the road of sucking as quickly the normal curve of that is.

Yeah, well you always manage your expectations at that point in time, but this one blew mine away.

Well hopefully we’ve kept the songwriting quality higher by not trying to put out a record every two or three years. We just put them out when we want to.

Yeah, well actually having something to write about, something to sing about probably helps.

I think so. They say you have your whole lifetime to write your first album of songs. But then your second album you’re supposed to write that in two years, right? And that’s not really logical. We’ve never really been on a schedule with recording it’s just when everybody’s got a bunch of songs. And that’s what happened this time, people just starting passing around demos and we were like ‘oh we’ve got a bunch of songs, let’s record’. I think bands nowadays are just like ‘okay, the touring cycle is 18 months long and then we’re gonna go into the studio’ and it’s like, how can you say you’re gonna go into the studio when you haven’t even written one song yet?

Oh yeah, I think people do get caught up in these expectations of what they’re meant to be doing on some sort of a schedule. It is a bit weird.

Yeah, the schedule. Keep the rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut moving, keep the touring incoming happening and all that. And they’re like ‘it’s okay to put out a lame record, we just need a record to go out and tour’. And that’s just not how we do it.

Things looked pretty chaotic for you guys, touring as a young band – as anyone who has seen Filmage would know – now that you guys are all in your 50s and have families and whatnot, how has it changed?

Well, the conditions are much less brutal. Two weeks would be the maximum for us. Like, if it’s overseas, what this Australian thing is, with all the flights included, it’s gonna be 13 days. That’s about as long as we do. In the States we just fly out on a Thursday, we get to the hotel and we sleep. Then we play Friday and then we go somewhere else and play Saturday and then Sunday we fly home. And we do that a lot. We’ve done that hundreds of times at this point. And that keeps it fun for us, we don’t get to hate each other so much. When you throw a band in that van and tell them to go and play 200 shows in one year – that breaks bands up, that really is what breaks them up.

Yeah, I can believe that.

Well yeah, it becomes a job, it becomes monotonous.

Is there anything special that you take on tour, especially these days where you’re really managing your time, is there anything you take on tour that you can’t live without?

I tear it down pretty far. I have my iPad, my phone and my earbuds. And I have eight t-shirts, three pairs of shorts, one long pants, ten pairs of socks and eight pairs of underwear. And that’s it. So nothing hahaha.

That’s a good answer. Definitely, the first I’ve had like that. Usually, it’s like ‘oh I have some special coffee-maker or something weird’ but no, that’s good.

We did some shows, this year in the fall and the coffee that was in the club, backstage, it was something that just wasn’t potent enough for us – and we’re not coffee snobs at all – but it was just real watery. And I was like “man, I am gonna start bringing coffee to these shows” but then we never did it.

Haha yeah. It does sound like a lot of effort. But it’s okay when you’re in Australia we have lots of good coffee, lots of strong coffee, so you’ll be fine.

Well that’s good, I’m an addict. When we were finishing the record last year at about this time, I flew out and I helped Milo get the finishing touches done on the vocals, you know I just kinda acted as an engineer for him. And I stayed at his house for maybe 9 days, one time, and he has this espresso maker in his house and he saw how much I loved it. And so when I got home from his house there was an espresso maker sitting on my porch that he had bought for me and shipped out to me. So now I have one too, it was such a nice gesture. That’s a true friend.

That is a true friend. What a legend! Just one quick ‘wrap it up’ question. Is there anything you’re looking forward to when you come out to Australia?

Well it’s snowing hear in Colorado, and it’s like 14 degrees (minus 10) so the first thing on my mind is that I’ll be in the sun and I can wear my shorts and not have to wear winter clothing and all that. And hopefully get a chance to go to the beach a couple of times. So that’s the first stuff on my mind. I’m very comfortable in Australia, it’s just a very comfortable place for me. Having grown up in Hermosa Beach, California, the cultures, to me, they’re not that different.

Interview by Dave Mullins

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Descendents return to Australia next month.

Tickets available right here via Select Touring

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