Descendents are one of the best bands to ever play punk rock music. Formed in ‘78, the band’s first releases have proven historic, and all the ones since have only further refined the Descendents concept. Punk, pop, buzzing, summery, heartfelt, defiant, adolescent, and wise all at once, the Descendents sound never gets old. During their last tour in Europe, I had a nice chat with the singer Milo Aukerman and the bassist Karl Alvarez about the band, tour, projects and much more.
I’m quite excited to be here.
Milo: Great! So am I!
We’re in Milan (Italy) on the last day of your European tour. How has travelling around Europe again been?
Milo: I always love to come here, and because we’ve been doing it for some many years, we try now to do it in a way that’s not as stressful as it used to be. It can be stressful if you’re playing every single night, night after night – and for me as a singer, that can cause me problems. So now we come over, play two or three in a row and then we get a day off. And having a day off in Europe – what could be better than that? My last days off were in Barcelona, Vienna and Milan. And guess which three cities are my favourite in Europe right now? And I take advantage of it. I go and see museums and whatnot. Today I went to the Brera, which was good – a lot of religious art. But it was still great to see some masters.
Hypercaffium Spazzinate is your latest album. How is it different from your first album, Milo Goes to College?
Milo: I think we always want to bring aggression, and that’s one of the things that’s the same. It’s kind of a constant, and we have to thank Stephen, the guitar player, for bringing in most of the really aggressive songs that we then write lyrics to. But I also think that the song writing always continues to evolve, and one thing that always changes and is never constant is what we sing about. So now we’re writing about our advanced stage of life. We all have kids, we have wives, we have different concerns than we used to have. So we’ve got songs about death, relationships. It’s no longer songs about being picked on in high school like we used to do.
Your last album addressed the topics of love and relationships, getting old, needing to diet, recovering from illness and fighting for yourself. Can you talk a little bit more about the song writing process? Has it changed over the years?
Milo: One thing, again, that has stayed constant is that we all contribute. To me, that has been the great satisfaction of doing this – that we all contribute to the song writing pretty much equally. And that’s been something we’ve been real proud of all along. Here’s Karl. Right in the middle of interviewing. I was just saying how great you are.
Karl: It’s all true.
Milo: How great your songs are on the record and all that. So for this record, Karl contributed a quarter – everyone contributed equally to the whole process. Regarding song writing, we just wait for something to really stick in our craw, and then we just have to write a song out of it, and that’s how the process gets started. A lot of it gets flushed out by the rest of the band. Someone might write some lyrics and music, but the rest of that’s going to get flushed out by the other members. So it’s really a four person process.
Karl: Stephen doesn’t generally write lyrics, that’s one thing.
Milo: No, but he did write some kick ass songs.
Karl: He wrote really good songs. He’ll give us very good melodies and very good songs and I work from there.
Milo: Yeah, so we all contribute lyrics to his music.
You have seven studio albums, three live albums, three compilation albums and three EPs. Where do you find the inspiration to continue to play together?
Milo: I think it’s friendship first and foremost. Bill and I were high school chums. Stephen and Karl were high school chums. And then once they got in the band, they became fast long friends. That’s how it’s been all along. We just all vibe really well together. It’s hard to describe, really, but that’s what has kept the spirit of the whole thing going. We’ve had periods when we were on hiatus, where I would keep in touch with them and they’d have other bands going, like All, but I was kind of their biggest fan. Then we’d get back together again, mostly just out of the desire to be close again as friends.
Karl: We also had Milo singing backup on a couple of the All records. Our family is very permeable, people come and go from projects and drift in and out of projects. It’s kind of that way.
This year is the 20th anniversary of your album, Everything Sucks. Looking back at 1996, would you change anything about that album if you could go back?
Milo: I thought it was a return to a very aggressive sound. Again, I think what we try to return to when we record is that really aggressive sound that we kind of started out with in Milo Goes to College. I think the production on that record is great. I probably would have pulled a couple of my songs off the record just because I was writing some songs that weren’t fully fleshed out and maybe those didn’t come off as well. But some of the songs that Karl and Bill wrote were monumental. Karl wrote “I’m the One,” and it’s just a great song. So personally, I probably would have skewed it more towards their stuff and a little less towards mine, because mine didn’t turn out perfect in my estimate.
One of my favourite songs from Everything Sucks is “When I Get Old.” In the lyrics you say:”What will I be like when I get old? Will I still hop on my bike and ride around town?Will I still want to be someone, and not just sit around? I don’t want to be like other adults cause they’ve already died cool and condescending, fossilized..” After 20 years, did you keep that promise?
Milo: Well, that’s why I’m doing the band. That is it first and foremost – along with the other types of desires I had in my life – such as the desire to stay close to these friends of mine – but it was definitely right up there with that: the desire to stay young. And this music allows me to be an immature person. Some of our songs are very immature. Some of our songs are so immature that, I’m there singing, thinking “I can’t believe I’m singing this and I’m in my 50s,” because some of them are so goofy and sometimes inappropriate. I think that’s part of why I like to do it. It kind of staves away mortality to some degree and wipes away the cobwebs that tend to accumulate as part of your being if you don’t just kind of shake things up. We shake things up on a daily basis, and that works for me.
Do you think that your view of life or everyday society and political issues has changed since the album Everything Sucks?
Milo: I think I’ve just become a little more politically – I’m not even going to say “aware,” I’m going to say “concerned.” That’s the big difference. I think in the mid-90s I felt politically like the country at least wasn’t going off the rails; it was perhaps in a decent place. And now I feel like the country is going off the rails completely, since January. That’s been kind of how, just in the past year, the band has become that much more outspoken about that. We continue to evolve as people with political interests. I don’t think I ever want to define us as a political band. That’s just not our gig, and I think that would be a mistake. It’s not in our DNA, but if we have something we want to get off our chest that is of a political nature, we will do it. And we’ve done it in the past; we’ve written a handful of political songs just because we had to rail against somebody.
You started to play together in 1978-79. What’s different about playing these days compared to at the beginning of your career?
Milo: We started out in someone’s garage, where we had tacked up a bunch of carpeting, and that was the modus operandi for years and years. We did a lot of what you might call “woodshedding” – playing for ourselves, without an audience. And then when we would go out and play for an audience it was a very small audience. So that’s obviously a major difference. We can play now for big crowds, like today, as opposed to smaller crowds. But it doesn’t change our approach to how we do it. We still get that energy off each other on stage just as we did back in 1979. I kind of think we still have a chip on our shoulder on some level, because that’s just how the band started out: as four guys that were just a little pissed off. And I think we’re still that way. It’s just that we’re now pissed off in front of more people then before.
I have been following you since I was a kid and I’m now 32 years old. And I’m pretty excited to see you live tonight. In your opinion, why is your audience so attached to you after all this time?
Milo: Maybe that’s because we continue to bring the right attitude to the music. We don’t ever want to go soft, and I think there’s always some kid out there who wants to rock hard, and we try to bring that. It’s always been a surprise to me that over the years, rather than just having fans that age with us, we also have fans that are young kids. And to me that’s just amazing and I’m very grateful for it. I kind of think it’s because we want to make music that makes us feel young, and that makes other people feel young. And if they’re already young, well, then they’re already right there.
You guys have influenced lots of people, obviously, but who were some of the influences that that helped you to become who you are?
Milo: We started out in LA in the late 70s, and it was during this blossoming of early punk rock in that town. That’s kind of how I got into the band to begin with; I just became very enthralled with the early LA punk rock scene. I was actually not as early to the scene as, say, Bill was. I mean, he was watching punk rock bands in ‘78-‘79. I didn’t start watching punk rock until 1980. I was more of a new wave kid. I was into Devo, The B-52’s and those kinds of bands. And then I just found myself listening to more of LA punk rock, like X, which was a big gateway band for me. I heard them on Rodney on the ROQ, which is the big radio station out there and played a ton of LA punk rock. So X, Black Flag, Germs, all that – I just kind of immersed myself in it, as did the rest of the band. I think those are probably some of the real critical influences for us.
You are one of the first punk rock bands formed in California. What do you think about the punk rock scene in you area? And are there new bands that you like?
Milo: I think there’s still a vibrant scene out there. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of LA punk rock right now. Pennywise is still playing around, and they’re great friends of ours. There are some new bands out there that I’ve really enjoyed, like this band called Pears. They’re really great and I’ve seen them play a few of these festivals. They’re just really energetic, kind of like-minded to what we do. We got on to Epitaph records for this new release, and I realized when we signed for that record how much I like Epitaph bands. They’ve actually put out some good records over the past few years that I could really get behind. The Lawrence Arms record is really good. I’ve been liking the Menzingers, which also did a record with them. This band called The Sidekicks – they’re not totally punk, but I just like their approach to song writing, melodies and what not. It’s been nice to realize that Brett actually likes a lot of the same bands I do. So it’s good to be on his label.
Can you give some advice to any young musician or any band that wants to play punk rock?
Milo: Do it for the expression part of it. Do it because you’ve got something to say. Do it because you’ve got something to get off your chest and because you want to jump around on stage and go batshit crazy. That’s the whole point behind doing it. And if you come into it with that energy than you’ve already distilled a lot of what punk rock really is. Success… I have no advice to give on that, because I didn’t have a plan. Just play. And play hard, and play fast and do it with as much energy and emotion that you can.
(Photos: Ilaria Sperandio)