After seeing the Sex Pistols spit and sneer their way across America, it might be easy for jaded mosh pit denizens and music critics alike to dismiss the new Descendents album, Everything Sucks, as yet another moneymaking scheme aimed at the ears and wallets of the burgeoning suburban mall punk population.
Why not? With all the attention surrounding punk rock in the past several years--massive radio and MTV air play, retrospectives in major music magazines, beer commercials--everyone including the Circle Jerks and the aforementioned Pistols have been seen dusting off amps and bottles of hair color, hoping to cash in on the new punk "revolution." Even the Germs--a band with more legend than talent--were the subjects of a tribute album earlier this year.
But those who would like to accuse the Descendents of looking to make a quick buck off of name recognition aren't seeing the entire picture. Unlike other bands, the group never really went away. Rather, the Descendents (and their alter ego ALL) have been toiling in the shadows for the past 18 years, cranking out album after album, not giving a damn if the records sold one copy or a million. They are as they were--four dorky guys who love making music; nothing more and nothing less.
The band started at a Los Angeles high school in 1978 as a trio, its members united by common obsessions with--and not necessarily in this order--food, girls, coffee, and fishing. The trio--which consisted of Bill Stevenson on drums, Tony Lombardo on bass, and Frank Navetta on guitar--combined the gut-pummeling power of Black Sabbath with the sweet pop sensibilities of the Beach Boys, mixing up the concoction at rush tempos. When Stevenson convinced his best friend, singer Milo Aukerman, to join the band two years later, the blueprint for the genre later known in marketing circles as "pop punk" was complete.
In 1982, the band released Milo Goes to College, considered its masterpiece and one of the best punk albums of all time. The album is filled with anthems that are, as the Los Angeles Times wrote at the time of its release, "perfect for the little guy who was ever called a nerd and never got the girl." Despite the praise, however, it seemed as if the album would be it for the band: Aukerman did indeed go to college, and Stevenson left to join hardcore luminary Black Flag.
Two years later, however, Aukerman and Stevenson were back, and so were the Descendents. Before Aukerman left the band again in 1987 to pursue his Ph.D and a career in biochemistry, the band released five more records (including two live albums) and were joined by Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez on guitar and bass, respectively. The Descendents' preceding studio album, 1987's ALL, included "All-O-Gistics," a set of commandments that outlined the band's collective philosophy ("Thou shalt covet thy neighbor's food," "Thou shalt not partake of decaf," "Thou shalt always go for greatness," etc.). With Aukerman away at school, the band enlisted a new singer--Dave Smalley--and rechristened itself ALL in honor of this philosophy.
The new name spawned a period of change for the band. From 1988 to 1995, ALL released eight more albums (including last year's Pummel on Interscope Records), had three different lead singers (Smalley, Scott Reynolds, and Chad Price), and moved twice, ending up in Fort Collins, Colorado. But for all the changes the band endured, one thing remained constant: the music. Each album contained at least two or three songs that would have been surefire hits if only programmers at radio stations and MTV had been paying a little attention. These are, after all, the same people who made Hootie and the Blowfish bigger than Jesus.
Instead, Stevenson and the band got to see watered-down knockoffs becoming hugely popular by copping the Descendents' sound and singing with hooked-on-Buzzcocks British accents. But success by such bandwagon jumpers did lead to good things for the group, Stevenson says.
"Interscope gave us, like, a million bucks last year, and we built a recording studio," he says. "And then they basically didn't do too well with Pummel, so we bailed out, and took our recording studio with us."
Interscope signed the band thinking it had picked up another easy-to-market, cookie-cutter punk band. Stevenson says that the band knew otherwise.
"I think the thing they didn't realize, and we did realize, is that it's easier to market some of those mall punk bands because you've got the fashion that's there with it; you know, the nice hairdos and the fake British accents. But with ALL or Descendents, it's basically these ugly dork people playing music. They thought they could market it because it was the right music, but you know the fact of it is, is that the music doesn't have anything to do with anything really. We knew that."
After leaving Interscope, the band hooked up with Epitaph Records, the closest thing punk rock has to a major label. Brett Gurewitz, president and founder of Epitaph, toured with the Descendents and ALL while he was a member of Bad Religion. "We've kind of been in the trenches together over the years," Stevenson says. "He seems the most into it."
Around the same time that the band was signing with Epitaph, Aukerman--working in the labs at the University of Wisconsin--began to feel the need to be back in a band. He had contributed backing vocals to several ALL albums, and even played a show with the band in New Jersey several years ago when singer Chad Price had a throat infection. But Aukerman wanted to return to music in more of a permanent fashion.
"Well, we have a long history with Milo; I mean, he's been my best friend since we were kids," Stevenson says. "He's been in and out of the band a number of times, and he's actually been involved creatively with several of the ALL albums, so he's always been kind of a fifth member or a silent partner, but totally absorbed with his science work. He wanted back in the action. He wanted to play music, so who else would he play it with but us?" Aukerman's return caused somewhat of a sticky situation in the Descendents-ALL camp, since the band already had a singer, Price, who had been with the band for two albums and had been living in the same house as Stevenson. The problem was ultimately easy to resolve.
"What we did is, we just thought about it, and we thought, 'Well, hell. There's got to be a way we can let Milo back in without pushing Chad out the other end,'" Stevenson says. "So what we did is, we kind of mutated into two bands. So now we're Descendents with Milo, but we're also ALL with Chad...It's more of like a two-headed baby than anything else."
To that end, the band is releasing another album as ALL in the spring, with Price on the mike, around the same time its first tour in eight years with Aukerman wraps up. The tour is not yet officially under way, although the band has already played several dates--including a full week at L.A.'s famed The Whisky--that Stevenson says, "started out as just being two [shows] and kept selling and selling." While in L.A., the Descendents played with a laundry list of both up-and-coming and veteran punk bands, including Down By Law, the band led by ex-ALL frontman Dave Smalley.
"We see Dave a lot. We're real close with him and his wife, Caroline," Stevenson says. "Caroline was actually pretty good friends with the old version of the band, you know, me and Milo and stuff. It seems like we keep real close with everybody."
More than with any other band in recent memory, membership in Descendents or ALL means belonging to a sort of surrogate family that is impossible to escape from, the musical equivalent of the Corleones. "It's kind of like the incest knows no bounds," Stevenson says. "Tony (Lombardo) and Frank (Navetta) played on the record. Frank lives with me. He's not in the band, but we go fishing all the time. So it's like, it's kind of more of a family thing; I know that sounds really cliche, but if you came out here you would see what I mean."
Everything Sucks sounds like Aukerman never left, touring the country with the rest of the guys in the band's refurbished school bus instead of cooped up in a lab. Ironically, it probably sounds that way because Aukerman has been gone for all these years.
"I think during his absence in the lab and everything, I think our friendship has grown a lot stronger because I think we earned a lot of respect for each other," Stevenson says. "We respect him for basically leaving a rock band and going and being a nerd; him for us having the balls to put our heads down and persevere as ALL even though we lost our singer. It just feels more comfortable than ever on stage. I think, God, we're all 33, and it just feels like a nice, aged bottle of wine: just right."
The album picks up where 1987's ALL left off, with Egerton wielding his guitar like a chain saw while drummer Stevenson and bassist Alvarez lay down a rhythm track solid enough to withstand anything from the upper reaches of the Richter scale. Lyrically, the band has matured--but only a little bit. There are still the adolescent bursts of energy ("Coffee Mug") and humor ("Eunuch Boy," "Doghouse"), but for the most part, the band sticks to what it does best: writing songs about girls and what happens when you fall in love with them.
The characters in Descendents songs have always been brokenhearted geeks who wear their hearts on their sleeves. They lust after the girls they can't have ("You don't feel the same/You made it clear to me"), and even when they find a girl who loves them, they can't be happy ("I guess I'd love her back if I only could").
Lyrics like those could only come from someone who has experienced a fair share of heartache, and Stevenson admits, "We've been known to flower it up a little for the sake of drama, but basically, yeah, they're all pretty much real." That kind of reality has sometimes caused problems for the band.
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"I remember [Stevenson's girlfriend] Sarina got real mad about that song 'Birthday I.O.U.' [from 1993's Breaking Things]," Stevenson says. "That song is about abortion, and she and I went through this thing where she had an abortion, and that's just my feelings about it. She wasn't too stoked, because she kind of thought I was being right wing about it. It's like, 'Dude, it's not politics; it's just my feelings about it.' I don't give a fuck about politics."
The musicians haven't let politics--or other facts of adult life--shake them from their original teenage pursuits: girls, coffee, food, fishing, and music. It is that youthful outlook that has allowed the band to withstand the passage of time and still look to the future.
"I don't see an end on it now; I don't see any kind of boundaries," Stevenson says. "It still feels real good. I mean, we still play pretty much every night. You'd think that you'd wake up and go, 'Man, fuck. I'm 35 and I'm not really into this anymore because I'm too old.'
"I think the people who got into this to get laid or be cool, those are the people who burn out. The people that got into it because they enjoy music, those are the people who are always going to love music. That's where I think we are. I can see us literally in like 20 years playing saxophones and shit, in a small club making a hundred bucks. I can totally see that.