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Problem solved

"We simply lack the charisma to be famous or whatever," says Bill Stevenson, bottom left. "So we have to accept our plight, play to 200 people, and be happy with it."
Stacie Lockwood

Opening bands grumbled because the drummer's kit had to be set up hours before his group's set, and whoever was in charge of doing it complained too, because it had to be perfect. Every night, every tour; no exceptions, no excuses. And since perfection is difficult to achieve in the 20 minutes between acts, the kit (every screw tightened within an eyelash of factory specifications) had to remain in place, no matter how many bands were on the bill, no matter how much room any of them thought they needed.

Screw 'em, the drummer said: When they were headlining, hey, then they could call the shots.

Similarly, bands who wanted him to produce their albums griped because he made them--get this--practice before he would even think about setting foot inside the studio with them. He didn't just suggest it either; he made sure they were in a rehearsal room for hours at a time, every day for a week or so. Hell, his band had been together for more than a decade, and they still practiced for hours every night. On top of that, he'd been making music when some of these hotshots weren't old enough to say their own names. He was playing with Henry Rollins when that actually meant something. If it wasn't done right, he figured, it wasn't worth doing. Not when he could be fishing, at least.

But that was the thing: Even when he was off on a fishing trip, he was still busting his ass, not just content to sit on the boat and wait for a nibble. He had to catch as many fish as he could before heading back to Colorado, turning what should have been a leisurely, relaxing vacation into another outlet for his obsessive behavior. He couldn't really help it, growing up in Southern California with a driven father, a man who believed the sole vacation in life came in the form of a pine box. It took Bill Stevenson--drummer for ALL and before that, the Descendents--most of his life to figure that out.

"I think, in maybe the last five years, I've gotten really in tune with my true personality rather than the one that my dad forced upon me, which was this work-till-you-die kind of thing," Stevenson says, from his home in Fort Collins, Colorado. He's taking a break from work right now, a bit of home improvement, though he wasn't really getting anywhere with his house's stubborn plumbing anyway. "But my true personality is more like, you know, try to do things that are interesting to you, and if it's not interesting to you, don't do it." He laughs.

In that time, ironically, Stevenson has been busier than ever. His bandmates, along with Joe Carducci (a veteran of SST Records), set up Owned & Operated Records a few years ago. The label has since released albums by Bill the Welder (fronted by ALL roadie Daniel "Bugphace" Snow), The Pavers (the new band from former ALL singer Scott Reynolds), Shiner, and Wretch Like Me, as well as an ALL best-of last year. But even with the unmistakable traces of nepotism present in the label's roster (Wretch Like Me, by the way, includes Jason Livermore, the main engineer at the band's studio, The Blasting Room), it is more of a fully functioning label than a vanity project. Besides, it's not exactly as if they're famous enough to sell records based on name recognition alone.

Owned & Operated has also spawned an offshoot, Upland Records, which has put out records by, among others, Drag the River, current ALL singer Chad Price's country-tinged side project. Stevenson and the band run a T-shirt printing business as well, in addition to The Blasting Room, the studio they built themselves, funded by the advance they received from Interscope Records for 1995's Pummel, their one and only major label album. To top it all off, an online retail store (www.site-zero.com) is in the finishing stages, along with an Internet-only 'zine, The Antagonist. Somewhere in there, you expect Stevenson and the band to unveil a plan for world peace.

Not that he needs anymore to do. Even without any of these forays into entrepreneurship, Stevenson would be a busy man. Since 1995, ALL has released three albums (including 1998's Mass Nerder and Problematic, which came out in June), crisscrossing the country after each one. And in 1996, the Descendents--the band that gave way to ALL when singer Milo Aukerman disappeared into a biochemistry laboratory in pursuit of a doctorate degree in 1987--reformed to record an album, 1996's Everything Sucks, and hit the road for a successful reunion tour. On top of that, another Descendents record is scheduled for release early next year.

However, the situation couldn't be better for Stevenson. In fact, this is what he's been hoping for all along. After all, he's not as busy as he looks.

 

"I'm involved in owning, but not very much in operating," Stevenson says, referring to the band's label. "We usually pick the bands for the label, and Stephen and I record them, and that kind of thing. Then all the nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day kind of stuff, there's other people that do that. My attention span has evolved such that I don't really like to be involved with anything more than one or two hours a day." He laughs. "I've got it set up good now, because I've got the T-shirt printing business, the record label, the recording studio, and the band, so I can just kind of, like a fly, land on one thing for a while and then, whoa, go somewhere else for a while. Which suits my ability for concentration pretty well, which is close to nil."

The best example of his newfound lack of concentration, Stevenson explains, is his attention to songwriting. When he was starting out, he might spend months--years occasionally--on a song, keeping it with him until it was absolutely ready to be heard. Even then, he might not be particularly happy with the results. Now, he's found a way around that.

"That's the new plan," he begins. "On Everything Sucks and Mass Nerder, [bassist] Karl [Alvarez] was finishing a lot of my songs. I had like 'When I Get Old' and a couple of others on there, and he basically wrote the songs. But they're my ideas. On Mass Nerder, there was 'I'll Get There' and 'Think the World' and a couple of others that were my ideas but he basically finished the songs. And then on Problematic, half the album--half the album--I had these ideas and [guitarist] Stephen [Egerton] finished them. Tons of 'em--like 'She Broke My Dick,' 'www.sara,' 'Stupid Kind of Love,' 'Nothing to Live For.' I had all these ideas, but I didn't wanna bother..." He trails off, trying to explain himself.

"I'm compulsive, so sometimes it's easier if I've got a really well-developed chorus, and a really well-developed chord progression and melody for the chorus, to kind of let it go to someone who's not going to get hung up on it for five years, like I used to get with stuff," Stevenson continues, chuckling softly. "'She's My Ex'--that was something I started in '86, and finished it in like '89. That's no way to go. And it's ill-arranged as it is; it's too long. So that process obviously didn't help it."

Despite Stevenson's doubts, "She's My Ex" (off 1989's Allroy's Revenge) is just fine as it is, even 10 years after the fact. The reason is the same reason why the band--in all its various incarnations--has managed to remain relevant two decades deep into a career that could have, should have, ended in the early '80s. Rather than conforming to the trends of the time, dating themselves with a particular sound or political stance, ALL and the Descendents have primarily written songs about love--something most people can relate to, whether it's 1978 or 1998.

What makes those songs even more special is that they never seem to have sprung from one of the band members' imaginations. (Though you certainly would hope Problematic's comical "She Broke My Dick" is pure fantasy.) When Price asks "What went wrong?" on "www.sara," you can't help wondering, well, what went wrong between Sara and Stevenson, who wrote the lyrics. As Stevenson admitted in a 1996 interview with the Dallas Observer, "We've been known to flower it up a little for the sake of drama, but basically, yeah, they're all pretty much real."

It's that kind of honesty that has won the band a devoted, determined following. To bolster that argument, Owned & Operated released a self-titled sprint through ALL's back catalog last February, with a track listing selected by e-mailed votes from fans. Of the 22 songs on the disc, almost every one of them was a love song, showcasing the hard-pop sound the band practically invented, rather than the harder-edged punk that they grew up with and occasionally delve into (cf. Pummel's "Uncle Critic" and "Stalker"). Does Stevenson agree with the fan's assessment of his band's career? Not necessarily, but he understands it.

"I think it's a representation of the pop side of our thing," he allows. "A lot of our less typical stuff, more adventurous stuff got left off though. I guess what that says is people like us better when we just do what we do best. I don't know." That said, "Stalker" has been appearing on this tour's setlists, in somewhat of a surprise move.

Not as much of a surprise as, say, the band's three-song encore: Black Flag's "Nervous Breakdown," the Descendents' "Coolidge," and Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell," all with Stevenson on guitar, Egerton on drums, Price on bass, and Alvarez on vocals. Stevenson has said in the past that he wouldn't feel comfortable playing guitar onstage, that his neuroses would never allow it. It could be a sign that his new personality really is taking over.

 

"My friend John Hampton, he works down at Ardent Studios in Memphis, he goes, 'Bill, the problem with you is that you have to learn how to not give a fuck,'" Stevenson says, explaining the origin of the change in attitude. "Because I would compulse over the most minute, insignificant drivel. You know, 'There's one molecule on the high hat that's not right.' He's just like, 'What the fuck does that matter?' And this is a guy with a wall full of gold records, you know?"

For the most part, the three-song encore is a sign that Stevenson has taken Hampton's advice, letting the shows just happen, rather than worrying how many people showed up and whether or not they really got what was going on. The idea came to him when ALL was opening for Less Than Jake on tour last year.

"To be quite honest, I like ALL as a 40-minute set. I mean, visually and socially and all that, I don't think we warrant a big, long set. There's not enough there for people to latch onto. No smoke machine, no lights, nobody up there being social with you, talking to you, nobody that really looks nice or looks good. There's just not a lot to ALL other than playing music. I mean, I enjoy a longer show by us, and I think our hardcore fans do. But I think casual observers are just like, 'So what's the big deal? These guys can play really well--so what?'

"It's almost like every band that ever opened for us, we end up having to open for them," he concludes, laughing slightly. "We simply lack the charisma to be famous or whatever, so we have to accept our plight, play to 200 people, and be happy with it." He pauses, then adds, "Which we are."


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