Introduction: Although this interview originally ran in some dishrag punk magazine back in 2007, (exactly one year after I submitted it,) I don't think this piece got the circulation it deserved. I literally DID invite myself out to Colorado to speak with one of my all-time heroes, Bill Stevenson of the legendary DESCENDENTS, BLACK FLAG, and other killer bands.
At that time, the Descendents were long-dormant, with no upcoming shows in sight. However, in recent years, Stevenson has been stricken with a brain tumor, diabetes, and a pulmonary embolism, nearly killing the man as well as wiping out his financial reserves.
That's ALL it took to have one of the greatest punk bands of all time, The Descendents to reunite beginning last year and they remain active on the live scene in 2011.
Having the opportunity to interview Bill was a consolation prize for me, since I never got to interview The Descendents and ask questions I was DYING to know the answers to. I'd get enraged when I'd read a 2004 interview with Stevenson, and the most probing question the writer could come up with would be "What do you think of George Bush?" Who cares? Fuck, come up with something original!
Bill Stevenson, Fort Collins Colorado, August, 2006. Photo By Count Blood.
Fort Collins, Colorado- Let it be known that Bill Stevenson offered me coffee within five minutes of meeting him. For someone who grew up listening to ‘Kids on Coffee’ and ‘Coffee Mug’ by The Descendents, not to mention ‘Black Coffee’ by Black Flag, that meant a lot!
The legendary Stevenson has pounded drums and written songs for those two incredible bands, as well as ALL, Only Crime, The Last, and Lemonheads.
He’s best known for The Descendents, the Southern California punk band whose tunes continue to epitomize adolescent longing and frustration. With addicted-to-academia singer Milo Aukerman, The Descendents catalog continues to notch up sales, even though the band remains largely inactive. Bill, however, is anything but!
Now based in Colorado, he runs the successful Blasting Room Recording Studios with producing partner Jason Livermore.
YOUR EARLY RECORDING PROJECTS WERE WORKING WITH THE PRODUCER SPOT. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM WORKING WITH HIM?
I was too young at that point really to be capable of, or even to have the good sense to learn anything from anybody. I was a guy in his late teens, you know, with his head up his ass thinking about girls. That was my life. I was too stupid to learn anything from Spot.
YOU WOULD JUST GO IN, SET UP AND NOT REALLY CARE ABOUT THE MICROPHONE PLACEMENT?
Right, not the details, but be like fretting over the EQ after the fact. I mean, I did learn some things from Spot, but I learned them say like five years ago, twenty years after the fact. I thought about things that he did, and was like, “Oh fuck, that’s how he did it!”
AROUND 1984, ALL THE SST BANDS STOPPED WORKING WITH SPOT. WHY WAS THAT?
I think Spot more stopped working with people. Spot is a very, very accomplished musician, he plays like fifteen instruments really kick ass. And so he’s into all kinds of music. He’s one of those guys that will play all day. He’s a musician more than any of us are.
WHEN DID YOU GET A TASTE FOR RECORDING?
Probably recording ‘Milo Goes To College’ (1982) was the first time I really started thinking about how much control a guy can have over something sounds. As opposed to just “Oh well the band sounds how they sound,” and you put the mics up, as if it’s this documentary. You think “You take a photo, it’s a photo,” but there’s actually a lot of different kind of photos can be taken of the scenario. So then I started thinking of it in those terms, whereas before that I just thought “Oh I heard a KISS album, well that’s what Kiss sounds like.” I never really thought about the fact that all these little decisions were made along the way that affected how each individual album sounded and that all those decisions put together affected how Kiss sounded.
I studied music at a really very young age. I just remember listening to records and deconstructing them in my brain, even with AM radio shit like The Carpenters. I remember having the kind of mind that was just really drawn towards analyzing the different aspects of a musical performance. But then analyzing the sonic aspect didn’t come until later.
Jason Livermore, Bill Stevenson. Photo By Count Blood.
The Most Painful, Agonizing Album Ever Recorded.
NOW WITH BLACK FLAG, I’M TOLD THEY’D PRACTICE EIGHT HOURS A DAY. IS THAT ACCURATE?
That’s a little bit of a stretch, but we did rehearse a lot. We would be at practice maybe six-eight hours, but how much of that time was actual playing time was maybe somewhat less. We would definitely woodshed quite a lot.
YOU SAY YOU WEREN’T INTO PLAYING THE SLOW SONGS WITH BLACK FLAG, BUT WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE BLACK FLAG ALBUM?
My favorite Black Flag material all happened before I even joined the band. It’s funny, because I know Henry feels the same way. We were all fans of that Dez lineup. I like the Six Pack single, and the Nervous Breakdown single, and a lot of Damaged. But with my stuff that I recorded, it’s really hard for me to critique it, because the band underwent such a huge change, sort of like it wasn’t the band I thought I was joining. It sort of became, with all the metal and hard rock influence. It wasn’t that I didn’t like that stuff, it was just that I wasn’t really capable, like my head wasn’t in it to do a good job playing it. I think my high points with Black Flag are sprinkled through the albums. For instance, I think ‘Swinging Man’ is brilliant, I think ‘Three Nights’ is brilliant, I think ‘My Ghetto’ and ‘Slip It In’ are brilliant, I think the song ‘In My Head’ is brilliant. Maybe the band’s high points creatively happened to have happened while I was in the band, but then there was some really bad stuff too, so you kind of have to take the good with the bad.
I HAVE TO ASK YOU ABOUT THE BLACK FLAG LP LOOSE NUT, BECAUSE I’VE ALWAYS TRIPPED OUT ON THE WAY THAT ALBUM SOUNDS.
Yeah, that was the time, that period where you had your Def Leppards, and your Ratts, and your Dokkens. Everyone was using all that non-linear reverb, gated reverb, that kind of explodo snare and all that. We were thinking records were supposed to sound like you spent a lot of money on them, I think that was kind of the operative theory. Greg really wanted to use a lot of that technology that was happening at the time, whereas I thought it sounded kind of alien.
BUT YOU GOT A SONG ON THE ALBUM, ‘NOW SHE’S BLACK.’ WERE YOU STOKED ON THAT?
I don’t know how I feel about that. It’s funny. I’m 43, and a lot of the stuff I wrote as a teenager and as a person now old enough to be that person’s father, the lyrics seem weird to me. Like, why did I write that, what was I trying to say? What kind of damaged white boy was I that I would have those thoughts? I guess that just means you’ve grown. I think it’s natural to look back on something you did artistically and go ‘Eww!’ I think that’s normal.
BLACK FLAG HAD THAT RELENTLESS DRIVE. DID THAT DISCIPLINE YOU TO JUST KEEP GOING?
Those guys were a little older than me, and I think they had a little bit better grip on diligence and follow through. I learned a lot of everything from Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski. A lot about that stuff, and also just about normal life. I kind of looked up to them almost like father figures. I was in an interesting situation, because I was born when my father was fifty, so when I was 18, my father was 68. That’s the age that a grandpa would be. I couldn’t relate to him in a father/son kind of way, couldn’t talk to him about girls or whatever. I ended up doing that with Greg and Chuck more.
DID YOUR DAD DISAPPROVE OF THE DIRECTION YOU WERE HEADED?
He would be hot and cold. Like if we got a good review in the L.A. times, then all of a sudden it was okay to be in a band. But if we rented some hall in Watts and 40 people came, then it wasn’t cool to be in the band. He couldn’t see it as art, he could only assess whether or not it was doing well. If it was doing well, then it was valid. That was his outlook.
WHAT’S THE FIRST ALBUM THAT YOU ENGINEERED?
You mean start to finish? I don’t know. That’s a good question.
The Man Behind The Kit. Photo By Count Blood.
YOU WERE THROWN INTO RECORDING DEEP END IN 1985 WITH ‘I DON’T WANT TO GROW UP.’
I ended up kind of defacto engineering a lot of it because the engineer that was doing it at the time was kind of unreliable. I ended up in the hot seat, and so obviously that record sounds horrible, largely to my fault.
EVERYONE KNOWS IT’S A GREAT ALBUM.
For years, the stuff that we engineered sounded horrible, but it’s weird, as horrible as it sounded, it still sounded a little bit better than all the other punk records that were happening at the time. Punk bands could only afford just a quick few days to record.
WHEN THAT ALBUM CAME OUT MY FRIEND WAS LIKE, “YEAH, ONE SIDE’S PUNK, AND ONE SIDE IS LOVE SONGS!” DID YOU CONSCIOUSLY SPLIT UP THOSE SIDES?
I actually think we kind of did, for what reason, I don’t know. At that time, it was some would-be divine plan that I think just makes the album harder to listen to, but whatever.
DID YOU EVER DO CASSETTE DEMOS? DEMO SONGS WHERE YOU PLAY ALL THE INSTRUMENTS?
Yeah. My four track, the one I’ve always had, is sitting right out there on the table. I did most of my demos on that thing.
WILL THOSE EVER BE RELEASED ONE DAY?
No. I have a really poor voice. Seems to work out good if I harmonize in a high register with singers, but me singing by myself it’s not a good thing.
YOU’VE ALWAYS LIKED BEING ON THE ROAD?
Touring, you know, I think everyone has a love/hate relationship with it. There’s this whole thing where you’re out there on the conquest, so it’s like being a pirate. And the other side is there’s the umpteenth time where the bass player puts his dirty socks on your pillow in the van then it’s not fun anymore.
THE BAND LIVED TOGETHER, ELBOW TO ELBOW FOR A LONG TIME
Yeah, and with that in mind, it wasn’t that different for us to be on tour because we were already up in each other’s face. We just lived in our practice room, the size of a small office storefront kind of thing.
IF YOU’RE LIVING SO CLOSE TO PEOPLE, HOW DID YOU WRITE SONGS? DID YOU WRITE THEM IN THE PRESENCE OF SOMEONE, OR JUST GO OFF SOMEWHERE?
I would just take one of the guitars, not plugged in, and just go out in the parking lot and sit on the curb, the stopper where your wheel goes up against. I would just sit on that and run through it all. Or with the ukulele, too. ‘Clean Sheets,’ ‘Just Perfect,’ and ‘Shreen,’ I wrote those on a ukulele.
OKAY, SO THE LINE IN THE DESCENDENTS SONG VAN- ‘PLAY MY SMALL UKE’…. THERE’S A REAL SMALL UKE AROUND?
Oh, yeah! Because you could fit it. Even if you’re in the little loft in the van, you could sit there and play it.
WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA TO ACTUALLY MANUFACTURE THE BONUS CUP?
That was one of our high school buddies idea to actually make a mug, where it was kind of a souvenir of these horrible cups of coffee we’d drink. The thing about the Bonus Cup was that was in the early, early eighties, and coffee the way we now know it wasn’t really available. So, I was sort of ahead of my time as far as bringing the gnarly coffee in a world where there was none. I remember being able to go in San Francisco, there was a place we would go called Caffé Trieste, and we could get the super espresso. If you went to an Italian restaurant you could get the gnarly coffee, but just the average Joe on the street, you couldn’t find that coffee, so we ended up doing the whole Bonus Cup thing with the instant coffee.
DESCENDENTS singer Milo Aukerman. Photo by Murray Bowles.
WHERE DOES MILO LIVE NOW?
He lives in Delaware, he’s been working on this corn things since the fucking dawn of humanity. It seems like he’s been doing it for 20 years or something, trying to come up with this special corn.
THE DESCENDENTS ARE BIGGER NOW THAN THEY’VE EVER BEEN
You think? Yeah, it’s funny how that works, because Minor Threat is bigger, too. It seems like the less we do, the more popular we get.
IT’S GOTTA BE A RELIEF TO KNOW THAT HARD WORK, THE DRIVE, THE TOURS, AND GRINDING IT OUT FINALLY PAYS OFF
I Just think the record ‘Milo Goes To College’ struck some nerve with everybody, there’s something about it. The record sounds amazing! It was kind of a fluke.
HOW DID YOU HOOK UP WITH STEPHEN EGERTON AND KARL ALVAREZ?
After the ‘Enjoy’ tour, which was the Descendents’ third album, Doug and Ray, who had succeeded original members Frank and Tony, both left. I think the circumstances were too hard for them; just the touring conditions, there was no money. We were playing in front of twenty people, and they just wanted out.
IT TAKES A TOLL…
I called this other guy who I’d seen play bass, to ask him if he would be interested in playing, and then Karl happened to be in the room when this guy was talking to me, and Karl was like “Hey, I want to come out and try out!,” So Karl came out and said “Hey, my childhood buddy would be perfect for this, we grew up on Black Flag and Descendents and all that, so let’s get him in.” It all just fell together super quickly with that. It was really one of those (snaps finger) natural things.
DO YOU REMEMBER RECORDING THE DESCENDENTS ‘ALL’ ALBUM? (1987)
Yeah, we did that at Radio Tokyo. A lot of those records back then, some of it would be live, the guitar, bass, and drums. Maybe fix a few things, add some guitars. It was really dark, the way it came out. When we mastered it, we brightened it so much to make the vocal not dark, and then it got kind of thin in a way.
THAT RECORD CHANGED MY LIFE. IT MADE ME AWARE OF PRODUCING ON AN INDEPENDENT LEVEL.
Yeah, because as shitty as our stuff was, at least we were trying to do something within the constraints of “Okay, you’ve got ten days to make a record,” instead of George Martin where “You’ve got six months to make a record!”
‘CLEAN SHEETS’ WAS KIND OF A HIT, RIGHT?
I guess it would have been probably if it would have been a little more intact. A lot of radio played it, but it wasn’t like a big, big song. Some of the others were a little later.
DESCENDENTS, 1987- Bill Stevenson, Stephen Egerton, Karl Alvarez, Milo Aukerman.
THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF ALL WAS CREATED BY YOU AND PAT McQUISTION?
It was just some weird thing we came up with when we were fishing. We were trying to fill the boat up all the way. That’s funny, because he did that with his boat. He put like 19,000 pounds of urchins on it and he got into some weather, and the boat tipped over and sunk and he died.
THE ALL SONG ‘EXPLORADOR’ IS ABOUT HIM, RIGHT?
Yeah, he had other problems though, too I think if he would have strapped the load down properly so it wouldn’t have shifted, the boat wouldn’t have tipped over and sunk. He had some problems with drugs and stuff, so I don’t know. I never got involved with any of that shit so it’s hard to judge people that are into that if I’ve never really tried it, but whatever.
DO YOU STILL GO FISHING?
I don’t go too much. If I get a free afternoon, I’d rather go to the river and just hang out. I might watch the fish, but I haven’t had much urge to really catch them. My son Miles, who’s five, is wanting now to go fishing, so I’ll probably go this week, actually.
YOUR ATTITUDE HAS ALWAYS BEEN IF YOU MAKE MORE MONEY, IT GOES RIGHT BACK INTO THE BAND, FOR BETTER EQUIPMENT, AND NICER SOUNDING RECORDINGS. IT SEEMS LIKE THAT’S WHERE YOUR PRINCIPLES STILL ARE.
I have a family now so money gets deflected into family. Yeah, but this place keeps growing. We had a t-shirt printing place, too, but we just sold that off to one of the people that was running it. In some ways, I’m trying to be a little more focused, but that’s being hypocritical too, because I’ve got all these different band things I’ve been doing too. I just finished a LEMONHEADS record where I played drums on it and co-wrote a lot of the songs and produced it. That’s real rad, me and Karl did that with Evan.
ONLY CRIME recording. Bill, Zach. Photo By Count Blood.
WITH ONLY CRIME, DID YOU ALL WRITE INDEPENDENTLY, OR DID YOU JAM HERE?
Well, the album that we’re recording now is very much combustive, interacting, and everyone putting in their two cents on the writing. With the first album, the material was a little bit more brought in by Russ and Zach. We didn’t do as much modifying or embellishing as with this new one.
THE NEW ALBUM IS NOW UNDERWAY?
Yeah, as soon as you turn that tape recorder off, we’re going to start recording.
HOW LONG DO THESE SESSIONS GO?
This is like two weeks. We should be able to finish it in two weeks. We’re playing it live in the B Room. Jason Livermore set it all up, but there’s a keyboard in the room, and we just hit that to record. We don’t have anyone back here with us, we’re just doing it ourselves, but Livermore is going to mix it.
HAS ONLY CRIME PLAYED MANY SHOWS?
We’ve done about 90. We played in Denver last night, at The Ogden, with Rancid. It went really well. That’s not a bad crowd for us to play in front of.
WERE YOU PLAYING THE UNRELEASED STUFF?
Some of it. We played three or four unreleased songs.
HOW MANY ALBUMS DO YOU THINK YOU’VE PLAYED ON?
I’m not sure… That’s one of those things that Jason Allen would know. It seems like it’s somewhere around fifty.
Black Flag, 1983. Photo By Naomi Peterson.