On the surface, Descendents seem like goofball heroes — spastic, caffeinated kids of the black hole who effortlessly spun lovelorn punk songs like “Hope” and spawned 100,000 band wannabes. Yet their intelligence and inventiveness still run wide and deep. Influenced by everything from first-wavers like the Alley Cats to the experimental contortions of avant-garde jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, their music defies all boundaries and norms, becoming some kind of volatile hybrid.
Meanwhile, their new tunes, for instance “Feel This,” emote like powerhouse punk-pop with bite and gritty propulsion, “No Fat Burger” burns just as hard and fast as their classics while weighing the tribulations of adulthood, and “Human Being” addresses homelessness and nuclear warheads in less than one minute. As always, they manage the seemingly impossible: a commitment to uncompromising musicality and lyrics that tuck in heartache as well as barbed and insightful sarcasm, which is all underpinned by swells of conscience.
As diligent and deft producer, drummer Bill Stevenson, likely more than any other person on Earth (now working primarily at Blasting Room in Fort Collins, Colorado), has shaped the sound of things to come, in the 1980s (All, Chemical People, the Doughboys); '90s (Big Drill Car, Mustard Plug, MxPx, the Ataris); '00s (Rise Against, Zeke, Casualties, NOFX); and '10s (Alkaline Trio, As I Lay Dying, Hot Water Music). He has also undergone so many medical operations, including triple-bypass surgery, pulmonary aneurysm and a brain tumor, that he has become a modern medical miracle of sorts too.
In fact, the Houston Press's David Ensminger caught up with him just after eye surgery one day last week.
Houston Press: Drummer Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü just died yesterday. Would you like to share some thoughts about him or the band?
Bill Stevenson: I have known Grant since the early 1980s. Hüsker Dü played with Black Flag in Chicago in 1982, and after I met them we have been friends forever, although since we have gotten older, we have fallen out of contact with each other. It was a sad day to wake to that…
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As a student of drumming, from Elvin Jones to Mitch Mitchell, how would you describe his style?
His style in Hüsker Dü, if I had to briefly try and summarize, which may or may not do it any justice, was very fluid. They were an interesting band in that way. Mike Watt called it “the wash,” like the real washy use of crash and ride cymbals, and Bob Mould would use a distortion box and Flanger at the same time. It was this kind of organized chaos, and Grant played into that in a peculiar way. You almost have to play that way if you are singing at the same time, rather circular and fluid, whereas other drummers are more linear.
What compelled the band to make the "Houston Strong" gig T-shirt designed by Chris Shary to raise money?
You know, some of these things, they hit home a little bit, or they hit you stronger when they hit home. It just so happens that one of our crew, Jeff Neumann, who goes by Rhino, is from Houston, and he was out on tour and he could not even get home, so it was on our minds. His wife, Kathryn, became immediately active in raising funds for disaster relief, so we decided that when we play, if that venue is okay…well, we make one shirt unique to the show, or try to, so we thought when we do our Houston shirt, let’s make it something where we can give money to organizations doing the disaster relief [online sales benefit Legacy Community Health, gig sales benefit a food outreach charity], and do more than just having it at that show, so we put it online as well.
Like Mike Watt, after going through your medical procedures, operations and ailments, and coming out on the other side, the songs seem to brim with immediacy – like you must write them.
The Descendents have always been a band with four songwriters writing each number, not like mathematically, but each guy writes about one quarter of the record. I could speak to those ones I wrote, but that only goes for some. Certainly, with the medical stuff, I had brushed up against death, like I brushed up against what Rhino was going through, so because I brushed up against death, it changed my outlook on life, like anytime anyone goes through that experience. In terms of “Without Love,” I wrote the chorus for that in 2007, but I didn’t write the verses, so I wanted them to reflect all that I had been through in the years, not only the context of how those illness affected my family and the relationship with my wife.
In “Beyond the Music,” the lyrics are “we started with nothing to say,” yet on this album so much is said – about nuclear warheads, homelessness and drugging youth – how does a band go from saying nothing to saying much, sometimes stuffed in songs under one minute long?
To quote a former Texan who was our former engineer – “a buttload of life experiences.” I found it interesting when we released the newest song, “Who We Are” [April 2017, about immigrant deportation threats, equal rights, anti-fascism and more], some of our fans were upset with us having dealt with such a political subject, but I think it is a social subject — it’s a cry out for humans to be better to each other. I call it having a pulse. They wanted more songs about hot dogs and silly girls.
I am 54. I am not an ignorant boy raised by a Republican father. Our writing reflects our current state of being. Maybe we do have something to say. I don’t know if we are an important band politically, but we do have the opportunity and the wisdom to use this stewardship we have been given — the eyes and ears of people at shows — to speak this way.
The song “Full Circle” explores 1980, the Adolescents, creepy crawl, the Alley Cats, as if the band is reclaiming a sense of original joy that might be misunderstood or mistranslated by later generations.
Milo wrote that lyric, so I can’t speak that deeply to it, but this is the third time Milo has vanished and come back to the band, and maybe some part of him had forgotten all that punk rock that we were fortunate to witness and be part of in the late 1970s: In this, he was basking in the joy, with his clever way of working so many band names into the song, but people might not know that those are bands names because they haven’t heard of the bands!
Last I checked, you have over 200 production credits. Does this new album epitomize what you have done both in terms of production experience but also experimentation too?
I like all these questions. It’s interesting with the Descendents records because the hat I wear when I produce records, I don’t wear that hat when I do the Descendents records. In fact, when we record, we do virtually no overdubs, we don’t layer guitars, we don’t layer pianos and synthesizers, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s really, ‘Here’s what we are, if you go see us live, this is exactly what we sound like.’ It’s not exactly the opposite of what I do as producer
Oddly, what I have learned from producing is to be a better drummer because I sit and get to study the drummers for ten hours a day for five days a week, and I study the good ones, and I learn, and then I study the bad ones, and learn so many things, like if you hit the drums too hard, like some of those guys whaling on them, you choke the tone, but if you play medium hard, you get the best sound in the mikes.
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You’ve described that drummer tempo changes are normal, especially in punk rock, because “We are not Casios.” Your BPMs change from beginning to end.
Go to the Milo Goes to College [album], and just to bring our brothers into this, listen to Jealous Again, both start at around 200 then end up at 185 because we got tired and we didn’t didn’t know to use a metronome, but I have learned to use it as a tool because it can kind of ruin songs if you play perfectly to it because it makes things feel tamer, but I can create different tempo maps and landscapes that reflect the natural energy of the song, but hopefully without revisiting that SST syndrome…
You have helped shaped the sounds of so many bands, including young admired acts like Alkaline Trio and Rise Against – do you bring something beyond technical wisdom, like a sense of punk honesty?
Yeah, that’s how I have actually described it, not just a technical side, but a punk-rock sense of honesty. I like to think we make honest records. Sometimes I am involved; sometimes the band becomes less and less involved, like using string sections. And I am like, guys, c’mon, are you going to use strings live? I think to think the records should sound like they are kicking total ass after practicing several months straight, and then we are in the room, watching while they kick ass…
So, the Descendents record is the closest approximation to the live set a kid in Timbuktu can experience?
It’s really bare bones — just small overdubs…99 percent is one guitar, not two guitar parts at once. There’s not shit-tons of layered backing vocals either, not like choruses being blown out with "ooh"s and "ah"s. So, that is it.
Descendents perform Friday, September 22 at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets $30 to $45.