Nearly 40 Years Later, It's Still Exciting To Watch Descendents Live
Youth, energy, angst and bravado — that's the stuff of punk music. But it turns out youth may be the least critical part of the equation.
For 38 years, Milo Aukerman and Bill Stevenson have been pounding out punk music as Descendents, along with their fellow bandmembers Karl Alvarez and Stephen Egerton. They started their band in high school, and now they're in their early fifties. Their new album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, gets its name from Aukerman's days working in the field of molecular biology.
NPR's Scott Simon spoke to the band about growing up, getting old, and making music about each other. Hear the radio version at the link above, and read the edited version below.
Scott Simon: You guys have a lot of years invested in this, don't you?
Bill Stevenson: Thirty-eight, I guess? We started the band when we were in high school and now we're geezers. We're 52 and 53, respectively. Dis-respectively.
Milo Aukerman, you've been going back and forth. You pursued a career in biochemistry, I'm told.
Milo Aukerman: I worked on plant genetics for the past two decades at this point. But very recently hung my hat up on that. I'm not really doing that right now.
And the relationship between plant genetics and punk is...
Aukerman: Zero. I can't think of a single thing they have in common.
Stevenson: What Milo will likely be remembered for happened in some of the very last days of his lab science career. He happened upon this reagent that, when blended with coffee, created a buzz effect that was many many times greater than what normal coffee could give you. He named it "hypercaffium spazzinate" — we were thinking one day you'll see that on the periodic table, we're lobbying for that — but I think when it comes down to it, that will be the great achievement that Milo will be remembered for.
Aukerman: Yeah, as well as the explosion that ensues.
Stevenson: Well, we don't want to talk about the explosion, Milo.
Milo, can I get you to talk about the song "Testosterone"?
Aukerman: I was working at a mega-corporation and dealt a lot with alpha males. That song is kind of about dealing with them and my desperate attempt to try and keep up with not being an alpha male myself and not really feeling that macho, and that made me think, "I just gotta dose up the way they're dosed up."
There are people who leave corporate life for a number of different reasons, but they don't like the pace, they don't like the values. We do stories about them and they often become, I don't know, organic bakers. The world of punk is pretty tough too, isn't it?
Aukerman: That's the odd thing, you'd think I'd have plenty of testosterone coursing through my veins from all the punk rock. But I'm actually by nature a very shy person, so how I ended up being in a punk rock band is kind of a mystery. I think it just became kind of an alter ego.
I want to ask about one of your most sensitive songs, "Comeback Kid." Bill Stevenson, could you set that up for us?
Stevenson: Milo wrote it for me a few years ago. A few years ago I had a massive brain tumor, and once the tumor was diagnosed and surgically removed, I had a rebirth of sorts. And I felt better than I had felt in 20 years, and I still do — I still can't believe that I'm 52 because I feel more like 30. But that brain tumor had been in there for a while, just making me slow and making me old and making me depressed, and when I didn't know I was in there I just thought, "Oh, I'm getting old. This isn't fun." But then when they took the tumor out it was magic, I feel so great now, this is cool! I want to be alive again.
Aukerman: 2009 is when he had this thing, and in 2010 is when he had this surgery. We were on a hiatus at that point and it energized the whole band and got me thinking, I want to get back in there. It turned into this snowball of great feelings around his recovery.
I love this song. I love the line "Comeback kid, it's exciting to watch you live."
Aukerman: I think that's what it was for me. Literally, when he called me after the surgery — granted, he was on a variety of medications post-surgery, but he sounded like he was on Cloud 9 — I just got wrapped up in it. It was a very emotional phone call that he gave me.
Stevenson: Yeah. From another perspective too, it wasn't many years prior to that that Karl had had a heart attack. So I think that when I came out of brain surgery — it may have just been a time when the four of us were thinking, "We're not going to be here forever, so we should enjoy our band that we started together, we should enjoy it now while we're still able to." For lack of a better way of saying it, before one of us kicks the bucket.
Did everything you went through make you appreciate each other and the blessing that you have to bring this music to people?
Aukerman: I mean, all of our songs are kind of autobiographical. And so I think, as you go through the record, each song is directed at another member of the band or is a shared sentiment among the band, and then the final song is the triumphant core to the whole thing because it talks about how we started. It's kind of our little history less as a band 38 years ago starting out in the garage with carpeting on the walls. That song we had to have last because it's the capper to the whole autobiographical nature of our songwriting.
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