On-again, off-again, longtime punk-rockers the Descendents are back
We’ve seen Milo have a shit day. We’ve seen him dressed as Uncle Sam and we’ve seen him go to college. But to catch the real driving force behind the Descendents, fans must look past its four-eyed front man to the guy behind the drum set.
For 40 years, Bill Stevenson has been the constant member of Descendents, a band that originated in Southern California and became a musical refuge for teenage punks until today. Since the release of the 15-song, 22-minute debut album Milo Goes to College in 1982, the band’s furiously fast, melodically driven songs on subjects like junk food, girls, romantic desperation and parents helped define pop-punk.
Before they paved the way for emerging pop-punk bands of the ’90s, Stevenson derived inspiration from the Los Angeles punk scene two decades earlier.
“We had all those bands right there,” he said. “You could go see them for five bucks—Germs, X, Go-Gos. … They were all right there, you could get right up next to them.”
The Descendents, then made up of Stevenson, Milo Aukerman (vocals), Frank Navetta (guitars) and Tony Lombardo (bass) didn’t sport green mohawks or studded leather jackets. They were four kids in jeans and T-shirts, playing their caffeine-fueled music hard and fast.
“We were trying to write actual songs, but we would just drink tons of coffee and play them too fast,” Stevenson said.
Milo introduced a lasting punk rock symbol: Jeff Atkinson’s simple line illustration of Aukerman donning a tie and button-up. That image has seen thousands of iterations—in show fliers, album covers, fan art and tattoos.
When Aukerman left the band to pursue a degree in biochemistry in 1987, Stevenson played for three years with Black Flag, and the Descendents’ on-again, off-again history with the face of the band began.
During Stevenson’s stint as Black Flag’s drummer, Descendents songs kept writing themselves in his mind.
“The song just enters my brain and it’s a finished song, or at least a finished part of the song,” he said. “And it comes all at once—melody, lyric, chord progression.”
During Aukerman’s long hiatuses, Stevenson kept the band going under the name All, which released albums on the indie label Cruz, and later on Interscope and Epitaph, but never achieved the same fan base.
Aukerman returned in 1996 for Everything Sucks, and again for Cool to Be You in 2004. In 2016, he announced that he was breaking up with academic research to join the Descendents full-time. Their latest album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, was released that summer. The cover shows Milo in his lab, behind a beaker.
“Surprisingly, we’ve managed to hold the interest of basically, what, three generations?” Stevenson said. “It’s cool to have a new batch of songs.”
While their last three albums have covered similar themes as their earliest work, the message has shifted. They continue to pine for girls in songs like “I’m the One,” while “I Won’t Let Me” reflects a more mature love. They’ve gone from singing about their disdain for parents to a longing for “One More Day” with them, a song Stevenson wrote after his father died.
Over the four decades, they’ve continued to deliver an authentic, definitive sound that bridged pop punk and hardcore. Stevenson’s favorite descriptors are a bit more unique.
“Somebody called us chainsaw pop,” he said. “Somebody else called us frustrado rock, because like there’s always this sense of yearning or sense of unfulfillment.”
Whatever they’re calling it, it’s unlikely fans will have to wait another decade for the next Descendents album.
“It’s not in our nature to do an album every two years, how normal bands do it,” Stevenson said, but added they’ve done preliminary recording on a few new songs. “We’re creeping toward another recording.”