In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Formed in 1977, it took a few years for the Descendents to find its voice. After ditching its original surf-rock sound, in 1980 Milo Aukerman picked up the microphone and steered the band in a new direction. Aukerman’s name—and his bespectacled visage—would become iconic in pop-punk and hardcore circles, thanks to his caricature adorning the cover of the band’s debut album, 1982’s Milo Goes To College. The record’s name rang true, with Aukerman leaving the Descendents to pursue a degree in biochemistry—he’d eventually earn a Ph.D. in the subject—returning every few years to record a new Descendents album. Since then, the band has been an on-again, off-again affair, releasing records once a decade but never losing its place as one of the most influential bands in two separate punk sub-genres.
2016 changes all that, as the 53-year-old Aukerman has left behind his science career to give his old punk band a serious go. With that brings the release of the Descendents’ seventh album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, which is accompanied by the Spazzhazard EP. The A.V. Club spoke with Aukerman about songs old and new, showing that even though the band’s gotten older, it hasn’t lost the joyous spark that made it special all those years ago.
The A.V. Club: This song feels like an updated version on Descendents classics like “I Like Food” or “Weinerschnitzel.” What sparked the swearing off of junk food?
Milo Aukerman: Yeah, it’s pretty much as you say. I went to my doctor, thinking, “Oh man, he’s going to tell me I can’t eat my chili cheeseburger anymore. He’s gonna tell me I can’t go to Wiener schnitzel.” So that kind of got me thinking we should update that song. We need to update “I Like Food” for our advanced age. It’s part of poking fun at our lives as we get older and the things that when you’re younger, you take for granted. You can kind of live more recklessly, and then you get older and you say, “Well, I can’t do that anymore.” But it’s kind of in fun, too. I wrote that song and I’ll still go have a chili cheeseburger. Now I might eat it and go, “Oh great, now I have to get my cholesterol checked” or whatever.
I think when I showed it to everyone in the band, they appreciated it for its speed, for one thing. Like, “Great, we get a fast song out of it.” And I think everyone got the humor of it. I was going to call it “I Like Food 2016” but everyone said, “Let’s come up with something more creative,” so you know. We tossed around some different names for the song, and that one stuck. We had another song called “No FB” which is a different subject entirely. But that would have been cool to call it “No Fat Burger,” so that’s the name that stuck.
AVC: Did you ever worry people were going to call you sell-outs because you aren’t eating garbage anymore?
MA: Yeah, I know. As we get older, there’s a bit of an update to the concept of “All.” We’ve got to for All, but part of going for All was you get to eat all that crap, and you get to drink 20 cups of coffee. But I can tell you now, if I were to add something to that list, we’ve got the “thou shalt go for greatness”—you know, I’d probably add in there “but everything in moderation.” Part of that is because the concept of All evolves for us as well. We now think about All as in the long-haul, not we’re gonna go for All and we’re gonna die tomorrow. It’s like, “Wait a minute. Let’s go for All and not die tomorrow.” So that’s kind of how we’ve been updating it. We want to be able to do this five, 10 years from now as well.
AVC: This song is about you working as a biologist and getting burned out the macho nature of it all. Was that something you expected to run into?
MA: It was not something I expected to encounter in science, but I think it’s pretty common in most fields, especially business, where there’s a certain amount of top-dog personalities. That’s just not me. I was there at DuPont for a few years before I realized, I kind of see the writing on the wall here, I am not going to climb the corporate ladder. I am just going to be the guy who keeps his head down and tries to do good science and tries to enjoy himself.
On one hand, I was okay with it. On the other hand, I was like, “Well, fuck that!” There’s something wrong with the system when you’ve got someone who can provide so much to a company and can be enthusiastic, but isn’t management material or whatever. So a lot of that just gets defined as the person who speaks with the loudest voice and gets up there with the most arrogance and overly confident, chest-beating approach. Those are the ones that are going to get the golden ring.
It’s like, “Okay, what do I need to do? I need to somehow become more macho.” And that’s where that came from. It’s funny, I wrote it a few years ago, and more recently, I see ads for testosterone, and I’m thinking, “Oh great.” People take it for a whole slew of reasons including sex drive and bodybuilding and that kind of thing, which isn’t my point at all—my point is more about the alpha male syndrome.
AVC: Do you think that is something that can overlap with punk and hardcore scenes?
MA: I guess historically, hardcore punk has been a more male, macho genre, and no one in the band has ever really put on those kind of airs. I always felt like we were able to impress not by that, but more just by being spazzes. So that’s as close as we get to being aggressive. But I don’t think anyone in the band has a real macho side to them. Bill’s [Stevenson, drummer and songwriter] nickname is Drum Ogre, so maybe he’s the closest. But look at Stephen [Egerton, guitarist], he looks like some alien from another planet. And Karl’s [Alvarez, bassist] the learned one. And then you’ve got me, who’s the spaz. So there’s not a lot of testosterone in the band.
AVC: In the Filmage documentary it’s revealed that Bill had a tumor that nearly killed him. How was it putting together a song like “Smile,” which is this loving song to your friend and bandmate?
MA: In 2010, we started playing shows again, and it was in direct response to him coming out of surgery, where they removed a tumor out of his head, like a grapefruit-sized tumor. He rebounded from that so dramatically that I think everyone in the band was riding this high of, “Wow, Bill’s back in the game.” Because he really was out of it for several years before that. At that point, I had reconnected with Bill, after a few years of having not seen him, and I just thought, “Yeah, we should just do this.” Because it seemed like the right time. So we started playing shows, and shortly after, I had written the first of two songs on the record about him, the other is “Comeback Kid,” which is more directly related to his comeback of sorts.
I had visited him a few times during that period and realized, I think he had suffered a psychological toll, in addition to the physical toll, where he was just kind of beating himself up about his life. If you think about it, a guy like Bill Stevenson—one of the best drummers out there, well-respected producer—he felt like he was barely scraping by to support his family, and just kind of feeling like he missed the gold ring, and I just felt like he needed a pep talk, essentially. We already had a song called “Pep Talk,” so this one got to be called “Smile” instead. But it’s the same concept. “Pep Talk” was a song where Bill contributed lyrics for me, he really wrote that as a pep talk for me. And then I wrote him this song as a pep talk for him.
Like a lot of our songs, they’re all true to life. We’re speaking to people, whether band members, girlfriends, whatever. So this is a song that’s speaking to him. When he first heard it, he was like, “Really? That’s how you viewed me? Was I that pathetic-sounding?” And I was like, “Yeah, there were a few visits where you…” And he was like, “Oh yeah, okay, I guess so.” So he kind of got it. I think initially he was taken aback, like, “Really, I didn’t realize I was that pathetic.” He’s so much in a better place now. And so those songs—a song like that can mean something for that period of time, but not characterize him now. So we’re enjoying the ride now to a tremendous degree.
AVC: The reunion has had you playing festivals all over the world, but “Descendents” has the famous line about how you couldn’t sell out a telephone booth. How does it feel to be at this level this deep into your career?
MA: I think at each new phase of the band, I am continually surprised that it gets incrementally more and more. Because we take these huge long breaks, and then I just kind go, “Okay, fine, this is the way that I’ve chosen to live my life, and if the band now fades into obscurity, so be it, that’s my decision.” But then we come back and it’s still as big as ever, or bigger. It’s always been a surprise to me, that it worked out that way. Tony wrote those lines back in ’83 when I think we’d put out Milo Goes To College and at that point we were kind of in a holding pattern. There was a little frustration because we put that record out and nothing happened, basically. I’ll take blame for that, obviously, because I was off at school. And then we sing it now, and it’s poking fun of ourselves, self-deprecating. Which, I’m okay doing that even if it doesn’t reflect the reality of now, because it does reflect the reality of then, because we really were a tiny band. That’s kind of the history lesson of the Descendents, that people can look at us now and maybe not appreciate how small of a band we were in like ’83 or ’84, when we really weren’t selling out anything. It’s a good reminder to people that we did come from very humble beginnings.
AVC: This is one of the band’s first overtly poppy songs. Was it weird to start going in that direction?
MA: I think we started maybe moving toward just really heart-on-your-sleeve type of stuff, even on Milo Goes To College. With that record, we were already saying we didn’t want to define ourselves as a political punk band, as a standard punk band that’s just going to write songs about politics or whatever. We were already very comfortable just writing songs about relationships and girls and whatnot. We just tend to write these things immediately off of our experiences. So that was one for me.
At the time, I was getting into a whole slew of other influences outside of punk, like The Smiths, or R.E.M., or whatever. I think there was a notion that not everything has to be fast, fast, fast. You’d hear something on the radio or something by these other bands, some of these non-punk bands, and you’d like the way it sounds. I’m not going to limit myself to not writing that way. And maybe that one kind of slipped through, too. We still want to write hard and fast music, and that one just kind of broke the mold a little bit. It was a fun song to write. It definitely got the point across, for me. We still play it. I’ve talked to Bill, like, “If we want to play new songs, we’ve got to drop some,” so we dropped that, and he was like, “No way, man. People like it.” So even though it doesn’t fit the standard, we’re going to play it just because it is a favorite.
AVC: Do you think that’s something that’s been true throughout your career? Having songs that break the mold of what people expect but end up becoming these fan favorite songs?
MA: Yeah, I do a lot of that, probably more than anyone else in the band. For this record, I wrote a song that was kind of a country song. It was funny, it was a country song that was about farts and romance, together.
AVC: What song was that?
MA: It didn’t make the record, that’s the thing. Sometimes, you break the mold too far. I have to give the rest of the band credit, because they put a good effort into making it sound good and everything. After we mixed it and everything, Bill says, “Yeah, we probably shouldn’t put that one on the record.” But I do a lot of that. And sometimes, you have to split the difference. We have to define ourselves as having something of a sound. So there are songs that tend to stray too far from that. Having said that, the All record is pretty far out there, with some non-Descendents-y stuff. So we could always turn right back around and make that kind of record next. I tend to be the one that breaks the mold most often, and thus, I tend to be the one with a lot of outtakes, songs that don’t make the record.
AVC: Speaking of those off-kilter songs, “Van” and “All-O-Gistics” are pretty out there.
MA: Both of those songs were Stephen coming in with some music, and either Bill or me kind of putting lyrics over it. With “All-O-Gistics,” Bill had this concept of the All-O-Gistics, and he wrote some, I wrote some, and we put it all together. A lot of it was Bill’s concept. He had this friend Pat who he used to go fishing with who would talk about All. They’d go out fishing, and they’d yell out “All!” when they were trying to catch 20 tons of fish. It’s supposed to be a humorous song, obviously, but it’s also—those are pretty serious statements that we try to live by for the most part. “Thou shalt not partake of decaf.” That’s important for us. “Thou shalt go for greatness.” That’s just a good way to live your life. “Thou shalt not suppress flatulence.” I do my best at that one. I get in trouble at my house, but I still do it. I’m always in the doghouse about that one. We still subscribe to those.
If we’re talking “All-O-Gistics,” that is a song that we tend to call “hallraker”—we named a record Hallraker—but a song like “All-O-Gistics” is just considered the hallraker, because everyone just clears out of the hall when you play it. They’re just like, “Okay, I’m done, I’m gonna leave now.” And so, that’s an in-joke with the band. I don’t think it’s a song that’s universally liked by the fans of the band. We’re considering not playing it as frequently. We’ve got to make room for these new songs from the new record. So that’s one that’s on the cusp, which is shame because it’s got our credo—it’s got our 10 commandments right there. We can still carry the sign on stage, maybe. If you carry a sign to the side of the stage, you can still ascribe to those rules, but you don’t have to subject the audience to it.
AVC: This one seems to be more relevant politically than it may have been back when it was written. How do you feel about it now?
MA: Tony [Lombardo, original bassist] wrote the music, and I came in with the words, which was kind of fun. It’s probably one of the first songs I wrote. That one and “Hope.” So Tony came in, and I said I’d write some words for it. My initial inspiration was I had a friend who had applied to West Point, and he was getting accepted, and was all jazzed about it. When he got accepted, he paraded around the school with an army helmet on his head, like, “Yeah, I’m going to West Point.” With his ACT score on there, too. He was all into it. I was just looking at it, going, “Yeah, that’s your thing, sure. That’s great for you. But don’t expect me to be proud of you or happy.” I mean, I could be proud of him as a friend. But it was my anti-war thing—I don’t want to live your dream. That’s your dream. Go ahead and do it. But it’s not mine. That’s basically where that came from. It was probably one of the first political songs we wrote. It’s not a song we continue to play, but I guess it does have some relevance. “Hey Hey” is another early one that’s more political for us. We don’t define ourselves by the political songs, which makes that song really stand out, because it’s one of the few political ones on the record.
AVC: So talking about “Hope,” which is considered one of the classic Descendents songs, was this one of the first songs you ever wrote?
MA: I can’t say it was my first song, because there were some songs, just a few songs I wrote before I joined the band, that were completely useless, so useless I didn’t even show them to the band. That was the first song that I brought to the band. And it was the first song where I had the music and I showed it to them like, “Hey, check out this music.” I don’t think I had lyrics worked out completely, but I just had the music part of it. I showed it to Bill. The next time he asked me to play it for him, he says, “Play that song, the one that inspires hope.” So it became known as the song that inspires hope. And this is just the music part, this isn’t even the lyrics. So then once I heard him say that, the lyrics came from that—they were about my girlfriend at the time. So it kind of came together that way.
It’s interesting because one of the first songs I wrote, I chose to write that way. A lot of people do it that way—you have the music piece, maybe with no words, and then you’re going to put words on top of it. And then I’ve gotten away from that in recent years. I don’t think I’ve written that type of song with music first in very many years. And then I come to find on this record, that’s how Bill and Karl and Stephen were writing their songs, and I thought, “Man, I’ve got to start writing that way again.” Because you know, their contributions to this new record just blew me away. I realized, yeah, one of my favorite songs I ever wrote, I did it their way. So why can’t I get back to writing it that way again?
It just goes to show you, I have so much more that I want to learn about songwriting, and so many more approaches to doing it that I haven’t really been able to tap into, because I’ve just been so busy not doing music and doing other things that take me away from music. That’s going to end. Or, that has ended. Now I’m just doing music full time. So now it’s like, okay, all those times where I’m just sitting there like, “God, I want to be able to write songs as good as these guys’ songs,” now I can pursue that challenge, basically. And of course, that challenge never really ends. No matter how good of a song you write, you’re like, “Guck, that wasn’t the one.”
AVC: It’s kind of of funny that you’re now doing it full-time, given that one of the last songs you wrote back in 2004 was about how you’d not be some guy in his 50s up on stage playing music.
MA: That will be the one song that I’ll never live down in terms of what a bad call it was. I think at the end I say, “Am I really going to be doing this at age 50?” I think I was thinking about, at that time, The Rolling Stones were really the only band who were still kind of doing it, and I kind of laughed at the whole thing. But I think somehow I’ve proved myself wrong there. It is something I still want to do. And that’s all that really matters. The two things that matter are the desire, and being healthy enough to do it. Everything else to me is a non-issue. This notion of being too old for it, I’m not too old if I’m healthy enough to do it, and I’ve got the desire. Plus, I think I’m in a slightly unique situation of starting my music career at age 53, because I’ve really never considered this my career—it’s always been a hobby. So now I’m in a situation of going all-in for music. There’s a huge excitement level for me in just making that decision at where I am right now. I’m the opposite of burned out. I’m kind of recharged. It’s the first time in my life I’ve decided to commit 100 percent to this and to just see where it goes.
AVC: So, now that you know what you’re like as an old person, was that song strangely prescient?
MA: I think that one, along with “I Don’t Want To Grow Up”—they’re kind of important songs for the band’s psyche, because we are all in this for the fun. If it stops being fun, we’ll just stop doing it. Basically, whatever kind of tweaks to the system or tweaks to the way we do this to take into account our actual ages—our physical ages, not our mental ages—but those need to be taken into consideration so that our mental ages are still where they should be. We want to mentally be young, even if physically we’re not. So for example, we can go on the road, and we can play two gigs, and then take a break, and go out later and play two gigs. I think everyone’s on board with that in the band. We don’t have to play the 150 shows a year that we used to do. We can play 50 shows a year and that means that it’s going to be more fun for everybody, and that means we can do this as long as we want. There’s no end in sight. We can continue doing this. Because we’re just trying to be realistic about how to make it fun. And if we make it fun, we’ll keep doing it. That song, we still play it, and we still operate on that basis of making it fun and something where we can still jump around and act young and be immature. We all have kids now, but that doesn’t really stop us from being as immature as we need to be, as we want to be. Punk rock really defined my existence from an early age. If I had to give up punk rock, then I really would get old.
AVC: So unlike Everything Sucks and Cool To Be You—where those records came out and there was some light touring in support of them—with this new record, Descendents are back?
MA: Yeah, and I think we’re trying to apply some learning from earlier times. Because we did tour for Everything Sucks, but what we did is we toured like demons for like a year, and then we got back from that, and I think everyone just looked at each other and said, “Yeah, okay, we don’t need to do that ever again.” It really was an eye-opener in terms of, well, why do bands break up? Most bands break up because they just burn out. Luckily, we didn’t break up then, we just kind of set it aside again. And then for Cool To Be You, I just couldn’t tour for that one. There was no way with my science job that I could tour. But when we started thinking about this one and realized, you know, when you think about the different periods that this band has been active, this period that we’re in now is actually the longest active period already. Because 2010 to 2016—that’s six years. Some of these earlier active periods were like a year or two years max.
I think now we’ve kind of solved some of the equation that was causing us to go into hiatus so much before. You want to be thinking not, “Can I do this for the next two years?” but, “Can I do this for the next 10 years, or longer?” If we need to adopt some kind of strategy for that, which might mean we play less frequently, but we can do it and have a ton of fun doing it, that’s all it’s all about. Once it stops being fun, we won’t be able to do it anymore. People are going to know that we’re not having fun, and we’re going to know that we’re not having fun. So at that point, it just ends. We try to place a high emphasis on that based upon our learning from, say, ’96. Toward the end, we had to take a break because it was starting to be a real grind. So that’s how we’re planning to do this. So I think everyone in the band’s on board with that. I think everyone realizes—we talk about All, they’re like, “Is this All?!” It’s a different kind of All. It’s us achieving All in the long-haul. That’s basically it.