Interview with Descendents vocalist Milo Auckerman
Montreal Quebec – Legendary California punk band the Descendents play the Metropolis in Montreal on Thursday, September 7th, 2017.
The band consists of Milo Aukerman (vocals), Bill Stevenson (drums), Stephen Egerton (guitar), and Karl Alvarez (bass).
Descendents released their seventh full length studio album titled “Hypercaffium Spazzinate” on Epitaph Records in 2016. It was the bands first new album in 12 years, and it was also their highest charting album on the Billboard 200 reaching the top 20.
For many fans and music critics alike the album “Hypercaffium Spazzinate” felt like a return to the classic Descendents sound heard on previous releases like “Milo Goes to College”.
“I think we have always been fond of really fast, loud, aggressive music. It kind of harkens back to “Everything Sucks” and “Milo Goes to College”. Two of our records that seem to have aged pretty well in terms of defining our sound. We hadn’t made a record in a while, but we had written all these songs. As it turns out they basically felt like a comfortable shoe. They were the right stuff in terms of being similar to what we’ve done before, and we went with it. We’ll be putting a new record out in a few years. I know we’re all thinking lets branch out a little bit. We’ve obviously done records that have been a little more out there like the record “All”, so we’ll do something a little more experimental next time. This time around it’s almost a celebration of who we are as a band. Mining that very familiar DNA for us felt like the right way to go,” Milo Aukerman, lead vocalist of the Descendents said.
One of the most heart felts songs off the new Descendents album is titled “Smile”. It was written for drummer Bill Stevenson who endured health problems. Bill Stevenson is an original member of the Descendents, a former drummer for Black Flag, and a record producer – producing albums for bands like Rise Against and Nofx.
“That was written about Bill, the drummer. I wrote it for him. He had gone through a number of health problems in the early part of this decade culminating in a pulmonary embolism and subsequently a removal of a huge tumor the size of a grape fruit from his brain – so a brain tumor. After all that happened he was fully in recovery, but I think psychologically he still had a ways to go because you can imagine the struggle he had to go through. I think that song documents that period. He started to get better physically, but mentally was kind of in the dumps. I was observing that, and I wrote that song for him. I look back to a song he wrote for me way back in the 80s called “Pep Talk”. We kind of try to give each other pep talks now and again. He and I have been best friends since high school. I owed him one. He gave me a pep talk, and now I had to give him a pep talk back. That’s why I wrote it. It’s one we do live now and it’s fun because it’s about trying to uplift another person to kind of cheer them on. I’m his biggest fan, so I have to be his biggest cheerleader too. That’s how that was written,” Milo Aukerman disclosed.
Lately, the song “Smile” has been Milo Aukerman’s favourite song to play live. It’s slower than most Descedents songs, and the audience can chant along towards the end of it.
“Lately, (my favourite Descedents song to play live) has been “Smile”. It’s a song that’s atypical for us because it’s a little slower. It’s written about Bill. Initially, I said should we do it? It’s a slower song for us and doesn’t fit our mold. Bill said f-ck the mold. He could feel the emotion behind it. Obviously it’s about him. It brings out a side of our humanity some of our other songs don’t. I’ve enjoyed playing it live. At the end, people chant along with us for the last few lines. It’s kind of a different thing for us to have the crowd participating – usually they are so busy slamming. It’s a newer thing for us, so I’ve enjoyed doing that one,” Milo Aukerman reflected.
In April 2017, the Descedents released a standalone single titled “Who We Are”, a political song that laments the current state of U.S. politics. The proceeds from that song benefit the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The song which originally came out around the time of the first Muslim travel ban has even more meaning since the events that took place in Charlottetown.
“Of course that wasn’t planned, but it was written around the time the immigration ban had been put into effect, and it had been a complete disaster. I had this chorus lying around, and I thought I need to use the chorus on this because we talk about who we are as a nation. It’s one of the first political songs I have ever written. I wasn’t considering it like I was writing a political song. It was something I had to get off my chest, because of discrimination against people because of religion and the colour of their skin. If that comes back, we have a huge problem with society. It has come back, so I think we need to nip it in the bud. I wrote it, and I got flamed online because of it. I was surprised to learn some of our fans are not fully passed that part of our history where we discriminate against others. That was kind of depressing, but at the same time we got a lot of good comments about it. We’re going to continue to play it live regardless if people want us to or not, because we feel like it’s important for us,” Milo Aukerman noted.
A cartoon caricature of Milo, first seen on the cover of “Milo Goes to College” in 1982, became the iconic symbol of the Descendents. Milo Aukerman explains how it came about.
“I never imagined for a minute it would be that way. What ended up happening at the start of all that, Bill and I both went to high school together, and we had a high school friend named Roger who use to draw little cartoons to kind of entertain himself during boring classes. He was drawing these cartoons, and this cartoon character based on me. He put it into certain cartoon strips – kind of making fun of me. The pratfalls of Milo, stupid shit I would do in high school, and he would document it in these little cartoons. We all got a big laugh out of it. I took it in stride. He was a friend of mine. It was all for a laugh. Then when we were getting ready to do that record, Bill contacted him and said Milo is going to college. This is going to be his swan song, his goodbye to the band. We’re thinking of calling the record “Milo Goes to College”. I had no say in the manner. Okay, go for it, what ever you want to do. They wanted Roger to draw it, but Roger wasn’t available to draw it. He was at West Point Military Academy. So we got another friend of ours to reproduce the original Roger drawing, and that became the cover. It surprised me that it took off like that. I think the reason why is because it’s such an easy thing to draw. If you imagine someone wanting to do a tattoo, and keeping it simple, that’s the simplest tattoo I can think of besides getting the Black Flag bars. The simplicity helps it more than anything else. It’s such a great dada esque kind of minimalist drawing,” Milo Aukerman responded.
Milo Aukerman graduated with a doctorate in Biology from UC San Diego and later became a researcher at DuPont. The lead singer would rejoin the Descendents several times in the 80s, 90s, and 2000’s. But in 2016, after a layoff, he decided to return to the world of punk rock more permanently.
“As of early last year, I had been at the DuPont for 15 years. My time at DuPont was good at the start, but in the last few years it got miserable for me… by the time I left it was time, beyond time for me to go. I was one of several hundred people who got laid off at once, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time for me. We were right in the middle of recording the new record “Hypercaffium Spazzinate”. So when they laid me off, literally the day I left and turned my badge in, and I turned in my company computer, I left the site straight to the airport to pick up Bill to finish recording vocals for the record. It literally felt like I was leaving this one thing, and starting this new thing. It was actually really good timing. When I look back at the last year, year and a half, I never sat there and yearned to get back into science. It’s unfortunate because my energy for it got kind of zapped out of me over the last few years. Maybe in a few years I could pick it up again, but I’m not looking to do that right now,” Milo Aukerman added.
Coffee Mug –
The Descendents are known for drinking lots of coffee, and it has been a theme in many of their songs including “Coffee Mug” that appeared on Epitaph’s Punk O’ Rama Volume 2. The band still drink lots of coffee before shows.
“Yeah, we still drink a lot of coffee. I would say it’s a personal taste for each member of the band in terms of how much. I would put Bill at the top in terms of the sheer amounts he consumes. We just came back from a couple of shows in Vancouver and Idaho, and he was bragging before each of the shows exactly how many cups of espresso he drank. He has these caffeine pills that he takes. I’ve taken a caffeine pill or two in my time and it kind of puts you over the edge, over the top. I can’t do that. I tend to drink 2 or 3 cups of coffee before I play, and that’s perfectly fine for me. My big challenge is that if I drink too much coffee I can’t sleep at night, and as a singer you have to get your sleep, and if you don’t sleep you’re screwed. I have to go moderate, and my form of moderate is 2 or 3 cups. Stephen and Karl are in the same kind of ball park of 2 or 3 cups. Everyone tanks up before we play. If you don’t, what ends up happening, it’s like when you’re on the assembly line, you got that conveyor belt going through. If you don’t have your coffee, all the parts are going right by you and you’re not doing your job. Literally we all know that as a part of our band, you better drink your coffee, otherwise you’re going to get left behind in the dust,” Milo Aukerman replied.
With all that coffee before a show it’s no wonder Fat Mike of Nofx penned these lyrics: “The first time I saw the Descendents, They were the fastest band I’d ever seen”. The Descendents recorded some of the fastest punk songs of the 70s, 80s, and 90s – and are still one of the fastest punk bands today.
After 40 years The Descendents have become entrenched in music pop culture. They have their own beer, Vans shoes, and there is even a Milo Aukerman bobblehead toy – along with Throbblehead’s of Joe Keithley, Jello Biafra, GG Allin, Fat Mike and others.
“(The bobble heads) That was funny. That guy contacted me several years ago. He had done a GG Allin one and a few others. I thought go for it. There are certain things that happen in this business that I wouldn’t have expected, that are kind of goofy, but I’m honoured at the same time, like the Vans shoes. There are certain things in this world that I grew up with that mean a lot to me, and Vans shoes is one of them. The first Vans store was down the street from where I lived. Having the band be on the Vans shoes is such an honour. The other one was getting interviewed for Playboy magazine, a big honour for me. Haha. Having the bobblehead was another goofy thing that I thought made a lot of sense because of how silly it is. I told the guy I have no idea if you’re going to be able to sell them, but they sold out pretty quick. They made another round. It’s fun,” Milo Aukerman stated.
The Descendents and Milo Aukerman are looking forward to their return to Montreal. They hope to fuel up not just on coffee, but poutine.
“I need someone to point me to the best poutine. I was just in Vancouver and for some reason it never happened. I know they got poutine in Vancouver, but I’m sure the best poutine is in Montreal. I want someone to point me towards that when we are up there,” Milo Aukerman concluded.
My humble recommendation would be a poutine made with St. Albert’s cheese curds.
The show is presented by Greenland and ‘77 Montreal. Doors open at 6:30pm, and the show starts at 8pm. Tickets for the Descendents range from $38 to $49.75. You can purchase tickets online at Ticketmaster.ca. Metropolis is located at 59 Rue Sainte-Catherine Est, in Montreal.