Interview: The Descendents' Bill Stevenson
The punk drumming pioneer speaks out on a recent health scare, his stint in Black Flag, his songwriting history and more.
Mon Sep 12 2011
Photograph: Craig Cameron Olsen
The Descendents play Roseland Ballroom on Friday, September 23. We recently spent some time on the phone with the band's super-friendly drummer Bill Stevenson.
These days, the Descendents seem to play more one-off festival gigs than full-on tours. How do you decide when to fire up the band again?
We go through periods of just blatant inactivity, and then we fairly whimsically just decide to start doing some shows. But because of the logistics of getting the four of us together, we seem to have bettter luck doing little weekends. You know, several of us have, quote, "real jobs"—Milo's job being very, very real, he's a biochemist at DuPont. And I guess in a way my day job, as it were, has become fairly real. I seem to have begun to lean on record producing quite a bit, although I still definitely do my fair share of drumming and songwriting. And so you throw those jobs into a pot of logistic stew along with everyone having wives and families and also the fact that we live in three different states... The bottom line is, we just get together whenever it's convenient for all of us, and as long as we continue to do it that way, then it's always fun.
So much of your material is really demanding technically, like "Myage," with all those speedy drum rolls. Are there certain songs that you dread going back to after a break?
It's just a matter of getting up to speed with the particular maneuvers of those particular songs and definitely, as you mentioned, "Myage" being one of them. I mean, without entering the realm of technical metal, "Myage" is probably the most demanding punk-rock song there ever was [Laughs].
However, in 2009 and 2010, as you may or may not have known, I became very ill. I almost died. I had a pulmonary embolism and a brain tumor. So it took me some time to get back in the swing after that, but actually, it was funny: I was playing so poorly in 2009 because of the brain tumor that in late 2010, once they took the brain tumor out, I just started shredding again instantly. I was like, "Wow, this is so easy now!" It kinda threw me back to when I was 19 or 20. And I know people that have seen us over 25 or 30 years, like when we were just in England, are like, "I can't believe you're playing like that!" And I'm like, "Yeah, I can't believe it either! I'm lucky I didn't die!"
So are the health issues entirely behind you?
You never know about health, but as far as those issues I had, yeah, I kicked the ass of every one of them.There were four, but they all stemmed from one, which was a brain tumor. The brain tumor rendered me unmotivated, unemotional and inactive, so that brought about tremendous weight gain, which brought about the pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot that travels from wherever its origin was up in through your heart, smashes into your heart and then you die. Only I didn't die; my heart pushed it through and into my lungs. So the brain tumor caused that. Once I got really big, up to 400 pounds, then it caused diabetes and it also caused sleep apnea because I was so big that my throat airways were closing up when I was sleeping. Any of those things could have killed me, but as it turns out, I killed all of those four things, and I'm totally great now.
Your lyrics have always dealt head-on with different issues in your life, whether it's your father's passing or the challenges of parenthood. Do you feel like there will be some material in all of these health problems?
I think it may end up in my lyrics, but not overtly. I always make this comparison about my lyrics: Ian MacKaye wrote "Straight Edge," right? And I wrote "Bikeage," where I'm clearly making a statement about substance abuse, but I'm not doing it in an overt way; I'm doing it in a way that was very personal to me because someone I knew was being affected by that stuff. So like with my other lyrics, the fact that I went through this health stuff, that'll affect my lyrics, but it won't be like, "Here's my songs about my brain tumor." I'm not like that, you know?
Speaking of the lyrics, you mentioned the longevity of the band, and obviously in the early days, you were writing from an adolescent perspective. Do you come to a point where you have a hard time relating to some of the older songs?
By and large, I think they stand the test of time. These songs reflected a mood that I was in on that day that I wrote it. I had boiled over to some point where I said, "Okay, I have something to say and I'm gonna write it down." So when we're playing it, I may not be in that mood right now at this minute, but I still remember that mood. I remember that it was very real to me. And even in the years that I did write one of those songs, I may not have been in that mood even a month later, but still, it went down and that was the time and place, and it really happened. And the fact that they did really happen, that they weren't made-up little blurbs of poetry, I think that prevents them from being dated as far, as my psychology goes.
Do you feel like any of the older songs took on even greater meaning later in life?
That happens too. The other day, we were playing "My Dad Sucks," and we were like, We gotta change this to "My Kid Sucks." None of us even have dads anymore, they're all dead! We were just joking, of course. But there are some of them where they can ring true in a whole different way. Even like "Suburban Home," which our original bassist, Tony Lombardo, wrote: I went through a period where I was in a big, huge house and starting to collect—you know, George Carlin talks about your stuff owning you—and it's like, Fuck all that. I got rid of all my stuff last year, and now I'm living in a small house. So "Suburban Home" rings true anew, as does "I Don't Wanna Grow Up." When you just get released from jail by them taking a tumor out of your head, you wanna frolic through the waves and the daisies.
Looking back on the Descendents/All catalog, one thing that struck me is that the really lighthearted stuff has always sat right beside the really heavy, serious stuff on your records. Did you guys think about the power of placing those two kinds of emotions right up against each other?
Again, it's back to just the natural course of things. When you wake up in the morning, by the time you finish your first two cups of coffee, in that 30-minute period, you've run the gamut between feeling overjoyed, feeling pissed off, feeling sad about something, feeling surprisingly relieved about something. That's part of every hour that every human lives, is that—I'm not gonna call it schizophrenia—but just that change of color within your psychology. So isn't it natural for those songs to all be next to each other like that? Nobody's mad all the time, and in that way, I can't really get my head around some of the dark metal stuff. And nobody's happy all the time either, so with the happy ska thing, it's like, Aaargh, get away!
Did you feel like that duality was what was missing from the hardcore movement at large and that you were reacting against that with Descendents?
We weren't really reacting against it. Like with "Weinerschnitzel," we drove through Wienerschnitzel, and I got my chili-cheese dog and my fries and everything, and when we drove out the other side of it, our friend Pat McCuistion's like, "Yeah, we should have a song about Wienerschnitzel!" We weren't thinking about what other bands are doing. We were very insular—in some ways we lived in our own little vacuum.
It must have been interesting to move from the lightheartedness of the Descendents to Black Flag, especially the period when you were in the band, when that dark, nihilistic thing was so dominant.
Yeah, and that's something that I never quite embraced 100 percent about that era of the band. Well, there were a few things: One, I didn't like that fact that there was this whole, like, "Let's smoke pot and play slow" thing, because I don't like smoking pot and I don't like playing slow. [Laughs] That wasn't right for me. But also, if you think about the first couple batches of Black Flag material, you've got "TV Party"; you've got "Wasted"; even "Nervous Breakdown," there's a high sense of humor there, and then it kind of went away.
I mean, I liked playing in Black Flag. I just think that when something's that belabored and focused on negative self-introspection, to me that's almost like an arrogance or a self-centeredness in its own way, like, Hey everybody, come into my never-ending pit of depression. It's like, Well, no—I don't want to come in! When you start to feel better come give me a call. [Laughs]
One thing that I've always admired about you is that you've been a songwriter as well as a drummer since the beginning of the band. Did you have a sense early on that you wanted to contribute in that way?
I don't remember the agenda exactly. I think it went like this: Me and Frank Navetta would go fishing, and he was like, "I play guitar, and I have a band I'm trying to start." So we started playing together, and I noticed that he had written songs, which were our first songs that we played as Descendents. And I was like, Whoa, he writes these songs?!? That's crazy. Someone that I know can write a song. Okay, cool! So my neighbor was throwing away this hollow-bodied bass that was kind of beat up, and it was sticking out of his trash can on trash day. So I went over there and grabbed it out and wrote "Myage." So I don't know if there was a plan, but yeah, the first time I put finger to instrument, I wrote "Myage," and I wrote "Bikeage" a couple weeks later.