Descendents Take Over Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Sep 10



There’s a case to be made that the most important decade for punk rock was the ‘80s. Yes, the ‘70s gave birth to the style and in the ‘90s it took on the mainstream, but the 10 years between were an artistic incubator. The ‘80s gave rise to indie labels SST and Sub Pop while the music itself pushed new boundaries. One of the bands that took punk in a whole new direction during that time were the Descendents out of Manhattan Beach, CA. They put their own pop-influenced spin on the genre while still maintaining the grit and ringing in a melodic accessibility.

The band will be rolling through Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence Sep 10 with New Jersey punks Night Birds and Basque Country shredders Berri Txarrak. Ahead of the show, I had a chat with frontman Milo Aukerman about his time being a genetic biologist, getting laid off, the Descendents’ influence on countless bands and being made fun of in a cartoon.

Rob Duguay (Motif): Along with being in the Descendents, you also have a doctorate in Biology from UC San Diego and you’ve worked at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Delaware and Dupont. Last year you decided to quit the profession to focus on music full-time. Has your life become less stressful since you made the decision and what got you into science in the first place? Did you grow up conducting experiments in your house?

Milo Aukerman: My dad is a physicist so I definitely had a science kind of bent to me. It was in high school when I gave a book report on DNA, and I got fascinated with the concept of DNA and what can be done with it. This was when genetic engineering was starting up and I thought that was pretty cool. I just got more and more interested in genetics. Then I went to college where I did a lot of coursework. My focus in grad school genetics and I ended up getting a Ph.D. in plant genetics.

So it was something that kind of blossomed alongside my music interests. At the same time I was getting really into punk rock I was also getting into the concept of DNA. The two things for me are parallel to each other. When it came time to pursue a career I thought “Well, I think I’ll pursue this science career because music is supposed to be fun and it’s not supposed to be a career.” I didn’t think as a punk rock band that you could make a career as a musician.

This was back in the ‘80s and really it was almost impossible to make a living in punk rock. It was fun so I just kept on doing that as well. This is how my decision-making process went. I was going to be a scientist but I was going to play music for fun. That’s how I continued doing it for many years and then in the past few years when I was working at Dupont, and it started to be not so much fun to be doing science. Science was getting kind of dreary and whereas music is always going to be fun for me.

That had me wondering whether I should cut ties and actually become a musician and just not be a scientist anymore. Dupont actually helped me make that decision by laying me off last year.

RD: Oh wow.

MA: Yeah, they ended up laying off hundreds of people in March of last year and I was one of them. The timing was actually really good because Descendents were finishing up our last record and I was able to really focus on that completely. At this point, I haven’t really looked back and I’ve decided that music is where it’s at for me. Science is not just in the backseat for me, it’s kind of in my rear view mirror right now. That’s kind of my way of not dealing with it.

I can say that I’m much less stressed out. That’s part of the reason why I had to leave science because it was stressing me out.

RD: Especially with all the research you have to do and all the conducting [research] you have to do at Dupont or wherever else you have a job.

MA: With anything I do, I like to have creative control but I need to have a creative outlet. For many years in science, I did have that creative outlet. I worked for a company and sure I had to do the stuff that they told me to do but I also had a creative spin to put on it. I could use my brain and I could design experiments but in the past few years all that creativity was taken away from me by the company. I was left with it just being a job, it was not going to be creatively fulfilling and the only thing I had left that was creatively fulfilling was music. It really made a stark contrast and at that point, the music was going to be the be-all end-all in terms of satisfying me creatively.

RD: You mentioned earlier about the album that you guys put out last year, Hypercaffium Spazzinate. The band recorded the album in three different studios: The Blasting Room in Fort Collins, CO, Armstrong Recording in Tulsa, OK, and Whitehouse Studios in Newark, DE. What was the reasoning behind using three studios instead of just one? Were everyone’s schedules being hectic at the time or was it something else?

MA: There were a couple things. One is that we all geographically live in separate areas. Bill [Stevenson] and Karl [Alvarez], the drums and bass, live in Fort Collins so they can actually put down the basic tracks in one studio. Stephen [Edgerton] lives elsewhere so he was able to put his basic tracks down in Oklahoma. For me, I live out in Delaware and part of it not only was that each of us were busy doing our own things but this also gave us the freedom to lay down tracks when we could.

Also it was a way of not having any time limitations on actual vocal performance. When we used to record, you’d book three hours in a studio and in these three hours you’d have to do X number of songs. Maybe you’d book two days in the studio but you’d have to get the record done in those two days. For a singer, that’s a lot of pressure. Singers are always self-conscious when it comes to losing their voice or if the vocal quality is going to go down. What I was able to do while recording in my own space was have an open-ended recording schedule, so maybe on one day I sing really hard and aggressively but then I won’t be singing for the next three days.

I can take a break and come back to it and I’ll come back to it fresh. For me, that was the most important result of this strategy. I was able to get more aggressive with the vocals because I didn’t have to worry about the time. I didn’t have any kind of time restriction.

RD: It must have also made you feel relaxed rather than have a distinct timetable. You could work on a song when you were ready to work on a song rather than rushing yourself into it.

MA: Yep. Actually Bill came out here [because] I was recording just by myself, pressing go and recording. After a few times of me doing that, Bill said “Hey look, I’m coming out” and he flew out to Delaware because he said “You need an audience, you need someone to be there in the room cheering you on and giving you feedback.” He was in the room with me but since we’re such good friends it became a big vacation for him and it was a great time for Bill and I to hang out, record some songs and just be pals together which is what we’ve always been.

RD: That sounds awesome. Many music critics, music historians and fans consider Descendents to be the pioneers of pop punk. Do you ever think about the influence the band has had on numerous bands over the past 35 years or do you completely ignore it?

MA: There were many years where I tried to downplay it. I would be like “Aww, shucks” but now I think we can own that, that we did have an influence. Having said that, there are so many bands in addition to us and before us that have influenced what’s going on today. We were influenced by a whole slew of other bands like The Buzzcocks and X and Black Flag and even The Beatles. These are bands that came before us and I’ve always felt that we’ve had an influence on bands after us and that was us passing the torch to someone else.

We think of rock ‘n’ roll as everything is borrowed from everybody else and that’s perfectly legit. It’s really something to celebrate that people borrow from other people because that’s how music evolves. Every time you have someone borrow something they make it a little different. The bands that came after us changed it up a little bit and maybe added more orchestration or added more pop elements. We were more of a punk band with a little bit of pop and the bands after us became more pop bands with a little bit of punk, so that’s their way of taking the ball and running with it.

RD: The stuff that came out in the mid-‘90s definitely had that influence, when acts like Green Day come to prominence and Rancid and even No Doubt’s early material.

MA: Yep.

RD: The trademark logo of the Descendents is a caricature of you. It’s on nearly every record the band has put out. How did the idea for that come to be and who did the original drawing?

MA: In high school, Bill and I both went to high school at the same time and at the same place. We have a mutual friend in Roger and he would doodle during class because he was bored and one of his doodles was to make a cartoon starring me. The thing about it, is it was really a dig at me because the cartoon was all about the pitfalls and misfortunes of Milo in class. I was a bit of a dweeb in high school and socially inept. He would document that in cartoon form and that became this little cartoon strip that he would do just to amuse himself and amuse me too.

I didn’t even know he was making fun of me but it was funny. Then when we were making the first record Bill said “What about that cartoon thing Roger drew? Let’s put that on the cover.” It was not my idea, let me just make that clear. It was Bill’s idea to have that cartoon be on there. We didn’t know that it was going to be so iconic after a while but the thing about it is, it’s such a simple kind of stick figure that’s easy to draw and it lends itself well to tattoos and whatnot.

It’s simple art, so we’ve kept up with that aesthetic because we like that simple artistic aesthetic of it being a stick figure. It’s been good for us. We try to get away from it at times but we keep coming back to it. Of course, we thank Roger for his initial cartooning efforts.

RD: I remember when I first saw it as a kid and I thought it was a really cool drawing. I’ve always wondered how it came to be. It’s cool that you accepted it and you weren’t bothered by it, because I know other people who would be high strung about it if someone was making a caricature of them and they would take it the wrong way.

MA: Its high school boys with each other. They’re always cutting each other down. It’s all in good fun, it all comes from a place of affection and friendship. I took it as that way but it’s funny that it started out as a teasing thing but it became more of something that we could celebrate as this image of the band basically.

RD: After the show at Lupo’s on Sep 10, what does the rest of the year hold for you? Can we expect another release from the Descendents in the next few months?

MA: We pretty much are on a constant touring cycle but it’s a touring cycle that has lots and lots of breaks built into it. We’ll go out for two or three days but then we’ll come home and then in a few weeks we’ll go out for another two or three days. I hardly even call it a tour because we go out and we just come home. That’s what we’re looking at for the rest of the year is to go out for a few days, play some shows around, and then come home. Next year we might go back to Europe. It’s been a while since we’ve been to Japan, which would be great.

It’s been working for us to do it this way because we all have families. We don’t like to bail out for a month at a time and not see our families for long stretches. This is a way where we can still be able to play shows but we can still maintain our family lives. In terms of recording, I’ve written some new songs and Stephen has got some new music that we can work on, so we’ll be continually working on new music. I feel like we can put a new record out within the next couple years.

For us, that’s pretty timely because normally we go like a decade between records so knowing that we can commit to another record within a couple years is a positive step for us. That’s all I can say right now. We’re committed to making more music and it’s just a matter of when exactly it’s going to happen. I don’t think it’s going to happen next year but maybe in the next couple of years but it won’t be another 10 years. We still have things that we want to say and we still want to develop as musicians. That’s what I think we want to do, is keep putting out new music.

Tickets for the Descendents, Night Birds and Berri Txarrak at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, Sep 10:

Descendents web site:

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