The Nerd King of Punk Rock
written and conducted by Mike Powsner
This interview was conducted backstage at Randall's Island, NYC, during last year's Warped Tour. The conversation was rushed for several reasons; one because my amigo Joey J and I had taken the wrong bus and ended up in Queens, forcing us to walk across an enormous bridge and exhaust ourselves, and there was also an endless line of 'zine nerds behind me waiting for an interview. In light of the circumstances, I relished an opportunity to shoot the shit with the nerd king of punk rock, Dr. Milo Aukerman, and talk about the glory days of the Descendents.
How does it feel to be a member of and together as the Descendents once again? Is there the same amount of intensity connected with it?
Yeah, I think it's really gotten different, because a lot of the intensity used to come from a certain sense of "not belonging" or a certain social outcast kind of frustration. We can't really say that we don't belong now and we feel kind of like people are beginning to see our music as something valid, so a lot of the energy now we derive from just going out and interacting with just the many kids that are out there and in the various scenes. We see how they are partying with the music and we go and party along with them, so it's a little different in that regard. It's not so much of a " us against them" thing now.
So you feel that the attitude of the band is more developed and less angstful with this incarnation of the band?
Well, we still have our staple songs, and when we play those, they bring me back to high school and the frustrations that occurred then and I think that there is still a lot of frustration that can be derived from that. Obviously I'm not in high school anymore, and in some sense we try to put ourselves back in time to that situation, or at least when we write songs.
Has the current tour worked as well as ones in the past?
The Warped Tour has been great for us. I think it's mainly because it is outdoors, you get to be out in the sun, it's during the summer, and everyone is having a great time. In a lot of the other tours we've done, it's been in the middle of winter, you have to be indoors in smoky clubs, you know, that kind of thing. Also with the Warped Tour, there is great music from lots of different kinds of bands, like the Royal Crown Revue, who are exposing kids to swing and succeeding, which is great.
How has the tour situation been going farther back before this summer, around the time of the new record and when you got back together?
They've been different from the ones in the eighties just by of the sheer number of people that show up and by more of a party atmosphere as opposed to an "us against them" thing. Besides there being more kids there, we can also join in with them and share the fun. All the kids have just been great since we've been on the road, and before too.
You've also brought along lots of other bands, and even ones that can be placed in another type of music, such as Shades Apart.
Yeah, Shades Apart was a great band to tour with. That was one of my favorite bands that we had on the road with us. We were hoping we were gonna run into them on the Warped Tour, but I don't think it's going to work out that way. They are good friends of ours too, and you know we produced their last record. That is also a real great record, they really blew me away with that one.
What's the deal with academics now? Are you making an attempt to juggle biochemistry and music, or what?
Well, kind of, because in the last year that we have been touring I've had to put the research on the shelf and not really be involved with it. I'll have to come back to it at a later time, because I haven't been able to figure out a way to do both at the same time. I can't actually tour and do science, unless I can somehow build a laboratory in the back of the tour bus.
What exactly do you study?
I do really complicated stuff with genetics and plants and biochemistry.
Recently I saw a video for "I'm the One" on TV. Do you think having something like that broadcast on a national level benefits the band?
Well, we make a video, because in this day and age, you make a video and it's definitely some kind of supplement to the actual music. Back in the early eighties, it wasn't that way, you know, visuals did not play a role in music, and these days, it's just the way that music works. Visuals have become such an important thing that we decided to make a video. But when you make a video, you're making it and hoping that it's gonna get played where ever, like on cable access. MTV can either play it or not play it, and I don't really watch MTV myself. It turns out that they wanted to play that video (I'm the One), and so that was fine with us. We just do it and hope that anyone will play it and it's there for whoever wants to play it. It's not really something where we think that it's a negative thing for the band and in fact, I had a lot of fun making that video in particular. Just having a good time seemed to make it all worthwhile for me.
Since you've been back on the scene, how does the existence of two bands, Descendents and All, work? What is Chad doing when you guys are on tour and what is your role in the vice versa?
He's been doing two things, one being helping us to produce T-shirts because we have our own T-shirt screening facility now. He has also been doing a country band side project and fooling around with that at the Blasting Room, because he likes that stuff. They actually might be putting out a record, so he's obviously keeping himself busy with other music projects. And of course when he comes back into the picture, I'll just go back to being a science geek, so it all works out pretty well. We're just trying to accommodate everyone that's involved with both bands.
What about the decision not to return to SST as the Descendents?
That was mainly because once All left SST, I think they were looking to move on, and when we went to Epitaph, we took both bands with us and decided that would be best.
With your current position at Epitaph, the band sorta takes a role as an "elder" of the label. How does it feel to know that you helped to influence a lot of the other bands on the label with your sound?
It's funny, because I just think of us as another band that's trying to make a connection with all the people out there. We definitely played our role in forming certain band's influences, but that's no different than any of the bands that influenced us when we were growing up. Because of that, I don't really think of it as anything more than a continuum of different influences that pile on top of each other. That's fine for us too, because in this day and age, we don't really care about the musty legacy of whatever and we just want to connect with the here and now. That's a lot more important that relying on any past history or anything.
Particularly in the new album, there is songwriting specifically about getting old. Are you guys proud of geezerness, or what?
Well, we're definitely not an age-ist band, but I think it is an issue that we've dealt with before. Like in the song "I Don't Want to Grow Up", you get to a certain age and then it's like, "well now I have to go be responsible", or "now I have to go have a life." And every single time that I've tried to be responsible and have a real career, I just find myself tearing my hair out. The past couple years when I tried to have a scientific career, it was just real frustrating for me. So part of me getting back into music is kinda like saying : "no, fuck it, I need to have some fun and blow off some steam." And all that is part of the same issue of " I Don't Want To Grow Up", which is basically a desire not to be old.
Were most of the Descendents trademark love songs that you are known for based on reality or pathetic aspirations?
Every song about a girl, at least I can speak for my own songs especially, but every love song that we've ever done has been about a real girl that we were having to deal with. I think my own thing about songwriting is that I can only write about things that really exist and that are really happening, as opposed to imaginary situations. That means that if we wrote a song about a girl, it had to have really happened, because I can't just kinda make it up. That makes it a little harder too, because now I'm married and I can't really write songs about being married. I mean that I can't write songs about "oh, baby, you left me!" or whatever because my wife hasn't left me (laughing) . With that I'm kind of in a bind, but I'll figure it out.
Also as a song theme, coffee also seems significant with the Descendents. Is it really that important?
That's something that we've touched on in the past too, like in the song "Kids on Coffee" back in 1986. We've used coffee as our favorite drug of choice since way back in '81 or 82'. It's just something where I think it provides us with a certain spark or charge that makes the music a lot more exciting if we drink a lot of coffee. And besides, it's legal so it's OK (laughing again).
Any parting comments or shout outs?
Thanks to all the kids who support us and come out to see us play, and everyone who has helped us along the road. Rock on.