Our email chat with Descendents frontman Milo Aukerman
Tue, May 24, 2011 (6:46 p.m.)
Photo: Craig Cameron Olsen
It looks like this latest Descendents phase began with a few shows last year, and now a smattering of others in 2011. I read that you’re approaching it as a series of one-offs. Is that still the plan, or have you entertained the notion of a full-on relaunch?
I’ve still got my day job (which I don’t want to lose), and I have to use my vacation days for the gigs, so there’s definitely a limit to how many shows I can do per year. The other guys also have other commitments, so everyone is okay with the part-time status. I don’t envision it ever becoming a full-time thing; my career in science is going along swimmingly right now.
I read about the vocal/health problems you had last month in London. Do incidents like that make you question whether this is still a good idea? And apart from that, are you enjoying being back out there with the guys/the fans/these songs?
It’s still a good idea, as long as we don’t do too many shows in a row. For example, the Vegas show is a “one-off,” and I will have no problem with that. So far, the problem seems to arise when I do three or four shows in a row. Unlike back in the ’80s and ’90s I cannot condition my voice “on the road,” so I’m having to learn how to do that in the comfort of my living room, which has been a challenge. For one thing, I’m not practicing with the band, but rather with a “Descendents Karaoke” CD, and it’s been difficult to approximate live stage volume because of that. We are taking steps to overcome this limitation, so that I can condition my voice for the appropriate stage volume. I think I’m improving, and hopefully the next time we do a string of three or four shows in a row, I’ll be fine. As for the crowd response and hanging with the guys, that’s all been fantastic. Bill had some health issues a year or so ago and almost died. It has been great to look back and see him smiling behind the drums.
Any particular songs you’re enjoying singing again, and why?
“Everything Sucks,” because it’s so punk … and to see a bunch of 40-year-olds whale on that one … well, you just gotta see it.
You guys are spread across several states these days, right? Does that make it tricky to reassemble and practice for the occasional show?
I live in Delaware, Stephen lives in Oklahoma, and Bill and Karl are in Colorado. So Bill and Karl practice together, while Stephen and I practice with recorded music. Stephen has played with Karl and Bill for so long, it’s not a problem for him. Me, I have struggled a bit with the whole karaoke thing, as I’ve said above. But we’re all doing a lot of practicing, in whatever capacity we can, and I think the shows are going off well.
And you’re still a practicing biochemistry researcher, right? In basic terms, what does a biochemistry researcher actually do?
I do plant genetics, which means studying what genes do in plants, especially what certain genes do to affect drought tolerance or nutrient assimilation.
Do the people you work with in your other job know about your music? What do they think about you jetting off to play Punk Rock Bowling festivals in Las Vegas?
My science colleagues know about my “alternate existence” and think it’s pretty cool. I think when you spend all day cooped up in a lab, being able to blow off some steam doing something completely different has its appeal. My labmates are always asking about my latest set of gigs; I guess I should start sending them postcards from the road!
You cut short a career in punk rock to do that, which must sound wild to every kid with dreams of being in a band. Does it ever seem strange to you?
It’s interesting that you used the phrase “career in punk rock,” because when I went off to college in 1982 such a thing didn’t exist. Even when I went off to grad school in 1987, it looked like music was not my best option. Like other punk bands, we toiled in relative obscurity through the ’80s, which is something people forget—before Nirvana, Green Day and Offspring, punk rock was a pretty bad career option. I was okay with it; I didn’t get into music for a career anyway, so it was easy to shelve it for extended periods.
The Descendents are often referred to as “godfathers of pop-punk.” Does that make you cringe at all, given some of the vapid acts “pop-punk” has come to describe over the years?
I feel honored that people think we had such a wide-ranging influence. Pop-punk as a term has the same limitations as any of those genre terms; it means different things to different people. For one thing, bands were playing highly melodic punk before we came around (Buzzcocks or Dickies, for example), but no one called it pop-punk. The other complication is that we play a wide range of styles and only some of our songs are “pop” in the traditional sense. I’m happier to have influenced a band like Pennywise, who picked up on our more punk aspects, than some of the pop-punk bands out there. Because, as you imply in the question, there is the danger of becoming too pop and losing the punk.
How would you prefer to describe the Descendents’ contribution to music?
I would like to think we never played it safe. Our synthesis of hardcore and pop came about because we didn’t want to do the standard hardcore thing; we liked playing fast, but also liked The Beatles and The Last, so we just added more melody. In that sense, we went out on a limb, and I think it’s what all bands need to do in order to push music forward. In the end, just being a part of the continuum from Ramones and Black Flag to the punk bands of today has been very gratifying.
Looking at the tour archive on the Descendents website, I see you guys played Las Vegas a few times back in the day. Any interesting memories from ’80s shows here you could relate? Or anything else interesting come to mind regarding Vegas?
Uhhh … Vegas …Vegas … I remember playing the Joint back in the ’90s—that was fun. I can’t remember the ’80s Vegas shows.
I came to Vegas the first time with my dad, when I was 9 or 10, for a hockey tournament. My dad was not a gambler; far from it. So when I asked him to put a quarter into one of the slots, I could tell he was thinking, “What a waste …” But then we won $10 with that quarter! And that was it; we stopped right there. I guess neither one of us were real gamblers.
I also remember the roller coasters out there at some of the casinos. Especially the Desperado, at Buffalo Bill’s. I had bruises after I rode that one!
Are you hanging around for the whole Punk Rock Bowling weekend, or coming in and out for your set Sunday night? Any bands you’re excited to see?
I’m just there for Sunday. But I really want to see The Undertones (even though they’re without [original singer] Feargal [Sharkey]). I loved them as a teen. Plus The Bouncing Souls, who we toured a lot with in the ’90s, and Black Pacific. I’ve known Jim Lindberg for years.
Is there anything better than aging punk rockers getting together to bowl?
Bowling is one of those low-exertion sports where even a fat old punker can have fun, plus it’s conducive to beer drinking, so what’s not to like? I’ve heard of Punk Rock Kickball being popular for the same reason. I’ve even heard of Punk Rock Croquet!
I like to bowl (even though I’m no good), but I won’t be around for the tournament. Maybe I can sneak off for some frames.