After 12 long years, Descendents are bringing out a brand new record, titled ‘Hypercaffium Spazzinate’ and as expected, it’s more solid Cali-themed punk rock from one of the genre’s longest-running acts. Before the album’s release on July 29th, I spoke with drummer Bill Stevenson while he was home on break before their next European tour, and he had a lot to say on the band’s career and on what is easily the best thing that you could ever do with your time – drumming.
How does drumming in both Descendents and then in Flag (Stevenson and some other mates from his Black Flag days) go for you now? Is there a lot more stretching and warm-ups than usual?
No, not really. I’ve just been practicing the whole thing every day. I’m getting stronger too. I just had my big lung surgery, so now I can breathe so much easier. I need a good challenge to prove to myself that I’m doing stronger.
As a drummer myself, breathing issues like that can really separate the men from the boys and for you to come out on top of all that is great to hear, man. Likewise, d Do you know the band Billy Talent by any chance? Their drummer, Aaron Solowoniuk, had an MS relapse this year and couldn’t play drums on their new record and has stepped away from the band. As a drummer, that’s a really scary fucking thought for me.
Well, that’s some really bad news to hear about that band. I feel really bad for them as I can relate to it also. Basically, I’ve been running on half-lung capacity and I just got used to playing shows like that. I would just drink excessive amounts of coffee and learn to play more economically with my movements. By contrast, now that I’ve had the surgery and all of the blood clots are out of my lungs, drumming is a lot more fun now.
Glad to hear it, man. And that’s really what you want it to be – fun. On the new album, I noticed that one of the songs, ‘Smile’, seems to be about you and what you’ve been through. Is that the case?
Well actually, Mile wrote Comeback Kid about me getting out of my brain surgery five years ago. But yes, Smile is also about me. He was concerned that I was in a bad way, and now looking back on it, he saw me falling into a slight depression before I even did. But you know, it was also hard for me not being able to breathe and it was not easy for me to just be alive [laughs]. But now everything’s good, and I appreciate the fact that Milo wanted to write about it.
Well, that’s what best friends are for. Is that maybe a testament to why the band has continued on for so long – you’re all such good friends?
Well, we have a very…unique, self-contained entity, and here’s why. Milo and I have been best friends since we were 15, but Stephen and Karl have been best friends since they were 12, so it’s a unique situation [laughs]. It’s been the four of us now for thirty years!
That’s really cool, and a really telling sign of how perfect you are for each other, I think.
Yeah! You know, it’s funny, I think about all the stuff that Milo has put up with from me, and all the things that he has put me through at times. It’s like we’ve known each other for over 400 years by now.
[Laughs] I’m sure it does. Now, with that new album and it’s title, ‘Hypercaffium Spazzinate’ is actually a new element that Milo founded. Which is bonkers!
Yeah, it’s going to be a new element added to the Periodic Table. Milo discovered it and the effect it has on coffee. It makes the stimulant 10 or 20 times more powerful. So he thought to call this agent, this new element ‘hypercaffium spazzinate’.
Well, there’s punk rocks contribution to science right there. Maybe that might help with all your coffee drinking as well…
Well, I already drink too much coffee, but too much is never enough!
I feel ya! With the band being together for so long now, getting on almost 40 years, you must have heard and read all of the best and worst things that the media and the fans can say about you and your band.
I think that if you live by the review, you die by the review. There are always really great reviews, and you read those and it can all go to your head. But then if you read the bad reviews, you can think that you’re not worth anything! So it’s best to take all of the reviews, the good and the bad and say, ‘These are all of these writers opinions. They are all music fans, just like me, and while we may not like the same bands, we can still get along’.
Well said. I always expect that with any reviews I write that people will take it with a grain of salt and hopefully make up their own minds on it as well.
Exactly. But you can’t say that the good reviews are accurate and valid and that the bad reviews are just people not knowing what they’re talking about.
Oh, totally! Now, with all of your production and mixing over the years, you worked with As I Lay Dying and then Woven War, which are probably the two heaviest releases in your CV. Would you work with heavier bands like that again or was that a fun experiment?
Wel, Louie Armstrong said once that there are only two types of music; good music and bad music. If you can tap your foot to it and nod your head to it, then it’s good music. I love all kinds of music, any that you could possibly think of; metal, avant-garde jazz, funk, afro-Cuban, punk. When it’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. But when it sucks, it just sucks.
Yeah, it’s either you do or you don’t, I find. With having been drumming for so long, and with your engineering work, what would you say is the most common mistake or self-created problem that younger or inexperienced drummers do when recording?
Oh, I have the perfect answer for this! This has actually changed my style over the years. It’s people don’t know how to hit the drums the right way. It’s either too hard, too soft, or too erratically. There’s an exact right way to hit a drum so that it sounds like a proper drum, in aggression and tone. I’ve gotten to be excessively particular about hitting it the right hardness each and every time. That takes a lot of self-restraint and discipline. If you hit too hard, you choke the tone, but hit too softly and it doesn’t have enough impact to carry the song.
That’s a great insight, as consistency is such a key thing in drumming. I think it’s easier for some drummers nowadays to become a little lazy with the sampling of their own kit or using other samples to tidy or tighten up their playing.
Well, those nice and clean samples that drummers record at the start of every session, that’s what I aim for whenever I record. And it’s very difficult to do. You get those beautiful hits and you don’t hit the cymbals too hard and everyone who paid money to see you play gets a beautiful experience.
Oh, it really is! Well, there’s a good place to wrap this interview up, Bill. Thanks so much for your time today, it was really great to speak with you!
No problems. Thank you very much, man, I appreciate it!
‘Hypercaffium Spazzinate’ is out July 29th through Epitaph Records.