WORDS: BECTON SIMPSON
Formed in 1977 in South California, the iconic Descendents thrived as part of a scene that was a hotbed for DIY punk, inspiring a generation of young punks and beyond to pick up guitars and form their own bands. Still going strong well into their forties and with a recent set at Riot Fest in the bag, we managed to catch up with lead singer Milo Aukerman and guitarist Stephen Egerton about the far reaching influence of the band and the differences between the scene back then and the scene now.
“It was a lot smaller then,” said Milo. “It was a pretty tight nit crew. Especially in our area…it was almost family. It started out as a bunch of fans of the Hollywood scene who then decided to make their own bands.” That knock on butterfly effect only spread and now hundreds of bands have listed Descendents (and the other bands at that time) as influences. “Bands will always have influences,” Milo reflected. “But if a new band comes around now, they take influences from like…ten different bands so it’s not as easy to track down.”
“My son will literally listen to Post Malone followed by Chuck Berry,” agreed Stephen with a laugh. “The world is different. Now, a young person has access, and easily, to such a broad spectrum of music.”
“Punk rock spoke to me on a personal level”
Back in the late 70s and early 80s, it was all about mining record stores for the latest releases and hearing about what was good by word of mouth. “For us who were into punk rock, it was specific record stores, a small selection, and not any information to go on other than picking up a cover and deciding whether to throw down your money or not,” said Stephen.
“Back then we’d put records out and the exposure was fairly limited because it’s like…you don’t have the internet,” Milo added. “We were a slow burn band for many years. It was word of mouth.”
But no matter how the format has changed over the years – from vinyl to CDs to digital downloads and the meteoric rise of the internet and social media – there’s still one thing that hasn’t changed and that’s the appeal of punk rock. “Some of the songs we wrote that are deeply applicable if you’re 16/17 still make sense now,” said Milo. “Young people go through the same shit.”
For Stephen, the appeal of punk came from its individualism, the counter culture, the rebellion against the norm, and it’s something he feels is still relevant today. “At any given time I always feel like there’s a bunch of the same sorts of little upheavals that were common to our scene. They always exist and they’re always there.”
“Punk rock spoke to me on a personal level more than just a musical level,” Milo agreed, talking about the punk ethos. “It was so different…I really embrace that part of it. I think the ethos is really the DIY part. That to me is really meaningful.”
Descendents in particular were always about wearing their hearts on their sleeve and keeping it real when it came to song topics and lyrical content. “We were willing to play 30 second songs about food,” Milo laughed. “A lot of what we do is just trying to capture all facets of our personalities and I think that’s important. The songs are relatable to people because they’re about shit that happens to real humans.”
“I was a fan before I joined,” said Stephen, discussing the long term appeal of Descendents music in particular. What was it that really gets people attracted to this band? “They had a strong melodic backbone that either the other punk bands weren’t capable of or interested in, but it was something that appealed to me. That melody seems to always translate to people.”
“Nobody expected this music to have any kind of lifespan”
But the band never expected things to take off as well as they did or that they’d still be playing and having a career in music all these years later.
“All these bands from that period at that time,” said Stephen. “None of them had any expectation. Nobody was really thinking outside of their practice room and the odd show. Nobody expected this music to have any kind of lifespan.”
Back then, punk was just a bit of a fun, an outlet for creativity and at the heart of counter culture is individulism – art, skating, punk rock music. They’re all forms of expression and ultimately perhaps this is what ties them together and creates these strong links between the varying art forms. “It’s a way to get all my excess aggression and energy out,” Milo reflected. “That to me is the connection I find between the two of them. Where do you take all this excess energy? Do something creative with it. Get on a skateboard. Form a band. The two things are the same.”
“There were a lot of characters,” said Stephen of the scene back then. “It was a hotbed of individualism. People were fiercely different from one another and had radically different approaches to everything.”
Descendents approach was “caffeinated surf-rock”, a term which Milo agreed was “as true a statement as you could ever say about us. We drank a shit ton of coffee.”
“We were just kinda nerdy coffee guys,” agreed Stephen, going on to talk about the nerdy sketched character of ‘Milo’ who graces a lot of their album covers and merchandise. The drawing was originally inspired by a classmate and started off as a bit of a piss take yet came to represent everything Descendents stood for in terms of counter culture and individualism. The true embodiment of Descendents. Indeed, in the same way Minor Threat made people realise it wasn’t so bad to be straight edge, Descendents made people realise it wasn’t so bad to be a nerd.
“We had that weird little angle that was almost accidental, in a way. It wasn’t concocted,” said Stephen.
“I was going off to college,” Milo explained. “And Bill said ‘I need a cover for the record…I wanna put Roger’s cartoon on there.’ And the idea was that this was almost like…a greeting’s card…if you look at the way it’s laid out…it’s laid out that way. And that was gonna be the end of it but then we start making the second and third record and people are like ‘no you gotta keep that thing around.’”
With the band’s nerdy, science background and a certain intellectualism to their lyrics, they were able to attract a broad spectrum of listeners – from suit-wearing intellectual businessmen to fourteen year old new punk kids. Even today, there’s young people getting into punk and discovering their music, and undoubtedly their incredible legacy will continue. Descendents are an outlet of fun for everyone.