Old rona may be hanging around like a party guest who’s overstayed their welcome, but …
In the wake of their 9th & Walnut release, Milo Aukerman reflects on what it was like to be a nerd in the ‘70s, how–as a “pretty shy guy” watching Descendents practice–he mustered up whatever “chutzpah” was necessary to jump on the mic and what a privilege is was to be invited to join the band.
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Aside from their four-and-a-half–minute Fat EP, Descendents’ recent 9th & Walnut album is the band’s only other release to feature the classic line-up of lead singer Milo Aukerman, guitarist Frank Navetta (RIP), bassist Tony Lombardo and drummer Bill Stevenson, all of whom recorded one of the most influential pop-punk/hardcore albums of all time: Milo Goes To College.
Since we’re Zooming Descendents’ on-off frontman (for more than 40 years), we’ve just gotta ask how the news that he was going to college was initially received by his bandmates back in the day. “I think there was kind of like zero surprise,” Aukerman recalls. “Bill knew, just from knowing me as a high school student, that I had this intellectual side or that I had this side of me that was driven to succeed in the academic world or whatever. And I never made any pretence of saying, ‘I wanna be a musician’; I had always told them that I was gonna go to college.”
“So I think when that actually happened they were kinda like, ‘Yeah, that actually makes a lot of sense,’ and wished me well, and I went on my way. I mean, I think the idea to even call that first record Milo Goes To College was Frank and Bill’s, and I think it even says on there, ‘As a token of appreciation to Milo,’ or something like that so the album itself was almost like a ‘have a good life’ or a going away card or something. I never really felt like they were bitter about it, ‘cause they kind of knew what the story was. And little did they know that I was gonna keep coming back to the band,” he laughs. “They must’ve been surprised about that like, ‘I thought you were just gonna be a scientist!’ And I kept saying, ‘Well, yeah, I like science, but this music stuff gets under your skin. And so I had to keep doing it.”
Well, yeah, I like science, but this music stuff gets under your skin. And so I had to keep doing it.
[ Milo Aukerman ]
Descendents’ first rehearsal space was the Long Beach garage of guitarist Frank Navetta’s brother, situated at the intersection of 9th & Walnut. “By the time I joined the band, they weren’t even practising there anymore,” Aukerman informs, “because they were practising there in ‘78, ‘79 and then by the time I joined they had started practising at this place in Hermosa Beach called The Church; it was the place where Black Flag and Redd Kross used to practice.
“The first time I ever saw the Descendents practice, before I was even in the band, they were already practising in The Church. So I’ve had to ask Bill what it was like at 9th & Walnut … Bands used to hang carpeting on the walls to muffle the sound–carpeting was always the thing of choice, ‘cause you could just go behind carpet stores and they’d throw away the scraps in these big dumpsters, and you’d take the scraps and put those on the wall. So I said, ‘Well, did you guys do that?’ And Bill said, ‘No, no, it was just a garage.’ So I’m trying to envision just a garage with a bunch of tools hanging up on the walls and, you know, [the band] set up in the middle of it.”
“I don’t think there was anything special about the inside part of it, but it just so happened that that’s where they started. It was Frank’s brother’s house and they had another band that practiced there as well, but I guess the key thing about that garage is that it was only a few houses away from where Tony lived – just by happenstance Tony happened to live down the block, basically – and so I think Frank and Bill heard Tony playing down the street and they said, ‘Hey, come on down to our garage and jam out,’ and that’s how it all started.”
The first time Aukerman ever heard Descendents’ music was when he purchased the band’s Ride The Wild/It’s A Hectic World 45 from Stevenson at school. “Bill came to school with a stack of these 45s and I bought one off him, just ‘cause he was kind of a high school acquaintance of mine and I had just started getting into punk rock. And this one record just kind of blew me away. It wasn’t even as punk as some of the other stuff out there, it was more ‘60s-flavoured and I just loved it. So then I said, ‘Can I come and see you guys practise at The Church?’ And he said, ‘Yeah,’ and so I went there and they were a trio who occasionally had a girl singer–I mean, the girl singer never showed up to practice and so they would practice with a mic setup, but no one would use the mic. And so when I went to that first practice with them, I said, ‘Hey, I’ll sing Ride The Wild,’ just ‘cause it seemed like a fun thing to do. And I’m a pretty shy guy. I think back on what gave me the chutzpah to think that I should just jump up on the mic like that – I don’t know what it was, but I think I was just caught up in the moment. And so then maybe a few weeks after that they said, ‘Well, we should just have this guy sing, he seemed to really have some enthusiasm for this.’ So that’s kind of how it all went down.”
I was just getting into punk rock and here comes this guy who has a similar experience to me in high school of just being an outcast–and having all the jocks hate him, or whatever–and I felt like I really identified with that.
[ Milo Aukerman ]
Even though Lombardo is about 15 years their senior, Aukerman remembers bonding the most with the Dsecendents bassist when he first joined the band: “Tony was such a nerd. I mean, he was kind of a nerd’s nerd. I was coming from being the uber-nerd at my school–and, back then, if you were a nerd, you were pretty much an outcast kind of thing, a misfit. These days nerds seem to have a bit more higher standing, but back then if you were a nerd you kind of got laughed at or whatever so I really related to Tony on that level. All in all, we were just four guys, each with their own distinct personality, which was kinda fun.”
Six years after Descendents dropped their excellent comeback album (1996’s Everything Sucks), Navetta, Lombardo and Stevenson reconvened at the drummer’s Blasting Room studio in Fort Collins, Colorado to lay down brand new versions of the first 17 songs they ever wrote and played together (plus a fun cover of Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five–a live favourite from back in the day).
After Navetta tragically passed in 2008, the project was put on indefinite hold. Then when Covid hit, Aukerman finally completed 9th & Walnut–recording vocals remotely from his home in Delaware–almost two decades after the initial tracks were recorded.
“What I was really excited about was the tracks that I had never done before, ‘cause I’d done about half the tracks in 1980, and of course, for those, I knew how they went and I was really excited to tackle them. But to hear the new new tracks–well, they weren’t new tracks; they were tracks that I never had a chance to sing on, because they had already gotten shelved by the band.”
“Some of those are my favourite ones on the record, because of the fact that they were new to me and because, I mean, I was just really astounded that they would shelve them! I asked Tony, ‘Why did you guys stop playing these songs?’ You know, songs like Nightage or To Remember … I was really excited to do those, because I thought, ‘Well, now that I’m a mature singer with lots of experience, I might be able to sing those a little better.’ So, yeah! It was a great experience: a combination of rediscovering some of the songs that I did with them when I first joined, but also newly discovering songs that I’d never done with them before, ever, so it was a nice little mix of discovery.”
Given that Lombardo wrote Nightage about his admiration for The Alley Cats’ bassist Dianne Chai, we’re wondering whether perhaps he left that particular song off their setlists back then because he didn’t want his crush unveiled. “Maybe that’s why, yeah,” Aukerman ponders, “because we did play a lot of shows with [The Alley Cats] back in the day. I think that’s one of the first songs that Tony wrote. He loved Dianne’s bass playing and he was envious of how well she played, but he also had a crush on her, too, so it was this combination of like, ‘I can’t do what she can do and I lust after her as well,’ you know?” he laughs.
While recording his vocals for 9th & Walnut, Aukerman says Descendents’ late great guitarist often entered his thoughts: “He’s not even around anymore, of course, so when I started working on this I just took it as an opportunity to kind of commune with this guy who formed the band. And he was such a sweetheart, but, while being a sweetheart, he was also a very intense and at times kind of angry young boy, and that comes across in the lyrics. So I feel like part of doing some of his songs where I had to interpret those lyrics, and give voice to those lyrics, meant that I was going to be inhabiting his angry, hostile side, but I could also inhabit his more tender side as well and that’s why you have songs like To Remember, which is really quite a tender song, or you’ve got songs like Grunge, which is the opposite, you know? So he had this dual personality. Both sides sort of spoke to me; I really like the aggressive stuff.
“I was just getting into punk rock and here comes this guy who has a similar experience to me in high school of just being an outcast–and having all the jocks hate him, or whatever–and I felt like I really identified with that. But then also the tender side was something where, you know, we all grew up listening to The Beatles and so I think we all had this love of very melodic, ‘60s-based music and so it was great to kind of put myself back in that place. It basically allowed me to put myself back into those days when I had just joined the band and how that felt, and just being amazed at all the great songs that these guys had written, you know? I just felt so privileged.”
After discovering Devo’s debut album (1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!) through a friend, Aukerman was immediately hooked. “I just really latched onto that record and loved it,” he recounts. “It’s such a great record. The very first cut Uncontrollable Urge is one of their hardest numbers, you know, and actually Devo were my gateway into punk rock, because when I went to go see them play in Long Beach–this was New Year’s Eve, 1979–the opening band was X. And so I was at this point in my life where it’s like, ‘Yeah, Devo’s cool, but what about this X band?’ And so I made the switch to actually listening to punk rock, mostly LA punk rock, and that’s kinda where it all got started.
“In LA, Devo was pretty much accepted in the punk-rock community; even though they were a New Wave band, they were goofy enough and, you know, hard-edged enough that I think a lot of the punks really took to them as well.”
Given that Dave Grohl is a fully paid up member of Descendents’ fan club, we can’t help but wonder whether the Fooeys’ Bee Gees side project, Dee Gees, has crossed Aukerman’s desk yet. “Oh, I think I saw a video of that on YouTube,” he enthuses. “I’m gonna have to go check it out. I’d be curious about that, yeah. I mean, Dave’s a cool guy, ‘cause his influences and his tastes are very widespread and he makes no apologies for anything; you know, he’s into whatever. And he doesn’t care if it’s not cool or whatever, he’s like, ‘Fuck it! I’m into the Bee Gees’. I’m the same way, I like Neil Diamond and I was like, ‘Okay, fuck it! I’m into Neil Diamond. So you can think I’m a dork, but that’s okay’.”