Bill Stevenson, Part 1: the Reemergence of Descendents
by David Jarnstrom
To borrow from the great Walt Whitman: Bill Stevenson is large. He contains multitudes. Over the last four decades, the hulking drummer has tirelessly propelled the likes of Descendents, All, and Black Flag—a trio of trailblazing bands as skilled at progressive, fusion-inspired jams as they are straight-up punk rock burners and catchy sing-alongs. Stevenson’s signature stickwork with these iconic groups—on more than two dozen studio albums and countless tours—would be a colossal legacy unto itself, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
A gifted songwriter and the driving creative force behind Descendents and All, Stevenson was also a prime mover in the development of West Coast pop-punk. Blending his love of infectious melodies with blistering 8th notes and lyrics concerned with teenage angst, heartbreak, fast food, and fishing, Stevenson penned much of Descendents’ most compelling material, including the timeless heart-on-sleeve hits “Bikeage,” “Silly Girl,” and “Clean Sheets,” as well as classic bursts of absurdist fury like “Weinerschnitzel” and “I Like Food.”
To top it all off, Stevenson emerged as in-demand producer in the ’90s, helping to shape the sounds of some of punk’s biggest acts, including Rise Against, Alkaline Trio, NOFX, Hot Water Music, and Propagandhi. Sprinkle in a few stellar side projects—Only Crime, the Mag Seven, Lemonheads, the Last—and one begins to wonder how seriously the dude takes his own closing rant in Descendents’ 46-second freak out, “Kids on Coffee”: “Thanks to the power of caffeine, sleep is now optional.”
The excellent 2013 documentary Filmage: The Story of Descendents/All reveals that some serious cracks had begun to emerge in this juggernaut’s armor by the late aughts, however. Stevenson miraculously survived a pair of life-threatening ailments—a bratwurst-sized pulmonary aneurysm and baseball-sized brain tumor—thanks in large part to a hometown surgeon who, serendipitously, happened to be a Black Flag fan. Though Stevenson ’s not completely out of the weeds health-wise—as he discusses below—the drummer’s new lease on life, coupled with mounting hospital bills, sparked a prolonged period of Descendents activity, culminating in the 2016 release of Hypercaffium Spazzinate, the band’s spot-on seventh studio album, and its first since 2004.
Much to the chagrin of its fans, Descendents have historically been an intermittent endeavor, mainly due to singer and bespectacled mascot Milo Aukerman’s demanding biochemistry career. But for the first time since the band’s beloved ’96 comeback effort, Everything Sucks, Aukerman is all in on music, putting down his research to devote more time to proper touring, including an upcoming string of dates in Australia.
In Part 1 of our new, comprehensive interview with Stevenson, we talk to him about the group’s recent spike in activity, including the making of Hypercaffium Spazzinate, and about establishing a relationship with a click track that you can live with.
MD: After years of just playing one-offs and festivals, you had a pretty full slate of Descendents dates in 2016. I have to imagine that all this touring did wonders for your drumming stamina.
Bill: Well, the joke is I wish I could get off of tour so I could play more drums! Karl [Alvarez, bass] and I still practice two or three hours a day, because we live in the same town [Fort Collins, Colorado]. We carry that Descendents/All torch of just grinding it out and keeping the machine lubed up. On tour there’s soundcheck and then an hour for the show, so I’m actually playing less than if I was at home. I’m losing drum chops by the day. [laughs]
MD: How are the new songs fitting in with the old material?
Bill: Surprisingly well, and they’re really fun to play. They’re among the more ambitious drum arrangements I’ve done—not necessarily like some of the prog-rock stuff that All would do, but there’s a lot of moving parts. I don’t sit still for more than a couple bars before I change it up. There’s a lot of phrasing as opposed to just keeping a beat, like Mitch Mitchell or Elvin Jones would do. That’s always been my goal. It’s just so much more fun to play like that, you know?
MD: How are you still able to play this fast, intense, complex material at age fifty-three? Have you had to modify your technique at all?
Bill: I have a lot of thoughts on that. As many people know, I’ve had some pretty serious health problems. What they might not know is I’ve had a few very invasive surgeries—since Filmage came out. I had a second craniotomy, up through my nose to get a little piece of tumor they weren’t able to reach when they opened up my head several years ago. And I also had a pulmonary thromboendarterectomy, which is open-lung surgery. That’s where they cool you way down, and they actually take you off life support to operate on your lungs. They took out all this scarred blood clot tissue that has been in there since 2010. I also had a triple bypass open heart surgery at the same time, because they had my sternum open.
Bill: It’s been quite a journey. So yeah, there have been adjustments. I’ve played these drum parts at 160 pounds, and I’ve played them at 400 pounds. At the height of my brain tumor problems, I weighed 400 pounds. I couldn’t even reach my snare, cause my belly was sticking out so far. So I had to change my style when I was huge. I lost all that weight after the first craniotomy, but then I was left with all these pulmonary embolisms in my lungs. I played drums for six years while operating on half my normal lung power. So I changed my style again. I had to economize my arm flailing and rely more on just sheer core and wrist power to create the necessary tone and volume because my lungs were clogged. But eight or so months ago, they got all the clots out, and now I’m operating on full lung power. It’s pretty cool because now if I’m feeling really ornery and I want to pour it on in a given part, I can do that.
But even though I can breathe better now, and I can take a more athletic approach to playing, the irony is that I don’t like the sound of the drums when I beat the tar out of them. It chokes the tone out. There’s a sweet spot in hitting a drum velocity-wise that produces the most tone. I call it “medium hard.” I know this because I’ve produced records for a long time, and I’ve done serious case studies on hundreds of drummers. I’ve put mics on drums all day for the last twenty-five years, so I know how to hit the drum so that the mic will like what it hears. I also try to minimize the flailing because it affects meter and consistency. It may put on a better show visually, but our songs move at such a quick pace, you know? I really need to be grounded and focused on my accuracy.
MD: As a producer and songwriter, how do you balance your desire to serve the song but also satisfy your urges as a drummer?
Bill: That may be what’s coolest about the new record—and I’d throw [All’s] Mass Nerder and Problematic and [Descendents’] Cool to Be You in there too—I feel like I’ve found a density level that keeps me interested and engaged. I have a good sense of how much I can get away with without stepping all over the song, where I’m still making it more exciting as opposed to just making it cluttered. There’s a thread throughout the new record that’s like, “That’s Bill having fun,” instead of, “That’s Bill in this mode or that mode.” I love [All’s] “She’s My Ex,” but I don’t really want to write more arrangements where I’m doing nothing on the drums. I can’t sit still for that, you know? So on “Without Love,” even though it’s one of those melodic choruses that I like to write, I’m not sitting still, I’m moving. And if it doesn’t sound like a pop hit, well, who cares about that?
MD: Talk about recording Hypercaffium Spazzinate and how you overcame the logistical hurdles of Stephen [Egerton, guitar] living in Oklahoma and Milo living in Delaware.
Bill: We started by sharing demos with each other. Milo has a Pro Tools rig at his house. Stephen has a Pro Tools rig at his house. Karl and I generated demos for our own songs. I used these tracks as what I call “prelay” to record the drums, which I did at the Blasting Room [Stevenson’s studio in Fort Collins]. I broke up thirty-six songs over three sessions—every six months or so I would do another batch. Either Jason [Livermore] or Andrew [Berlin] would engineer, and Stephen flew up to co-produce on two of the sessions. He’s an awesome drummer in his own right, and he’s always been so great at helping me come up with cool parts.
Our band’s a little bit backwards—the guitar plays more root chords and the bass plays more melody—so Stephen recorded his parts first at his studio in Tulsa, then I engineered Karl at my house on my little Pro Tools rig. Then we’d send instrumental mixes to Milo and he’d record vocals. I flew out to Delaware twice just to give him some support, which was fun, because he’s one of my oldest friends and we got to hang out and re-bond with each other. When Milo was done, Jason mixed and mastered it at the Blasting Room. Then when it came time to choose the songs, we all voted, and the sixteen that got the most votes made the record.
MD: Do you do much drum editing in post, or do you go for full takes?
Bill: With the shorter ones, I’ll just do three or four full takes. But because these sessions were at the height of my lung problems, I’d run out of breath halfway through longer songs like “Spineless and Scarlet Red.” So I’d need to punch in to kind of work through them. I don’t like to get involved with beat detective or quantizing—that stuff usually does more harm than good. But I would do a little bit of comping and editing, because I don’t always script out my parts. I just go in there and wail on it—drink like fifty cups of coffee and play a bunch of cool stuff—then sort through it all later when I’m not sweating in my gym shorts.
MD: Have you historically used a click?
Bill: It depends. I have a saying about clicks: “A metronome will make a lame drummer sound okay, and a metronome will make a great drummer sound okay.” If you can play drums with some feeling, usually the metronome’s not going to do much but stifle that feeling. But if you can’t keep time, then the metronome can be very helpful. Most Descendents and All songs are not a stagnant tempo, and many were just recorded in free time. But I’ll also engineer tempo maps to sort of marry free time and the metronome. Different sections of the songs will be different tempos, or even different bars within one section. Or even little phrases, like a beat that has a stalled feel to it—I’ll knock those down two [beats per minute] or whatever. And there’s times when I’ll accelerate the tempo just a bit in a given part, because it makes the song flow better to my ear.
A lot of songs that I play on or produce—when you listen to, say, a Rise Against song on the radio—you think you’re hearing one tempo because it feels normal. But usually there’s a lot of different tempos happening. They’re changes I deemed to be important features of the way the song was being played, as opposed to deeming them to be “drummer errors.” Drummers have a natural ebb and flow—it’s what separates us from Casios.
MD: You’ve always had excellent tempo—even when you recorded [Descendents’ debut full-length] Milo Goes to College as a teenager. Is that a skill you were just born with?
Bill: I might have to debunk that theory a little bit. There’s a common pattern on that album where I’ll start the song at, say, 200, but finish at 185. I wouldn’t really call that drummer error, tough. More like “drummer gets tired.” [laughs]
MD: Okay, what about when you get to Enjoy! a few years later, though? You’re locked in.
Bill: Enjoy! is a very ’80s-influenced album. I was infatuated with Billy Idol’s first record, and his drummer, Thommy Price, just keeping that four-on-the-floor beat. [Steve Missal recorded the album; Price began playing with Idol soon after its release.] But I bet you I start “Sour Grapes” at 180 and finish it at like 174. There’s no metronome. But I know what you mean—within a sixteen-bar passage, I’m holding it down really well. I didn’t get a trained ear for meter until… I mean, I’m still studying that aspect of music. But let’s just say that was never really a primary concern, because, like, what does metronomic precision have to do with punk rock? Or rock ’n’ roll in general? The Rolling Stones never used a metronome. The Jimi Hendrix Experience never used a metronome. But by the ’90s I had found a way to use the metronome as a friend. So it’s one tool in the toolbox and I bust it out sometimes. But you’ve got to know how to use it, otherwise the tail is wagging the dog, so to speak. You’re supposed to be the dog.