Bill Stevenson
Bill Stevenson with Descendents. From left: bassist Karl Alvarez, Stevenson, singer Milo Aukerman, and guitarist Stephen Egerton

by David Jarnstrom

In Part 1 of our new interview with the iconic drummer Bill Stevenson, we discussed the latest Descendents album, the major lifestyle changes he’s made, and solving the drummer/producer dichotomy. Here we trace the early developments of his long and illustrious playing career, and learn about the broad range of influences, musical and otherwise, that have transformed him.

 

MD: In the recent Descendents/All documentary, Filmage, you talk about finding a bass guitar in the trash and using it to write your first songs. What was your first drumset? How did you learn to play?

Bill: When I was three or four I’d get pots and pans out and play them with wooden spoons and spatulas and stuff. Then when I was eleven or twelve, my mom was a bookkeeper at her church, and I’d tag along with her and play on this great red sparkle Rodgers drumset. That thing sounded like…I mean, they just don’t make drums like that anymore. That’s where I learned how to keep a beat and stuff. Then when I was fourteen, my father bought me a used set for like $200. I think the brand was Stewart. Then when Descendents started practicing in [original guitar player] Frank Navetta’s garage, his brothers had another red sparkle Rodgers. I was like, “Yes!” You never even had to tune these drums. They had heads that were twelve years old, and they sounded perfect. Then when I was sixteen I got my first Slingerland kit.

MD: Was this your giant primer gray one?

Bill: No, this had a 22″ bass drum and 14″ and 16″ toms. It sounded good. But shortly after that I got the huge Slingerlands—those were 26″/16″/20″. The primer gray thing ties into the whole fishing thing from when we were kids. [Stevenson was an avid fisherman as a youth and worked at a tackle shop owned by the father of original Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris.] It’s like battleship gray, you know? I still have those, but I mainly use the kick drum as a coffee table. I recorded over a dozen albums and played a million shows on them, but I can’t use them anymore. Back in the day I never had drum cases. I would put those drums—and they were concert toms, so no front or bottom heads—I would put them inside of each other. And I had this foam thing I would put across the SVT cabinet and my drums in the back of the van and I would sleep on them. I think over time they took such a beating, the wood kind of de-laminated. Years later I had somebody re-do the bearing edges, but they just won’t hold a tune anymore. I used them from Milo Goes to College [1980] all the way up through Allroy Saves [1990].

MD: What drew you to the big drums?

Bill: It was all about [early Black Flag drummer] Robo. Robo had Vistalites—26″/15″/18″. And I wanted to have big drums like Robo cause I just worshipped him when I was a kid. He taught me so much. We were all sleeping on floors of various practice rooms, and I would just sit there and watch him. And whenever Robo wasn’t around I would play his drums.

MD: So all your early albums were recorded with those huge drums? They don’t always sound that massive on record.

Bill: No, they don’t. But this was the era of, like, taping your wallet to the snare. The drums were just so dead. You know how it’s common practice to put a pillow in your kick, but you don’t dare do that to the toms, because it’s like sacrilege? Well, I used the same amount of deadening on every drum. It was a different time, you know? That said, in the last year I’ve found myself almost coming full circle. Now I’m running Powerstroke 4s on the top and bottom on my toms. And I’ll use an Emperor X on the snare with a few bluies. I’ll put some additional muffling on the bottom of the toms too, so they’re short and punchy with a lot of low end. I’m deadening them so much, it’s reminiscent of those old concert toms.

MD: What are your current sizes?

Bill: Right now I’m running 24″/14″/18″. Mike [Ciprari] from SJC Drums called and said, “Hey, we want to [sign you as an endorser]. What do you want?” I got an acrylic kit so I can continue to live out my Robo fantasy, which is perfect because I did a lot of shows this year with my old Black Flag guys—when we do that we just call ourselves Flag, you know? And then the other one is a mahogany set that lives at the studio. They have a big, thick sound to them. They sound like the old Rodgers drums more than any other set I’ve ever had.

MD: Did you ever take heat from punks for building out such a big kit back in the day? You had tons of cymbals—even a remote hi-hat at one point.

Bill: Well, I don’t think they looked at it as a Neil Peart kit, because it was one rack tom, and the cymbals were all the exact same height, all level and straight. And the remote hat was a very utilitarian thing. When I was nineteen and twenty, I had really bad bursitis in my shoulders, as well as tendinitis and even arthritis in my hands and arms. I couldn’t raise my right arm very high without it hurting, so I put the extra hat over by the ride cymbal because that was a more comfortable position.

Then I started doing yoga stretches, and over time I got rid of the pain. It’s funny—even though I’m getting older, I don’t have pain when I play now. I’ve got my stretching down to where I do not get sore. I’ve beaten that thing. Kira [Roessler, Black Flag bassist] bought me this yoga book back in ’83 or ’84. She knew a little bit about yoga, and so I started doing this routine that sort of worked opposite to the various motions of drumming. Every night when I’m done playing I undo all the stress that I get from playing. I wake up locked and loaded to go again because I relieved all the stiffness and soreness before it had a chance to take hold.

MD: So it’s a post-show thing?

Bill: Mostly. Pre-show I’ll get the blood going by jogging in place, high knees, butt kicks, little punches to the sides—stretch the body out so you don’t pull a muscle. For me the warm-up is thirty percent of the picture and the cool down is seventy percent. That’s when I can stretch really far because my body’s warm and my blood’s flowing. You have to stretch those muscles out so you don’t put them away damaged for the night.

MD: You’re one of the rare players who can lay claim to some bona fide signature drum licks—chief of which being the pop-punk surf beat. How did this originate?

Bill: It’s a combination of three elements. There’s the Last, whose drummer, Jack Reynolds, played a surf beat on songs like “Slavedriver.” That’s the prototype. But there was also John McCarthy, drummer of the Alley Cats, who brought precision and accuracy to punk rock—I took that and applied it to the Last’s surf beat. And then there’s the wannabe Latin part of me. My surf beat’s not straight. It has a big Latin swing to it. None of this was conscious at the time, but when I look back on it, I go, “Oh that’s me trying to be in Santana, but I’m playing the Last’s surf beat and I want to be the Alley Cats’ drummer at the same time.” A hundred percent unoriginal. But you know how that is—good ideas rest on the shoulders of other good ideas.

MD: But the way you execute it is unmistakably you, and so many people have copied your version of that beat over the years.

Bill: It’s funny, but you can always tell… I think people have to listen to the Last and the Alley Cats to really do it right. They can’t just listen to me—they’ve got to listen to where it came from.

MD: What about those endless single-stroke snare rolls? Like on “Myage” [Milo Goes to College] or “Wishing Well” [Allroy for Prez]?

Bill: If you listen to the Alley Cats, you hear the prototype for the way I play that. That and the bridge of “Manny, Moe and Jack” by the Dickies.

MD: But again, you took the original concept up several notches in terms of certitude and stamina. How did you hone this skill at such a young age?

Bill: Oh, you know, mainly not having much of a social life to distract me. [laughs] I did a lot of practicing. I stumbled onto coffee early on because of fishing. We’d get up real early or stay up all night fishing—so the coffee thing was in play. You mix caffeine with a little bit of musicality and work ethic and you can do some pretty cool stuff, I suppose. I’m surprised I can still do those long rolls pretty fluently. I was playing last night and I was like, “Bill, one day this just isn’t going to come out and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

MD: All over Hypercaffium there’s a cool inverse lick where you’re doing left-hand 8ths on the snare while the right hand is playing quarters on the hats or crash cymbal.

Bill: Yeah, I started doing my 8th-note tom builds that way too. That’s something that a lot of people have commented on. It’s tricky, because for most drummers their left hand is the weaker 8th-note hand. It’s just how I prefer to do those build-outs now, because I feel like it keeps things moving better. Doing 8ths on both hands kind of disrupts the flow of the song. This way, the intensity of the 8th-note build is still intact, but there’s also this stable power base from the right-hand quarters.

MD: People who are only familiar with the Descendents’ hits might not realize that you have a vast catalogue of drum-forward material to your credit—records like Black Flag’s Process of Weeding Out or Descendents’ All or All’s Allroy Saves. Is there a part of you that wants to keep exploring more complex rhythms?

Bill: In 2004 I was putting a lot of hours into learning how to play Afro-Cuban rhythms. I even got a cowbell and a clave involved and I was really keen on doing these beats that sounded like a drumset and a percussionist at the same time—and then trying to write songs that could utilize that. All recorded a few demos executing that idea, but I kind of got distracted from it. It was a huge time investment, just being a guy trying to pay the mortgage and help the kids with the homework and all that. I never really finished the thought, and by 2006 I was starting to be muted by my brain tumor. When I came out of that fog and I got all of my abilities back, I was on a different page.

On the last few Descendents records we’re just blowin’ it right up the middle, doing that which we do best. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the next record is, let’s just say, a bit more adventurous. I think a real important part of being a musician is doing things that put you outside of your comfort zone. I feel like with the “Blue Record”—you know, Descendents’ All—we kind of redefined what the band could be. We did things that were just unlikely: “Uranus,” “Schizophrenia,” “Iceman.” Bands need to do those kinds of records. A big part of being in a band is exploration and the elation of discovery.

MD: Both Descendents and All are fond of instrumentals. Was there any truth to the rumors of an all-instrumental album being worked on a while back?

Bill: That’s what we were working on! We were practicing just like crazy amounts. I wanted us to be like that Coltrane lineup, you know? With Elvin Jones? I wanted us to be that good. But then I became a new father—as did Stephen—and we couldn’t pay our bills on $300 guarantees anymore. So I started focusing on producing because I couldn’t support myself playing in All. This is where the real world comes in and distracts you from your little music dream. [laughs]

But I still work on playing things that I’ve not played before. I mean, if you can’t blow yourself away, then how are you going to blow anybody else away? I feel like Karl could walk in here next week with a riff like “Educated Idiot” [from Allroy Saves] and we would jam on it, you know? And we’ve never been like, “Well, this song’s an All song and this song’s a Descendents song.” The song just goes to whatever band we happen to be focusing on at the time. I mean, “World’s on Heroin” [from Mass Nerder] would have been a great Descendents song, you know? It works either way.

MD: Do you foresee another All record happening? Maybe something incorporating multiple singers? [Stevenson, Alvarez, and Egerton launched All in 1987 after Aukerman seemingly retired for good, and the band has employed a trio of vocalists since its inception.]

Bill: I’m open to all of those ideas. We’re all very close with each other. There’s no bitterness among our camp. We’re wiser and happier, more comfortable. My docket right now is 50 billion Descendents shows, but I think that it would be lame if All didn’t do another record.

MD: Do you think Descendents will finally operate with some semblance of regularity now that Milo has—at least for the moment—set aside his science career?

Bill: For me it’s always been hard to forecast past about a year and a half. But for the foreseeable future—hypothetically several years—yeah, I can see us being pretty focused on Descendents. But you never know. Milo has an immense brain. And when you have an immense brain, punk rock just isn’t enough to satiate that, you know? But for now, yeah, we’re doing the band full-time, which these days means sixty-five shows a year, not two or three hundred.

MD: Is it bizarre to you that this little band you started in high school is bigger now than ever?

Bill: It just makes me so happy to hear people say we’ve made a record that is as good as or better than our other records, because everybody knows that when a band’s been together for twenty or thirty years they usually start to suck. [laughs] The fact that we can still be glowingly received is such an honor—I’m so grateful and humbled that people still value what we do musically. I mean, we’re just four guys writing songs. Everybody brings stuff in, and we record it and put our personalities into it, and we all get to express ourselves within the vehicle of whoever’s song it is. We’re family. Our formula is that we have no formula. We didn’t start this band to be famous or to be cool or get chicks or whatever. We started it because we love music, and so when we get in a room together and play, that sentiment is still valid—even at fifty-three.

 

Read Part 1 of our interview with Bill Stevenson here.