Bill Stevenson’s playing in Black Flag and the Descendents provided an archetype for hardcore drumming, making Stevenson perhaps the most influential player from the original West Coast punk scene. Beyond the kit, his bandleading and songwriting credits with Descendents and All and his deep production and engineering résumé place him among the most important figures in all of American punk rock.
Stevenson’s speed, precision, and economy of technique on the drums are legendary. “Back in 1987, I wanted to develop my stamina,” Superchunk/Bob Mould drummer Jon Wurster recalls, “so I started playing along to the Descendents’ Liveage! album every day. Bill is the king of the lightning-fast 16th-note roll, and to be able to hang in there with ‘Myage,’ ‘Coolidge,’ and ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up’ felt like an accomplishment.”
John William Stevenson was born on September 10, 1963, in Torrance, California. While working at a bait shop with future Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris, Stevenson got a drumkit in hopes of playing in Morris’s band Panic. That was not to be…just yet. By the late ’70s the self-taught drummer had connected with guitarist Frank Navetta and bassist Tony Lombardo in the first Descendents lineup, and after recruiting Milo Aukerman as lead vocalist, they made a statement on 1982’s Milo Goes to College LP that can still be heard in Green Day, Blink-182, and a legion of pop-punk bands. From the galloping snare intro of “Myage” to the quick mixed meters of “Suburban Home,” the album became the punk-drumming bible for a generation of nascent pounders.
While still in high school, Stevenson had the chance to play with Keith Morris when Panic, now known as Black Flag, needed a replacement for drummer Robo, who was unable to travel due to visa issues. Stevenson did most of the band’s 1981 U.K. tour, and after the Descendents went on hiatus in ’82 (see their album title for the reason) Bill joined Black Flag full time. Between 1983 and 1985, he toured incessantly and appeared on six discs with the group.
The first side of Black Flag’s 1984 sophomore album, My War, Stevenson’s first with the band, featured material similar to the group’s seminal 1981 debut, Damaged, but at a more moderate tempo, proving early on that band and drummer could slay in decidedly non-caffeinated settings as well. Stevenson is required to show even more restraint on side two, with each of the three loping tracks passing the six-minute mark. As drummer Jeff Gretz (Zao, From Autumn to Ashes) notes, “What makes ‘Nothing Left Inside’ and most of the My War album amazing is the tension Bill creates by not picking the pace up as the verse leads into the chorus, but slowing down, only to snap back to the original tempo on the new part.”
As 1984 continued, Black Flag’s music moved further away from the straight-up-and-down hardcore punk anthems of Damaged to incorporate even slower heavy metal elements as well as guitarist Greg Ginn’s improvisational explorations. Evidence of Stevenson bridging the gap between free improv and hardcore can be heard on side two of Black Flag’s second release of 1984, Family Man, and on its instrumental 1985 EP, The Process of Weeding Out.
Stevenson never stopped writing Descendents-style material, though, so when that band reconvened he dove right in, keeping up the intense touring schedule and releasing an album a year through 1987’s All. That title became useful for multiple reasons, providing the group’s new name when Auckerman once again left to focus on his academic career, and encapsulating Stevenson’s worldview as laid out in the song “All-O-Gistics.” The work pace continued, with All releasing nine studio albums between 1988 and 2000. In addition to serving as an outlet for Stevenson’s growing songwriting and drumming abilities, All offered valuable production experience, and when the group landed a major-label deal in the mid-’90s, it used the advance to build what would become Blasting Room Studios, in Fort Collins, Colorado. To this day Stevenson engineers and produces albums there for artists like Rise Against, Puddle of Mudd, Face to Face, Alkaline Trio, NOFX, and the Lemonheads.
If nearly 500 credits as a performer, writer, engineer, and producer aren’t evidence of superhuman abilities, in 2009 Stevenson found himself in the emergency room with an eighteen-inch blood clot in his lungs, followed within a year by a tennis-ball-size brain tumor and ensuing weight gain, with the drummer topping out at around 385 pounds. Separately these things could kill anyone, yet Stevenson came out of the tumor-removal surgery with minimal recovery time, even more driven than before. Recent performance footage of Descendents, Flag (featuring former Black Flag members), and the melodic hardcore project Only Crime shows Bill still laying it down as if nothing ever happened.