Right before Descendents played a great set at the Brakrock festival in Belgium this Summer, we got the chance to sit down with Descendents' Bill Stevenson to talk about '9th & Walnut', what it means to be in a band as long as he has and much more. '9th & Walnut' is out now on Epitaph.
PRT: I wanted to start off with a couple of questions about 9th & Walnut, which you put out last year. Do you think it would still be out if it hadn't been for the pandemic?
Bill: Yes. COVID just gave us a chance to focus on it and get it finished. We just kept touring and playing and doing stuff. So when we slowed down a little bit during COVID, I thought, "Well, okay, let's finish up the Frank and Tony record". We had already recorded the music in 2002, and then we just kind of sat on it for no reason. So then Milo did the vocals and then I mixed it and then it was done.
PRT: What struck me is that those songs were written like 40 years ago and they still sound amazing. Considering how young you all were when they were written, did you rewrite some of the parts or are the songs as they were?
Bill: The songs are very much as they were. We did not change anything about it. When we wrote those songs, I was 15. I had only been playing drums for three months, so my abilities were limited. So when we recorded them in 2022, obviously our abilities - certainly mine - had improved because I had been touring the whole time. But I didn't do fancy things. I went back to our practice tapes from 1978-1980 and just went like, "Oh, this is how I played it".
PRT: Did you feel the songs aged well yourself?
Bill: It's hard to criticize your own thing. But it was fun and it brought up so many good memories for us. Tony and I thinking about different things that happened, and also thinking about Frank. And I think for a ltiny percentage of our fans, I think they love it too. They get to hear us from when we were just starting.
PRT: Do you really think it’s just for a small percentage of the fans?
Bill: I don't know. I think there's a percentage of our fans that thinks that the Frank and Tony lineup is the only real lineup. So for those fans, I think this album is kind of like...
PRT: The Holy Grail?
Bill: Yeah, for them it's like our second best album. But then, if you talk to a kid who got into Descendents during ‘Everything Sucks’, ‘Cool to Be You’ or ‘Hyper Spaz’ , they will probably ask themselves what this weird, old thing is that we're doing?. So I think it depends who you ask.
PRT: When the album came out, you did a Reddit and you mentioned that you were already halfway recording a new album.
Bill: Yeah, we have a lot of songs recorded already but no release date yet. Some of us are always slower than others of us to finish their songs.
Bill: Me. Well, Karl too right now. Stephen and Milo already have tons of their songs finished and we recorded them all too. But yeah, I'm the slowest. I'm always the slowest.
PRT: During that same Reddit, you also talked about how you don't play a couple of the older songs anymore because the lyrics are a bit crude and you don't want to punch down, but punch up now.
Bill: We don't want to punch.
PRT: Or not punch at all. I was thinking, considering today's climate with woke and cancel culture being a thing, when you write music, is that something you keep in the back of your mind now?
Bill: I'm a 59 year old man and when I'm writing a lyric, I keep in mind what it is that I'm trying to say. I definitely don't think about woke culture or cancel culture because that's not a real thing for me. What's real for me is what I feel and what I think. And if I'm true to that, then that will lead me in the right direction. Maybe if somebody finds a problem with it or a fault with it, that's okay. That's part of being human. Humans all have faults. Humans all make mistakes. It's okay.
PRT: But it's not that you go through the lyrics and think about how they could be construed by someone else?
Bill: I try not to do that. That sounds fake to me. That sounds false. I have two kids. My son's 21 and my daughter's 24. What would I want them to think that their dad wrote? If I wrote some shit that would get me, like what you said, canceled. Well, it would probably get me canceled with my son and daughter too. So I don't want that.
PRT: But with artists being held accountable for their words and their actions - which in itself is a good thing I think - does it make it more challenging to be an artist?
Bill: I don't think so. I don't see any of that as a bad thing. I do think that the polarization in the US of the woke and then the Nazis and the fascists or the super liberal and the super conservative is not helping anybody do anything. But I don't think it has a particularly bad effect on trying to be an artist, no. It doesn't affect me. The things I write about, they don't have anything to do with who's our president or the pronoun someone uses.
PRT: I was also wondering how you as a band feel about social media? On the one hand, it gives you opportunities to promote yourself in ways that you never had before, but then, if you look at the other side, social media also creates these great divides.
Bill: There are a lot of people my age that are blaming a lot of the problems of the world right now on social media. And it would be nice if it were that simple, but it isn't. The biggest shock for me came when I saw how we used the Internet. When we were just hearing about how the Internet was going to become available for everyone to use, I thought, "Okay cool, so all the information is going to be equally available to everybody. It'll be like everybody has access to the world's biggest library. Bitchin'. Great." I know you can't say bitchin' anymore, but you can say cool, whatever. But that's not what happened. It became all about advertising dollars, and trying to hold your attention span so that you will stay online longer and then the advertisers pay them more money. So it seems like we kind of wasted the Internet. That's kind of sad. It's all porno and how to get a sixpack. It's fucking boring. We could have done way better.
PRT: A couple more lighthearted questions. What is it that keeps you guys going after all these years? What do you still get out of being in Descendents?
Bill: If you watch us play, you'll see what keeps us going. It's fun because these are my oldest friends in the world, but it’s also fun to see if we can still do it. When we started we were very young and here we still are, playing together. It's special. I've never experienced anything else like it in any way.
PRT: And how has the importance of the band changed for you throughout your life?
Bill: It seems like it's always been at the very top for me. There have been times when there were other things in life that became more or equally important for months or years at a time. One thing for instance was when my father became ill and I had to take care of him. Or when I got married or when my children were born. Those are crucial times where the band doesn't matter as much for a while. But in the long run, the band has always been my thing. It's what I'll be remembered for.
PRT: Lots of bands are publishing biographies and when you read those stories, you get this image of just how amazing punk rock used to be in the 80s. Is that the romanticized version or was it really that much fun back then?
Bill: I think it's both. When people start documenting an era, they tend to focus on the strong and exciting moments and forget about all the dull moments and the bad times. You see the same thing when you watch footage of Woodstock or whatever. But it was specialto be a 15-year-old kid growing up in LA in the late 70s. I could go out and see the Germs, The Weirdos, X, Black Flag, The Go-Go's, The Screamers, The Blasters,…. It was just amazing. To go from my Kiss, Aerosmith, Boston and Kansas records or whatever other crappy stuff to paying $5 and be in a room with a hundred people that are just into this new kind of music, it was magical. It changed my life. Other than having children, nothing has had a bigger impact on my life.
PRT: And having played in Descendents and having worked with pretty much every punk rock band out there, do you still listen to punk rock as much as you used to or do you find yourself listening to other stuff when you're at home?
Bill: I have a very wide palette of musical interest. Everything you could imagine, I listen to it. So that takes me all over the place. But because I produce, mix and engineer a lot of records a lot of records, the fact is I am still listening to punk rock a lot of the time. So I do listen to punk rock a lot, but then let's say in my free time, then I might listen to who knows! Ornette Coleman, Cole Porter, Trouble Funk, The Four Freshmen, who knows what it could be.
PRT: Do you listen to music as a drummer or as a music fan?
Bill: Oh, as a music fan. I'm not so much of a drummer type drummer. You see those guys and they got the Zildjian shirt and they got a pair of drumsticks stuffed into their sock and a necklace with the drum key on it and they like to talk about drum equipment and all that stuff. I'm not that way. I enjoy the drums, but what I really enjoy is the ensemble. I like being one of the four guys.