The Descendents’ Milo Aukerman: “I Can’t Imagine A World That Could Exist Without Punk”
In 1982, two Los Angeles based punk rock bands released debut albums. On Epitaph, Bad Religion unveiled the nascent How Could Hell Be Any Worse?, while The Descendents issued Milo Goes To College, on New Alliance. Shortly after this, the two bands’ singers – respectively, Greg Graffin and Milo Aukerman – entered the field of full-time education. Today, Graffin is the professor of evolution at Cornell University, while Aukerman holds a doctorate in biology from San Diego State.
Reassuringly, both are still punks, and both remain in bands that are pivotal players from American punk rock’s difficult second act. The Descendents emerged in an LA scene whose energies were beginning to turn sour, and whose creativity was ceding ground to cliché. After the release of Milo Goes To College, Milo actually did go to college, meaning that its successor, I Don’t Want To Grow Up, would only emerge a full three years later. But while The Descendents have never been what you’d call prolific – just seven studio albums in 37 years – they are consistent. Because of this, their place on the honour roll of American Punk Rock’s Hall of Fame is assured.
Later this summer, the band will visit the UK for a somewhat rare appearance, at this summer’s punk rock jamboree, Rebellion, in Blackpool. Kerrang! caught up with Milo to discuss a lifetime in punk, and whether or not he does like to be beside the seaside.
Have The Descendents ever visited Blackpool before?
“Yeah, we did the Rebellion festival, maybe four years ago. But that’s the only time I’ve been to Blackpool.”
Did you get to walk on the sea front, or visit the Pleasure Beach?
“I did walk on the beach, and that was fun. I got to stick my feet in the water. It seems like a nice beach. But we didn’t get to go to the Pleasure Beach, but I might have to go there this time because I do like rollercoasters. I think last time we headlined one of the smaller stages, and we had a lot of fun doing that; and we’re really looking forward to coming back again. Some of our favourite bands were playing – the Bouncing Souls are one – who we’ve toured with a lot. They always have great bands at Rebellion, so we’re really excited to be going back.”
When you began your life as a punk, what was perception from the wider society of the genre as a whole?
“Well, it was just a small little group of people who were into punk. You encountered the same kind of resistance that you may have encountered in England [in 1976] where people just didn’t know what to make of it. The look of it was different. I remember the first time I got my hair cut really short, and someone at my school called me a dirty name. And I was, like, ‘No, this is just what the barber shop gave me!’ But it was the first time I realised that, even in my high school, there were kids that were willing to put up a resistance against it. But it became more popular, in LA for sure. And the thing about LA was that there were all these bands that played up in Hollywood, so no matter what resistance we encountered there was this good groundswell of bands, kind of like a family, I would say. They supported each other, and that helped us break through whatever resistance there was. Basically, there was a lot of people who really enthusiastic and supportive.”
Of all those early day bands that you would go and see, who were your favourite?
“X were my favourite. X is the band that got me into punk rock, really. Before that, I was listening to new wave. But I just happened to see Devo play, and X were opening – all of a sudden my eyes just popped open. I thought, ‘Well I like these guys better than Devo.’ X was the one that really got me going. From that I started listening to [seminal KROQ punk radio show] Rodney On The ROQ, out there in LA, and he played a lot of X. But he also played the Germs and Black Flag, and so on. So I was able to experience all these other LA punk bands, and I enjoyed them as well. But it was X that started it all for me. They were really one of my favourite bands back then. I remember when they played with Devo, it was at this big arena; and they were up there playing their hearts out, and the people in the audience were kind of chatting among themselves. But I was just riveted watching them. It was such a physical and pared down show, and the music was so raw, that it just struck me so hard. And we actually wrote a song about them – well, we wrote a song called Full Circle, which features the line ‘X marks the spot/the spot on the map where the treasure is found.’ It was us referencing all these LA punk bands, and it’s a song about musical discovery, and of me discovering all these great bands.”
What were those early punk shows like? Many accounts paint the scene as being particularly violent.
“A lot of people who weren’t there ask me how it was possible to survive all of the violence that surrounded the scene. But while the violence was there, I always went to the shows just to see the bands. I was so hyper-focused on what the bands were doing that there could have been complete mayhem and bloodshed behind me and I wouldn’t even have noticed it. I was always at the lip of the stage, one hundred percent focused on the band onstage. Occasionally you’d get an elbow in the back, but you were able to ignore it and keep your focus where you wanted it to be. I do know that a lot of people were kind of wigged out by the violent part of it, but my enthusiasm for music overrode any concerns I may have had for my safety.”
The Descendent’s first album, Milo Goes To College, is essentially you saying, ‘Here is our band, now the singer is off to do something else.’ Was that a conscious decision?
“Well the decision to go with that cover was made by Bill [Stevenson], our drummer. People who know the album will remember that the cover is a cartoon of me. The idea behind it was kind of a going away present, in the way that you’d give someone a gift card – a ‘Congratulations, you’re off to school!’ kind of a thing. And that makes it that much more endearing, that he would do that for me. It gives the feeling that the album is kind of a sending-off gift to me. In the long run, I don’t know if it served his band all that well, because after that [the band] All came along, who were kind of in the shadow of The Descendents. But Bill and I are best friends, so it really was from the heart, to give me a sending-off present. And in terms of iconography, it really has been something that’s served us well. But at the time I thought it was kind of funny that he wanted to do that.”
You weren’t the only member of the scene to also pursue a life in academia. Greg Graffin from Bad Religion and Dexter Holland from The Offspring both did the same. Why are there so many smart people involved in American punk rock?
“Well I think that part of punk is a questioning of what is, versus what should be. Part of that questioning means that you’re unwilling to accept the status quo, and that requires you to think. It means that you think about other possibilities, and things that might become different realities. And that kind of thinking means that you have to have your brain on high alert at all times. You really have to be churning things over. That said, I don’t necessarily put quadratic equations in my songs, but at the same time we’re all thinking really hard about how to make our lives better, and how to improve the world. I think that’s what part of punk should be about, to challenge the status quo; and I think that requires the kind of intelligence that you’re talking about. Greg Graffin is a really good example of that. He’s always putting his noggin to the problems the world is facing. My other personal take on it is that I got into punk rock because I was such a nerd, and I wanted a place where I could be a nerd but still expend this energy that I had. Punk rock was a good place to land all that. So that’s where punk rock and my nerdy side coalesced and really found a home.
If I have one space on my pub quiz team, who should I give it to – you, Dexter Holland, or Greg Graffin?
“I would give it to Graffin. He’s still in academia, whereas I’m not. But in a sense, both of those guys are way smarter than I am because not only did they get their educations, but they were also able to see some kind of undercurrent as to what was going on in punk rock that made them think, ‘Oh, I’m going to stick this out.’ I was the stupid one that got out, [for a time] and they were the ones that stuck it out through all those years. So for that reason alone, they may be a little bit smarter than me.”
Do you like being a middle-aged punk?
“Well I think that punk is for the young. But if punk is for the young, then why am I still doing it? And the answer is, because I want to stay young! I want to keep in touch with my youthful side, and if that means that I’m maybe immature at times, or if it means that I write a song about farting, then I’ll do that. That’s what punk represents to me – youthful energy. That’s why I’m going to continue doing it. It’s kind of like clawing for the last remaining bits of your youth, and that’s okay. People can say, ‘Oh you’re kind of doing a nostalgia trip.’ But to me, it’s not nostalgia – it’s the inherent energy in the music that gets me up in the morning. You could never call that nostalgia. In fact, it’s my lifeblood, really.”
For anyone who’s never heard The Descendents, where would you recommend they start?
“I would start from Everything Sucks  or Milo Goes To College , or even the Hypercaffium Spazzinate album that we put out [in 2016]. Even that album, which is our most recent, attains the same energy levels of our earlier work. We’re better players now, but we still want to play fast and loud and really try to bowl people over with our music.”
What can fans of The Descendents expect to hear next from the band?
“We’re currently writing. We tend to write a variety of stuff, which for me personally tends to range from love songs to hyper-fast songs about coffee, which we still do. So we continue to mine our background in early LA punk rock pretty heavily. I still like to write that kind of music because for me it’s the best way of getting my point across powerfully. But right now Stephen [Egerton, guitarist] and I have written about 21 songs, and we’re waiting for songs from Bill and Karl [Alvarez, bassist]. We’re kind of weird because everyone in the band writes, so we’re just waiting til everyone has finished up with their compliment of songs and then we’ll be putting another record out. I hope that we’ll start recording it later in the year.”
And will it emerge on that little punk label that could, Epitaph, as your last album did?
“Possibly. I mean, we don’t have a contract with them, but when we shop albums around they’re usually the most enthusiastic. So we’ll see what happens. [Label owner] Brett [Gurewitz] and his crew have been so good to us over the years that it wouldn’t be a surprise if it came out on Epitaph, for sure.”
What would the world look like had punk rock never happened?
“I think it’s inevitable that punk would have happened, first of all. It would have been some other form of fast, hyper-kinetic music that might have gone by a different name, but I think that music has to have the kind of niche that punk was, and for a variety of reasons. One is the sheer adrenaline release that music gives you, and punk is designed exactly for that. I can’t even imagine a world that could exist without it. It would have to be invented by someone, somewhere.”
The Descendents headline Rebellion festival in Blackpool on August 1-4. Get your tickets now.
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