Pop-Punk Pioneers the Descendents Are Back and Raging Against Middle Age
The Descendents are one of those rare acts who defy the aging band stereotype.
Lead singer Milo Aukerman — 53 years old, with a doctorate in biology from UC San Diego — isn’t merely capitalizing on former triumphs or nursing some delusion of staying eternally young. His group’s new record, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, avoids any obvious self-homage or nostalgic references to the band's roots in L.A.'s early '80s punk scene. On songs like “Victim Of Me,” “No Fat Burger” and “Comeback Kid,” Aukerman and his bandmates make no attempt at concealing their middle-aged malaise. But it doesn’t present itself as pessimistic, passive acceptance. In Descendents' universe, simply surviving is cause for celebration.
After 2004’s relatively anemic Cool to Be You, the Descendents went on an indefinite hiatus. Aukerman retreated to Delaware to pursue a full-time career as a plant researcher (which he modestly refers to as his “science thing”). “We didn’t really tour on Cool to Be You, as I was pretty engaged with" research, Aukerman says. "But by the end of the decade a couple of things happened. My science gig was becoming a little bit of a drag, and more importantly [drummer Bill Stevenson] had a major health crisis.”
That health crisis was a brain tumor that left Stevenson with a host of debilitating symptoms. The silver lining, according to Aukerman, was that Stevenson’s illness led the two to reforging their partnership.
“I had kind of lost contact with Bill for a couple of years at that point, which I’m a little bit ashamed about, because we’re really close friends,” says Aukerman. “He had the tumor removed, and it was such a euphoric experience for him that he felt reborn in a certain sense. So at that point we started thinking about playing some shows, and I was receptive to the idea — and he had some medical bills to pay, so I thought it would be good for everybody involved.”
A series of sporadic live performances turned into an official reformation. Aukerman quit his job, and for the first time in his life realized that music — something he had long considered just a glorified hobby — could become a career. “I actually looked in the mirror and said to myself, ‘Why don’t you just be a musician?’ It was always sort of a hobby for me, but now it is absolutely not a hobby — I take it really seriously, and it’s a really exciting period for me, just to make that commitment.”
Like many albums recorded in the modern age, much of Spazzinate was conceived remotely. While Aukerman could deliver fully fleshed-out demos to his bandmates from his home in Delaware, guitarist Stephen Egerton’s compositions — which Aukerman insists are the “most punk” tracks on the record —relied on contributions from the lyricists in the band, and consequently took longer to complete. (Bassist Karl Alvarez rounds out the quartet, who have played together off and on since the mid-'80s.)
“We live in different areas, so I think that has to account for some of the lag,” says Aukerman, explaining the six years that passed between their first reunion gigs and the arrival of Spazzinate. “There’s a back and forth process with those more collaborative songs, and so it took some time. We could have done it faster, but we wanted to do it right and have fun doing it, and part of that is mulling over things and making everything feel very natural.”
When the band finally got into the studio, they recorded a total of 36 songs — but only 16 ended up making the cut. Stylistically, Hypercaffium Spazzinate is a compendium of the group’s legacy: the self-deprecating, unabashedly geeky “On Paper” (“I got straight A's on every test/A perfect credit score/My ledger’s never in the red/I look good on paper”) evokes tremulous “nice guy” anthems “I’m the One” and “Clean Sheets”; tracks like “Testosterone” and the Egerton-penned “We Got Defeat” hearken back to the band’s South Bay hardcore roots.
The Descendents’ first outing in over a decade coincides with a renewed interest in confessional, pop-tinged punk. While Aukerman insists that the group has always identified as merely a “punk band,” their influence on ‘90s pop-punk and emo — and its resultant 2010s renaissance — is undeniable.
But with Hypercaffium Spazzinate, Descendents are no longer positioning themselves as punk’s eternally young saviors. That torch has been passed (to bands like Epitaph label-mates The Menzingers, Aukerman suggests). Aukerman also says the band has permanently retired songs like the troubling “I’m Not a Loser” from the group’s live repertoire — in part because of its problematic content (sample lyric: "Your pants are too tight, you fucking homos"), but mostly because the song's lyrics of aimless, youthful rebellion just aren't anything a man in his 50s can (or should) relate to.
“It’s clearly not appropriate to be using that sort of language anymore,” says Aukerman of the song, from the band's highly influential 1982 debut, Milo Goes to College. “The world is evolving and a song sort of has to evolve with the world. We would change the words a little bit, but even after we changed the words, when people in the audience are singing it in their heads or singing it back at me, they’re singing the lyrics on the record. So we thought, ‘Enough is enough.’" Also, he adds, certain songs from the band's '80s repertoire don't make the set lists anymore "because they’re just kind of dumb.”
Hypercaffium Spazzinate is proof that a punk band can age naturally and still make vital, entertaining music. It’s an argument against the “youth is a state of mind” adage — that approach only makes for dishonest art. Instead, Spazzinate frankly explores the inherent absurdity of being over 50 and in a punk band.
“I never imagined [I’d be doing this at my current age], or that it’d even be feasible,” says Aukerman. Growing up still sucks — but it’s not as bad as living in denial and trying to stay young forever.
[Ed. note: An earlier version of this article quoted the wrong lyrics to the Descendents' song "Comeback Kid." We regret the error.]
The Descendents play the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday, Oct. 1 with Modern Baseball and Sharp/Shock. Tickets and more info.
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