Milo Goes (Back) to School: When the Descendents formed in Manhattan Beach in 1977, they were snotty kids in their mid teens. That original lineup featured Tony Lombardo on bass and Frank Navetta on guitar, plus Bill Stevenson, the sole remaining member, on drums. Lombardo has effectively retired, while Navetta tragically died in 2008. But they remain beloved figures in punk rock, and their memories are immortalized thanks in part to a wonderfully oddball new Descendents release.
9th & Walnut is an album that was recorded in 2002, though the songs date back to 1976-1980. These are the first songs that a fledgling Descendents ever wrote and practiced, and they’ve never before seen the light of day, at least in studio form.
It’s a fascinating way for the iconic SoCal punks to rear their head post-COVID. It’s been five years since their last studio album proper, and this just happened to make sense.
“In the last five years we’ve definitely done a lot of shows, and each of us has a few other things that we have going on,” says Stevenson, by phone. “Not the least of which would be that we all have wives and most of us have kids. That’s probably the second thing that comes to mind. The third thing is, I personally do a lot of audio engineering and producing. During the last five years I’ve produced records for Rise Against, NOFX, Good Riddance, the Casualties, Authority Zero. Then we’ve also been working on new, new songs. We’ve recorded about 20 new songs. I don’t mean the 9th & Walnut, because those are very, very old songs.”
Fortunately, nobody in the Descendents was severely affected by the pandemic, health-wise. Meanwhile, their default mode is to work virtually.
“I honestly think it facilitated getting 9th & Walnut done,” Stevenson says. “For no logical reason, I had just been sitting on those tapes that the three of us did in 2002. I don’t know why we sat on them for so long but during COVID I thought, ‘Well we can’t tour right now, and the Tony and Frank lineup can’t tour anyway.’ So it seemed like a good time to finish this. I started editing the live takes together and sending them to Milo [Aukerman, vocals], and he started doing the vocals. Then I spent a few weeks mixing it so now we’ve got it finally. I’m really happy. Maybe I feel bad for not finishing and releasing it while Frank was still alive.”
It’s a wild experience, hearing this established band perform songs that were written by 15-year-olds as a means to learn how to play, and how to play together.
“We had to learn how to be a band,” Stevenson says. “By the time we learned how to be a band, we had moved past these songs and written ones that we thought were better. Though I could say that two songs from the original batch would be ‘Parents’ and ‘Statue of Liberty’ which are on Milo Goes to College, those are two that are from the original 20 songs we learned. But the rest of them never saw the light of day. It wasn’t until years later, me and Frank and Tony were hanging out. Tony I think suggested, he said, ‘Why did we never record our first songs?’ We were all kinda like ‘I don’t know.’ It took a bunch more years to get together to do it. Then when we did it in 2002, we didn’t have Milo’s attention because he was really focused on his science work, being a biochemist. Eventually, Milo was like, ‘Send me the Frank and Tony stuff, let’s get it done.’ Then we got it done.”
They sure did, and it sounds great. Still, it’s got to be strange to revisit art that you created at 15 years old. Think about anything you made at that age, and whether you’d want the public to analyze it today.
“It’s funny, the songs came right back to us as if we had never missed a beat,” Stevenson says. “It was very fun, because it was kinda magic. In my case, they were the first time I ever played with a human being ever. So it was very emotional. When I was editing and mixing it, I know I kept talking to Tony on the phone and going ‘remember that time when Fear wouldn’t let us use their bass amp when your bass amp blew up?’ Little weird things.”
The lyrics cover the sort of thing you’d expect teen boys to write about – parents, girls, the bullshit of life through the eyes of people who think they know everything but in fact know nothing yet. It’s funny stuff, especially given the seasoned pros now performing the tunes. Meanwhile, the “9th & Walnut” of the title references the band’s first practice space, in Long Beach.
“I didn’t want to give the address because I didn’t want people to bother whoever lives there now,” Stevenson says. “But yeah, it was right there. We didn’t even drive yet, so one of our parents would have to drive us out there. My mom lived sorta nearby, and I’d stay at my mom’s house. Frank would sleep on the floor there, at 9th & Walnut. It was his sister Marie and his brother Joe, it was their house and there was a detached garage where their band the Pagan Babies which was Frank and his brothers Mike and Joe, they practiced there. That’s where we played all those songs, originally.”
A simple residential property, it’s unlikely that the current residents have any idea about the history that occurred at their place. Looking to the future, there’s fresh new material on the way. In addition, the band is hitting the road this summer.
“We’ve become what I would call a dad band in recent years, where we fly out on a Wednesday night and meet the tour bus and then play Thursday to Sunday in different cities,” Stevenson says. “Then we come home on the Monday, and lick our wounds. But in August we’re doing a whole big tour. It’s gonna be us, the Menzingers and Rise Against for the whole month of August, in the U.S. We’ve got stuff planned during festival season in Europe, for next summer. And we’re playing Punk Rock Bowling in Vegas in September.”
Some things never change.
Milo Goes (Back) to School: The 9th & Walnut album is out July 23. The Descendents play with Rise Against on Saturday, August 21 at FivePointe Amphitheatre.