Descendents Bringing 45 Years of South Bay Punk to Pasadena

The pop-punk founders play this Sunday on the Greens stage at This Ain’t No Picnic festival
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The second verse of the opening track on punk mainstay Descendents’ 1985 sophomore album I Don’t Want to Grow Up includes the lyrics, “We never did a popular thing/Don’t even know how to sing/Couldn’t sell out a telephone booth/What I’m telling you is the truth.” Those words, from a song, also called “Descendents,” might have been the truth when the album was released. But not anymore—the foursome, founded in 1977, is one of two L.A.-born punk groups performing at the This Ain’t No Picnic Festival in Pasadena this weekend (the band’s contemporaries, Circle Jerks, perform on Saturday).

Descendents’ inclusion at festivals such as this two-day event—named after a song by L.A. punk band Minutemen— featuring much-hyped youngsters such as Wet Leg and shame and headlined by The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem, makes perfect sense. So does their inclusion at similar festivals across the country, like the Punk Rock Bowling & Music Festival in Las Vegas and Chicago’s Riot Fest—all punk-friendly events that tend to elevate the still-touring bands that formed 40-plus years ago but heavily influenced today’s younger draws.

Yet for more than two decades, Descendents has been finding success at a variety of festivals on the summer circuit, punk-leaning or not. For instance, the quartet — singer Milo Aukerman, guitarist Stephen Egerton, bassist Karl Alvarez and drummer Bill Stevenson — played England’s Reading Festival in 1997 alongside Bush and Suede, and the Blur and Stone Roses-led Coachella in 2013, then England’s Download Festival in June, with metal bands KISS, Iron Maiden and Korn.

Meanwhile, their records have become a popular thing, after all: 2016’s Hypercaffium Spazzinate peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 and 2021’s 9th & Walnut — which features original guitarist Frank Navetta and bassist Tony Lombardo—reached No. 173. The latter includes some of the band’s earlier material but was recorded by Navetta, Lombardo and Stevenson in 2002—Aukerman recorded vocals in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown—marking the first time the original quartet played on an entire album since 1982’s Milo Goes to College (though the full foursome is also featured on “Doghouse” on 1996’s Everything Sucks).

Descendents singer Milo Aukerman
Descendents singer Milo Aukerman: “I always enjoy looking out and seeing the first few rows that there’s females because it means we’re not one-dimensionally talking to the thugs in the audience.”

Greg Jacobs

LAMag spoke to Aukerman ahead of Descendents’ This Ain’t No Picnic performance to ask why his band is often the only early punk band on festival lineups and how his band is still capable of selling out venues much larger than telephone booths.

LAMag: You seem to be the punk band at a lot of non-punk festivals.

Milo Aukerman: Yeah. I wouldn’t say we seek those out, but we embrace the opportunity to be on a festival where we’re one of only a few punk bands. This last time in Europe, we played two festivals — or was it three? — all of which were very punk focused. That’s fun because there are a lot of bands you want to see, but I like playing festivals where I can see a wide variety of bands. Why that would be us, necessarily, I can’t answer. We have a booking agent who’s trying to push us into whatever festival will have us. It’s nice that we’re accepted at those festivals.

I’m curious about how you guys got that slot. Why isn’t it 7 Seconds? Why isn’t Bad Brains? How did Descendents become that band?

I look at the front few rows of our shows and I don’t see 100 punkers. I see some punks and I see some people that look like they want to check out some cool music. Refreshingly for me, there’s a lot of female contingent in that first four rows, which, for hardcore bands, they tend to kind of be pretty male-centric, so that diversity means a lot to see that. That may reflect the diversity of a fan base that maybe promoters know about and they can draw from these other areas. Maybe we got a bit of a reputation of doing OK at these festivals.

You’re playing the Glass House in November. I imagine everybody there is going to know the ninth song on Enjoy! or whatever, but when you’re playing a festival, is it like, “OK, we can’t do ‘Hürtin’ Crüe’ and ‘Iceman’ is not going to go over at a festival?”

It usually is a time constraint more than anything because we’re not going to be headlining a major festival the same way we might headline a punk festival, so we’re going to get 30 to 50 minutes. Let’s just say that means the setlist is shortened and then it becomes an issue of what you cut from that setlist. A lot of times we’re not really taking an audience into consideration when we’re shortening a setlist. We may shorten a set list based upon what songs we like to play the most. Maybe like a song like “Van” or whatever. We might go, “Well, it’s a long song.” Maybe we cut that in order to make the time constraint.

 

 I’ve wondered about that because in the amount of time it takes to play “Van,” you could play “Kabuki Girl,” “I’m Not a Punk” and “Parents.”

Yeah, but there’s tremendous value in playing “Van” because we like to play it and it’s good to leave people puzzling. People are scratching their heads when they hear we’re not getting the punkers going with that. Sure, it can leave people a little slack-jawed and I find that humorous. When that happens, it’s fun because it makes for a different experience. Like, wow, they didn’t quite get that. That’s cool.

 But maybe they will. Maybe you’re planting the seed.

Yeah. Maybe we’re also giving them a window into our psyche of when the song was written. You read those lyrics and go, “These guys were really up their own asses when they were in the van,” so there are advantages to playing it for that reason. Just to give people that window, that insight into how f—ed up we were back then.

What do you think happened between Everything Sucks and now, when this music is more popular than ever?

Some of these festivals that have become dedicated to punk music, maybe it’s “build it and they will come” or whatever. The good news is that there are a lot of good bands out there playing punk rock and we obviously can be seen at festivals along with other bands. Punk may be here to stay. Maybe that’s the story. It’s not going to go away. Maybe it’s got some staying power and you just got to keep putting it out there for people to hear. All I know is at our shows we have all different ages, so we get the young people in there too. That’s some indication that punk’s here to stay and that you can draw from a wide variety of ages, so the age thing has been great. 

We get people coming in saying, “I saw you in the ‘90s” and some people say, “I just discovered you guys.” I find that to be so fantastic for us—it’s made it so much fun to do. If you have bands that can draw different ages like that, that probably has a large part to do with it. I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, but punk rock taps into your eternal youth and it taps into something universally rock ‘n’ roll. So, yeah, why not? Why not make it popular? If that’s the appeal that it can be tapping into your youth, everyone wants that for sure.

 I wasn’t putting it down. This punk thing is mine. It wasn’t mine. I got into it in the 90s. I don’t claim any ownership, but punk was never the most popular music like jazz.

I like the fact that it’s a slow burn because that’s how I feel our band has been. We’re a microcosm of that because we started as a tiny band and over the years gradually accumulated an ever-increasing audience. We never exploded on the scene at any rate. That has been, as I look back, one of the most satisfying bits. It was never today’s latest flavor.

I think about what you’re talking about in the mid-90s when punk rock did explode. Maybe that was a moment in time where it got overvalued or maybe it was at the point in time where it brought in a bunch of wannabes or whatever. In the long run, also, I think it brought people into the scene who had never been exposed to that kind of music. 

For some people at least, it stuck. That’s what we’re left with now, is people coming to the shows like, “I learned about you through Green Day” and I’m like, “Great. That’s fantastic. Thanks for sticking with us.” You know that whole thing of punk’s only good when it’s 10 people in the audience? I never subscribed to that. As long as you’re writing music that you dig and you can get up on stage and have fun, that is more important than whether it’s popular or not.

Your imagery and caricature represent something to punk fans. Are you aware of that?

We don’t present ourselves, or we are not typical punkers, in how we comport ourselves. I suppose me being the kind of figurehead of the band, I’m about the least punk-looking person you can imagine. Maybe that has a certain appeal. The other part of it must be that we write songs about what’s going on in our lives and that would include relationships and stuff. At least early in punk, that was kind of verboten. It had to be something about “F— Reagan,” but we were more interested in writing about our relationships. I always enjoy looking out and seeing the first few rows that there are females because it means we’re not one-dimensionally talking to the thugs in the audience.

I guess it’s the power of a drawing. You’ve got this stick figure that obviously doesn’t look like me but somehow embodies some of my essence, for sure. I think that’s great. The fact that it’s a cartoon character and we can get up on stage and be goofy and lighthearted—those are all, to me, positives. We don’t want to be this ultra-serious band and having that stick-figure cartoon probably helps in that regard. We want to get up there and have fun. The iconography of that drawing has always been something that’s unexplainable to me, but I feel like I just got to roll with it.

Descendents singer Milo Aukerman
Descendents singer Milo Aukerman performs at a 2016 secret show in Hermosa Beach.

Greg Jacobs

What was your response the first time you heard 9th & Walnut?

I was so excited to do these songs that I never even heard before. I heard a song like “Nightage” — “I’ll never make it through the night” — and I was like, “Why did we s— can this song before I even joined?” It’s pretty much my favorite song that we do. My theory on some of those songs having been put aside is that when I joined, I couldn’t sing. I joined and I was saying, “Great. Now that I’ve joined the band, let’s do ‘Mohicans,’” which was one of the early ones. My feeling is that they were like, “No, we’re not going to do that.” They wouldn’t tell me this, but like, “No, you can’t sing yet.” I couldn’t sing it back then, but now I can. 

Frank’s influences were [early pop/punk band] The Last and all that 60s-style music, so he was definitely channeling that stuff when he wrote it. Maybe that’s the other reason it got put aside as we were starting to kind of get more into fast hardcore. Maybe “Mohicans” doesn’t fit anymore in that area, but it doesn’t make it a bad song. It just meant it maybe didn’t fit with whatever else we were doing, but to have the freedom now to go, “We don’t care what genre it is or we don’t care whether it fits in with what we’re doing, we want to document these songs and they’re fun to play.” 

“Sailor’s Choice” instantly became one of my favorite Descendents songs. I’m of the belief that Frank is one of the most underrated guitar players in history. Nobody plays like that.

He had this great way of capturing a pretty 60s sound but in a really aggressive style of guitar. He always wanted to hit every string and you can hear that on “Sailor’s Choice.” It sounds so aggressive and so perfect for what he was trying to do. When we were sequencing, Bill and I were like, “Oh, yeah, ‘Sailor’s Choice.’ It’s got to start that way.”

What’s the status of the new songs and a new record?

Stephen and I recorded like 30 songs. I can’t remember what it sounds like. We’re waiting on Bill and Karl.

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