Interview: Caffeine and Chemistry with Milo of the Descendents

Cover Interview Descendents October 2016 Vandala MagazineIt goes without saying that when you think of the Descendents, you think of Milo Aukerman’s bespectacled face. From Jeff Atkinson’s rendition on the cover of Milo Goes To College, to the many inventive reiterations over the years (many of them done by the talented Christ Shary), Milo’s face is, for many of us, the face of punk rock. Proof that you can be a nerd and still be unequivocally cool. Since reconvening in 2011, Descendentsmania has been in full swing. Proof that if a band is good enough, they can take decade long breaks and still find their audience right where they left them, should they decide to return. Fortunately for all of us, that return has yielded a brand new album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, which has been garnering rave reviews and even a climb up the Billboard album charts. As the singer of the Descendents, Milo is an icon. But he’s also humble, gracious, and of course, endlessly self-deprecating. He spoke to us about the past, the present, the future, and the reason you likely won’t be hearing the band perform ‘I’m Not A Loser’ in front of an audience again.

Interview by  Dustin Griffin
From October 2016 Vandala Magazine 
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You guys are infamous now for your big breaks between records and periods of inactivity. You’ve been back at it since 2011. Is it easy to pick up where you left off when you do reconvene, or is there some legwork involved?

Milo: Well, in 2011 there definitely was. Prior to that we hadn’t played in 9 years. And the gig that we played 9 years earlier was a one-off. But in 2011 we went to Australia pretty soon after we reconvened and I had some vocal problems. So my big thing right now is to try to stay in shape vocally, and i’ve had to work at that over the past few years. It’s a challenge because the way we tour now is we go out and do a few shows and then come home. And as a singer it doesn’t allow you to get your voice toughened up enough. I have to try to toughen my voice up in my basement singing karaoke, which is a different vibe than it is in front of thousands of people. So that’s been my challenge, recreating what we do live in my basement, so that when I actually get my voice ready, i’ve got it at the right intensity level. And it’s a work in progress, is all I can say. But the plan now is to try to do more shows, tour a little more regularly.

Are there any plans for a full-length tour?

Milo: I think we’ll still do what we’re doing, but instead of going out for one show, we’ll go out for two or three or four shows. And then instead of taking a two-month break, we’ll take a week or two. I don’t think anyone wants to do hundreds of shows, but in the end, I think we’d like to maybe do forty or fifty shows a year. Which keeps us out in people’s minds. But we all have families and nobody wants to be away from their family for X number of months.

And the nice thing about your band, and this is well earned, is there will always be a large audience of people excited about seeing you play. It’s not like it was in the 80’s, where you have to earn your audience.

Milo: Yeah and we did a lot of two and three month tours in the 80’s. I look back and think about how gruelling it was, but I guess it did build an audience. We kind of did put in the legwork at that point, so hopefully that’s helping us out now.

Do you think it helps to take long breaks, as far as that’s concerned? Because when you’re gone for ten years, or five years, or whatever, there’s so much excitement around you guys being active again. Do you think if you had never taken any breaks, that level of excitement would still be there?

Milo: Yeah, there’s something to be said for that. When we came back in 2011, I was kind of amazed at how we could just pick it back up again. But maybe it’s like you said, that people look forward to those shows because we keep them kind of rare (laughs). Having said that, we are going to be increasing the number of shows, but we also have a new record out, so people can come and hear the new songs, which still makes it kind of an attraction I think.

There’s also the aspect of, you know, if you have a chance to see the Descendents, you better take it, because this might be the last chance you have for a while.

Milo: (Laughs) Yeah, we’ll have to milk that for a while. I think we’re sticking around for a while now. I’ve cleared my schedule and made the commitment to have the band be more the thing that I do, as opposed to more of a hobby, like it has been in the past. So I don’t think people have to worry about never getting a chance to see us again.

descendentsThat’s good news for Descendents fans. Was there any moment in time when you were doing your work as a scientist and thought, ‘you know, I think this is good. This is it for me. I don’t think I’m going to go back to the Descendents’.

Milo: I think my science career had an arc to it that peaked in, let’s say 2003/2004. I was in hog heaven, working in a corporation, getting paid pretty good money and doing really exciting research. And we had just done the Cool To Be You record, and I said well, we’ll put this record out, but I can’t tour it because I just want to do science. That’s my gig, my future. And that sustained me up through 2008/2009, and then my situation with the company just started to get less certain and I was a little more miserable year after year there. To the point where in 2011 we start playing again and by 2014 i’m sitting there kind of weighing my options going, why should I even do this science stuff anymore? Music’s so much more fun and rewarding. And the science had really just kind of withered on the vine at that point. And actually, they laid me off earlier this year and it was truly a blessing for me.

You help form an interesting triptych of punk singer’s with PhD’s or Doctorate’s in fields of science, along with Greg Graffin of Bad Religion and Dexter Holland of The Offspring. What is the correlation for you personally between science and punk music?

Milo: Well, punk’s really cool because it’s very inclusive of all types, which I like. And I would submit that even though people talk about punk as being thuggish, I think it can be more creative than other types of music. And one thing that really attracted me to punk was the DIY aspect. And the fact that, since I was a nerd, I was like ‘you mean nerds can belong to this little society? So all of these things went into my attraction to it. And maybe that’s also true of other intellectual types like Greg Graffin or whoever. I don’t think there’s anything in the subject matter itself that really has any commonality with punk. I’ve never written a song about DNA or anything that I work on. But I just think that DIY aspect, and the creativity and the belonging and acceptance is what drew me in.

The word ‘punk’ itself has transformed somewhat since the 80’s. Does punk mean the same thing to you now as it did back then? Is punk as a concept dead?

Milo: I tend to view punk as DIY, like I said, but also as the most visceral expression of emotion in music. So I think in that sense, it’s totally still alive. And that’s still our modus operandi, to just wear everything on our sleeves. So I still think punk’s around. It’s been pushed into the mainstream and it gets harder to draw that line between what’s pop and what’s punk. But I don’t really like to draw those lines, I just go with my own definition of punk and according to that definition, it’s still alive and well for sure. As long as bands are still out there slaving away in the garage and putting out their own records and just pushing the envelope for how songs should be written or how they should be played, punk will never die.

Let’s talk about the new record. Are these songs all fairly new creations or do they stretch back a number of years?

Milo: They stretch back kind of to the 2011 period. I wrote a bunch for the record, not all of them got on the record, but I went through a period of, kind of hyper-creativity that started in 2011 because Bill, the drummer, had his surgery and then I wrote the song ‘Comeback Kid’, which was the first song I’d written in a long time. And then rapidly, over the course of the next year or two, I wrote several more. And the rest of the band are always writing songs. I can’t even count the number of songs they’ve got floating around that they can just pull out. So when it came time to record we had something like 36 songs to choose from, but most were written within the past five years.

A lot of these songs feel like sequels to previous songs in your discography. ‘No Fat Burger’ for example, to ‘I Like Food’, ‘On Paper’ to ‘Mass Nerder’, ‘Without Love’ to ‘She Don’t Care’ and ‘She Loves Me’ and ‘Beyond The Music’ to ‘Thank You’. Was this at all intentional?

Milo: Well ‘No Fat Burger’, that was intentional on my part, because I would go to the doctor and have him yell at me about my lipid profile. So I thought ‘oh man, I can’t eat all this good food anymore’. And initially the song was called ‘I Like Food 2014’, but we thought that was a dumb name. That was really the only song that was written with that in mind, but some of these themes you’ll inevitably end up returning to. And if nothing else, we always have to have a decent dose of self-deprecation in our music.

So when Karl came in with ‘On Paper’, I just thought that was brilliant because we gotta have something like that on the record. We love laughing at ourselves and almost every record has a bunch of those songs.

I love ‘On Paper’. It feels to me like the continuing story of that nerd from the song ‘Mass Nerder’. He’s graduated from high school and is in the work field now.

Milo: Right, right. And I can relate to that song also from my experiences in the science field. It’s funny though, because in science, even though I had the PhD, I always felt like a bit of an imposter and spent much of my time there trying to prove to people that I belonged there and never fully felt like I did, at least in my mind. So I can relate to (‘On Paper’) on that level.

Was the song ‘Beyond The Music’ inspired by Filmage?

Milo: Bill wrote the lyrics on that one, but I think maybe it was. I had come in with ‘Full Circle’ for this record and he goes ‘oh yeah! I’m writing something kind of like that’. But I think we’re at the age now where we have no shame in just looking back. And Filmage condenses that long look back into one document. But part of ‘Beyond The Music’ is also the notion that no matter what came of us, or the band, the most important thing for us ended up being the friendships. And my friendship with Bill extends back from High School. We’ve gone through periods of not being in communication with each other, not for any reason other than that our lives were moving in different circles. But every time we get together, it’s like reconnecting with your long lost brother. That’s what happened in 2009 when he suffered all his health problems. And we hadn’t been in contact for a couple of years and I felt awful about that when he was sick. So my determination now is not to let that happen again, because he really is kind of my soul mate, on a certain level.

descendents_lisajohnson_live_hires-3647Milo Goes To College came out in 1982. You were nineteen. Do you ever look back on some of those lyrics that you guys wrote back then and think, ‘I can’t sing this anymore, that’s not who I am now’.

Milo: Yeah, well, I would point to a song like ‘I’m Not A Loser’, which I tried to evolve as best I could over the years. But finally after years of trying to evolve it into something a little more, up to date I guess, we just don’t play it anymore. And I just kind of had to lay it on the line to the band at a certain point and say that I don’t think we should play it anymore. And that’s a pretty recent thing. For the past, maybe, five years though I was changing the words when I sang it, to reflect the fact that we’re not homophobes or anything. And the song was written by Frank (Navetta), who is no longer with us, and he wasn’t writing it as a homophobe, he was writing it as a schoolyard taunt kind of thing, which obviously is no longer acceptable. So I changed those words and I thought well that’s cool, we changed them. But then I recently realized, well, no, because the people in the audience are still singing the original words so that’s when I said we should stop playing it altogether and I think the rest of the band was on the same page. Which is a drag because it’s a popular song, but I don’t want it to be popular for the wrong reasons.

I think that’s admirable. And it’s not like you don’t have other bratty punk songs in your repertoire.

Milo: Yeah and you know, we like to be punks. We like to still be kind of edgy and if being edgy means you might teeter on that line of being inappropriate, I’m still willing to teeter on that line, even at my age. But some of them go over that line and you’ve gotta draw that line somewhere.

201362846550542Descendents are currently on tour with dates across the USA. Also Be sure to grab their latest album “Hypercaffium Spazinate” which is out now on Epitaph Records.

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