Maybe you’re a grizzled punk lifer who hates the kids. Perhaps you came of a certain age where you use the term ”melodic hardcore” more than “pop punk.” You may be a new listener doing a deep immersion into punk history. If you identify with any of these terms, we know you understand the importance of Milo Goes To College, the 1982 debut album from the mighty Descendents. That’s why we corralled frontman Milo Aukerman and drummer Bill Stevenson for an oral history of the legendary release.
Indeed, Descendents—frontman Aukerman, drummer Stevenson, guitarist Frank Navetta and bassist Tony Lombardo—crafted an enduring document of American hardcore. Ripe with teen frustration and hatred (“Parents”), hooks to hang from like a nerd suspension artist (“Hope”) and unbridled energy (“Suburban Home”), this album is punk history that shall never lose its shine.
You can tell Aukerman and Stevenson how awesome they are, and they still won’t believe you. The duo remember what the songwriting process was all about and how their lives as outsiders and nerds were shaped by band life. One-part history lesson, one-part angst case study and another part sheer WTF-ery, this oral history of Descendents’ mile-marking work will shock and awe you.
Milo Goes To College was written by four individuals. All the themes are wildly different from song to song. But they all sound extremely cohesive. What was the mindset in Descendents at the time that made it sound like all these ideas were coming from the minds of four individuals but coming out of the voice of one cohesive unit?
BILL STEVENSON: It’s like instead of having asparagus and potato and steak and beans, we made gumbo.
MILO AUKERMAN: Because we’re going to the Wienerschnitzel ranters.
STEVENSON: [to Aukerman] You know what I mean. We made gumbo. Like he said, it’s cohesive. Gumbo is one dish, but like not steak and asparagus and potatoes and beans. So we made gumbo. Yeah. I’m hungry.
What was the dynamic like in the band around that time period? How did you all get on the same page? I think it’s extremely impressive. Everybody’s contributing lyrics and music. But still, it sounded 100% like a single voice. Throughout the entire course of the Descendents, you have always sounded extremely cohesive. But at that time period in particular, what was the dynamic between the four members of the band like?
AUKERMAN: I think we all share an outcasts mentality that you can see running through most of the lyrics. Bill and I were in high school together, and we both had that. Frank was one year older?
STEVENSON: He was a year older. He was one year ahead of us but same high school. Tony had gone to Maricopa two years prior.
AUKERMAN: I didn’t know that. So I think I’d be a combination of the outcast part but also the nerd part. Because like Tony, we were both nerds. I was a nerd coming into it, and then I think Tony embraced the same thing. But that’s just another branch of being an outcast. So I think that’s probably lyrically what we could really rally around as a force. I’m just like, “Yeah, stick it to the jocks!” or whatever. I didn’t write very many of the lyrics. I just embraced them wholeheartedly because they spoke to me as being an outcast, as well. So then when I’m singing, I’m just like really putting my own line. And because of the fact that I identified with the same struggles that these chaps were undergoing.
STEVENSON: You know, I was talking to Tony on the phone just yesterday. I told him flat out, it’s like you guys were the only friends I had. I didn’t have any other friends, no girls or anything. That was just our little club that we had. We’re not even talking about the music. That was my world. Descendents meant everything to me. I don’t think we really even knew what the outside world was going to make of our lyrics, what they were going to think of them. We never really thought anyone would hear our band other than just a few of our buddies. It’s crazy how it all worked out.
AUKERMAN: I think our entire social life in high school would be parties and going to the beach and whatever. But our whole social enterprise was basically practice. We practiced a lot because that was how we actually socialized, And that speaks to how Descendents were like the Four Musketeers, basically. I think the bond started from that moment, and the band continued to do it through the years.
I feel like the record is the summation of everybody’s high school experience. It’s completely universal. And it’s also that weird period in your early 20s where we’re still figuring shit out. What was your high school like? What was your hometown like growing up? That fostered this record.
STEVENSON: We lived pretty much on the beach, you know, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, California. So it was nice that way. That’s a pleasant life to be able to go swimming, surfing and fishing all the time. But at the high school itself, I personally didn’t get on with the rich, preppy types with the… What do you call those boat shoes, Milo?
AUKERMAN: Top-Siders. The uniform was the Sperry Top-Siders and the alligator shirts, the Izod Lacoste.
STEVENSON: Yeah, alligators. And it was just the cheerleaders and all that stuff. Like, there was no place for us there.
You have talked in interviews in the past about how you rejected the fashion aspect of being punk and that whole culture behind it. You were just doing your own thing. Did you feel like Descendents fit in with punk-rock culture, or do you think you were accepted musically? Or do you think you were being looked at strangely during the early years?
AUKERMAN: We must have played shows with other sprocket-head bands, and they were just like, “Who are these guys?” Because there was this fashion sense in the band. But it was really a fashion sense born out of fishing.
STEVENSON: There was a while where everyone was wearing those jumpsuits because we would wear those fishing. We’d call it a “clothe.”
AUKERMAN: Pants and shirts normally go separate, but this was pants fused to shirt. It was a “clothe.” And the thing is, I never fished with these guys. But they would go fishing and get those clothes covered with fish guts. And then they just come to practice stinking like fish or go to school stinking.
So I think we had just dressed like normal schmoes or we were wearing fishing gear. At that point in L.A., the English punk had come in, and it became a fashion scene. The good thing about [it] is that we actually were from the South Bay. Actually in the South Bay, you had a lot of bands that were just like, “Screw that.”
STEVENSON: That’s true, Milo. None of the bands we hung out with bothered with any of that peacock stuff. Minutemen or Saccharine Trust or Black Flag or us or anything else. None of them and whoever I’m leaving out had any sensibility toward Sex Pistols stuff or the mohawks, Because those kinds of clothes cost a lot of money. You have to go out of your way to do that. My dad worked two full-time jobs my whole childhood. We were poor. We didn’t have any money. So my clothes came from Kmart or the thrift store.
What do you think is the greatest risk Descendents took with Milo Goes To College in that era in general? And did that risk pay off the way you had intended? It could be a personal risk or a risk as a band.
AUKERMAN: We didn’t know how else to be. All we could do is be ourselves. But “ourselves” doesn’t make for good punk rock. Think about it. I think that’s one of the biggest risks, especially at that time. All the bands are, you know, “Reagan sucks” or whatever. And we’re like, “I just want to write a song about going to Wienerschnitzel. Or write a song about my girlfriend or all these non-punk subjects. I feel like there’s a risk in that. I think the risk was just to basically put our own personalities out there and not be someone we weren’t.
STEVENSON: Yeah. It’s like, yeah, Reagan does suck, but fuck, everybody already knows that. So now what are we going to talk about?
AUKERMAN: I feel like our risk going into it was that we were just going to bank on being ourselves somehow was going to show through as something unique or as something that people wanted to hear. And I guess it was a risk that paid off because I feel like it comes across [as] more genuine. I probably didn’t even realize I was risking that at the time. In retrospect, maybe it would’ve been a lot easier just to put on the studs and all the leather and play a personality, play a persona or something.
STEVENSON: Personally, I think that people give Descendents so much more credit than we deserve for even knowing what we were doing. We lived in our own little bubble. Again, I’m speaking from my perspective. And it’s like, “Well, these are the songs we have, so these are what the album is going to be.” We didn’t really have a strategy or a mission statement or anything. There weren’t dos and don’ts. It was just, “These are the songs we have. These are the ones that we kick the most butt on. So these are gonna go on the record.” You’ve got to remember, we were very, very young. And I think that, again, really speaking for myself, I was extremely naive for my age. So we’re talking about a lot of youthful innocence and youthful ignorance.
Milo, when you had gone to college, how did you feel knowing that this record was coming out? What was that experience having this record being put out and knowing that you’re not in the band? In that time period of your life, did you have any regrets of how things were going? Or were you just fully committed to school?
AUKERMAN: I was committed to school. I just started freshman year. For some reason, I couldn’t get into the dorm, So I was living off-campus. So it’s ultra-isolated, not even with my cohort, living in a room in someone’s house with a couple of brothers and a mom that lived there, too.
So one of the brothers came up to me. This is after I’ve been living there for a few months and said, “Hey, my buddy down the street just got your record.” And I was like, “What? Oh, it finally came out.” Like, I had no idea. I didn’t know what the release date was. I didn’t have a physical copy of it myself. So he said, “You mean you don’t have it?” I go, “No.” He goes, “Well, come on over to my buddy’s house, and we’re gonna spin that mother.”
So I go over to this guy’s friend’s house, and that’s when I first heard the vinyl version of this. I was so out of the loop at that point ’cause I was [putting my head] down, putting on the blinders, trying to get my schoolwork done. So I had to go to some other house where they were spinning it. And then it must have been very strange for them because I was listening. They’re like, “You mean you haven’t heard this before?” And so that was me, listening [and] critiquing myself.
STEVENSON: You had the cassette.
AUKERMAN: What’s that? No, I didn’t. I didn’t have a cassette. I had nothing like that. But you think I would have said, “Hey Bill, can you rip me a copy of this?” But I was so like [rubs palms together], “See you later. I’m going to college.” And when I heard it at this friend’s house, I was really like, “Well, OK. I guess it turned out pretty cool. That was just a bizarre thing to have to go to a friend of my roommate’s house to hear it for the first time.
That was one of those things [where] we talk about the impact that it had. I felt like it didn’t really have an impact, although I did know that one person bought my record at that point. And so I was like, “OK, someone bought it. That’s cool.”