After making their return to the stage in 2010, punk rock veterans Descendents are back with a brand new album titled Hypercaffium Spazzinate. For a band with carrying such a deeply rooted legacy in Punk Rock, the cultural impact of the bands’ early catalog weighs heavy and can easily overshadow subsequent efforts. Fortunately, Hypercaffium Spazzinate does not fall into this case. Despite being separated by no less than a 12 year gap from its predecessor, the newest release by the Descendents displays a band returning at the height of its form, as energetic and hard-hitting as ever. Moreover, what makes the record all the more stunning is the fact that this tour-de-force follows the tribulations of founding member Bill Stevenson’s health issues. I was fortunate enough to sit down with the bands’ ever so humble and kind frontman Milo Aukerman for a quick interview.
So you’ve just released your latest record Hypercaffium Spazzinate. First off, could you tell us about the album title?
So Hypercaffium Spazzinate is a chemical that is related to caffeine. It’s supposed to be a supercharged version of caffeine that I synthesised in my laboratory. I took caffeine and mixed it with chemical X and made Hypercaffium Spazzinate. The basis of the chemical is that, like caffeine, it makes you excited and energetic but its’ more intense than regular caffeine, so that’s why we decided to name the album after the chemical.
So this is a chemical that you discovered yourself?
Yeah, in my laboratory. We’re actually going to be making some coffee beans that are going to have this special chemical in it. The coffee beans will be infused with Hypercaffium Spazzinate as well.
Like a Descendents brand coffee?
Yeah! It’s going to be marketed at some point. We’re in negotiations with some companies.
Caffeine and coffee is a recurring theme in the bands’ discography. Has the caffeine intake changed over the years for the band?
We’ve gotten into more high quality caffeine products. Back in the 80s’ we were drinking what we called the “bonus cup”, which was taking spoonfuls of instant coffee and mixing it with hot water and drinking this hot sludge. You can imagine with the current “coffee culture”, we can do a lot better than that nowadays. We drink a lot of espresso now, I really enjoy it. We’re been able to take advantage of the Starbucks phenomenon and all of that, which has been great for us. In terms of volume, I tend to drink 3 to 5 cups of coffee before we play. It helps me get charged up, and the same goes for the rest of the band. However, as a singer I also have to worry about my voice and if you drink too much coffee you just stay up all night (laugh), which is the worst thing ever for a singer’s voice. So I can’t really overindulge. Bill will be trying to get me to drink ten cups of coffee plus an energy drink and I have to turn it down, that would be the worst thing for me. So there is a certain sense of moderation for me, I can’t just go completely nuts anymore.
It’s still part of the bands’ ritual while on tour.
It still is, yeah. We all take up on coffee before we play. It’s our drug of choice, essentially.
So how did you come about writing a new record after 12 years? Were there any concerns about keeping your formula in line with your previous albums?
So basically the backstory is that in 2010 we started playing shows again, which was on the heels of Bill having this surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. It was basically a tumor the size of a grapefruit. When he came out of surgery, Bill was like a new man again, the tumor had really messed him up mentally. He came up with a new lease on life and I wrote a song fairly soon after that, documenting that whole thing, which ended up being Comeback Kid. So that got me writing songs again and I basically continued writing. The rest of the bands also always have songs that they’re writing, so around 2011 we thought it would be great to have some new songs to play. At that point, we started preparing to do the recording, but the problem is that we live in 3 different cities. Yeah, we did the bass and drums in Fort Collins, Colorado, the guitar were done in Oklahoma and I did my vocals out here in Delaware. We had to do a lot of file-sharing, which meant that things weren’t going to progress at a lightning pace, plus there was the issue of freeing everyone’s schedules. Bill’s got his studio in the Blasting Room, and he had to free up the studio to make the record. So finally in 2015 we tracked the album and I started laying down vocals late last year. So it was a long process but we’re really happy with the way it turned out. The way we went around it was just spot on for us.
Could you tell us a bit about what the album is about?
It’s basically what’s transpired in our lives for the past 6-7 years. We tend to just write about extremely personal situations like those health problems I mentioned earlier. We don’t just cover the health part but also the psychological aftermath of it. Bill came out of that surgery and felt like a million bucks but his life was a little bit in shambles, so he had to pull all of the pieces of his life back together. That caused a fair amount of angst for him. He fell into a depression and so I wrote a song called Smile to help him get through that. He wrote Victim of Me, which is his take on all of that. Karl has had his own things happening to him. We each came into it with our own lyrical perspective for each of our lives, basically. When people get a new record from the Descendents, they can just view it as a document of where we’ve been.
You’re still staying true to the personal approach you’ve been known for since your beginning.
I don’t feel we feel comfortable writing about scoring chicks and being in high school anymore, we’re not those people anymore. We still love hard and fast punk rock music and that’s the music that we’re going to continue to make, but the lyrics don’t have to necessarily be reflective of a teenager. That would just be kind of weird. So we don’t really do that anymore. We have things that we want to say but they’re not the same as those coming from a 17 year old kid, so why bother.
I’ve read that you’ve recently left your career as a practicing biochemist behind dedicate yourself full time to music. From what i understand, up until recently, you seemed somewhat weary of the prospect of turning music into a full time occupation. What is it that changed your perpective on this?
I really think that it was the last 6 years, where we got back into it. Prior to that, I was really into the mindset of focusing on my science, music being something from my past. But then in 2010 when Bill got better, I just got caught up in the whole euphoria of it and we started playing shows. For the first couple of shows I was worried about how it was going to go. How was going to do this? Was I going to have fun doing it? It turned out that yes, it was a lot of fun doing it. Ever since then, it’s been a slow realisation that this is really what I should be doing. Then this all ended up happening because my science career was going in the opposite direction. I was working at a mega-corporation that was just dicking me around and not letting me pursue the creative side of science. In the past few years, my science career had really gotten me down to the point where I was just thinking about quitting and going into music full-time, even 2 years ago. Then in January the company laid off several hundred people, me being one of them, which made for the perfect time for me to cut ties with it. It was just bad for me and I hated it whereas the music had just gotten better and better, year after year. So I wanted to use this opportunity to run with music for a while. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been able to do music 100% of the time. It allows me to focus all of my energy on it, so I’m looking forward to this exciting chapter.
Has this shift of focus affected your lifestyle or work as a musician?
Well I’ve been able to put in a lot more practice-time, that’s for sure. Basically I have to do Karaoke to practice since I’m not with the guys, and I used to do it in my car but I gradually realised that this was totally lame. I’m singing along to music in my car, I oughta be singing on a more “stage-like” setting, so I set that up in my basement. I now have a pseudo-stage in there, so I’m replicating the kind of environnement that I’m in to actually sing. Aside from being with the band and all practicing in a tiny little studio, this is the best we can do. I’ve been taking that into consideration as well as writing more songs. I tend to have a period of writing songs followed by breaks that last months. I tend to write in spurts and I’m looking forward to my next “spurt”. Another thing I’ve been able to do a lot more is doing this, talking to people and getting the word out. I was always the guy that left that to the rest of the band, but now I’ve got the time to do this, so I ought to be the one to be the spokesman for the band.
Given the current state of the record industry, were there any concerns about making music your main occupation?
Not really. That’s something that’s been turned on its head for me because I had these 2 careers going, though music was never really a career for me. Music was always just my hobby and I always considered science my career. What ended up happening was that I gradually had the realisation over the past few years that I had it all wrong. There’s always the cliche of the kid saying “I wanna be a musician” and the parents going “Well you need to have a stable career to fall back on if the music fails”. The thing is that I realised that it’s entirely opposite for me. The music was my stable career and the science was always the unstable one. Once it dawned on me, I realised that just shouldn’t worry about this at all. I have to admit that I feel extremely fortunate that that’s the case for me because I know that for a lot of people it’s the opposite, music being the unstable option. I’ve been enjoying the fact that I can play in the band and have a ton of fun while not being worried about paying the bills so much.
Would you say that your relationship and identification with the punk scene and punk “label” strengthened over the years or do you, on the contrary, feel a form alienation in light of its mutations?
If punk continues to comment on society and how frustrating it can be, it’ll always be around. I just think about what’s happening in our country in the US with the current political situation. There are so many things I have to say about it, and as long as there is some social commenting to be done, be it in a personal or global way, it will always create an outlet for punk to have expression. In addition to that, rock n’ roll is all about loud, fast heavy music, so I think the formula for punk is always going to be desirable. I always want to hear it and I’m going to go to my grave listening to punk rock. The spirit has definitely changed and it started out as a very DIY thing. I’m not sure how DIY it is now, but we do our stuff as DIY as possible. That’s an aspect of it that I look back with fondness, making our way through that DIY environnement. I can’t vouch for that now though, I’m not really in touch with the current status of the young scene. I think that there’s still gotta be some 15 year old kids out there who want to form a band and do it all DIY. I still have hope that that part of the equation still persists. The social comment part of it is definitely still around though, so I still feel the spirit of rebellion and authority questioning will continue, which is an important part of it.
The Milo illustration has become a symbol that is now deeply rooted in punk rock culture. Over the years you must’ve seen your fair share of Milo T-shirts and Tattoos. What is the strangest context or place you’ve seen the Milo illustration?
Well it can get a little racy, NSFW. I did see it tattooed on a girls’ crotch, her genital region. That was definitely the weirdest for me. I enjoyed seeing it there, but it threw me off a little. I was on stage singing and the girl just flashed it and it caused me to stop singing for a while. The beauty of that particular cartoon is that it’s so easy to draw, so people can put it anywhere. It’s taylor-made for tattoos for example, so it served us well because it’s become a symbol. It goes to show you that the simpler things are the better.
One subject matter that you’ve come to be known for is food. What food have you been recently?
I love to eat all of the same foods that I ate while I was 17 because who doesn’t love a good chilli-cheeseburger. Our friendship between myself and Bill partly revolves around food too, since he introduced me to all of that great greasy food back in the day. He and I will still lust after some really great Mexican meal. No Fat Burger on the new record was my awakening to the fact that I maybe shouldn’t be eating this stuff anymore. It documents all of the foods that I’ve tried to give up more recently, with not as much success as I would’ve liked. In the final analysis, I like to eat food that’s not good for me. It’s kind of like a Murphy’s law thing; of course the food that tastes the best is the worst stuff for you. Having kids, you start to think more about eating healthy. I have two kids who’re 12 and 14 and we don’t want them eating at McDonalds’ all of the time. My daughter is actually a vegetarian and there was a short period where I was a vegetarian in solidarity with her. I lost a bunch of weight and I felt great but I’m not a vegetarian anymore, it’s hard to do! (laugh). I would love to get back into it just because the health aspects are so good for you, but it’s hard to pull myself away from the chilli-cheeseburger. It’s been my curse.
To finish off: could you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books?
A classic album for me is (GI) by The Germs. It just turned a switch in my head towards thinking about extremely aggressive but poetic music. I love that record.
For movies I’ve always had a soft spot for American Beauty by Sam Mendes. Kevin Spacey’s performance in it is so amazing. It’s a funny movie but also a tragic movie. When it came out, it definitely spoke to a certain disaffected person of my age (laugh); the person that got into this family life that is just crumbling. Lester’s reaction to the whole crumbling of the family is just so comical and … punk! He basically became punk rock and I just loved it.
In terms of books, I’ve gotten into this author called Michael Chabon. Every time he put out a new book I had to read it. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was a great book, along with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I like his writing style and his subject matter is always left-field, I like how he puts his books together. Out of all of his books I’d probably point towards The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay over all of them, but I still like his other ones as well.
Any closing words?
We’re going to try and make our way to Europe. Now that I’m able to focus on this full-time, we’d like to play out more and that means we can do more club shows. We’d like to return to Europe and be able to play more club shows rather than strictly festivals. So I hope we’ll be able to make it over there very soon!
Interview by Robin Ono
A huge thank you goes out to Milo and the staff over at Epitaph records for making this interview possible!