Sunday, July 21, 2013

Catching up Descendents Bill Stevenson

Interview with Bill Stevenson, an American musician and record producer at Fort Collins Blasting Room. He is the drummer and frequent songwriter for the California punk rock group Descendents.

CMB: What are your thoughts on punk now, and how your influence from back in the day still pertains to today?

Bill: There’s been a lot of miles traveled since then by everybody, and many years passed, so I supposed it’s hard for a feeble earthling like myself to quantify how things are now, compared to how they used to be. I know that there’s a constant line of comparison between what people call the old punk and the new punk, and I may be just old enough to where I don’t look at it that way. I see it all as a big continuum of a very long river flowing, and bands contribute to it and they take out from it, and they ride along the stream, they ride along the flow of it, so it’s like a flowing river, or like a circle. Just as we’ve influenced things, we’ve also been influenced by things, and I think that the punk scene is that way. It’s always a two-way street in and out, constantly evolving, and I don’t feel like there are years or eras or decades where it was like ‘Punk is dead.’ I just try and keep an open mind, and let the independent artists do whatever they can do, and try and enjoy it.

CMB: Do you think that people now categorize pop punk (radio-friendly)? Do you think there’s a difference between pop punk and punk?

Bill: It’s always been my opinion that those were more useful for, say, people trying to market or sell music, but when you actually put a guitar on, or get behind a drum set or put pen to paper, nobody really thinks like that. I know in the early ‘90s there was kind of a more 'acceptable' version of punk rock that got on the radio a lot. I guess there were tons of little kids at the mall who were really happy that that happened, and then there were some crumudgeondly older punk rockers that felt like that phenomenon was kind of a disservice or a dishonor to punk rock. But if you think about it, the fact that Blink-182 got on the radio, that doesn’t change how I feel about my Minor Threat single. It’s all just music, right? I just don’t think in those little boxes—even punk rock, it’s just one—in my itunes I’m gonna say maybe 20% of it is punk rock, if that. SO it’s just notes—they’re notes, and rhythms and that’s—I think it was Louis Armstrong who said ‘There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.’

Back in the day, Louis Armstrong said, “If you can tap your foot to it, that’s good music!” That’s a simpleton answer, but the point he was making is, if it makes you feel something, you get excited, then who cares what it’s called; pop punk, indie, hardcore, emo, jazz, you know, whatever. Who cares?

CMB: You being at the Blasting Room is huge for our local scene here in CO, and you see a lot of bands coming through there. Since this is the punk issue, who have you seen locally, punk bands, that should be on people’s radars?

B: Oh gosh, you should ask Andrew or Chris. They have their ear to the ground more—I’ve been gone a lot traveling and playing shows, so they could really dial in that answer for you. I am guilty of being 60? 50? I might be listening to Cole Porter on the way to work or maybe the 1st AC/DC album. I don’t always have my finger on the pulse of the local music scene, or the national or global.

CMB: What words of wisdom do you have for punk bands wanting to make it now?

Bill: That is the question because, is it easier now? Is it harder now than it was when we were try to get established? I can’t tell. Some would have you believe that it's easier because the networking; just the access to information is so complete, BUT, then some  might say it’s harder. When I was 13, you got a bike for christmas. Now, you get a guitar. It’s like everybody—EVERYBODY—has a band, so I guess it’s both easier and harder. But to push that to the side for a second, it comes down to just practicing. 

Basically, not to put the pernicious influence of a competitive element into all of this, but at the same time, if you’re trying to be established, you have to be better than the other bands. And so one of many ways to be better than other bands is to practice more, this is what the Descendents did—we just used to practice incessantly. That’s not a solution, but it’s one of several things that, when you put them all together, it can be part of a solution. I suppose in the Internet age, it’s almost just as critical for bands to have to be concerned with how they look while playing, as opposed to just how well they’re playing. We didn’t really have that. We could be ugly and it was ok because nobody could just go online where somebody has a camera one foot from my nose hairs. So I think appearance has, unfortunately, become a factor. 

Of course, nothing beats a great song, and this is where I suppose the accumulated experience at the studio that I have has led me to the conclusion that there are not nearly as many worthwhile songs out there, as there are bands playing in garages somewhere. And so this is kind of full circle. So when I started listing things, the first thing I listed was practice, but you can practice til you’re blue in the face, but if your songs aren’t any good, then that’s really wasted energy. So I think, somehow, for a band to get noticed, they have to find someway to find a voice that is their own voice, that is a unique voice, and that has not been heard before a million times. And the lyrics have to be worth listening to; I don’t mean they have to be politically correct or intellectually deep, I mean, they could be “I Like Food” or whatever, but there has to be something about them that draws people to them and so it goes with the DNA of chord progressions and also the melody.These things are what really affect people, and we can’t all be great songwriters. We can’t all be great players, and we can’t all look handsome like whatever the movie star of the moment is.

So if the complexity of all these different (intangibilities) line up, and a band happens to do well, I would think they should consider themselves very fortunate, because it’s tough.

CMB: Three songs to sum up the last few years for you. (3 years tumor free) 

Bill: "Waiting for Superman," the Iron and Wine version. Those lyrics are such that I wish that I’d written them, and when I was sick, that was my song, you know? Milo wrote a song about me, he wrote it right after my brain surgery called “Comeback Kid,” and he wrote it about me and my recovery, and so I’d definitely have to throw that one in there. Probably the one I’ve listened to the most is a song by Propaghandi called “Without Love.” This song is—I’ve probably listened to it more than any other song in the last three years.

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