Mohawks, neon colored hair, studded belts and leather jackets have become the stereotypical emblem of punk rock – an aggressive image that has frightened parents for decades on end. The Descendents, however, are pretty much the antithesis of the Manic Panic-clad kids coloring the scene.
Formed in 1977, the pop punk band is considered a pioneer of the genre known for their signature angsty sound and a well-respected discography. Breaking stuff and skipping school were never part of their brand, as is evident by the title of their first release, Milo Goes to College.
“We were all geeks,” lead singer Milo Aukerman says from his home in Delaware when recalling the band’s early days. Before our interview, he had just dropped his daughter off for school after her symphony rehearsal earlier that morning. “She’ll go see me play,” he says, “but in terms of [her musical taste] it’s a whole different thing… I like classical music too though, so I really enjoy her concerts.”
... in (science and music) you try to find your niche, your pocket, where you can be more passionate, more idealistic and see how well you can do
It’s an image that’s all too fun to indulge: the 56-year-old punk rock dad who holds a PhD in molecular biology driving his 14-year-old daughter and her French horn across state lines to practice classical music. In between drop-offs, pick-ups and family dinners, Aukerman and the band are now embarking on four-day sets of tours across the US each week, which allows them to play and live their lives concurrently. He’s got an even longer stint ahead with a show in Japan, four dates across China and a show in Hawaii this April. This marks the Descendents’ first-ever performance in the PRC.
At first glance, the anarchical genre and academia might seem at odds with each other in both character and form, but five minutes with Aukerman will have you thinking otherwise. “I wanted to be a scientist before I wanted to be a musician,” he tells me. “I found it as creatively stimulating, at least in its heyday, as music, and that’s why I kept leaving the band… I really wanted to pursue this other passion.”
Photo courtesy of Descendents
The Descendents’ four-decade-long career was broken up first by his departure for university, second by his return to pursue a graduate degree, and again by a career in plant genetics. What drew him to science, and what ended up bringing him back to music, was the same impulse: the pursuit of creativity. It was only when his research became dominated by products and commercial endeavors that he found himself writing songs again.
“In that sense, that might’ve been why I wasn’t suited to be in science. Similar to music, science has become a less idealistic venture, and more of a business. In both of those areas you try to find your niche, your pocket, in which you can be more passionate, more idealistic and see how well you can do… The beauty with what we’re doing in music is somehow, we’ve been able to avoid the business side taking over.”
This may have inadvertently been a product of the band’s periods of inactivity. In the 1990s when punk rock was really starting to pick up, major record labels were signing groups by the dozens in hopes of finding the next “Green Day,” Aukerman tells me. In his absence, the other members of the band were performing under the group name ALL, who ended up signing with Interscope, but disputes over marketing and promotion led to the dissolving of the relationship. Though things didn’t work out the way they’d hoped, in the process they were able to finance building The Blasting Room – a recording studio in Fort Collins, Colorado that has produced records for names like MxPx, Less Than Jake, Rise Against, Anti-Flag and many more. “If they look at their experience they think, yeah we got screwed over… but we got a recording studio, so that’s cool. A lot of bands got screwed over in much worse ways.”
Photo via Descendents
With studio in tow, the lesson led to the Descendents working with Epitaph Records in 1996 – the biggest label they’ve ever partnered with. That autonomy meant they didn’t, and don't, have to meet the demands of song quotas and scheduled releases, which serves their process, and their product well. All four of the members – Aukerman, Bill Stevenson, Karl Alvarez and Stephen Egerton – contribute their own tracks. This means, “If I don’t feel I need to write a song, I won’t. There’s no timeline, you strike when inspiration hits… because of that we’ve had what I call long periods of gestation,” Aukerman explains with a laugh. An album is in the works, he confirms, just when we can expect to hear it is yet to be determined.
Though he admits it wasn’t by design, Aukerman’s interest in the world of science may be the very thing that enables them to play the way they do today: recording albums on their own timeline and going on shorter tours that don’t require weeks or months away from their families. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his own regrets about how everything’s played out.
“It took me so long to figure out that music is as challenging, if not more challenging, than being a scientist, and I was just kind of giving it short shrift at the time. I never really took music seriously as a career.” That can hardly be said of his approach today, where Aukerman makes a concerted effort to protect his voice, put on quality shows and bring the same energy to the stage that he did as a high school senior. More than 40 years on, the Descendents will still make you think twice about what to expect from the genre.
Shanghai: Sat Apr 27, 9pm; RMB280 pre-sale, RMB330 door. Yuyintang Park, see event listing, buy tickets.
Beijing: Sun Apr 28, 9pm; RMB280 pre-sale, RMB330 door. MAO Livehouse Beijing, see event listing, buy tickets.
[Cover photo courtesy of the promoter]