Bill Adams vs Bill Stevenson of Only Crime

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Punk rock, as well as the bands that currently make music in the genre, could not ask for a more modest mentor than Bill Stevenson. Boasting a resume that spans over two decades and includes performing credits with such venerable names as Black Flag, Descendants and ALL, as well as a directory of production, mixing, engineering and co-writing credits that reads like the phone book for bands like Lagwagon, The Ataris, Good Riddance, MxPx, Rise Against, Suicide Machines, Anti-Flag, The Casualties, Comeback Kid, The Lemonheads and NOFX, Stevenson has become something of a behind-the-scenes institution—but he has exactly no ego about it. He seems uncomfortable talking about any of his accomplishments at all really, even going so far as to confide during our conversation that he’ll ask his friends to turn off most of the things he’s played on if they happen to come on the stereo while he’s around because, while he may like the songs, he almost never likes his own performances on them. Likewise, mentioning any facet of his celebrated producing career—which has won him praise by both the musicians he’s worked with and fans alike—almost gets a slightly uncomfortable “Thanks” before he hurriedly changes the subject. However, all of the work has also won him a lot of friends in the music business and it was those friendships that ultimately produced Only Crime, Stevenson’s newest collaborative effort that he is only too happy to talk about.

BA: So how’re you doing? Are you at home right now in Colorado?
BS: Yeah, I’ve been home for a couple of weeks. I did a few weeks on tour playing with Only Crime supporting Rise Against and Comeback Kid and we just got back.
BA: West Coast and now you’re coming across to do the East?
BS: Where was that? It was…Eastern U.S.
BA: And you’re heading back out in a couple of weeks?
BS: We’re doing a Canada tour. We leave in about a week—we’re going from West to East across the country.
BA: How has the material from the new record been received?
BS: It’s been really good I think. It seems like, generally speaking, people like this new album better than the first one, but Only Crime’s a pretty tiny band you know, so we’re not talking in terms of thousands and thousands of people.
BA: So as far as the new record is concerned—I’m not even sure anymore how many projects you’ve worked on—how did Only Crime come together?
BS: There were two alliances involved in bringing it together. The first one was the fact that The Blasting Room has been host to Good Riddance many, many times so Russ and I developed quite a friendship, and The Blasting Room has also been host many times to Hagfish and the other bands that the guys in that group have had, so that’s how Zack and Doni and Russ and I got together—we’ve all just become friends over the years. Then Russ and Aaron Dalbec befriended one another more in the hardcore scene from bands Good Riddance and Vain touring together, so everybody knew each other and had for a while other than Aaron and me.
BA: I’m assuming that you did a fair bit of the writing for the songs. I know you’ve helped write for every band that The Blasting Room has ever played host to…
BS: To be fair, I probably didn’t write my share on these. I think the other guys are bringing in more material. Since we write collectively a lot—meaning that all of us are in the room with our instrument on—I’m more writing, if you will, on the drums. Normally it’ll start with Russ or Aaron—or Zack when he was in the band—bringing in a riff or idea or a half a song or whatever and then us embellishing upon it and kicking it around in terms of different possible arrangements and different ways of playing it and so forth.
BA: Kind of the old school woodshedding approach?
BS: Yeah. The second album in particular. The second album didn’t have much in the way of one guy bringing in a finished song. Most of it was collaborated and experimented with quite a bit. The first album was more a matter of people bringing things in that were pretty much done.
BA: So is it a safe assumption that this album was the first proper Only Crime record insofar as you were all working on it?
BS: That might be a little over generalizing it a little, but the point you’re looking for there is well-taken, yeah.
BA: As far as the material is concerned, how has it been received on stage?
BS: A lot of times if we go out by ourselves, we’ll be playing to fairly small crowds—maybe about 100 people at a time—but they seem to really enjoy it. I think the material is pretty compelling; I think it really draws you in. I always felt like bands like Black Flag, Ornette Coleman or Articles of Faith and things like that all really draw you in; you have to go to IT, it’s not popularized in the sense that you can just hear a chorus and sing along, but you’re drawn to it.
BA: …if you find it, it’s really engaging—but you have to find it first.
BS: Yeah, like Thelonious Monk, for example, you’re not just going to put that on in a room and people immediately start rocking out. People have to stop what they’re doing, listen for a second, and then decide if they want to invest some time in it because it’ll be rewarding for them either mentally or will speak to their heart. Like, with a Beatles song, you hear the first ten seconds of it and you’re sucked in; it’s a little different from that.
BA: And you feel that the first scenario is more in the vein of Only Crime?
BS: Yeah, and also we use a certain amount of improvisation on this record so there are sections where it gets a little messy, but it does so for the purpose of illustrating the idea of musical freedom or expressiveness in an impromptu manner. I think in punk rock it’s very common for bands to have a liberal lyric sheet, but a very conservative form of music. It seems like a really weird hypocrisy. I think some of the bands that are the most world-renowned for their liberal politics have the most conservative music; not to name names, but it’s something I’ve noticed whereas, particularly with jazz and certain rock bands, I think the freedom is in the music as opposed to just reading it in a lyric sheet. You actually experience the freedom and hear it too.
BA: I see what you’re saying. Over the last few years in particular, a lot of punk rock has become very homogenized. It has very much become a standard verse/chorus/verse, fairly same-y formula.
BS: Yeah, a lot of the stuff now is pretty poppy, but I mean, I think there’s some really good stuff out there too.
BA: I have to agree, but I find it pretty funny that a lot of the bands that I happen to really like—like Rise Against, The Lemonheads, Descendants, Black Flag and so on—you’ve had a hand in. You’ve pretty much been involved in all of that in one capacity or another and I was really excited to do this interview because you’ve had a hand in all of them at some point.
BS: Recently, I’ve been enjoying doing more and more diverse things because it goes against everything I spent the first 20 years or so of my career believing in. I think it was functional for me as a learning musician to have one band and just hammer away at it every day and practice the same 15 songs for 2 years every day. I think it was functional for me because it helped me develop focus, discipline, to hone my chops and season myself a little bit. But lately, I feel like it has been more functional for me to do a lot of different things because what I’m noticing is—and maybe it’s because my abilities have advanced to the levels that they have as a person relating to music more than just being a drummer—that it’s easier for me to become distracted. So to have a few different things going on at once that are almost blatantly different in approach and style seems to make me complete and well rounded, whereas before, what made me complete was to have just one thing that I would just hammer.
BA: I can see what you’re saying…
BS: The perfect example of that was to be working on an Only Crime record and a Lemonheads record at the same time and just switch back and forth between the two every other month. That was perfect for me because I was going back and forth between really mellow, introverted sensitive stuff to very aggressive stuff.
BA: It doesn’t let you stagnate either.
BS: The other thing that I’ve noticed is that bands seem to really begin to regurgitate the comfortable portions of their vocabulary as musicians after about two records and it’s usually the stuff that they are the best at that they’re regurgitating. That’s usually also the easiest stuff, but it doesn’t make it the best stuff. It’s almost like a natural law that bands are going to become more mediocre the further they get and that’s why I’m always trying to change things up and cross-pollinate things whenever possible or take a different perspective on what I’m doing.
BA: And that way you can take an idea that, for the sake of argument, you got going with The Lemonheads and bring it to the guys in Rise Against. I was talking to Tim shortly before the release of Sufferer & the Witness, and he said that you were really instrumental insofar as the writing of that material—as well as with The Lemonheads’ last record.
BS: I think that’s a nice compliment and a really nice thing for Tim to say, but they wrote most of that themselves. I would have helped out with the odd phrase or two or word or two, but they had a lot of their songs already. Those guys are [stammering]—well, they’re a great band. I really love working with them.
BA: So do I. I think I’ve interviewed them once a year from the time they released Revolutions Per Minute.
Yeah, Tim and I are like brothers.
BA: Is The Blasting Room shut down for the summer while you’re on tour? I thought I saw something about that on MySpace.

BS: Did you say shut down in the summer of 2007? No! Not at all—The Blasting Room has never been shut down [laughing]. With the exception of one two-week period in October, The Blasting Room is booked through next July. We’re booked for a year solid. The studio rolls on without me when I’m not here. Livermore has his whole set of clients that he works with and so does Andrew so it charges ahead with or without me. Livermore’s been there with me for about 13 years. He basically runs the place at this point.
BA: Other plans?
BS: I wrote two and a half or three songs on the last Lemonheads record and produced it with Evan. Karl [Alvarez] played bass on pretty near all of it.
BA: After this tour, what’s happening next?
BS: We’ve got bands coming up—what have we got?—this band, Drive-By, they’re on the label that My Chemical Romance’s manager is starting, then there’s Less Than Jake and Rise Against…there are more, but I don’t have my calendar in front of me. We’ve been doing a lot of mixing lately. Just bands sending in their hard drive. That’s actually preferable because you don’t have anyone hovering over you [chuckling], and then mastering and producing. Also Karl and I are going to go on tour with The Lemonheads in December; we’re going to do about three weeks. This will be the first full tour I’ve done with him for that. I’ve done a few shows, but this will be the first proper tour.
BA: Set lists?
BS: It goes all the way through. “Drug Buddy” or whatever. More on topic, Only Crime has this Canadian tour coming up and then we’re doing the States in October and in December too. We’re now starting to pick up speed. [laughing] I guess that if I turn this interview into a historical overview of Stevenson, I’ll probably get grief from the other guys so I’m hoping that you’ll be able to help me out with some editing. I think it should keep focus on Only Crime because, if it doesn’t, the guys may get upset that I was negligent of the opportunity.
BA: Because you keep a heavy schedule, how does your time get divided?
BS: That’s the part that has become the most complicated to me. I mean, it involves not just juggling bands, but I’ve got two children as well and a wife. It feels like I pull myself in a million different directions and I’m slowly learning how to say no. Bands call and I’ve got two weeks open as I said, so I’ll tell them I can produce, but then I have to restrain myself because I want to spend time with my kids because I’m going to be gone for the next four months. I’m trying to find the balance. When Only Crime gets in the room together, we just sort of free-wheel; it’s really exciting and surprisingly fruitful because being philosophically onboard with the idea of a lot of extemporaneously arranged and improvised songs, I’ve always been sceptical of my ability to actually participate in such an arrangement. It’s been going pretty well and has been pretty affirming; some of my favorite players are guys like Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker—improvisational players—so why can’t I? Who says that everything has to be “Beat on the Brat”? By the same token, how many times can you remake “Milo Goes to College?” We started trying things almost expecting them to fail, but I’ve been really happy with the result. I was practicing yesterday by myself getting ready to head on the road, I couldn’t get over how much I like these new Only Crime songs! I always dislike the things that I record—I mean my own parts. They make me feel a little ashamed. Like, if I’m at my friends’ houses and they have one on, I’ll ask them to turn it off because it drives me nuts. But I really like the way that this Only Crime stuff is coming out.
BA: So this isn’t a pet project.
BS: Yeah, we’re starting to pick up steam now and hopefully people will catch on to it and it could be a little successful but even if it’s not, I feel like it’s successful just listening back to the recordings. I always tell the guys that; like, we played Boise, ID not that long ago and I’m not kidding when I say there were 35 people there. The other guys in the band were kind of bummed out about that, but I told them look – and I pulled this CD out of Thelonious Monk live at the It Club. He busts into this 10-minute version of “Well You Needn’t” and it’s just insane; his band is killing it and everything’s great and at the end of the song—it feels like you just witnessed the most incredible thing in the history of mankind—you literally hear two people clapping. There was nobody there! But it still happened and it was really important. That’s always the trick when you start a new project or new band; you have to remind yourself not to let the popularity or the lack of popularity pollute how you feel about your art. Your art’s worth is not something you can read on the Billboard Chart or looked at on a royalty statement, it doesn’t work like that. Radio’s no indication either; the crap they play on the radio, you’d be embarrassed to be associated with that company.
BA: That said, obviously you get a tremendous amount of gratification out of what you’re doing with Only Crime, so at this point makes it worth it.
BS: Yeah, I’m really enjoying it. The guys are going to get here tomorrow and we’re going to do some demoing for the next couple of days before we leave.
BA: Would that make it 2 albums in three years?
BS: I want to say that the first one came out in late 2004, and this one came out in early 2007; so a really long two years between records.
BA: Is it feasible that we might see another Only Crime record before the end of the year?
BS: If I had to ballpark it, I’d say maybe one year from now.
BA: Now, you said that insofar as the last record, you didn’t contribute as much writing.
BS: No, I just meant in general in Only Crime. I think in Descendents and all I think people were used to me being one of the anchor men as far as songwriting goes, but in Only Crime, it’s more the other guys. Outside of the pop domain, I don’t seem to be quite as effective as I wish I was. I’m good in the pop domain or whatever you want to call songs like “Clean Sheets” and “Silly Girl” and so on.
BA: Pop punk.
BS: Yeah. So far the only stuff that I’ve brought to Only Crime that has made it onto the records has been minimal.
BA: That probably takes some of the pressure off and allows you to concentrate on getting outside of the box as far as the drumming is concerned. Which would make it rewarding in a different way I imagine.
BS: The new Only Crime, to me, feels like something we should have done—or I should have been part of something like it—in 1983 or 84. Right when Black Flag started getting experimental and interesting musically, we also started slowing down and getting into a low energy kind of thing. So what I really like about the new Only Crime is that it’s got that fury and intensity of that first wave of punk rock, but it’s got the harmonic and rhythmic broadness of the later era of Black Flag; a broader canvas. I always feel like I’m wrapping up some unfinished business in a weird way.
BA: So what else am I forgetting to ask about? What else do you feel like talking about?
BS: I feel like I’ve just been blabbing about myself like some weird person that thinks he’s good or important [laughing]. I’ve talked about myself enough I think.
BA: I think that might be a bit of my fault. You’ve worked on a lot of records that I’ve really loved.
BS: The only thing I would hope for is to be one of the last men standing because it seems like the music business is just falling apart and the idea of being able to make any kind of living as a player or musician is becoming less and less viable. Every year, it’s twenty percent less for the last 5, 6 or 7 years, so I just hope—me and you both honestly—that we’re not flipping burgers in five years.
BA: Well, I mean, it’s not as though music is ever going to stop getting created and people are always going to want a document of that moment. So having a studio as you do…
BS: I give that a longer lifespan than the playing part. Not only that, I’m 44 years old. Eventually it’ll reach the point that people aren’t interested in going to see their Dad on drums. It’s something to be aware of, too. I don’t try to pretend like I’m in my 20s or anything, I have friends that do that though. They’re in their 30s and banging around like their still in their 20s and all. I did that too; I pretended I was 20 until I was about 35. I’m comfortable with myself now though, and that makes touring a lot funner too because I’m out there for the music and I’m enjoying it. I didn’t used to have fun on tour. I think I had too many personality issues or something. I didn’t know who I was. Touring with Only Crime is great, too because nobody in the band drinks or does any drugs or anything. I’m the only guy in the band that drinks even occasionally, but I’m a total tea tottler. However that makes touring really easy; we all pull our own weight and that kind of thing.
BA: Well, I mean, thank you for doing this interview and taking as much time as you have with me.
BS: Thank you for doing the interview. I appreciate it.
BA: The pleasure was absolutely all mine.
BS: Okay, well I’ll catch you later then.
BA: Hopefully I’ll be able to catch you when you hit St. Catharines.
BS: Okay, see ya.
BA: See you around.

For more on Only Crime, click here or here

Virulence is out now on Fat Wreck Chords

Download “Take Me” from Virulence – [mp3]

Download “Eyes of the World” from Virulence – [mp3]

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