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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

There's nothing quite like a near-death experience to put things into perspective. Two years ago, producer and punk rock drumming institution Bill Stevenson [of Descendents, ALL and Only Crime fame –ed] was diagnosed with a cerebral meningioma which brought his wheels to a grinding halt. It was an understandably scary time – albums bearing Stevenson's name as producer or performer ceased as he underwent surgery to removed the tumor and then took some time to convalesce – but things have begun to come around now, in a variety of different ways. In addition to production work now beginning to pick up steam at Stevenson's Colorado-based studio,The Blasting Room, again, Stevenson and his band mates in Descendents have taken the drummer's recovery as a reason to seize the day and start playing together again. To their surprise, absence truly has made the heart grow fonder in the case of the band's fans, as the group now finds itself flattered to be playing shows before “seas of people.” Such response has been really gratifying to the Stevenson personally and, while the drummer didn't go so far as to say that a new Descendents album isn't a possibility, writing has yet to really pick up as the band has been more content to play some shows, get readjusted to being back on the road, and enjoy that they're able to all do it together.

Bill Adams vs. Bill Stevenson of Descendents

BS: Hello?

BA: Hi, may I speak to Bill Stevenson please?

BS: Yeah, this is Bill.

BA: Hey Bill, it's Bill Adams calling from Ground Control.

BS: How you doing?

BA: I'm doing pretty well, how've you been? It's been a while since I talked to you last.

BS: Yeah! Yeah, I'm great. Can you hang on? Give me one sec?

BA: Sure, man.

BS: 'Kay thanks.

[about two minutes lapse]

BS: Okay I'm ready – how're you doing?

BA: I'm doing pretty well, is now okay for an interview? Do you need a few minutes?

BS: No, now's perfect! I was just turning off the thing I was in the middle of.

BA: Okay cool. So how've you been? The last time we spoke was for Only Crime and that had to have been about three years ago….

BS: [pensive] Well, yeah – I'm trying to think of it but, in a way, I've kind of lost track of time a bit. One really big event that I've had happen in the last couple of years is that I went from being very, very ill – extremely ill – to actually having neurosurgery, to having a recovery that has been nothing short of miraculous; in an eighteen-month period, I went from being forty-five going on seventy to forty-seven going on twenty.

BA: Nice!

BS: Yeah – it's completely crazy! But the neurosurgery was pretty scary; I mean, they sawed my head open and then bolted it back together with titanium plates so some of my acute memories over the last three or four years are still re-building themselves so I'll run into someone that, say, I've known for five or six years and I'll be sitting there going, 'God! Why can't I remember his name?' You know? So that's been kind of interesting but this brain tumor that they removed last June was really killing me slowly – but it wasn't carcinogenic so once they got it out of there, I snapped back but, not only did I snap back, it's like I got twenty years younger! It's so crazy!

BA: That's pretty cool, it's gotta make for some pretty killer drumming performances!

BS: OH MAN! Yeah! We played in Vegas recently, and we just threw down! It was great!

BA: That's cool! So what's going on here? I mean, I know The Descendents have never broken up of course, but you're back playing regular shows with them – or at least they seem to be pretty regular. How did all this come together?

BS: You know, I wish I had a tidy answer, but none of us exactly knows how it came together. I want to say it went something like this: We had been inactive for quite a while – we tend to do something every six or seven years whether we need it or not – so it was about time to do some stuff because we only really do something when it's fun for us, but then I think there were a few converging or culminating factors. One of those factors was that we all kind of got huddled up around each other because I almost died two years ago, and so we were all in closer-than-normal communication and then, when I didn't die, we were all so stoked that the next offer we got for shows [which was in Australia – ed] we just took right it right up. I called Milo to see if he'd be interested and he said, 'Yeah – let's do it! I mean, we might not be around next year, let's do it! Let's play some shows!' The other culminating factor – and this might actually be the biggest one – is that Milo's kids are old enough now that they want to see him rock – so I think he was getting prodded by them to play a little bit. I know those sound like a bunch of weird reasons to play shows, but those are the only ones I can think of.

BA: It doesn't sound weird at all! I mean, my step-daughters are reaching the age now where they think I have the coolest job in the world so, every now and then, I'll get nudged to take an interview so I can take them to the show too. So now, in addition to publicists, I also have my step-daughters asking me if I want to do interviews.

BS: I think it goes the same with me and my kids too where it goes from 'Well, do I want to go out on tour and leave the wife home with diapers? No. But now when we do some shows, they're old enough that they won't be home, they'll be right there on the side of the stage.'

BA: Nice. It has to make for some interesting family vacation possibilities too; I mean The Descendents did Europe earlier this year didn't you?

BS: Kinda. I mean, we had three cities, so I guess that's our version of doing Europe. We've mainly been doing long weekends or one show, two shows, three shows in a stretch and that kind of thing.

BA: Yeah, but I can understand that. I mean, if you've got the time, you might as well use it and, like you said yourself, it became a matter of making hay while the sun shines after your surgery; you don't know if you're going to be here tomorrow, so that's a good reason to do it.

BS: Yeah, we've been having a fun time, and that really important too, of course. The more I think about it, there was one other important co-factor; we had the Australia thing booked but then out of nowhere we got an offer to play in Devo's place because one of the guys in Devo had injured themselves and so, on nine days notice, and so that was the first show we played in however many years because it came out of nowhere, quickly. I don't know how they thought of us for that one; I guess maybe they thought, 'Okay, who's the 'other' most nerdy band we know? Okay, let's get Descendents to do it!' So we practised for that really quickly and figured, 'Well, we're probably going to suck, but we'll do our best,' and we played – and we had so much fun the crowd just gave us so much energy that it was just like, 'Wow! This is so cool! These people really, really appreciate what we're doing!' You could see it in their faces! We had such a good time, and Milo and I just talked the whole day about it. We decided that all we needed to do if we wanted to hang out together again was book shows because we don't live in the same state anymore, but he's been my best friend since we were kids. So it was like, 'Duh! If we want to see each other, let's just book some shows and we'll get to hang out!' So now we get to hang out once a month. It's really fun that way, and I think we surprised ourselves when we filled in for Devo – we were really excited after that, saying, 'Wow! That went really well! We kicked butt, everyone liked it and we had fun, let's do more of that!'

BA: [both chuckling] Well, of course – and when you make it to Toronto, it'll be another kind of reunion. Descendent and Keith Morris' band OFF! are sharing the stage at Dundas Square on the one day.

BS: That'll be fun because Keith is my oldest friend; I've probably known him since I was ten, so it'll be great to play a show with his new band. We were very good friends when we were kids; we used to work at the same fishing tackle store together that his dad owned.

BA: Oh really? I didn't know that.

BS: Yeah – I don't think many people do.

BA: Oh – not only that, but Devo's playing the festival too.

BS: Oh really? Well, I guess we won't win the 'Nerdiest Band At The Show' award then.

BA: I'll vote for you, if only because you're my favorite nerdy band, ever.

BS: Cool. Oh – it was so much fun in Vegas man! We threw down, and ALL played the night before too – the night before – and all three singers that we're had in the band over the years came to sing a couple of songs with us; they each sang their own little set. It was so cool! It was so much fun! You know? I think I'm having more fun playing now than I did when I was a kid.

BA: Really?

BS: Yeah.

BA: That's really cool. Now, what are you playing on this tour? I mean, the last Descendents album and EP came out in 2004, what's happening as far as set lists are concerned?

BS: Well, there's sort of a practical aspect to it whereby we feel like we want to play those songs which people consider to be our best – we want to play the stuff they want to hear if they're paying however much money to see us – but we want to play some of our favorites at the same time, which might not be some of their favorites; like, we've played “The All-o-gistics,” and I don't know if people actually like it because it's not very rockin', but we like playing it because it lists our credo, and we also do stuff like “I'm Not A Loser” and “Suburban Home” and they love those. We try to break it up and play a few songs from each record, because we don't know how else to do it; that just seems like the only fair way to do it.

BA: Absolutely. It sounds very “Allular” to me.

BS: Yeah – it was funny because I was just watching this video. Milo made a big new tablet – you know the sacred tablet that has the commandments on it that I made? He's got a new one, all made out of cardboard and duct tape, and he's reading the All-O-Gistics off it. It's pretty funny….

BA: Nice. Now, obviously, you and Milo are talking about doing more shows and things like that, but has there been any talk of writing and recording some new music?

BS: We haven't gotten that far yet, but it seems like we're having a good enough time that I could see us actually stumbling our way into some recordings.

BA: I mean, you have The Blasting Room, so I assume it's just a matter of squaring away some time and energy?

BS: Yeah, with us it usually starts with some exchange of songs because, with Descendents, it's four songwriters – it's not one or two guys – so nothing really happens until every member comes forward with two or three songs that make the other's go, 'Whoa! Those are rad, let's record those!' Otherwise it's just outside talk like 'The Descendents should make another album…' No, The Descendents shouldn't just make an album, does the world really need a tenth Descendents album? No – The Descendents should only make another album if they've got kick-ass songs!

BA: [laughing] On one hand, I can totally understand what you're saying, but on the other hand I need another Descendents album; I really do – I've been a fan for an incredibly long time and it's been entirely too long.

BS: [laughing] Well, we'll get to it, one way or another.

BA: Other than Toronto, what else is happening? I know Toronto's not a one-off….

BS: There's Montebello, we're doing that the day after Toronto and, after that, we're doing the Leeds and Reading festivals, an LA show in early September, and after that is two shows on the East Coast in New York and Phillie, after that is Riotfest in Chicago in October… I feel like I'm leaving some out, but that might be it for this calendar year.

BA: Wow. On the strength of what you just rifled off, I mean, I know how big NXNE is because I live here, and I know that some of the other festivals you mentioned are really big deals – has there ever been a moment when you stop, look and say, 'Wow, we never played shows like this in the Eighties, this is incredible.'

BS: Oh yeah, we've even written several songs about how tiny of a band we are. The song “Descendents” has a line in it that goes, “The proud, the few Descendents, rockin' alone tonight,” because we really did used to play to nobody, and then it also says, “couldn't sell out a telephone booth.” We also have our song, “Hurtin' Crew,” which is about this show we played in Lincoln, Nebraska, and nobody came! The only people there were the opening band – this cover band – and their girlfriends; those were the only people at the show. So yeah – it is kind of novel to be playing these massive shows. Usually what happens – and it happens the same way every night – we go out onstage, I get behind the drums and Milo goes up front and then he looks back at me and says, 'What?!' and I'm like, 'I know! What?!, right?' because there's just this sea of people! [laughing] Then we start playing.

BA: That's just what I'm saying – you've reached that point where people are recognizing what you're doing and recognizing the value of it. That has to be pretty heartening; I mean, sure – it took a couple of decades, but it's still gotta be pretty cool.

BS: It's VERY heartening! And it's weird and – to totally shift gears for a second and be totally blunt – it's totally gratifying to be being paid decently for something I've practised my fingers to the bone for thirty-five years doing. To be paid well for it, as opposed to making five dollars a day per diem and coming home with no money and, if the transmission in the van blows up, you cancel the tour. So yeah, it feels good to go, 'Okay, I've spent my whole life rehearsing something and practicing something, and there's finally some fruition.'

BA: Now we've been talking a while, and I've been sort of dancing around it, but while the increase in shows happening for The Descendents is cool, how far can it really go? I mean, everyone in the band has other commitments, how hard would it be to make another record?

BS: It would be really easy actually, just thanks to remote work stations. Stefan – who used to be a partner here at The Blasting Room and helped me build the place – is a top-notch engineer so even though he doesn't live in Fort Collins anymore, he could very, very easily work on the record remotely without everybody having to take a month off work.

BA: So it wouldn't be a tremendously arduous endeavor to get everything squared away and finished.

BS: No, not at all.

BA: That's cool. So what else have you got going on this year as a producer?

BS: Well, June 23 rd was when they took the brain tumor out so, after my head heeled up and they took the staples out, I strolled back in here with Rise Against following right behind me to make Endgame. I sort of warned them that, because of everything I was going to have to re-learn how to use ProTools because I didn't remember how to use it anymore. They were so supportive and right there with me the whole time, it was really great; it was really great to get to start my new life with them. I started demoing that in August, and we started recording in October or November, and we were really fortunate when it was released and debuted as the number one rock record in the world. That gave me a lot of confidence because I was very insecure about what I could and couldn't do, having been so debilitated. These shows have been really helpful too; physically, mentally and creatively, I feel like I'm firing on all cylinders. Because of that, I just went boom-boom-boom-boom; I knocked out Rise Against, Useless ID from Israel, The Swellers from Michigan and then Joey Cape's new band, Bad Loud and, somewhere in there, I snuck in recording Karl's band. So I sort of blew out my docket early in the year and, for the rest of the year, I'm hoping to maybe take it a little bit easier, and maybe spend some time with my family, and to finish some of the many songs that I started but couldn't complete because I had the brain tumor and so didn't have the capacity to get things finished – but now I do. Forthcoming on the docket, we've got Frenzel Rhomb coming, we've got the Flobots coming, we've got Hot Water Music coming and we've got Rise Against coming back just for one song, so that should fill the year up until the holidays, but I don't want to wall to wall to wall, band after band like I did starting in August, because that was kind of brutal.

BA: Yeah, I believe it. I remember the last time I spoke to you a couple fo years ago, you were saying that you have a nasty habit of, not so much over-booking yourself but, stacking the bands that were inbound and basically multi-tasking yourself into oblivion.

BS: Yeah, that would have been around '07 right? Yeah, part of that had to do with financial demands, but part of it was also the meningioma, which was making me move slower than I am now. I was booking myself harder because of financial demands, but I was moving slower; I wasn't able to work as quickly. I'm so glad it worked out so well though; it could have worked out horribly for me; I could have died, but now I'm working at the speed I'm comfortable. Milo keeps saying to me, 'Bill! Calm down man, we don't all have a new lease on life like you do! Some of us are still just middle aged fuckers! [laughing] It's just crazy that I not only bounced back, but seriously feel like a teenager again; it's a miracle.

BA: Well, it makes my heart warm to say that I envy you man, and I'm really glad it worked out. In addition to your work which I really like, we've danced this dance a few times and I always enjoy talking to you. Oh – before I forget, whatever became of Only Crime?

BS: Oh – they pulled in this evening for the final round of demoing and then we're going to record an album in July. I think Only Crime was the band that took the biggest badgering from my illness, because I became sort of useless and would send someone out with them filling in on drums. Oh jeez, we've been talking a while, I feel like I drink too much coffee before these things and then I just run like a scatterbrain and the sentences don't make any sense, but I suppose I leave that to your editorial prowess.

BA: [laughing] No worries Bill. The pleasure it always mine and I always appreciate the conversation. I assume that, in saying that, you have to go?

BS: Yeah, I sort of do.

BA: Okay man, I appreciate you taking the time.

BS: Thanks Bill! And thanks for the support!

BA: Don't mention it. Hopefully we can do it again for the new Only Crime record when it comes out.

BS: Or the new Descendents record.

BA: I'll hold you to that.

BS: [laughing] Well, have a good day man.

BA: You too, Bill.

BS: Bye.

BA: Talk to you soon.

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