The past decade has been rough on Bill Stevenson. Descendents’ hulking drummer and frequent songwriter almost died from a series of health problems and also faced upheaval in his personal life. As he discusses the band’s first album in 12 years, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, which finds him working through some of his darkest feelings from this period, Stevenson fights back tears. “I’d hope to think of this as the documentation of the end of a pretty bad era for me,” he says. “Very rough on my family and my wife, my children, my health … I think we’re doing OK now, so maybe it’s the end.”
Sitting around a conference table at Rolling Stone‘s offices with Milo Aukerman, Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez – his bandmates for three decades – Stevenson addressed “Without Love” and “Spineless and Scarlet Red,” two songs he penned for the upcoming album that chronicle marital strife with painful rawness. These tracks, the latest in a long line of hook-y, heartrending Stevenson efforts dating back to Descendents’ early-Eighties formative years, fly directly in the face of the band’s reputation as the most playful group to emerge from the first-wave SoCal hardcore scene. The band reckoned with the aging process on its prior two albums, 1996’s Everything Sucks and 2004’s Cool to Be You. But Hypercaffium Spazzinate – out July 29th and titled after Aukerman’s dream of a “better, more potent version of caffeine,” a nod to Descendents’ well-documented coffee obsession – finds a group that once pledged “Thou shalt not commit adulthood” delving ever deeper into the trials, and rewards, of middle age.
For many, the image most closely associated with Descendents is a goofy adolescent doodle: two high-school classmates’ stick-figure-like sketch of frontman Aukerman that has adorned the majority of the group’s album covers, including Hypercaffium. The sentiment behind the band’s 1985 album title I Don’t Want to Grow Up has always been an integral part of their aesthetic. Co-founded in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1977 by Frank Navetta, Descendents shuffled members for a few years before settling on the early core lineup of Navetta, Stevenson, Aukerman and bassist Tony Lombardo. This quartet would produce timeless songs both silly (the 10-second “Weinerschnitzel,” essentially a fast-food order set to disjointed staccato rhythms) and sublime (“Hope,” punk’s quintessential unrequited-love anthem and a highlight of the band’s masterful 1982 debut LP, Milo Goes to College), in the process mapping the blueprint for Nineties pop-punk megabands like Green Day and Blink-182.
The band’s current lineup of Aukerman, Stevenson, guitarist Egerton and bassist Alvarez cohered in late 1986, following the drummer’s two-year stint playing with SST labelmates Black Flag. By this stage, documented on 1987’s All LP, no genre tag, hyphenated or otherwise, could comfortably contain Descendents’ musical vision. Here was a band as adept at instrumental proto-math-rock as it was heart-on-sleeve indie-pop in the vein of contemporaries and onetime SST-ers Hüsker Dü.