In Conversation: Descendents’ Milo Aukerman Waxes Nostalgic on “9th & Walnut”
Aukerman tells us how the West Coast punks’ eighth studio album—which was nearly 20 years in the making—finally came together.
For over 40 years, the Descendents have been one of the most celebrated acts in punk as they’ve combined melody, technical prowess, and lyrical introspection into a unique amalgam all their own. While the band experienced something of a renaissance in the ’90s with Everything Sucks, and more recently with their 2016 album Hypercaffium Spazzinate, many fans would switch to decaf to see the band’s original lineup of drummer Bill Stevenson, guitarist/vocalist Frank Navetta, and bassist/vocalist Tony Lombardo.
Sadly Navetta passed away in 2008. However six years prior, the original core of the band met up at Stevenson’s Blasting Room studio in Fort Collins, Colorado, to record some of the band’s earliest songs, over which the band’s longtime vocalist Milo Aukerman finally tracked his vocals during the pandemic. The result, 9th & Walnut, is a collection of tracks that bridge the gap between the band’s earliest recordings and their 1982 debut Milo Goes to College—and it shows that even in middle-age, the ferocity of these songs hasn’t waned.
We caught up with Aukerman to talk about his first time singing with the band, the way Black Flag (which Stevenson also played drums for) supported him early on, and how the band’s early members contributed to the unique Descendents sound, which is still going strong. So strong that Aukerman assures us that new music is currently in the works.
The songs on 9th & Walnut were written in the late-’70s, recorded in 2002, and are being released now. Could you talk a little bit about the timeline and how it all came together?
All the songs themselves were written in 1978 and 1979, before I even joined the band. When I first joined about half of these songs were still being played by the band, but they never made it onto Milo Goes to College or [1981’s] Fat EP or anything, they kind of got phased out of the set. Now fast forward to 2002 and Bill’s got Tony and Frank out in Fort Collins and they’re doing this thing called Stockage, which was a live performance where it was the original lineup of Bill, Frank, and Tony. Since they were out there, Bill said, “Let’s record all these lost songs from that period of 1978 and 1979.”
“When I heard the versions that Bill had put down in 2002, I was just blown away. I was like, ‘Why did you guys ever stop playing these?’ They sounded like a whole side of the Descendents that I never even knew existed.”
He recorded with Frank and Tony, and then he told me about it that year. At the time I was a scientist and I thought, “OK, well maybe at some point I could record these.” I kept going with my science career, but in 2011 I started playing with the band quite a bit more, and then in 2016 kind of said sayonara to science. Then during COVID, I thought, “Well, this is a good time to just spend a lot of time in the recording studio.” We’ve been recording lots of new songs, but I thought the time was right for me to start tackling these songs on 9th & Walnut. So it’s an odd kind of fits and spurts—songs written in the ’70s then recorded in the 2000s and now I’m finishing the recording in 2020, basically.
What was it like singing these songs? I imagine a lot of them you probably hadn’t listened to in a really long time, but they probably sounded strangely familiar from playing them with a band or hearing them early on.
Yeah. For the ones that I had played back then, this was a great trip down memory lane. I felt very comfortable doing those now because when I first joined the band that was almost a virgin foray into being a musician. The ones that I hadn’t done were, to me, even more fun because those were songs that I didn’t know existed, and when I heard the version that Bill had put down in 2002, I was just blown away. I was like, “Why did you guys ever stop playing these?” They sounded like a whole side of the Descendents that I never even knew existed.
What was it like for you to sing “Ride the Wild” and “It’s a Hectic World” for these sessions?
Well, those were songs I had sung back in the day, but they do have a special place in my heart because the first time I ever went to go see the band practice, I saw their set lists and when it came time for them to play “It’s a Hectic World,” I noticed that neither Frank nor Tony were singing, even though there was a mic set up. I said, “Hey, I can sing that?” [Laughs.] I wasn’t even in the band, just this guy who showed up at practice. So that was the first Descendents song I ever sang; I didn’t really know how to sing or anything, but I just had fun doing it. I think I must have jump-started something in their heads like, “Maybe this guy should be the singer,” and the rest is how it went. So that song has a real special place for me for that reason, and “Ride the Wild” I just love as a song.
“I don’t like to look back with rose-colored glasses necessarily, but I do feel like it changed my life in terms of giving me an avenue to express my teen angst or whatever.”
I see you’re wearing a Germs shirt, and obviously the Descendents were on SST in that early era. How do you look back at that period of punk now? It’s been so built up over the years.
In the moment maybe I was immersed in it, but looking back I do have to think there was something pretty special going on there because we were just a bunch of bands in the South Bay that kind of banded together and had each other’s back. Black Flag would always have us open up at their shows and they were very supportive of us recording music. It was a special time, and I don’t like to look back with rose-colored glasses necessarily, but I do feel like it changed my life in terms of giving me an avenue to express my teen angst or whatever.
I would always go out to Hollywood and catch all these bands, and I was caught up in the moment of all this great music that was going on. But I didn’t know until I met Bill and the guys in Black Flag that I could actually participate. That was pretty cool, to just kind of realize, “Oh, anyone can do this is. You just gotta find your crew and go out there and do it. No one’s going to stop you.”
How do you look back at this “classic lineup” of the Descendents? Was it nice to be able to revisit that time and those people with these songs?
Yeah. Tony, of course, brings this bass-forward approach to punk rock, which I think was unusual at that time, and that was just so cool. He’s quite a bit older than us, but he just came in with such great bass chops and always wanted to do those runs. So hearing that on 9th & Walnut really brought me back to that. I think with Frank what really brought me back to those early days was two things: One is his songwriting is so aggressive, in many cases toward the world—he was the original misanthrope. But the other thing that came through is there were a few songs, like “To Remember,” where it’s kind of a love song. That’s another side of Frank that people maybe don’t get to see so much, but it does remind me of hanging out with him back in those days and seeing that he had a softer side. Hearing Frank and Tony’s playing on this record just brought me back to those first few months when I was in the band and just how great it was.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of songs for a new Descendents record—a new new Descendents, not the old new—and we can probably get that out next year.”
You mentioned working on new material. How’s that coming along?
Pre-COVID we’d started to record new stuff, and then during COVID had still been recording new stuff. Then I basically took a break to do 9th & Walnut. That’s partly because we all have so much free time that I had kind of rewritten all the songs I wanted to write. I’m not this endless churner-outer of songs; I wrote my songs and those are going to be the new songs. [Descendents guitarist] Stephen [Egerton] has written a ton of new songs, too; between Stephen and I, we’ve probably written 30 songs. What we’re doing right now is waiting for Bill and Karl to make their contributions to a new record.
So we’ve got a whole bunch of songs for a new Descendents record—a new new Descendents, not the old new—and we can probably get that out next year, because nothing ever comes out as quickly as we think it’s going to come out. I think the nice thing about 9th & Walnut is it was a great way for me to fill my days during COVID, but also people want to hear something new and we’re not known for keeping our promises about when records are coming out…or we don’t make promises about when records come out. FL