Bill Stevenson (ALL / Black Flag / Descendents / FLAG / Only Crime)

  • Marcus Solomon posted
  • Interviews
Bill Stevenson

ALL / Black Flag / Descendents / Flag / Only Crime - Bill Stevenson

  • 19th November 2022
  • Descendents Tour Bus, Pomona, CA
  • Marcus Solomon
  • Epitaph Records

Bill Stevenson was interviewed by Marcus Solomon with assistance from Cathy Dye on November 19th 2022 in Pomona, CA, on the Descendents‘ tour bus before the band’s show at The Glass House. Bill Stevenson is a rock ‘n’ roll legend and a punk rock icon. As the percussive power in ALL, Black Flag, Descendents, FLAG, Only Crime, and (believe it or not) a brief stint in The Lemonheads, Bill’s astonishing adeptness behind the drum kit is paralleled only by his relentless work ethic and personal drive. Since 1977 with the creation of the Descendents, Bill has been perpetually creating music, touring, promoting, producing, and engineering albums with only a few medically-mandated interruptions in his never-ending quest to play hard, play fast, and he did sacrifice. More than that, he is a husband, a father, a gifted songwriter and a walking miracle to have cheated death a few times. He survived life-threatening blood clots, invasive brain surgery to remove a large tumor and triple bypass heart surgery. His spirit is still too strong to succumb to mortality. 

Descendents

I have never been intimidated by any well-known personality, not even when I met Lemmy, but I was feeling fanboy nervous on this day. Bill Stevenson is my John Bonham. He is my Neil Pert. Bill’s music has been at the center of the soundtrack to my life since the early 1980s, so I was extremely anxious on the day of the interview. To make it even worse, I was 20 minutes late due to standstill traffic on the freeway that forced me to speed to the venue on surface streets. When I finally arrived, Bill was standing outside the tour bus and with a frown he tersely asked: “Are you ready?”  The entire time, I thought he was upset with me for being late. When I asked a question, he usually frowned at me for a while before answering. As I transcribed the interview, I came to realize that he was not angry with me, but he was thinking intently before answering. Due to my silent anxiety, I neglected to conduct a few follow-up questions and completely forgot to ask ones I had written down. Even so, the interview turned out well, but I still feel like I could have done a better job.

Bill Stevenson

Marcus: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, I know you are a very busy man, and I am sorry I was a bit late.

Bill: “That’s okay.”

Marcus: Before I begin, I would like to make a statement. I want to thank you for continuing to do this. Your music means a lot to me, and I can relate to a lot of your lyrics. It has been a big part of my life for decades, and I hope you keep doing it for a very long time, and thank you for surviving.

Bill: “Well, I’m doing okay. So far, so good.”

Marcus: Did you have to learn to play the drums again after having invasive brain surgery?

Bill: “No. I recovered very quickly and very completely. I did not suffer very much casualty from having had a brain tumor. I was back to my normal self in just a few days. It was kind of…remarkable that way.”

Marcus: You are a walking miracle. You have dodged several bullets, just like my mom.

Bill: [Nods.]

Marcus: At this point in your career, does punk rock pay the bills?

Bill: “Yeah, between playing in the band, and doing the audio engineering, and producing at my studio The Blasting Room, I seem to have been able to put together a half-assed career.” [Laughs.]

Marcus: You opened your recording studio in Ft. Collins, Colorado of all places. Why did you choose that location?

Bill: “We left L.A. because it was getting to be too expensive and crowded, that and all the traffic, and [it is] so smoggy, and everything. We kind of thought it might be fun to be in a smaller town. Ft. Collins was somewhere that we had a lot of fun going through there on tour, and we knew some people who lived there. It seemed like a nice fit. It’s proven to be a pretty good move. Yeah, I like it there.”

Marcus: It seems like it would be more of a quiet place, and I am sure the air is cleaner. Do you go sledding with your children?

Bill: “I used to when they were little, but I haven’t done that in quite a while.” [Bill’s children are young adults now.]

Bill Stevenson

Marcus: How did you get the money to create your own recording studio? I guess you got signed to a major label for a while?

Bill: “Yeah, in 1994 I was in the band ALL, and got a record deal with Interscope. It was enough money that we decided to build our own studio rather than continue to pay to rent studio time to do our records.”

Marcus: We? Who else was involved?

Bill: “The band! The whole band.”

Marcus: That proved to be a wise decision. Now, I had not seen the Descendents documentary until recently, so tell me about your wife and kids today.

Bill: “My wife and I have been married for 22 years now. Let’s see, Maddie is 25 now and Miles is 21. Yeah, they are adults now.”

Marcus: When your children were little, did you ever have to explain the lyrics to some of the songs you performed and if so, was that somewhat awkward?

Bill: “Well, when they were little, they weren’t into this kind of music at all, so it wasn’t a problem. No, I never really explained any of the lyrics to them…except…I explained the lyrics a little bit about the [Descendents] song “Maddie” to Maddie, but I did that just three or four years ago.”

Marcus: [When I later asked why he felt the need to explain the lyrics of that song to his daughter, Bill said he did not want to discuss it. If you take the time to listen to the song “Maddie,” and read the lyrics, it becomes clear why Bill preferred not to talk about it.]

Marcus: I read something interesting that I did not know, and ALL played The Democratic National Convention in the year 2008. How did that come about?

Bill: “Oh, is that the show we did in Denver?”

Marcus: Yeah, and they cut you short for some reason.

Bill: “I remember that being a fiasco, and this guy offered us a huge sum of money, and we never got paid a dime. I don’t remember that being The Democratic National Convention, but it was in Denver…I don’t know [Laughs].”

Bill Stevenson

Marcus: ALL got kind of popular for a while…you were on The Conan O’Brien Show!

Bill: “We were on Conan O’Brien in 1995.”

Marcus: Could you tell us about some of your other current projects?

Bill: “Well, I do a lot of engineering and producing at my studio, The Blasting Room. I just finished a band called Frenzal Rhomb, they’ve been to our studios three times. We also have ongoing relationships with bands like Rise Against, Good Riddance, Propagandhi, Wilhelm Scream, and many other bands. Musically, me as a musician, I have my other band Only Crime [with Russ Rankin of Good Riddance and Aaron Dalbec of Bane.] We haven’t done anything for a few years, but I really do enjoy that band. That music is a little bit harder, and also maybe a little bit more technical. It is more technical than the Descendents. I did that one tour [in the past] with The Lemonheads. I produced a Lemonheads record and I did only one tour drumming for The Lemonheads, but I’m not really part of that band. I just did it that one time for the record I produced.”

Marcus: You produced an album for them and they asked you if you would like to play in the band?

Bill: “Yeah, but it was just Evan [Dando] and you know, Karl [Alvarez: All & Descendents] came with me, so it was me, Evan, and Karl.”

Marcus: That was quite a surprise for that to happen.

Bill: “It was. I think it could have been a good thing, but Evan was…kind of…drug addled. The tour certainly wasn’t as good as I hoped it would have been. He seemed to be pretty preoccupied with just doing drugs.”

Marcus: It is sad when people ruin their careers due to drugs.

Bill: “I don’t know that he ruined anything. I love him and he is a good friend of mine, but…”

Marcus: I meant in general, when anyone lets drugs get in the way of doing anything. Let’s change the subject. You were in Black Flag for a while, and I brought my “My War” album cover for you to sign…so, how did that happen? Apparently Robo couldn’t be there for some reason?

Bill: “Well, Black Flag and the Descendents, we all grew up in the same small town, Hermosa Beach. We would always be sharing practice rooms and so, when Robo would get deported back to Colombia, I would sometimes fill in and do shows. That happened enough times…they were without a drummer enough times. They got Emil [Johnson] to play for a while, they got Chuck Biscuits to play for a while, then each of those people quit. At a certain point, I just joined the band. They just seemed to needed me to join the band [laughs]. Yeah [smiling].”

Bill Stevenson

Marcus: I had always wondered how you became a member of Black Flag. On a different topic, have you ever looked at your own Wikipedia page?

Bill: “Oh, funny…I actually have not. I was told you can’t write your own Wikipedia page, and someone else has to write it for you. If I went on there and there were all kinds of errors, I wouldn’t be able to correct them. I would have to get someone else to correct it. Is that how it works?”

Marcus: Yes. If you ever need me to do that, let me know.

Bill: “Oh, let me see…who is the smartest person I know? I would get Johnathan to do it.”

Marcus: My claim to Wikipedia fame is that I was used as a reference for a Dr. Strange Records article page on Wikipedia. Now, another subject change: Are you surprised Descendents has become such a big thing? You must be proud of what you have accomplished.

Bill: “[Thinks silently for a few moments] I’m a little surprised. I was surprised the first time we sold out The Whisky [Hollywood, CA]. Something like that…or the first time we played in front of fifty people, but now, I just feel like we’ve been practicing long enough, and gotten good enough, and just worked very hard at it. At the level we’re at [now], it makes sense to be at this level for how hard we’ve worked.”

Marcus: I remember going to Descendents shows in the early ’80s, and sometimes there would be about fifty people there. Then, all this time has gone by, and I go online and I see the videos of you playing at these festivals in Europe and there are ten thousand people there or more. I was stunned and I thought: “Wow! Good for them!”

Bill: “Yeah, but those are festivals. Those people aren’t all there just to see us. They’re just at the festival to be at the festival.”

Marcus: But still, to hear people in other countries, what was it…Slovakia? To hear so many people in a foreign land shout your lyrics back at you…that must be great.

Bill: “You must mean Slovenia. That’s a really special festival. I’d say that is currently my favorite festival.”

Marcus: I could hear so many people singing [Descendents songs].

Bill: “[Stretches and yawns] Yeah.”

Marcus: You are tired.

Bill: “Well, this is my nap time. I always take a nap after sound check. I’ve been doing that since I was eighteen years old.”

Bill Stevenson

Marcus: Well, then…I will try to be brief.

Bill: “Whatever. I came here to do this thing, so let’s do it!”

Marcus: I feel bad for being late, and I was speeding the whole time coming over here…uh…oh! I read somewhere that you had to have Milo make a document with every lyric in all Descendents’ songs and you had to submit it to the government before the band could play in China [in 2019]?

Bill: “Our booking agent submitted the document. We just had to type out the lyrics, well, gather up the lyrics, because they were all typed somewhere already.”

Marcus: They [Chinese government officials] probably didn’t read them anyway.

Bill: “Yeah, they probably didn’t.”

Marcus: Did you meet any long-time Descendents fans while in China?

Bill: “The interesting thing about playing the China tour is that we were playing to probably 50% ex pats  [expatriates.] People who had moved over there, or people who were just visiting there, maybe going to school there or I don’t know what. It was interesting.”

Marcus: Did you get to explore China?

Bill: “A little bit. Touring in a band isn’t really the best way to see a country. What do you know? You know the vehicle you are travelling in, the hotel you are staying at, the venue you are playing in, and just getting to and from those places. Unless you have a lot of days off to go exploring…you may have toured a country, but you haven’t gotten to know it very well.”

Marcus: I did not know that. I thought travelling musicians really got to see the world. Another thing I have often wondered about is how a performer finds motivation in difficult times. How do you motivate yourself to perform when you’re having a bad day or when you don’t feel well?

Bill: “I drink an excessive amount of coffee, like ten espressos before we play, then I do my stretches. I enjoy playing, really, very much. I mean, the energy when we play, the feeling we get when we play a show, the interaction with the audience…that’s a really special thing. Not too many people get to experience that. I don’t take that for granted. I don’t go like, “Oh shit. I have to go play a show.” I have never felt that way. Maybe if I was really, really sleep deprived, I might sort of feel that way, but usually, I just drink a ton of coffee, do my stretches, and I am ready to go.”

Marcus: When you are playing, you are clearly having a joyful time, and are in your element.

Bill: “I try to be. I never take any of this for granted. I could have just as easily ended up working in a FedEx store, a gas station, a grocery store, or whatever. [Laughs]”

Marcus: Well, a lot of us are glad you became Bill Stevenson, the awesome drummer. Could you tell me a funny story from the road?

Bill: “One time, the school bus we used to tour in [for the band ALL] blew up. [Smiling broadly] We arrived at our show in Sacramento, in the school bus, up on top of a flatbed tow truck. [Laughs] A flatbed tow truck! We pulled up to the venue with the school bus and trailer on the flatbed tow truck, and we loaded the gear off, people were watching, and then we played the show. That was pretty funny. We were late because of the breakdown, and all of the fans were standing there in the parking lot and they were just watching us unload all this gear! [Laughs]”

Marcus: Monkey from The Adicts told me that one time, they all got drunk on a train in Europe and got thrown off, and some Mafia-type, organized crime guy who was a big Adicts fan put them up in his house.

Bill: “Oh wow! [Laughs]”

Marcus: I want to tell you something, the song you wrote, “One More Day,” it moved me to tears because I am going through a very similar thing with my dad. It helped me to know that someone understood what it is like, so thank you. [The song is about Bill’s father, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. Go listen to this song and you will understand, and also watch the Descendents documentary for that, and everything else about Descendents. It is on Netflix and I found it for free on Tubi.]

Bill: “It’s easier to look back on it now and see that…you know…it wasn’t really my father’s fault. It was dementia, and he was confused. The things he said to me and all that…he was just confused, a sick person suffering from dementia. When I look back on it, I realize that is just a part of life.”

Blasting Room

Marcus: Well, I can relate to it a lot and the song helped me a lot, so thanks again. I don’t want to take up too much of your time because I know you are a busy man, but I wanted you to know you are a beast behind the drums, your music was the soundtrack to my life in my early 20s and still is today. I have not seen you perform for about 25 to 30 years, so I am really looking forward to the show tonight.

Bill: “Oh geez. [Laughs]. I’ve gotten a lot older since that time. I’ll do my best.”

Marcus: I was born in October of 1963, so you are only a month older than me.

Bill: “I’ll do my best not to let you down. I’ll do my best. I won’t let you down.”

Marcus: [Here comes my embarrassing faux pas:] I am sure you will.

Bill: “What? I won’t let you down. I will do my best.”

Marcus: Oh man, I meant that I know will do your best. I know you won’t let me down.

Bill: “Oh, good. [Laughs] That’s what I meant.”

Marcus: Okay, we can end this here, but could you sign my album covers for me?

Bill: “Okay.”

Bill Stevenson

Marcus: [I thought the tape recorder was off, but it was still recording.] I thought I had a Sharpie with me. [Looks in shoulder bag]. I have a hot dog sandwich.

Cathy: “[Laughs] You are so random!”

Marcus: Look at this [The Milo Goes to College album cover]. It has no bar code on it. That is how you can tell it is original.

Bill: “[Turns over the record cover and runs his hand over it.] Oh right. That’s how you can tell how old they are. No bar code on it. Yeah, interesting.”

Cathy: Will you sign my shirt for me? [Cathy has a white shirt signed by dozens of punk rock personalities.] I’ve got The Adicts, I’ve got the Weirdos…

Bill: “Yeah. [Signs shirt.]”

Cathy: [Motioning to the sleeping bunks on the Descendents’ tour bus:] Do you ever sleep in those when the bus is driving?

Bill: “Always. Often.”

Cathy: Does anyone ever fall out?

Bill: “I have a bottom bunk, so if I fall out, I won’t get hurt [laughs]. Where is this interview doing to be again?”

Marcus: It will be on The Punk Site dot com.

Bill: “Oh, okay. Hey, I hope your situation with your dad improves.”

Marcus: He is in a locked facility now. I had to get a restraining order because he became dangerous, but I think I will drop it and go see him.

Bill: “That might be good.”

The latest Descendents album, 9th & Walnut is currently available from Epitaph Records along with other cool Descendents merch and information. While you are there, take the time to explore the rest of the Epitaph Records website for more quality punk rock product than you can shake a debit card at. More Descendents merchandise can be found here. Enjoy! 

Live photography courtesy of Jeff Terranova who can be found on Instagram and Flickr

You can read The Punk Site’s review of that night’s show at Pomona’s Glass House here