Indie

Descendents’ Impressive ‘9th & Walnut’ Is The Oldest New Album You’ll Listen To This Year

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In a moment of disarming nonchalance, venerable punk drummer Bill Stevenson wants to make sure that he won’t be on camera for our Zoom interview. Otherwise, he would have to do what he calls a nya – a method of grooming wherein you yell the word “nya” while pulling out a nose hair to prevent yourself from crying. Milo Aukerman, vocalist and cartoon mascot for legendary punk band The Descendents, laughs and nods along. We’re here to talk about the band’s new album 9th & Walnut. Well, actually, the album isn’t really new. It’s technically new but it’s also older than any Descendents release ever. Does that make sense?

Named after the band’s first-ever practice space, the tracks on 9th & Walnut were penned nearly 40 years ago, but “by the time we kind of got competent as players, and by the time we figured out who we were and what we wanted to sound like, we were sort of sick of all those songs and we had written new ones,” remembers Stevenson, who joined the band alongside principal songwriters Frank Navetta and Tony Lombardo in the late 1970s. Thus, the tracks were shelved for nearly 25 years, only to be unearthed when the band’s original members came together in 2002 to jam out their first-ever songs and finally put them to tape.

After those sessions, the tapes remained on a shelf for another twenty years while Descendents went their separate ways, during which time Navetta passed away in 2008 after slipping into a diabetic coma. The tragic loss kept the songs shelved for even longer, until Stevenson had a lightbulb moment during the pandemic. The band was already working on new music, and Stevenson decided to revisit the songs as a way to honor his friend and showcase the earliest days of the band. “We were sitting on it, and then it’s like, ‘Wait, why haven’t we released this?'”

Aukerman was the last piece of the puzzle to guide the songs to completion, and he was already primed and ready to go. “I had written a bunch of new songs and recorded those and I wanted to just keep recording,” he explains. “I was like, ‘Obviously we’re not playing shows. Let’s keep the ball rolling. Let’s record more.'” So Stevenson sent the tracks over with guide vocals for Aukerman to record over for the first time, 40 years after they originally pieced them together.

“It sounds cheesy,” Stevenson admits. “I’m always suspicious when movies have a prequel. I feel like they made it up. I feel like it wasn’t really supposed to be that way. I hope people don’t think that about us, like Star Wars one through three.”

But as with most things Descendents, 9th & Walnut brings with it a sense of unabashed earnestness that enables this exercise in preservation to fit in perfectly with the rest of the band’s lengthy catalogue. It’s a feat that most other bands would struggle to accomplish, let alone a band that’s been playing together nearly 40 years. Descendents have been underdogs from the beginning, and they’ve always beaten the odds. 9th & Walnut is no exception.

My conversation with Aukerman and Stevenson has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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So much time has obviously passed since the songs were written. What would you say were your main influences at the time that these songs were coming together in the first place?

Milo Aukerman: Well, these were all written by Frank and Tony, and so it was kind of a culmination of their influences. Frank was a huge fan of this band called The Last, and that’s a band that we all kind of worshiped back in that day. They were right from our neighborhood, in Hermosa Beach. So if you listen to The Last and then listen to some of Frank’s early stuff, you can definitely see there’s a throughway there. Tony was just a big fan of new wave and just early punk. And I think a lot of his early stuff has almost, to me, it has even a Devo sound because it’s very kind of, you know, bobby and herky jerky kind of stuff.

Bill Stevenson: Linear and angular.

M.A.: Yeah, yeah. That kind of stuff. So, yeah, I think the combination of the two of their writing styles really worked well, because you could get these different flavors together in one. And that’s why, when I joined, it hit the sweet spot for me, because I just felt like each of the things they brought to the table was such an important kind of musical element to me. So I just really dug it all.

So Bill, how involved were you in the writing of these songs? Did you come in afterward or were you part of those writing session?

B.S.: No, these were before I… before I knew how to really play a guitar. I mean, not long after it, I wrote “Myage” and “Bikeage.” Once I dug that bass out of the trashcan, from my neighbor’s trashcan, I wrote “Myage” and “Bikeage.” But no, I hadn’t written any songs.

So since these songs are from such a different era of the band, with you guys releasing them now, do you feel like this is kind of a separate standalone grouping of songs than what started with Milo Goes To College? Or do you feel like it’s a natural progression?

M.A.: It actually takes what used to be the standalone part of “Ride The Wild”/”Hectic World,” which really was standalone, and that’s no longer standalone because now you’ve got these songs to bridge.

B.S: I think the way I look at it is, if you go from “Ride The Wild” to 9th & Walnut to Milo Goes To College, in that order, it sounds like a very logical progression. But the anomaly was the Fat EP, because we were just on so much coffee on Bonus Cups, and Frank was taking all that speed, and now the songs are just ridiculous, you know? That’s what it was. So I think the Fat EP is the odd man out.

M.A.: Well, the other way to think about it is, on the one extreme, you’ve got “Ride The Wild,” and on the other extreme, you’ve got the Fat EP. We were testing the sideboards.

B.S.: We’ve never been gnarlier than Fat EP. That’s the gnarliest we’ve ever been. So you’re right. It was like we tested the sideboards and then we figured out what we sounded like. That’s a good one, Milo. I never thought of that.

So the last few Descendents releases have kind of dealt with a lot more adult themes. And now you’re releasing this music that’s the group’s absolute youngest form of songwriting.

B.S.: Completely juvenile.

How does it feel to be singing those songs now that you’re adults, going back so far?

M.A.: What it allows me to do is get back into that state of mind that I was in when I first joined the band. I would hear some of Frank songs and just be like, “Yeah, this guy, he’s really punk.” I was getting into punk rock, but I think when I heard Frank’s stuff, it kind of, for me, crystallized a particular punk attitude. Misanthropic, I guess, is the way you’d put it. When I re-look at that stuff now, I kind of realize how we were as people back then. We were all kind of loners at our school and we were all, I would say, fairly bitter about how our lives were going. Maybe even just from a social standpoint. We were all just kind of outcasts. And I think that’s the way I view it. When I sing those songs, it brings me back to a particular period where we were all just struggling to try to fit in, but also at the same time, didn’t care about fitting in either. It’s just kind of a weird period. We were all very young and trying to figure all this out. And that’s what I get out of his songs, for sure.

B.S.: Misdirected hormones combined with a pretty big chip on each of our shoulders.

What would you say now to the kids who wrote these songs?

B.S.: You kick ass.

M.A.: I’d say to Frank, “Man, you were ahead of your time.” Also, I mean, if you look at the songs, some of them are just really vitriolic, but then some of his songs are very kind of romantic as well. I think he captured both of those sides, and those are both sides that I was feeling at the same time. I’m struggling with being someone who could fit in, but also someone who is starting to recognize girls or just kind of think that girls existed at that point.

It’s an interesting line to toe, between wanting to be a punk rocker and set yourself apart from the group, but also, you’re still in high school and want to have friends.

M.A.: Yeah. If you’re that person in high school who just can’t find his crew, and is maybe on your own, a loner, you have a couple different choices. But I think one of the choices is just to kind of rail against the people who are kind of precluding your involvement.

I often feel like I missed out on the height of the best eras of punk music, whether it be New York City in the seventies, or Seattle in the early nineties, or whatever it was. Did I actually miss out on all of this stuff or is it just another instance of, “The grass is always greener on the other side?”

B.S.: I feel like you’ve missed out on one wave of it, but there have been thousands of great bands since then. But it was pretty bitchin’ to be 15 and be able to go out, and, in one show, see Fear, The Screamers, X, and The Weirdos, like all at one show. And then go another night and see The Go-Go’s, The Flesh Eaters, and The Cramps, or just whatever, for five bucks or however much it was in these little clubs. It was pretty, pretty cool to be there for that, but then there have been a million bands since then that have taken that and kind of produced something that was more than what they inherited.

What are some bands that are going right now at the height of their power that you think invoke that similar type of sensibility?

B.S.: Milo.

M.A.: What?

B.S.: You’re supposed to help.

M.A.: Oh.

B.S.: You fall asleep, Milo? No, I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.

M.A.: I mean, I’ve really liked this band, The Pears. I guess they’re just called Pears. I feel like they maybe kind of mined a lot of the same area we did, in terms of, we want to play really fast and aggressive, but we want to have melodies and stuff in there. So that’s how I’d describe them. I feel like they’re doing something similar.

B.S.: Yeah. Or Wilhelm Scream. Audio Karate, Propagandhi. I’m saying, even after that first wave, just to go back not quite that far, I mean, the third wave was Nomeansno and Fugazi and stuff. There have been tons of cool bands, man, all along the way.

M.A.: The thing, too, is that you go into Spotify and you’re inundated by just way too much choice. Picking the needle out of the haystack has got to be difficult. You could spend days listening to a genre and try to figure out for yourself which ones you like and which ones you don’t, but that’s maybe one of the problems. But it’s also one of the great things at the same time. There’s so much music out there, but because there’s so much music out there, you got to listen to a lot of it to find what you really like too.

Is this album an exercise in nostalgia, or rather an exercise in preservation of history? I think those are two distinct things.

B.S.: It’s maybe more completing a task that had been long left uncompleted. It was kind of like, “Wait, why didn’t we record all those?” They’re good songs. Just because we got sick of them, that doesn’t mean that they should just go forever without anyone… Oh, so maybe the latter one you said. Not nostalgia, but the like, “Hey. People would enjoy knowing what the very first things we ever played together. People would love that.”

M.A.: It becomes a way of getting in touch with who we were as people, then. And especially who Frank was. He’s not around anymore to complete his legacy and this whole thing, but this was a way of kind of commuting with that part of our lives and with those people as they were then.

To me, the track “When I Get Old” is kind of like Descendents’ version of The Beatles’ “When I’m 64.” So my question is: Do you still hop on your bike and ride around town?

M.A.: [Laughs] If I could, I would. I can hop on my bike and ride on trails. That’s the closest I can do. A lot of the stuff in that song is actually a way of staying young through your actions. Because we’re all going to age, but it’s your actions that can keep you from really feeling older, and maybe aging too much. I mean, for me, just being in a band is a great way that I can just be like, “I want to stay young.” And that’s part of why I do it… What are you doing, Bill? You’re singing a song.

B.S.: [Singing] 17. 18. 19. 20.

M.A.: What song is that?

B.S.: That’s “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man).” That was my influence.

M.A.: Oh, by who? Who does it?

B.S.: The Beach Boys!

M.A.: Oh. Yeah. I’ll have to check that one…

B.S.: [Singing] 13, 14. 15, 16… You don’t know the song, Milo?

M.A.: No, I don’t! What record is it on? Which of The Beach Boys’ record is it on? I’ll look it up. I’ll find it.

B.S.: Oh, it’s so cool. You’re going to love it, Milo. You’re going to love it. But then you’re going to know. You’re going to know the secret.

Follow-up question: Do you still hate cops?

M.A.: Well, right now, the cops are really… They’re misbehaving. The cops need to kind of clean up their act, is what they need.

B.S.: Well, I hate the system whereby the rich people are who elect the politicians, and the politicians are who pay the policemen’s salary, therefore the policemen work for the rich people. You could say, “Well, there’s good cops and bad cops,” but that basic thing is still true, regardless. That they are paid to enforce the goals of the rich people. To keep the bums off the grass, so to speak. So yeah, I don’t dig that.

M.A.: I hate the cops for what they’ve done in terms of race relations in this country. They’ve just really taken us back years and years. And that’s not just from last year; it’s from long ago. So yeah, there’s a very valid reason to hate the cops right there.

The Descendents’ earlier music was very apolitical in a punk scene where politics were very important. The songs were more about girls and having good farts. But recently, a lot of the newer material songs have been more about social issues. There were even some songs about Trump. What do you think caused that shift in what you were writing about?

M.A.: Well, that’s my fault, really. I can’t really say that it’s something I’m looking forward to kind of pursuing anymore. I think one thing that’s true in all of our music is that we always just write about how we’re feeling at that moment. In our younger years, we were feeling strongly about getting a chili dog. And then last year, or last few years, I’ve been feeling really strongly just about just how fucked up… There was no calculation involved. I can only ever write about what gets my dander up, and it turns out that that’s been this political situation that we’re in. And that’s where those songs came from. But I don’t feel like it necessarily redefines us as a band. What really defines us as a band is we just write about whatever we want to write about based upon our most extreme feelings, if you want to put it that way. It’s not going to be these political screeds from now until the end of time. I’ve kind of committed myself to not being that guy.

B.S.: In true Descendents form, my coolest two new [songs]… One is about my wiener dog named Slinky. And one is about my son, Miles. I’m not trying to think about those partisan politics and all that shit. It’s weird no matter who gets in there. They get old and they get old and they don’t get anything done. The whole system is fucking stupid. Wasting 30 seconds of my time talking about a big pile of shit like that is not interesting to me.

You said you’re working on new music. Do you have any idea when we can expect a truly new Descendents album?

M.A.: Well, Milo’s and Stephen’s are all done. We’ve recorded like 20 of theirs already.

B.S.: Karl’s coming over this week and I’m helping him demo his. I can’t finish songs. It’s always been that way. Do you look at how many songs I’ve written since I started the band? It’s like one per year. It’s so lame. 9th & Walnut served as a good stop-gap. It buys me some more time to finish my songs without anybody knowing. Milo’s and Stephen’s ones are kick-ass, their new ones. They wrote a bunch of really good ones.

M.A.: I think the good thing about these most recent songs, which is kind of a novel thing, is that Stephen came in with a whole bunch of music and just said, “Hey, I don’t have any words.” And I just wrote a ton of words for a lot of his music, and that’s just a new collaboration that we hadn’t really taken advantage of too much in the past. That kind of supercharged me to plow through a lot of it, because it was just such a new creative way of writing songs for me. Because a lot of times when we write songs, we all come in with our songs fully formed. It’s one dude’s song. And this was a good way of having the guitar player and the vocalist put their heads together. So that, to me, was a lot of fun. To kind of learn a new way to write.

9th & Walnut is out July 23 on Epitaph. Pre-order it here.

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