It's easy to misjudge punk rock, figures the Descendents' Bill Stevenson. "There's some impression it's this bonehead thing," he says. "But when you look just a little beyond that surface, you realize it's where a lot of the thinkers are in the rock community."
Stevenson would know. During the two decades since he moved from Southern California to Fort Collins, he's opened Blasting Room studios and recorded bands like Rise Against, Suicide Machines and Alkaline Trio. His credits as a musician extend even further, having manned the drum kit for bands like Black Flag and All, as well as a 34-year stint with what's arguably the very first punk-pop band, the Descendents.
Now in its fifth reformation, the Descendents have a wicked wit that, like South Park, strikes high and low. There's the keen satire of "Suburban Home," "Parents" and "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," as well as goofier fare like "I Like Food" and "Orgofart." While birthed from hardcore and prone to breakneck rhythms, their hooky repertoire also draws upon California pop, including a cover version of the Beach Boys' "Wendy."
Over the last three decades, the Descendents have spawned copycats from Blink-182 and Sum 41 on down. But for Stevenson, his band's influence pales next to trailblazing peers like the Minutemen and early Black Flag.
"The bands I deem as being the greatest bands oftentimes have a quality of being inimitable," he says. "So when I think of the Minutemen, I think of a band that kind of can't be mocked. You can hardly even be influenced by them, because they're so their own thing."
Stevenson's participation in the Southern California punk scene was all but inevitable. He grew up on the same block as Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn and worked at the Hermosa Beach tackle shop, which was run by Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris' father.
After a succession of early vocalists, the Descendents hit their stride when geeky, bespectacled lead singer Milo Aukerman came on board. Prior to that, Aukerman had gone to high school with Descendents guitarists Frank Navette and bassist Tony Lombardo, and spent months attending their practices.
"I remember Frank saying, 'Fuck it, why don't we just have Milo sing these songs,'" says Stevenson of the frontman, who went on to become a research biochemist. "I think secretly Milo wanted to be the singer, but he was too shy to say it. He had been waiting all that time for this to happen.
"I can't say whether it was good, bad or whatever. That wasn't the point. It was us four with Milo singing, and it just made sense."
These days, Stevenson is as busy as ever. He's playing dates and recording new material with the Descendents. He's joined with Black Flag veterans Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski and Dez Cadena in a new band called FLAG, who'll be performing at Denver's Riot Fest. And his Only Crime project with Converge's Aaron Dalbec and Good Riddance's Russ Rankin has finished a third album.
Stevenson welcomes the opportunities to get out of the studio, not least because he only recently recovered from being laid up for several years with a grapefruit-sized brain tumor.
"Now I feel like my health is something I have to be conscious and proactive about," he says. "Being out there playing drums and hauling gear and all that, I'm spending a little less time sitting behind a mixing board. And that helps keep me young."