Descendents: 9th & Walnut – interview and album review

The Descendents

Pioneers of Californian pop-punk revisit their early material on the upcoming 9th & Walnut album.

In 2002, the original line-up of the Descendents gathered to invoke the energies of the band’s first formation. Bill Stevenson, Frank Navetta and Tony Lombardo revised the songs that the trio had written together over the period of three years, from 1978 to 1980. Stored in the mental archive and untouched for nearly twenty-five years, these compositions eventually got recorded during the session at the Blasting Room studio. Yet, their final version would appear only 18 years later, in 2020. A numerologist might assume that the Descendants go for their lucky combination of zeros and twos.

Nonetheless, a few sad events happened between these pivotal dates. The guitarist Frank Navetta died from diabetes in 2008. The same year the drummer Bill Stevenson was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour and underwent successful surgery in 2010. Later Milo Aukerman, the band’s key singer, got laid off and quit his career as a microbiologist. Then the pandemic started.

With this rough patch fading, the band appeared to be even more enthusiastic about the record. During the lockdown, Milo Aukerman was working on the band’s new material when suddenly he felt the urge to do something else. “I asked Bill “hey, send me the Frank and Tony stuff” cause I just wanted to keep the ball rolling”. By adding his vocals, Milo provided the songs with the sense of time when he joined the band.

Named after the road junction in the Long Beach area, where the band was rehearsing, the record attempts to recreate the humid and electrified atmosphere of a practice space. An anonymous garage on the cover is decorated with a spray-painting showing cartoon-like portraits of the band members. One of those can be easily recognised – an iconic depiction of Milo Aukerman, originally designed by Chris Shary for the cover of the band’s debut record Milo Goes to College.

“That was Bill’s concept,” says Milo, “After the recording, he came in and said “I want this record to be called “9th and Walnut” as a document of our first practice space. And then, I think, it kind of snowballed into an idea – because it was in a garage – so how about a photo of a garage and someone could be spray-painting on the front of it? It’s some of the garages in that area where the original rehearsal space was. So the garage itself became a canvas for the art concept.”

Descendents
Descendents in 1980 – photo by Edward Colver

In a virus-like fashion, 18 brutally short songs immediately transmit the relentless energy of a wound-up instant coffee maniac. The shortest number – Baby Doncha Know – lasts fifty-six seconds. Skidding over an edgy guitar riff, it delivers a ranting message, a little bit similar to Sick of You by The Users, but with a faster, almost hardcore pace. Indeed, by the end of the 70s, caffeine had become an integral element of the band’s diet. “We started with Folgers and then, I think, we moved to MJB. Back in that time, you couldn’t really get a really good cup of coffee. It was the pre-Starbucks era.”

Nevertheless, the melodious texture on some of the songs seems to balance out adrenaline with an endorphin-like effect of the 60s Californian power-pop and British beat scene. A metaphorical sweetener for an intense sludge of the garage sound, this reveals the band’s positioning in the musical continuum. “We wanted to play fast and loud but have a little melody in there but A. we didn’t invent it; B. I think we were just passing a torch on to the next generation”, says Milo Aukerman. Influenced by 60s revival bands such as Los Angeles-based The Last, the Descendents explored their musical upbringing and looked into the future.

Signed to Greg Shaw’s Bomp! Records, The Last made a brilliant debut record L.A Explosion, having become an influence on the growing pop-punk scene of California. The Descendents’s guitar player Frank Navetta, credited for writing most of the band’s material from 1978-79, was particularly passionate about The Last. Impressively, he and the drummer Bill Stevenson were 16 and 15 respectively, which made a 16-year gap with their bass player Tony Lombardo. Although having a different perspective on the nostalgia-infused music, the three members found this melody-driven force equally inspiring. Milo Aukerman, who joined the band in 1980, was still witnessing the sparks from a musical time machine wire. “The Beatles were in our DNA for sure. I would walk over to my friend’s house, who had the entire Beatles collection. Then fast-forward to the early 80s for me and hear the bands like The Last. I loved the band because they were doing that Beatles thing but also injected a fair amount of punk energy to it. If you listen to the Last and then to this 9th and Walnut, you can definitely hear a lot of similarities. Mohicans (The Last of the Mohicans) just sounds to me like a song by the Last. It even has the word “last” in the chorus”.

Moving on to the edgier aesthetics with the debut EP Fat, the band left these songs behind and gave them a new life while recording 9th and Walnut. With the vocals by Navetta and Lombardo, the original takes of Ride the Wild and It’s a Hectic World from the first single equally evoke the garage whirr of the Creation and romantic naughtiness of the Buzzcocks. Revised almost twenty years later, the songs are given a new interpretation, partly due to the presence of Milo as a singer. His arrival in the band in 1980, indeed, injected the Descendents with the energy and presence they needed – a frustrated and charismatic frontman with an urge to speak up. At that point, Milo, who had already become seriously into biology and genetics, found a way to celebrate his nerdiness through punk.

“I feel like part of being a nerd is just kind of being a misfit. And also part of being a nerd is about acting out, I’m gonna call them geeky tendencies which is being a spaz (some people don’t like this word). Sometimes it is hard to describe how uncomfortable I felt at being a nerd. Whatever the opposite of cool is how I felt. I think it fits into punk rock. Punk rock is about being a misfit, is about having an outlet to take out some of your frustrations and your energies in a socially unacceptable way.”

The compilation of songs with angry lyrics ends on a nostalgic and somewhat softer note with the cover on Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over. Once again, the band pays homage to the beat music that fed into their musical background. With some additions, such as a longer bass intro, the song is placed in a different context time-wise. “This song is put there as if to document our early set-list as there would have been Dave Clark Five”, says Milo Aukerman.

Having recorded at the Blasting Room, which was founded by Bill Stevenson, the Descendants seem to have achieved a compromise between their initial DIY approach and quality studio sound. Those craving for the 70s garage texture, akin to that on the original Ride the Wild/It’s a Hectic World single, might be slightly disappointed. Sound-wise, this is not a revival record. Yet, 9th and Walnut definitely celebrates the band’s beginnings and documents the transition moment in the Californian music scene. “People like to call it nostalgia but I feel it’s more than just nostalgia,” says Milo, “This music is injected with youthfulness at its nature, so that’s not necessarily a nostalgic thing, I like the way it makes me feel more than anything else.”

9th & Walnut can be pre-ordered via Epitaph Records (out on the 23rd of July).

All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.

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