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Descendents | Merican | interview | Milo Aukerman | punk | Lollipop
An interview with vocalist Milo Aukerman
By Tim Den
Where are you based out of these days?
I'm in Wilmington, Delaware. This is where I have my science job. My wife also works here at University of Delware. We're pretty much permanent residents, at this point. We've been here since '99. Moved down here from Wisconsin, where we lived for several years. Before that, we were both living in San Diego, so we basically slowly moved across the country. Now we're East Coasters!
When we were living in Wisconsin, my wife was going to grad school and I was doing post-doctoral research. We just keep moving around to wherever the work is, which is the way for two academics like ourselves.
How long have you been married?
Since '95. We just had our second baby, and we have a son who's a year and-a-half. It's a lot of late nights. I just doubled up my coffee intake.
What kind of work are you involved with?
Genetics. I work at a private company doing plant breeding. Corn and stuff.
Would you say you're more passionate about science than music?
Over the years, the two have battled it out side by side with frustrating consequences. I was pulling myself in two directions, the story of my life. I finally decided that I had to do one exclusively, and bounce back and forth between the two, not try to do both simultaneously.
Both obsessions are on equal footing. I've spent many years studying to be a scientist, but I've also spent many years slogging it out with the band. I can't seem to give up either one of them: I have an equal affinity for both. I'm fully commited to both, but I've had to do the band intermittenly because practicality enters into it eventually. I can make a living as a scientist. (chuckles)
How have you been able to maintain the band - and the friendships with the members - through the years of moving?
I'm still best friends with Bill, and probably will be until we die. We go all the way back to high school. I visit them in CO sometimes. We maintain this long-term relationship because it's the best we can do. It's not a big problem, because my ties with those guys are pretty strong.
What usually spurs you to say "hey, let's make a new record!"
When I have a spurt of songwriting. I have long periods where I don't write anything, and then I have periods where I write a lot. We all make demo tapes and exchange them. The rest of the band learn my songs, and vice versa, and then we decide which ones to do.
With so much time between releases, does the pressure from labels, fans, etc. ever become overwhelming?
I'm pretty immune to that stuff cuz I don't even travel in those circles. The only time I experience that is when I go to a show. I don't treat music as my career, and because it's not my career, I can only devote a certain amount of time to it. It's a hobby to me. Like stamp collecting, you can only do that a certain number of hours a day or week. People don't realize that it might take me a long time to get songs together because I do it so part time. I do music when I feel like it, not when someone tells me to.
Does it feel weird that, even though you say you don't "travel in those circles," the style of your music (still considered "punk," whatever the hell that means in 2004) inheritantly ties you to the "scene?"
I don't even know what punk rock is anymore. I don't even know what popular music is anymore! Clearly, there's a lot of punk rock today that's more like "pop music"... which isn't bad: We're all fans of pop. Not N'Sync pop, but The Beatles and stuff like that. I've kept in touch with punk through Bill. He sends me all kinds of music that he's produced. I also have a nostalgic streak for late-'70s/early-'80s punk, so I don't mind rehashing that era if that's what I end up doing with my music. If my music sounds dated, so be it, cuz that's the music I like to make.
It's not so much that you guys sound dated, you sound more modern now because everyone today is aping you!
It's funny, cuz now when I write a song, I think "wow, this kind of sounds like Blink-182." Then I think "wow, that's kind of ass backward!" (laughs) Yeah, it's weird how that works: We make music now that evokes other bands that came after us. An ironic twist, I guess.
Do you consider yourself at all connected to punk anymore? Its community? Ideology?
I still have an idealistic notion that the best music's gonna be made in some kid's garage. Whether or not I can actually go out and find that kid's garage is another matter.
I can't say I'm in tune with the current underground bands. I hear a lot of bands on the radio that sound "pop punk," and some of it I like, some of it's not so great. But I know there are still bands making great music under the radar: I just don't have the time now to seek them out.
I still believe that D.I.Y. is the way to go. It brings me back to when we were making music in the early-'80s which, to me, was the golden age of punk. It's probably my own bias since I was there, but growing up in this great thing, being able to play with Black Flag, the commradrie was there. I assume that that exists somewhere now, but I can't personally vouche for it.
Back then, the people who laid the groundwork and were involved in the scene were the kids getting picked on in school. Outcasts. But now the "alternative/punk/different" kids are the popular kids! Wanna talk about irony!?
That's very ironic. You gotta wonder what subject matter is now fodder for songs when you're no longer railing against your classmates. That's what we would always sing about. What are they going to get pissed off about? I guess you could still get pissed off about your parents, no matter what.
With babies for both you and Stephen, there're no touring plans as of now, right?
Probably no touring for a while. We would like to tour, but what would end up happening is we might do an occasional show here and there.
You don't seem like the type who likes touring anyway, what with "I Quit"'s lyrics (ha ha)...
Yeah. (chuckles) I get a lot of people saying "man, touring must be the best experience ever. You're living the rock 'n' roll fantasy!" There are aspects of it that are great. I'm sure this has been said by many others, but touring is basically an hour of pure bliss and 23 hours of pure torture. I subscribe to that view. Is the one hour worth the other 23? And when you start piling other priorities on top of that, it's hard to make it a worthwhile experience. If I could play shows every night and not "go on tour," that would be an ideal situation. Somehow transmogrify myself to exactly where I need to be, that would be great! And be able to take my wife and kids with me...
"I Quit" is basically about how touring can be difficult, depending on what kind of "life situation" you have, and also bursting people's bubble about "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Sex: I can't have it on the road, I have a wife. Drugs: You do 'em on the road and you're not gonna be able to get up the next day to play. So we're left with the rock 'n' roll, which is still a big part of the equation. But at that point, two-thirds of the fantasy is gone.
Even late in our careers, we were traveling in a little van. It was like a long camping trip, all of us cramped in a stinky van. Which is fine when you're 17, but when you're (pause) "my age," it's not much fun.
There have been quite a few comments made about the song "'Merican," where people complain about "Descendents going political." I know Karl wrote the song, but can you comment on it?
I thought it was a breath of fresh air for us. If Bad Religion did it, people would be like "oh, not another political song." But we'd never done a political song before. To me, it was like "wow, what a surprise! We actually can have a political side and make a bold statement against the way things are." I thought it was way past due for us to do something like that. I'm glad Karl wrote it. I think all the band members are like-minded politically: We're all a little ashamed of the current state of America. Of what's going on in the country, of the administration, of how we dealt with 9/11 (both before and after). But we're obviously not planning on turning into a political band. We write about whatever moves us, and that's what was moved Karl.
I think it's pretty absurd for the audience to dictate what a band can and cannot say.
If we had 20 other political songs, no one would care cuz that one wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb. But it does stick out like a sore thumb, and that's what I like about it. It's no different than "Weinerschnitzel." "These guys are writing about hot dogs!" We like to surprise people. Mission accomplished.
What are your thoughts on the band being revered as forefathers of punk?
I think it gets blown out of proportion. I think about the gigs we played back in the early-'80s, where there were 20 people there, and I think either people were completely clueless back then, or people are mythicizing that period. I think we contributed to a particular genre of music, and I'm really happy about that.
I listen to some of the bands today, and I think "any one of these bands are as good as us." The fact of the matter is we were around way back when, so we have this grandfather status. But in terms of music quality, I don't think we were head and shoulders above everyone else. I do look back on (the beginning) with a lot of fondness. I'm glad we were around and able to contribute.
Music is a continuum. There were bands before us that influenced us, and we've influenced bands after us. We've inserted ourselves as a page in history. That, to me, is satisfying.
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