Interview: Milo Aukerman of Descendents

words by Jackson Ellis and Christopher Connal | photo by Jesse Fischer
| Monday, May 17th, 2004

mugmugmugOriginally published in Verbicide issue #11

Fans of the Descendents never know what to expect from the off-and-on punk band. Since frontman Milo Aukerman went looking for a day job as a research scientist years ago, the band has been rejuvenated for several albums, and missing in action for years at a time. Don’t expect a tour from the band, but you can count on their releases to be energetic, catchy, and above all, fun. Here, Milo talks about the recent release of an EP, ‘Merican, his day job, and that charicature mainstay who adorns the Descendents’ album covers. -Christopher Connal

If the song “I Quit” off of the new ‘Merican EP is any indication, your new album might be the Descendents’ last. Was that song meant to convey that message, or was it more or less written out of frustration as a reaction to people who expect you to embody some sort of “rock star” lifestyle?
It is a reaction to people who can’t understand why I don’t drop everything and make a career out of music. People always glorify the whole rock star lifestyle; I mean, what could be better than sex, drugs, and rock and roll, all the time? Don’t get me wrong, I love rocking out on stage, and writing music. But I also like living in the real world. The rock star fantasy life isn’t very conducive to having a relationship, raising a family, and pursuing other career interests. As for the title “I Quit,” every few years I quit the Descendents. It’s become a big joke with Bill and me; I’m just a quitter. So I wrote a song about it. We may put out records in the future, but I can’t guarantee anything.

It’s nice to see you sticking with similar album art. Who draws that guy, and can we ever see him in a comic, fighting somebody else? The Starbucks logo girl, perhaps?
The original drawings of that guy (who is supposed to be me) were done by Rodger Deuerlein, a friend of ours from high school. Funny you should ask about a comic, because that’s how Rodger invented the character. He would draw these cartoons during class to get a laugh, stuff like “Milo Flails,” basically the “misadventures of Milo” kind of stuff. Then Rodger ran for student body president, and drew the Milo head on all of his posters (“Milo sez vote for Rodger,” etc.). Rodger missed his calling as a cartoonist, and now works for the State Department. But maybe we can get him to dig up some of those old cartoons from high school!

It was nine years between the release of All and Everything Sucks, and now it’s been about eight years since the release of Everything Sucks. What is it that primarily dictates when a new Descendents album comes out? Is it that you are “all” (ha ha) very busy with your non-Descendents lives, or is it that the urge to write and record new material overwhelms you only once every decade or so?
I would say both. All the band members have lives outside the Descendents. Obviously, the rest of the band has ALL, and I make a living as a genetics researcher. For me, music definitely comes in spurts; I don’t write constantly, partly because of my career in science. And if I don’t have any songs, there’s no point in doing a record, because for me it’s all about the creative outlet. Hence, we record when the “need” arises (i.e. the “need to rock”).

What is the songwriting process for the Descendents? Do you pen most of the songs and lyrics, or is it collaborative?
Everyone in the band contributes roughly one quarter of the music and lyrics. In the past, we have co-written many of the songs, but lately we have each written our own songs. Nonetheless, everyone has input into each song, regardless of whether or not they wrote it. Guitar leads, backing vocals, and sometimes entirely new parts of songs are added by various band members long after the song is written.

Everyone knows you went to college, but I’ve always wondered, since then, what is it exactly that you do? I noted that you are among the faculty at U Penn, and Karl Alvarez described you as a “bio-dude” in a 1996 Shredding Material interview…are you a biology professor? Researcher?
I am not on the faculty at UPenn (I wish)! I work for DuPont as a scientist, studying plant genetics. I don’t do any teaching, just research. It’s a great job — it satisfies my creative urge the same way the band does.

What has brought you the most satisfaction, your career as a Descendent or your work in the academic world? Have you gotten a lot out of your Ph.D?
I would never consider my time in the Descendents a “career.” The band is my hobby, and as such it has been very satisfying. Very fun, with lots of great memories. My scientific career has, in recent years at least, been very satisfying also — I feel like I’m finally getting the payoff for many years in grad school and postdoctoral purgatory. The most satisfying thing has been finding two different creative outlets, and having a modicum of success in both.

Back to the new album…I’ve only heard the songs on the EP, and the first track, “Nothing With You,” is a great song about being lazy and content and in love. This is a major change from songs like “Sick-O-Me” and “She Loves Me.” Does the new album reflect a happier, more settled-down Milo?
The tone of “Nothing With You” is not typical of the rest of the record, which contains some gut-wrenching stuff — including songs about a parent dying, and being left by your wife. Yes, the Descendents have finally grown up. But growing up means contentment in certain aspects, and major upheaval in others — and the songs reflect that. Anyone who gets married and has kids knows that along with domestic bliss comes a new set of challenges and frustrations (which we would call “song fodder”).

How did you come to work with Fat Wreck Chords, and how’s it been working with them? What was your reason for departing Epitaph?
We have toured with NOFX in the past, dating back to 1987. So Fat Mike has been a friend for many years, and we like each other’s bands. It seemed like a natural fit, and they have been great to work with. Epitaph were also great to work with; it just seemed like it was time to move on.

Do you have any good tour stories, specifically pertaining to Boston? It’s always interesting for us to hear about the ‘80s punk scene in Boston.
My favorite Boston shows were at the Rat. The place was jam-packed and hotter than hell, even in the winter. I remember the stage lights were the main culprit; you’d be sweating like pigs after one song! Lots of slam dancing and stage diving. Some of our favorite shows there were with Slapshot, Dag Nasty, and the F.U.s (although that might have been somewhere else in Boston…). Thanks to Ed and Diane, we always had some place to crash after the show. I wrote “Get the Time” on the roof of someone’s Brookline apartment, when I couldn’t sleep.

You’ve managed to keep the energy that a lot of bands lose over time. Is coffee the only secret?
I think we’re all fans of the “loud and fast” variety of music; it’s what we like to play. Coffee helps us achieve that, but also just being geeks gives us a healthy dose of “spazz-out” energy. Plus, we always have something we want to get off our chest, something that’s frustrating us, and so that catharsis comes through as energy.

“The best coffee-town in America is…”
I would have to say Seattle, where I first experienced the genius of the drive-thru espresso. Boston had this “regular” thing which took some getting used to (a “regular” coffee meant one with cream and sugar; I don’t know if they still do that). I was disappointed when I realized that the bean in Beantown wasn’t a coffee bean.

Do you have any plans for touring this year?
No. Maybe an occasional show, but no tour. I can’t quit my day job.

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