BILL STEVENSON (DESCENDENTS, ALL, BLACK FLAG)
[The “Lost Issue” — early 1990s. Never published]
[LOOKING BACK: If Threatening Society had kept going, Issue 7 would’ve been the best. We started to nail down interviews — making them seem more conversational, and the answers more intimate. This chat with Bill Stevenson is one of my favorites. Glad it’s seeing the light of day. And it’s only appropriate that all three of us — me, Tony, and Caleb — were there for the enjoyable chat. — Mickey]
Life on the road has always been hell for ALL. Endless miles of mundane landscapes. Breakdowns in the summer heat. Stinky, sweaty bodies crammed tight into a tiny van, with little chance of breathing fresh air until the next rest stop.
Often, tragedies strike when a band tours, but few groups have probably experienced such heart-wrenching events such as a portable toilet overturning inside the van (as chronicled in the liner notes of ALL’s live “Trailblazer” LP).
But throughout it all, ALL presses on, seeming as though they are constantly touring.
We caught up with ALL while on tour promoting their “Allroy Saves” LP. We spoke with Bill Stevenson, drummer extraordinaire, after a blistering set in Trenton, New Jersey. Present were Tony, Caleb and Mickey.
Your current line-up is…?
It’s me [drums] and Karl [bass] and Stephen [guitar] and Scott [vocals]. The same as on “Allroy’s Revenge” and “Trailblazer.”
First off, why did Dave Smalley, ALL’s first singer, leave?
It’s sort of like being in the army with all of the touring and everything.
You tour for eight months a year?
Nine. It’s not Dave’s fault. I think people think, “Oh, it sounds like fun.” And after a year or so of doing it, it might get in their blood, and they might really like it, or they might go, “Jeez, I’ve had enough.”
Why haven’t you guys ever reached that point?
Well, there’s been a lot of different people in the band. The mechanics of a tour are pretty unfavorable to actually playing music, which is what you tour for, so I can see people being turned off by it. Long drives, not a lot of sleep, junk food — unless you really go out of your way, ’cause you can’t really cook anything. You have to eat raw vegetables and fruit.. Cokes, coffee, ’cause you don’t get a lot of sleep. There’s the cup to get you wired, but then you have to have the cups just to keep you up while driving. I’m not complaining about touring, but I value our music and I enjoy other facets of touring more than I hate the disadvantageous elements. Whereas, other people may like the music, but they’re not committed to it where the bummers outweigh the good facets of it. I enjoy it. And besides that, they say investment determines interest. I’ve invested almost half of my life in it. I started the DESCENDENTS in 1978.
How old are you?
A lot of people were having a good time in there while you were playing. How does it make you feel when you see the crowd going wild? When people sing along to the songs, whether they were done by ALL or the DESCENDENTS?
BILL: Well, this was the most excitement that I’ve seen out of this club [City Gardens]. In some areas, it gets quite a bit more rowdy than that, and in others, it’s more like lukewarm. But whatever the response is, it doesn’t have too much of an effect on me. Not to say that I don’t pay attention to the audience, but to say that my enjoyment comes from playing, and if they enjoy it, that’s really special. But if they don’t, I really don’t care. To be truthful, I like to practice more than I like to play live. I do. It’s more personal. I like to play smaller clubs that hold like a hundred people, or to set up in someone’s living room, and have like sixty people in there who are going off. Just really intimate. Sweating. A lot of energy.
You guys are getting really big. You still can’t do that.
Oh, sure we can. We do it all of the time.
Like at parties and things…
Fuck yeah! I would never quit doing that Everything here is so safe. You’ve got all of the bouncers and the lights and the big PA. You know what the outcome is going to be. It’s sorta predictable. I don’t like that too much.
So tell us about the big move. You’re in the Midwest now?
Yeah. Brookfield, Missouri.
How did you end up there?
About two years ago, I decided that we had to move from LA.
Are you ALL’s manager?
Well, I manage the group, but I’m not like the “boss.” I started the group 11 years ago, but we’re all equals. That’s how it is. As far as managing the group, I book the tours, I do a lot of the coordination work. But then there’s a tremendous amount of groundwork that is involved with that as well. Plus, there’s Bug and Curtis, and my girlfriend Sarina does all of the mail order – she’s been with me for four years. So, if s a democracy. But, anyway, I decided we had to move financially, and psycho¬logically, I think LA was starting to have an effect. The area we moved to [Lomita] became infested with bands and alco¬hol and drugs. We rented one small space in a building about twice the size of City Gardens. One small space of which there were like eight. The rest was lawyers in the other ones. We’d practice at night after they had left. We were also sleeping in the back of it, but we didn’t let anyone know. Eventually, one by one, bands moved in and the lawyers moved out. And this whole place became a sort of party thing, which is the exact opposite of what I had in mind. I wanted a place where we could practice and do our thing. So everyday, people would come over and they would drink and screw and all of that. And that’s not to say that I don’t like to enjoy myself, but I think it was stifling our progress musically, so we moved. No one gives a fuck who we are there. They don’t care. They’re farmers.
They probably get a kick out of you guys.
Exactly. They’re like, “Oh, you’re in a band? Cool. I drive a Caterpillar tractor.” We have a rehearsal space. The reason it was Brookfield specifically was because my father owns a house out there, which he rented to me at no discount I just don’t want people to think we’re being given this place by my dad. ‘Cause he’s renting it to us at market value. The people who were in it were evicted, and I’m paying exactly what they were paying. It’s $350 for a huge house, where we all have our own bedrooms. Before we were all living in a space the size of this trailer.
How did you do that without killing each other?
Well, that’s just it. We had to move, or it would have caused the band to break up. So now, we all have our own rooms, and we have a decent office to run the bookings and everything to keep it all going smoothly. We have a kitchen and things like that which we never had before. We’re paying one-fourth the rent we were paying in LA.
Are you going to miss it?
No. I haven’t missed it yet.
I was going to ask you if you were attempting to separate ALL from the DESCENDENTS, but judging from all of the DESCENDENTS tunes you played tonight, that’s apparently not the case.
Well, we changed the name That’s all we did.
Did you do that because Milo went to college?
No. I just did it because I wanted a change of name.
Well, “all” is the best name you can have. It’s the biggest word, the word with the most meaning in the English language.
Why don’t you ever put your pictures on your album covers?
Fuck, if you looked like us, would you put your picture on the album covers?
Why the color of the “Trailblazer” LP? One fanzine described it as “Pepto-Bismol pink.”
We were going for the “Monty Python” look.
How do you not get sick of touring? How do you look at one night and say, “We have to go and do this show,” and not say “Oh, no! We’re still touring for four more months.” How do you put everything that you have into the show every night?
I guess that would get down to a basic work ethic A pride in yourself and what¬ever you’re representing yourself as. If you’re a painter or a lumberjack, it’s all the same. There is a certain pride in saying, “This is what I do, and I’m going to try and do the best that I can. Even if I’m sick tonight or if I don’t feel like it or if I had a fight with my girlfriend, I’m still going to try and do my best.” I think that when people start to get into abusive substances or addictions, they lose that pride or conscientiousness that we try to maintain. That’s not to say that we play the same every night, ’cause we have very special nights and we have really bad nights. That’s part of it too, ’cause if we were just the same every night that would be like the arena-rock bands. They have the same shtick and the same rap… “Between these two songs, I talk about partying, and between these two songs, I ask everyone how they’re doing and try to remember what city it is.” There’s a certain element for us like, “Am I going to drop my stick in the middle of this song ’cause it’s too fast to play?” That’s how we like it.
Your live show blew me away. You played non-stop. There’s no time for something to go wrong.
BILL: Yeah. You can make a real asshole out of yourself. You drop your pick, and what are you going to do?
Tell me about your new album.
It’s called “Allroy Saves,” and it’s a crucifixion scene of Allroy.
Is Karl doing the cover again?
BILL: Yeah. Allroy’s being crucified on a picket fence. Like in the Warner Brothers cartoons, when the cat would be pulled through the fence through the knothole. It’s sorta cool, actually. The songs are definitely more in the “Allroy’s Revenge” or the DESCENDENTS’ “All” side of things, and not the “Allroy Says” and the “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” side of things. Like more integrated melodies and integrated guitar, less of a direct pop. But what the fuck does that mean? That doesn’t mean anything. I guess some will like it, some won’t.
Did Dave have an influence on your sound? Because ALL did sound different on your first two albums.
BILL: There’s a certain singing style that he introduced into the group. It warranted a lot of harmonies. I’d say strictly melodic, and not as aggressive or loose or spontaneous, but a more direct, melodic approach. And that, to me, warranted a special production and a special harmony. Whereas with Scott, I felt the band’s sorta live sound, as pretty many of our records have been, was more appropriate. A little less harmonies. Dave had an effect there by swinging it a certain way, but also, the songs that we were doing at the time, even my songs, were even that way more than they are right now. We’ve always done that, though. “Enjoy” was sorta out there. We don’t think about it.
My friend, John, and I have decided that ALL is the ultimate college band, because your songs ate about sleeping… Farting… food…
BILL: And ex-girlfriends. What else is there in life until you get some corporate job with a suit on? What else is there to talk about? Beating off? [laughter] It’s hard to have a song about beating off. Wait, do you hear something? [Bill farts]
Aw, jeez! [laughter] Now, how am I supposed to spell that?
BILL: Well, you could spell it “p-hr-a-p,” Or like “q-u-e-e-f…”
KARL: See how it records, and spell it phonetically.
BILL: Or just have in parenthesis “fart”
No, we need an onomatopoeia.
How did you end up in production?
Just to do us. Record producers are inclined to make you sound just like things that have gone before. Whereas, I think we have created, and are still creating, a sound which is unique. Consequently, I can’t bring that to a producer and say, “Here.” He’ll say, “Well, do you want INXS or do you want Madonna or do you want Van Halen?” And it’s like, “No, I want ALL” So, I sorta fiured out things myself. I never had training or anything. Me and Stephen have done various bands, but it’s more like friends at a do-it-yourself level. Just friends of ours who are in the same situation. Technically, I don’t know very much, but I have good ears, and I can figure a way to make it sound good.
What is Cruz Records?
BILL: It’s Greg Ginn’s [of BLACK FLAG] label. Greg owns SST and Cruz. So from my perspective, if s the same business ’cause I’m doing business with Greg, whom I’ve been working with since 1979, ’cause I was in BLACK FLAG for quite a while. It’s all in the family. [Bill farts again, and everyone cracks up again]
Have you been approached by any major labels?
Well, I’ve had majors who have approached me, but they never approached with any¬thing worthwhile… We’re a far cry from direct pop music like HUSKER DU or SOUL ASYLUM. We’re liable to release something with “Scratch and Sniff Shit.” We don’t subscribe to the pop or college radio thing. Some of our stuff coincidentally has been that way, but we started that years and years ago in every record we’ve ever done. College radio has always loved it, but that’s their choice, not ours. And we might just as well shit on the record as have a song about the bass we caught the other day or about the hair in the bathtub. So, a major label wants control of that which songs are going to be on it; how they’re going to be produced. They might even choose a whole other writer to write some or all of your music. What are you supposed to do in that situation? The trade-off is that you get serious bucks, man! I mean, we could plug right into that marketable “She’s My Ex.” I could write those songs all day. Make alot of money, have a nice tourbus, but what would be left of the music? That’s not to say that we couldn’t get a major label deal that was favorable to us, but as of yet none has been presented. SOUL ASYLUM all has day jobs now… HUSKERS had to break up. Warner was going to drop them. They were trying to reshape the whole band and focus Bob [Mould] as the singer and blow Grant [Hart] out of the picture. They’re friends of mine. I’m not putting down the HUSKERS or Warner or anyone, but as of yet, nothing has come to us which was reasonable in respect to our musical goals, which are totally fucking ludicrous. I’m surprised that any¬one comes to see us because it’s like, “Here’s a song about eating a hamburger.”
Do you have any idea how much longer you’ll be doing this?
BILL: It was pretty hot tonight It almost ended it for me here. I almost had a heart attack. I’ve got a pretty good future ahead of me as I see it I don’t mean good as in successful, but I can’t see me quitting. As for the other guys, I don’t know or really care. I mean, they’re very good friends of mine, but if any of them were to leave… It’s like Milo. Milo’s my best friend ever in the whole world. He was really miserable the last few tours, so I’m really glad that he left. He just wasn’t happy. Now he is happy, and me and him are very good friends like we used to be when we started the band.
If someone left, would you consider changing the name again?
BILL: Hell no! I’ve been wanting this name for eight years. This is such a fuckin’ cool name. I couldn’t get the other guys to go along with it for so long, and then they finally did.
A couple of years ago, we sent an interview to you guys, figuring that you would never answer it But you did.
BILL: We try. But sometimes we get pretty far behind, like when we’re on tour. We come back, and it’s like, “Well, here’s a pile of mail. Fuck that, I want to go fishing.” So we get really far behind, and people write us back and say, “You guys are fucking rock stars!” We feel like, “Fuck you! We’ve been out on tour for three or four months!” I’ll show you the inside of the van if you think that we’re rock stars.
[We all walk over to the van, which has a U-Haul trailer attached to it. The van, which is in surprisingly good condition, has two makeshift bunkbeds in the back. Windowless, dark and vile smelling, it makes us all claustrophobic looking at it.]
How many people live in the van during the tour?
BILL: Six or seven.
This is a luxury, too. You should have seen the way we used to tour.
Do you get hot?
We’ve got fans, but you can imagine… It’s like an incubator.
You must get on each others’ nerves.
We do total silence pretty much inside of the van. You’re either sleeping or having a nice quiet conversation. There’s like a lowest common denominator of noise that goes on.