It's All Good
As the conversation winds down, drummer Bill Stevenson begins to sound concerned.
"I hope I don't . . . well, just try not to make me sound too curmudgeonly, okay? It seems like a lot of the topics we got on kind of led me in that direction. But I wouldn't want to come off like that. That really wouldn't be an accurate representation."
It would be a remarkable thing indeed if a two-decade veteran of the music business didn't get exasperated every now and then. But Stevenson's few rants this afternoon have been brief, precise and shot through with self-effacing humor much like the work of Stevenson's double-headed day gig Descendents and All.
Stevenson, bassist Karl Alvarez and guitarist Steve Egerton make up the core of both bands, whose twisted saga the Descendents formed in 1979, All rose from its ashes in 1987 and provided the personnel for a Descendents reunion in 1996 has been told in other pages. Suffice it to say that, as they move into their 15th (or 20th, or 23rd, or whatever) year of making music together, All has provided an exploratory outlet for the crew, an aesthetic markedly different from the Descendents' condensed, wryly humorous songs.
As Stevenson talks about the new Descendents and All albums currently in the works, however, isolating one band from the other becomes increasingly difficult.
"Whenever you decide to make an album, you're making product, in a weird way," he muses. "Nobody really admits to that, but you're working on a package. So we're kind of working on everything all at once. I think the goal now is just to work on the music without thinking about the final format. We've got 42 songs recorded, and I'm not sure what's All and what's Descendents, or even what's instrumental and what's vocal. We're just working on the creative angle. We're going to work on the planning and packaging later."
Early visions of All's upcoming album, though, seem to indicate a strong experimental thread, a free-jazz approach to composition and performance. It's a vein All has worked frequently; it's also one Stevenson personally worked for two years straight, drumming in the avant-core 1984-'85 incarnation of what was possibly L.A.'s most important punk band, Black Flag.
During Stevenson's tenure, Black Flag released Family Man, My War and the all-instrumental The Process of Weeding Out, records which were less punk albums than free-ranging, 12-tone excursions. Hardcore conventionalists were, to put it mildly, flummoxed.
Speaking only for himself, Stevenson looks back on that period as a shaky time.
"When Black Flag started going in those directions, and Greg [Ginn] was first trying to get me to improvise, I didn't feel like I could do it. I wasn't a good enough player to do it. Greg was ready for it back then; he was completely able. But I wasn't."
Black Flag frequently encountered opposition from live audiences when the band pressed the boundaries of punk orthodoxy a situation which, Stevenson reports, represents a continuous struggle between youth and experience.
"I absolutely wouldn't want to denigrate what we did in Black Flag, but I hope, I would hope to think that I'm better at [improvising] now. Still, you always find resistance, which is the result of a very uneven situation. On one hand you've got the musicians and their 20-some-odd years of experience, and the kinds of complexities of music which that experience requires, in order for you not to be bored by playing. And then you've got a 19-year-old skater who only wants to listen to Pennywise."
He laughs good-naturedly: "There's a huge disparity there. But we do what we can."
Don't blame that kid, though, Stevenson quickly adds. Chances are he's only one of numerous listeners weaned on canned instruments, familiar chord progressions and post-production gimcrackery. As Frank Zappa once trenchantly observed, there's an entire generation of music fans with absolutely no idea what a well-tuned set of drums, expertly played, is supposed to sound like.
At its core, Stevenson observes, the phenomenon is economic.
"The first principle of marketing is: It's easier to sell someone a product again than it is to sell them a new product. Most labels are selling the kids the same fucking album over and over, just with a different band behind it each time."
But actually, he says, All's recent work is getting some positive reactions from live audiences. The band recently returned from a series of successful European dates, which allowed the members to hone their improv chops.
"Yeah, the 'Deconstruction Festival' tour went really well," Stevenson says happily. "We were right in the middle of the bill, and we were playing a lot of our more experimental stuff. From what I could tell, we were winning a few people over. It seemed like the European kids were a little more open to it, so it was good for us."
Discussing All's recent performances leads Stevenson to talk about the band's upcoming jaunt, of which he's particularly proud. After two weeks off the road, All goes right back out again, headlining domestically on the "Motor Memory" tour.
"It's kind of a showcase package for our own label, O & O Records," Stevenson reports. "We're bringing along three of the O & O acts: Armstrong, Wretch Like Me, and Someday I, have new records out this month. It's a fantastic bill, a great set of bands who each has a unique sound."
That, according to Stevenson, is the basis for a solid evening's entertainment a principle he learned as a fan of the diverse drummers in L.A.'s punk scene.
"Robo [Black Flag's original drummer] was my mentor. He still is, actually. For all his technical shortcomings, if you want to view them as such, he was one of the most unique drummers in punk. But then there was Charlie Quintana from the Plugz, John McCarthy from the Alley Cats, D.J. Bonebrake from X, Don Bolles from the Germs man, that was a great period of rock there. You could go out, pay five dollars and see five great bands that didn't sound anything like each other."
Now older, more experienced and more confident, the Descendents/All collective has attempted to replicate that kind of eclectic roster on its own label. And though it would be odd for an up-and-coming band not to be familiar with that collective's history, Stevenson is happy to report that the musicians he's encountering aren't simply replowing the field.
"I think, at one point or another, almost anybody who's in a punk or indie rock group comes into contact with the Descendents or All. Sometimes they're influenced by it directly. But sometimes it's just a respect-from-afar situation, where they like it, but they don't really want to make that kind of music, since the world's oversaturated with it now punk or indie rock or whatever you want to call it."
So All's current project, as far as the label goes, is to release as much disparate music as possible. And when he starts talking about O & O Records' lineup, Stevenson becomes positively energized, comparing it to former bandmate Greg Ginn's seminal punk label.
"Remember how SST was in the very beginning?" he asks. "Who were the first dozen bands on that label? Okay, you had Black Flag, the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust, the Huskers no two bands sounded anything alike, and it's cool that way. With O & O, we're trying to take it even a step further. Our Upland imprint releases a lot of country, sort of old-timey music blues meets ragtime like the Stop & Listen Boys, and Drag the River, which is [All vocalist] Chad Price's country band. I would call them alt-country, except that doesn't mean much now, either."
Stevenson and company have worked diligently to produce and record younger, unknown bands for the past eight years a project sparked by their move from California to Fort Collins, Colorado, where they've managed to put down healthy roots.
"We built our studio, the Blasting Room, in 1994. That's been great; it makes you real comfortable when you don't have to rent time in someone else's place. But there's a danger to it, too. It can make you very extravagant and encourage you to try to get everything just perfect. I mean, come on, Charlie Parker never did more than three takes; you just know he didn't. When you realize that those guys just pushed 'em out, and you can't even play through the verse without making a mistake, it's pretty lame," he laughs. "So really, you feel like an idiot whenever you record, whether you're rushed for time or indulging yourself."
He catches himself again: "Wow, what is it, like, a law that once you get over 35 you have to bitch and gripe about everything? No, you know what I like best about having our own studio?" he asks seriously. "I like being able to walk into a room and know, absolutely know, what it sounds like. I like not having to guess about that."
He thinks for a moment and it doesn't take long finds a downright warm thought to end on.
"Plus the fact that it's right down the block from my house. That's really nice."
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