No matter how many times I attempted to write this introduction, I knew I wasn’t going to do the band or the man justice. However, for the first time since their inception, Descendents will be playing their first shows in Australia as part of the inaugural No Sleep Til festival to be held around the country this December. Bass guitarist, Karl Alvarez took time to talk to Dying Scene about hyphens, mortality, being a middle-aged rocker and most importantly, the reunification of the rock nation.
Read the full interview here.
Descendents is a name synonymous with punk rock history. Kicking around in different forms since 1978, the band itself is older than the average age of the punter who would buy a ticket to their show in 2010. For the first time in a long time, Descendents are taking their live show on the road, to Australia. Karl Alvarez spoke to me from The Blasting Room, owned by fellow Descendents member, Bill Stevenson.
While it was a tour announcement that shocked the pants straight off the average Australian punk fan, there was one question on the minds of, well, everyone. Does this mean more records from the band? Karl let me know exactly where the band were at. “Well we’ve always planned on it. I think a lot if might be that in your 20s it’s ok to climb in a van and go on tour for extended periods but in your 30s and 40s it gets increasingly hard because people have families. The hiatus was due to Stephen, Bill and Milo raising children. If you’re a parent you don’t want to be away eight months in a year. ”
“I think we’re back, we’ll probably make a record and probably be doing more shows but I don’t think we’re going to be doing the kind of tour that we would do in the old days which was very intensive. Grueling tours. On the Everything Sucks tour, we were home 17 days in that year. It can be a strain, at a certain point. When you’re a kid it’s great, it’s all adventure but when you get older you’ve got a life at home. Me, speaking for myself, I’ve been on tour the whole damn time anyway, I have no children that I know of so I’ve been out on tour in the past six years with Gogol Bordello, I’ve been on tour with The Real McKenzies, I’ve been out on tour with a band called All Systems Go. I’m kind of addicted to it.”
As a fan, relief comes in the form of the word hiatus rather than break-up. But while the collective weren’t active, each member has been involved in their own exploits. “Stephen has got his band, 40Engine, and his own recording studio in Oklahoma. Bills got The Blasting Room and the Rise Against records are his job, amongst others. He does a lot of work at the Blasting Room. Myself, I just tour and occasionally I do paintings. I live a weird, bohemian kind of strange, half-assed existence. I tour, I write, I record, that’s just how I live it. Milo is a research biologist of course and that is actually a lot of what has kept him away from music for all these years. His passion for music is strong but his passion for science is stronger.”
Descendents are never going to be relegated to the back bench. There have been families to raise and more recently some serious meetings with the big sleep, all weighing on the minds of the members. Karl was quite frank about the events. “Bill and I, these past couple of years, each had a brush with mortality. I had a heart attack, it didn’t damage me in anyway, I’m fine, but that’s a hell of a wake up call. Bill recently had some medical troubles too that brought him very close to dying so there is an element of ‘wow, we really love playing together and we really love being around each other’ so we really have to start making time to do this because we’re not going to be able to do it forever. I think it’s good, we’re all in our 40s and we’re thinking ‘are we going to be able to play these songs the way they need to be played in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years?’. I don’t know. It’s gone by awful fast.”
Age is no deterrent. These guys are lifers. Karl himself, would have no qualms to still be playing shows in some form well into what is referred to the twilight years. “Hopefully! I have no problem with that. I grew up idolizing country music, blues and rhythm and blues music and for some reason in those genres it’s ok for you to get old. You gain in prestige. For some reason in rock’n’roll music, it’s always been seen as an odd thing. To get old. I think it’s funny because now we’ve got Keith Richards still walking the planet, right?! I saw Muddy Waters when he was very old, he couldn’t stand up to play but man, what a great performer!”
In whatever form music comes in, Karl has no misconceptions about how the industry along with the format itself has changed. “Music is music, man. The little cultures and sub-cultures, I’m really disinterested in it. I think that I can speak for the rest of the band too when I say that I think these sub-cultures serve to divide people. I think that is the last thing the planet needs right now.”
“Out in Europe they’ve got this thing called folk-punk. I don’t see how many times you can sub-divide something. I guess what I’m all about it; the reunification of the rock nation. I think it’s all a sub-genre of rock and I don’t think there is anything you can gain at this point by calling it some dramatically different form. There is still all kinds out stuff out there that people are mixing all kinds of influences into. There is that dance-punk thing that people are into. There’s all kinds of angles and I think that’s great because it shows that people are still trying to find something new. You know what I don’t get. Hyphens. I mean seriously, if you need more than two hyphens to describe your band then you might want to rethink what your doing.”
Karl wouldn’t give a finer example, for good reasons. “I’m not going to give any examples because that just creates bad vibes and stuff. Online, I befriend a lot of bands and a lot of people and you know that I look at a lot of descriptions, I’ll admit to liking it anyway but it’s ska-punk-funk-country and it just goes on. That’s not saying some of them are really amusing when you see them. Trying to imagine what it is. Really, what does that sound like? African-bluegrass. I wonder what that sound like?”
Originality in music in the modern day is nothing short of debatable but there are many sides to that argument. “I don’t think anyone really was. From the earliest times in music, everyone’s learned it from somewhere and just added stuff of their own along the way. I think that is true in any music form you care to think about. There is a fine line of plagiarism there too but at the end of the day, I don’t know. Music really is a wide open thing. There is some stuff that’s just going to get you mad. Ok, I’ll be honest, The Beach Boys ripped off Chuck Berry, let’s be honest. That is only the truth. But as far as people who do samples and stuff like that, I can’t find it in my heart to condemn them, it’s just a form of making music,” Karl said.
While All has been kicking around constantly, the band haven’t operated with Milo in just under ten years. “We played as Descendents maybe eight years ago, in New Jersey. We played a festival in New Jersey, I can’t even remember the name of it to be honest. We just did a one off show and before that it had been a few years since we had done anything.”
Karl was assuring that the punk icons will still be kicking ass on stage. “This music is very demanding. At the same time, none of us have ever stopped playing. Milo is a runner, he’s got more energy than most of the kids in the audience. Bill has more energy now than he’s had in the past five or ten years. He’s looking really good. He’s had some medical health problems that he’s miraculously bounced back from. Put it this way, it’ll be a physical challenge to get up to the speed we want to be at but we’re looking forward to that challenge. We’re up for it.”
Descendents will be playing three shows on the east coast of Australia as part of the No Sleep Til festival but keep your eyes out for other tours in the future. Now it’s time to blast Milo Goes To College and patiently wait.
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