Exclusive Interview: Bill Stevenson

Pop Punk Pioneer
by Michael Aubrecht

I’m a big Henry Rollins fan. I like his music, his writing and his spoken word. I’m also a fan of his band Black Flag. One day I found some of Black Flag’s live performance videos on You Tube. The drumming on them is amazing and I was immediately struck by the intensity with which the drummer played.  This inspired me to go back through the Black Flag catalog, particularly the years 1982-1985. That was a particularly good era for the band when they were their most ambitious. Bill Stevenson was the drummer during this time and his style and stamina really stood out to me. A quick search on the Internet led me to Bill’s recording studio and I was able to get in touch with him. After talking to Bill I was even more impressed as he is a really sincere guy.

“Hi-energy” isn’t even close of a term to describe the drumming of this pop punk pioneer. His unique ability to shred on the drums with acts such as The Descendents and Black Flag has made him a standout among his peers. Not just a drummer, Stevenson is also a multi-instrumentalist. Staying-power is one of Stevenson’s gifts. For several decades he has managed multiple versions of his bands while maintaining their original spirit. Dave Grohl has cited Stevenson as one of his main influences and credits his hard-hitting style as being directly influenced by Stevenson’s lead. A humble man, Stevenson is quick to share or give credit to others for the success of his various music projects. Despite being in the studio, he took time out of his schedule to do an interview with Off Beat.

MA: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I know you are currently in the studio.

BS: It’s my pleasure.

MA: Let’s start with the first question I always ask. What brought you to the drums?

BS: I think it goes all the way back when I was three or four years-old. I would get the pots and pans out on the kitchen floor and turn them upside down and hit them with the spatulas and ladles or whatever I could find. In school I was always fidgeting and tapping out little rhythms on my notebook. I guess drumming is perhaps first and foremost a way to release nervous energy. As a fidgety kid at some point the universe told me that I should do my fidgeting behind a drum set instead of during trigonometry class.

MA: Did you participate in any music programs at your school? Did you study with a teacher or were you self-taught?

BS: I’ve never had any classes or training on the drums, or guitar, or bass, or any other instruments that I play. I’ve always been the kind of person who can just pick something up. While I never excelled in sports, I can still be like “Oh we’re playing basketball? Sure I’ll play basketball.” Or “Oh you want me to play the banjo? Sure I can figure that out.” By the way, I’m a horrible banjo player but it sure is fun.

MA: You play a lot of instruments. What are all of the instruments that you do play?

BS: I don‘t practice the other instruments as much as I used to. I used to play more guitar during the week than I would drums. I would always have a guitar in my hands and I was always playing, writing songs and trying to come up with a cool guitar part. My first several songs were written on the bass. The first song on the first Descendents album was written on a bass. It’s funny how it happened. I was taking my trash can out to the curb. I was 14 or 15 at the time. The neighbor had just taken their can out and there was some instrument sticking out of the can. I went over and pulled it out of there and it was a bass and that’s what I used to write my first songs on (Myage and Bikeage). I guess at this point I would have to claim to be mainly a drummer but I’ve been through phases where I was quite good at other instruments when I put the time in.

MA: You went to Mira Costa High School. At what point did you start playing in bands?

BS: We started The Descendents when I was just 15. I had only had a drum set for maybe two months, so I got right to it. The guy that sold me my first drums showed me two things. He unpacked the drums out of his car and he showed me how to set them up. Then he showed me a rock beat like “Pat Boone – Debbie Boone”. Next he showed me a little Latin groove and then he left. My music lesson was about 90 seconds long. But then I started playing along with KISS records, the Rolling Stones and Ted Nugent (although I can’t say that I listen to him anymore because I don’t care for his life views). I also loved Aerosmith and Black Sabbath. I would turn them up real loud on the stereo and play along. I did that for about two months and then I met Frank Navetta and he was looking to put his band idea together but he didn’t have a drummer. He and I had fishing in common so that’s how we got to know one another.

MA: Tell us about that first drum set?

BS: It came from a company called Stewart. I bought it used from a friend who worked with my dad. I think I may have paid $200 for it. It was a 20” kick, 12” rack tom, 16” floor tom, now that I think about it, it may have had a 13” tom too. I have a photo of it somewhere. Shortly thereafter I got a real Slingerland drum set.

MA: Do you still have it?

BS: No I don’t. The earliest drum set I have is probably my most “known” drum set – which is the big huge one. That’s the one I did all of the early Descendents and Black Flag records with. They were also Slingerlands with concert toms. That one had a 26” kick drum, 16” rack tom, and a 20” floor tom. That kit is pretty hammered. I took that everywhere and we didn’t have cases at the time. All the rough traveling took its toll. Recently I’ve tried to tune it up but I can never get a good sound.

MA: What musical style would you say the early form of The Descendents were? Some people put you in the Punk category. Some say you were early Alternative.

BS: I think the best operative terms for our sound in the beginning would be Power Pop and maybe New-Wave. I think “Ride the Wild”, that 7 inch (this was before Milo Aukerman joined) is along those lines. Side A is very Power Pop and is very influenced by an LA-area band called The Last. That band also went to Mira Costa High School, but they were older than us. The Black Flag guys and the Pennywise guys also went there. We were all in that very small area, about a two-mile radius. The other side, Side B, is very DEVO or Oingo-Boingo influenced. Also hugely influenced by an early LA punk band called The Alleycats. At that point I feel like we were wearing some singular influences on our sleeves. The “magic sauce” for The Descendents sound is pretty simple. It’s 33% The Last, 33% Black Flag and 33% Alleycats. If you listen to those bands you can hear almost every trick that we do.

MA: You guys have developed a very distinct style using those influences as a foundation.

BS: It’s hard for me to say because I worship at the altar of these bands. I would go and watch them practice every day. I was that kind of fan. It’s hard for me to even think that I have innovated anything because I know what I was listening to at the time. I guess that’s the way of it right? With all art you look in a different direction. You look at Charlie Parker and you go “What if he went left here instead of right? Let’s try that.”

MA: What do you think was so special about that area that blossomed so many bands?

BS: The Alleycats were in Lomita. That’s where The Descendents ended up when we moved out of our parent’s house. We shared the same office building where we carpeted the walls to sound-proof them. The Last lived five blocks from me. They are all brothers. As far as Black Flag, I could throw a rock from my house and hit Greg Ginn’s house. We were all right in that area. The Pennywise guys still live out there. We’re all real close. As far as why there was such a concentration of bands? It’s cool. I’ve never asked why.

MA: Can you tell me about those first gigs that you guys had? And did you all play together with one another?

BS: For a long time our gigs consisted of whatever parties we could play. When we finally became aware that there was a scene it was pretty much one of our friend’s bands putting us on a show or some of us would end up pulling together and renting a VFW hall, an Elks lodge, or even just an empty storefront. We’d put on shows for $3.00 or $5.00 a person. We did that for a while. I think Black Flag probably gave us the most shows. They probably helped us the most. This was of course before I was in the band. I went on to join them later.

MA: Could you give us some more details about how you formed The Descendents?

BS: A lot of random happenstance, haha… Through fishing I knew Keith Morris (the original Black Flag singer). Keith’s dad owned the fishing tackle store and he worked there. I would come in when I was seven or eight years-old and buy bait or tackle and I would talk to him. We became acquaintances and then friends. At some point he started telling me about music. I’d tell him that I got the new “so and so” record and then he would turn me onto something else instead. He turned me onto The Stooges and even things like The Kinks. Bands that were pre-punk because that scene wasn’t quite happening yet. We bonded over music.

Then one day there was a party at Panic’s practice room, which was what Black Flag was called originally. Keith invited me so I rode my bike down and different people were playing. I played a little bit with Greg on guitar and Joe Nolte from The Last on bass. We played for maybe 15 minutes. That was how I introduced myself as a guy who was into this kind of music. Joe told his brother Dave that we had played together and that I lived in the area. Dave told Frank at school, who came up to me in the hallway and asked me if I wanted to jam. That was how Frank and I got together. Frank heard Tony Lombardo playing down the alley from where we practiced. He walked down there and asked him if he wanted to jam. That’s how we got together. Not long afterward, (via my “advanced placement classes”, haha, I was the dumbest one in those classes) I became friends with Milo. He would come to our practices every day. He didn’t drive so I would have to go to his house and pick him up. Frank and Tony were becoming less interested in trying to sing, and one day Frank just said “Milo, you sing!” And that was it.

MA: What a great story. You guys grew up together and things just fell into place.

BS: We found out later that the reason Milo was coming to practice was that he was hoping we would let him sing but he was too nervous or shy to ask.

MA: The other band that people are probably most familiar with you being a part of is Black Flag. Can you tell us how you came about to play with them and later produce the band?

BS: Again this speaks to the proximity. There we were, all together. ROBO, their drummer, kept getting deported. He is a Columbian citizen. Whenever he would get sent home I was right there, glad to fill in. I filled in for several years before I actually joined the band. When he’d get back in the country he’d return as the band’s drummer. Eventually the guys said that they had had enough of it because it was disruptive. At that point they went through a parade of drummers and had two drummers play one tour each. I even had to fill in between those two guys. Destiny said that I had to officially join the band so that they didn’t have to keep looking for drummers.

MA: Milo and Henry (Rollins) are very different types of front men. What were the differences for you as the drummer playing behind both of them?

BS: That’s a helluva question. I’ve never thought of it in terms of singer. I’ve always thought of it in terms of music or song. Like the whole sound of the band, not just one member. The Descendents ended up having more of a playful sound, a little more innocent, a little more naïve. Also more melodic. Black Flag was a heavier sound. I think from the drumming standpoint, at least in the beginning, they weren’t really different for me because I was taking so many queues from ROBO already. But then shortly after I joined Black Flag the music was changing. Greg was changing the band. We started moving in a lot of directions like hard rock or metal and even progressive-like. I was 19 or 20 and I was still learning how to play the drums. It was all just exciting for me. I’ve been so lucky to have played with some of these guys. I think about all the cool people I’ve played with like Henry and Milo and Tony and Frank and Karl Alvarez and Stephen Egerton I feel so fortunate and it’s really come down to me being in the right place at the right time.

MA: Why do you think The Descendents have stayed together all of these years? You have a great base of old and new fans.

BS: It’s probably because we don’t work in too much density together. We don’t get on each other’s nerves because we get breaks from each other. What breaks up most bands is two main things. 1: Pressure from the business people like the label. Pressure to sell the music which makes the band do unnatural things musically. Then the band becomes unsatisfied and unfulfilled. And 2: The touring and the concentration of time spent in close quarters in less than civilized living conditions. That’s what breaks bands up so when we’ve done that sort of thing it always preceded us taking some kind of hiatus. Nowadays we spread it out. We’ve been in this mode for the last eight years where we just record and play shows whenever we feel like it. We all have our own little home studios so we can pass demos and files around. We get together and play a few shows about once a month. It doesn’t give people the opportunity to get too sick of each other.

MA: I watched a video of a live performance of The Descendents that was amazing. You literally played for 40 minutes with no break. No chatter between songs. Just one after the other. How do you maintain that level of energy and endurance?

BS: It’s getting harder as we get older. Despite several very serious health issues in the last decade, I’m trying to do what I can to keep my health and fitness together. Even if I’m not playing drums I try to mimic that amount of aerobic activity pretty much every day. We practice that way as well. 54 songs straight thru. No resting. We don’t “bring a six-pack to practice, and hang out”. In the beginning of practice, before we start, we socialize and goof around, but during practice it is exactly like what you saw. We hammer the set list out.

MA: What also impressed me was the entire audience singing along with every song. That’s a testament to the lyrics.

BS: It’s been so cool to have had so many cool songwriters in the band over the years. Frank and Tony were both amazing songwriters in my opinion. Milo too. Then we had to redo the band two times and we ended up with Karl and Stephen (32 years now with this current lineup) who are also amazing songwriters. It also keeps the quality up because, in a fun way, we are always trying to outdo each other.

MA: Let’s talk about drums. Something that is really interesting about you is the odd positioning of the hi-hat cymbal. Yours is almost directly in front of the snare drum. Why?

BS: I like to have it high up and more forward. When I was a kid I would hop up behind ROBO’s drums when he wasn’t looking and play on them and I wanted to set my drums up just like his. I still do. There were certain things that I didn’t like but for the most part I was copying my setup from him. You say you are wondering why I have my hi-hat set up that way but I wonder why the rest of the world doesn’t. That crossed-arms “knuckle-buster’ style is not comfortable for me. How do people play like that? See, the way I do it my arms aren’t crossed over. It’s not one arm underneath the other. They’re free. To me that just seems like the way to do it… so it doesn’t seem weird. I’ve been gradually taking it further. The hi-hat is migrating more forward and to my right. That means the rack tom is also moving to my right. It’s almost centered over my kick drum. I’m trying to figure out how to even go further. I’ve been having a little trouble with my right hand and that’s where my fast eight note pattern is played. I found out I have joint arthritis in my thumb so I’m trying to use my middle finger to propel those eighth notes more than my thumb. I have no problem doing that on the ride. I’m still working things out.

MA: How did you develop that speed?

BS: The Alleycats. Their drummer John. He did it first. And then there’s the coffee…I drink tons of coffee before we play.

MA: Can you give me a rundown of your drums and your cymbals?

BS: I have a recording studio that is full of my drum sets so it’s not like “Oh here is my set.” I think it would be better if I generalized. I use a 14” rack tom, an 18” floor tom, I prefer the feel and tone of a 24” kick, but because of the aforementioned rack tom that is migrating over top of the center of the drum I’ve been using a 22” lately. As far as the snare, I use a 14” DW Nickle over Brass snare. Since I’ve been flying to shows for so many years and using rental drums I’ve become a bit numb to the equipment I use live. I bring my snare, sticks and kick pedal with me. For cymbals I use all Zildjans. 15” Quick Beat Hi-Hats, 22” Ping Ride, 19” Medium Crashes, 20” Medium Thin crashes. Sometimes I’ll use an 18” Thin or an 18” Medium Thin over on my right side to do the Crash-riding on. I like the “A Custom Projection”, the “A Customs”, and the “A’s.”  They all have their good points.

MA: Do you use a different set-up when you are recording in the studio than you do on stage?

BS: No. It’s the same exact thing, to me. In the practice room, though, I use whatever broken cymbals are lying around. I’m resourceful that way. I don’t want to unnecessarily waste a cymbal. If I’m just practicing I don’t care what it really sounds like.

MA: Do you practice regularly?

BS: Yeah I feel like I practice tons and tons when it’s “go time.” Other times I’ll take time off. Right now I haven’t played in about three weeks. Before that I had played every day for a long time. I just recorded drums for 28 new Descendent’s songs. During that time I was practicing pretty hard. Now I’m up in San Francisco producing a record for NOFX. When we are going…. we go pretty hard.

MA: How did you come about producing?

BS: When you asked me how I came about drumming and I said “fiddling around”….with producing it was the same thing. I remember when I was real young I wouldn’t just listen to music, I would analyze it. I would actually study it and try to dissect it in my head. Not mathematically but I wanted to hear inside of it. I wanted to know what each player was doing and what that felt like and try to understand the elements of a song. I remember one moment when I was pretty young and The Beatles released this album called Rarities and on it there was an outtake or alternate version of the song “Love Me Do.” I would listen to that song and I would think that something was not right. I know it was The Beatles but something stuck out to me. I decided that the low instrument was not tuned properly to fit with the other instruments. I remember that I could tell that the low instrument was tuned too high compared to the other instruments including the vocals and guitars. When I got a little older I realized that Paul McCartney’s bass on that track was extremely sharp. That version of the song had never been released, (the reason was probably not the sharp bass…but I’m sure it was a factor). So as a kid it seemed natural for me to be able to identify the different elements within a recording. As I got older I learned that I could help bands study their music and make it better.

MA: What are some of the bands that you have produced?

BS: Among the more well-known ones I guess I would say Rise Against, Good Riddance, and NOFX.

MA: You co-own your own studio. Tell us about The Blasting Room.

BS: We built the studio 25 years ago when we moved to Fort Collins. We, meaning the band, The Descendents. We initially built it just for us to use, but it quickly took on a life of its own. Bands just started calling and wanting to come up and record with us. Over the years we’ve had hundreds of bands record there. We have four studios now. It’s really cool. So much great music coming out of there.

MA: We’ll add the link to the studio’s website at the end of this interview in case people are interested in getting in touch with you about recording.

BS: Great. If they inquire about booking it will go right to me.

MA: Dave Grohl has mentioned you specifically as a major influence. How does it feel to know that you have inspired other drummers from amateurs to rock stars?

BS: That’s flattering and interesting I suppose, but I feel like music and really all art is a continuum. You influence people, and you also become influenced by people. It’s like a circle, like a cycle. I’m glad that I can give someone inspiration but I’ll never forget the ones that gave me inspiration.

MA: If you had to pick a song that personified your style what would it be?

BS: I think “Spineless and Scarlet Red” I use all of the tricks in my playbook. Maybe “Myage.” Between those two.

MA: Which song that you have written are you most proud of?

BS: Maybe “Weinerschnitzel.”

MA: Are you the recording drummer on Black Flag’s “Slip It In?”

BS: Yes.

MA: That opening beat is one of the best I’ve ever heard. How did you come up with that?

BS: The demo version before that had Chuck Biscuits on drums and he kind of insinuated that intro. I didn’t change it a lot so I have to give credit where it is due. Chuck is such a great drummer

MA: You know Dave Grohl copped that intro from the song. (“A Song for the Dead” by Queens of the Stone Age)

BS: Yeah he did. That’s a sincere form of flattery.

MA: I think you have a lot to be flattered about. Your legacy as a pioneer spans many albums and several decades. I want to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to speak with me.

BS: My pleasure. Thanks for looking me up.

Links:

The Blasting Room Studio

The Descendents live In Ljubljana June 2017

Black Flag Live 1984

 

 

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