A&E

Punk Rock Bowling interview: Flag drummer Bill Stevenson

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Stevenson (center) and Flag headline Monday’s Punk Rock Bowling festival lineup.
Photo: Dimitri Coats
Chris Bitonti

The Details

Flag
May 27, 9 p.m.
Punk Rock Bowling, punkrockbowling.com

So you’re headed back to town for Punk Rock Bowling, which is almost completely sold out—festival and club shows.

Yeah, I saw that when I went on the website to find out who plays when. I’m gonna be there the whole time, for four days, and we’re gonna meet up there and practice. I had never been to it until two years ago, when Descendents played. That was the first time I had been to it. Not that I was avoiding it or anything, I guess I could use the cliché and say I don’t get out much, it seems like I work all the time. It’s like, to support a whole family with just having a punk rock studio, I end up working all the time, so I don’t get to go to things. It’s fun now that I’m playing so many shows again, I get to be more physically active and everything now that I don’t have the brain tumor anymore.

Yeah, I’ve seen your production credits and it does seem like you are working nonstop. You’ve worked with a bunch of the bands playing at the festival (Bouncing Souls, Lagwagon, The Casualties) and it seems like for the past 20 years you’ve been intertwined with almost every major punk band.

(Laughs) I will always think of the punk-rock scene as a big family, although I am well aware that it has splintered into various segments and sects. I consider all those people family. There are bands that we took on tour, or they took us on tour or I produced their records. I think it all goes around in a big circle or a winding river or something. And yeah, I love it when it’s all of us in the room. It’s fun, you know?

You kind of touched on something I wanted to talk about. You’ve been so influential in every wave of punk rock. From the late ’70s and ’80s first rise of the scene, to the ’90s and the resurgence in the Bay Area with Fat Wreck Chords and Epitaph and now working with bands like Rise Against, Hot Water Music and Bouncing Souls. How has each of those felt different to you?

I guess my perception of it is fluid, like one continuous day where I wake up, drink too much coffee and try to figure out what I’m gonna do to make something good out of what I have to work with, and I don’t even know what I have to work with. I suppose I’m a music lover, so whether that ends up manifesting itself in drumming, or producing records or songwriting, I try to just find ways to do my thing. So it’s all been just a fluid growth process or learning process.

So you’ve been growing with the natural progression of punk since the ’80s?

Yeah. It’s funny, Dez [Cadena] and I were on the phone last night, and he was talking about how a lot of bands kind of quit at a certain point and then they got back together—he called it “after-grunge.” After Nirvana and Rancid and Green Day and Offspring, after all of that happened, when it wasn’t so trendy to be into punk rock then a lot of bands got back together. And I said to him, “I just plowed right through all that.”

All, which was basically an extension of Descendents, is what we ended up doing when [singer] Milo [Aukerman] just didn’t want to tour anymore. So, like, I was telling Dez, “I never stopped right through all of it.” You know, All, we played in front of 100 or 200 people, while Descendents would play in front of 500 people, or Black Flag would play in front of 800 people. Or my band Only Crime, in 2004-2007—until I got sick, I didn’t want to go on tour when I had the brain tumor—would play in front of 50 people. And that’s all just been one big thing. The only time I stopped, really, was when I was in the hospital.

How long of a hiatus did you have to take because of that?

Basically one year. I had to go in for repairs. (laughs) But when I came out, I came out with all guns blazing. I went right into the studio and first thing right out of the box did Rise Against’s Endgame and Australia with Descendents in the middle of that. It was like, boom, as soon as I got that brain tumor out, I was like “Okay, game on, let’s go.”

Had the brain tumor been affecting your drumming?

On a reptilian, instinct-response level, it absolutely did not. Like, I was playing the most sophisticated All arrangements; some of the songs are very elaborate arrangements, almost like prog-rock. I was playing them physically, but I was morbidly obese. I was 400 pounds in 2009, so physically it was rendering me less able. I had to lose weight. I’m still a big man, but to go from 400 pounds to 245 pounds, that’s like a whole small person.

The brain tumor impeded me in a lot of ways, but because it was causing me to be inactive, it brought on a whole other onslaught of health problems, which I had to deal with, whether it was diabetes or I the blood clot that pumped through my heart and lodged itself into my lungs. And I had sleep apnea, where I would stop breathing at night. But, as I rectified things in a natural way, once they got the brain tumor out, I started being Bill again. And once I was Bill again, I got rid of all these domino-effect health problems, that had been indirectly brought about by the brain tumor.

Well, I’m glad you’re able to play at full capacity again.

Yeah, I was joking with somebody who said, “Why are you guys doing the Flag thing?” I said, “Because I can. I didn’t die!”(laughs)

That was actually my next question. Why did you decide to reunite as Flag?

Well that’s the quick, funny answer. But I’ll tell you, we don’t have a grand reason; it kind of happened accidentally. A couple years ago Descendents played in LA at the Goldenvoice 30th anniversary. Goldenvoice is the promoter that we worked with all through the years in Descendents and Black Flag … [and] it seemed somehow criminal not to have some sort of a Black Flag presence. So [singer] Keith [Morris] and [bassist] Chuck [Dukowski] called me, and they were like, “Hey, Billy, we should play a couple songs. Like, we can just play on the Descendents gear right before Descendents play or whatever. Let’s just play like a few songs.” And, I’m like, “Yeah, great. Let’s play a few songs.”

So we did, thinking, Okay, this will be novel. But I mean it wasn’t novel, people were freaking out while we were playing. You know The Beatles at Shea Stadium, where you can’t hear ’em playing because the crowd is singing so loud? It was like that kind of thing. Everyone was really grateful that we did that, and it was fun—we had fun. And I mean, those guys are my oldest friends in the whole world. I’ve known Keith since I was 9 or 10; and I’ve known Chuck since I was 14. So, these are some of my best friends I’ll ever have in my life. So we did the four songs, and it was fun. Then a few months later, Keith and Chuck called were like, “Hey Billy, we should do some shows man, that was fun.” And, I was like, “Okay.”

When you guys decided to reunite did anyone reach out to [guitarist] Greg Ginn?

I didn’t. I suppose there’s been some problems there. So, I don’t suppose anybody did, no.

Because he’s reunited Black Flag with a different lineup for some shows this summer, and it just seems like controversy has followed your band since it’s inception. Maybe that fits the Black Flag legacy in some ways.

(Laughs) That’s an interesting take on it. I don’t really know. I guess we had fun doing the one little show with four songs, so we just thought we’d do some more. We already all talk to each other all the time and are friends and Dez too. I love him so much and all the guys. So it was just more on that level—informal.

With what to call it, we thought, “If we call it Flag, people will know that it’s us. They’ll know that it’s us playing and what we’re gonna do. But without wanting to get into some kind of fight over what the real Black Flag is. People can just come see us play and they’ll get it; they’ll know what’s going on.

So what songs are you building your setlist from? Because Keith left before Damaged

I feel like there’s two questions there. One, you want to know about the repertoire and, two, you’re wondering about Keith’s functionality within all that.

Sure.

So here’s the answer from—and this answer will come to you not from the Black Flag drummer or Flag drummer, this will come to you from the 14-year old-kid who used to sit and watch Black Flag practice every day, because we all lived six or seven blocks from each other and we practiced in the same little practice space in a condemned church. So that little boy was me, watching Black Flag practice. So that list of songs was basically The First Four Years, or you could call that those first three or four EPs. So it’s those songs, plus the greater part of Damaged, with Keith singing.

Keith is and was adept at the greater body of work up through the Damaged album. There were other evolutions in the lineup of course and in came [singer] Ron [Reyes] and in came Dez and in came [singer] Henry [Rollins]. But whether you’re talking about “Police Story” or “Depression,” or “Jealous Again,” Keith originally sang those and originally coined the approach with which they were delivered, certainly from a melodic perspective and phrasing. And then we also have Dez. So between Dez and Keith, we have the catalog so covered.

If you think of the original version of the band, it was a little more melodic. Like, if you listen to the vocals on “Nervous Breakdown” and on “Jealous Again,” those little bits of melody—Keith didn’t sing on the recording of the Jealous Again EP, I’m just talking about that era of the band in general—there are little bits of melody that Keith had a way of introducing into things. … Then you jump ahead to Dez. He was thrown into the van and all but lost his voice for a year. We used to call him “the gator.” He introduced that blatant aggression with total abandonment of melody. And from there we go into Henry, who’s more on that page with less melody—more anger, less melody.

So we’ve got Dez singing some of the songs for which he’s most known, whether it be “Six Pack” or “American Waste” or “Clocked In”—those are all gator vocals. So between Keith and Dez, they sang on a very large portion of all of this at some point or another. Even if you listen to Everything Went Black, you can even hear some of the demo recording of each of them singing the various songs. So that’s kind of the body of material that we’re focusing on, everything up to and including Damaged, with a couple of songs past Damaged.

Then to go back to what has become a long-winded story, those are the songs that the 14-year-old kid remembers at the condemned church as a Black Flag fan, not yet as a drummer but as a fan. And that’s the stuff that, when we’re down in the room together and we’re deciding what to play, that we were all happy about. Where we were like, “Yeah, let’s play ‘Police Story’! ‘Police Story’ kicks ass!” That kind of thing.

Did anyone reach out to Henry?

I talk to Henry pretty frequently, Chuck and Henry are very close; they hang out all the time. Keith and Henry are good friends, too. From what I can gather, Henry is sort of … I guess for lack of a better word he considers himself retired from music for the time being or whatever.

Okay, Descendents question: I love the album Everything Sucks, and there’s a song on there, “When I Get Old.” You’re 49; do you consider yourself old?

Well, these are comparative things. I remember when I was 15, thinking, “Oh man, there’s no way I’ll still be playing drums in a band when I’m 30.” Then when I turned 30 I thought, “Oh, man, there’s no way I’ll still be playing drums in a band when I’m 40.” And, then when I turned 40 I thought, “Oh, man there’s no way I’ll still be playing drums in a band when I’m 50.” So, you know, your perspective changes.

But then another very interesting change from my personal vantage point is that in 2009, I was 46 going on 90. And now, I’m 49 going on 25. I’m very active, I exercise, I keep myself active, I can still shred on the drums. Although we do all get old and we do all die, of course, I believe that the actual calendar or chronological age of how many years you’ve been on the Earth doesn’t have as much to do with things as your attitude and your ability to keep yourself healthy and keep yourself active. And in that way I feel more like I did in my late 20s or early 30s. That’s how I feel now, whereas when I was in my 40s I felt like an old man.

Okay then, I just want to pose a couple questions to you from the lyrics to “When I Get Old.” Do you still grab your girlfriend’s ass?

This is so funny. I was going through that song the other day and I was making a checklist. (laughs) Yeah, I still pretty much do those things. And, I definitely did a bare-ass fart into Milo’s mic at Coachella this year on the Jumbotron.

So I’m gonna go out on a limb with the next one and guess that people still ask you to act your age.

Yeah, I’m still pretty juvenile. When I’m out with the family, and I do something and it’s like, “Dude, you’re totally embarrassing us.” But, I’ll do it anyway.

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