With his biochemist alter ego and the spiky-haired, bespectacled caricature of his look that has become iconic after appearing on Descendentsâ€™ album covers for the last 35 years, Milo Aukerman is punk rockâ€™s original nerd.
Still in his teens when he took over as lead singer for Descendents in the early â€™80s, both Aukermanâ€™s own style and the bandâ€™s melodic hardcore sound were instantly defined on 1982â€™s Milo Goes to College, their debut record. As Descendents rose from obscurity in the SoCal punk scene to be recognized as arguably the original pop-punk band, Aukermanâ€™s geeky mystique also grew, especially after he left music to get his doctorate in biology, alternating for years afterward between punk rock and a career in biochemistry. Now, with Descendents touring and even releasing their first album in 12 yearsâ€”2016â€™s Hypercaffium Spazzinateâ€”Aukerman is proud to know heâ€™s inspired a generation of punk nerdlings.
â€œPunks need to get educated, too,â€ he says by phone, with a laugh. â€œI always like to hear from people who say, â€˜I went to college because of you.â€™ Iâ€™ve even heard from people who went all the way through grad school, got a Ph.D., and now theyâ€™re working at a university. Thatâ€™s always very heartwarming to me. Thatâ€™s the kind of schizophrenia of my personality; I have this equal passion for science and music.â€
Certainly in 1982, no other punk band was writing songs like â€œSuburban Home,â€ a title the uninitiated might assume to be ripe with irony. It is not. Written by then-bassist Tony Lombardo, who was also a mailman, it featured lyrics like â€œI donâ€™t want no hippie pad/I want a house just like mom and dadâ€ that must have puzzled a hell of a lot of punks back then.
â€œWe kind of took the punk sound and applied our own more nerdy perspective to it. Especially in â€™81, â€™82, that came across as completely against the grain,â€ says Aukerman. â€œIt was like, â€˜These guys donâ€™t have tattoos, they donâ€™t have Mohawks, and yet theyâ€™re playing this extremely fast, aggressive music.â€™ Thatâ€™s been something weâ€™ve been real proud to inject into punkâ€”almost an anti-punk viewpoint.â€
After all, the original view of punks, he says, was â€œmore of a doofus, Sid Vicious kind of a deal. Nothing against Sid or whatever, but I just have a whole different life experience than that.â€
By the mid-â€™90s, though, the sound Descendents had helped to pioneer (letâ€™s not forget the Buzzcocks, although Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto might have punched you if you called them â€œpop-punkâ€ in 1977) had broken through to the mainstream, with bands like Green Day and Blink-182 all over the radio. At the time, Aukerman had left the band, with the other members (led by drummer Bill Stevenson, who had been the architect of Descendentsâ€™ sound) soldiering on as All. Ingeniously, they picked this moment to come back together for 1996â€™s Everything Sucks, the first Descendents record in nearly a decade and the one that endeared them to the Warped Tour generation. The album will be re-released next month in celebration of its 20th anniversary.
â€œYou think about what people define as â€˜pop-punk,â€™ and then you look at what we did on Milo Goes to College and itâ€™s like, â€˜wow, thatâ€™s really more punk than pop. So when we started to write for Everything Sucks, it was like, â€˜we gotta put the punk back into punk-pop.â€™â€
Aukerman admits that was also the most stressful time in the band for him, simply because their sudden discovery by a legion of new fans meant they were burning themselves out trying to do 200 shows a year. He retreated to his science gig again, and the rest of the band went back to All. But after coming together again sporadically for years, he believes theyâ€™ve worked out a way to keep Descendents together for the long haul.
â€œBack then, we thought â€˜letâ€™s cram as many shows as we can into one year!â€™ Now weâ€™re thinking â€˜no, letâ€™s see how many years we can do this.â€™ Because this is something thatâ€™s so valuable and so precious to us right now that we donâ€™t want to mess it up by grinding ourselves into the ground,â€ he says.
It comes at a time when heâ€™s starting to see his own view of the band shift, having finally given up his day job.
â€œItâ€™s only as of the last year that Iâ€™ve considered music a career,â€ he says. â€œPrior to that, music was a hobby. And that gave me a unique perspective of â€˜itâ€™s a hobby, itâ€™s supposed to be fun. â€˜Thatâ€™s been my mantra from the very start of all this. When it stopped being fun, I would leave. And then after a few years, Iâ€™d think â€˜wait a minute, it wasnâ€™t that bad! I should get back to this!â€
Info: 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 6 and Friday, April 7 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $35.