In 1981, a newly formed punk band called the Descendents released a frantic, four-and-a-half-minute EP titled Fat. While the pop-music machine of the 1980s was churning out hits like Eye of the Tiger and Hungry Like the Wolf, the Descendents were writing about things real kids could relate to, like grease-ball fast food joints, their jerk of a dad and coffee jitters.
The Descendents were the relatable underdogs, and nearly four decades later, they still are.
“We’ve always just written about our lives, however mundane they might be,” said Milo Aukerman, singer of the Descendents. “Anything more grandiose than that and I’ve always kind of felt uncomfortable.”
As a few California teenagers with the metabolism of laboratory mice, the Descendents wrote about the single most gripping topic on their minds: food.
“It was real funny for us to write songs about Wienerschnitzel and what not,” Aukerman said with a laugh. “It was funny, but it was also very serious to us because we were trying to proclaim our passion for something, and that’s something we felt passionate about.”
Fat is a product obviously steeped in the confusion of early adulthood. It reflects the yearning to be taken seriously but, at the same time, is soaked with leftover juvenile attitude.
Since then, the Descendents’ passions have matured, shifting from cheeseburgers to a more encompassing narrative. The newest album, 2016’s Hypercaffium Spazzinate, covers everything from prescription pill-popping kids on Limiter to fighting self-destructive habits on Victim of Me.
“The common theme in all of it is that this stuff means a lot to us, whether it be a fast food restaurant, a girl or the state of affairs in the world,” Aukerman said. “It’s something that many people can relate to regardless of age, because we’re just trying to make our way through the world and document our feelings. It sounds kind of corny, but that’s what it’s all about.”
After the first EP, the Descendents released a slew of honest albums, the first being Milo Goes to College. Even if you haven’t listened to it, you’ve almost definitely seen the album’s cover: a black and white caricature of a crew-cut, bespectacled Aukerman that drummer and de facto leader of the band, Bill Stevenson, put on the cover to annoy the singer.
“Bill said, ‘We’re going to put this caricature of you on the cover,’ and I thought, ‘OK, good luck with that,’” Aukerman recounted with a laugh.
Thirty-five years later, Aukerman’s face is synonymous not only with the Descendents, but also with first-wave hardcore as a whole. And while Aukerman’s face might be the most recognizable aspect of the band, he said fans would be remiss if they associated him with the Descendents’ creative direction.
“When it comes to the band’s decision-making and who’s the leader of the band, I am so far from the leader it’s just laughable,” Aukerman said. “(Bill Stevenson) is the mastermind of the Descendents when all is said and done.”
Now in his 50s, the frontman has accomplished far more than most. In addition to the band, Aukerman also holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, a profession he calls his “ultimate career.” In a story from the punk rock canon, one that’s been told and retold, Aukerman left the band after the aptly named Milo Goes to College to pursue a career in science.
“I went into science to be intellectually stimulated, and there were many times when it really failed me in terms of that,” Aukerman said, and he eventually returned to the Descendents.
But Aukerman said he and his band never really made it big, which might sound ridiculous coming from a man whose face is so well-known, people tattoo it on themselves. But he’s right — the Descendents isn’t a household name. And for the band, there’s always room to improve, said Aukerman.
“Every day it’s like, ‘How can we get better as musicians, and how can we get in touch with our audience better?’ We still want to get better, and we still want to get bigger,” he said.
For Aukerman, getting better and bigger means touring like he’s still 20, but also admitting things he might not have in his youth.
“I realize that after many years I still need to learn to sing better,” Aukerman said with a laugh. “I just recently made some breakthroughs in terms of singing, and it’s like, wow, it took me 30 years to figure that out? What the hell?”
After nearly four decades, seven studio albums, breakups and breakdowns, the Descendents are still trying to play as many shows as they can while keeping their lives together, Aukerman said. When the Descendents come to Grand Rapids, they’ll play like they have something to prove.
“No matter what, we’re always an underdog band,” Aukerman said. “The message here is don’t rest on your laurels.”
20 Monroe Live, 11 Ottawa Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Nov. 18, 7 p.m., $35, all ages
20monroelive.com, (844) 678-5483