Science on the cover

Published July 27 2016

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Left: Cover of "Hypercaffium Spazzinate," the 7th studio album from Descendents.
Right: On the album’s back cover, songs are listed in a periodic table format

Descendents (L-R): Karl Alvarez, Bill Stevenson, Milo Aukerman, Stephen Egerton

Caffeine has been a central player in the story of the pop-punk band Descendents. “From our history, that’s an important molecule to us,” says lead singer and coffee aficionado Milo Aukerman. The band’s merchandise has featured the slogan “Thou Shalt Not Partake of Decaf,” and the cover for the 1997 EP “Sessions” featured a large coffee mug. Yet caffeine has never been featured in quite the way that it is on the cover of their latest album, “Hypercaffium Spazzinate.”

Nearly every Descendents album cover, going all the way back to their first release, “Milo Goes to College,” has featured the band’s mascot, an iconic cartoon caricature of Aukerman with square-rimmed glasses and flat-top haircut. For their first album after a decade-long hiatus, the band has continued this tradition, using an image of the Milo mascot perched on top of an Erlenmeyer flask and flanked by two graduated cylinders. But just having a cool-looking image wasn’t enough.

That’s where caffeine enters the story. Inspired by their love of caffeine, as well as Aukerman’s background as a research biochemist, the band members decided that the cover should depict the Milo caricature making hypercaffium spazzinate, a fictional molecule that is stronger than caffeine. “What’s more important than caffeine than to make an even more potent version of it?” asks Aukerman.

True to his scientist roots, Aukerman wanted the molecular name to sound realistic. That’s why, he says, the “hypercaffium spazzinate” has “got the typical chemical suffixes—‘ium’ and ‘ate.’” Aukerman also insisted on featuring the chemical formula for caffeine (C8H10N4O2) on the cover. “We could have just written ‘caffeine’...on the graduated cylinder,” recalls Aukerman. “But I just thought, let’s give something for people to Google.”

A stickler for scientific accuracy, Aukerman even made band artist Chris Shary, who prefers to freehand his work, make sure that the markings on the graduated cylinders and the Erlenmeyer flask were properly spaced apart on the cover. The science theme continues on the back cover, which features a mini-periodic table with each song serving as a chemical element.

milo1milo2 milo3 milo4

The fictional creation of hypercaffium spazzinate by Milo, the band’s mascot


Excited by the cover art, the band’s record label, Epitaph Records, asked for additional bonus content that could be included in the deluxe version of the album. Aukerman went all out. “Rather than doing it in a dry, humorless kind of way, I decided to make it into actual pages of a lab notebook,” he says. “I documented a set of experiments that led to the discovery of hypercaffium spazzinate.” The faux notebook also includes an email written from Aukerman to a fictional research collaborator, asking to borrow a reagent X. “Like all good science-fiction experiments, you’ve got to have a chemical X!” says Aukerman. “The idea is mixing these two things together, the chemical X and the caffeine, we end up with hypercaffium spazzinate.”

Designing the album cover and lab notebook insert “definitely enhanced our experience with the record,” Aukerman says. “It’s definitely the most involvement we’ve ever had” with creating artwork for an album. “Music is what we usually focus on.”

The album recording and artwork came as welcome diversions for Aukerman. In January, he was laid off from his job as a plant biochemist at DuPont, the result of downsizing due to a merger with Dow Chemical Company. “We were right in the midst of making the record at the time, so it was pretty easy for me to leave the science gig and go directly into the music-making part of my life because it was already in full swing,” he says. Working on the album cover design, Aukerman says, “allowed me, on some level, to enter back into the laboratory — at least a virtual laboratory — and just have some fun in an imaginary story.”

Geoff Hunt Geoff Hunt is ASBMB’s outreach manager. Follow him on Twitter.
Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay is the managing editor for ASBMB Today. Follow her on Twitter.