Play That Punky Music, White Boy
For a moment, the expressions on the faces of Bryan "Dexter" Holland and Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman are almost unpleasant enough to pass for punkish scowls. Turns out they're just the unfortunate upshots of a bad cold and jet lag. That's how colossal rock stars sometimes come back from Europe after a whirlwind press junket for their latest major-label album. That's the way the Offspring have returned to Orange County.
"Warsaw was cool, though," Noodles says through a sniffle, his voice as watery as his eyes, which behind his Coke-bottle-thick glasses look as though they're submerged in little horn-rimmed aquariums. But coming home has only ratcheted up the band's promotional ballyhoo. When Dexter, Noodles, Greg Kriesel and Ron Welty step off the plane in Southern California, they walk straight into an Offspring Weekend on KROQ. Even when the song the radio keeps playing over and over is your song, there are times it can grate on your nerves.
"Can we turn that off for a few minutes?" winces Dexter from beneath an unruly sunburst of blond hair as he struggles to converse over his own emergency-siren singing. The station is airing the Offspring's new single, "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," at least hourly, interspersing it with lots of the band's other songs and assorted soundbites, and incessantly hyping a contest in which the winner gets to fly to an Offspring concert . . . in Las Vegas . . . sitting next to Dexter . . . as he pilots his own plane.
"We're still wondering how people are going to react to that contest," Noodles admits. "I mean, Vegas? A private plane? Dexter as a pilot? Some people aren't going to think that's very punk."
He sniffles again.
"But whatever. Screw it. All we ever hear is that people don't think we're punk anymore, anyway," Noodles says. "Or that we never were."
Yep, the Offspring are back, all right, and they've arrived pretty much the way we remember them-as arguably the most popular punk outfit in the world, give or take a Green Day or two. And arguing about the Offspring has become as much a hallmark of the band as huge record sales. Their punk credentials have been under Ken Starr-style inquisition since they became famous enough that people knew of them and rich enough that people despised them-and honest enough that they reacted to their success without whining, raging or sneering. That was in 1994, when Smash became the biggest-selling (11 million copies and still counting) rock record released on an independent label.
"When that record came out, I was living in Huntington Beach in a really small apartment at the corner of Warner and Bolsa Chica," Dexter recalls. "One morning, I look out my kitchen window, and there's a guy on the porch of the next apartment. He's staring at me and talking into his phone, going, 'Yeah, dude, I'm looking at him right now!'"
For many of the Offspring's critics, even that amount of celebrity was enough to disown them. Many more spurned the band when it signed with Columbia Records; 1997's Ixnay on the Hombre drastically undersold Smash. The album was still a financial success, however, selling more than 1 million copies.
Philosophically, scrutiny of the Offspring considers whether "popular" and "punk" are contradictory terms to begin with. Practically, it's a question of whether the band's cheerful acceptance of their mass appeal disqualifies them from so-called authentic punk's codified inconsolability. Noodles says with a chuckle, "We've been beaten about the head and shoulders with that stick for so long now that, really, we're numb to it."
Dexter shrugs. "Are we punk? Were we punk? Well, we definitely were inspired by that scene," he says. "But at the same time, a song like 'Pretty Fly' does go beyond traditional punk stuff. That's okay for me. I don't want to live in 1985 anymore, you know? I want to try to create our own thing. And if it's considered punk or not punk, I don't really have a defense for that. Hopefully, at some point, it just becomes considered the Offspring."
"Pretty Fly" is the new flashpoint for the old debate. You've already heard the song over and over, and you either love it or hate it, and you're either validated or infuriated that it's been a hit for more than a month; the album it's from, Americana, won't even be released until Tuesday. Musically, "Pretty Fly" is a chaw of bubblepunk. Its flavors range from War's funky "Low Rider" to Sweet's glammy "Ballroom Blitz" to Wild Cherry's kitschy "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)" to any number of other funky-glammy-kitschy Offspring songs. Oh, and guitar-the song's got lots of guitar. Either that, or Noodles has taken up the wood chipper.
While everybody's sucking on the sweet-and-soaring ear candy, however, the lyrics of "Pretty Fly" take a very sarcastic stab at the whole issue of pop-culture integrity. The song's main character is a suburban white kid caught in the desperate pursuit of other-ethnic cool who only fools and embarrasses himself as he tries to maintain the image of keeping it real-and whose pretty-fly-ness will always be qualified by his for-a-white-guy-ness. On its face, the song seems to comment on followers of the current spate of middle-class white bands-including such prominent Orange County contributors as Korn and the Kottonmouth Kings-who have not only incorporated hip-hop into their music, but have also appropriated its ultraurban jargon and fashion and attitude.
"Well, I definitely wouldn't fault other bands for having hip-hop influences," Dexter says diplomatically. "But I know what you mean. A lot of young white kids are taking that ticket."
"They throw on the paraphernalia of something that is just so completely who they are not," says Noodles, not quite as diplomatically, "and all of a sudden it's: 'Yo, I'm down with the streets, man. I'm hangin' wit' my G's. 'Sup, bitch!!!' You know, you hear these kids just throwing that shit out and you're like: 'Whoa, where'd you come from, man? The hood of Fountain Valley?' Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
But Dexter emphasizes that "Pretty Fly" applies to the punk scene, too-and beyond. The theme of the song, like the album, is a perspective on what the Offspring call the new Americana. "When you think of Americana, it's not so much the traditional American values and status anymore. It's this crazy new thing," says Dexter. "The stuff that used to be on the fringe is more and more the everyday reality. If America was barbecues, big cars and life in the suburbs in the 1950s, it's now totally a freak show-from McDonald's to Jerry Springer to Monica Lewinsky.
"You live in Huntington Beach, and the norm is almost to be covered in tattoos and piercings and what have you. To want to be in a band. You're trying to express your unique and peculiar personality, but it all becomes Orange County Americana. The message of 'Pretty Fly'-which we try to deliver in a humorous way, rather than being preachy or hitting you over the head-is about finding individuality in your own ideas and morals. Hopefully, that means something to you, whether you call it punk or not."
And hopefully, the Offspring realize they are the epitome of the shifting principles-twisted and traditional-that they are gently lecturing about. Their punk rock career has arced like a rainbow. They've been high school wannabes, self-recorded upstarts, indie-label hopefuls and overnight successes. When they left little Epitaph Records in 1996 because its indie-punk reality was getting too sketchy-the company has been in and out of financial crisis and its leader, former Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, has been in and out of drug rehab-some called them traitors. Now, as their second album for Columbia is about to drop, they are corporate-industry mainstays. In the spirit of Horatio Alger and Iggy Pop, the Offspring are Americana, too.
"Totally! It's true!" Dexter says with a laugh. "That's the paradox or irony to complaining or commenting about anything. And, of course, they say you can only write about what you know."
Like so many good businessmen, Noodles and Dexter have dutifully shown up for work at a nondescript Huntington Beach business park. It's the headquarters of Nitro Records, an independent punk label that Dexter and Kriesel founded four years ago. "They never bring it up," says Noodles, "but to me, it says a lot that they both took their first royalty checks from Smash and used them to put out records by other great bands we've played shows with for years."
Nitro has fueled the fortunes of such groups as Guttermouth, AFI, the Vandals, One Hit Wonder, Jughead's Revenge and Sloppy Seconds. The little company's office dcor features a gigantic iguana cage, a long fish tank and four faux-antique wooden-wheelchair lawn mowers equipped with motorcycle-handle throttles and little reading lights. The room's focal points, however, are its meticulously organized desks and cabinets and storeroom. And the next press interview. And a rendezvous with a manager. And an important update . . . about something . . . from somebody.
Not very many other businessmen have shown up today at the other suites in the complex. The parking lot is nearly deserted. It's Sunday. Dexter gamely short-circuits a yawn. It's just past noon, and the morning coffee still hasn't been delivered.
"There are a lot of weird misconceptions about what happens when a band starts doing good," Dexter reflects. "The obvious stuff, like, 'Oh, it's all about hookers and drugs,' or whatever. Or that I can't walk outside my house without being mobbed. It just isn't true. I can go to the post office or the grocery store or whatever."
Noodles suddenly looks up, disappointed. "So, the hookers and drugs are out?"
Dexter presses on. "The other preconception is that suddenly your identity is going to change, and you're going to write music differently. That isn't true, either."
"The only time I felt we had something to prove was with Ixnay," Noodles allows. "We had to prove we weren't one-hit wonders, that we were a band and that it was possible for a punk band from Orange County to put out a good record."
The Offspring are still an Orange County band. All four members own homes in OC. They're still fans of the local bands. "Maybe it's the fact that we came out of this environment," says Dexter, "but there's still something about this music, this scene, that speaks to me." They're frequent visitors at local clubs, from Linda's Doll Hut to the 13th Floor.
"Although what's nice about the Galaxy [Concert Theatre], y'see," Noodles says smart-assedly, "is you can get dinner and a show. It's so comfortable!"
No matter how big the Offspring's international impact, their music still has its roots in Garden Grove, where they attended Pacifica High School and where the streets they struggled to survive on were lined with lawns and governed by 25 mph speed limits and mostly owned by mortgage companies.
Early this year, when Dexter began composing songs for Americana, he went home. "I drove through my old neighborhood and started thinking about all the houses I was passing, and who lived there, and what happened to them. I drove past this one house, and I was like, 'Oh, wow, the last I heard of the kid who lived there, he had a nervous breakdown and went into a mental hospital.' I went a little farther, and it was Jeff Davis' house. I was like: 'Oh, I remember that kid. He got killed in an auto accident.' And then, you know, there was the kid who lived around the corner who got hooked on crack and killed his sister in the middle of the night and set his house on fire. And I thought about how it was when I was growing up, how it was a decent neighborhood, and it seemed like this very bright, sure kind of thing. And how these places are supposed to be nice places to raise your kid, but it just doesn't turn out that way all the time."
Dexter's drive through west Garden Grove became the song "The Kids Aren't All Right." When that song turned out to be one of the Offspring's favorites, there was never a question it was going to be on the new album. During the eight months it took to compose, rehearse, record, mix and deliver Americana, nobody from Columbia had anything to say about that song or any of the others.
"I know we're fortunate in that we had some bargaining power coming in, but the good thing about where we're at right now is, recording-wise, we really call the shots," says Dexter.
"I'm reading this book about Neil Young," says Noodles, "and when he signed to Geffen Records, every time he went to make a record, they rejected the first one he gave them. It was always, 'No, go back and do it over again.' But we've really never had anything like that."
"And we wouldn't deal with anything like that," Dexter asserts. "Our discussion with the record company went like this: we said, we want to record this year. They said, okay. We're gonna do it with the producer we selected, Dave Jerden. Okay. We'll go into the studio in July. Okay. Please don't come. Okay." Dexter laughs. "We recorded all this stuff. We didn't demo anything for them. It was really our deal. We handed over a completed project. We were really able to do exactly what we wanted."
Including a reworking of . . . "Feelings"? The Offspring admit they're a little nervous about that one. Not because of the song's legendary onerous smarm; they dealt with that by changing the words from "feelings of love" to "feelings of hate." But they didn't get permission from singer/ songwriter Morris Albert. "If you don't do the song verbatim, it becomes technically a parody, so I don't know if you have to get permission," says Dexter. "But then, he lives in Brazil, so there's probably international law involved. I just decided I didn't want to check. You know, what's the upside to asking? What if he says no? Then there's this cool thing that falls through at the last minute. Maybe Morris Albert will think it's funny. Maybe he'll be a good sport. Hopefully, he won't sue us."
Whether Albert likes the Offspring's Americana, he'll have plenty of company. "At this point, people have a pretty good idea of who we are as a band-if they like us or don't like us," shrugs Dexter. "And that's all right. I'm pretty comfortable with it."
Noodles nods, his face breaking into a serene little smirk. "I was talking to my daughter yesterday," he says. "She's 8, and she's just starting to learn what fame is. And she says, 'Dad, you're lucky. You're famous. Everyone knows you. Everyone likes you.' And I say, 'Well, I'm famous, yeah. A lot of people know me now. But not everybody likes me. A lot of the people who know me now are people who didn't know me before, and they don't like me. They don't like me at all.' And she goes, 'Well, forget those people.' And I'm thinking to myself, 'That's perfect.'"
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