Were Bad, Were Worldwide
Weird is having to call a New York City publicist to arrange an interview with a punk rock band's lead singer who lives in Huntington Beach, a scant 10 minutes from where you do.
Weird is driving to this interview, which will take place at the singer's recording studio/office, and smirking at the heaps of juicy irony found in the locale, from the maze of street names surrounding the studio—Product Lane, System Drive, Machine Drive, Commerce Lane, Commercial Drive, Industry Lane—to the Calvary Chapel building that's just a stage dive's distance from the studio's front door.
Weird is walking through that studio front door and being met by one of the punk band's reps, plus the singer's personal assistant—reps? PAs? —who are busily stocking the kitchen with food.
Weird is presuming—wrongly—that your interview is one of the first the band is doing to promo their new album, Conspiracy of One, until you find out they've just returned from two weeks in Europe, where they did nothing but interviews with the foreign press. Weird is also finding out that in a couple of days, the band will be heading back to Europe, solely to perform one-or-two-song sets on TV shows. Eventually, you hope, they'll get to go back for an actual tour.
Then things get weirder. A five-person Japanese TV crew has arrived, looking a bit beaten down after enduring a God-knows-how-many-hours-long flight. They're all American-pop-cultured out, too: one girl has hot-pink Gwen hair, and one of the guys in the posse sports a Cheech & Chong T-shirt with the words "Let's Make a Dope Deal" pressed onto the front. The band's people are gracious hosts and offer us refreshments (though the Japanese crew's interpreter can't have the last cold bottle of water—the band's lead singer might want it). The Japanese are also fascinated by Twizzlers, which they apparently don't have back home.
Eventually, the band's guitarist pulls up in his Jaguar, as does the singer in his big, black, menacing SUV. Hugs and smiles are exchanged with the Japan crew—they know one another from past interviews. Then the guitarist heads to the back for a phone chat with a Brazilian magazine. My allotted half-hour is next, and then it's Japan's turn. All this attention, and the band's new album won't even be out for another month.
It must be weird, sometimes, being Bryan "Dexter" Holland or Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman. It must be weird, sometimes, being in the Offspring.
Weird only in the sense of where Orange County's biggest-selling band has come from—begging to get small-time gigs in front of local college students. Now they headline huge sports arenas, even in other countries with impossible-to-pronounce names. They had trouble rounding up 25 people to come to the release party of their second album, Ignition, at the old Goodies club in Fullerton; now they can sell 25 concert tickets in less time than it takes to flip somebody the bird. Once, the only press people even remotely interested in interviewing them were stuttering, pimple-faced teenage zine publishers (who would, naturally, spell their names wrong—Dixtur Hullend! Nudels!); they now juggle offers from Rolling Stone, Spin and Melody Maker.
When punk rock finally broke big in '91, practically nobody thought the Band Most Likely to Take Punk (or at least a poppier version of punk) to the Next Platinum-Bling-Bling Level would be four OC guys—especially when one of them had long, very unpunk Bo Derek cornrows; had earned the very, very unpunk role of valedictorian of his high school graduating class; and was just a dissertation away from a molecular biology Ph.D. at very, very, very unpunk USC.
By being honest about their relatively comfy suburban upbringing and running against the greasier, grimier, dope/tats/jail-time/parental-abuse visions of what your average Maximum Rock 'N Roll reader thought punk was supposed to be, Dexter, Noodles, Ron Welty and Greg Kriesel reminded the 6 million people who bought their 1994 album Smash that being a true punk means doing whatever the hell you want. And if you happen to make a cool million in the process, all the better.
But musically, the Offspring never really were a pure 100 percent punk band. Each of their six albums has been evenly split between swift early '80s thrash tunes and catchier, more radio- and MTV-friendly rock & roll—guess which ones get released as singles? (For a real hoot, check out the Rolling Stone review of Conspiracy of One, which brands the Offspring a "hardcore" band —oh, you mean they sound just like Minor Threat?) Still, they've never been above pissing off people, punk-style —from purists who think that if a song is on KROQ, it cannot possibly be punk to parents ("Timmy, did I just hear that nasty man on your boom box say 'stupid dumbshit goddamn motherfucker'?") to, lately, their own record label. And pissing off Columbia, part of a huge multinational corporation, is very punk rock.
After Brazil gets off the phone but before Japan has its way with Dexter and Noodles, we get to talk about that—and about the new album, which came out on Nov. 14. You probably know about all this already, but we'll go over it again: originally, the band had planned to upload Conspiracy of One onto their website, making it available for free to fans a full month before its scheduled release to such retail stores as Tower and Best Buy. People downloading Conspiracy would only have to fill out a brief form, which would register them for a contest, with the grand prize being $1 million of the Offspring's money.
Naturally, Columbia feared that people wouldn't go out and buy a month later what they could get for free today.
"We knew they weren't going to be crazy about it," explains Dexter, swiveling back and forth in a chair with his back against the studio's recording console. "But our contention was that they were putting out this unsecured digital format in the first place [in the form of advance copies to radio stations and the news media, among other places], so what did they think was going to happen? Of course people were going to upload and download it. Record labels should have figured out how to copy-protect CDs years ago."
Columbia was certain to file suit against the Offspring if they went ahead with their plan. Meanwhile, the band's lawyers had drawn up a countersuit, claiming that Columbia hadn't properly protected the band's copyright.
In the end, both parties reached a compromise: the Offspring would be allowed to post only their new single, "Original Prankster." That allowed them to hold their million-dollar giveaway. But just days after the settlement, what the Offspring and their people said would happen happened: Conspiracy of One turned up on Napster, available for the taking by anyone with Internet access.
"You can't really let every kid in the country put our record up on their own website and not the band that created it themselves," continues Dexter. "We thought we could create a standoff by saying, 'We want to do this, and if you try to sue us, we'll sue you back.' The problem was that if we tried to fight a crusade, it would have had us tied up in court for a year or two, and our record wouldn't have come out. So we were able to figure out something that got pretty much everything done that we wanted to."
Especially with getting word out about the new album. From a media standpoint—meaning mine, of course—the whole thing smelled like a publicity stunt, a well-calculated way for the Offspring to generate mounds of free publicity (which they got) in order to hype their new album, their contest and their website. But Dexter and Noodles insist that wasn't the case.
"It's important for people to know that we really did intend to do this," says Dexter. "And that's why it was so important that we at least got the single up on our website—so that we got something out of this. Some people at the label were actually into it. I think some of them wanted to see what would happen—what this experiment would do for the band. But then the lawyers got involved, and the Recording Industry Association of America [RIAA] started exerting pressure on the label because they have a lawsuit against Napster and these kinds of programs, and they thought that if Columbia let us go ahead with our plans, it would weaken their position."
Noodles pipes up, "We've been asked whether we were just jerking people around about putting the album on the Net, but we were definitely serious about it. The record's up now on Napster—it's just not on our website, and we think that sucks. The band should have a direct link between its music and the fans. That's the way we feel about it."
The Offspring's million-dollar giveaway (which also took place on Nov. 14) was part of a bigger plan to strengthen those band/fan ties, they say. On the surface, the contest felt like a bribe, an attempt to win over fans by appealing to their greedier natures. Or worse, like a potential gateway to an endless stream of compu-spam—hand your e-mail address over to the Offspring, and get flooded by Caribbean time-share offers and shady real-estate ventures.
Okay, so maybe they wouldn't stoop that low. But the band does want to use the contest to build a database, so that eventually they can give fans advance notice about ticket sales, offer exclusive songs and merchandise, and supply other neat little extras for people who buy their CDs instead of downloading them for free.
"It does it in a way that's cool and gives something back," Dexter says. "All the money we've got has come from our fans, so we thought it's a good idea to do something that would give money back to them. The money for the giveaway is coming straight from us—not the label, not a sponsor."
The issue of free downloadable music has sharply divided the recording industry—for every band proclaiming Napster to be Satan's Wicked Instrument, there's one right next to them singing the file-sharing service's praises. For every Napster-hating Metallica that thinks their record sales will be hurt, for instance, there's a Napster-loving Offspring that swears their sales can only be bolstered by the trend.
"If you look at the bands being the most heavily downloaded, they're also the ones breaking sales records right and left," says Noodles. "Look at 'N Sync: they were being heavily downloaded in the weeks prior to their album being released, and they wound up breaking records. People like Eminem are selling millions and being heavily downloaded at the same time. It just seems that it's serving a purpose similar to radio, as far as getting the music out and letting the fans hear it, and then they still go buy the CDs. Even if it does hurt our sales a little, we'll still be okay. Instead of selling 8 million, we'll sell 7 million."
Noodles and Dexter both bust up, and then Dexter gets serious. "There's a certain point at which becoming the Nazis of the Internet just doesn't feel right," he says.
Talk finally turns to the new album, Conspiracy of One.
"Oh, yeah, the album," Dexter says, somewhat snidely.
"It only took you 20 minutes into the interview," Noodles says to me, kinda joking around but kinda not, too.
Okay, well, maybe if I'd known I had only a half-hour of their time, we could've cut to the point. But interviewing the Offspring isn't like interviewing the Killingtons or Lo-Fi Champion or Square or any number of swell, local, non-corporate-affiliated bands. The Offspring are mega enough now to have handlers, you see: people who are paid to keep them on a tight schedule. Especially now. Their 1998 album Americana was their biggest-selling one globally—as much as Smash broke the band in this country, Americana broke the Offspring all around the world. Which is why I'm sandwiched between Brazil and Japan—if this interview session were the U.N., I'd be the poor little 70,000-circulation Third World country everyone pities.
Conspiracy of One sounds like . . . well, like an Offspring album, a by-now-familiar mix of sing-along hooks and whiplash beats, a punk-tinged rock & roll record that clocks in at a vinyl-friendly 38 minutes. It's good—like Americana was good, like Ixnay on the Hombre was good, and like Smash and Ignition and their self-titled 1989 debut were good. Nothing radically different, to be sure: the Offspring found a successful formula long ago, and by God, they're sticking to it. Hate 'em or love 'em, at least they're dependable, and their inevitable Greatest Hits disc will surely be tremendous. Still, a band that produces formulaic music is coasting. I've yet to find someone who doesn't think that "Original Prankster," with its vato loco "You can do it!" shout-out and borrowed "Low Rider" riff, isn't a near-carbon-copy of "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)," which wasn't too far removed from "Come Out and Play." Some of Dexter's lyrics on Conspiracy are rewrites of tales he's told before, too: "Want You Bad" and "Denial Revisited" are about the same sucker with no self-esteem we first heard from six years ago, only in "Want You Bad," the guy relishes the abuse he gets from his girl, complete with whips and chains. On "Denial," the dude becomes a loser who just can't let go when his woman leaves him. "If you go, I won't believe that it's forever," Dexter croons a bit too earnestly above his band's sonic swath that (somewhat disturbingly, but we're talking about the lyrics here) approaches the melodramatic power balladry of the late-'80s spandex-metal bands. "I won't let go, even if she says that it's over/I know it'll be different this time, if you just stay." Mmmm . . . yeah. I remember Warrant, too. There are better songs, though—much better ones. The Offspring's greatest gift has always been in their ability to merge the snotty with the serious on their albums, and pierce them both with some incredibly memorable choruses and melodies, so much so that you could really label Dexter a pop songwriter. Ixnay on the Hombre's clear highlight was the single "Gone Away," a paean for friends who've passed on. "The Kids Aren't Alright," a darkness-on-the-edge-of-suburbia narrative squashed up against Noodles' blitzkrieg guitar attack, was Americana's best serious song, bringing balance to such lighter, funnier novelties as "Pretty Fly" and "Why Don't You Get a Job?" Among Conspiracy's standouts are "Living in Chaos," interesting for the hip-hop accents, tape loops and Dexter's rap—pretty fly, for a . . . well, you know. "One Fine Day" wins the album's Best Hook prize. It's basically a British-pub drinking song, a tender, mosh-making ode to hooliganism that's all about chugging down tall-boys, meeting up with friends, going to football games ("We don't even care who wins!"), cracking heads and torching cars—"Drinking, fighting, going to the game/In our world, it's a way to stay sane." Much as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was Kurt Cobain's subversive fuck-you to people who never knew the joke was on them, "One Fine Day" does the same for the Offspring, addressing the band's small-but-loyal dimwitted-dude fan contingent. "We thought that might go over well in different countries," says Dexter, "and the idea of drinking and going to a sports event and causing a riot has always been common in Europe, but it's happening more and more in the U.S., too, with the NBA championships and all that. So it seemed pretty universal." And then there's "Special Delivery," a stalker anthem on the level of "Bad Habit," only a little more premeditated, a lot more obsessive, and without the road rage. It's one of those funny, nervous tunes Dexter has a way with: "Hey, now, do you see me down the way?/Been watching you every day/In my car on the street is where I stay/I know you better that way/One day, I'll be meeting you for real/You'll feel bad, like I feel/And I'll blow you away." This is something that demands more of an explanation—like, was there any personal experience involved with this tune? Has anyone ever become obsessed with Dexter? You'd think he'd be worried, a world-famous rock-star celeb who lives in a regular, normal house on a regular, normal, non-gated-community street in Huntington Beach. But he isn't really too concerned, though he does get regular visits from fans—almost every other day, lately, people knock on his door just to say hi. "Most of our kids have been nice. They really have," Dexter says. "Now I'm really getting jealous," jokes Noodles. "Last time, you said it was a couple times a week. They come to my house maybe once a month. What's up with me? What's my problem?" "Everybody knows where I live," Dexter continues. "Police come to my house and go, 'Ooooh, you're the guy. Yeah, we know about you.' It's really interesting how word gets around. When realtors have people come into the neighborhood, I think they say stuff to people who are thinking about buying houses. There are even people who kind of drive by the house really slow." "I do get that," Noodles says. "You can't always tell. You think that maybe this guy's just driving five miles an hour down the street because he wants to . . ." "Gawking out his window at your house?" "But then, yeah, you can sometimes tell when they're staring, sitting out there. I wanted to have a fucking regular house and live on a normal street. So I guess that's part of the price you have to pay. But like I said, our kids have been pretty nice. It might be different for a guy like Marilyn Manson or something . . ." "Did you hear about this guy who wanted to kill 'N Sync the other day?" asks Noodles. "Yeah! His mom turned him in. He had this folder that said OPERATION: EXECUTE or something . . ." "No way!" "He was gonna blow up 'N Sync . . ." "That is awesome!" "Most of the stalkers we've heard about are from girls we know," Noodles says. "They've had guys who'd stalk 'em. That was kind of the point of the song, that it's unfortunately reflecting a prevalent phenomenon of American society. Not just celebrity stalking, either, but ordinary people." Even ordinary OC rock bands? "Yeah," Dexter says. "There was a lady in Belgium who—well, she wasn't really stalking us, but she was kind of obsessed, sending us things in the mail every day." "Didn't she send two dozen roses one time backstage?" queries Noodles. "Ten dozen roses!" "Ten dozen roses backstage!" "Somebody counted 'em up, and, yeah, there were more than 100 roses. And she never came around, and it was getting kind of creepy. We didn't know who this girl was, and our tour manager went to go find her. She put her address on the envelope, and it turned out she was this grandmother. It was a really weird thing—very unusual." "So we have a slight problem with grandmothers." Publicists, handlers, TV shows, fawning Japanese press, quickie European jaunts, random door-knockers, freaky Belgian grammies—all for an Orange County band. Yeah. It is weird being in the Offspring.
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