The Offspring: Why SoCal’s punk legends remain rock’s ultimate gateway band
In 1999, Dexter Holland ran into “a random guy” in an interaction Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David would describe as ‘a stop and chat’. Awkward pleasantries soon dispensed with, the two strangers got down to some serious small talk, discussing the status of Dexter’s band, The Offspring. There was much to report: the punk rockers had released their fifth studio album, Americana, the previous year, selling more than 175,000 copies in its first week. This was helped in no small part by the success of its incessant lead single, Pretty Fly (For A White Guy), which went to Number One in the UK Singles Chart, and, in a sign of its zeitgeist-defining success, received the parody treatment from comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (as Pretty Fly For A Rabbi).
None of these accolades seemed to matter, though, as the man clearly considered music to be the kind of folly one simply grows out of. “His attitude was, ‘So you’re still doing the band thing?’” Dexter recalls today. “As if we’d have quit at a point when things were going well.”
The funniest thing about this story – aside from the risible nonchalance on display – is that this exchange was 22 years ago, when Dexter and his pals had already been making music for 15 years. That’s right: almost four decades since starting out under the name Manic Subsidal, The Offspring are still here, and still ‘doing the band thing’.
Despite their longevity, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to suspect the punk legends might have lost a step of late. Their last major release, the Summer Nationals EP – to coincide with the tour of the same name with Bad Religion, Pennywise and The Vandals – was in 2014. Their last full-length album, the modestly received Days Go By, was 2012. Things appeared to be slowing down.
While it feels unfair to ask what took them so long to make new music, this is the same band that ribbed Axl Rose over Guns N’ Roses’ much-delayed Chinese Democracy album, even suggesting they’d nab the title for themselves, before a cease-and-desist letter from Axl put paid to that idea. So, in the interest of balance: what on earth have The Offspring been doing for nine years?
“I write all the time,” Dexter begins. Looking much the same as those Americana days, his tone is slightly defensive, perhaps knowing this isn’t the last time he’ll be asked to explain his band’s absence, or maybe because they’ve not been absent at all.
Much of that time, between touring and more sporadic live engagements, has been spent where we find them today, in their studio in Huntington Beach, some 35 miles southeast of Downtown Los Angeles. The room they’re in is heavy with paisley drapes in pink and purple, giving it the vibe of a sanctuary for men of a certain age. Meanwhile, the screen between their heads displays the Day Of The Dead artwork for their 10th album Let The Bad Times Roll, the kind of record we’ve come to expect from The Offspring – big, bold, easy to love – but with a little more sonic sheen this time around. “It’s not like we intended it to take a long time between albums,” says Dexter of the gestation period. “It wasn’t the right time. I feel an album has to find its time.”
Listen to Dexter discuss his own songwriting style – and the impact on his band’s new album
Perhaps, given the album’s title, it’s a response to the current climate, perhaps the controversial premierships of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, or the increasingly oppressive police forces on both sides of the Atlantic opposing peoples’ right to protest? Yes and no, say its authors. Although The Offspring emerged during the punk rock goldrush of the ’90s – albeit a decade into their career – amidst a scene defined by standing against the establishment, they were never as right-on as the bands that inspired them, such as Dead Kennedys and T.S.O.L., especially 40 million album sales in. “Once the counterculture becomes mainstream, it loses some of its counterculturalism,” suggests Noodles, who wears leopard print shirts and leather jackets but admits to being partial to a spot of fly fishing.
“What I liked about punk rock growing up was that [bands] were never afraid to take on those kinds of topics,” reminisces Dexter. “It wasn’t about going for a drive in a convertible with the top down… They were talking about some serious shit. There were some important things I wanted to write about on this record, and now was the time.”
“All over the world we’re seeing social unrest caused by economic disparities, political disenfranchisement and anti-democratic forces, and people are rising up against that,” continues Noodles. “It would be dishonest not to address what we see happening in the world. It’s the elephant in the room, but it’s not meant to be a political statement [from us]. It’s just a reflection of the world that we’re living in.”
“There was a lot to write about,” suggests Dexter of inspirations ranging from societal disharmony (the album’s title-track) to drug addiction on an industrial scale (The Opioid Diaries). “But they’re things I wanted to write about. And in writing about them, I’m hoping we can offer some commiseration to those affected and provide a sense of hope that we’ll get through this.”
“This too shall pass,” chimes Noodles. “As long as we keep our heads about us, we’ll get through it.”
Really good acting,” offers Noodles, smirking. “Medication,” suggests Dexter, stifling a chuckle.
No, they’re not offering tips for how to keep your cool in the midst of a world gone to hell in a handbasket, but rather trying to explain what they put their longevity down to. Not that of The Offspring, mind, despite the two men now being the longest serving members following the departure of bassist Greg K in 2018. But Dexter and Noodles as a duo, a friendship, a central axis.
Think of their equivalents in other bands who’ve lasted more than 30 years – their pals Guns N’ Roses, say, or Aerosmith – and you’ll find creative partnerships that, while still functioning, have been characterised by periods of the kind of antipathy that results in separate dressing rooms, mediated conversations, and interactions reserved for the stage only.
It’s worth noting that Let The Bad Times Roll was produced by Bob Rock, who was working with The Offspring for the third time following 2008’s Rise And Fall, Rage And Grace and 2012’s Days Go By. The man who earned his spurs recording bands from the Vancouver punk scene would summon the requisite power on Let The Bad Times Roll by asking: “What would The Offspring do here?”
“He’s a counsellor when he needs to be,” suggests Dexter, which isn’t news to anyone who’s seen the film Some Kind Of Monster. Bob was, lest we forget, at the helm of Metallica’s St. Anger when relations become so low the thrash legends hired ‘personal enhancement coach’ Phil Towle, as captured in the frequently excruciating 2004 documentary.
Thankfully, today there are no slammed doors, shitty looks or arguments about dated solos, but a sense of harmony that’s been noted by anyone who’s ever crossed paths with the band. “Pretty much every producer we’ve worked with has talked about how we have a lack of drama,” laughs Noodles. “I guess it can be unusual to have guys in the same room,” adds Dexter of the way other bands interact, or don’t. “I think it would be cool to see [U2’s] Bono and The Edge on the same Zoom call. Would that happen?”
Even if it did, it’s hard to believe the Irishmen would enjoy the sense of bonhomie that Dexter and Noodles do, nodding enthusiastically at one another’s stories despite having heard them countless times, while finishing each other’s sentences and punchlines alike. “When he first joined the band, he was a couple of years older than us,” Dexter recalls of Noodles’ most obvious early quality. “So he could buy the beer legally.”
“I could also play guitar.”
Listen to Dexter and Noodles reminisce about The Offspring’s formative moments
“The guitar playing was secondary. The beer buying was more important.”
“He’s unmistakable,” says Dexter of the man who introduced him to a full band dynamic when Noodles invited him to jam with early outfit Clowns Of Death, with adrenaline-pumping results. “He’s the guy you know, who brings energy and personality. You can’t ignore him when he’s around. He has a way of connecting with others, onstage especially, that makes people smile.”
“He’s organised, studious and ambitious,” says Noodles in return, noting Dexter’s enviable abilities as a songwriter at an early age. “He’s always made stuff happen. He wanted to make his own hot sauce, so he went and figured out how to do it and started a hot sauce company [Gringo Bandito]. He wanted to learn how to fly, so he went off and learned. And then there’s me, who’s just trying to decide what beer to have tonight.”
While we can’t comment on the credibility of the guitarist’s self-deprecation, or his choice of beer for that matter, he’s right to focus on Dexter’s capacity for hard work. One of the many reasons The Offspring’s new album took time was Dexter’s bid to finally complete his PhD in molecular biology at the University of Southern California. He eventually managed the mighty feat, graduating in 2017 after completing a 175-page dissertation on HIV research, written under his birth name Bryan, entitled: ‘Discovery of Mature MicroRNA Sequences within the Protein-Coding Regions of Global HIV‑1 Genomes: Predictions of Novel Mechanisms for Viral Infection and Pathogenicity’.
As well as affording him the opportunity to use the moniker Dr. Dexter, The Offspring leader’s interest in science made the arrival of a global pandemic an interesting time as well as a terrifying one. “I’m not a practicing virologist,” Dexter clarifies, having recently read a tweet in which a fan suggested, mistakenly, that he’s a world leader in the field. “I don’t want to come across like I’m an expert, but it has been fascinating to see how this all unfolded. I really wish I had more time to work on that stuff.”
“It is strange to have these two things in my life, one that’s so left brain and the other so right brain,” says Dexter of his double life. “I don’t know if together they calm me down, but I think they do.”
Those two passions complemented one another when it came to the writing of The Opioid Diaries. With its surging guitar and blaring vocal, Let The Bad Times Roll’s ninth track is in the mould of classic Offspring, while its lyrics – dealing with a drug crisis that’s been invading the U.S. by stealth over the course of many years – provide it with a modern edge. “I wanted to write about those people coming in for their prescription pain medication and accidentally getting addicted,” says Dexter of an epidemic that, in 2019, saw 10.1 million Americans aged 12+ misusing opioids within the space of a year. “These aren’t the typical people who are out partying, these are the high school athletes who get injured, or the blue collar worker who’s got a bad back, and when they’re no longer able to access that medication they get strung out and end up looking for hard drugs like heroin.”
The Opioid Diaries is a track dense with empathy for those who have fallen victim to addiction and demonisation, and condemnation for the big pharmaceutical companies creating such powerful products. But not everything is so serious. Just two tracks earlier, Dexter sings ‘We never roll around on the floor like we did so long ago’ over surf guitar and parping horns for a meditation on midlife malaise called We Never Have Sex Anymore.
So which of these two very different facets is more representative of the real Offspring these days?
“That’s always the rub,” says Dexter, having led his band on tours playing two of their albums, Ignition and Smash, in their entirety to celebrate their 20th anniversaries. “How do you sound like your old self without sounding like you’re repeating yourself?”
Somewhat fittingly, Noodles pipes up to convey that idea in a slightly different way. “How do you make meat and potatoes Offspring without making it seem like the Sunday hash?”
A few years ago, a record store owning-friend let Dexter into a secret about the music-buying habits of young punk fans. At first they’d come in, in their baggy jeans, and ask for The Offspring. Some months would pass and those kids would be back, their trousers a little looser, their hair a little more unkempt, and inquiring this time about the NOFX records. Fast forward another few months and guess who’s there again, but this time they’re almost unrecognisable from the first time, scruffier but more arty, looking for the Crass and – Dexter pauses for effect – “now they hate The Offspring”.
Judging by the raucousness with which they laugh at a story in which their band is the punchline, Dexter and Noodles are at peace with their place in the musical firmament. “I think we’re a phase right after the Jonas Brothers but right before… someone heavier,” says Dexter of being a stepping stone into a wider scene; a gateway band.
“I keep thinking gateway drug,” jokes Noodles, his only stimulants today being coffees he’ll occasionally duck out to refill. “People got Smash and [Green Day’s] Dookie, but then they went back and got stuff by the Ramones and Black Flag and Dead Kennedys and T.S.O.L., and all the bands who inspired us.”
The great thing about being known as a formative band, of course, is there’s always a healthy quota of young people in your fanbase, which many bands would kill for. Dexter suggests this is particularly true in the UK and Europe, where every visit would yield a front row of 14- and 15-year-old fans, which the duo puts down to a couple of simple factors. “It’s the ‘whoa-ohs’,” deadpans Dexter of their trademark sing-alongs. “Energy will always bring youth to it,” is Noodles’ take. “It’s about creating the kind of thing we fell in love with as young people trying to find our way in this world, and that’s what we keep gravitating towards. Add a bunch of ‘woah-ohs’ to that and you get the young people.”
Listen to Dexter dissect the motivation behind Let The Bad Times Roll’s biggest curveball: a cover of The Hall Of The Mountain King
Given The Offspring’s confidence in their recipe for success, you’d be forgiven for being a little dumbfounded by some of Let The Bad Times Roll’s more unexpected moments. The first is their punky spin on The Hall Of The Mountain King, the very definition of old school given that it was composed by Edvard Grieg in 1875. “We like to think what he did wasn’t quite right,” jokes Dexter. “We definitely sanded those rough edges.”
The same can be said of their revival of one of their most popular tracks almost a quarter of a century on. Gone Away, from 1997’s Ixnay On The Hombre, remains a mournful highlight in the band’s discography, which they’d taken to stripping back for live shows. That piano-led version is included here, redubbed Gone Away Requiem, a title that started as a morbid joke from an engineer who suggested it’ll become a staple at funerals. “That song more than any other we’ve ever done has touched [them] in a deep way,” explains Noodles. “They’ve been asking for a studio version so we’ve done it for them.”
And while Noodles admits listening to Gone Away still gives him cause to think of those he’s lost, frequently getting him choked up as a result, re-approaching the song provided Dexter with feelings he hadn’t experienced as a performer in many years: fear and discomfort. “I like being in a rock band and having the loud guitar to cover up all my mistakes. Having my vocal out there like that was intimidating and made me feel vulnerable. But maybe that’s the point.”
Ask Dexter how lessons like this help a man in a band 37 years into their career and he draws from the scientific rather than musical side. “I had a professor who said to me: ‘Make a contribution,’” he recalls. “I don’t want to sound corny like I’m here saying I want to better the world, but it was what I was trying to do: put something good out there.”
And does Dexter feel he and Noodles are doing something similar when they share a new Offspring album with the listening public?
“I think the music we make, the high-energy punk rock thing, helps people get their frustrations out,” confirms Dexter. “That puts it somewhere between healing and cathartic. It certainly provided those things for me growing up, giving me the chance to scream along and bash around. We get kids writing to us who say ‘You saved my life’ and ‘You helped me through a tough time’, and while we can’t accept credit for that, I think in some small ways music, including our music, helps people.
“Providing that still feels really good, all these years later.”
Let The Bad Times Roll is released on April 16 via Concord Records. Pre-order or pre-save your copy now.
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