“It’s very fashionable now to say, ‘When we were young, we didn’t fit in,’” says Dexter Holland, frontman for multi-platinum punk-rockers the Offspring, Zooming from the band’s plush Orange County recording studio. “But it really was true for us in high school, where everything was about looks, athleticism and popularity. I mean, look at us!”
Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, guitarist and Holland’s long-standing foil, leans in and taps his milk bottle-lensed specs. “And you should have seen me back when I had braces and headgear,” he grins.
Thirty-seven years into their career, and two decades after their surprise UK No 1 hit Pretty Fly (for a White Guy), the band still resemble archetypal teen-movie geeks – but on new album Let the Bad Times Roll, any teenage angst has matured into middle age. There are centrist-dad political rants, a piano ballad, and even a droll depiction of midlife bedroom woes called We Never Have Sex Anymore (ironically, it’s horn-heavy).
“Radio has changed so much that it feels like people are saying, ‘You still play guitars in 2021? What kind of ancient dinosaur are you?’” laughs Holland, of the realities of being fiftysomething punk-rockers. “But being misfits is a very natural space for us, and as time has worn on, people seem to only be growing more accepting of us – if we take chances musically now, it doesn’t faze people.”
Like many misfits, the duo found salvation in punk rock. It proved lucrative, too – their 1994 breakthrough album Smash shifted 11m copies, and remains the world’s bestselling independent album. “But then we were ostracised all over again, by the punk-rock community,” adds Holland. “I thought I’d finally found my home, my people, and now they were like, ‘Fuck you! You’re a sellout!’”
“Outcasts among the other outcasts,” says Noodles, drily. “What are you gonna do?”
Such outrageous fortune had not been on the agenda when the group formed a decade earlier. Hopped-up on the energy and messaging of Californian punk groups but stranded in the conservative, middle-class suburbia of Orange County, the Offspring started simply “as something to do at weekends, for the love of it – and for beer,” says Noodles.
“There was no thought of a career or anything,” nods Holland. “We just wanted to be rad. It was all about hair metal back then – there were no venues that would book punk bands.” Thus began what the duo describe as the Offspring’s “10-year overnight success”, a slow grind of playing parties and veterans’ halls, until the group secured regular gigs at 924 Gilman Street. An all-ages community venue in Berkeley, Gilman had, Noodles says, “an ethical vibe. It was egalitarian – kids doing it for other kids.” The Offspring built their early fanbase there, alongside kindred spirits and future multi-platinum punks Green Day and Rancid. They signed to Epitaph Records, run by Brett Gurewitz of Californian punk pioneers Bad Religion, and cut a couple of albums that accrued credibility but sold modestly.
Then Nirvana broke. “I saw the Smells Like Teen Spirit video on MTV and thought: this looks like the shows we play at Gilman,” Holland remembers. “Suddenly, this door seemed to be opening. Maybe we’re not as far off the pulse as we thought.” That door swung wide open following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the same week Smash was released. MTV scrambled for another band to fill the vacuum left by Nirvana, and found the answer in Green Day’s fusion of punk noise, pop tunefulness and songs about wanking. Their old Gilman stage-mates weren’t far behind. “We kinda slipstreamed Green Day’s success,” admits Noodles.
Smash was the right record at the right time. Lead single Come Out and Play was an MTV hit, an overstuffed piñata of radio-friendly moments with lyrics inspired by Holland’s daily commute to the University of Southern California, where he was pursuing a doctorate in molecular biology. “That drive took me through the toughest neighbourhoods of Los Angeles,” he says. It was the height of tensions between the Bloods and the Crips, with the Rodney King riots still a recent memory, and Holland says he was “exposed to what was going on, the madness and the mayhem – albeit from the safety of my locked car”.
Off the back of Come Out and Play, Smash became Epitaph’s first gold album, then the label’s first platinum album, and then continued to shift more and more copies. “It was genuinely unbelievable,” remembers Noodles, whose faith in the Offspring’s newfound success was shaky enough that he was reluctant to quit his day-job “cleaning up little kids’ sick” as custodian at an elementary school in Anaheim. “We had a video on heavy rotation on MTV, and I’d be sweeping up trash out back of the school, and kids would walk past and be like, ‘Man, what are you doing here? I saw you on MTV this morning!’ The principal would let me take the odd Monday or Friday off, so we could go play a bunch of shows. It was exhausting. I ended up asking for a three-year leave of absence – I was worried that if the band flopped I’d have to start my career at the bottom rung of the ladder again,” he deadpans.
“We didn’t buy Maseratis, we didn’t go to Hollywood parties,” remembers Holland, of the moment Smash became a smash. “I wasn’t 21 – I was almost 30, and that makes a huge difference to how you deal with this stuff. My main goal was to not overreact to Smash’s success and make some ‘back to our punk-rock roots’ album, or seem like we were capitalising on it and make an obviously ‘pop’ record. We knew that everyone was hoping for our ‘sophomore slump’.”
As the more waspish voices on the punk scene carped that the group were sellouts, the Offspring committed that most cardinal of punk-rock sins, ditching Epitaph for a major label. The follow-up to Smash, Ixnay on the Hombre was that most 90s of things – a commercial disappointment despite shifting four million copies – but their next album, 1998’s Americana, was another pop breakthrough, despite exhibiting a darker, more satirical tone.
“Americana was our take on where American culture was at, at a very tabloidy moment,” remembers Holland. “Everything was Jerry Springer and President Clinton’s blowjob scandal and crazy consumerism. And I never wanted to seem preachy or get on a soapbox, but we are observers, and I’ll put my social observations in my songs and you can make your own minds up.” Americana trained a jaundiced eye on slacker culture (Why Don’t You Get a Job?), youth suicide and drug addiction (The Kids Aren’t Alright), but it was another vignette Holland spied while driving that inspired the group’s biggest hit to date.
“I was driving to Starbucks and saw this stereotypical white guy doing what we would call today ‘culturally appropriating’, with a sideways baseball cap and everything. I said out loud, ‘Well, he’s pretty fly for a white guy’. And all of a sudden I had the line and the inspiration. I rushed back to record the track – I just felt like, if we don’t do this now, someone else is gonna write this song, like the Beastie Boys or somebody, because it was happening so much in the culture at that time. But while I figured that ‘fly white guy’ character would resonate in LA, I didn’t expect people to come up to me in Italy and tell me, ‘Hey, I know that guy!’”
“These white suburbanites who pretend they’d grown up in tough urban areas, they’re just wannabes,” reasons Noodles. “Everyone knows a wannabe. In punk-rock, you certainly see ’em – hell, we were wannabes when we started.”
Even more unabashedly pop than Come Out and Play, Pretty Fly for a White Guy topped the UK charts, put the Offspring on Top of the Pops and was requested so often on MTV’s Total Request Live that, Noodles says, “they had to retire it”. It was a big enough hit that Noodles finally let his custodian gig slide, while Holland put his studies far enough on the backburner that he only finished his PhD in 2017.
In the years since, the Offspring have made their peace with being outcasts, remaining a big-ticket concert draw whose albums still sell solidly. Let the Bad Times Roll is their typically anthemic response to the Trump era and what Noodles describes as “the rise of anti-democratic forces across the world. Our mood is always hopeful, though.”
Amid all the pogoing agit-pop, We Never Have Sex Anymore could easily score the group another crossover hit. “We’ve all been there,” says Holland. “In every relationship, at some point you think, ‘Oh God, the passion’s gone – what do I do?’ If Daft Punk’s Get Lucky was about, you know, getting lucky, then this is a song for the rest of us. Because we’re not all getting lucky. I think that might ring true for more people than the other side of the equation, to be honest. The best songs are the ones that hit on something people can identify with that’s never been said quite that way.”
The song is a perfect fit for the group’s evergreen punk-everybloke persona. But perhaps this very down-to-earth relatability partly explains why – as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong argues in Ian Winwood’s excellent chronicle of the 90s punk explosion, Smash! The 90s Punk Explosion – the Offspring “never got the respect they deserve”. Do the group agree with Armstrong?
“Well, we never get Grammys or anything like that, I guess,” answers Noodles. “But we don’t dwell on it often. We’re the Rodney Dangerfields of punk rock, I suppose.”
“Nobody likes us but the people,” nods Holland, perhaps taking mental stock of the group’s enviable collection of platinum discs. “And we’re fine with that.”