IT TAKES a certain sort of idiot bravery (brave idiocy?) to board a small plane with a music star. There's just too much grim history to keep you on the tarmac. But what sort of lunatic would get into a plane with a rock star as the pilot?
Your captain and crew today will be Dexter Holland, the lead singer of the Offspring and a man who grins far too much to be completely trustworthy. Holland owns three planes, which suggests that punk music isn't quite the scabby affair it was when the Sex Pistols first plugged in. One of his planes is a sleek corporate jet with an anarchy symbol painted on the tail fin (nice touch) while another is a Soviet-era fighter plane imported from Estonia (um, hello, Homeland Security?).
Holland keeps his planes in tricked-out hangars in Long Beach and Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and, when he rolls out to the runway, heads turn and jaws drop, a fact that Holland plainly enjoys. He is full of surprises. He has a master's degree in molecular biology from USC and he owns a Newport Beach company, Gringo Bandito, that bottles 120 gallons a week of his hot sauce recipe. "It's on sale now at Albertsons, that's huge for us," said Holland, who also has been dabbling in software design for BlackBerrys that has led to a patent but, so far, no profits.
Oh yes, the soft-spoken 42-year-old also fronts a band that has quietly sold 16 million albums in the U.S. and, along with Green Day, ushered in the boom years of pop-punk which, if measured in MySpace pages, remains the most alluring guitar sound for young music fans and bands. But the band's commercial peak was a decade ago and it's fair to wonder if, careerwise, Holland and his band have their metaphorical landing gear down.
It's a crisp afternoon in Long Beach as Holland checks in with the control tower and goes over his flight plan for a quick dash out to the desert. The singer, blond and blue-eyed, has a steady gaze and soft, round features that make him a bit self-conscious, as does the commercial success of his band; punk rock is a scene in which soft is weak and mainstream is impure. Holland greets conversation on these topics with a grin that is friendly but also guarded.
Above Orange County, where he grew up, Holland is focused and relaxed -- he may be an amateur but he's logged enough hours to be certified to fly a 747. It's enough to make you stop fretting about Buddy Holly,Jim Croce, Patsy Cline, Ronnie Van Zant and the other musicians who went up in small planes but came back down the wrong way.
Then the robot voice starts coming from the control panel. "Cabin pressure . . . cabin pressure. . . " Wait, now there are two: "Caution, terrain . . . caution, terrain. . . ." Holland looks puzzled behind his Black Flys sunglasses. "Wow, this is weird. Hmmm. Give me a second here. . . ."
Speaking of anxiety, the Offspring are back this Tuesday with "Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace," their first studio album in five years. It actually feels as if they have been gone longer. Pop-punk (like rap) is a genre for young fans and, to them, five years is not merely forever, it's the difference between middle school and college.
Then there's the pressure from "American Idiot." Green Day, rising above their dookie past, delivered a career masterpiece in 2004 with a concept album that sold 5-million copies, won rave reviews and even earned them a Grammy trophy for record of the year. Don't think Holland didn't notice. "I would not mention those two words to him," one of his hangar buddies says, " 'American' and 'Idiot.' I think he's heard them enough."
Try to imagine that "American Idiot" was the "Pet Sounds" of California pop-punk, which means the Offspring now need to deliver their "Sgt. Pepper" rebuttal. To do it, they brought in Bob Rock, the producer for Metallica for more than a decade. He's guided them to less tidy songs that take more structural chances. For the first single, they have taken a dark risk by releasing "Hammerhead," a disturbing twist-ending tale about a school-campus gunman.
Instead of the strafing guitars and body-count imagery, the band could have gone the easy commercial route along the lines of one of their bratty sing-along hits ("Why Don't You Get a Job," "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)"), but "Hammerhead" and its combat-zone sound seems right for the moment. The song has been an immediate hit at KROQ-FM (106.7) and it's gotten a foothold nationwide.
Jeff Pollack, an independent music consultant who has worked for years with MTV and VH1, says the single has been "instantly embraced," which was no mean feat considering the band's hiatus. "There was nothing automatic about it," Pollack says. "They've been out of the mix for a considerable amount of time. I think there's high hopes for that album."
Back in the sky, the robot voice is persistent. "Cabin pressure . . . cabin pressure. . . ." Holland is flashing that daft grin of his again. He dips the jet down closer to the desert floor and checks his readings. The robot voice goes away. "We're going to have to fly lower all the way home. I'll have my guys check that problem. It's not something to worry about, though. And the view is great, isn't it?"
HOLLAND knows this great place for a bowl of chili. It's a tumbleweed truck stop out in Chiriaco Summit, not far from the low-desert town of Indio. The restaurant sits out on Interstate 10 right next to an auto junkyard, an oil derrick and an unmanned airstrip. After making a low loop to check the tattered windsock, Holland brings his anarchy jet in for a smooth landing on the ribbon of asphalt, which has desert scrub clawing at its edges.
A few customers at the Chevron gas pumps in front of the restaurant crane their necks to study the Cessna and its pilot. That anarchy symbol (it's the letter "A" written in slash-style inside a circle) does catch the eye. Holland has landed his plane on four continents. "I haven't been able to write a song about flying. It just sounds cheesy. But for me there's nothing like being up there." Usually, he wanders foreign soil unrecognized, but there are surprises sometimes. He was sitting solemnly at Jim Morrison's grave site in Paris once when a French fan started humming "Why Don't You Get a Job." Holland groans at the memory. A scruffy teenager with a completely blank expression walks into the truck stop wearing, of all things, a Social Distortion T-shirt. Holland smirks. "How funny, that's where it all began."
Back in 1984, Social D, that venerable, hard-living punk outfit from Orange Country, was playing in Irvine. Holland and his buddy Greg Kriesel couldn't get past the door. The pair, both members of the cross-country track team at school, lived in the suburban doldrums of Garden Grove. They turned back home glum and cursing the night. That's when they decided to start their own punk band.
"We had no idea how to play instruments, of course, but we saved up and bought them anyway," Holland says. "We were awful. Just terrible. But you start figuring it out little by little." Soon, they brought in a guitarist named Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman whose great contribution to the outfit was his age -- he was older and could buy beer.
The band's name fit Holland's medical pursuits and for him, really, their raw punk project was just a hobby as he pursued his life-long dream to be a doctor. It was easy to think of it that way -- for 10 years, the Offspring slogged through the local scene. The late-night gigs made it hard for Holland to keep up with his intense post-graduate studies at USC and, when he became a teaching assistant there, he lied often to cover up his guitar-hero moonlighting.
Everything changed when KROQ picked up an Offspring song and, in a matter of weeks, they had a hit record in 1994. The song was "Come Out and Play," an infectious, stop-and-start anthem about glowering gangbangers whom Holland had seen in school corridors his whole life.
With its surf punk sensibility, intricate guitar lead and street scenes, the song jumped out of the radio. The band was booked to play the station's Weenie Roast, an all-star summer show, and things were beginning to take off.
"I remember at that Weenie Roast, they had this rotating stage, so they could just set up gear for the next band and, between sets, turn it and just go. The band James was right before us. I'm standing there waiting and when they rotated it I remember looking at the audience and thinking, 'This is it, this the moment.' And it was."
Noodles was working as a school janitor and Holland still assumed he would become a physician. Within three months, they were on the new path. The Offspring became known for strong melodies, Holland's piercing voice and, like the Ramones, a pop sensibility that came dressed in punk attire.
Holland says that not only did the Offspring find "a weird thing" going on with old friends and peers such as Pennywise and NOFX, but they also found plenty of fans sizing up the band's success with jaundiced eyes. Holland loved to hear his songs on the radio, but that didn't sit well with punk purists who wanted to stomp their boots, not tap their toes. Holland, though, is a big fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty, which underlines his attention to crowd-pleasing song craft. Theme-wise, Holland wanted to talk to the kids who had grown up like him, smart and suburban but wandering a world of adult temptations and street threats.
When the Offspring play live, there is no bigger crowd-pleaser than "Self-Esteem": The coiling bass and jagged guitar pull together around candid and eye-opening lyrics about a young man who loathes himself because he can't say no to the sexual advances of a girl who is plainly manipulating him. It's like Beck's "Loser" (released the same year, 1994), except in this self-deprecating tale, at least the protagonist is getting some action.
Well I guess I should speak up for myself
But I really think it's better this way
The more you suffer
The more it shows you really care
Right? Yeah, yeah.
Holland is proud that the song "said something that people connected with and it was something other people weren't singing about." But he bristles at the mention of the "sellout" label that came with all the radio hits.
"Who decides what is and what isn't punk? I want to write songs that people hear and feel and I want to be successful and reach a big audience," he says. "I'm not trying to be the coolest guy in the world, I'm trying to write songs that mean something to people. As you get successful, sometimes you lose one set of fans and gain another."
Now, when Holland talks to members of Pennywise and NOFX, the spirit is about surviving, not competition. "Everybody sort of settled into the place they wanted to be. NOFX realized they didn't want to be on the radio. It's very cool and comfortable. . . . Lord knows we've done better than we probably should have. Selling another 10 million albums is not a priority. Putting out something you're proud of is."
The power of friendship
WORDS OF wisdom: If you happen to own a fighter plane from Estonia, be sure you don't fly it over Los Angeles International Airport or any of the military bases that clutter the California map. "They don't like that. You don't want to get shot down. That's bad."
It's a different afternoon and Holland is ambling around a huge hangar he keeps at the Havasu airport. A giant USC flag hangs on the wall and, behind glass, there's a sleek little lounge dotted with vintage aviation artwork. It's got a bachelor pad vibe, as does much of Holland's life, although he has been married for 12 years to Kristine Holland, a hair stylist. There's a lot of stability in Holland's circles: The Huntington Beach resident remains close friends with two other founding members, guitarist Noodles and bassist Kriesel. Longtime drummer Ron Welty left the band in 2003, however, and there's tension surrounding that topic, although Holland says the move put the Offspring in "a better place."
Holland is wearing a jumpsuit that makes him look like an extra from "Top Gun." The plane itself is astonishing. It's slightly battered and covered in camouflage and when the engines fire up, it's pure thunder. The paint job vaguely reminds you of the jackets Joe Strummer wore when he was in the Clash, and what's more punk rock than that?
This is the last day Holland will be able to ride in the imported fighter plane (or, technically, the imported trainer, since it never had live guns affixed on it) before a European tour. He's dreading the television interviews. One inevitable question is about career plans, the long-term variety. He says he has no flight plan to share. "We're making music now really only because we want to and it's the music that we want to play and hear. We're not doing this for the money anymore, we're doing this because we're friends and we love it. The challenges come from inside the band now."
Columbia Records, like every major label, is in sore need of hit albums these days, and company Chairman Rick Rubin has taken a special interest in the Offspring release. He checked in with Holland and even offered some very specific advice on certain sections of certain songs. The band and its manager, Jim Guerinot, have been working intensely to ramp up to Tuesday's release and the European dates that follow it.
A few minutes later the plane is soaring across the sky. It feels amazing to pull two Gs in a needle-nosed plane with glass-canopy separating you from the sky. For a moment you feel each one of your internal organs, their outline and weight, and then they compress down into your torso. Holland is flashing that grin of his again, acting like an engineering grad student who blew off the summer session to design a better beer keg. "This is it, this is the ride. If you can't enjoy it, I don't understand."