As 1994 began, the Offspring were just another obscure punk band hoping they could make it to the next gig without a mechanical breakdown.
The bus motor would seize up on the road to Bakersfield. The transmission would give out en route to Arizona. When they finally got the engine rebuilt, the four band members drove across country on a winter tour, shivering all the way because they couldn't get the heater to work.
"It was awful, but it would cost too much to fix it," said drummer Ron Welty. "We were punk about it."
With its school bus body still bearing the green paint job and Holiday Inn logo from its previous incarnation as a hotel shuttle, the Offspring's chariot now sits ready in a cul-de-sac in a peaceful suburban subdivision. This time it has to be in good working order: Suddenly, the Offspring appear to be going places.
A few weeks ago, alternative-rock station KROQ put the band's song "Come Out and Play" into regular rotation, playing it every three or four hours. That rare break for a punk band on a small, independent label already is having a ripple effect. Following KROQ's lead, stations around the country are picking up on this insinuating, deftly constructed track. The Offspring's fortunes had been on the rise even before "Come Out and Play" started generating numerous request calls from KROQ listeners. While band members Welty, Bryan Holland, Greg Kriesel and Kevin Wasserman were trying to stay warm on their bus last winter, sales of their 1992 release, "Ignition," were heating up. The Offspring's label, Epitaph Records, had managed to place several songs from the album with producers who make action videos for fans of surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding.
The payoff was almost immediate. According to Holland, the band's singer and songwriter, in a matter of four months sales shot from 16,000 to 46,000--an impressive total for an independent punk release.
"We were selling to the punkers, and we hit this group of people we didn't know existed," Holland said. "They're real enthusiastic, and there's tons of them. It's a pleasant surprise."
There was only one drawback as the Offspring began delving into surf-skate-snowboard culture: Newly introduced to the sport, Welty broke his right arm about a month ago on a snowboarding run at Big Bear. He was punk about it, though: When the Offspring were flown to Valdez, Alaska, recently to play at a snowboarding convention, Welty, who couldn't hold a stick, kept the beat by attaching one to his cast.
When "Smash," the band's third album, came out in mid-April, there was a substantial corps of new fans waiting for it. Andy Kaulkin, Epitaph's marketing director, says 75,000 copies have been shipped to stores.
The label, which has been hailed for its ability to top the 100,000 sales mark with hard-core faves Bad Religion and Pennywise, smells the possibility of a hit that could cross over to the much larger alternative crowd (as always, MTV will be the final arbiter of that). Billboard's "Heatseekers" chart, which maps the progress of new and developing artists, pegged "Smash" as the hottest-selling record in that category in the Pacific region last week and placed it at No. 16 nationally.
Major labels are already sniffing around, as they have been wont to do with promising indie bands since Nirvana showed how lucrative a melodic, punk-leaning sound could be.
The Offspring don't seem to be letting any of this go to their heads. Sitting around a table last weekend in the pleasant, walled-in back yard of the home where bassist Kriesel grew up, they came off as a relaxed, down-to-earth, good-natured bunch who are eager to see what happens next but have no great hankering for rock stardom.
After playing in obscurity for most of their 10-year existence, the Offspring see a touch of absurdity in their suddenly unfolding success. Wasserman was nonplussed after Holland finished quoting the band's KROQ airplay statistics: "A tinny little punk band from O.C.?"
The Offspring seem an unlikely bunch to be playing punk rock, let alone making a success of it.
With his long, blond hair and pink and dimpled cheeks, Holland looks more like a candidate to play John Boy in a remake of "The Waltons" than somebody you'd expect to see howling above a teeming mosh pit. At 28, he is a doctoral candidate in microbiology at USC, but if he ever went back to the band's common alma mater, Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, the cherubic rocker would probably be asked to produce a hall pass. He uses "Dexter" as his stage name: "I thought 'Dexter' was cool, because it's geeky," he explained.
Lead guitarist Wasserman, 31, wears eyeglasses with thick frames, and his hair falls far down his back--two things he has in common with that bona fide geek, Garth of "Wayne's World" fame. Drummer Welty is 23 and boyish despite his Vandyke beard. Kriesel, 29, has intense, deep-set eyes and a clipped haircut, making him the only member who looks the punker type.
Nevertheless, the Offspring's punk roots run deep, and are largely home-grown.
In high school, when an older brother brought home some early Orange County punk records, Holland was smitten by the melodic sound of such bands as Agent Orange, the Adolescents and T.S.O.L. Kriesel, his buddy from the school cross-country team, soon came to share his enthusiasm.
Killing time one night in 1984 after failing to get into a sold-out Social Distortion concert at UC Irvine, the two decided to take up instruments and start their own band. They called it Manic Subsidal, then changed the name to the Offspring when they got nothing but blank looks ("Manic Sub-what?") from the few folks who even took notice. Wasserman joined in 1985, and Welty, all of 16 at the time, took over on drums in 1987. The other members had to get his grandmother's permission before they could take him on road trips.
For its first album, in 1990, the band sought out producer Thom Wilson, wanting to work with the man who had overseen favorite recordings by the Adolescents, T.S.O.L., the Vandals and Dead Kennedys. By then, Wilson was making his living as an audio engineer for network television shows and hadn't produced a punk record in years. But he was flattered that the Offspring were fans of his work, and he saw possibilities in the band.
"They were very raw, but they had a real spark of promise that I recognized immediately," Wilson said from his home near Santa Cruz. "I liked the way they phrased things, the germ ideas of songs."
By 1992, Holland had learned to craft catchy, sing-along chorus melodies for songs that typically offer acerbic but alert commentaries on everything from geopolitics to relationship pitfalls to the difficulty of remaining an individual in a world that rewards conformity. After striking out in efforts to land a record deal, the band caught the ear of Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, who signed them to his label, Epitaph.
About half of "Ignition" rose above standard hard-core pummeling. With "Smash," the Offspring have come into their own with a full album's worth of solid songs. Many of the tracks feature not just one good musical hook but several, and Holland carries them with an interesting voice, part reedy and part chesty, that calls to mind a less bleaty Ozzy Osbourne.
Continuing to work with producer Wilson on all three albums, the Offspring learned to arrange their material in a way that seduces as well as it hammers; the band can deliver an aural bludgeoning when it counts but also can hold and surprise the listener with a progression of musical ideas. "Come Out and Play" is an especially strong example.
It starts with a sparse, funky beat, then tosses in a catchy, quotable spoken tag line--"you gotta keep 'em separated"--that any rapper would love to have come up with. Next, the band uncoils a snaky, Arabic guitar figure inspired by Agent Orange by way of Dick Dale's "Misirlou." Then it gets into meaty rock guitar rhythms that recall the Kinks' "Destroyer." With all this going on, the lyrics are secondary, but they deliver a sardonic broadside against the idiocy of settling disputes with gunplay:
By the time you hear the siren, it's already too late.
One goes to the morgue, and the other to jail,
One guy's wasted, and the other's a waste.
With success looming, the Offspring are starting to make certain adjustments.
The band is preparing for a degree of backlash from those in the punk crowd who think any exposure beyond the hard-core clique amounts to betrayal.
"That's unique to punk," Holland said. "As soon as you get popular, there's a small part of the audience that will turn against you: 'Those guys are on KROQ now. I hate 'em.' "
Mounting sales have allowed Welty to quit his job at a muffin shop and Kriesel to stop working as a printer.
"My girlfriend and parents are actually excited now because they think I'm going to buy them things," Welty said. Wasserman, the head custodian at an elementary school, is taking a leave of absence. Like Welty, he has a young child to support.
Holland is the one left in something of a bind. The rock 'n' roll road beckons, but so do the viruses he is trying to clone in his doctoral research.
(It's a nice irony that one of the first Orange County punk songs widely heard on KROQ was "Amoeba," the 1980 Adolescents anthem in which a sentient microbe, symbolic of hounded punk youth, plots vengeance against the scientist who has been treating it as a worthless specimen. Now punk is mainstream and respectable, and the author and singer of the latest local punk hit is, in fact, a scientist who pokes around with microbes. Holland hopes his virus-cloning research will have applications in the treatment of genetic diseases.)
Holland said he called Greg Graffin, Bad Religion's singer, for advice on juggling punk rock and academia. Graffin is pursuing a doctorate in evolutionary biology at Cornell.
"It's hard to do both," Holland said. "He took a leave of absence. I don't think I could get away with it" because his studies require regular laboratory work. "If it comes down to it, I'm going to quit school, because I don't want to pass up what's happening now."
* The Offspring and Guttermouth play May 26 at the Whisky, 8901 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Show time: 8 p.m. $13. (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).