As 1994 began, the Offspring was just another obscure punk band hoping it could make it to the next gig without its bus breaking down.
The 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," recalled drummer Ron Welty, 23. "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 Orange County subdivision. This time it has to be in good working order: Suddenly, the Offspring appears to be going places.
In April, KROQ, the alternative-rock station, put the band's song "Come Out and Play" into regular rotation, playing it every three or four hours. It's a rare break for a punk band on a small, independent label, but the song is a rare combination of punk rawness and pop savvy--an insinuating, deftly constructed track that grabs a listener's interest and holds it with a succession of catchy, diverse musical hooks.
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.
When "Smash," the Offspring'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. Now 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).
The Offspring's members don't seem to be letting any of this go to their heads. Sitting around a table 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, whose members range in age from 23 to 31, 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 OC"?
The band began in 1984, inspired by such local precursors as the Adolescents, Agent Orange and T.S.O.L. By 1992, Holland had learned to write 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 conformism.
With "Smash," the Offspring has come into its own, crafting a full album of solid songs. Many of the tracks feature not just one good musical hook, but several. Holland, who clones viruses in his parallel life as a Ph.D candidate at USC, fronts the band with an interesting voice, part reedy and part chesty, that calls to mind a less bleating Ozzy Osbourne.
"It's hard to do both," Holland said of possible conflicts between punk rock and microbiology. "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 is on the bill for the KROQ "Weenie Roast," June 11 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.