The 'Americana' Dream : Post-Hoopla, the Offspring Settles Into Normal Music-Making

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A tornado touched down in the spring of 1994 and whisked the Offspring off to Oz, or to some previously uncharted region of the musical universe where a scrappy little punk band with a meager recording budget could sell more than 11 million records--the worldwide haul for the Orange County band's breakthrough album, "Smash."

Fewer Munchkins embraced last year's follow-up release, "Ixnay on the Hombre." Still, the album's worldwide sales of 3 million (983,000 in the U.S., compared with 5.2 million for "Smash," according to the Sound Scan monitoring service) was a far cry from being stuck back in Kansas, or, in the Offspring's case, Garden Grove.

One of the guiding thoughts behind the making of the Offspring's fifth album, "Americana," which arrives in stores today, is that there's no place like home--if home is construed as a normal way of making music, free from the pressure of trying to follow up a precedent-setting blockbuster.

"It was time for us to be a band," said Dexter Holland, the Offspring's singer and songwriter. "All the hoopla was over, people had made up their minds, and we could go about making the next record."

Holland, 32, admits a twinge of disappointment at the slackening of sales--"a little part of you is thinking, 'Maybe we can do it again' "--but likes the idea that the critically well-received "Ixnay" afforded the Offspring a reasonably intact landing from their balloon flight into previously uncharted commercial territory for punk rock.

The Offspring was the first band that proved Orange County's rock scene wasn't Kansas anymore, and No Doubt's subsequent success, followed by Sublime, Sugar Ray and numerous other major and indie-label luminaries, confirmed the scene's transformation from an overlooked blip on the map to a recognized center of activity. On Halloween night, Holland's driveway in Huntington Beach became rock star central, as he stood and chatted with two guests at the party he'd thrown: Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, and her beau, Gavin Rossdale of Bush.

"She was a black evil fairy or something, and he wasn't dressed up because he's English," Holland, who presided as a '40s-style gangster, said puckishly. "The only thing we talked about [relating to being a target for backlash due to overwhelming success] was the German press. They're very blunt. I asked Gavin if they were as rude to him as they were to us.

"Most of the press makes such a big deal out of success or failure based on record sales," Holland said as he and bandmate Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman sat at a long, red-finished table in a conference room at Nitro Records, the Huntington Beach-based label Holland launched with some of his Offspring loot. "Obviously, we like [being a band] for other reasons: the fact kids like the records and relate to the music. Having a kid in the front row know the songs is an amazing thing."

Draped over an empty, blue-upholstered swivel chair was a custom sweatshirt that a fan had sent in as a gift, with "The Offspring" lovingly embroidered above a hand-painted likeness of the four members--Holland, bassist Greg Kriesel (who founded the band with him in 1984), Wasserman and drummer Ron Welty.

With "Americana," Holland, blond, blue-eyed and smiling as usual, and the personable Wasserman, who at 35 comes off as a guy who could be on your company softball team, even if he does sport a pierced nose and more metal on his wrists than a prisoner in lock-down, said they sought to give fans more of what they already liked about the band, while pushing out a bit in different directions.

"It's always a fine line between doing something that's recognizable as the Offspring, and stagnating," Holland said. "We try to do a little bit on both sides of the line."

Suburbia's Dark Side

Thematically, "Americana" covers familiar turf for the Offspring, with an assortment of embattled anthems against pressures to knuckle under and conform, snide comic pokes at posers and deadbeats, a couple of anguished cries from the heart over a suicide's death and, in "The Kids Aren't Alright," the dark side of the suburban dream--drawn from real-life stories of death, failure, burnout and unfulfilled promise among peers who grew up alongside the Offspring in Garden Grove.

Musically, Holland, one of the master craftsmen in hard rock, again arrays his catchy vocal hooks, guitar riffs and novelty effects skillfully enough to carry a listener through an entire album without boredom setting in. One newly tapped stylistic approach comes on "Why Don't You Get a Job?," a calypso-tinged song that takes the place of the lighthearted ska moments on both "Smash" and "Ixnay." (Wasserman plays steel drums on the song, which will put many listeners in mind of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and Paul Simon's "Cecilia.") Another is "Pay the Man," an eight-minute trip that psychedelicizes the Offspring's long-standing fascination with "Miserlou"-like snake-charmer guitar figures from the Middle East, and also continues the Jane's Addiction-like yelping and heavy, but syncopated shuffle rhythms heard on some bits of "Ixnay."

The most obvious example of the Offspring going over previous ground is their current hit, "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," which repeats the catchy brew of sarcasm, novelty appeal, Latin-ish grooving and hard-rock riff-slinging that powered the band's career-making hit, "Come Out and Play."

"Yes and no," Holland said when asked if it was a deliberate attempt to repeat that winning formula. (There's lots of precedent for bands doing classy knockoffs of big hits: Think of the Kinks' many wonderful sequels to "You Really Got Me" in the mid-'60s, or Blue Oyster Cult cooking up "Burnin' for You" from the same recipe as "(Don't Fear) The Reaper.")

"I was sure some people would say it sounded like 'Come Out and Play,' [because of] a similar Latino influence. I wanted to take it further than 'Come Out and Play,' with more percussion. I thought 'Come Out and Play' was a unique song nobody had done before. We kind of invented it. If someone's going to give us [grief] about [repeating] something that was unique or novel, I'm not going to lose sleep at night."

"If you're going to rip anybody off, rip yourself off," Wasserman said.

'Twin Peaks' Neighborhood

For "The Kids Aren't Alright," a tale of dashed dreams, Holland appropriated the stories of contemporaries from his Garden Grove neighborhood, changing names and circumstances to keep the song from being too much a documentary about the underside of life in the supposedly safely insulated suburbs.

"One kid had a nervous breakdown, another died in an auto accident, another was on crack and killed his sister," Holland said. "These were people I knew, or maybe who Ron knew. It's always weird to go back there. [The song idea] kind of hit me as I was going through the streets and driving by the houses" that contained sad or harsh memories.

Wasserman didn't want to elaborate on his memories of the people who inspired the song. "My parents live around the corner [from Holland's family home] in the house where I grew up. My neighbors read what you write, so I'd better watch it."

Wasserman said that the notion of kids from that comfortable place ending up badly leaves him not so much shocked as saddened. "You grow up hoping you and your friends have a bright future."

"The neighborhood looks like 'Happy Days,' but it's really 'Twin Peaks,' " Holland said. "A lot of weird stuff goes on, and maybe you never get over it. They're going to be [mad] now: 'You made our neighborhood look bad.' That's not the point. It's a certain reality, a false illusion we're trying to point out."

In some quarters of the punk rock neighborhood, the Offspring became pariahs for selling lots of records, then jumping to a major conglomerate label, Columbia, after relations soured with Epitaph Records, the small independent label that launched them. Holland won't let purist critics define whether his band fits in.

"I'm stoked and proud I came out of Orange County and was raised on that [punk] scene," he said, ticking off T.S.O.L., the Adolescents, the Vandals and other home-grown influences.

Stirring Up Concert Crowds

With punk having been subsumed into the great selling machine of modern rock, the Offspring tries to play shows that create some of the old sense of spontaneity--or even danger. It has become Holland's habit, at certain shows, to incite the crowd to hurl trash or rush the stage--moves that could come back to haunt him should anything go wrong, given the litigious nature that is one of the less pleasant manifestations of Americana.

But taking risks has enabled the Offspring to steal the show at some big festivals. The most clear-cut memory of the 1997 KROQ Weenie Roast is the shower of cups, plastic bottles and assorted soaked, stained and yucky debris raining on the band and the Irvine Meadows audience at Holland's command.

"My first response was, 'My parents are out in this,' " Wasserman recalled.

For a concert to be really exhilarating, Holland said, "there should be a little danger associated with it. It's a [reaction] to the whole political correctness now. You can't do anything because somebody might get hurt. It gets so stifling after a while. Part of the point is to say, 'Come on.' [The show] sometimes approaches that line of danger versus freedom. We've been lucky so far."

Holland also has been "tempting fate," as he jokingly puts it, by learning to pilot a small airplane, which is now his regular means of transportation to and from gigs.

Holland Goes Hollywood

Fate has caught up with him, on celluloid, in the Offspring's film debut in an upcoming horror picture, "Idle Hands."

"I'm scalped by the killer, a dismembered hand that's going around killing people," said Holland, who showed patience for the makeup rituals of filmic gore--a four-hour ordeal so he could look mangled.

"They molded my head with a fake scalp. They asked if I was a vegetarian, if they could put chicken parts on my head, because it looks good on camera. Hey, anything for art."

* The Offspring and Unwritten Law play tonight at the Palace, 1753 N. Vine St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Also 8 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday. Sold out. The same bands play Saturday at the Glass House, 200 W. 2nd St., Pomona. 8 p.m. Sold out. (909) 469-5802.

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