By Dan Weiss
Single Again is a new column on Radio.com where Dan Weiss investigates chart hits of the past and present, their stories and what they meant and how good they really are.
For this edition of Single Again, Radio.com spoke Dexter Holland of the Offspring about his band’s back-to-back 1994 hits “Come Out and Play” and “Self-Esteem,” which helped the parent album Smash become the best-selling indie album of all time at over 12 million copies sold worldwide. Smash turns 20 this year, and the band just released a 20th Anniversary Reissue of the album.
Radio.com: You guys are doing Smash from start to finish every night for its 20th anniversary. Are there any songs you’re nervous about playing or had to relearn from scratch?
Dexter Holland: Well, some of these songs we’ve played quite a bit over the years, but there’s a couple we didn’t play very much. There’s one way towards the back of the album we’ve never played live, so we actually had to learn that one.
Which one was that?
That one’s called “Not the One.”
Yeah, not the most popular song on the album but surprisingly, it’s been going over well since we’ve been playing it.
What do you remember being so different about writing the songs for Smash? They seemed be funnier and more aware of an audience than the Offspring’s stuff before.
Oh gosh, I don’t know. I think we were just trying real hard, you know? We always had been — I’m really proud of the Ignition record — but I think Smash was for sure a better record, we were getting better at writing songs and stuff. I think when you’re first starting you stick to the script a little more, and our script was definitely more middle-of-the-road punk rock and stuff. “Dirty Magic” was a little out there and there was a little humor in songs like “Burn It Up” so I think we expanded on that stuff more on Smash.
How did you find the higher register you sing in?
Boy, that was a mistake. My voice is shot out every night now. [laughs] We started a band without knowing how to play, or even having instruments. And then deciding what you like and growing into who you are as a band. Growing up we were learning how to play Dead Kennedys songs and TSOL songs, stuff like that. I did a song called “Elders” off the very first Offspring record in a high register and it sounded a little more gnarly, so I kind of went in that direction after that.
Was it an angry or a happy time for you when you were writing the material for Smash? The songs seemed to deal with serious issues in a not-so-serious way.
I would say it was rushed time. We did Ignition and it went out there and Epitaph shipped like 10,000 copies which was an insane number of records at the time—and actually nowadays they’d probably say they’re good numbers still. But after that it just kind of sat out there, it didn’t really do anything, there wasn’t a lot of reorders, we couldn’t tell what was going on but it was just like…simmering. After nine months things just started to pick up and started to gain steam and Epitaph was like, you should probably get a record out in a certain amount of time and not wait like three years. And all of a sudden there was a lot of shows for us to do and people wanted to see the band and we’re going on tour with Pennywise and we also had to record this record which I had written a lot of, but not finished. We did all of Smash in about three weeks.
Did you ever worry about sarcastic songs being taken seriously? It’s hard to imagine a song that goes “hope you like my genocide” coming out today. I feel like you guys just missed the cutoff for controversies like Marilyn Manson or Beavis and Butt-head.
[laughs] Maybe! I feel like with a song like — I know this isn’t Smash but — “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)” for example, even people who didn’t get it, they still got it in a way, even if they took it the wrong way. A brilliant song by the Dead Kennedys was called “I Kill Children,” right? And anyone who knew anything about punk rock — I was 17 years old and I knew he was just kidding around, he was just being dramatic, ridiculous…and that’s what was so fun about it. But I remember the PMRC went nuts on that song. As obvious as it was sarcasm, they couldn’t see, so they kind of won on both levels.
As someone who was 12 or 13 when I discovered that album, I can definitely testify that part of the appeal was the delight hearing all those curse words in a row. When you started reaching a mass audience, were you shocked how young some of them were?
You know what? Kids like to cuss. I was very aware that when I was writing “Bad Habit,” but I didn’t really think about it that much. I was as surprised as anyone when it started going to a wider audience. I certainly didn’t expect that—the limit of that universe at the time was Bad Religion. They sold like, 200,000 records and we were like, what if we just sold 100,000 records? Anything beyond that was really a shock to us.
So how did “Come Out and Play” come about?
Yeah, that was the last song I wrote for that album, and I was trying to figure out how to put it together. I liked the main riff, but musically it bounces around a lot. The verses are kind of like a rap almost, more spoken than sung. And then there’s that Middle Eastern riff or whatever you want to call it, which is very Southern California, going all the way back to Dick Dale, and we’d messed with some of that stuff in previous records. I guess I was trying to come up with something in a different way, that would grab you with all these elements. The “keep ‘em separated” element was just because I wanted it so there was a stop, with something fun to say in the middle. That just kind of came to me at school one day. So all those things, but you never know if it’s gonna work. You just have to go into the studio like “this might sound weird but let’s try it anyway.”
And it was your roadie that said that part?
It was actually a friend of ours, who was more like a fan, from a very Latin, gang-related neighborhood. We became friends because he was in our face always yelling for certain songs — he always wanted us to play stuff from our first album. He would come to the T-shirt stand afterward — back then you had easy access to the band. We were gonna hire a voiceover guy but he had that accent so I thought we should give him a shot, his name’s Blackball. He did a take, that was pretty much it. Did it a second time and that’s the one you hear.
What was the controversy with the guy from Agent Orange about the Arabian scale riff in the song? You admitted his influence, and even covered their song “Bloodstain” later, but he was demanding recognition for “sampling” it?
I guess they were gonna sue us? I don’t think he ever did. The first punk record I ever got was a record my older brother brought home called Rodney on the Rock. It had the Adolescents, Agent Orange, the Circle Jerks. They were one of the bands we really liked and listened to, that record was very L.A., and I did like that song. But it’s a shame that they came back and said we had ripped them off, because they had one song out of many of their songs where they did that kind of surf thing. They’re hardly the first band to do that sort of thing — like I said, for me it goes back to Dick Dale, that stuff — but they felt it was close to one of their songs. I guess it was the same scale but we even had the song sent out to one of those music experts who decides if the songs are the same or whatnot, and he said no, absolutely not. We knew we hadn’t done anything wrong but yeah, when one band starts breaking out and everyone acts differently. Some were supportive of us, some I could tell were jealous. There was a band on the East Coast who said we ripped off one of their songs, what was their name? They were a Boston band and the song was called “Panty Raid.”
You used voices again that way in “Pretty Fly” and “Original Prankster.” Was that the same guy?
Nah, that was our roadie. His name is Higgins, he goes way back with us.
One of the nice things about the Offspring is that so many bands come off like they take themselves more and more seriously as they get successful and with you guys it seemed like the opposite.
Thank you, that’s…a nice way of phrasing it.
Did you have any kind of aspirations to be a comedian or do voice-overs?
No, no, not at all. I’ve never thought of it like that. The closest thing to humor of the bands we liked was the Dead Kennedys, but they had a very sarcastic tone. For me, there were so many bands I loved in punk rock, with a lot of great energy but not a lot of great songs. And I wanted us to be a very diverse band, with a different sound from album to album. You can’t write funny songs all the time, that could be tiresome.
That brings us to “Self-Esteem,” which didn’t really sound like anything you’d done before that. Is there a true story behind that or a person who inspired it?
Sort of. When I talk to people it’s interesting how they think that anything a guy writes is autobiographical, which of course it’s not, it could be something you’ve made up off the top of your head, or combined stories.
Were any of the images taken from real life, like taking her back and making dessert?
The thing where late at night she knocks on my door was real, and practicing all the things you would say was a funny thing that had happened before.
Did you practice things you would say before dates?
Well…we all have haven’t we?
Speak for yourself.
Is there a line in that song that people tell you resonates with them a lot?
It was around the time as Beck’s “Loser” so maybe the self-deprecating thing that was happening back then was just something everyone could relate to, because everyone has felt like the “loser” in their relationship.
Speaking of similar riffs, Bush’s “Little Things” came out at almost exactly the same time as “Self-Esteem” and I always wondered if either you or them was annoyed at the riff’s similarities?
I’m pretty familiar with Bush songs but I don’t remember a Bush song sounding like that. It’s called “Little Things,” eh?
It’s got almost the same four chords, but one’s inverted or changes in a different place or something. It sounds a lot more similar to that than Agent Orange does to “Come Out and Play.”
Well, f–k, I should sue Bush, shouldn’t I?
Someone should sue someone at least.
[laughs] Bastard! Well, we were before Bush, we were before.
Finally, someone would kill me if I didn’t ask about your braids at the time of Smash. Would you do them all over again if you could?
Nah, that was a point in time right? We were all doing wacky stuff back then and I thought it was fun, and you’re doing whatever you can to stand out at that time right? Let’s just put it that way, it’s not the kind of look that can work forever. Let’s just say that by time the kids from Hanson started doing it I knew it was over.