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O.C. Pop Beat

Helping Make Offspring a Smash

August 25, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In judging Thom Wilson by his cover, there is only one question to resolve: Is this tall, lanky fellow merely a middle-aged Deadhead, or is he one of those poor souls who went to the original Woodstock and never quite made it back?

The beard is long and bushy, the hair wavy and graying. Grin marks frame the eyes. Furrows have been worn into the prominent forehead. The feet are sandaled, of course. Wrapped around his left wrist are strands of large, tan prayer beads that are not there just for effect but are part of his ritual as a Tibetan Buddhist.

As he sits on the tailgate of a sound truck on the Studio City television lot where he works, the only thing out of place in this vision of pure hippiedom is his T-shirt. "Offspring," it says, the name of the band that recently emerged as the biggest thing in punk rock.

What--are all the tie-dyed shirts in the laundry? Has our 42-year-old borrowed these punker threads from a teen-age offspring of his own? Dad must be disappointed that the boy is into those loud, screaming hellions. Think of all the father-son bonding they could be doing on caravan with Jerry Garcia and the boys.

In fact, if one bothers to converse with Wilson rather than just size him up by his looks, one quickly finds that he and his older boy, 16-year-old Tai, did go out on a rock 'n' roll tour this summer to do the father-son bonding thing.

It wasn't to follow the Dead, but to work with the Offspring. The band from Orange County invited Wilson along to mix its concerts, figuring that nobody knows better than he how the band ought to sound. Wilson has, after all, produced all three Offspring albums, including "Smash," the one that has astonished everybody by selling 1 million copies in four months, establishing the heretofore unknown group as the leader, with Green Day, of an unprecedented wave of commercial success for punk.

"I trust Thom more than anybody else," says Bryan Holland, the Offspring's singer and songwriter. "The whole band feels more confident with him back there."

Wilson has a great deal of experience making punk bands sound good. In the early 1980s, he guided such important O.C. groups as the Adolescents, T.S.O.L. and the Vandals through recordings that have held up as punk rock standards.

None of those albums was a huge seller, punk historically having belonged to a hard-core cult rather than a mainstream audience. Among the cultists, though, were the four members of the Offspring, who went to a great deal of trouble to find Wilson in 1989, when they were unknown, untutored and about to make their first album.

By then, Wilson had abandoned record production and was making his living as a sound engineer for network television programs. Now that the Offspring are famous, Wilson's production work is all over radio and MTV and he thinks his days hanging around television studios may be numbered.

*

Rule No. 1 of the music industry is "give the people what they want." At the moment, a lot of people suddenly are showing a preference for melodic punk rock, and producers with a knack for it are apt to be in demand for a while. Wilson (who cut the three Offspring albums for an aggregate sum of about $40,000) notes that he has just hired a manager to start fielding inquiries from bands and record companies that might want to hire him.

"It's interesting to see how people rally around you when there's a platinum record," he says in his mild, unassuming way. "The Offspring record has really skewed the entire industry. I don't think people know what to make of it yet, but they think they want to get in on it."

Judging Wilson by his resume will lead you as far astray of the mark as judging him by his appearance. When he marshaled the Offspring last February for the final recording onslaught on "Smash," he had just come off a grueling series of all-nighters doing the final music mix for a Christmas television special by that mighty thrash-merchant, Perry Como.

After balancing tapes of the 81-year-old Mr. Mellow crooning songs for "Perry Como's Irish Christmas" backed by a 70-piece orchestra and a 300-voice choir, Wilson immediately was immersed in shout-along choruses, power chords and pummeling kick drums. Who says you gotta keep 'em separated?

The path that would lead Wilson to punk rock and Perry Como started in 1973 when he dropped out of San Diego State, where he had been majoring in English, and moved to Los Angeles with friends who had come into some money and decided to build a recording studio.

Wilson helped them build it, then stuck around to learn how to run it. His first important gig as an assistant engineer came in 1975 when he helped twiddle knobs and set up microphones during sessions for Boz Scaggs' "Silk Degrees," one of the biggest-selling albums of the decade.

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