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High-flying punk

Offspring singer Dexter Holland has his side gigs. But now it's time to come out and play.

June 15, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

IT TAKES a certain sort of idiot bravery (brave idiocy?) to board a small plane with a music star. There's just too much grim history to keep you on the tarmac. But what sort of lunatic would get into a plane with a rock star as the pilot?

Your captain and crew today will be Dexter Holland, the lead singer of the Offspring and a man who grins far too much to be completely trustworthy. Holland owns three planes, which suggests that punk music isn't quite the scabby affair it was when the Sex Pistols first plugged in. One of his planes is a sleek corporate jet with an anarchy symbol painted on the tail fin (nice touch) while another is a Soviet-era fighter plane imported from Estonia (um, hello, Homeland Security?).

Holland keeps his planes in tricked-out hangars in Long Beach and Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and, when he rolls out to the runway, heads turn and jaws drop, a fact that Holland plainly enjoys. He is full of surprises. He has a master's degree in molecular biology from USC and he owns a Newport Beach company, Gringo Bandito, that bottles 120 gallons a week of his hot sauce recipe. "It's on sale now at Albertsons, that's huge for us," said Holland, who also has been dabbling in software design for BlackBerrys that has led to a patent but, so far, no profits.

Oh yes, the soft-spoken 42-year-old also fronts a band that has quietly sold 16 million albums in the U.S. and, along with Green Day, ushered in the boom years of pop-punk which, if measured in MySpace pages, remains the most alluring guitar sound for young music fans and bands. But the band's commercial peak was a decade ago and it's fair to wonder if, careerwise, Holland and his band have their metaphorical landing gear down.

It's a crisp afternoon in Long Beach as Holland checks in with the control tower and goes over his flight plan for a quick dash out to the desert. The singer, blond and blue-eyed, has a steady gaze and soft, round features that make him a bit self-conscious, as does the commercial success of his band; punk rock is a scene in which soft is weak and mainstream is impure. Holland greets conversation on these topics with a grin that is friendly but also guarded.

Above Orange County, where he grew up, Holland is focused and relaxed -- he may be an amateur but he's logged enough hours to be certified to fly a 747. It's enough to make you stop fretting about Buddy Holly, Jim Croce, Patsy Cline, Ronnie Van Zant and the other musicians who went up in small planes but came back down the wrong way.

Then the robot voice starts coming from the control panel. "Cabin pressure . . . cabin pressure. . . " Wait, now there are two: "Caution, terrain . . . caution, terrain. . . ." Holland looks puzzled behind his Black Flys sunglasses. "Wow, this is weird. Hmmm. Give me a second here. . . ."

Speaking of anxiety, the Offspring are back this Tuesday with "Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace," their first studio album in five years. It actually feels as if they have been gone longer. Pop-punk (like rap) is a genre for young fans and, to them, five years is not merely forever, it's the difference between middle school and college.

Then there's the pressure from "American Idiot." Green Day, rising above their dookie past, delivered a career masterpiece in 2004 with a concept album that sold 5-million copies, won rave reviews and even earned them a Grammy trophy for record of the year. Don't think Holland didn't notice. "I would not mention those two words to him," one of his hangar buddies says, " 'American' and 'Idiot.' I think he's heard them enough."

Try to imagine that "American Idiot" was the "Pet Sounds" of California pop-punk, which means the Offspring now need to deliver their "Sgt. Pepper" rebuttal. To do it, they brought in Bob Rock, the producer for Metallica for more than a decade. He's guided them to less tidy songs that take more structural chances. For the first single, they have taken a dark risk by releasing "Hammerhead," a disturbing twist-ending tale about a school-campus gunman.

Instead of the strafing guitars and body-count imagery, the band could have gone the easy commercial route along the lines of one of their bratty sing-along hits ("Why Don't You Get a Job," "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)"), but "Hammerhead" and its combat-zone sound seems right for the moment. The song has been an immediate hit at KROQ-FM (106.7) and it's gotten a foothold nationwide.

Jeff Pollack, an independent music consultant who has worked for years with MTV and VH1, says the single has been "instantly embraced," which was no mean feat considering the band's hiatus. "There was nothing automatic about it," Pollack says. "They've been out of the mix for a considerable amount of time. I think there's high hopes for that album."

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