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‘Let The Bad Times Roll’: Dexter Holland on The Offspring’s New Album, 30+ Years in Punk Rock & Beyond (Q&A)
Since emerging from sun-soaked Orange County, Calif. in the mid-1980s and making the jump to a mainstream punk-rock institution with 1994’s Smash, The Offspring has always been a band unafraid to hold a mirror up to our collective human experience.
Hit records, radio anthems (including “Self Esteem,” “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” “Why Don’t You Get A Job?,” “The Kids Aren’t Alright,” to name just a few) and international success to the tune of 40 million+ records sold has helped The Offspring endure and outlast many of their peers, all the while remaining true to their musical vision. Let the Bad Times Roll, so named in reference to some of the circumstances of the world over the past few years (as well as long-lingering issues still felt globally), is the group’s new studio album, its tenth overall and first since 2012’s Days Go By.
For a look at what went into the break between albums, why the world needs a new Offspring record in 2021 and beyond, enjoy Rock Cellar’s new feature interview with front man Dexter Holland.
Rock Cellar: Before we get started, I have to admit I’m a little intimidated for this interview. You have a PhD, sure, and your music is famous the world over for 25+ years, but I’ve never interviewed somebody with his own hot sauce(“Gringo Bandito”) before.
Dexter Holland: [laughs] That’s the intimidating part.
Rock Cellar: Of course. So, Let the Bad Times Roll. It’s the title of your new album and the lead single. Is it safe to say that’s a reaction from The Offspring to the state of things in the U.S. the past few years, and maybe even some of the news headlines regarding Huntington Beach lately?
Dexter Holland: Well, kind of yes to both of those. There’s two ways of interpreting that. First is, how could we put out an album now and not talk about what’s been going on the last few years, right? It’s the elephant in the room. And I don’t mean like, this isn’t a song about a certain administration or whatever. There are things going on all around the world, and in a way I think the song’s about oppression, really. We’re seeing that in Hong Kong, the Ukraine, around the world these things are going on. We’ve also had this year of social upheaval, and oh, on top of that, let’s throw in a pandemic.
It’s like oh my god, what else can you throw at us?
In that sense, Let the Bad Times Roll just seemed to sum up the state of the world. We felt like … it’s not just a referendum on what’s happened the past few years. We’re not out of the woods yet, you know? We’re still facing these challenges, we’re still trying to get vaccinated. It was just a couple months ago that the Capitol riots happened, along with everything else.
The bad times, they’re still rolling.
Rock Cellar: Listening to the song and album, that type of theme comes up frequently. And when you compare a song like “Genocide,” from 27 years ago, to “Let The Bad Times Roll,” both are concerned with humans’ self-destructive nature while also calling for unity as an underlying message. And the first track on the new record, “This Is Not Utopia,” ends with the line Now how long must we wait/Until our conquers hate?/And heal these hearts ’cause it starts right here.
The fact that you can basically write songs 30 years apart that that tackle the same concept really tells the story itself.
Dexter Holland: That’s a story, too. Thank you for making that connection, I hadn’t thought of that. I do keep that in mind when I’m writing songs. If it just goes bitch, bitch, bitch, then after a while that’s not helpful, it’s not useful. So we try to put something at the end like “well, we can get through this,” or expressing that there’s hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, and those songs definitely have that. Divisiveness is the name of the game right now in the U.S., that’s for sure.
Rock Cellar: And I was thinking that you’ve already used the phrase “Shit is fucked up” before, but otherwise that could’ve been a viable album title for this one.
Dexter Holland: [laughter] We thought shit was fucked up whenever that was, ten years ago. We had no idea.
Rock Cellar: The songs on this new record, some of the tracks have been kicking around in various formats over the years. I know “The Opioid Diaries,” one of the hardest-hitting tracks here, is a song the Offspring has played live for a few years. So there’s some brand new material, a few pre-existing songs, a bridge from a demo in 1986 on “Hassan Chop” … how did this album’s layout and structure come about?
Dexter Holland: Yeah. Well, I write all the time, and we have been recording off and on ever since the last record. I think the majority of this stuff came together in the last couple years. We still travel quite a bit when there was touring, in the Before Times, and I decided to go back to school, too. I realized I had a chance to finish the degree I had started, but I could tell the window was going to close, the opportunity wouldn’t be there forever to go back to USC. So I was doing that, and in between we would write songs, and at one point we knew it’d been a few years so we decided to release “Coming for You” as a single.
Especially back in that time, five years ago, everybody was doing EPs. “Oh, who cares, let’s put out the singles, or an EP. Nobody’s buying albums anymore anyway,” so we did it for that one song but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like us. It felt like we should be putting out an album. An album represents who we are as band, and it can represent and encapsulate a moment in time, and we do stuff like “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which has to be part of an album. Albums enable you to be able to do things like that, show different sides of your band that you couldn’t if you were just releasing singles.
It was involving because we took a little bit of time finishing up this record. Sometimes, when you’re working on something, inspiration can come from wherever, it could even be from an old song, like “Wait, I have this cool Middle Eastern-sounding part that I wrote a long time ago and never used,” and it just happened to fit into that one song [“Hassan Chop”], so that’s kind of a funny example of a really old part landing in a new song. You never know where it’s going to come from.
Rock Cellar: I saw something online about “We Never Have Sex Anymore,” is that one from the Americana era?
Dexter Holland: That one’s been kicked around for a long time. I just thought it was a funny line, I used to play it on an acoustic guitar when I was in my twenties, just messing around. We were never sure exactly how to put it together as a song, until … well, it kept evolving. I like it in this swing music context, to give it that lighthearted, musical backdrop, or else it would come across as a depressing song. Trying to put a song together like that, with a swing element, frankly was beyond us back then. So I think it just took time to get the song together to where it is now, but yeah that one’s been in R&D for a while.
Rock Cellar: And the song got its own shout-out from Bob Lefsetz in one of his recent emails!
Dexter Holland: I was shocked, frankly, because he doesn’t just hand out great reviews.
Rock Cellar: If anything, it’s quite the opposite.
Dexter Holland: Right. So the fact that he was so positive was … just such a surprise. So that was great. He actually reached out, he wants me to be on his podcast, so I’ll probably show up there eventually.
Rock Cellar: And with that song in particular, The Offpring has always had that element of blending serious songs about drug abuse, suicide, violence and those sorts of topics with the lighter ones. It makes the difference between some of your biggest songs, like “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” and “Gone Away” very stark — but that’s just what you guys do, and have done for years.
Has that balance of songs been important to the band as a creative entity consciously, or has it just sort of happened that way each album cycle?
Dexter Holland: It is important, and I don’t know if it’s helped us or hurt us, you know? Because you tend to know a band for a certain thing. You know a band because they’re a fun band, or a dark band, or whatever. And I just have never wanted that with our band; I’m not like that as a person, so why would I be like that as a band? I want to talk about everything.
So we’ve always had songs that were sometimes heavy, sometimes fun, and probably our most well-known songs are usually more on the fun side.
Some of our casual fans might not really know that we have that other side, but that’s the side that creates the more hardcore fans, because they like the tougher, harder, darker material. And I’m OK with that. When we grew up listening to the punk bands we liked it was precisely because they talked about the heavy stuff. I liked that it wasn’t just driving down to the beach with the top down on your car, or whatever. There was a lot of that going on with pop back then.
The heavier stuff, though, it didn’t make you feel more depressed so much as it made you feel like you weren’t the only one feeling like that. It was actually cathartic to get into songs like that by other bands, so that’s always influenced me with our band.
Rock Cellar: The lighter fare, of course, earned you a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody, which a lot of artists parodied by him say is the best moment of their career.
Dexter Holland: [laughs] You know you’ve made it when “Weird Al” parodies you. Yeah, we met him once a few years ago, he was great. He was lovely.
Rock Cellar: The Offspring established itself in the mid-1990s, blew up on a big scale with Smash in 1994. In terms of how the music business ran back then with chasing trends, did you find yourselves feeling any pushback from labels or anybody to the band trying to stay true to its vision? Or did your success basically allow you to call your own shots?
Dexter Holland: You know, you do have conflicting emotions. On one hand it’s great to have records that are resonating with people, and you want to keep that going, but you also don’t want to be chasing where you think your audience is, since that’s not what got you there in the first place. Trying to find that balance, where you have to change somewhat, otherwise you’ll just be repeating yourselves, and it wouldn’t be fun to do that. But you have to try to change in the right way, where you can bring your audience with you and feel like it really represents you.
On this record, I think what was different is that we consciously pulled back a little bit. The previous records, we wanted to widen the musical circle and visit wherever we wanted to go, but this record we felt like the right thing to do was to be more straightforward, a little bit more … well, I guess it ended up being what people consider our “older” sound, I guess.
Rock Cellar: Listening to the new songs, you guys have worked with Bob Rock before so there’s familiarity there. Tracks like “This is Not Utopia,” “The Opioid Diaries” … I saw somebody on the internet say that “Opioid Diaries” sounds like it could have been on Smash, meant as a compliment.
Dexter Holland: Yeah, yeah. I like “old school,” I like putting it that way. And, of course, that stuff is near and dear to our hearts, that’s what we grew up listening to, and how we developed our own identity as a band was that kind of sound. So it’s a little bit of a trick when you’re trying to go there but not imitate.
Rock Cellar: And in that same way, you reinvented “Gone Away” with a piano version, because you’ve received such a strong reception playing it that way in concert.
Dexter Holland: That’s right, yeah. It was just supposed to be a break in the show, let the show breathe for a minute from all the punk songs, but the reaction was so good that we felt like they were demanding that we go in and do a recorded version. I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, but I’m anxious to see what the response is gonna be. Because it’s been so good live, but this is obviously a different kind of song for us on a record.
Rock Cellar: Looking at the Offspring’s music objectively, your voice has that element to it where you immediately know who’s singing, you immediately know it’s an Offspring song — even when you hear something like “Gone Away” in such a different format.
Dexter Holland: OK. You’re saying when you hear the vocal you know it’s us, right?
Rock Cellar: Yeah.
Dexter Holland: I’ve heard that before, with a song like “Get a Job,” which is a very different musical treatment for a song by us. That’s kind of the trick, you know? Somebody said the other day, “Well it sounds like old Offspring, but it also sounds fresh,” and that’s the best I can hope for.
Rock Cellar: That’s what makes a track like “The Opioid Diaries” stand out, it has the old-school energy, like you said. But it’s also fresh in how it handles a similar thematic element to, say, “The Kids Aren’t Alright,” but it’s structured differently and is more reflective of the perspective of somebody noticing that the same issues are still happening in society, decades later.
Dexter Holland: Well thank you, I can tell you’ve definitely done your homework on this one. [Laughs] You really know this record.
Rock Cellar: Well yeah, this record, all the other records, it’s a process.
Let’s move on to your PhD in molecular biology. I read an article that told the story of how the Gotta keep ’em separated line in “Come Out and Play” was inspired by your work in the laboratory. For you personally, how did it feel to finish that degree in addition to being the front man of a particularly successful punk band?
Dexter Holland: Yeah, that was a personal goal for sure. I was probably two-thirds of the way done when the band first took off and I just couldn’t stay in school, not at that time. And then I realized later, you know, I can still go back, but that opportunity would go away at some point if I didn’t take advantage of it eventually.
I’m really glad I finished it because I really wanted to, for sure, but at the risk of sounding corny, why do we do this? It’s not just for the plaque on the wall.
It should be for something more, and the idea of basic research is that we all make tiny contributions. I wanted to make that contribution.
Rock Cellar: Your Wikipedia page refers to you as a ‘virologist,’ and you completed a paper on HIV. Does all of this background give you a special perspective regarding the pandemic and the COVID-19 virus and what the public perception of it has been?
Dexter Holland: On a nuts-and-bolts molecular level, sure. But we have all this expertise, all these opinions, and still at the end of the day, no one knows, right? What it really comes down to, I think, is that it’s an arms race. The vaccine versus the variants, and we’re gonna have to get on top of it in order to defeat it. And I think we’re headed in the right direction. It’s gonna get there, but it’s hard to tell. But we’re doing millions of doses every week, so. We’ll get there.
Rock Cellar: Do you see yourself being a professor at some point or going into education?
Dexter Holland: No, I don’t. I TA’d, and I really enjoy that stuff, but don’t think I could fit in two full-on careers. The band is what I love to do. I could see myself doing a project. I don’t know what that would be, I’m still trying to figure that out, but yeah. I need to get in with the right groups, meet the right people and explore what’s available to me here in L.A. For the time being I can refine the thesis, and I plan on putting out a couple papers on some of the research I did, so that’s where I’m at right now.
Rock Cellar: And you’ve done a lot of work with the Innocence Project, which is fascinating in what it does.
Dexter Holland: Yeah, and there was also that DNA connection that I thought was really interesting. It’s just such great work they’ve done, freeing people who were locked up for their entire lives for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s mind-boggling.
Rock Cellar: It was fascinating to learn that DNA research and testing didn’t even really exist until the 1980s. So many things could’ve been affected and solved if the technology was developed earlier.
Dexter Holland: Yeah, what an amazing breakthrough. Still, there are all these DNA samples that haven’t been tested, right? They’ve just been sitting around for years.
Rock Cellar: The Offspring has been sharing some How-To videos for this album promo cycle, about things like bird watching and surfing. What are those all about?
Dexter Holland: The internet is so fragmented, so scattered, it’s like, “What do we even do?”
These videos felt like an opportunity, if you wanted to have your online persona, whatever that is, the options were limited before. You’d get a magazine cover, maybe get on Saturday Night Live or something, and that’s it. Now, we just had this idea of a series of short skits, short attention span theater where you can get to know the band in a different, fun way. It felt appropriate for our personalities.
We’ve done two so far, one about surfing and one about birdwatching, we have two more in the works. The goal was to get to ten, and then take a break and see what happened, but we’ll see.
Rock Cellar: I’ve always been drawn to Offspring songs like “Amazed,” “Vultures,” and “Change the World,” the ones at the end of albums that might be overlooked by those who don’t pay as much attention. Are there any Offspring songs off the top of your head that you’d consider “underrated,” or perhaps ones that you figured didn’t get enough attention?
Dexter Holland: Underrated? Hmm. Yeah, we get so much feedback about “Dirty Magic,” a lot of our fans love that song. We didn’t become more well-known until Smash, so that song got a little left behind. We’d bust it out and play it at shows over the years, especially if we think there’s old-school fans in the audience. But that was one that could have been bigger, I guess. You kind of have a feel for when something’s gonna catch on, and I’ve definitely sensed that about some of our more well-known songs.
I always thought “Want You Bad” was gonna get bigger than it did.
Rock Cellar: The Offspring covered 311’s “Down” as part of that cover song exchange geared around your tour together. Was it fun recording that, considering how fast S.A. Martinez’s vocals are in the verse?
Dexter Holland: It was. There were a lot of lyrics, and we wanted to find a totally different way to do it and I was almost trying to channel the Beastie Boys for that one.
Rock Cellar: And that tour, how was that?
Dexter Holland: It was fun, we’ve gone on tour with them a few times. They’re great, they’re such nice guys. I like that tour because they sound nothing like us and we sound nothing like them, but somehow it complements each other. And that’s why the shows have done well; people like both bands.
Rock Cellar: You completed a solo flight around the world, because you’re also a licensed pilot in addition to everything else. How long did that take and how was that experience?
Dexter Holland: Yeah, it about a ten-day trip. I like flying a lot, I have a plane and we’ve actually taken my plane to Europe. My plane won’t go all the way across, so you have to stop in Greenland or Iceland and make hops to get across. I’d flown to Europe, I’d flown across the Atlantic, and I just felt like I knew I could do it.
I actually wanted to do it solo, I thought it’d be cool that way. Ten days. So I would make two stops a day, I could pretty much cover two continents a day. The first day, I got to the other side of North America, the next day I went across the Atlantic and ended up in Dublin, the next day I ended up in Cairo and kept on going. It was a great trip, I look back on it now and wonder if it was maybe not smart going by myself, who knows what could’ve gone wrong.
But thankfully, nothing went wrong and it was a great experience.
July 9, 2021