In 1994, two young, fast, loud and snotty bands took California punk to new melodic heights and unheard of levels of international exposure – and went multi-platinum in the process. In the year punk broke (again), Bay Area’s Green Day ultimately sold more records, but it was Orange County’s the Offspring who actually set records. Their Smash was, at the time, the best-selling album ever released on an independent label.
In the early Nineties, Epitaph Records, founded by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz more than a decade earlier to release his own band’s music, had established itself as ground zero for the new wave of West Coast punk, putting out discs by speedy, skatey So-Cal acts like NOFX, Pennywise and mohawked Berkeley street urchins Rancid. But it was the Offspring that would prove to be the imprint’s breakout stars. Smash, the band’s second album for Epitaph and third overall, was released on April 8, 1994, in the waning days of grunge. For a brief moment it seemed as if the sound of buzzsaw guitars, caffeinated rhythms and tweaked, anxious vocals would inherit the aggro-rock earth, and the Offspring – singer/guitarist Brian “Dexter” Holland, lead guitarist Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, bassist Greg K. and drummer Ron Welty (who left the band in 2003) – were on the front lines, leading the charge. In just its first year of release, Smash, fueled by two massive MTV and radio hits, “Come Out and Play” and “Self Esteem” (as well as a minor third single, “Gotta Get Away”), sold more than five million copies in the U.S. alone. Today, it has moved upwards of 10 million units worldwide.
Not long after Smash rearranged the indie landscape, the history-making relationship between the Offspring and Epitaph soured, leading to an acrimonious, and very public, split. Both parties, however, went on to experience further success – the Offspring have had a run of successful albums, most recently 2012’s Days Go By, on major label Columbia, while Epitaph has expanded to include sister imprint ANTI-, home to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees like Tom Waits, Mavis Staples and the late Joe Strummer.
But Smash still remains the Offspring and Epitaph’s greatest victory – individually or together. And this year, in recognition of the album’s 20th anniversary, Epitaph is releasing an expanded reissue while the Offspring are launching a summer tour that will see them perform the album in its entirety. Holland, Noodles, Gurewitz, and others look back about the making of Smash, as well the gigantic reverberations – the good, the bad, and the ugly included – that resulted from its surprise success.
Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman: The Offspring played punk rock, and by 1994 had been doing it for about 10 years. And punk rock had always been played in out-of-the-way clubs in bad parts of the city. We weren’t allowed to do the Sunset Strip. We weren’t allowed to play the Roxy or the Whisky. We were relegated to the back-alley places in the industrial parts of town. But all that was changing.
Brian “Dexter” Holland: Nirvana definitely blew the doors open. All of a sudden you were seeing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV, and that video looked like a punk rock show. It looked like when we played Gilman Street in Berkeley. It made everything kind of seem possible. Because from that video it was just one little step to Henry Rollins or to the Smashing Pumpkins. It just got closer and closer and by ’94 people were ready for it.
Noodles: Smash was our third record. And it was just another record. It wasn’t like all of a sudden we were doing our Sgt. Pepper’s. Though some of the songs seemed a little different, certainly.
Holland: Even on [1992’s] Ignition we had a relatively slow song called “Dirty Magic.” So we had been stepping out of the box a little, and maybe we did it a little more on Smash.
Noodles: When we were first writing “Self Esteem” I didn’t get it all. The song structure just seemed weird to me. We were used to playing everything really fast – as fast as we could. And here was a song that was a little slower.
Brett Gurewitz: “Come Out and Play” was a sort of stunningly original track. It has that “magic something” that hit songs sometimes have. It has an unusual mid-tempo groove for a punk song. There’s a surf vibe. There’s the Middle Eastern sounding guitar part. And at the same time it has this sexy darkness to it. It was very, very unique and extremely infectious.
Noodles: Really the only thing that seemed different to me about that one was the catch phrase: “You gotta keep ’em separated.” When I heard that line it just made me laugh.
Holland: It cracked me up. But I knew if I tried to explain it to the guys they’d be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” So I just kind of told them, “Don’t worry. It’s something that’s really good. It’ll be cool.” I left everybody wondering until the last minute.
Noodles: We had this friend, Jason “Blackball” McLean, who had kind of a distinctive voice. He grew up in a Mexican neighborhood, all his friends were Mexican, he had the slang down, the accent. He was a Scottish cholo from Whittier. [Laughs.] So we asked him to come in and do the line. He wound up doing it in the video, too.
Holland: The lyrics for “Come Out and Play” and most of the other songs were just about whatever was happening in front of me. Back then I was a grad student and I was commuting to school everyday in a shitty car, driving through East L.A. Gangland central. I was there the day of the L.A. riots. So I was very aware of that part of the world, and a lot of that gun stuff came out in songs like “Come Out and Play.” But there was also some humor to it, like with “Bad Habit.” There was a lot of freeway violence and road-rage at that time. And my car was so shitty that people used to literally throw things at me on the freeway because I wasn’t going fast enough. So I decided to write a song about it.
Holland: We were at Track [Record Studios] in North Hollywood with [producer] Thom Wilson, and we were writing up to the last minute. We didn’t have a lot of time to finish the record and we didn’t have a lot of money. Somebody added it up once: It cost us $20,000 to record Smash. That’s a pretty tight budget for that time. And we cut it close. The last two nights I still had four songs left to do. I’d go in, spend a few hours writing a lyric, then a few hours singing it. Then I’d do it again. I remember “It’ll Be a Long Time” and “Smash” happened on those days. I was there until five in the morning trying to get everything done.
Gurewitz: I don’t know if it was clear to everyone that “Come Out and Play” should be the first single. But it was definitely clear to me.
Noodles: Right away KROQ [in L.A.] started playing it, and that sort of sparked everything. I think it was Jed the Fish playing us as his “Catch of the Day.” And then the song made it onto the Furious 5 at 9. It was in heavy rotation, for sure. It got a really good response from listeners. I know I was calling every time I heard it! I remember right around that time we were playing a snowboarding contest in Valdez, Alaska, opening for Pennywise. And all our friends were saying, “The song is going off on KROQ!” I was with Byron [McMackin, drummer] from Pennywise and he said, “Jeez, are we gonna have to open for you guys next time?”
Holland: We started getting a lot of strange attention. I was living in this tiny apartment in L.A., and I remember one morning I went into the kitchen to rinse out my bowl of cereal. I’m standing there in my boxers and I look out the window at the apartment across the way. There’s a guy standing on his porch with a cordless phone and I can hear him talking through the glass. And he’s going, “Yeah, dude! I’m looking at him right now!”
Noodles: Up until Smash I was a janitor. Head custodian at Earl Warren Elementary School. Actually, when Smash came out I was still there. The record was released in April and I didn’t quit until the middle of June. I promised my boss I would finish out the school year! We had a song on the radio in heavy rotation and I was still sweeping up after little kids.
Holland: I was pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular biology [at University of Southern California]. And then I put it on hold. My mom wasn’t too happy about that! My professor thought I was making a terrible mistake. But it wasn’t just like I was saying, “Fuck it.” We could tell this was going to be something. And we had to see it through.
Gurewitz: Up until that moment I didn’t really think any of our bands would truly break through. We had some groups on Epitaph that were bigger than others, but none of them had ever crossed over into mainstream acceptance. Not even close. What the Offspring did was leapfrog over everybody.
Noodles: We did the “Come Out and Play” video with Darren Lavett for, like, $5,000. Which was unheard of. Guns N’ Roses were spending millions of dollars making their videos, but we shot ours at some guy’s house in the L.A. suburbs. We all crammed into his garage and covered the walls with mylar, like what you see in helium balloons. It was a million degrees in there. Then we brought in a big fan. So this reflective plastic was kinda blowing around while we played. I think most of the budget was spent on beer and meat for the barbeque after the shoot.
Holland: So then it was like, “Okay, you’re on MTV, you’re on the radio, go hit the road.” So we played all the 500-seaters across the country. And by the time we got back home from doing that, “Come Out and Play” was over and “Self Esteem” was hitting and it was, “Now you’ve gotta go out and do the small theaters.” So we did the whole country again, this time the 1,500-seaters. By the end we were playing 5,000-seaters. I think we did over 200 shows for that record.
Gurewitz: It was overwhelming and kind of scary. At the time Epitaph was a company of maybe five or six people, myself included. And we had to meet this incredible demand. We had Offspring records filling my entire building on Santa Monica Blvd., from the floor to the ceiling. The inside of the building looked like a Rubik’s Cube of pallets of Offspring vinyl, cassettes and CDs. Then we had another building downtown that was also filled, and rental space in external buildings. At one point the thing started selling so fast that we made an arrangement for the pressing plant to start shipping directly to the central warehouses of the major record chains, bypassing the distributors entirely. It was just this huge sucking sound of Offspring records being pulled out of the pressing plants and poured into the stores. It also played into my decision to leave Bad Religion. Smash was gold or platinum already, and I had just written what I felt was my best record ever [Bad Religion’s Atlantic-released Stranger Than Fiction]. I was 32 years old, and it felt like the universe was telling me this was the optimal time to make a change.
Rick Sims, former singer and guitarist, the Didjits, “Killboy Powerhead” co-writer: I heard from a couple people, “Hey, did you know the Offspring covered your song?” And I was thinking, “That’s great. They like the song.” I didn’t think about calling up and going, “Where’s my money?” But then a friend said to me, “Well, do you also know they’ve sold, like, 50,000 copies of that record?” So finally I called Epitaph and talked to Brett. I figured I could be looking at a few thousand bucks! And he was like, “Hey, yeah, it looks like we owe you some money.” I didn’t even have to really ask him for it. I just said, “Great! I’ll take money!” Then I asked him how many records they’d sold. He said, “Well, it’s gonna go gold next week.” My jaw hit the floor. So do I like their version of the song? I loooove their version of the song! I’m still living in a house that the Offspring paid for. I’m still driving a car that the Offspring paid for. I have a retirement estate that the Offspring paid for.
Gurewitz: It was big. I was confronted with every major label around coming to me, saying, “This is bigger than you can handle.” “You should do a joint venture with us.” “You should sell half your company to us.” “You should sell this album to us.” But I decided to stick to my guns and stay indie. But what that meant was spending everything. I literally had to take out a second mortgage on my house to get the cash to press enough albums. I put everything on the line believing that an indie could do it as well as anyone.
Noodles: At the time Smash started taking off, Epitaph didn’t have all the resources that a major label had to work a record. They didn’t have the radio people, they didn’t have all the press people. There’s a lot of little side things that go into making a record and putting it out there. So we spent a lot of our money on that kind of stuff, trying to work the record. And in doing so we weren’t only investing in us, we were also investing in Epitaph. So when it came time to renegotiate our contract we thought we deserved more than Brett was willing to give us. He was very hesitant to make anything other than a fairly standard deal. And we felt that we had done something incredible and deserved something more than that.
Holland: On the one hand Epitaph was trying to do the best they could with their label and they maybe took some liberties that they shouldn’t have. On the other hand, we felt like, “Well, if we’re 95 percent of your sales, we should treated accordingly.”
Noodles: And then [Gurewitz] was jetsetting around with guys like Richard Branson! The tension got to be too much.
Gurewitz: I never wanted to sell my label to a major label. I never wanted to sell the Offspring to a major label. I mean, I’ve been doing this since 1981. It’s 2014 and I still haven’t sold my label. But I don’t blame them for thinking it. Maybe someone told them that and they really thought it was the truth. It was a confusing time.
Holland: We were trying to handle it as best we could. We were the ones bending over backwards to try to stay on the indie label and not jump to the major. Because that felt like the right thing to do. We were part of a label that had a scene of bands that we were really good friends with. And at that point nobody stayed on an indie, whether it was Beck or Nine Inch Nails. They all went to majors. But we were trying hard to keep this thing going. We tried to work it out for, like, a year-and-a-half or two years. But we couldn’t.
Noodles: So we ended up making the Columbia deal [prior to 1997’s Ixnay on the Hombre]. And all of a sudden we were taking a lot of heat for moving to a major, and also for this music getting popular. Then you had guys like Billie Joe [Armstrong] and Green Day, and they were taking a lot of heat too. Like, “Oh, man! Those guys are selling out! They’re not punks!”
Holland: Isn’t it ironic? You start a punk band because you feel like you’re being ostracized. Then your punk band gets big and you get ostracized again.
Gurewitz: One thing I definitely regret is the words that were spoken in the press. I wish I would never have said a disparaging word about the Offspring. And I wish that they had never done the same to me. But emotions got heated. But really I don’t think any musician ever deserves to be judged by people for making any business decision for themselves. The fact is the Offspring signed to Sony. They weren’t having cockfights in their backyard. They weren’t spilling oil off the coast. They signed to a major label. Who gives a fuck?
Holland: Was there some tension with people, with some other bands? There was a little weirdness. There had always been sort of friendly rivalries but once things got really big maybe there was a little jealousy too… At some point there was also a thing where [veteran Orange County punk band] Agent Orange said we stole from them. [Robbie Fields, who held the copyright for Agent Orange’s “Bloodstains,” claimed that the Offspring lifted a portion of the song’s guitar solo for the Middle Eastern sounding riff in “Come Out and Play.”] That was really a shame because we were fans of Agent Orange. And of course I was familiar with their music, but to say that we were stealing was just not true at all. We were talking about something that was really taken from surf music. Dick Dale or whatever. It really had nothing to do with that band. And to see it come back at us that way was really eye-opening, like, “Wow, things have really changed for us now.” Before, we couldn’t get noticed and now here we were, a target.
Gurewitz: It didn’t turn into a lawsuit but I do remember there was a lot of complaining and a lot of noise. I thought it was unfounded.
Holland: Eventually somebody official looked at the complaint and said, “This is ridiculous. This is not the same at all.” So we were totally vindicated in the end. But it was kind of an unfortunate thing. Years later we actually covered “Bloodstains” [for the soundtrack to the 2000 David Arquette film, Ready to Rumble]. That’s funny. Right?
Gurewitz: The thing people need to remember is that, today, indie is just seen as a style of music. But back then it had a qualitative definition. And there had never been an indie rock record as successful as Smash. It raised the sea level not just for the Offspring and Epitaph but for the whole network – the independent record stores, the distributors, the labels, the promoters, the magazines, and on and on. It was like this giant shot of B12 for the entire indie sector. And that was part of the significance for me. It wasn’t just, “Hey, let’s bring punk rock into the mainstream.” It was, “Let’s bring the ethos of punk rock into the mainstream.”
Holland: It was a crazy time, and it was a complicated time, but that just goes with the territory. I’m proud of what we were able to do with Epitaph, and I would be the last guy to ever complain about any of it. Fuck, I’m a singer in a rock band – I have the best job in the world!
Noodles: If there’s any real legacy to Smash it’s the independent spirit of that record. Because we took on Goliath with Epitaph. Hopefully that has resonated. But who knows? Recently I saw Macklemore on The Colbert Report – and I like Macklemore – and he was talking about all the success they had. He was saying how they put out this independent record, how they hired their own radio people, their own everything, and how it’s the first time that it’s ever been done. In 2014. And I just said to myself, “Eh, maybe not so much. Maybe it’s happened before…”