In between shifts working as a janitor at a high school in Garden Grove, California, the Offspring lead guitarist Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman logged recording sessions on what would become Smash, his band's third album. The record dropped in April 1994 on Epitaph, the indie label created by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, and immediately took the post-Nirvana alt-rock world by storm. Bolstered by hits like "Self Esteem" and "Come Out and Play," the record put West Coast punk and Gurewitz's little label on the map — to date selling more than 12 million copies worldwide and remaining the highest-selling independently released album of all time. To celebrate the album's 20th anniversary, the Offspring are playing Smash live, hitting the road with Bad Religion. We asked Wasserman to look back on Smash's surprising success.
Metro Times: What is it about anniversary tours that's so appealing to bands and fans? Is it the nostalgia factor?
Wasserman: Sometimes people like things to be kind of classified for them, and compartmentalized. Two years ago, we did just a few shows and we did Ignition all the way through. This time we're doing Smash everywhere. With Smash, we started doing it in Europe for the festival audiences and it went great. I don't know how to explain it, but it seems to be working.
MT: What are your audiences like? Is it younger fans who weren't even around in '94?
Wasserman: It's mostly a younger audience. You do see some of the guys who have been around since I was going to shows. Bad Religion have been doing it so consistently even longer than us. This is a great bill to bring all the old guys who may go, 'Ehhh, I'm not gonna go to that show.' And they'll bring their kids too. Old crusty punks bringing their kids and stuff. Kinda cool.
MT: Back then, did you know you made a classic?
Wasserman: We thought we were making a really decent punk rock record in the hopes that we would outsell our last record, Ignition, which was at about 40,000 copies worldwide when we started recording. We said, 'Let's maybe do 70,000 this time!' We had no idea. Punk rock was not a viable commodity. A month before Smash was released, Dookie came out, and it took off. We just followed in the slipstream.
MT: What was it about 1994?
Wasserman: I think that the arena rock thing had done its thing, the glam-metal and the excess of all that. Nirvana kind of gave the coup de grâce to all that. And then two years after Nirvana came out, they broke down the doors. People wanted something that sounded new, that was energetic and a little bit more dangerous. Rock 'n' roll always, when it was good, had a little bit of danger to it, and a little bit of rebellion. It had lost a lot of that.
MT: Like Nirvana, Smash has a lot of grunge, but also a lot of pop. Was that a conscious effort, to make it more pop?
Wasserman: I wouldn't say "pop." We definitely wanted songs that you could sing along to. We were big fans of the Ramones. You got to understand, we played with all these heavy percussive bands, screaming bands who were pissed off. We get pissed off at the world too, but we wanted to sing songs, we wanted to laugh too. With the music, we wanted it to have a groove, and we wanted to be able to sing along to them. Which we got more from the Ramones than ... whoever was pop in '94. Probably Backstreet Boys or whatever.
MT: Smash was recorded in two months. It has a real sense of urgency to it — it sounds like it could have been recorded in one weekend. Was that a typical amount of time for you?
Wasserman: I think that was about average. We had to have it all rehearsed. We didn't have a lockout, so we could only go in when nobody was using the studio because we did it for half-price. We had to really do it on the fly, kind of last minute. It all kind of came together. Now we take way longer — now we take two years. We started in the studio the whole time, just writing in front of the microphones.
We would drive in L.A. traffic to get to the studios for the first five or six records. I think that helped add a little bit of aggression to our music and our playing, as we were stuck in traffic for hours.
MT: There's that great Middle Eastern riff on "Come Out and Play." Where'd that come from?
Wasserman: We loved old surf stuff, and Agent Orange had a great song, "Bloodstains," that used that Eastern scale. Dick Dale, a lot of those surf guys would do that. When we did "Tehran" on the first record, that had a Middle Eastern riff too.
MT: It almost adds a political feeling to "Come Out and Play."
Wasserman: It's kind of an upbeat song — "hey, come out and play." But it's really tongue in cheek. It's talking about how gangs, who were very much alike but just because they happened to grow up a block away from each other in a different neighborhood, they have to shoot each other. You have to "keep them separated," which of course is ironic. You shouldn't have to. They were killing each other. That was really going on a lot back then. That was just after the L.A. riots that we wrote that.
MT: Were you guys around all that?
Wasserman: I was a janitor at the time. There were a few gangs around the school that I worked at. It was like the little brothers and cousins of full-grown gang members that were older. Once the kids started to get in fifth and sixth grade, you could tell who they were hanging out with at home. They had little gang names. There were these gangs who would steal cars and dump them in front of the school. You'd have this stripped car, no wheels — nothing.
We have songs that are really dumb too. We have tongue-in-cheek songs, like "Pretty Fly for a White Guy" or "Cool to Hate." Even "Bad Habit" is really over the top and kind of funny when you think about it. But we had serious songs too, like the "Kids Aren't Alright" or "Gone Away" and "You're Gonna Go Far Kid."
MT: Any memorable experiences playing Detroit?
Wasserman: Yeah, we played Cobo [Arena] once. We knew that place from the Kiss Alive! record. That was pretty cool. In fact, we were headlining a sold-out show there, and I remember calling Fletcher (from Pennywise) right before we went on and the crowd roared, just to mess with him. — mt
The Offspring play the second annual Chill on the Hill festival at on Saturday, Sept. 6, at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Parkway, Sterling Heights; 586-268-9700; freedomhill.net; see chillonthehillfestival.com for set times and full lineup.