The Offspring are big on record sales, small on street cred. Best known for novelty radio hits like 1998’s “Pretty Fly (for a White Guy),” the Huntington Beach quartet tend to be brushed off as featherweight fluff: the Sugar Ray of their generation. But that may change.

Inspired by the likes of Social Distortion and the Ramones, the Offspring formed in 1984, learning to play on the job and gradually evolving a sound with a commercial charm and a radio viability alien to their hardcore heroes. In 1994, they cashed in their unpretentious amalgam of pop, punk and humor when their Smash album sold over 11 million copies on Epitaph Records, making it the biggest-selling indie-rock record ever. And they haven’t looked back: Since inking with Sony in 1996, they’ve enjoyed consistent multiplatinum success.

The Offspring’s bankability was not the result of some cynical master plan, claims bassist Greg K: “I think it was just 10 years of writing songs. We started in ’84 and Smash came out in ’94, so I think it was an evolution of writing dozens of songs, and finally you get sick of writing the same three chords!”

With their seventh album, Splinter, due on December 9, the Offspring may finally gain some unfamiliar critical esteem. Not only does the disc spew tracks of surprising velocity for such veterans, it strays from the comfort zone with the disco-tinted single “Hit That,” the rude-boy reggae of “The Worst Hangover Ever” and the acoustic, Sublime-ish “Spare Me the Details”: eclectic stylistic adventures, yet somehow never incongruous.

“With every record, we try to take the nut of the Offspring’s songs, music and sound, and try to expand on that,” says bespectacled guitarist Noodles, kicking back in his Sunset Beach clubhouse. “Dexter [Holland, the front man–songwriter], especially with the songwriting, really tried to stretch that and really spent time examining the songs . . . he gets a melody in his head and then just builds the chords around that. He doesn’t sit down and write a riff and then try to write a song around it, he sees guitar as a means to an end.

“I think we’re always trying to defy expectations,” mulls Noodles. “I don’t think we’re this great force in changing people’s lives, and I don’t think we ever set out to be that — and if you’re going to do that, then punk rock, or rock & roll, or folk or whatever is a pretty piss-poor way to do that. We want to entertain and share some ideas, that’s really all it’s about.”

While the Offspring were integral in diluting punk’s sound into the pop froth that fills arenas today, Noodles insists his punk ethics are intact: “It’s always meant the same thing to me — defying convention, breaking the rules, not buying the status quo. If someone tells you, ‘You can’t,’ then you must, and if someone tells you, ‘You must,’ then you can’t! Punk rock means something different to everybody. [Minutemen bassist] Mike Watt said that punk rock is like Buddhahood: It’s never something that you fully attain.”

Despite the mutually approved departure of longtime drummer Ron Welty, the band seem unfazed. Old friend and first-call session ringer Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle, the Vandals, etc.) admirably propels Splinter, and Atom Willard (Rocket From the Crypt, Alkaline Trio, etc.) will take over as touring sticksman.

Variety — musical and otherwise — has been central to the Offspring’s longevity. All the members have busy lives outside the band (Holland holds a doctorate in molecular biology and a pilot’s license), which has helped them retain their original teenage, recreational air when they do reconvene.

“For us it’s always been kinda a part-time thing,” Greg K confirms. “We all went to school and worked, and after we were able to quit our jobs and stuff, we’d tour for three weeks and then take two or three weeks off — and when we’re off, we don’t really think about the band. It’s not our identity — we’ve always had other things going on, then we come back to this and it makes things exciting again.”

The Offspring may never be hip, but their phenomenal staying power, spectacular sales and unusually levelheaded approach are worthy of respect. As is Splinter: pretty fly (for white guys).

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