I was stuck in traffic and blaring a ’90s alt-rock radio station when I heard an unexpected bit of breaking news. “That was The Offspring with ‘Come Out and Play,’” the DJ said, back announcing the previous song. “In May, that band’s singer, Dexter Holland, will deliver the commencement address at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. Pretty cool. OK, next up, here’s Everclear with ‘Santa Monica.’”
It was a record-scratch moment. Why was Holland—a man who brought infectious punk to the masses while singing “I’m just a sucker with no self-esteem”—delivering the commencement address at medical school graduation?
Growing up in the ’90s, I knew a bit about The Offspring. They formed in Orange County in 1984 and toiled for a decade in the SoCal punk scene before blowing up with their 1994 LP, Smash, released on Epitaph Records. Led by the singles “Come Out and Play” and “Self Esteem,” Smash sold more than 11 million copies, making it the all-time best selling record released by an independent label. Five of The Offspring’s albums have attained platinum status, and their singles still play in heavy rotation on modern rock radio.
As soon as I got off the road, I did some Googling. Sure enough, Holland earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology in 2017 from the University of Southern California. This brought up another peculiar fact: Holland is one of several punk singers who came up in the 1980s SoCal hardcore scene who have a Ph.D. What was in the beer at those ’80s hardcore shows that made so many punks pursue advanced degrees? I decided to find out and check in with Holland as he prepared for his big speech.
In a nondescript industrial zone in Huntington Beach, just a few miles from the Pacific, The Offspring occupy three units in an office complex reminiscent of Dunder Mifflin. One of the units is used to store the band’s gear. One is the band’s studio. Another serves as the headquarters for Gringo Bandito, the successful hot-sauce brand Holland launched in 2004. When I visited on an unseasonably scorching April morning, an assistant to the band led me to the studio’s control room, where I waited for Holland. On one side of the room, a framed portrait of Spinal Tap looked down on a row of La-Z-Boy chairs. I sat in one of them. Holland entered the room, dressed in head-to-toe black, still looking youthful at 56 with his trademark spiky blond hair. He drank from a coffee mug that said, “I’m Silently Judging Your Grammar.” I told Holland that I was pretty comfortable in the La-Z-Boy.
Before we even discussed his doctorate, Holland was already proving himself to be much smarter than the average bear.
“Every studio control room has a couch,” he said. “We thought, ’What if instead of a couch, we set up a row of La-Z-Boys?’ That’s a little studio innovation we came up with.” Before we even discussed his doctorate, Holland was already proving himself to be much smarter than the average bear.
Over the 2021 holidays, Holland said he received a call from USC asking if he’d be the commencement speaker at this year’s Keck School of Medicine graduation. “I was shocked, stunned,” he said, “but also very flattered.”
From Rock in Rio to Woodstock ’99, Holland has performed in front of audiences that outnumber the entire population of major metropolitan areas, but giving a speech to a room of med school graduates? That’s not a typical gig for him. “I’m used to the environment of getting in front of a crowd and singing,” Holland said. “And in a way, I know what I’m going to sing, and the audience knows what I’m going to sing—the script is there. But public speaking is completely different. It’s scary, actually. After I agreed to it, especially as it gets closer, I’m like, ‘Oh geez, what the hell did I sign up for? How am I going to put myself through this?’ And then you start thinking, ‘Oh shit, this is going to be on YouTube forever.’”
Holland has actually given a graduation speech once before. In 1984, he was class valedictorian when he graduated from Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, California. “I always got good grades and it’s something that, when you’re growing up, you’re almost ashamed of it, right?” he said. “So I kind of downplayed it for a long time. I felt like with [the valedictorian] speech, I was going to draw attention to myself, and I felt uncomfortable with that at 18 years old. So I kept it short and sweet. I think my message was, ‘You guys, the future’s open to you. You can do pretty much whatever you want, and please take that opportunity.’”
After high school, Holland enrolled in USC on a scholarship and was initially a pre-med student. “I was kind of having a little bit of an identity crisis,” he recalled. “Like, Do I really want to go into medicine? And I was really loving being in the band, but the band seemed so unrealistic. I was not quite committed either way.” Holland switched his major and received a B.S. in biology in 1988 before continuing on at USC to earn a Master’s in molecular biology.
“I really liked molecular biology when I took it as an undergrad,” he said. “So I spent a year, and got a master’s.” He started the Ph.D. program while juggling his duties as frontman for The Offspring. But when Smash started climbing the charts in 1994, Holland was faced with a challenging decision: “We got a manager and I said, ‘Is there any way I can do school and the band?’ And he said, ‘No way. This is the time. If you want to go for it, you got to go for it.’ We were on MTV, we were in Buzz Bin, and all that stuff. I had to choose.”
Holland took a leave of absence from the Ph.D. program. He didn’t return for 20 years.
After two decades devoted to The Offspring, Holland returned to USC and restarted his research, which focused on HIV. In May of 2017, he published his 183-page thesis. Its title, “Discovery of Mature MicroRNA Sequences Within the Protein-Coding Regions of Global HIV-1 Genomes: Predictions of Novel Mechanisms for Viral Infection and Pathogenicity,” isn’t as catchy of a title as, say, “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” but it gets the job done.
“Things get hot in science the way things get hot in music,” he told me. “At the time I was getting back into research, there was a lot of talk about microRNA. People think I’m talking about messenger RNA, which no one knew about in the general population. Now we all know what it is. But my thesis was on microRNA. It’s similar, but it was kind of a new regulatory mechanism that affects all kinds of cellular processes. It turns out that viruses use them to their advantage. I like molecular biology, but in particular, I really like virology. And I thought that HIV is obviously a scourge to humanity, but it was also interesting mechanistically. So I gravitated towards that.”
In a statement released when his thesis was published, Holland said he chose to focus on HIV because 35 million people currently live with the virus and one million people a year die from it.
As I spoke with Holland, any time the conversation veered toward science, he shifted in his seat. He mentioned several times that, as a kid, showing his intelligence made him uncomfortable. But when I’d ask about music or punk culture, he seemed at ease, so I asked him about the overlap between math and music.
“I can totally see the connection between math and music,” he said. Holland hopped up from his chair and walked over to a rack of guitars along the wall. “I can visualize it. When I play the chord structure for ‘Come Out and Play,’ it’s kind of a triangle in a way. Do you have a minute?” I did, and so Holland pulled out a Gibson SG and sat across from me. He jammed on the surf-rock lick from “Come Out and Play” and demonstrated how he sees the configuration of notes as shapes.
“There is a kind of a spatial association between music and math,” he said as he played the riff. “It’s interesting you bring this up because I’m working out ideas for the speech, and I think I want the main idea to be the intersection of science and art. Medicine is an art and research is an art. You have to be creative in the way you design experiments.”
History is chockablock with examples of art intersecting with science: Da Vinci’s notebooks, Audubon’s watercolors of birds. You can add The Offspring’s “Come Out and Play” to that list. That song catapulted the band from the punk underground to MTV, and it paints a grim picture of gang violence. But the song’s origins are in the chemistry lab, not the streets.
“I was preparing gelatin—they call it agarose for Petri dishes—and it’s very thick and viscous,” Holland said, remembering what would become a historic day in the laboratory. “And to sterilize it, you have to put it in a pressurized oven called an autoclave. I was making a lot, like gallons, in Erlenmeyer flasks. So after an hour, it was hot as shit, and you have to wear oven mitts and you take it out and you can’t pour it because it’s practically boiling. I was waiting for it to cool down and it’s taking forever, and you go back and touch it an hour later. If it’s still hot, you put it under the hood where it sucks air. And three hours later, I have these flasks next to each other. It’s not cool enough.”
At this point, Holland stops and laughs and shakes his head. “This sounds so ridiculous telling this story, but in that moment I spoke to myself and I said, ‘These flasks are never going to cool off. I gotta keep ’em separated,’” he remembered. “I swear to God, this is a true story. And it was like a light bulb went off. I said, ‘Whoa, I need to remember that line.’”
Now let’s get into this mystery of why a handful of SoCal punks have Ph.D.s. Holland isn’t the only punk rocker with an advanced degree: Greg Graffin of Bad Religion has a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell, Milo Aukerman of Descendents has a Ph.D. in biology from UC San Diego, and Gregg Turner of the Angry Samoans has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Claremont. I was curious if Holland had an idea why he and an abnormal number of his fellow L.A. punks pursued higher education.
“In punk, you’re an outsider. You approach music in a different, rebellious way, and it turned out there were some really smart guys [in the punk scene],” he said. “One of the first places The Offspring could play was in Berkeley, at Gilman Street. There was a real scene up there, with all these interesting, artistic and quirky—but also very smart—people. We got along with them really well. We fit in. This was around the same time that Bad Religion put out Suffer. They had some pretty serious vocabulary on that record. And before that, you had the Dead Kennedys. They took on subjects that normal rock bands certainly wouldn’t, like death in Cambodia.” Holland paused to consider what he was saying. “This is not a canned answer,” he added. “You can tell because I’m trying to connect the dots.”
To help solve the punk Ph.D. mystery, I later called Milo Aukerman at his home in Delaware, where he’s lived for more than 20 years. As the singer of Descendents, Aukerman’s decision to go off to school were immortalized in the title of his band’s 1982 hardcore punk classic, Milo Goes to College. I asked Aukerman, now 59, if he had an idea why there’s an overlap with punk and academics.
“It’s not just punks in academics, it’s L.A. punks in academics,” Aukerman said. “L.A. punk wasn’t as nihilistic as punk that was, say, coming from New York and England. As part of not being that way, it may have attracted people who were more interested in being creative, and not so interested in anarchy and fucking shit up. If punk was going to be taking a lot of drugs and fucking shit up, I don’t think that would’ve attracted people like me.”
In Descendents, Aukerman helped blaze a trail for musicians who strive for a balance between music and school. “L.A. punk had plenty of seedy elements to it, obviously,” he said, “but I’ve talked to Greg [Graffin] and he’s got his head fully immersed in academia, but at the same time, he’s like, ‘I dig punk rock.’ I think what he and I share in terms of the punk rock/scientist thing is that we had this notion that you could be creative at both.”
Before I got off the phone with Aukerman, he had something he wanted to add: “One thing about L.A. I should mention,” he stressed, “is that L.A. was very open and receptive to just different types of punk. Especially in the South Bay, we were hanging out with the likes of the Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Black Flag and all these kinds of bands that were wildly different from each other. So there was a huge acceptance of difference. You could be whatever you wanted to be. We just wanted to be ourselves and, if that meant being the nerds on the block, that was fine by us.”
It’s easy to imagine Holland, a high school valedictorian whose interest in hardcore sparked right around the time Descendents and Bad Religion were taking hold in the SoCal scene, being influenced by his collegiate punk forebears.
With the commencement just a few weeks away, Holland was still formulating what he wanted to say to the graduates. “I’ve given it a lot of thought, but I haven’t written much down yet,” he said. “I think it’s important to put the focus on the graduates, celebrate their achievement, and to convey that I’ve been on that path. I know their pain and their suffering to a certain degree, and the fact that what these students in particular had to go through the past two years is such amazing preparation for life.”
“Science is a hunch followed by passion.”
Holland added that what he’s learned in his career as a musician would also factor into the speech. “I want to say, ‘You guys can think of yourselves as artists, as well,’” he said. “And see, I don’t have the punchline to all that yet, but one thing I did think of the other night—and this will probably be in the speech—is that science is a hunch followed by passion. I think that when you suspect that something might be good, you kind of have to keep on going and really persevere to get it there.”
As I got up to leave, I asked Holland what he was up to for the rest of the day. “I’ve got to get my FAA physical this afternoon,” he said. Holland is also a licensed pilot—in 2004, he flew solo around the world in 10 days—and he explained that the FAA requires a physical exam every two years. “So that’s this afternoon, then I’ve got triathlon training at night.”
Hearing Holland break down his jam-packed day reminded me of something he said earlier in our conversation. I asked him if anyone in particular inspired him to be a lifelong learner. He cited Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, who also founded Epitaph Records. “People like Brett inspired me because he started his own label, and it inspired me to start my own label [Nitro Records],” he said. “There’s so much fun stuff out there and I want to experience it all. So it’s not exactly like, ‘I love to learn.’ It’s more like, ’Oh, that’s rad. I want to go do that.’”
USC’s Keck School of Medicine’s graduation ceremony kicked off at 9:30 am on a Saturday—an early call time for a rock star. The 360 graduates in the program entered the school’s basketball arena as a small contingent from USC’s marching band played their university’s fight song onstage. After a couple of eloquent student speakers, Holland was introduced by Peggy Farnham, Ph.D., vice dean for health and biomedical science at the Keck School of Medicine.
“Although written when he was on hiatus from his Ph.D. studies, I wonder if the lyrics, ‘The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care,’ might resonate with many of our graduates here in the auditorium,” Farnham said. She was, of course, quoting The Offspring’s “Self Esteem.”
After Farnham’s introduction, Holland approached the podium. He wore his academic regalia—a red gown and a blue hood—and looked professorial. He began his remarks by addressing the families of the grads.
“I want to send a special thanks to the parents,” he said. “I know you’re proud of your graduates today. And for some of you, I know you thought this day would never come. Your child is an actual doctor. Just think, in about a month, some of you are going to have an actual doctor move back home.”
This got a laugh. Holland then told the story of how he had to tell his advisor that he was leaving the Ph.D. program because his punk band was on MTV and that he had to explain to her a) what a punk band is, and b) what MTV is. He told the story about how separating Erlenmeyer flasks inspired “Come Out and Play” (minus the swear words), and he noted that the university can technically claim the rights to their graduate students’ intellectual property. “I’m hoping that USC doesn’t come after me for ownership of that song,” he said.
The core of Holland’s speech was about the intersection of art and science and that it will be up to this graduating class to pursue and uphold the truths found in their studies. He also used the expression that he mentioned to me back in Huntington Beach, that “science is a hunch followed by passion.” But when we met in his studio, Holland was still trying to figure out how he’d end his speech.
“There’s a poster of a kitten hanging on a branch,” he said as he neared the end of his address, “and the caption says, ‘Hang in there, baby.’ Well, that’s what you did. You hung in there. You persevered. You kept the faith. You have kept science alive. You, my friends, are ready to prove that science rocks.” The graduates cheered. Holland was fired up.
“I just want to remind you,” he said, his words gathering intensity, “that Isaac Newton may have said, ‘If I’ve seen further, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ But, my friends, it is your shoulders that others will stand on. You are the giants that those who follow will look up to. You are the kittens dangling in 2022. You hung in there, baby. Congratulations to the class of 2022.”
The students roared. Holland returned to his seat alongside the faculty. Degrees were conferred, and the graduates filed out of the auditorium. Presumably the newest batch of doctors in our country celebrated all day and into the wee hours of the morning, but Holland would not be joining them. He had to be on a cross-country flight to Boston, where The Offspring were headlining a show the very next night.