Offspring lead singer Dexter Holland in the mountains of Lake Havasu, Ariz. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / June 2, 2008)

IT TAKES a certain sort of idiot bravery (brave idiocy?) to board a small plane with a music star. There's just too much grim history to keep you on the tarmac. But what sort of lunatic would get into a plane with a rock star as the pilot?

Your captain and crew today will be Dexter Holland, the lead singer of the Offspring and a man who grins far too much to be completely trustworthy. Holland owns three planes, which suggests that punk music isn't quite the scabby affair it was when the Sex Pistols first plugged in. One of his planes is a sleek corporate jet with an anarchy symbol painted on the tail fin (nice touch) while another is a Soviet-era fighter plane imported from Estonia (um, hello, Homeland Security?).

Holland keeps his planes in tricked-out hangars in Long Beach and Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and, when he rolls out to the runway, heads turn and jaws drop, a fact that Holland plainly enjoys. He is full of surprises. He has a master's degree in molecular biology from USC and he owns a Newport Beach company, Gringo Bandito, that bottles 120 gallons a week of his hot sauce recipe. "It's on sale now at Albertsons, that's huge for us," said Holland, who also has been dabbling in software design for BlackBerrys that has led to a patent but, so far, no profits.

Oh yes, the soft-spoken 42-year-old also fronts a band that has quietly sold 16 million albums in the U.S. and, along with Green Day, ushered in the boom years of pop-punk which, if measured in MySpace pages, remains the most alluring guitar sound for young music fans and bands. But the band's commercial peak was a decade ago and it's fair to wonder if, careerwise, Holland and his band have their metaphorical landing gear down.

It's a crisp afternoon in Long Beach as Holland checks in with the control tower and goes over his flight plan for a quick dash out to the desert. The singer, blond and blue-eyed, has a steady gaze and soft, round features that make him a bit self-conscious, as does the commercial success of his band; punk rock is a scene in which soft is weak and mainstream is impure. Holland greets conversation on these topics with a grin that is friendly but also guarded.

Above Orange County, where he grew up, Holland is focused and relaxed -- he may be an amateur but he's logged enough hours to be certified to fly a 747. It's enough to make you stop fretting about Buddy Holly, Jim Croce, Patsy Cline, Ronnie Van Zant and the other musicians who went up in small planes but came back down the wrong way.

Then the robot voice starts coming from the control panel. "Cabin pressure . . . cabin pressure. . . " Wait, now there are two: "Caution, terrain . . . caution, terrain. . . ." Holland looks puzzled behind his Black Flys sunglasses. "Wow, this is weird. Hmmm. Give me a second here. . . ."

Speaking of anxiety, the Offspring are back this Tuesday with "Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace," their first studio album in five years. It actually feels as if they have been gone longer. Pop-punk (like rap) is a genre for young fans and, to them, five years is not merely forever, it's the difference between middle school and college.

Then there's the pressure from "American Idiot." Green Day, rising above their dookie past, delivered a career masterpiece in 2004 with a concept album that sold 5-million copies, won rave reviews and even earned them a Grammy trophy for record of the year. Don't think Holland didn't notice. "I would not mention those two words to him," one of his hangar buddies says, " 'American' and 'Idiot.' I think he's heard them enough."

Try to imagine that "American Idiot" was the "Pet Sounds" of California pop-punk, which means the Offspring now need to deliver their "Sgt. Pepper" rebuttal. To do it, they brought in Bob Rock, the producer for Metallica for more than a decade. He's guided them to less tidy songs that take more structural chances. For the first single, they have taken a dark risk by releasing "Hammerhead," a disturbing twist-ending tale about a school-campus gunman.

Instead of the strafing guitars and body-count imagery, the band could have gone the easy commercial route along the lines of one of their bratty sing-along hits ("Why Don't You Get a Job," "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)"), but "Hammerhead" and its combat-zone sound seems right for the moment. The song has been an immediate hit at KROQ-FM (106.7) and it's gotten a foothold nationwide.

Jeff Pollack, an independent music consultant who has worked for years with MTV and VH1, says the single has been "instantly embraced," which was no mean feat considering the band's hiatus. "There was nothing automatic about it," Pollack says. "They've been out of the mix for a considerable amount of time. I think there's high hopes for that album."

Back in the sky, the robot voice is persistent. "Cabin pressure . . . cabin pressure. . . ." Holland is flashing that daft grin of his again. He dips the jet down closer to the desert floor and checks his readings. The robot voice goes away. "We're going to have to fly lower all the way home. I'll have my guys check that problem. It's not something to worry about, though. And the view is great, isn't it?"

Offspring's beginnings

HOLLAND knows this great place for a bowl of chili. It's a tumbleweed truck stop out in Chiriaco Summit, not far from the low-desert town of Indio. The restaurant sits out on Interstate 10 right next to an auto junkyard, an oil derrick and an unmanned airstrip. After making a low loop to check the tattered windsock, Holland brings his anarchy jet in for a smooth landing on the ribbon of asphalt, which has desert scrub clawing at its edges.

A few customers at the Chevron gas pumps in front of the restaurant crane their necks to study the Cessna and its pilot. That anarchy symbol (it's the letter "A" written in slash-style inside a circle) does catch the eye. Holland has landed his plane on four continents. "I haven't been able to write a song about flying. It just sounds cheesy. But for me there's nothing like being up there." Usually, he wanders foreign soil unrecognized, but there are surprises sometimes. He was sitting solemnly at Jim Morrison's grave site in Paris once when a French fan started humming "Why Don't You Get a Job." Holland groans at the memory. A scruffy teenager with a completely blank expression walks into the truck stop wearing, of all things, a Social Distortion T-shirt. Holland smirks. "How funny, that's where it all began."

Back in 1984, Social D, that venerable, hard-living punk outfit from Orange Country, was playing in Irvine. Holland and his buddy Greg Kriesel couldn't get past the door. The pair, both members of the cross-country track team at school, lived in the suburban doldrums of Garden Grove. They turned back home glum and cursing the night. That's when they decided to start their own punk band.

"We had no idea how to play instruments, of course, but we saved up and bought them anyway," Holland says. "We were awful. Just terrible. But you start figuring it out little by little." Soon, they brought in a guitarist named Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman whose great contribution to the outfit was his age -- he was older and could buy beer.

The band's name fit Holland's medical pursuits and for him, really, their raw punk project was just a hobby as he pursued his life-long dream to be a doctor. It was easy to think of it that way -- for 10 years, the Offspring slogged through the local scene. The late-night gigs made it hard for Holland to keep up with his intense post-graduate studies at USC and, when he became a teaching assistant there, he lied often to cover up his guitar-hero moonlighting.