Tom DeLonge is calling from his cellphone. He's in the car and on his way to the airport to embark on yet another Blink-182 tour. He's just finished recording the fourth Angels & Airwaves album Love: Part Two and back in August the group put out Angels & Airwaves Presents Love Live, a film five years in the making. Beyond all of that, he is CEO of his own business and has developed software that not only runs all of the Angels & Airwaves website content but has now been adopted by Pearl Jam and the White Stripes. Oh, and don't forget Neighborhoods, the first Blink-182 release to be recorded since the self-titled album back in 2003.
He is a man who wears many hats and though the pressure must be mighty, he obviously digs the energy. His writing and contributions to Neighborhoods has infused the trio with a sense of progressiveness only hinted at on earlier albums and the regal scope of his songwriting on Love: Part Two triumphant songs that loop and soar in dizzying melodic crescendos makes the fourth Angels & Airwaves album a cinematic orgy for the ears.
When we start our conversation, I mention how cool the new album is and Tom asks, "Which one? The blink album or the Angels record?" And that tells you everything you need to know.
UG: When you recorded the Boxcar Racer album back in 2002, was that the first time you did any serious songwriting away from blink-182?
Tom DeLonge: Yeah, absolutely and thanks for bringing that up. When I did Boxcar Racer, I definitely wanted to toy around with much more latitude on the emotional kind of underpinnings of song structures and dynamics. I toyed around with different influences more like post-hardcore bands and independent rock bands. We only did one record but it was a really, really great laboratory to experiment for me.
Does any of the music on the Boxcar Racer album have a straight line to Angels & Airwaves?
I always tell people Angels & Airwaves is Boxcar Racer. Boxcar Racer started with me and David Kennedy at the time and he's in Angels & Airwaves as well. We don't have Travis and Travis is obviously one of the best drummers on the planet but Angels & Airwaves is Boxcar Racer really for a lack of a better description.
Were songs on the Boxcar Racer album like I Feel So and There Is tracks that just wouldn't have worked with blink-182?
I didn't know it until I did Boxcar Racer what it was gonna sound like and I wasn't ready to use blink as some big guinea pig for my artistic ambitions. I also needed a break to kind of do my own thing but after I discovered that kind of sensibility, yeah, a lot of those attributes can totally live within blink-182. But we're totally different in that bandall three of us have vastly different inspirations musically now and back then. As far as where we grew up, what we listened to and what kind of music we want to even play. So it makes it difficult for a guy like me that's pretty all over the place with ADD wanting to test out my own personal limits. It may be difficult to find a complete voice in blink but the cool thing about blink too is it allows me to have sense of eternal youth and rebellion that I grew up on and I never want to lose that. So it plays a super-important role in my nonetheless.
In 2005 blink-182 went on hiatus and you first began working on Angels & Airwaves. Was the music on We Don't Need To Whisper songs that blink would have done had they stayed together?
Not necessarily. I remember thinking about textures and landscapes. I was trying to redefine my own music that I write at the time and I remember telling the guys in blink before we broke up, Hey, I think I'm honing in on a sound that I think would be where we need to goprogressive punk and not so much progressive rock. I think I'm grabbing some of my favorite pieces of some of my favorite bands and I'm putting it together with our kind of angst and I think I'm starting to understand what it should be. But then we broke up and I didn't have any songs written; I was just kind of in my head and obsessing what the stuff looks like glued together.
Where were you borrowing some of those favorite pieces from?
A little piece from the Police; a little piece from U2; a little piece from the Cure; a little piece from Queen and that kind of stuff. When Angels & Airwaves started it was really about just jumping in the lake and getting completely wet with trying things out. I started from scratch other than conceptualizing what some of these landscapes and textures felt like or sounded like. But Whisper doesn't have any songs that were previously written but I think people think that it did.
The Adventure was the first single from We Don't Need To Whisper. Was that representative of these new sounds you'd been hearing?
Absolutely. That would be the flagship Angels & Airwaves song. It's really interesting because that song was basically a punk rock song and giving it a certain velocity and an engine that can take it out of the garage and up into the clouds a bit. Lyrically it was for a friend of mine that was going through a painful divorce and I remember him telling me what it feels like to love somebody so much more than they love you. I wanted to write a song that picked him up but I realized halfway through the writing of that song that I was writing it for myself.
Are you talking about your divorce from blink-182?
I was in such a bad spot cause I was fighting in the press with my old bandmates and people were so pissed at me for quitting that band and I just felt really shitty. I was really trying to redefine who I was; I was going through a crazy midlife crisis. A midlife artist crisis. I wanted to become a better person and I wanted to change who I was; I wanted to change who I was as an artist. When The Adventure was being recorded that was like the first door that was opening to a whole new world.
You had some problems with the release of that song?
It's actually really funny because we were getting mixes sent back to us as an email from Florida where they get mixed. Someone broke into my email, hacked into my email and stole half of the record. This kid released The Adventure himself first. I remember at the time Yahoo! was tracking how much gets stolen on the Internet and Angels & Airwaves was the number one thing at the time because there was a lot of hype about it but no one knew what it sounded like. Well, this kid released The Adventure first and I think in some circles it lived up to the hype so it actually was a really, really great thing for us.
By the time We Don't Need To Whisper came out, you'd been working with guitarist David Kennedy for about four years. You knew that you wanted to bring in a second guitar player for Angels & Airwaves?
Yeah. David Kennedy is good for a whole host of reasons. One, you've got another guitar in there so it allows you to do multiple parts on stage. The second thing would be it allows me to put the guitar down and be a frontman and engage with the audience, which I think we need a part of. He's like my foundationhe's always so solid in making sure I take the risks that I want to as a human and as a person and putting myself out there. It's really great to have a guy like that in a band with you where they say, No, you be you and you don't shy away from it. And I got your back. So David Kennedy has always been so strong for me in that regard as well. In the writing process, him and I love the exact same kind of music so every time we're honing in on something, we totally relate.
David would also push you as a guitar player to experiment with different sounds and approaches?
Absolutely. He easily pushes me into new areas with new bands and trying new things. I kind of hear all my new music from him; he knows a lot more of what's happenin' than I do. I'm pretty slow to get onto new acts. I kinda wanna make sure that all my friends sign off on it first before I get into it. There's so much of it out there, I need like a filtering mechanism you know.
You brought on Danny Lohner to produce We Don't Need To Whisper. He had worked with Nine Inch Nails and Puscifer so he seemed like an interesting choice.
Danny produced, I believe, one or maybe two songs on Whisper. In a sense, yeah, he brought a couple elements that really got my mind ticking right away. The first thing he ever did for one of the songs was he added marching into it and that to me was like a whole new door because I was very obsessed with the idea and the dichotomy of love and war. And so I had this song called Distraction and I think it's the second song on Whisper but it was basically about planes coming in and leveling the city that you're in but you turn to the girl that you love and you say, But I will be your distraction. When he added the marching into that, it just added a gravity that really resonated with me that I've cherished with the band ever since.
By the time you record the second album, I-Empire, have you grown more comfortable as a songwriter and artist within Angels & Airwaves?
Yeah, I think by I-Empire I'm really honing in on the triumphant kind of sound and the epic kind of melodic ideas and the crescendo. I start to master the idea of having songs build and build and have a crescendo and losing a little bit of the atmospherics for a little bit of the rock element on that record. And that's where Angels & Airwaves needed to benot totally atmospheric but not totally rock. We wanted kind of wanted to walk on the fence line between those two planets and I think on I-Empire we started doing that.
You talk about understanding how to write epic songsis that something you worked at?
Yeah, absolutely. I would have to say that's one of the things I spent most of my time on. Because these days it's really easy to write a good melody. I remember back in the early 90s when I was just starting out, there weren't that many rock bands coming up with great melodies. And now it's like 16-year old kids in a garage band are writing the catchiest songs ever. So for me it's not about a catchy song anymoreit's about the packaging. Anybody can write a catchy melody and the simplicity of it is usually what works. But it's packaging the song that supports that structure on top of it.
You're talking about arrangements and instrumentation and things like that?
If a melody was a building, what is the foundation and the finished materials holding that building up? And that's how I looked at the idea of the triumph ingredients in some of the melodies that I write. It's the music that's making that happen so when you deliver something that's quite simplistic, it's gotta be worth delivering in front of a large audience. Obviously I'm pretending the band is much bigger than it is and that's the goal and I think it comes across on the records where you kind of hear this and go, Wow, these guys aren't a gigantic band but you can tell they feel like they are. You know [laughs].
Matt Wachter joined the band on bass for the I-Empire album and replaced Ryan Sinn. Matt was formerly with 30 Seconds to Mars, a band that really understood that triumphant element in songwriting.
Matt's a couple different things: Matt brought in a really great personality that meshed instantly with me and David. He's one of my favorite human beings on the planet. He's that kind of musician that plays things perfectly and he'll be up at six in the morning with the computer making sure he played [a part] perfectly. He's so anal that way that he plays it perfectly. His timing is perfect; his bass playing is perfect; but then he also plays piano and he also is like an electronic wizard. He's all about computers and electronics and engineering; he does Photoshop graphics and he comes into the band and does all these things that we can't do. He opens the computer; he can record our music; he can do logos and he can put together a whole electronic kind of masterpiece in the live show and on the records. He records a lot of the segues in-between the songs; those atmospheric tidbits. So he's doing like 10 things that I don't have time or the skill sets to do.
You wanted Angels & Airwaves to be much more than just a music band.
If you look at Angels & Airwaves, it's a multi-media project. You have the songs; you have all the interludes between songs; and you have all the short films, feature films, graphics and iconography. The show is put together with these large piano deconstructions and electronic deconstructions and so Matt comes in wearing multiple hats and it instantly made the band able to do like 50 percent more.
A lot of those keyboard sounds and little synth tones come from Matt?
The piano and atmospheric strings on The Flight Of Apollo is Matt?
Yeah, that's all Matt on that songall that piano and all that stuff. Absolutely. What I'll do is a lot of times I'll say, Something like this and my hands just can't do it and he'll jump on and he just does it. He'll play it over and over again until it's perfect to go. He's a tremendous asset to the band.
"Blink allows me to have sense of eternal youth and rebellion that I grew up on."
Some of those elements on The Flight Of Apollo are reminiscent of U2 and Pink Floyd. Were they in your vocabulary?
Absolutely. It took me a while to get into Pink Floyd. As a kid my brother played me The Wall and they're shaving their eyebrows and all this weird shit and I was in third grade or something and I was like, What the fuck is this shit? But as an artist I was so inspired by everything they pulled off before anyone was even thinking that way.
But your main background is punk.
Absolutely. I like a little bit of a variation. I come from a pop/punk kind of Southern California background so my music doesn't compare in hardly any ways to a band like Pink Floyd. I can't even pretend to think that I would ever be able to play like David Gilmour. But what we like to do is take the cerebral kind of depth that they take with their symbology and with their ambitions as far as the delivery of their music through film and all those kinds of things.
What is it that you began on the Love album you felt needed a follow-up album with Love: Part Two?
I think it's a couple different things: number one is we're totally independent so we have no help. So we said, OK, here's a movie we've been making for almost five years. What is the best way we can present it to the world? Let's put out a complete three records that asks nothing of anybody. It just asks people to give us a shot you know? Then let's come out with a film at all the festivals and build that up and then let's follow it up with one more record that we can actually sell. We put it all together and we can sell something that's like $30 or $40 but we can sell it for $15.
This is part of that grand multi-media scheme you touched on earlier?
This is all part of a master planit's the most challenging of arts for a band but also the most challenging of business strategy where you kind of put your money where your mouth is and you bank on yourself. Also it allowed us to approach the thematic consequence of the work while not only musically but as a feature film, which will be taking that word and conveying it in a completely different medium that has nothing to do with the album it was associated with. It was completely anti-egowe're not in it, we're not acting in it and we're not even singing in the movie. We just score it and the score is gonna live separate as a double-album as well. But yet Love: Part Two, a lot of the songs are built off the score from an inspirational standpoint.
Were you happy with the resulting Angels & Airwaves Presents Love Live film and related projects?
Yeah. Everything launches on Tuesday [this interview took place five days prior to that launch] but absolutely. What happened was the first album we downloaded close to a million copies of it with no radio, no marketing or anything. We put it up on midnight and put it up for download the very next day. Now everything coming out, iTunes is giving us the biggest release and marketing that they've ever done with any band ever. Sort of across the board on the film side of stuff and on the music side of stuff.
With that kind of support from iTunes, all the doors must have been pushed open.
It's allowed us to create graphic novels. We just put up a bundle that came with a guitar, a graphic novel and the three-disc set of the double-album and the movie. It's $1,000, this bundle and we sold out all of them the night we put them up, which was the day before the pre-sale even went up. We never even announced it to anybody; people just found it and they sold out that night. It's crazy and those are $1,000 apiece.
It's unbelievable. So I look at this as like we're doing stuff that's totally revolutionary. I'm excited. Even this technology that runs our website store that allows us to deliver physical and digital items packaged together is called Modlife and that's an Angels & Airwaves system that we created with my company. Now it's running the business and the websites for Pearl Jam and the White Stripes so other bands are adopting it. So we've done a lot of pretty revolutionary stuff.
One Last Thing on the Love:Part Two record has some very cool rhythm guitar stuff going on. Fans maybe overlook your guitar playing at times.
Yeah, I appreciate you saying that. I've always been a guy when all the other guitar players were trying to learn how to do complicated leads and solos and whatever, I was always interested in writing songs. I never progressed to become the best guitar player and I never became the best singer but I can do them both decently well and that's gotten me a lot further. But I've developed my own style where being the only guitar player in blink for so many years, I've had to come up with parts that sounded like two guitar players. So I was constantly trying to figure out how to take a power chord and a lead and mix em together to where it filled up a lot of space. And that made me kind of like a supercharged rhythm player. Not necessarily a lead guitar player but kind of a rhythm guitar player with a little bit of adrenaline in him.
You actually evolved to a point as a player where you earned your own signature guitar.
Yeah, I used to have one on Fender but I have one on Gibson now and I love it. It's a hollowbody 335 and I don't know, I'm probably the only kind of punk rock player that plays [that type of guitar]. Well, Tim Armstrong from the band Rancid plays a Gretsch hollowbody.
Was it a change moving from a solidbody Fender to the hollowbody Gibson?
Yeah, it was cause it was much bigger. But I'm a bigger guyI'm 6'4so it fit my hands better personally. I love it.
Behold A Pale Horse has electric piano?
Yeah, it starts out with electric piano and then it goes into a synth brass and a guitar. That's me channeling Van Halen if you listen to it.
We Are All That We Are is an Angels & Airwaves ballad with piano and strings.
That's my first guitar solo ever pretty much. On the end of Love One there's a guitar solo so I guess that's my first. But it's not as big as this onethis one goes on for quite awhile. That would be my debut as a soloist absolutely.
Did you know you wanted to play a solo on Love: Part Two or is it something you just did in the moment?
It was something I'm thinking about, something I was scared about and something I had to tell myself to figure out how to do.
"For me it's not about a catchy song anymore it's about the packaging."
Jumping subjects for a moment what did it feel like recording Neighborhoods with blink-182?
The biggest thing that we wanted to say was that we can get back together and make another album. Most bands that break up don't have that tenacity or the endurance to do that. That to me was the best thing about it and we're super happy with it. We didn't pressure each other and we took our time and had fun doin' it. It's given us the ability to have some more progressive songs in the set, which gave us the ability to have a more progressive production, which is something I was really excited to have.
Does a song like Up All Night, the first single, embody some of these progressive elements with the sequenced keyboards and stuff like that?
Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of stuff in there and I was able to bring a lot of those elements in and it seemed to be somethin' the guys really responded to. Not too much of it but just enough that we could do some different stuff.
Up All Night is completely different than a song like One Last Thing and yet you can tell that the same songwriter wrote both tracks.
Yeah, because my melodic sensibility has always been there. The funny this is that Angels & Airwaves, a lot of times when I use all the guitar effects, I kind of still play the same way I always have. So if you kind of like take a blink riff and put on a bunch of echo, it sounds like Angels & Airwaves. But it's still the same kind of simplistic playing and so my melodic sensibility is always gonna be set in stone. So the way I approach a pre-chorus or a chorus will almost always be synonymous with the other band. But with Angels & Airwaves there's just a lot more latitude for length of songs and duration of intros and with latitude of instrumentation.
You co-produced Neighborhoods with Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker and you produced Love: Part Two by yourself. Is it a completely different experience sitting in these two producer chairs?
Yeah, in Angels & Airwaves we just communicate a different way. I think the strength of blink is the differences in each member and the strength in Angels & Airwaves is the alikeness and the common vision. So the communication is always gonna be much different from each band but I think that's why the bands have their own little bit of magic is because of those differences.
In 2005 the blink-182 Greatest Hits album was released. The band had broken up by that point so if you'd never gotten back together that would have been the final recording. What would that have meant to you?
Well, I think it showed a kid growing up just getting through puberty and he feels like he's a man but he's not quite a man yet. What's good about having another blink record and the band get back together is it's able to show that maturity that was never able to be shown. It's kind of like when you meet a young kid that's like 20 years old and he thinks he's a total adult and you're kinda like, Well you don't really know that much yet. You know? And I think that if that was the last imprint it would show that youth but would never show the maturity and I think that's our job now is to show that maturity.
Though you are in an unbelievably enviable position of being in two very successful bands, is it difficult maintaining a high level of creativity?
Yeah, it sure is. I never planned for it to be that way [laughs]. I didn't think blink was ever getting back together so I started Angels & Airwaves and that became my life. Then blink got back together and no one saw Travis living through that tragedy of a plane crash. If that didn't happen, we would never be a band still. But now I find myself with both these bands. The good thing is blink doesn't work too much. We're gonna go places where a boat can take us and there's not that many places in the world. So that gives me plenty of time to do the Angels thing. And me as an individual, I'm made up of that young guy and that kind of maturing guy that wants to pretend he has some life experience under his belt so it's good to have both of these things.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I was really trying to redefine who I was; I was going through a crazy midlife crisis. A midlife artist crisis."