“I’m Always Going To Try Things That People Think I Can’t Do:” The Reinvention Of Tom DeLonge
First impressions can be hard to shake. That’s something Tom DeLonge knows all too well. After all, most people were introduced to him in the video for What’s My Age Again?. The lead single from blink-182’s breakthrough and world-conquering third record, 1999’s Enema Of The State, it featured the guitarist and singer running alongside his two bandmates, bassist/vocalist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker, through the streets of Los Angeles butt-naked. It’s an impossibly catchy song, but also a deliberately puerile one that explores the recklessness of youthful abandon, of not giving a fuck about consequences, of not taking life seriously, of being young, dumb and full of… fun.
While that reputation started following Tom as a nude 23-year-old in that video – and the other puerile, goofball songs and antics that made blink-182 huge stars – to some extent, he’s also always been trying to outrun it.
“In my opinion,” the now-44-year-old says today, “one of the things that really made blink a wonderful band was that we wrote a lot of serious songs and we joked a lot in between the songs, and we wrote a handful of really funny joke songs – but we were also writing about teenage suicide, we were writing about growing up, we were writing about disenfranchised kids and youth and broken homes.”
That people often overlooked the more serious side of blink’s music was understandable. After all, any casual observer who came across a record called Enema Of The State and didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics could easily dismiss the band as immature, throwaway pop-punks who only sang about jerking and goofing off. The equally immature masturbatory pun of their 2001 follow-up, Take Off Your Pants And Jacket – which included the infamous bonus track Fuck A Dog, featuring Tom singing about, well, fucking a dog – didn’t help much. It was after that, though, that Tom really seemed to make a conscious effort to break out of those trappings to become an artist that should be taken much more seriously than his most popular songs would suggest.
That attempt to cultivate a more serious image of himself really began, he says, with his side-project Box Car Racer and their 2002, debut full-length. A year later, blink put out their eponymous – and, again, much more serious and mature – self-titled album. And when the trio went on hiatus in 2005, Tom channelled all of his creative energy into the incredibly poignant songs of Angels & Airwaves: the space-obsessed band that, since leaving blink in 2015, has become his main musical preoccupation. All of that stems from not just his creative restlessness, but to buck against preconceptions and preconceived ideas of who he is as both a person and an artist.
“I’m always going to try things that people think I can’t do,” he says. “That came probably right when I started Angels & Airwaves, or maybe a little bit with Box Car Racer. When I did Box Car Racer, that was the first big challenge to myself – can I make a great post-hardcore punk record that’s totally different to what I’ve been doing when I don’t have my entire band or another songwriter to rely on and fall back on? Can I do this on my own? Can I accept this challenge?’ And I proved to myself that I did pretty good and that I can do more of that. So then when I did Angels & Airwaves, I did it again, where I was like, ‘Can I make a band that’s completely different than anything I’ve done and is unashamedly putting its heart and soul out there of what we believe in and what we want our world to look like?’”
He was, of course, aware that may well be jarring to fans of his other band’s more scatological stuff, but he was willing to take that risk – especially as blink going on hiatus meant he had the time to do so.
“I remember thinking,” he says, “that if I do this – if I start singing about consciousness and love and all these different things – people aren’t going to totally get it. People are going to wonder why this rebellious kid in a rebellious punk band is now being a lovey-dovey. But I knew that this was where the world was going. Now, every alternative band that you hear on satellite radio is singing about love and whatever. When Angels started, we were kind of the only punk/indie rock band in the scene, and from the generation I’m a part of, that was doing it. So I knew that it was going to be difficult for some people, but it ended up being something that I felt really proud of.”
All that being said, Tom understands that, even all these years later, there may still be some residual misconceptions about who he is as a songwriter, even though he has been able to thoroughly reinvent himself as an artist with Angels & Airwaves. After all, all those dick and fart jokes blink-182 told helped the band sell millions of records, resulting in a legacy that runs much deeper than that shallow, superficial side.
“If someone looks at what blink has done, like the biggest things we’ve done, a lot of it’s really funny, wild, out there stuff and I can understand if that’s all they know,” Tom admits. “So they think, ‘Okay, that band is that kind of thing,’ but they didn’t listen to some of those songs about teenage suicide or our families breaking up. And because of blink, they might not have ever really listened to Angels & Airwaves, because they go, ‘Oh it’s a side project and it’s not very popular, so it must not be that good,’ or whatever people think. And I understand. I think a lot of people hold onto the legacy of a big band and when the members go do something else, people don’t really give it as much attention, because they just don’t have that much time in their lives to dig in to all the different areas of every artist. I have a very clear understanding of what I’m up against getting people to notice what I do or say, and I just hope over time I offer something that’s quality art and a quality way of thinking on a lot of things and hopefully improve people’s lives – or at least the way they think about themselves and their own personal life path. That’s when I realised that this can’t be just a band. It has to be an art project, because these are really big themes and there are a lot of things to discuss here.”
Given all he’s achieved since – he’s not just been able to reinvent himself, with Angels & Airwaves, as an artist to take seriously – Tom’s also expanded his artistic horizons in numerous directions. He’s developed a show on TBS that’s based on a graphic novel he wrote; directed an animated short called Poet Anderson: The Dream Walker, which was released alongside Angels And Airwaves’ 2014 fifth full-length, The Dream Walker, and won Best Animated Film at the Toronto International Short Film Festival; and executive-produced a series, Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, for the History Channel.
Tom’s obsession with aliens was something else that people didn’t take seriously, especially when – as was widely reported at the time – he left the blink-182 in 2015 to look for them. Two years later, he set up his To The Stars…Academy Of Arts And Science with engineer and parapsychologist Harold Puthoff, and last year videos of UFOs the Academy sent to The New York Times were officially acknowledged by the U.S. Navy as containing Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) – the first time that’s ever happened. Unsurprisingly, he feels a certain sense of vindication and validation, something which has knock-on effects for his creative ambitions, and shows how interlinked those two sides of him are.
Essentially, Angels & Airwaves serves as the vehicle for him to spread the message of love and unity that is so fundamental to both his art and who he is. Angels & Airwaves’ platform isn’t anywhere near as big as blink-182’s, but it still offers him a way to disseminate that message in a palatable, easy-to-digest way to people who wouldn’t otherwise hear it. It makes his quest to be taken seriously both all the more understandable and vital.
“How we function is super, super important,” he says, “so I want to use the band, the science from the company, and use major motion pictures to communicate it. But it all stems kind of from me, where we have a theme, so let’s put it in a book and a movie, here’s the band that can help write the music for the movie and score it, but the band can also write song that go along with this theme, and then that movie can come to life onstage but people can go out onto the concourse and experience the science and the engineering and have an idea of how exciting this gets once we all understand who we are and what the possibilities are.”
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Now, with a new Angels & Airwaves record on the way (he remains tight-lipped on the exact details, but he says that they’re “doing the final tracking right now, have started mixing some of the songs and I think we’ll be done within the next 60 days”) Tom will continue his quest for personal enlightenment and universal truth. He obviously has considerably more on his plate these days than he did when he was running around naked in LA, but he’s also never been so serious about his music – or the role it plays in his life.
“This new record is probably my best, if not one of my top two or three records I’ve ever done,” he says, “so my goal is to finally break the band into the mainstream after 13 years of it kind of doing its own thing. I’ve been putting out my own music for, like, 10 years, which has never been my absolute priority, and now it is a priority for me, and I expect big things. I’m much more authentic now to who I am than I’ve ever been. I will only do things that I know are worth doing and that I 1,000 per cent believe in. If you do something that is completely in your heart that you can see 1,000 per cent in your mind, that will have exponential effects on all physical matter around you and it will start falling in place. But it takes a while. It’s almost like you have a ripple in an ocean – and the ripples don’t stop, but they get diluted over time. They get softer and softer, but they’re still there, and at some point it’s going to hit something and bounce back. You just have to be able to wait until it bounces back to you. And that’s kind of how the universe is.
“If I’d have done the first year of Angels & Airwaves and said after that year ‘This isn’t working, no-one gets it, I give up’, I would never be where I am today. You’ve got to give it time and you’ve got to be around and stick with your ideas for long enough to feel those ripples come back at you. And then you can ride those waves.”
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