Punk Rock As Therapy: The Emotional Darkness Behind blink-182’s Nine
The making of blink-182’s latest album begins with a very modern crisis. Too much rage, too much FOMO, too much information, and all delivered at 40 megabits per second.
For Mark Hoppus – the California trio’s remaining original founding member – an existential slump was kick-started by a never-ending cycle of bad headlines, and it’s easy to see why. Donald Trump dominated the internet throughout 2018, as did stories of gun violence and horrific border control policies. Poverty and climate disasters darkened Mark’s mood even further. For a brief while, the bassist and songwriter felt under attack from his phone until, inevitably, a depression kicked in.
Some of the people closest to Mark – his wife, his manager – became concerned. At first, the emotional slump was offset by an experimental studio idea with All Time Low frontman Alex Gaskarth, where the pair recorded the energised synth-punk of Simple Creatures and their opening shot EP, Strange Love. The side project’s “ratty guitars, electronics and programmed drums” provided a therapeutic creative outlet; the singer had found his happy place again. But more stress was to come and when blink-182 began laying down the demos for their ninth studio album last year, the heaviness still clung to him. There was no shaking it. But shouldered by drummer Travis Barker and guitarist Matt Skiba, Mark used those heavy moods to inform Nine, the band’s latest studio album.
“I think I’ve realised that my brain naturally goes in cycles to dark places and I have to actively combat that,” Mark tells Kerrang! later, while resting between dates on blink-182’s recent U.S. tour. “My brain can eat itself sometimes.”
Shot through with scratching guitars, brooding vocals and scattershot breakbeats, Nine is a giant step away from the rainbow-bright hooks of 2016’s California. In spirit, the prevailing mood is more in tune with Untitled, blink-182’s 2003 episode of introspection that ushered in fan favourite I Miss You and its ominous references to depression (‘This sick strange darkness comes creeping on, so haunting every time’). Meanwhile, a deep dive into Nine’s lyric sheets – written by Mark and Matt – uncovers talk of ‘damn insecurities’ and self-medication (The First Time), isolation (Happy Days) and boozy remorse (Hungover You).
But it’s Black Rain that provides the biggest surprise. A skittering, “post-punk, industrial” charge, it is underpinned by a dark-hearted chorus: ‘Tragedy erased my memory / And now all I see is this black rain.’ Compared to the summery hooks of She’s Out Of Her Mind and Bored To Death, this is arguably blink-182’s biggest lane change in years.
“I’m not in a place right now where I want to write really happy, up-tempo songs,” says Mark. “I felt that on this record there’s stuff underneath the surface that was bothering me. I needed to address it. It comes out in the lyrics.”
“Well, I don’t really talk a lot. I’ve gone to therapy sessions and things like that, and it doesn’t really work for me,” Mark reveals. “I don’t like talking one-on-one with someone about weird things. I’d rather talk to 10,000 people at a show about my deepest, darkest fears. I was talking to somebody else the other day and they were asking, ‘What’s it like working with different songwriters?’ And it’s a little strange because you get into the studio with a producer, somebody you haven’t met before, and it’s almost like a blind date. We sit down and they’ll say, ‘Okay, tell me about the most awful thing that’s going on in your mind right now. Tell me about your deepest fears and darkest times and let’s make a song out of it.’ Because that’s what people want to hear. People want to hear the truth. People don’t want to hear some made-up story. People don’t want to hear something half-assed. When music connects it’s when people are being honest with one another. It’s a gigantic outlet for me to discuss the dark things in my life with a whole bunch of people at one time, rather than talking to one person about it… I think that I’m in a headspace now where I want to be more open and honest with my lyrics.”
In recent months, Mark has been able to locate the trip wires and booby traps in his mind. Turning off the media headlines on his phone has been a positive step; ignoring the ‘breaking news’ alerts that usher in the latest wave of public outrage has helped too. “I feel that in the world today people want a quick fix,” he says. “It’s a really strange time where everybody is on heightened alert. Everybody is angry at one another. Everybody is upset, no matter what side of the spectrum they’re on – they’re more upset about politics, they’re more worried.
“I wake up and look at Twitter, I get angry and I start my day. It’s unhealthy to live with this level of anger. I have to consciously make an effort to not look at the news a lot of the time and just say, ‘Every single day there’s some new outrage and a lot of the time it’s not worth my time.’ It’s small stuff, things that are almost fake outrage, so sometimes I’ll turn a blind eye to those. Then I’ll think, ‘If it’s a real issue it’ll rise up to the level where it’ll catch my attention.’ That way, I don’t have to fight every single little thing every day.
“And, yeah, there are moments of joy and elation and things that are great that are happening too, but the way that everything is wired right now – between the news and Twitter, and social media – everything spins so quickly that there’s no time to take a breath. You wake up. What’s the outrage of the day? You do your stuff and you live your life and you get home, but you’ve eaten up all your [emotional] bandwidth in the morning with outrage, a sound bite, or a tweet. We just need to slow down and catch a breath for a second, but it feels like we can’t do that.”
Mark’s moods have since been re-energised by the people closest to him. Surrounding himself with “good people”, exercising and spending time outdoors has helped. “Now I’m more aware of it, I’m finding better ways to deal with it. I’m catching myself when I start to spiral,” he says. Reading books – actual physical pages – has provided moments of calm, too. “They’re like an island in the middle of a turbulent river. I recently read [author John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel] East Of Eden. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so good.’” Most of all, though, Mark has turned to punk rock as therapy. “Playing music is the biggest outlet.”
Judging by the doomy emotion of Nine, the musical healing has paid dividends.
Nine was so nearly a very different record entirely.
“A year and some change ago”, blink-182 began working at various studios – sometimes from home, on other occasions at the home studio of California producer and collaborator John Feldmann. The plan: to record the follow-up to their GRAMMY-nominated eighth album, California. This, at least, explains the album title (“Though at one point we were joking around and were going to call it Boj Mir,” says Travis. “Like ‘Rim Job’ backwards”). Nine was also set to be the second release with newly installed guitarist Matt Skiba, following the departure of Tom DeLonge in 2015.
At first the band felt flushed with inspiration; around 30 songs of pop-punk were captured over a period of time. But then self-doubt struck. The new material wasn’t different enough; the latest songs sounded too stale, too repetitive, too predictable.
“Sometimes the songs you love instantly – the ones you think, ‘This is the best thing ever!’ – are the songs you get burnt out on the quickest,” says Matt. “The ones you’re later really into are the ones that grow on you slowly. They stand the test of time during the course of making the record. I think it was Travis who said it first: ‘You think you’ve got a record until you realise you haven’t got that many awesome songs.’ Slowly and surely Mark and me went to John and said, ‘Yeah, I think I’m with Travis…’ It’s a jagged pill to swallow because it was true. To make a good record you really have to trust the people you’re making music with. I think everyone has to be in love. I trust Mark and Travis completely when it comes to anything at all.”
Months of work were ripped up as blink-182 started again, this time working from a new blueprint. Rather than springboarding from guitar melodies – as they had before – songs were crafted from drum breaks and beat ideas written by Travis. A raft of shadowy lyrical ideas emerged in their slipstream. “Blink’s always been very melodic but on the darker side lyrically,” says Travis. “From the time I joined the band, I felt it was that way.” In such a creatively fractious moment, some bands would have crumbled under the pressure of a new beginning, especially one with a history of disputes and disagreements. But with Matt now three years into his time with blink-182, a period of harmonious creativity took hold. Much of this unity was a result of the guitarist’s cemented position within the band.
“Matt’s awesome,” says Travis. “Even for the California album, he got in and he really figured it out and he played his part, even at times when we were getting ready for a tour. He’s like a low-key superhero. I always know he’s going to come through. We’re a strong unit. We were before, too, with Tom – I’m never going to say anything negative about Tom – but it’s like a relationship: there’s your ups and downs with one person. Matt, Mark and I get along really, really, really well. We never really have any hiccups.”
This was seen as a turning point. For much of the making of California, Matt experienced what he describes as something of an “identity crisis” as he found his feet within a band carrying so much history. “Crisis is a strong word, but I feel I now know my place in blink better than I did years ago,” he says. “We all know each other a lot better. We’re always learning, and if you’re doing life correctly you’re learning something every day. In a band it’s no different, you’re learning about each other and you’re learning about music, and it’s a lot of growing up. It’s only tightened and cemented our friendships and our love for this band collectively.”
It was this cohesion that allowed Matt – with a helping hand from John Feldmann – to sketch out the harmonies and lyrics that would later become Black Rain. Alone in the studio, the pair decided to work on a brand-new song. But when John began to play a series of hymnal chords on the piano, accompanied by a “churchy” lyric (‘Salvation, the angels are singing salvation’) a far darker idea began to form.
“We then went into the studio in his house and started doing verses that were very like Nine Inch Nails,” says Matt. “We wrote it really fast and then Mark came in and gave Black Rain its The Cure-y, blink-182 [sound]. For the lyrics, I’d been thinking about my issues with organised religion. I think there’s a big difference between religion and faith – they’re two very different things. Faith is a beautiful thing, no matter what your faith is… unless it’s the Ku Klux Klan, or some horrible piece of shit organisation like that. Faith is something you can’t learn, you can’t buy: it’s something you believe. It’s what you think.
“I had just watched a film called Spotlight, which was about the cover-ups of these abusive priests. They were covering up molestation and known abuses of children. I think the salvation stuff that John was writing about came from a very true place and I respect that deeply; I respect people’s faith. [But] I have zero faith for the business of fear and war-mongering. It’s another thing that instils a deep rage in me. I took John’s hopeful, churchy idea and painted it black.”
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Despair peppers the darkest corners of Nine. Album opener First Time deals with the frustration of chasing that never-to-be-repeated rush of the first high, the first drink and the intoxicating buzz of the first love. “People are always chasing this idea of perfection, but it’s never going to be what it’s like in your head,” says Mark. “I feel like in the world today people want a quick fix.” Elsewhere, Heaven was inspired by the mass shooting in Hundred Oaks, California last year, one of far too many killing sprees that took place within the United States, where the gun laws have led to widespread terror. “There are so many mass shootings right now,” sighs Mark. “The world is a really violent, dangerous place.” Meanwhile, On Some Emo Shit is “a straight break-up song”. “The idea is that you hear voices and you see pictures of someone that you’ve broken up with. It takes you back to the bad places.” Throughout Nine’s 15 songs there are references to drunken despair, the numbing of some imagined pain and medication.
“I think all of us have addictive personalities and have gone through times where we’ve relied on self-medication,” says Mark. “Travis is totally sober. Matt’s not entirely sober, I’m not entirely sober, but we’re way better than either of us have been in our pasts. The world is looking for that something to take the edge off, whether that be drinking or taking pills. People are looking for something to alleviate some of their load. But I think all of us are in a pretty good place right now.”
Set against this backdrop of personal despair and a very modern form of anxiety came a milestone landmark in blink-182’s career. Enema Of The State, the band’s breakout album and a release that would go on to sell over 15 million copies, was released 20 years ago. In generational terms, so much has changed since Mark, Tom and Travis first appeared on MTV and across the covers of countless magazines. The oversized surf shorts, skinny torsos and outrageous posturing have faded from view. Lyrically, blink-182 v.2019 couldn’t be farther away from their early incarnation. The very idea of a dick song on Nine would seem completely out of whack with the rest of the record. Yet their appeal remains as strong as ever. On their recent, celebratory anniversary tour, the band have been playing Enema Of The State in its entirety during a string of sold-out shows to the type of crowds most bands would kill for. “It absolutely blows my mind,” says Mark of the response.
The adventures from that period in the late ‘90s were intense. Both Mark and Travis can recall the early days, crashing on floors, sleeping in vans, all to play for 100 people, usually for around $50 a night. After gas and beers there wasn’t a lot of take-home money. The highs, when they came, were equally exciting, especially when Puff Daddy crashed into their dressing room to swipe a bottle of complimentary champagne from the rider at the MTV Awards in 2000.
“We’d won Group Video Of The Year [for All The Small Things],” says Mark. “The band was launched into outer space. It was the culmination of that whole record cycle, going from the beginning of the writing process when we were a mid-level band on the Warped Tour, to the end of the cycle when we were playing arenas and hanging out with famous people. Puff Daddy came into our dressing room and said, ‘Hey, blink can I have your champagne?’ And we said, ‘Absolutely, take it!’ It was like the second act in all those movies when it’s a montage – things are happening and you’re riding in a limousine and people are waiting for you at your hotel to sign autographs.”
For Travis, Enema Of The State is “a masterpiece of work”; their early ride was charged. “I was fearless, really stoked to be in a band,” he says. “But I didn’t really sit there and soak it up. I never really took a break to think about shit; I just kept it moving and kept on crossing things off the checklist of things I wanted to do and things I loved.” Through such a formative adventure, the friendship between the two longest-serving members within blink-182 is as strong as ever. The arrival of Matt Skiba has only enhanced the good time vibes.
“I think the band is still the same,” says Mark. “We’re still guys who want to write the best music we can and go out and do a good show. I think that we’ve gone through a lot. On one hand we’re a lot more confident in what we do and on the other hand I think we’re still trying to write the perfect song. The energy in the band now is more like it was back then. People are in good moods, people are very supportive of one another, people are excited. There’s a really good unity within the band. We like what we do and we’re excited to continue doing it.”
Fast-forward 20 years from Enema Of The State’s explosion and blink-182 still appear to be in healthy, happy spirits. An atmosphere of openness and trust currently fuses this band together, while their backstory of bad times has been just as inspirational as the good. The resulting existential turbulence and the bleak lyrical wordplay that informs much of Nine has delivered another record of instantly memorable songs, one Mark claims might be his band’s most honest album yet. And while Silicon Valley overload has dinged him a little, he remains relatively unscathed. Now it’s time for the fun part: Mark gets to share his deepest, darkest fears with hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Which is so much more preferable to chatting to a therapist, one-on-one, in a quiet room.
There’s nothing “half-assed” about that. It’s called connecting. It’s a truth.
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