The Truth Is Out There: The “wild adventures” of Tom DeLonge and Angels & Airwaves
There are clouds over California this morning, but Tom DeLonge still looks to the skies with a sense of wonder.
A quarter-century since he burst onto the scene as a potty-mouthed pop-punk figurehead with a penchant for the paranormal, the Angels & Airwaves frontman might be a little older, wiser and more weathered by the San Diego sun, but he’s still a risk-taker; a rule-breaker; a rock star who thrives by riding on (and over) the cutting-edge of his own capabilities.
By any standard, Tom’s walking away from globe-straddling juggernaut blink-182 – twice – in favour of the more elaborate, experimental space-rock of AVA, an outfit he once predicted would be the greatest in the world, was a massive artistic, financial and reputational gamble. By his own admission, he had no business building the band’s label into a trans-media powerhouse churning out books, documentary series and feature films. And pushing further still, to co-found To The Stars… Academy Of Arts & Science (TTSA) alongside engineer / parapsychologist Harold E. Puthoff and Jim Semivan, a former Senior Intelligence Officer with the CIA, so that he could interject himself into UFO conversations at the highest levels of government? Borderline madness.
“I’m an ambitious guy,” Tom shrugs today, with a hint of the same ‘Can-we-get-away-with-this-shit?’ mischievousness he used to apply to smuggling porn stars onto album covers and fart jokes onto mainstream radio. “Those ambitions are always about challenging myself.”
With a diary increasingly packed nowadays, Tom has started taking calls with a morning coffee in his spacious SUV parked up at the seafront near his Southern Californian home in Encinitas. Sporting a TTSA T‑shirt with his baseball-cap flipped backwards, he surveys the legion of surfers and skateboarders for whom the beach city has become a Mecca, still feeling like part of that thrill-seeking tribe at a lithe 45. It’s a “spiritual epicentre” for the Golden State, too, he informs us, where legendary yogi Paramahansa Yogananda built a temple for his Self-Realization Fellowship and penned his autobiography on travelling from India in 1936.
Eighty-five years on, it’s the scene of another transcendental awakening.
Since Tom sang, ‘I know the CIA would say / What you hear is all hearsay / I wish someone would tell me what was right…’ on blink’s 1999 classic Aliens Exist, he’s been the world’s highest-profile cheerleader for ufology. Little did he know he’d be the one helping those lyrical wishes come true.
The TTSA’s receipt and release of UFO videos from “real U.S. government systems” in 2017, a corroborating paper-trail, and the accompanying New York Times article titled ‘Glowing Auras And ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program’ forced the whole world to sit up and take notice. In December of that year, U.S. Deputy Secretary Of Defense David Norquist admitted to the existence of the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) Task Force. A comprehensive dossier on the subject, ordered by the 2021 Authorization Act, is due imminently.
It’s no coincidence that Angels & Airwaves’ sixth album – the suggestively-titled LIFEFORMS – will follow on September 24. While it would be easy to imagine a self-satisfied victory lap, with Tom basking in the unlikely vindication of being proven right after years of being called a tinfoil-hatted nut, he instead sees it as an opportunity to reconnect with fans and harness a stirring public consciousness to take the next step. Coming to terms with what we don’t know, he stresses, is even more important than forcing those headline-grabbing revelations. Extraterrestrial life is a distraction. We should be thinking inter-dimensional.
Listen to Tom DeLonge’s thoughts on the power of free-thinking
“If you went back a few thousand years and flew a helicopter over a jungle,” he explains, “people might not even notice it because they don’t realise it could exist. They’re not looking up. [Nowadays], we have this feeling that we understand everything, but there are things traversing into our existence that we can’t even conceive of. We think we’re the top of the chain here on Earth. We aren’t. We think we know how physics works. We don’t. We think that these craft are coming here from other planets. They’re not…”
Tom pauses with a grin, half-understanding that that’s a long conversation for another day. It’s the boundary-pushing pursuit of betterment we need to focus on, and the thrill of the chase.
“I’m always trying to take people on the same kind of rollercoaster ride that I’m on every day,” he says. “You pull out a thread, and you find something and pull it further and find something more. That treasure hunt is what life is all about. When you start asking those questions and you start learning, it tends to set people free…”
Tom DeLonge’s liberation began in Junior High. A scuzzy skateboarder from the San Diego suburbs, he’d toyed with trumpet and acoustic guitar at a young age, but it was while visiting a friend who’d moved to Oregon in seventh grade that punk rock truly expanded his horizons. Left alone with an electric six-string and records by Los Angeles’ ALL, Massachusetts’ Dinosaur Jr. and Northern Ireland’s Stiff Little Fingers, he connected with a contrarian sound and scene that might as well have come from another planet.
“I picked up that guitar,” he remembers, “and, suddenly, it was like, ‘Holy shit!’”
Beyond Star Wars, Tom had no real concept of the paranormal, but when sent to the school library later that year, he was drawn to a volume with the mysterious Loch Ness monster on its cover. This innocuous book of the unknown would be the proverbial red pill that toppled him down the rabbit-hole. “I just didn’t want to read all the other boring Junior High school books,” he laughs, reflecting on a serendipitous moment that changed his world. “From that point forward, it was like something penetrated my mind. It became an obsession.”
Back then, the internet was almost as much an unknown as the UFOs he was searching for, but when blink signed their first major-label deal with MCA in 1996, a 20-year-old Tom took $1,500 of his $10,000 advance to buy a desktop PC. “It was dial-up at that point, but I still downloaded so much UFO shit. It was a hobby at first. Then it became a legitimate study. It was the only thing that really took me out of the madness of stress and anxiety, touring and bills, work and relationships.”
Perusing low-res images, UFO-watching from tour bus windows and organising expeditions in search of Sasquatch, however, only scratched the itch for so long.
Over time, Tom’s prodigious punk rock attitude saw him kicking down doors (and sneaking through windows) that no-one else had the nerve to. He mentions strategies as blunt as getting to influential higher-ups via their music-loving kids, and as pointed as doorstepping groups of scientists with personalised question sets to parse information and paint a bigger picture.
“These guys aren’t actors,” he enthuses. “A lot of them are very black and white military- and engineer-type characters. You can tell when what you’re asking is butting up against something uncomfortable. That’s when you’ve got to keep ploughing through. But you’ve got to respect clearances, too. Stay away from shit that’ll land them in prison…”
Tom’s invitation to an event arranged by aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program ‘Skunk Works’ was a game-changer. “[2017 novel] Sekret Machines was about UFOs,” he explains. “I realised that I had to ask permission for some stuff because I didn’t want my car to drive off a cliff [by] accident…”
A celebrity introduction for the head of the company was traded for five minutes to bend his ear. Although nothing was formally agreed that night, things began to fall into place shortly after Tom’s rubbing of shoulders with “the most classified and the most advanced group of engineers and scientists that work within the military industrial complex”.
“I recently talked to a high-ranking general about the human soul,” he teases, illustratively. “They are very aware of it. That’s about as much as I can say…”
Tom reckons he lacks the requisite qualities – “maturity, eloquence, sturdiness” – to lead a global movement. “Seventy-five per cent of the time, I’ll be on point,” he laughs. “Then the other 25 per cent, I’ll say something and get my ass handed to me.” (Case in point: 2017’s infamously awkward Joe Rogan Podcast appearance.) He more than compensates, though, with charisma, energy and can-do cunning. In the era of figurehead CEOs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, he’s coming around to the idea of being a “frontman” for the ufology community: someone with the energy and audacity to get shit done, and the likability to live to fight another day. He’s certainly earned his stripes.
“I look back on it and realise I had some balls to say what I said. Sometimes, I was shitting my pants. But my first real discussion was to explain, ‘You guys have dug yourself into a hole you can’t dig out of. People don’t trust you. They know you’re lying. There’s a better way to do this.’
“That was the punk rock spirit of speaking truth to power.”
So what about the actual punk rock? For 15 years now, Tom’s musical output with Angels & Airwaves has been many things: grandiose; avant-garde; boldly theatrical, like the soundtrack to a movie he may or may not also choose to make. What it’s not: punchy; pulse-quickening; representative of the angsty simplicity of the teenage experience. Post-blink-182, the trademark nasal delivery endured, but it no longer spoke with the urgency of a tortured-soul suffering from Tourette’s.
AVA’s full line-up – currently completed by guitarist David Kennedy, drummer Ilan Rubin and bassist Matt Rubano – hadn’t even stepped onstage together between September 2, 2012’s appearance in Bologna, Italy and August 28, 2019’s at Solana Beach, California. They haven’t done so again since that autumn 2019 tour.
Hearing Tom’s mind-boggling description of LIFEFORMS’ central concept – a tangle of string physics and parapsychology – one could be fooled into thinking this first album in seven years is an even more indulgent, out-there expansion of AVA’s sound.
“We have so many lifeforms which are interacting with us which we don’t even know about. Not just UFOs, but things like ghosts and Bigfoot, too. The universe is basically this one giant mind – like the mind of God – with trillions of stacked frequencies of thought. Not linear, parallel: past, present and future all existing right now. But there’s a duality there, too, like the concept of The Force in Star Wars, where there’s Light and Dark. Matter and antimatter stacked on top of each other. Every particle has its counter particle. Protons, electrons, neutrons, whatever…”
He pauses for a moment, not quite self-consciously.
“I’m not a physicist, but I do know some very important physicists…”
Beyond the pulsating sci-fi synths and monotonous vocoder of its intro, though, LIFEFORMS is the most immediate AVA record yet. Alive with guitar-oriented urgency, post-punky atmospherics and earworm melodies, its 10 tracks span a broad stylistic range, but there are unmistakable echoes of the energy and attitude of Tom’s last two albums with blink-182 throughout. Even in its lyrics, the frontman seems less interested in ‘creatures from above’ than simple Homo sapiens and their more intimate bumps in the night.
‘Hey there little sad girl / I really want to hold you…’ he sings with melancholic desire over the jangling electro-punk of Timebomb. The blue-collar teenage kicks of She’s Automatic ramps up the nostalgia further still: ‘Finding love, isn’t fun if it hurts too much / Losing friends, ’cause you can’t always stay in touch.’ Even when his conspiracy-chasing crops up as it does on Losing My Mind, it’s framed through a frustrated personal lens rather than being fleshed-out into some OTT space-opera: ‘Stop now, what is this bullshit / I said we’re not alone, and / The government knows it.’
Listen to Tom DeLonge scratch the surface of the meaning behind Angels & Airwaves’ LIFEFORMS
Euphoria is a throbbing neo-noir with hints of the progginess of Rush. No More Gunz delivers straight-up political punk, hanging its cry for firearm-control from over a spring-loaded chorus. A Fire In A Nameless Town delves into R&B beats for a tale of soured romance.
Having started work on the record three years ago (he first talked to K! about advance single Rebel Girl in May 2019), Tom initially completed recording pre-pandemic, but went back to rework the compositions “without using all of those same old tricks that I have in the toolbox”.
The grittier, more grounded composition, he explains, was necessary for a meaningful evolution of the AVA sound. “Some bands start out super punk, then mellow [out] as they get older. They want to play music that’s more like what they listen to [to relax] at home. This band started out atmospheric, though, so it made sense to go more raw and more edgy. It felt like to push the Angels & Airwaves’ boundaries literally meant to go back in time!”
Staggered by the insipidity of what he heard on the radio, he was also compelled to fill modern mainstream rock’s emotional void.
“So much music nowadays has turned into pop. ‘Alt’ has literally become dance music. I’m used to punk rock bands having a meaning. We made music because we had something we had to get off our chests. Some bands wanted to be political. Some bands wanted to break something. Some bands, like blink, wrote ‘nursery rhymes on meth’ because we all came from broken homes and we wanted to be funny, fast and energetic to get us out of there.
“I wanted to bring back that soul.”
Most pressingly, Tom had his own personal void to fill, too, following his 2019 divorce from Jennifer Jenkins DeLonge, the high-school sweetheart, mother of his children and spouse of 18 years who was the inspiration for blink-182 classics All The Small Things and First Date.
“That was a really tragic thing for our family – so difficult and heartbreaking,” he winces at wounds not quite healed. “It made me want to get in touch with who I am again.”
Crucially, Tom’s collective endeavours bear none of the hallmarks of a cult of personality. He’s an author; an entrepreneur; a renowned film-maker; an activist well on his way to legitimately impacting the way we look at the world. He’s written or co-written 12 published books, executive-produced two series of History Channel docudrama Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation, and collected a Best Animated Film award from the prestigious Toronto International Short Film Festival for 2014’s Poet Anderson: The Dream Walker. And the focus is always directed towards the message or the material, rather than the man himself.
Sometimes it’s tempting to ask him to pump the brakes and drink it in. When his stream of consciousness gets going, it can be a wild ride trying to keep up. No possibility is passed over. Every exciting eventuality is considered. Towards the end of our near-90-minute meeting, we’ve lost count of how many outlandish theories and genuinely fascinating anecdotes have interrupted our train of thought.
In one breath, he’s enthusing about TTSA’s Virtual Analytics UAP Learning Tool (VAULT): a powerful AI designed to analyse, dissect and compare data sets from throughout history to study unidentified aerial activity. “You can put the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in there,” he speaks with evangelical fervour. “Weather and flight data. Confirmed UFO events. Then you see the congruencies between all this stuff!”
In the next, he tells us about Monsters Of California, his upcoming directorial feature debut (and sort-of companion-piece to LIFEFORMS). It’s “Steven Spielberg-meets-Seth Rogen”, he promises: a high-concept, “micro-budget” coming-of-age sci-fi starring swimsuit model Camille Kostek. “It’s got lots of dick jokes, paranormal stuff and skateboarders – those things I’m known for. It’s almost autobiographical in a way, [tapping into] how I felt this stuff was like a real-life movie when I was growing up.”
Citing the horizon-broadening cinema of Steven Spielberg’s 1980s era (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) and the “science-driven” fiction of great novelist Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) as influences, Tom’s clearly coming to understand that stories, and the ideas smuggled therein, are still TTSA’s most important export.
Most remarkably, though, for a man who’s spent the last decade-and-a-half on rock’s lunatic fringe, he has no axe to grind, no spare energy for reminiscence, self-doubt or regret. The insistence among fans that there is some kind of competition between Angels & Airwaves and current line-up blink-182, for instance, is the sort of unproductive fixation with which he can’t relate.
Hear Tom DeLonge discuss the search for himself – and the positivity that came about from it
“Even when I got divorced, there was this thing where people felt like they had to take sides,” he sighs. “But there are no sides. blink-182 is amazing, but it’s monopolising. It takes up so much of your brain space, and a lot of that is celebrating things that you did a long time ago. Angels & Airwaves was never meant to recreate blink’s lightning-in-a-bottle [magic]. It supposed to be just one piece of this larger artistic thing. People don’t need to compare.”
Authentically at peace, Tom reckons that he talks to his ex-bandmates now more than ever, messaging the uber-busy Travis Barker a few times a week while speaking to Mark Hoppus three or four times a day. “We’re like brothers. We’ll get really angry about something due to miscommunication for like a year. We’re dumb men. But then it’s like, ‘My bad, what’s up?’”
Even the revelation of the UAP Task Force, he claims, was just another upwards step taken in stride.
“People ask me now if I feel validated? I say no. I knew the enormity of what I was doing. I also knew that people were going to have a hard time understanding it and believing that I was doing it. But if you were involved with the meetings I was involved with, you wouldn’t give a fuck. I was given this opportunity to change the world. And I know that no-one is really going to be sticking around saying, ‘Tom did that…’ But I know in my heart that I started all of that. I have to put everything into it. Even if I never get the applause, I need my kids – and yours – to grow up in a better place.”
Even after our sprawling chat, it’s hard to know what to make of outsider-music’s one-time clown prince. Coming back to earth, momentarily, as he signs off to go start another day’s work on who-knows-what, however, Tom asks that even if we don’t understand his work, we understand that he’s doing it for the right reasons.
“I’m not motivated by money and fame,” he says. “If I wanted to do things easier, I could. I’m motivated by getting people to feel things and to open their eyes a little bit. Where I’ve ended up makes no sense unless you look at my entire life and all the things I’ve done. I was building businesses, but those businesses were never giant to the point where I was gonna go retire. I was in a band doing really big shit, but I was never really artistically satisfied. I’ve got money but I’m not gonna sit in my living room and do nothing [with it]. I was never just gonna phone it in.”
A wry smile as he prepares to tap the screen goodbye.
“I like what I like. And, when I like something, I jump all the way in. It’s just The Wild Adventures Of Tom…”
Angels & Airwaves’ LIFEFORMS is released on September 24 via Rise Records – pre-order your copy now. The band will tour the UK in March 2022.
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