Alex Gaskarth on new Simple Creatures: "At some point I think there will be something coming your way"
All Time Low's Alex Gaskarth reveals what's currently going on with his band with blink-182's Mark Hoppus, Simple Creatures.
When Mark Hoppus returned home from tour in 2018, darkness trailed behind him.
The blink-182 founder, frontman and pop-punk trailblazer had been on the road for the best part of two years in support of his three-piece’s 2016 album, California. According to Mark, the tour was “an amazing success, more than we had hoped for.” But a heavy mood seemed to weigh on his shoulders afterwards. Today, he has no way of locating its trigger. “I fell into this depression,” he says. “I got to a really dark place where even my wife was pulling me aside and saying, ‘Are you okay? What’s going on?’ I couldn’t find my way out of it.
“It wasn’t about anything specific, but I was in a spot where I was really down. I didn’t know what was causing it, I didn’t have a fix on it until my wife and my manager both said, ‘You need to make music. Go and make something.’ I had to do it to save my own life, I guess.”
The route map to happier times was located close by. Mark headed back to the studio to find a healing space. “I’m never happier than when I’m making, playing, recording, or touring music,” he says. His initial plan: to write a bunch of songs “with no agenda, whatsoever” – tracks at odds to the music made with his blink-182 bandmates, Travis Barker and Matt Skiba. He wanted to create choppy, grime-under-the-fingernails pop that drew influence from ’80s goth and emo-tinged rock – but who to call for help?
The first person that sprang to mind was Alex Gaskarth.
“Alex is a great songwriter,” says Mark of the All Time Low frontman. “He’s a great friend and easy to chill with. He’s smart and talented. He has great ideas for songs and great ideas for lyrics and melodies.”
Mark and Alex first met during a songwriting session around 10 years prior. The pair hit it off; there was chemistry and over time a friendship formed. “When you’re in the touring bubble, he became a familiar face,” laughs Alex. All Time Low later invited Mark into the studio to sing on Tidal Waves, an album cut from 2015’s Future Hearts. The favour was returned when the Baltimore quartet – Alex, plus Jack Barakat, Rian Dawson and Zack Merrick – joined blink-182 on tour in 2016.
So when Mark explained his existential funk to Alex, there was an immediate understanding. “He needed to do something creative,” says Alex. “I go to those same places when I’m off the road, too. I tend to get very stir-crazy. It’s like being left alone with your thoughts after being distracted for a year and a half. ‘What do I do now? Where’s my validation? Where’s my sense of purpose? Where’s my anything?’
“And so we got in a room and worked on some music. It felt good; the vibe was there. We worked very quickly, there was no overthinking, and we adopted a mentality of, ‘Alright, if we’re going to work together, let’s not do anything that sounds like our two bands.’ Any time anything starts to feel like familiar territory, let’s take a hard left turn. Sure enough, a week later, removed from the first session, I got a text from Mark that said, ‘Hey, it feels really cool… Dude, did we just start a band?!’ It’s like that scene in [the Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly movie] Step Brothers: ‘Did we just become best friends?’”
Recorded as both singers became free of their “normal bands”, in phases and across a series of studios, including Mark’s home studio in LA, the resulting sessions produced enough material for two EPs. On paper, this collaboration between two of pop-punk’s most recognisable and commercially powerful songwriters should have proved entirely predictable – a crush of pit-friendly anthems and surging riffola. Except their latest output is anything but. The first single, Drug, drops this week, an explosive rush of heavy-hearted pop that clatters and crackles with programmed drum breaks, scuzzy guitars and skittering melodies, with both singers sharing vocal duties.
“It’s a big, dirty song about being addicted to somebody in the best possible way,” explains Mark. “It’s a great introduction to what Simple Creatures is: ratty guitars, electronics, programmed drums – a happy song with dark lyrics. I think the hurdle we’re going to have to jump when people hear that it’s Mark from blink-182 and Alex from All Time Low, they’re going to think that it’s a poppy, pop-punk guitar band. I hope they’re as happily surprised as we are.”
Pulled together under the name Simple Creatures (Mark: “The name’s a little weird, a little quirky, a little off”), of the tracks played to Kerrang! in a sneak preview, the ethereal pop of How To Live is a pulsing blend of whip-snap grooves and brooding lyricism. Meanwhile, Adrenaline begins with a brand of spiralling, scorched-earth guitars as used by ’80s goth-pop flag bearers The Cure on their 1987 album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. Its sugar-coated chorus is underpinned by instantly memorable vocals – ‘Come on, hit me with adrenaline!’ – although the song may have given Mark a subconscious message.
“The idea behind the lyrics was when somebody makes you feel like you’ve died and come back to life,” he says. “Like that scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta pumps a syringe into Uma Thurman – it’s an adrenaline shot directly into the heart. Which, I didn’t realise until this interview, right now, is actually a metaphor for my process in this whole thing. Going into the studio, writing music, and getting the joy of writing something brought me to a happier place. I can’t wait for people to hear it.”
Friendship and respect sit at the heart of Simple Creatures’ creative emergence, a project that should have started life as a revolving door band, or as Alex describes it, “Mark Plus, with a bunch of people he knew.” But having recorded a handful of tracks in a short time with the All Time Low frontman, there was no need to ask for reinforcements. Mark had found the perfect studio foil. “I ended up not calling any of my other friends,” laughs Mark. “Alex and I seemed to mesh very well together and we were in the same place musically. It all fell into place in a really good way.”
Outside of the studio, both have plenty in common. “We both love Nintendo Switch and dogs,” says Alex. “We’re both deeply sad people on the inside.” Within the studio, much of their songwriting harmony arrived from a mutual love of ’80s synth-pop – “That dark pop, goth, emo thing. The Cure being a massive one,” says Alex. “Those worlds collide for us. Outside of that, I think the punk rock thing we both came up on [was there too], where everything had a little bit of edge and grit. The sensibility that you can have these weird, out-there, pseudo pop songs and lace them with real emotion and darkness. That was a big part of what went into these tunes.”
Mark agrees. “There were many, many times during the recording process that we referenced The Cure sounds, or the way that Robert Smith writes. He’s obviously a huge inspiration for me. I think Alex and me come from a catchy punk rock background. For me, I grew up with Descendents and Bad Religion. For Alex it was blink and probably Green Day. I think we both have the same foundational core of catchy, energetic songs.”
Asked to describe what each person brings to the studio, Mark opts to describe Alex as a writer “with everything. He’s got great ideas for hooks, great ideas for lyrics. For me the hardest part is just starting a song, whatever it is. But, he just blasts straight through that barrier of entry, ‘Give me that guitar and let me write something right now. Let me at that keyboard, I’ve got an idea for a song!’”
Meanwhile, Alex frames Mark as someone who writes “the coolest lyrics very quickly. I tend to really have to sit and think, and I do a lot of scribbling out and starting again. But he’ll sit there with a pen and paper, writing these really cool, profound and out-there lines. I’ll think, ‘Where did that come from?’ He would open a line and that would lead us down a path where the song wrote itself. He has the ability to come up with these cool turns of phrase that left my mouth hanging open. The chemistry was rad.”
The slight age gap between the two – Mark is 46, Alex 31 – and the fact that All Time Low were a band wearing blink-182 influences on their sleeves (literally, with tattoos) might have made it harder for a writing unity to develop. Alex describes his first meeting with Mark a decade ago as being an intimidating experience, fearful of the cliché that a person should never meet their heroes.
“I was a lot younger,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t a confident songwriter, I wasn’t a confident person, and I grew up listening to blink-182. They were a massive part of why I got into music and began playing the genre. I was sitting there with an idol. It was overwhelming; I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth. I’m sure I did a bunch of times. I’m sure I still do.
“The dude is so smart, so clever. He’s on a different wavelength of wit and dry humour. You can have a very real conversation with him and it’ll take a hilarious turn at any given moment. It’s much more unpredictable than I think anyone would expect… We bounced ideas back and forth very candidly and openly with no ego, or expectation, or any of that bullshit that can come along with writing with a less familiar person.”
Currently, there are under-the-radar plans for Simple Creatures to live beyond what could be two EPs. Mark likes the idea of throwing songs online “out of nowhere” and performing small-scale shows, if the schedules of both singers can line up. “We want to take this music out and play it for people,” he says. But neither singer sees the spin-off project clashing with the ambitions of their full-time bands. All Time Low are currently figuring out plans for their eighth studio album, and Alex insists his bandmates are cool with this latest endeavour.
“This is the first time anything like this has happened for me,” he says. “Mark has had other projects in the past, but this is the first outside musical thing I’ve ever had publicly. I couldn’t think of a more fitting or more perfect way for it to happen, given it’s with one of the people who got me into music in the first place. It feels like one of those crazy, serendipitous, full-circle moments for me.”
But blink-182 are also in a flux state, building tracks for their forthcoming album. A day before chatting to Kerrang! about Simple Creatures, Mark was in the studio writing new songs. “We’re in the studio all the time,” he says. “That’s the thing, our main bands are our main focus and will always be. We all have our outside interests and our outside things, but we’re pretty straightforward with one another; blink really is everybody’s priority and that’s understood among all of us.
“After playing in this band for 27 years, I want to push it and do different things and take blink to places where we haven’t been before. We’re really trying to do that on the new record. We want to do with our band what we did in 2003 with Untitled, where we take our foundations and go off in completely weird directions.”
The arrival of Simple Creatures and their amalgam of drum machines, synths and dancefloor-friendly rhythms might suggest both Mark and Alex have been pining for a world away from pop-punk. A little combat fatigue would be understandable: both have enjoyed their fair share of highlights in a scene Mark helped to further in the mid-1990s, having moved into the slipstream created by the likes of Green Day and The Offspring. blink-182 eventually scored four platinum-selling studio albums; All Time Low’s 2015 full-length, Future Hearts was the band’s first UK Number One, 10 years on from their debut, The Party Scene.
Despite their current positions as flag bearers for a party long on years, both insist pop-punk still has plenty to give in 2019. Simple Creatures is no sign that either wants to make a permanent leap for new horizons.
“I don’t think it’s anything about the genre because if it were we’d be breaking up our bands to do this,” says Alex. “That’s not the case at all; we’re between things right now. I think, if anything, rock music is starting to come back stronger than ever. It’s really exciting. I think as we turn the corner into 2019, I see more and more alternative, rock and hardcore bands – and the genres that took a bit of a back seat – starting to come back around.
“We’re seeing it in hip-hop as well; even they’re trying to add an edge. You’re starting to hear guitars in production again and it’s refreshing. People are bored with what’s been out there for a little while, and I think what’s cool is that people come back to rock music because it’s real. You can’t fake people standing onstage and creating that energy. There’s no way to replicate that. Trends tend to come back around to it. I feel pretty strong about the genre.”
Mark believes that pop-punk is as healthy as ever. During blink-182’s recent California tour, he looked out at the crowd and saw a generational mishmash singing back at him: young kids in the front row, crammed in for their first ever gig with older punks at the back; somewhere in the middle were thousands of 30 and 40-somethings tapping into a night of nostalgia.
“People wanted to hear songs from California as much as they wanted to hear songs from Enema Of The State, Dude Ranch or Take Off Your Pants… Somehow blink was totally revitalised in 2016 and 2017 and we’re like a brand-new band again. It’s great. I think, honestly, it’s because we wrote an album that went back to everything blink-182 was, for us.
“When we recorded California, we did a whole lot of soul-searching: what is blink-182? What do we love about blink-182? We took it all back to the very beginning and wrote the 2016 version of Enema Of The State. It had that immediacy, energy and the same heart that I felt was in the band in 1999.”
The genre-bending of Simple Creatures will only extend the appeal of both songwriters, though Alex admits this was a creative project he might not have managed 10 years ago. Listening habits, he reckons, have changed the willingness of fans to explore new studio sounds and bands beyond their favourite scenes. “The genre lines are blurred now,” he says. And without restrictive CD prices and unlimited free music online, fans are able to dive into musical rabbit holes on a whim.
“It’s definitely opened people’s minds to all different kinds of music,” he says. “Which is great, but at the same time it’s also made everything compartmentalised. It’s broken things down to the point where, if you’re just another name on a playlist how do you make yourself stand out? I think the lesson there is that a good song is always a good song. It doesn’t matter about the genre, the band, or the playlist you’re on. Songs have to speak for themselves at the end of the day. It sounds trite, but it’s true.”
Mark also recalls a time at high school where the dividing lines between rock fans resembled battlegrounds. “When I went to high school, you listened to one type of music, you listened to punk rock, heavy metal, or hip-hop. But God forbid if somebody listened to Bad Religion and Metallica and Slayer. Kids today don’t give a fuck. If a song is good they’re going to listen to it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blink-182 song or a Cardi B song, or a Coldplay song or an IDLES song. My son listens to every genre of music and I don’t think he realises there are different genres of music. To him, it’s just music.”
Into this frictionless musical whirlpool arrive Simple Creatures, a creative duo comprising two totemic, pop-punk frontmen in previously well-defined bands. Built from a studio palette rich in colourful lo-fi pop, rainbow bright harmonies and shivering, distorted guitar grooves, their breakout single is an unexpected arrival. Arena-packing status has allowed both songwriters the opportunity to take this musical shot in the dark, where commercial success would be nice, but not entirely essential.
“It is enough [that I love the music],” says Mark. “But as an artist, I always hope people outside love it, too. I can get excited about things by playing them in my studio and my car, but if I play it for other people and they shrug their shoulders, I’m definitely going to be disappointed. So when we played it for other people and they got excited, we were really stoked.”
As far as Alex is concerned, this new recording outlet has been a fun experience, but he still recognises the risks involved. “I’m very lucky to be in a position where All Time Low are able to take risks, but any time you make music you’re taking a creative risk, no matter what. I have freedom, but at the same time it feels like I’m taking the same chances and the same roll of the dice as I did 15 years ago when I did this for the first time.”
Drug and Simple Creatures’ forthcoming tracks suggest good times ahead – in and out of the Hoppus/Gaskarth recording union. For a painful, but thankfully, brief time, Mark Hoppus was forced to live his life in darkness. With Alex Gaskarth in tow, he’s now able to bring an exciting new project into the light. Some risks seem destined to pay off.
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