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Tom DeLonge on Blink-182’s legacy and dreaming big with Angels & Airwaves

No doubt about it — Tom DeLonge is a modern-day Dream Weaver.

As prime evidence, we submit Angels & Airwaves’ The Dream Walker, the brainchild of frontman/guitarist DeLonge and multi-instrumentalist Ilan Rubin. The Dream Walker (out today via AVA on various platforms) tells the tale of one Poet Anderson, who’s described as “a Lucid Dreamer with the rare ability to be aware of his dreams while they’re happening.” How Poet interacts with his own personal Dream Walker, who protects him from a vicious Night Terror monster, is a story that interweaves across a number of multimedia platforms — including the 14-minute animated short film Poet Anderson: The Dream Walker (which recently won the Best Animated Short Film Award at the Toronto International Short Film Festival), comic book, novel, and live-action motion picture.

Why such a focus on dreams? “Literally, half of our life is spent doing this thing we know very little about, and yet we write it off as not being important,” observes DeLonge, who also continues to split his time as vocalist/guitarist for Blink-182. “I think it’s an interesting exercise to dig into them and find out what dreams mean. The Dream Walker character is our Jedi — kind of like if Tron had a child.”

“Literally, half of our life is spent doing this thing we know very little about, and yet we write it off as not being important.”

The album itself is a pulsating intersection of post-rock and electronic sounds, from the fuzzed-out drive of Paralyzed to the heightened dance wash of Kiss With a Spell to the new-wave jangle of Bullets in the Wind. Digital Trends rang up DeLonge, who turns 39 next week (er, what’s my age again?), to discuss how to merge feel with technique, the best way to rearrange power chords, and how he reconciles his high-res desires with his punk-driven roots.

Digital Trends: The Dream Walker covers a lot of ground, but I think my favorite line on it is in the very last song, Anomaly, where you say, “I never wanted to coast / I wanted to be an anomaly.” That’s a pretty telling line for the character of Poet Anderson — and maybe for you, too.

Tom DeLonge: Thanks, I appreciate you pulling out that lyric. My whole life has been this insane search for validation as an artist. I think every artist has that, but me, I’d give just about anything to communicate something and see if I can move people, you know? It’s always been that way with my music. I never just wanted to cruise by and take it for granted. I could, very easily, have kept doing the same shit over and over again.

Yeah, there’s a formula you could easily keep plugging into. But the overall concept and execution of The Dream Walker proves otherwise — and it also proves the album format still has validation in this day and age.

Angels-&-Airwaves-The-Dream-Walker-Main-Cover

Well, you’re a rare breed, and I wish there were more of you! We take it that seriously, too. The album took two years to make. If you listen to each song, there’s no shit on the record. Whether people like that music or not, it is different. And by bringing the music into different mediums — like doing all the animations, the feature films, and the novel — people start to understand that we took every little pillar of this very seriously.

Sonically speaking, there’s so much going on within every track here that I have to imagine you were thinking of high-res playback the entire time you were making it. True?

Yeah! In Angels & Airwaves, we always try to make it a headphone experience. But I’m so nowhere in the same league as some of the great bands that have come before me. People like to say, “Oh, you’re doing a concept record like Pink Floyd.” Don’t ever mention us in the same sentence! (both laugh) I mean, I’m a punk-rock kid. You know, I literally grew up in a garage, and we were always suspicious of people who could play their instruments well.

Well, I know what you can call it, Tom. You can be Punk Floyd.

“In Angels & Airwaves, we always try to make it a headphone experience.”

(laughs) Oh, that’s fine, fair enough! In Angels & Airwaves, I try my hardest to craft the music to where it is an experience in the headphones. When we started 10 years ago, we were doing a lot of really, really interesting stuff that no one was doing. We were recording sounds. We put rocks in shoeboxes and we’d roll them around and pitch them, and put a weird amplifier in a bathroom so that it would sound odd.

Having Ilan Rubin join me on this record has been just fantastic. I mean, the guy’s the best multi-instrumentalist I’ve ever met in my life. Instantly, I was like, “Oh my God, he can play anything. This kid could jump on piano and play Beethoven, he could sit behind the drums and solo for 2 hours, and he’s definitely better at guitar playing than I am!” Beyond that, he stays up all night reading manuals about how to create his own analog synth tones. All the synth tones you hear on the record, he created from scratch.

So the overall, super-souped-up electronic feel of Kiss With a Spell is something he came up with in that way?

Yeah, he crafted that with analog synth modules. He set up an oscillator and dialed it up. It was a very Radiohead approach, you know? The way we work together is pretty amazing, because we’re such polar opposites. I’m the painter who throws paint on a canvas and when it splatters, I go, “That’s sick!” He’s the guy who thinks it’s art and would spend months on it, painting a big still life of ballroom dancing. (DT laughs) Totally different approaches. But that’s why I think it works. I’m a feeling guy. Everything I do is about feelings, and everything he does is about technique. So it’s a really good pairing.

Coming from such a pure punk background, how are you able to reconcile using technology to create all these Angels & Airwaves headphone experiences? In the early Blink-182 days, could you have ever imagined this is where you’d end up — or was that something always in your mind?

No, no, we never imagined that. I was perfectly fine for many years being in a three-piece like Blink. Bringing in electronics was like (pauses) … God, that was like bringing in anarchy. To do that was literally ruining many years of what punk bands before us had tried to not do. When The Clash start doing it, we all accepted it, because they were always so cool no matter what they did, more than everybody else. Even if it made them uncool, it didn’t matter, right?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean, Sandinista! (1980) — come on! What tremendous growth, coming from Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978) and then being able to do such a broad-ranging album like that.

Yeah! They’re the only ones that did it. When U2 started doing it, they weren’t really a punk band anymore; they were something entirely different.

Audiophile | Angels & Airwaves | The Dream Walker

(Image © Kmeron | flickr.com)

When Blink broke up [in 2005, before reforming in 2009], I just really wanted to graduate who I was into who I wanted to be. It was a grand experiment to write differently and record differently — to challenge myself and put myself out there. And the next thing you know, I really, really enjoyed having those tools in the toolshed. I was so sick of guitar. If I wrote a riff on guitar, the very first thing I wanted to do was not play it on guitar. I’d play it on synthesizer. And it was hard (laughs), but that was my approach.

I believe it’s worked out for you, Tom. It makes me think of the composition of a song like Paralyzed, with the fuzz guitar, cool vocal echo, and that organ break — it’s a very well-put-together piece.

I appreciate you even noticing all of those parts, thank you. Paralyzed is a great track because it’s like a post-hardcore-punk piece, but it’s also got these rock moments. And it’s weird, because Ilan doesn’t sound like that by himself. When you hear some of my other work with Box Car Racer and with Blink, you hear those elements, but I couldn’t have written this song by myself. The original guitar riff on Paralyzed was all power chords, and Ilan hates power chords!

Right — from what I’ve heard, Ilan and power chords go together like oil and water.

“Everything I do is about feelings, and everything he does is about technique. So it’s a really good pairing.”

Exactly! He just thinks power chords are a cop-out. I mean, he does them, but they’re not his go-to. In a punk-rock band, you’re going to have them; they’re everywhere. Instead, he turned those heavy power chords into a riff with a fuzzbox to give it some soul.

And I was so stoked when he did that. It was one of those moments where I finally felt we were coming together on this record. It took 2 years. In the first year, I had no fucking clue how we were going to do it. I didn’t really like what we were doing together; it was just so odd. But somewhere around that power riff on Paralyzed, I thought, “Ok, now we’re getting somewhere.” And it became really easy after that.

That song really sets the tone for the way the rest of the record follows, going from the punk universe to the high-resolution universe — which you’re clearly cool with doing.

I’ve always wanted to do that. Years ago, when Angels started, there was no place for us. We wanted to do multitrack multimedia, but no corporations would support that — to put out records and movies. We had to create a software system that worked, so we started Modlife, a platform that allows artists to go direct to their fans and sell really great high-res media, merchandise, and box sets — things that are valuable and tangible, not bullshit mass-produced CDs that no one cares about and are just trash.

I love that approach. Back to the sonics — tell me about that buried-vocal effect you got on Tunnels.

Thank Aaron Rubin, our co-producer who is actually Ilan’s brother. He had a vocal approach he wanted on all of these songs. He was very adamant about making me work a lot harder to put down tracks that were worthy of being there. He wouldn’t let me cut corners, and he wouldn’t let me rely on just the computer making it sound good. He was focused on getting great takes and doing interesting things to affect them. He did a lot of different things with the vocals, like sending them out through different speakers and giving them really interesting reverb treatments.

One of the main qualities of the record that we wanted was to have it feel much more raw and alive, and much less “produced.” We wanted it to feel like we were in the room with you — right there in the garage, even though there might have been a lot of layering and different techniques going on. I think we were really able to pull that off.

I like hearing you say that, because when I listen to it, it does feel like I’m right there with you in the garage while it was being created and played.

“When Blink broke up, I just really wanted to graduate who I was into who I wanted to be.”

We really went for that. It’s so easy for people to make a record on a computer and sound so produced. Hearing a rock band that’s rough around the edges, with some feedback and fuzz here and there — it’s rare. It’s exciting when a record sounds like that.

The human element is important to have there too, and Bullets in the Wind is a good example of that. I like the handclaps you have at the beginning, and the style of the guitar runs. It reminds me of an ’80s Police recording, actually.

Ilan and I both love The Police! To me, that song sounds like somewhere between The Clash, The Police, and other ’80s sounds.

It’s your “New Wave” track.

(laughs) It’s totally New Wave! I get what you’re saying. But it’s so polarizing. Some of our old fans are like, “What are they doing, man?” If they only knew how hard I’ve been trying to be different than I was, you know?

That must be tough for you, especially when you’re playing in the Blink-182 universe. To some degree, you have to give the people what they want, but you the artist also have to get something out of it.

Yeah, that’s the push and pull of that band. I go in there and I want to change it all up, and the other guys don’t want to. But I think where we negotiate and compromise is in a good place. We push the band forward a bit, but not too far. It’s hard when you have a legacy-driven thing like that. You’ve created a monster, but you’re so fortunate to have it that you don’t want to fuck it up.

Audiophile | Angels & Airwaves | The Dream Walker

(Image © Kmeron | flickr.com)

Blink, just by nature of who it is, where it came from, and what it’s all about, isn’t trying to go out and reinvent the wheel. I love having Angels & Airwaves for that reason. The elements in it are for a whole other audience — sitting in your house or in your car and really enjoying music. As a guy who’s 39 years old, Angels speaks to me in that regard.

But when you’re at a Blink concert and you have the giant pyrotechnics, Travis [Barker, Blink’s drummer] is going upside down, and you’re playing a song as fast as you can, it just makes you want to be a teenager and break something. I love that as well — it’s a rad feeling.

I’m with you there. And that’s the total push-pull of music, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with liking both Angels & Airwaves and Blink’s All the Small Things at the same time.

Yeah! (chuckles) You know, All the Small Things came on somewhere I was a few weeks ago and I went, “Oh my God, I sound like I’m 7 years old!” I could not believe that was me! What the fuck? I mean, how did that song do what it did? (both laugh)

I look at it as a “right place, right time” thing. You captured that mid-’90s period right as you were living it. You reflected it honestly, which is one reason why people responded to Blink the way they did.

“We wanted it to feel like we were in the room with you — right there in the garage.”

Maybe so, man. I have to agree with the right time and right place. I was insanely lucky. That’s just the roll of the dice.

As for Angels — do you like the term “concept album”?

So many bands have called their project a “concept” or a “concept album.” I shy away from using that term because everything about Angels & Airwaves is different. I’m not saying it’s a concept album, because each piece of this media project has to stand on its own. I don’t have the appropriate term for it yet.

How about you call it an “audio novel”?

Oh, I’ll go with that. Other bands have done this stuff at larger levels — you’ve got The Who, and Pink Floyd… Shit, I was talking to Dave Grohl one time, and he said the Foo Fighters were trying to make a record that would be synonymous with one of Zeppelin’s records. Everyone attempts his own version of it. But this record is different because it’s about holding up this idea of dreams, and what dreams mean.

So what you’re telling me is that we just have to go to sleep to figure it all out.

Yeah, totally, if we can. (laughs) That’s the easiest way.