TO SUGGEST BLINK-182 has grown up is oversimplifying, says guitarist-vocalist Tom Delonge, calling from Virginia Beach, where his band has just kicked off one of this summer's most anticipated tours, co-headlining with No Doubt.
Sure, the San Diego-bred punk-pop trio chose to follow up its most successful albums, the mischievously titled "Enema of the State" and "Take Off Your Pants and Jacket," with a recording that sported no title at all. On the other hand, they did toy with such titles as the Guns N' Roses-taunting "Use Your Erection I and II" and "Vasectomy, Vasect-a-you."
Such titles would have reflected more of the South Parkian frat-boy material fans have come to love, but Blink-182's album, released in November, suggests its once-proudly arrested development has given way to a wiser worldview, evident in darker songs and more ambitious arrangements that expand the band's musical roots without abandoning them.
"We didn't just say, 'Hey, let's make a mature record!' We don't think like that," Delonge says. "We are multidimensional people, and we're not running naked and happy all the time, contrary probably to what most people thought about this band a good 10 or 12 years ago when we started."
Blink-182 was formed in 1992 by Delonge, bassist-vocalist Mark Hoppus and drummer Scott Raynor, who was succeeded in 1999 by Mohawk-sporting madman Travis Barker. The band's high-energy sound was popularized through several independent albums and appearances in numerous skate, surf and snowboarding videos. Its first "hit," "Dammit (Growing Up)" from 1997's "Dude Ranch," caught the ear of MCA, and it was big-label clout that got MTV airplay for "What's My Age Again?" The video, a "Total Request Live favorite, featured the band members running around the streets of Los Angeles, mostly naked (skin-colored Speedos kept them from getting arrested). They actually did "TRL" naked.
But while it was good for Blink-182 (a recent Google search of "Blink-182 naked" produced 85,600 hits), it became something of an albatross as band members grew up, got married and started families. Delonge, 28, and Hoppus, 31, are fathers, as is Barker, 28, who will marry former Miss USA (and Playboy's Miss December 2001) Shanna Moakler this Halloween.
"A lot of people don't know I'm as into politics as I am," says Delonge, who has actively campaigned for and with Sen. John Kerry since before the Iowa caucuses. "A lot of people don't know that Mark's studied Japanese literature. A lot of people probably do know that Travis lifts weights all day long," he adds with a laugh.
"My point being that when it came time to do this new record, we definitely had this sense of change embedded in our musical DNA," Delonge explains. "We needed to make ourselves passionate about the record, we needed to be excited about music again, we needed to challenge ourselves to evolve. Yes, I guess it can all be pushed together and lumped into the words 'more mature.' "
Not that mature material has been wholly absent from Blink-182's oeuvre. Even 1999's "Enema of the State" -- the one with porn superstar Janine on the cover in a nurse/dominatrix uniform -- contained "Adam's Song," a powerful exploration of exhaustion and depression based on a letter from a Blink fan who, fortunately, survived a suicide attempt.
But after 2001's "Take Off Your Pants and Jacket," Blink was beginning to feel straitjacketed by juvenilia expectations, as well as feeling rushed into a quick follow-up by MCA. According to Delonge, "the president of MCA was penalizing us an obscene amount of money because our record wasn't going to be out in time for them to make their quarterly revenue statements. . . . And we were saying, 'Hey, we can't do this right now, we need to reorganize ourselves and really think about what we want to do and write the best record we can.' They didn't agree with us."
But MCA "crumbled," Delonge says, mostly because Universal put it out of the band's misery by shuttering the label. Universal moved MCA's more successful bands to Geffen.
"Geffen came down and heard three songs and they said, 'This is the best record you've ever done, this is the record of your career, take as much time as you want, call us when it's done.' It just completely outlined the perspective of putting accounting before creative, and when you're in the entertainment business, you've got to put creative first. It's an art, you've got to look at it like an art, treat it like an art, and then you'll get the best product in the long run."
During the break between albums, Delonge and Barker formed a side band, Box Car Racer, while Barker also teamed up with Rancid's Tim Armstrong in the Transplants. The music these bands made wasn't miles away from Blink-182 but it was apparently just far enough.
"When I did Box Car Racer, it was a huge growing time for me," Delonge says. "I was able to experiment with my instrument, to experiment with my voice as an instrument. I was completely able to try different things. I had songs with completely different forms and methods of music than I ever did with Blink. . . .Yet the experimentation that went on with the last Blink record is so much further."
"I think we would have gone down with the ship if we hadn't challenged ourselves to be a better band," Delonge says. "I think when bands don't do that is when they just end up rehashing or putting out the same record over and over again and then no one cares anymore.
"Punk rock is so easy to do that with because the music by itself is by nature a pretty simplistic form of music," he points out, "but the bands that are really good in that genre are the ones that have incorporated other styles of music into that form. If we would have done the same record again, not only would it have helped the demise of the genre, it would have definitely accelerated ours."
Among the album's notable experiments: the brooding "Asthenia" (the title refers to physical and mental deterioration that affects astronauts during lengthy missions) and "I Miss You," a multitracked ballad that topped Billboard's modern-rock singles chart and reached No. 15 on the mainstream pop chart. "It's got about 70 tracks of instruments, all of which are organic/acoustic, none of them plugged-in," Delonge says proudly.
The most unusual track may be "All of This," with guest vocals by the Cure's Robert Smith, the king of romantic gloom and goth-rock despair. Turns out Blink-182's expansive musical tastes embraced the Cure and the members invited Smith to contribute his unique voice to a song Delonge says was inspired by the Cure's 20-year-old song "Love Cats."
"We just sent it over and he did the vocal and sent it back," Delonge says. "To be honest, we weren't even sure it was going to happen because he was taking so much time with it. We were literally hours from having to turn [the masters] in to the factory when it showed up. It gave us all goose bumps to hear Robert's voice on our record, to hear his voice on another song, and to come to the realization that we actually wrote the music to it, because it sounds like a Cure song. We were jumping for joy when it was all said and done."
Perhaps more surprising was the spread In Style magazine did earlier this year on the four-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot home in a gated community north of San Diego where Delonge lives with his interior designer wife, Jennifer (incidentally, his high-school sweetheart), and young daughter, Ava. The magazine noted a signed print, the aptly numbered "B-182" from the Pablo Picasso's legendary Vollard Suite, done between 1930 and 1937 for the French art dealer Ambrose Vollard, who commissioned and published them. It hangs above the fireplace.
In Style was also impressed with the Delonges' entrepreneurship. Jennifer operates Papier Moderne, a high-end boutique specializing in wedding announcements, invitations and stationery, while Tom has several operations going, including a clothing line, Atticus, and shoe company, Macbeth.
"Years ago, Mark [Hoppus] and I started a Web site called Loserkids.com as something to do in our spare time," Delonge explains. The site catered to both Blink fans and a wider punk/skateboard community, selling skate and punk clothing and accessories. Hoppus and Delonge actually started with a T-shirt company, "which grew into a holding company called Atticus, which is actually doing quite well," he says. "As it grew, we brought in a friend, Dylan Anderson, to run it. He came from a shoe company, so we started a shoe company, Macbeth. We have real estate ventures, some technology. We're involved in a lot of different things."
The name of their company? "RLP, for Really Likable People," Delonge says. "It sounds impressive, but what's impressive is we have the ability and the drive to do a lot of creative, interesting things. There's actually a lot of entrepreneurial spirit that exists in the band," he says, pointing to drummer Barker, who owns an independent label (La Salle) and clothing line (Famous Stars and Straps) and recently opened his own franchise in the Wahoo's Fish Taco restaurant chain.
And yet they still have time to make records and tour.
BLINK-182 -- Appearing Friday at Nissan Pavilion with No Doubt. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Blink-182, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)