he year is 2016. Blink-182 released five (bullshit good) albums before dropping off the face of the Earth eleven years earlier. 2009 saw them reunite in a shaky state before a cellophane veil that, when torn back, revealed a band barely hanging on by an autotuned thread. Neighbourhoods – the “comeback” album, skittered out like a bowl of cat food in 2011 – plummeted in the ranks both critically and in the grand scheme of their thinning success. But, a slither of light peered through the cracks when guitarist/vocalist Tom DeLonge exited the band to – supposedly – help the CIA investigate a very real (see: lol) threat of alien invasion. Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba stepped in to fill his shoes, the band reconnected on a personal level, and together, they headed off into the studio with flavour-of-the-month producer John Feldmann.
Now, we’re verging on the release of a new Blink-182 album about girls, growing up, and building pools to see naked dudes.
In 1999, that would have been a frontline contender for the most laughably prepostorous piece of fanfiction tagged ‘dystopia’. But, lo and behold, the year is 2016 – California will melt in our mouths, not our hands in just a couple of days; Skiba’s looking home and homely with all of his early-40s dorkiness duly intact; and any day now, TMZ will break word that ol’ Tommy Boy has been admitted into Psych Ward C. This certainly isn’t the Blink we thought we’d end up with a fair while back, but look – this is a time wherein Donald Trump may very well be the next leader of a country: anything than can happen. And as perfectly plucked from the uncanny valley as it may seem to some, Blink-182.5 themselves feel perfectly at home in their reformatted format.
“None of it seems surreal,” affirms drummer, dad, and unofficial ambassador of faux-rap metal PR shot stares: Travis Barker. “It all feels really, really good. I’m just playing all the stuff I’ve done forever. Tom had quit the band, like, three times, and after his last indefinite hiatus, we still had shows that we had booked. I had this idea that Matt Skiba should fill in for him. [Skiba] was really stoked on the idea – he came in, played the shows, and fans were very supportive; we got a really great reaction from it. Then we got into the studio, and we wrote twice as many songs as we needed for the album – typically, that’s 14 – and now we have a really big tour which most of the dates are sold out for. It’s been way better than I could have ever imagined.”
For all intents and purposes, Skiba’s sift into the mixture was very much a last-minute arrangement. With a couple of shows lined up for the coming months, Blink aimed to hit the studio in January ’15 – DeLonge intact. A new year rolled around, however, and instead of the obligatory blurry Insta pics of empty guitar racks and mixing desks, Barker and bassist/vocalist Mark Hoppus issued a statement that DeLonge had hit the bricks, and Skiba would – 100 percent temporarily – jump in to cover their Musink dates less than two months later.
“We booked January 5th to go into the studio,” Hoppus told Rolling Stone on the same day the statement was issued, January 26th. “On December 30th, we get an email from Tom’s manager saying that he has no interest in recording (…) His manager sends [an e-mail] saying, ‘Tom. Is. Out.’ This is the exact same e-mail we got back in 2004 when Tom went on indefinite hiatus before.”
27 days separated DeLonge’s booting from Skiba’s initiation, which is… Not exactly a whole lot of time to mull things over. But despite the crunch, Barker and Hoppus were adamant on securing the man with the Sekret. Somewhere in the multiverse exists a ‘Blink-182 ft. Patrick Stump’, and the apocalyptic wasteland where Hoppus fights Billie Joe Armstrong for the perfect “wooooah-aaaah-oooooh”; in the Twilight Zone, no-one can hear you scream perilous terror at The Mark, Travis and Fat Mike show. But whether or not the cogs clicked in the right direction and Skiba appeared glowing golden before them, the band were dead set on dragging him – and only him – in.
“I can’t say for sure, but to me, it was like… Matt Skiba was the only person that could really do this,” Barker proclaims. “I can’t exactly point my finger on why, but it just seemed like he was the only guitar player/singer that could kind of sing in Tom’s register – Hurricane was kind of cut from the same cloth – and it just seemed like the perfect fit. I sat and I thought about it for 24 hours, and I was like, ‘There is nobody else.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, well, we could have this guy.’ For whatever reason, to me, it was Skiba or nobody.”
At first, Skiba’s fill-in slots appeared only to exist as a means to fulfil contractual duties. Expectation dictated that when all was said and done at Musink, the Blink-182 moniker would’ve been taken around the back of the shed and encore’d out with a 12-gauge. Hoppus, Barker and Skiba might have powered on with a name entirely unrelated – as Hoppus and Barker did in +44, or Barker and DeLonge did in Box Car Racer – but ultimately, 24 years into its germination, Blink-182 transcends the boundaries of a mere name. Blink is a feeling. Blink is a vibe – a specific sound and attitude that Barker says was not only intact when the trio tucked into California, but burned the brightest it has in over a decade.
“To me, this album kind of feels like a hybrid between Enema Of The State and the self-titled album,” he says. “For so long, there was such a push and pull of what Blink-182 was going to sound like when Tom was in the band. He was really influenced by U2, and bands like Coldplay. When he was finally out of the band, it was very easy for us to just be like, ‘Oh, we don’t have to struggle with our sound anymore! We finally get to make the album that we want to make.’ I love Tom, but I think that for a while, he wanted Blink to sound like his other projects, and he wanted his other projects to sound like other bands. Whereas we just really loved and appreciated Blink for what it was.”
Perhaps by way of Tom’s insistence to shake up an already perfectly-concocted smoothie, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Blink was – or is. While the first four records were very solidly structured in loose, carefree pop-punk with all of the scratches and stains of beer spilt on the tape reel intact, 2003’s self-titled LP berthed a tighter, more grown-up Blink. Neighbourhoods continued that push into middle-age, it and 2013’s Dogs Eating Dogs EP dragging a band that once wrote a song about fucking dogs further away from their OG mission statement. Thus bred two distinct pigeonholes for fans to categorise the discography: ‘old Blink’ and ‘new Blink’. California sets a trampoline between the two, where the trio bounce casually from one to the other – but as Barker affirms, that wasn’t the intention. In fact, there wasn’t really any intention to do anything, period.
“We didn’t go in trying to sound like ‘old Blink’ or ‘new Blink’ – that’s just what came out when we were in the studio,” he says. “As a band, we wanted it to sound like our band. For a while, like I said, there was that struggle within the band of someone else wanting to take it in a different direction. If anything, Mark and I were very much like, ‘It’s on us now.’ If we make a terrible album, it’s on us. There’s nothing holding us back. We’re totally responsible for how awesome this album turns out, or how terrible it turns out.”
Gauging from early buzz and the overwhelming fan response to singles already released, California looks on track to shine as Blink’s critical return to form. The album strikes a sonic balance between the polished sound one expects from a major label act in 2016, with the juvenile pop-punk flair of yore – all the while rejuvenating the genre’s standard topical fare in ways that only Blink-182 can. It might not hit as hard as Take Off Your Pants And Jacket did fifteen years ago, but California gets the job done pretty damn well: the aftermath of a recording process where every take was taken seriously and every corner was barred from being cut.
“Honestly, everyone put in 110 percent,” Barker promises. “It was myself, Matt Skiba, Mark Hoppus and John Feldmann, every day – sometimes from 9am ’til 3am in the morning – for a month and a half. It was insane, but it never felt like work. We were really productive, everyone was being really creative, and mostly importantly, folks were having a good time. We all wanted to be there.”
John ‘Feldy’ Feldmann hardly needs a resume check – the Goldfinger frontman has handled production for some of the alternative scene’s biggest releases, from The Used to All Time Low, Panic! At The Disco and Cute Is What We Aim For. Basically, every time your favourite band did something interesting – and it worked – you can be sure Feldy was behind the glass panel tweaking those knobs and finding that perfect synth fader. California marks Blink’s collaborative debut under Feldy’s wing – until his death in 2008, the trio eat, slept and breathed the wisdom of iconic producer Jerry Finn. While they semi-self-produced from then onwards, California needed an extra kick that only a true master of the scene could lace up to give it. Cue: Feldy.
“We had already been in the studio,” Barker says of California’s early days. “We were in my studio for a little while – just kind of experimenting with sounds – and then after that, I had this idea that maybe we should bring some producers in to see what it’s like. None of us – including Matt – had worked with anyone since Jerry Finn passed away, and [Skiba and Hoppus] said they were up for it. I had a couple people in mind, who I was friends with, and John [Feldmann] was the first one. I’d toured with him for a long time, and there was Ozzfest coming up – I just kept in touch with him. We had lunch with him, and then the next day, we got into the studio with him. We wrote three songs – one of which was ‘Bored To Death’. It was like that every day – one-to-three songs a day for a month and a half. Originally, the goal was to get into the studio with John for two weeks, then get in with another producer for two weeks; another producer for two weeks… We never got out of the studio with John. It was insane. There was great chemistry.”
For most bands, chemistry in the recording studio equates solely to that between the band and their producer. But in Blink’s case, California is the first album they’ve recorded as a contained unit – as opposed to separately in chunks of personal isolation – since 2001. ‘Chemistry’ meant the band collaborating together and coming up with ideas that suited all of them equally, as opposed to one-way jams that only left one member satisfied. Blink working as Blink again led to most of the album’s brightened energy, but where screws were kept loose from previous attempts to cooperate, Feldy swooped in with a wrench held tightly.
“Sometimes a producer can say or do things that a band member can’t,” Barker continues. “If I think a chord isn’t that great, or I don’t like the words in a song – or I’m wondering what it means – it’s hard sometimes to say to a bandmate, ‘What are you saying? I don’t know if that makes sense, or if that’s a great chord.’ If it’s internal from the band like that, people’s feelings can get hurt. But if it’s a producer, it’s very neutral – he’s not in the band, but he’s there as an extra set of eyes and ears. We’re better when they’re there to say stuff like that. Like, ‘I think you’ve got a better chorus in you,’ or, ‘No, that sounds like a pre-chorus, try it again” – just stuff like that; it’s stuff that, with teamwork, you could start writing something new. Just having someone like that can be so instrumental.”
So brings us to California: Blink’s seventh studio album, but a lot of other things as well. California is a reinvention of what we’ve come to know as Blink-182, portrayed through the exact stylistic formation that we’ve come to know as Blink-182. It’s a statement – “we’re still the biggest and best pop-punk band in the fucking world” – but moreso, it’s a musical keepsafe: at first glance holding the adolescent emotions of men in their 40s, but upon further analysis holding memories of a time otherwise soon to be forgotten. It’s about coming to terms with yourself as an adult while longing for the good ol’ days of teenagehood, chasing relationships, and basically – as most straightforward pop-punk albums are – just being a fucking human.
It’s definitely one of their more ‘serious’ albums (if not broken up with micro-gems like “Built This Pool” and “Brohemian Rhapsody”), but that wasn’t always the case. Before deciding on California, the band flipped through a handful of – honestly, more desirable – alternative titles: Nude Erection, OB-GYN Kenobi and No Hard Feelings to name a few, the lattermost of which obvious in its direction, but just genius enough to work. Ultimately, though, they decided to go geographical because while running naked through the streets might have sounded like a great idea in 1999, present-day Blink are a band more in line with making the ‘proper decision’ than fucking around for banter.
“There’s a song [on the record] called ‘California’,” Barker explains. “There’s song called ‘Los Angeles’. There’s a song called ‘San Diego’. There were just a lot of references to California; once we got back from looking at what songs we picked – the songs that were making the album – it just seemed like that was it. We threw around some funny names, but it’s just like… It’s really not that album. It’s not that group of songs that need this funny title. When we started throwing names around, California was the just one that stuck.”
In an interview with Fuse, Skiba pointed out that while the album doesn’t necessarily hold a cohesive narrative, “it’s conceptual, and there’s an underlying theme throughout the songs.” Recorded during a Californian winter and with the locale studded topically all throughout the record, it makes sense. It’s “big and bright and huge and dark and twisted, everything that California is,” but as Barker reiterates, that was more an outcome of substance rather than a predetermined objective.
“I feel like most people that make concept albums, they go in trying to make a concept album,” he says. “It really wasn’t like that for us. It was more of… That’s just what came out. We were never like, ‘We need to write this kind of song today!’ Or, ‘Tomorrow we’re writing this kind of song.’ It wasn’t really like that. After we were finished – and you’ve gotta remember, we wrote 30 songs – when we picked the 14 that were going to be on the album, that helped dictate what the album was going to be called.”
After California slides onto shelves come Friday, Blink will embark on a downright fucking mental 66-date US tour. A Day To Remember will tag along for the entire 3.5-month run, with All Time Low and The All-American Rejects taking the opening slot for the respective first and second halve. Considering that Barker can’t fly to other countries – in 2008, he survived a brutal plane crash which left him with PTSD and a detrimental fear of flying – the band instead tend to promote their releases with lengthy treks on home soil, or with replacement drummers taking his place. However, with a new album under their belts, the band are confident that travel via cruise ship may be a viable option.
“I think I’m going to Europe with the band next summer, and that’s kind of as far as we’ve gotten so far,” Barker says, slightly crushing our hopes for a jaunt Down Under. “We haven’t talked about Australia yet – I’m sure it’ll come up. Right now we’ve got these 50 or 60 dates, and I think we have, like, 12 to 15 shows before the tour even starts. I have to get through this Summer and next Summer before we even mention going anywhere else.”
The last time Australia saw Blink-182 in concert, they were co-headlining Soundwave 2013 with Brooks Wackerman (formerly of Bad Religion and now Avenged Sevenfold) filling in behind the kit. Barker was initially slated to make the trip; festival promotor AJ Maddah made an unreasonably huge deal over it – as he was known to with pretty much everything – but at the end of the day, not everything lined up the way it was supposed to, and Barker ended up taking a pass on the tour. Little of the story was known at the time, with tensions rising over whether Barker was supposed to be travelling via ship, or if he’d be knocked out and taken on the plane. But as Barker clarifies, there was never any confirmation in the first place.
“From day one,” he rhapsodises, “Mark and Tom had come to me and said, ‘Hey, we want to go to Australia – if you can make it, that would be awesome. If you can’t make it, do you mind if we tour with someone else?’ I said, ‘Yeah, no problem, I’ll try my hardest to get on the plane, but…’ And it’s not like I just don’t want to go on a plane. I lost 4 of my friends in a plane accident; I mean, everyone knows how the story goes. They knew – 99.9 percent – that I probably wasn’t going to end up going, but they still made that decision to go to Australia. I feel like I’m very level-headed and cool. I let Mark and Tom, back then, do whatever they want. I never would tell them, ‘No you can’t tour without me.’ I always wanted the band to keep moving and be productive, whether or not there’s something that limits me going.”