It was 2005, and Blink-182 had gone on an indefinite hiatus. While it seemed the pop punk outfit had strummed their last power chord, Mark Hoppus (bass, vocals) and Travis Barker (drums) quickly formed pop-punk outfit +44. The two remained active and visible, openly discussing their plans for the future.
And Tom DeLonge? The guitarist/vocalist opted for silence. In fact, he was on a mission. Blink-182 was all he had really ever known, and he aspired to showcase a greater musical range. The idea of being famous solely for his punk rock sensibilities didn't sit well with him, so he started the alt-rock supergroup Angels and Airwaves.
With guitarist David Kennedy (Box Car Racer), bassist Matt Wachter (30 Seconds to Mars) and drummer Ilan Rubin (Nine Inch Nails), DeLonge was able to develop musically in ways that he couldn't while in Blink-182.
Starting anew after being in a group that sold way more than 20 million records was a daunting task, but a necessary one. DeLonge was committed to making music that was all his own. During the recording of the band's debut record, We Don't Need to Whisper, he found his muse in the form of a self-taught sound engineer.
Jeff “Critter” Newell was a Chicago native who had worked with all the stars of industrial music: Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Skinny Puppy. He was an unlikely ally, but one that would ultimately change DeLonge's life. The second Newell stepped into his life, DeLonge says, was “the defining moment in my career.”
Newell's tirelessness, professionalism and computer wizardry were things he fed off. More than that, he gave DeLonge confidence. “He was somebody who really just believed in me, the message and the philosophy behind what I was trying to do with [Angels and Airwaves],” DeLonge says. “He encouraged me at a time when I was obviously pretty insecure with who I was as an artist coming out of the breakup of Blink-182. So a lot of it was a guy holding my hand along the way and saying, 'I believe that you can not only do this, but I believe it's also in you, and now I am with you and along for the ride.' . . . The overarching theme with him that really worked well for me and expanded my abilities was [sitting and talking] through giant ideas and philosophies about every little thing we did.”
DeLonge's relationship with the producer would span three more albums with Angels and Airwaves, and in the process, Newell would become the band's fifth member. When Blink-182 reunited and released their first record in eight years, 2011's Neighborhoods, Newell was onboard as co-producer.
Then, on Dec. 31, 2011, Newell passed away. His death put many things in perspective for DeLonge.
Though Blink-182 are coming off a successful fall tour, DeLonge says that what he and Newell built with Angels and Airwaves will not be relegated to the background now that he is back in the band that made him a household name. “The whole thing [with Angels and Airwaves] was the mindset that Blink-182 were not going to get back together,” DeLonge says. “There is a huge, huge reason for this band in my life. It's a total reflection of my soul, and it's who I am. Whereas Blink-182 is a really incredible compromise like most bands are, in Angels and Airwaves, we all have the exact same vision. And that is the magic of that band.”
DeLonge admits he's still trying to win over fans with Angels and Airwaves, a band he views as a work in progress. Although they have yet to achieve Blink-182's level of success, DeLonge is undoubtedly proud of his group's accomplishments. “The goal, very specifically, is to break the band region by region and to bring a show that is very refined and tight . . . with production that hopefully is really captivating, modern and very different,” DeLonge says.
Sadly, the man who helped shape DeLonge's musical vision won't be along for the ride.
This article appeared in print as “Angels Watching Over Airwaves: Tom DeLonge discusses his musical journey after the loss of his mentor.”