Tom DeLonge: “The secret to playing fast is masturbating. If you don’t masturbate, you can’t play punk rock!”

The Angels & Airwaves and Blink-182 guitarist talks UFOs, the gnarliness of Shakespeare, keeping up with Travis Barker, and the band's expansive new release, Lifeforms

(Image credit: Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images)

When Guitar World puts it to Tom DeLonge that the new Angels & Airwaves record, titled Lifeforms and set for release later this month, is easily their most sonically and tonally expansive music to date, he seems genuinely pleased and nods back in wholehearted agreement.

“Thank you so much,” he smiles, talking to us from his car while parked under a palm tree on a warm summer’s day. “We were really trying, you know. It was a big collaboration and a long effort to get here, but I think we have a really diverse palette on this album. I’m excited for people to hear it… it’s a very different album for our band. All I’m really after right now is sounding more unpredictable!”

Before exploring the music heard on their sixth full-length, we take a moment to point out how excited fans were to see him reunite with ex-bandmate Mark Hoppus on his After School Radio podcast. 

The Blink-182 singer/bassist had revealed he was undergoing treatment for cancer back in June and surprised listeners with the special guest for his podcast’s 50th episode, in which the pair discussed UFOs, dick jokes and everything in between… 

“Mark and I have a long history,” explains DeLonge. “When he came out with cancer, it was like nothing else mattered. I just wanted to be there, human-to-human. The cool thing is that it looks like the chemo is totally working, which is fucking awesome. Not like working a little bit, it’s literally eradicating this cancer from his body. 

“It’s the best scenario, but it’s still crazy hard for him because it’s chemotherapy – which we all know is difficult from TV or having people we care about going through it. 

“So he’s not celebrating. He’s trying to finish up his treatments and he has good days and bad days. I just wanted to be there as a friend, honestly, like a brother. Yeah, we’ve argued over the years and stuff, but right now who the fuck cares about any of that? All I want to do is ask him, ‘What do you need and how can I help your journey right now?’”

It’s great that you’ve reconnected. So, back to Lifeforms, what kind of guitar gear are we hearing on the album?

“It’s so funny these days because everything’s in the computer now. I used to write songs on the acoustic guitar and then teach that to the band members – this is going back to the Blink days – and then you’d all learn it together in a room. And then you’d go into the studio, where they would have analog tape recording, and you’d have to know the songs really well. You’d have to go play them in an assembly line as quick and fast as you can. 

“But nowadays it’s all in the computer. We move really fast when we’re doing the demo songwriting process. Over time, you start to bend it and tweak it. I never really know what’s being dialed in these days. 

“I used to say, ‘I need this to be a Vox mixed with a Marshall’ or ‘we need to use this particular delay pedal!’ or some shit, but now it’s always different and unique. David [Kennedy, guitars/synths] will then hand it over to Ilan [Rubin, drums] who will take some of that stuff, change it up and do something different.”

And naturally, it ended up being a really collaborative writing process?

“Yeah! Once we decide on what the song’s going to be like, we’ll jump in and start recording new tracks. And I’m not sure of what our co-producer Aaron [Rubin], Ilan’s brother, is choosing at that point, because he’s re-amping certain things.

Normally when we write the songs, I know I’m after a British punk tone, something that’s cleaner and big-sounding with more clarity

“Then before we go out on tour, Aaron will start preparing the sounds on Axe-Fx for when we play live… and I don’t even know what he’s choosing on that thing to match the tones on the record. It’s a hard discussion because it’s so different to what I’m used to, but we just kinda landed in this process. 

“Normally when we write the songs, I know I’m after a British punk tone, something that’s cleaner and big-sounding with more clarity, usually a Vox or Hiwatt or an Orange.

“We used my hollowbody guitar a lot, the Gibson ES-333 with the humbucker. But by the time I hand the music over to Ilan, fuck! Knowing him, it’s probably old Les Pauls and weird stuff – well, Les Pauls aren’t weird, but I just mean shit I don’t use. 

“It’s always about the tool that fits the job. I think these discussions are going to stop… we’re going to slowly stop talking about particular pieces of gear because so much is in the computer. It’s like, ‘Fuck man, this thing’s infinite!’

You also had a signature Strat back in the day – with just one humbucker, a Seymour Duncan Invader, in the bridge. Do you still keep one around?

“I have one in the studio. We’ve never really grabbed it for recording because that Invader pickup is perfect for a young punk-rock guitar player that only knows three chords. It’s just really distorted… and great for turning up all the gain and making a bunch of noise. It can hide the fact you’re not playing too well! 

“But to record with it is the worst, because it’s just a bunch of low frequencies and a bunch of really high frequencies with nothing in the middle, which is where all of the guitar notes are supposed to live. It’s not the best guitar for tone, but it’s an amazing pickup and guitar to use for simpler stuff.”

The second track on the new album, Euphoria, has some near-metallic weight in places...

“I always thought Metallica needed more balls [laughs]. So I put this song out to try and help them get some new ideas. All of their songs are so fluffy, like Master Of Puppets and shit. This was my way of showing them how it’s done.

“It’s funny, I do actually really like Metallica, like most people. But I don’t listen to much metal at all, or any to be honest – I grew up really into punk rock. In that scene there are a few different branches off that tree and one of them is hardcore, which is basically a punk’s version of speed metal with different values injected into it. 

“After hardcore had been around for a while, it split off into other things and there was this post-hardcore movement with heavy fast screamy songs that would then slow down into half-time. I always really loved that stuff. A lot of it had screamy vocals but not all of it...”

When we released Euphoria as a single, it really galvanized people around this sound – really heavy riffs alongside things that were really melodic

And which were your favorite bands? 

“I loved bands like Fugazi, Quicksand and CIV – the singer of the Gorilla Biscuits who did a project under his own name – they were playing this amazing style of music that hadn’t been exploited that much. It was really heavy but also melodic and clever, and people would really respond to it when they hear it. 

“Me and David fucked around a lot with that style in a band called Box Car Racer. That was us showing people what we were into… and we still are into, there’s just not that many bands that do it. 

“I remember when we released Euphoria as a single, it really galvanized people around this sound – really heavy riffs alongside things that were really melodic. You don’t hear it that often. Usually when people play heavy, it’s a lot screamier and darker. I think it’s really interesting to mix pop-punk sensibilities with post-hardcore. Sorry if that’s a long answer to describe one song!”

Spellbound, on the other hand, feels more like something Depeche Mode might come up with...

“It’s cool you say that… I really try to create music that reflects what I’m a fan of. I grew up with new wave and punk rock – that was my life. A lot of new wave bands were punk bands that got their first keyboard. 

“New Order didn’t know what they were doing. If you listen to their songs, it’s like one finger on the keyboard at a time! And I love that. It’s punk, like the Ramones on synthesizer. A lot of that stuff came from punks getting into electronics… at least the good new wave bands that I was into, and I only liked the good ones. 

“Depeche Mode are a huge, huge influence on me. They’re a top-five band, up there with The Cure. And this song was me trying to figure out how to celebrate that fandom. They’re fucking incredible. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to create organic, from-scratch synth tones with layered chord progressions and still have that arena-rock sensibility. It was so dark and twisted but dance-y.” 

Though they’re not thought of as a guitar band, Martin Gore has always found interesting ways to mix guitars into electronic sounds...

“People might think it’s just electronic dance music, but they’re forgetting you still have to go into the studio and open up the computer to a blank screen. You have nothing. And try to write Blasphemous Rumours or one of those big hits! It’s not easy. They were doing that shit in the '80s and they’re still doing it now. 

I could walk through most songs and tell you exactly what I’m celebrating and where. I’m doing this for me, hoping people like it

“The only other band that I think is that good at creating synth stuff is Nine Inch Nails. Or maybe at times Radiohead, but I don’t like their songs that much... I like some a lot but not all of it. 

Spellbound is all about my love for Depeche Mode, for sure. I could walk through most songs and tell you exactly what I’m celebrating and where. I’m doing this for me, hoping people like it. But really I’m just a fan, sat there wondering, ‘What it would sound like if we wrote a song like The Who?’”

You've written a fair few anthems over the years. What do you think your biggest hits have in common when it comes to songwriting, keys or arrangement?

“That’s a good question. I guess it boils down to me knowing everyone loves dick jokes. It’s a weakness and a burden [laughs]. Seriously though, I’d say it all comes down to cadence and simplicity. It’s all about the melody for me, whether that’s on a guitar or vocal line. 

“It’s always about the rhythm. Shakespeare always had that rhythm. You’d read a Shakespeare play – or listen to somebody read it, because I didn’t fuckin’ read it – but you’d hear that cadence in the writing. He doth come over and stab me and he stabs me as he doth come over! It kinda goes and flows and rhymes, almost like he’s rapping. That’s the genius of Shakespeare...”

(Image credit: Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images)

We weren’t expecting this conversation to go there, to be perfectly honest!

“I only know this because one of the books I put out was with a Shakespeare professor – he’s at the University of North Carolina and we talk from time to time. I started to gain more of an understanding. Like, you can get a doctorate in Shakespeare now because it’s that fuckin’ gnarly… whatever that guy did was gnarly! 

“What I’m trying to do is live in that world where the words I say and riffs I play have that simple cadence and simplicity, rolling off the tongue or frets. I think that’s the one thing I’m always trying to do. 

“I might sing something and think my pattern is three notes too many, and suddenly my sentences in the chorus will feel rhythmic, tribal and easy to understand. It’s all about nursery rhymes for me. 

“I always feel like there’s a way of making things interesting without taking away the simplicity – I guess that’s why our songs are getting more diverse. So the one thing all my biggest songs share in common is that process of simplification. And taking my time! You might think something is so fucking cool but nine months later you might feel annoyed by it.”

Playing fast is not easy. Especially doing it good and doing it for hours. You want to know the secret? It’s all about masturbating!

So you find keeping some distance between the writing stage and release helps, just to be triple-sure it’s up to scratch?

“Some people don’t wait long enough. They’ll record in three months and they’re done, then six months later they hate whatever riff they wrote. It might have had too many notes or didn’t need to come in a second time or whatever, and it would have been so much better. That’s why I take longer to record – those kinds of awakenings seem to happen a year later.

“Making a movie is the same: you keep editing and editing and after months you’ve shortened all the scenes down to just the most important words and scenes to push the story forward. It’s way more impactful if it’s simple and not done in vain. I don’t live by this rule all the time – every once in a while I like a long intro! [laughs]”

A lot of guitarists might think pop-punk isn’t really all that challenging – though it would be fair to say the majority of them haven’t tried picking at full speed for two hours straight like you have at points in your career...

“Playing fast is not easy. Especially doing it good and doing it for hours. You want to know the secret? It’s all about masturbating. That’s the only one way to do it and if you don’t masturbate, you can’t play punk rock [laughs]. 

“I grew up as a fan of the Descendents and their records are still so relevant today, so fast and so riffy. I’d play along to that stuff and try to get better. Thank god for the click track, because we used to not have them in Blink and Travis would go into mark 200. I just could not keep up – it was insane. 

“Working with a click track is easier because it tells everyone not to go faster than that little click in their ear because my arm can’t go any faster and will fall off.

“It’s funny, Ilan is an infinitely better guitar player than I am. He just shreds: he can play any Beatles, Zeppelin or Queen song. But he came to a Blink show some years ago and was laughing to me afterwards saying, ‘Fuck man, you’re really good at that fast picking stuff!’ 

“I think for the first time I got a little respect from him about my guitar playing, because I could do the one thing he couldn’t, which is strum really fuckin’ fast. He grew up playing more soulful shit like Zeppelin, and I could never play that stuff. It was his way of saying, ‘You got me on that thing!’ and I was stoked, thinking to myself, ‘Got you, motherfucker!’”

(Image credit: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images)

You’ve been very busy outside of music with various books and films, plus your UFO research organization, To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science. We noticed that the UFO footage you leaked in 2017 ended up getting confirmed and released by the Pentagon two years later. How much more is out there? 

“Oh man, there’s a lot. This whole album and the movie we’re putting out, called Monsters of California, jumps into a lot of this stuff. We want to put things out there for people to chew on and digest. The US government is super-active when it comes to UFOs – they have been since the mid-'40s, maybe even a few years earlier. 

“They keep it really quiet while they try to figure out all the issues that come along with it. As far as videos, data and evidence, there is so much you wouldn’t be able to understand. People wouldn’t be able to grasp it. And what we had was just from one little program out of the trillions they spend every year. 

“They spend about $700 billion on defense every year in the US, but that’s not really all the money, because a lot of it they don’t put out the numbers for. Think of how much money is getting spent there – and in so many different institutions, from Homeland Security to the Army and Air Force. 

“They all have their own sensors, people and pilots. There’s also satellite and geo-spatial agencies who map the typography of the earth. And all of them are catching shit all the time.” 

That, um, sounds ominous, to say the least...

“Where we got our videos from, the ones we put out – well, they had 26. And that was one very small branch of a bigger tree. Some of the videos have UFOs 10 feet away from the F/A-18, tracking them for 20 minutes and it’s all on camera! The UFO’s going 600 miles an hour, the pilot’s freaking out screaming and this thing is just scanning the plane for a whole 20 minutes. 

“We almost got that one out, but there were some higher-ups at the Pentagon who were really pissed when they found out these were getting declassified [laughs]. Yeah… there’s a lot more out there, for sure!”

  • Angels & Airwaves' Lifeforms is out on September 24 via Rise Records. The band tour the US from September 29 – see Bandsintown for full dates.

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