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Padres & Airwaves: A Baseball Game With Tom DeLonge

Tom DeLonge

Tom DeLonge knows everyone at Petco Park — or at least everyone at Petco Park knows Tom DeLonge. As the rare celebrity who considers himself a San Diego Padres fan, he’s a fixture at the stadium.

As a season ticket holder for some of the plushest seats in the ballpark, he knows the stadium inside and out. It’s one of his favorite spots in his hometown, and it’s really the little things that he’s proud to point out as he walks through the concourse — like the composite floors around the concession stands to prevent the typical sticky concrete, the way the upper deck provides complete shade for many seats even during day games, and the hidden locations for the trained marksmen who watch over every game in the event of a security threat.

When DeLonge walks through the crowds waiting for overpriced beers, hot dogs, and a surprising array of other luxury food options ranging from tri-tip nachos to margherita pizzas, heads turn and nod in attempts to inconspicuously point out the Angels & Airwaves frontman to their friends. No one is going to bother him for an autograph or a selfie, but it’s hard not to notice the 6’4” musician — whose long torso makes him appear taller when he sits — wearing a navy beanie and white T-shirt (even if he much prefers the team’s classic brown and gold color scheme).

Of course, most recognize him from his musical exploits, but others just know him as their regular neighbor in the narrow mezzanine that houses the stadium’s VIP section. But of all the staff and usual attendees, it’s the server who brings DeLonge his garlic fries who gets a “personal ‘hey’” — a term DeLonge says he stole from Pennywise’s bassist for a recognizing head nod or brief greeting back when Blink-182 was on the road with them. After all, she Googled him to find a way to return his credit card after he’d absentmindedly left it at a game one time.

While Max Scherzer is shutting out his beloved Padres to complete a late-season sweep for the hated Dodgers — whom he referred to as “sex addicts” in a previous interview with SPIN —  DeLonge has enough other irons in the fire that starting pitcher Yu Darvish giving up a two-run homer is slightly less depressing than it would otherwise be. He’s rounding third on the launch of his sixth Angels & Airwaves album, Lifeforms. As shown by the singles that trickled out in the multi-year buildup to the September 24 release (via Rise Records), the album is a bit heavier and more aggressive than some of the project’s earlier material, which was spacier and more exploratory. It’s not exactly a return to DeLonge’s pop-punk roots, but it’s certainly more rock-centric than much of his recent work.

“When you’re a punk band and you play really fast, a good way to get more ‘mature’ with your songwriting is to get slower,” DeLonge explains. “If you’re really slow, then you can start speeding it up a little bit and do some more intricate harder stuff. But Angels is kind of in the middle. I wasn’t going to go faster and more punk because I’ve already done that, so I think the best way to evolve was to go with a more punk-but-raw tonality. The guitars are more in your face, and more of where I came from, but not exactly what I’ve done yet. I’m just always trying to find that balance.” 

The crunchier new album is also accompanied by his directorial debut, Monsters of California, and while full-length music and film releases would be enough to keep most people busy, most people don’t move quite as quickly as DeLonge. He wishes he had the time and ability to sit idle long enough to sink deeper into his renewed love of baseball — a passion he shares with his 15-year-old son — and use his tickets more often. But the To the Stars… Academy of Arts & Sciences co-founder is already going a million miles per minute on his latest project.

“I’m making the Boogie Nights of baseball,” DeLonge says in an excited yet hushed voice, a tone usually reserved for discussing alien spacecraft or government topics he doesn’t want overheard.

According to the musician/filmmaker/author/UFO expert, his next movie will capture the on-field tension between a pitcher and a hitter while also portraying the rollercoaster lifestyle that accompanies life in the Minor Leagues. Inspired in part by DeLonge’s love of 2011’s Moneyball, his take on the baseball world will feature the sex, drugs, and porn ‘staches of its 1970s setting, but still show the intricacies that happen on the diamond beyond the towering home runs and flashy diving plays. He makes it sound like Bull Durham’s dirtier and more inappropriate cousin.

But while the first draft of the script is done, DeLonge knows there’s still a long journey before his baseball opus can hit the big screen. As he learned while making Monsters of California, the movie world doesn’t exactly function like the music industry did when he was a young upstart there. Whereas bands will often bring a smaller act on tour to help them get in front of a bigger audience, other independent filmmakers are frequently reluctant to share their industry connections with DeLonge, fearing that a studio will give him the production and distribution money they were hoping to score.

If Monsters of California has the kind of impact the 45-year-old is hoping for, he may never have to worry about funding his projects ever again. For his first film, DeLonge aimed to create a story that blended his worlds together. Some might see it as a sci-fi thriller that happens to have his signature sense of humor. For others, it could be more of an action-heavy comedy that features his love of the extraterrestrial. And it all comes with some very personal nods to some of DeLonge’s directorial influences, like Cameron Crowe, John Hughes, and his own mother.

Then again, a psychic did tell him a year ago that he was “going to make a movie that’s very controversial and scares people,” so he’s still waiting to see how things go before he gets himself too entrenched in a filmmaking career.

“All [the psychic] did at the time was make me not want to make the movie, and that scares me because I know what I want to make,” DeLonge says with a chuckle. “It’s not a horror movie. It’ll feel like a very real geopolitical thriller. Yes, there’s high technology and stakes, but I think it would probably be pretty scary because no one’s ever taken UFOs and brought it down as a tangible, realistic thing. It’s like ghosts. We just think about what they are, like ‘Oh my friend saw a ghost…’ But then what if all of a sudden, someone goes ‘No, fucking ghosts are real. This is what they look like. This is how it is.’ People are gonna trip out a little bit, but there’s a method to my madness.”


Tom Delonge


This far into his career, DeLonge isn’t going to be deterred by a psychic — or anyone else for that matter.

We’d been at the ballgame for close to two hours and discussed everything from UFOs to Blink-182, from government secrets to disgraced Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer. I’d used my brief professional baseball background to answer his questions about how different pitches are gripped just before he used his decades of mastering profanity to exasperatedly curse at centerfielder Trent Grisham for letting what should’ve been a base hit roll to the wall after laying out for an attempted diving catch. I’d been sworn to secrecy multiple times about a variety of subjects over the course of the day, but the one thing we hadn’t discussed much at all was Angels & Airwaves’ new album, Lifeforms.

When I told him I’d promised both his publicist and my editor that we’d talk at least a little bit about his new music, DeLonge reluctantly agreed and suggested we move to the VIP-only lounge area (complete with a bar, free hot dogs and a glass-walled fire pit) for a quieter setting. And once it became apparent that the Padres weren’t interested in coming back against their Southern California rivals, we made our quick move between innings. No matter where he was going within the stadium, DeLonge strode briskly, squeezing through the crowds waiting for concessions, bathrooms, and souvenirs. After swiping through his iPhone to show his digital tickets to the lady handing out wristbands at the lounge entrance, DeLonge and I settled into a high-top off to the side of the semi-enclosed area — far enough away from the handful of folks drinking at the bar, but still within clear eyeshot of the wall of TVs showing the game.

Right out of the gate, the pop-punk icon and arena rocker took a minute to reflect on how he’s evolved as a musician and a songwriter recently. He’s always done more or less exactly what he’s wanted to do — occasionally to the chagrin of industry execs, labels, and bandmates — and sometimes that means trading in the singalong humor and immaturity that brought him success for more complex melodies and subject matter. But no matter how “mature” Angels & Airwaves may be these days, the band’s ringleader will never turn his back on one of his favorite topics.

“I actually had a lot of really good dick jokes at Lollapalooza,” DeLonge points out, cocking his head almost defensively when asked about the more serious nature of his current band. “There was a review that called it ‘Angels and Dick Jokes,’ and I think I’m probably the only guy to have that headline as a band. So I want it to be known that I still make plenty of dick jokes, but they don’t make it into the music as often because I’m trying to challenge myself musically. I want to write really interesting and diverse things, so I spend a lot of time on that and rarely have time to be humorous. I like to be unpredictable.”

Aside from his focus on more challenging songwriting, DeLonge has also been working on improving his vocal ability in recent years. After telling the old story about discovering in an issue of Maxim that Blink-182’s music was used to torture a terrorist (“Can you imagine having to listen to nothing but my voice from back then for 48 hours?”), the singer explains that not only has he undergone fixes for both his eustachian tubes and deviated septum, but he’s also actually putting effort into improving his singing voice for the first time ever. He even sits up straighter to talk about it, as if remembering his posture just from thinking about his vocals.

“I’m at a place where I’m learning how to use my voice better,” DeLonge says. “It suits me better, and it’s easier for what I do, versus doing everything at the highest part of my range. No singer really wants to fucking do that. It fucking sucks. It’s just heavy lifting every day. But that’s what Blink was, so I never really learned how to sing correctly. I was always barely getting by to get to these higher notes, and nothing else really mattered. Plus, if we fucked up, it actually made the show better. It was part of the enjoyment. In Angels, I don’t have that luxury. But I’m having a lot of fun exploring my voice right now. There’s a lot of diversity in how I use my voice on the new record. I’m doing things that no one’s ever heard me do before, and I’m having fun.”


Tom DeLonge Angels and Airwaves


But even if DeLonge isn’t necessarily a fan of how he sang in previous bands, it’s clearly left its mark on the industry. As a smattering of people, from trash collectors to wandering Padres fans, stroll just a few feet behind him, DeLonge loudly and frequently denies that much of the current pop-punk revival wants to sound like he did around the turn of the century (“The data is out!” “There’s no evidence of this!”). Whether or not DeLonge acknowledges his impact on every pop-punker since Dude Ranch, the rest of the world can plainly see that artists like Machine Gun Kelly have rebooted their entire careers over trying to find their own version of “Where are you? And I’m so sorry.”

As far as his vocal influence goes, DeLonge laughs as he compares himself to Jackson Pollock. While others might be more naturally talented or come from better musical backgrounds, he “throw[s] shit out there, and it’s just cool.” In some ways, the lack of formal training may have even made his voice more recognizable than others who were breaking through around the same time. No one really sounded like him — because no one really wanted to sound like him. Back then, not having a great singer was actually a point of pride for Blink-182. The punk rock scene they came up in was more about having the right attitude and mentality than it was being any good.

“The attitude was that if you were really good then get out of punk and become The Police or something,” DeLonge says, looking off to the side to recall an old memory. “It was like if everyone in town all worked in a mining camp, and there’s one kid who’s going to college. Like, we’re rooting for you, but you don’t belong here. In the punk scene, this little high-pitched, fucking measly kid that can barely sing is cool because he’s just some skateboarder from San Diego that grew up with a pretty fucked household. If you’re a classically trained fucking singer, your life’s not bad, motherfucker. You went to an art school! Blink was just some tough street kids that were raised by their surroundings because we all had broken families. We wanted to be nursery rhymes on meth. We’re gonna play fast, and we’re gonna make it fucking funny like our life depends on it —  all because we hated where we came from. You need that anchor in a van in a punk band. All the other shit is secondary in my opinion.”

These days, DeLonge is certainly more appreciative of his ridiculously talented and/or classically trained bandmates, but that’s not to say he won’t still crack jokes about them. Angels & Airwaves drummer Ilan Rubin is the youngest living inductee in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame history thanks to his role with a little band called Nine Inch Nails, and he can perform and record on at least a handful of instruments better than DeLonge can play anything, according to the latter. But that just gives the frontman ample room to playfully tease him about his presumed lack of social life growing up: “What’d you fucking do? Stay in your room for like 80 hours a day and learn everything?”

Even before Rubin, DeLonge’s bands have often been brought together through a world-class percussionist. While checking the TV to his left to make sure the Padres aren’t mounting anything even remotely resembling a comeback, DeLonge credits Travis Barker with making him and Mark Hoppus take Blink-182’s music more seriously (“Maybe we should do these dick jokes in a minor key”), and Angels & Airwaves’ original drummer, Atom Willard, is also as good as it gets.

Perhaps the key to DeLonge’s success in two very different bands effectively comes down to having a solid drummer and an air of relatability around him, but that seems like selling his musical legacy short. Beyond predictable metrics like album sales and chart-topping hits (both of which he obviously has plenty of, thanks to Blink-182), DeLonge’s signature Stratocaster from his early days often surpassed the sales of models from artists like Clapton and Hendrix, and both that and his current Gibson ES-333 are considered collector’s items that regularly sell for thousands above their retail prices. He may not play like the late Eddie Van Halen, but DeLonge’s penchant for palm-muted power chords clearly won over enough early fans that he’s viewed as a bit of a guitar hero in his own right.

“I’m sitting here playing on this guitar with this shitty little pickup and singing ‘Ben Wah Balls’ and looking at weird shit, and kids are like ‘I want to play like that!’” DeLonge laughs. “You got these real guitar players saying What the fuck?! Who the fuck is this guy?!’ And it’s just funny.”


angels and airwaves


Although DeLonge may not have been taken quite as “seriously” as a musician during his Blink-182 days, it’s clearly not something he regrets. Even in his mid-40s, he still fondly remembers the pranks, mishaps, and general chaos that he, Hoppus and Barker caused over the years, thrust into spotlights outside of their original punk scene. For that matter, sitting through a three-hour baseball game contains no shortage of stories involving his previous band — whether they’re about recent conversations he’s had with Hoppus, “jerking each other off” while other bands were indulging in drugs after shows, or nakedly bombarding a second-generation rock star.

“It’s funny, because we’d play with all these big bands, but Blink was always just different,” DeLonge recalls, pausing with a smile to consider which ridiculous story he wants to tell this time. “One time, Hoppus ran completely naked into Jakob Dylan’s dressing room when we were playing with the Wallflowers. They’re all fancy, and he’s just completely naked with suds all over his body, dick out and everything. He goes in there and starts yelling ‘Who the fuck took my towel?! Where’s my fucking towel?!’ and then slams the door and leaves. He sounded so serious. It was some Academy Award-winning shit. Oh my god, I had a heart attack. It was the funniest fucking thing I’d ever seen. They didn’t like to joke at all. They didn’t think it was funny at all. But we were just always squeezing by, and that was kind of our way.”

While Lifeforms may not exactly channel the same band that would run nude and screaming into Dylan’s dressing room, DeLonge admits there are likely more elements of Blink-182 (and even Box Car Racer) in the new album than he’s put into his other recent work. The new album is a combination of what he’s done in the past and the music he loved growing up, including bands like Depeche Mode, the Cure, and the Who. Much like DeLonge’s day-to-day life, it covers a lot of seemingly unrelated areas, different people will focus on different things, and the veteran songwriter will somehow glide back and forth gracefully between them all thanks to his secret multitasking weapon: “ADHD,” he says, “fucking works.”

Depending on how his UFO research and dives into government conspiracies go, Lifeforms could also be the last music we ever get from DeLonge. It’s not exactly likely, but he’s made it clear that he’s working on something “way bigger” than what’s been publicized so far in the extraterrestrial world — and that he’d most certainly be willing to devote the rest of his life to it if he had to choose. For the time being, though, he’s far more content with how the new album came out than he is with his chosen baseball team.

“I just want to create cool shit, and every cool thing I’ve done in my life has been because I haven’t given a fuck about what people think,” DeLonge says with the smirk that’s carried him through photoshoots and music videos for nearly 30 years now. “But I think this is one of the best records I’ve ever made, and I think people are gonna love it. I’m so excited for people to check it out because they really should love it. I’m breaking my back to wow, all of you, OK? I’m just fucking trying to wow you!”

The Padres may not have shown up to the game, but DeLonge is always present, regardless of where he is. As he rides the long escalator down out of Petco Park during the final outs of another inevitable Padres loss, he texts his son to let him know he’s leaving the game a bit early to go see him. It’s surprisingly quiet on the sidewalks outside of the stadium, as anyone who paid market value for tickets to the sold-out game — including the thousands of Dodgers fans in attendance, much to DeLonge’s dismay — is likely sticking around to get their money’s worth, while others are simply scurrying to their cars to get out before traffic backs up. But for the Angels & Airwaves songwriter, he’s never been concerned about going against the flow of traffic. These days, he’s just looking to do the right thing both as a father and as an artist, while staying true to himself. Of course, he’s fully aware that there will always be some fans exclusively interested in his older material, and he knows he can’t impress everyone. But for now, he’ll still go out of his way to “wow” as many as possible — as long as that means doing exactly what he wants to do.

And for those in the audience who remain apathetic? Well, I guess this is growing up.