In working on a followup to Blink-182’s most successful album and splitting time with his new hit duo, Simple Creatures, Hoppus is feeling just as spry as he did 25 years ago.
Remember that massively popular music video that took over MTV in 1999, featuring Blink-182 running naked through the streets of Los Angeles while onlookers gawked in dismay? Well, the aptly titled track behind that video, “What’s My Age Again,” couldn’t be more appropriate now, as 20 years later Mark Hoppus and Blink-182 are still just as relevant, in-demand, and somehow as ageless as they were in that breakout moment. Maybe there’s some kind of fountain of youth in playing pop-punk anthems over the span of almost three decades, but whatever it is, Hoppus hasn’t lost even a bit of his youthful appearance and demeanor or any degree of vertical in his acrobatic stage jumps in all of those years. And even now at age 47, Hoppus is not only still piloting his beloved outfit Blink, he’s also at the helm of his new viral duo with All Time Low’s Alex Gaskarth, Simple Creatures.
While Hoppus has become a legitimate celebrity and a household name thanks to his work as a producer, his various clothing lines, a podcast, a television show, and his usual public appearances and on-screen cameos, he’s still predominantly known for one thing, and that’s his work in Blink. They’re now more popular than ever thanks to their 2016 chart-topping, Grammy-nominated album, California [BMG]. After the 2015 departure of founding guitarist and singer Tom DeLonge, the band welcomed frontman Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio, and the results of their new lineup and subsequent album found Blink selling out tours and performing on arena stages like none they had ever played before. And now the band has embarked on their seventh album, which Hoppus claims is more reflective and aggressive than their previous effort, as drummer Travis Barker and the rest of the trio are more energized than they have been in years.
But currently, half of the seemingly unlimited energy stores that Hoppus possesses are being focused on Simple Creatures, which just released its debut EP, Strange Love. The duo’s music melds modern touches of rock with new wave elements and an overall synth-pop sound that finds both vocalists sharing time on the mic. The album’s first single, “Drug,” became a widespread hit thanks to the extremely catchy hook work of Hoppus. And while the production and vocals dominate on the EP, Hoppus’ usual driving lines and midrange growl lead the way on songs like “Adrenaline” and “Strange Love.” Regardless of which band he’s center-stage with, Hoppus’ wild picking, big sound, and even bolder presence seem to get only more vibrant and magnetic over time.
How did Simple Creatures first form?
When I came back from the California tour cycle with Blink, I got home and I got bored and then I got really depressed and I found myself in a weird, dark place. My wife and my manager asked what was going on, and then told me to get up and get in the studio and do something so I wasn’t just moping around everywhere. My idea initially was that I was going to do an album with a bunch of my friends from other bands, and the first person I called was Alex [Gaskarth]. He and I had talked for years about working on a project, writing some songs, or forming a production team or something, so he came in and we started writing and it just felt different and strange, but really cool at the same time. After four or five songs we realized that maybe this was its own thing.
Things just clicked right away for you two?
Actually, the first song we worked on together, we got through two thirds of it, and we just stopped because it was bad. Like, really bad. It was a mediocre pop-punk song that wasn’t right and it was an early indication of what we didn’t want to do.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted the sound to be like from that point?
The one thing we were certain of is that we didn’t want this to be a watered-down version of our other bands. I never want a listener to hear Simple Creatures and wonder why it wasn’t a Blink-182 song or an All Time Low song. As a fan of music, if a musician breaks away from their band to write some new music on their own and it sounds like their band, it’s a big disappointment to me. Like, why wouldn’t you do this with the band you’ve been working with for the past decade?
How did you approach writing for this project differently than your writing with Blink?
Anybody can pick up an instrument and start a song from bass to guitar or whatever, but one of the things I really wanted to get away from with this project was starting out songs with an acoustic guitar. After writing songs for 30 years that way, I find myself falling into the same patterns and using the same strumming pattern, or similar chord progressions and picking styles. I knew if I could get away from that, I could start from a new place.
Did you write primarily on bass for Simple Creatures?
A few of the songs started out on bass, and a few started off with a drumbeat or a keyboard line. There’s a song called “Lucy” that we wrote in the studio that starts off with bass; our producer and Alex were having a conversation and they both stopped and asked me what I was playing, and I had no idea because I was just noodling around. I went back to it, and we ran that line through an Electro-Harmonix Bass Microsynth to make it sound all weird, and we plugged that direct into the computer and built the song around that.
Your tone is much different than on anything you’ve done prior.
From a bass standpoint, I didn’t use any of my traditional sounds at all. The tones that I bring to Blink I didn’t bring to these sessions as a bass player. We didn’t use any processing outside of the computer. I just went DI straight into the computer, and we’d alter it there instead of finding a tone through pedals and my rig. That was a lot of fun and really different. Not to get off on a tangent, but nowadays there are so many rad, boutique pedal manufactures that are doing fascinating stuff that give players the chance to achieve sounds easily that they couldn’t get before. It’s great.
Did plugging straight into a computer instead of a big 8×10 cabinet change how you approached your writing?
At the core it’s really still about finding a great hook and a great melody over some cool music more than it is the actual process. It’s just how you get to that place that is different now. You can make it sound strange and different and very modern. It’s so crazy; we used to go into studios to record an album, and you’d spend four or five days just getting drum sounds. It’s not like that anymore. In a way I miss the nostalgia of recall sheets for the outboard gear, and trying to get that perfect kick sound for hours on end, but those days are gone. Now with Pro Tools and plug ins, it’s really all about the songwriting. Songs are written, recorded, distributed, and consumed very quickly now. In a lot of ways it’s really exciting and fun now because there’s such a low barrier of entry for musicians. You can record songs on your laptop now that are 80% as good as professional studio recordings. Now it’s really about your personal taste and your chops as a songwriter, and it’s less about having access to an expensive studio.
That’s a great verse bass line in “Adrenaline” where you match your picking to your vocal cadence.
That song was written with our friend Dylan Baulad, who plays in a band called Flor. We went to his house and Alex was noodling around on his guitar, and he came up with an idea that we brought to my studio here, and we just built it out with the idea that it would be a modern take on an ’80s dance song with some aggression. The vocals kind of came out at that cadence along with my bass part, and it seemed to fit. We used my bass and Dylan’s guitar, and we programmed everything else in the studio at my place. Dylan does things really quick, as he grew up learning recording techniques from YouTube.
Which goes back to the topic of the new modern ways of making music.
It’s so damn different now. With Blink we were just in Henson Studios recording our album, and it has such a crazy history — from “We Are the World” to Fleetwood Mac to every classic band you can think of. It’s strange to go back and forth between two recording situations where in a huge studio you have a full board, amazing tracking room, assistant engineers, runners, and the entire studio system, and then you go back to recording in some guy’s living room tracking everything to his laptop on his coffee table while standing next to his sofa.
Do you prefer one way to the other?
I like both. I’m very fortunate that I get to record in studios with crazy histories and such amazing equipment, but it really goes back to the point that it’s all about the song itself. If it’s a great song it doesn’t matter if it’s recorded on a [Shure] SM57 or a 251 [large diaphragm] mic.
Speaking of the Blink recording process, how is the new album coming along?
It’s going great. We have so much momentum right now. Yesterday we were in the studio, today we were in the studio, and I’ll be there tomorrow. We’re all so excited for the new music, and we all genuinely want to be in there working on it. We’re like kids where we can’t wait to get into the next session. We’re full steam ahead.
What’s the new music sounding like so far?
If you think of California as the “going back to the beginnings of Blink” like Enema of the State [1999, MCA], then this is more similar to going back to our self-titled record [2003, Geffen]. It’s a lot more experimental, it’s a lot darker, it’s edgier and really out there. Blink members have always had projects on the outside, but Blink is the priority for everybody. During time off, Travis does a lot of production work or hits the road with Transplants, but then he brings those experiences and new talents back to Blink. So when he works with hip-hop artists, he’ll come back in the studio and use 808s and effect vocals with the new methods he learned. Everything always comes back to Blink. It’ll always be our home base.
Was the band nervous about your fans’ reception to replacing founding member Tom DeLonge with Matt Skiba?
Yes, very. But I believed in the album that we made, and I believed in the music we were making. When we were recording California, it felt like the old days of Blink-182 when everybody was pumped, everyone had a singularity of purpose, and everybody was firing on all cylinders. But Blink has had a lot of incarnations. We had lots of band drama in the last era, and we brought in a new band member. We had been one thing for nearly 20 years, and all of a sudden we’re missing one of our singers and guitar player. Matt stepped into a situation that was potentially very difficult, but I think he did an amazing job of coming into an established band and making it his own. He made it his own voice, but he was entirely respectful to the full history of Blink-182 and what Tom brought to the project since day one, and it just connected. It works for the fans as much as it works for the band in every possible way.
How heavily involved is Matt in the songwriting? Is he as prominent as Tom was?
Matt has a huge hand in the writing, but it’s more than just our three parts because we’ve been working with other songwriters and collaborators on this record. Yesterday we were in the studio with Pharell [Williams]. He brings an amazing talent set to whatever he does, because he’s a god in music and attacks the song in a very different way. We also brought in John Feldmann [Goldfinger], who approaches songs from much different angles. It’s been really interesting working with other people. I’ve never been precious with my ideas, where I think somebody else having a take on them diminishes them in any way. I love when people take my ideas to a totally different place that I would never get to on my own. On this record, Travis is much more involved in the melodies and chord changes and song structures. When he joined the band, he was the piece that Blink-182 was missing in the beginning, and now he’s taking his role to a whole other level. Especially on this record, he’ll come in with a keyboard part or chord structure that we build into a song.
How is it playing with Travis as a rhythm section after all these years?
First of all, it’s amazing — always has been and always will be. But it’s funny; any time that I present an idea with a drum pattern in it of any kind, Travis is very respectful and listens to it and nods his head, and then he goes to his drum kit and does something entirely different. Travis has the amazing ability to know what is going to work and what isn’t going to work for a song, and when he holds fast to something, his instincts are usually totally correct.
Why did you switch from your Fender signature bass — a Jazz body with Precision pickups — to your new Jaguar basses?
Jaguars have a little more midrange aggression that sounds so cool, and they fit better with Blink’s music live, so I started moving more toward that sound. It’s exciting right now being a stringed-instrument player with all of the technologies and devices out there that make it so fun. The soundscapes that you have at your fingertips are amazing. It’s almost like discovering a new color.
You’ve always been known for your strong midrange tone. What else do you look for in your bass sound?
I love a full and defined low end that isn’t too farty or floppy. I like a tight low end and a thump in the mids and upper mids that gives a little aggression and distortion. And I like a very clear top end — nothing too clanky. I’m always trying to find a tone that will cut through, and being a bass player in a three-piece band, I’ve always had to approach my playing almost as a rhythm guitar player as well, so I need my tone to cover a lot of ground. Being in a four-piece band, especially live or with multiple guitarists, a bass player can really lay the foundation of the rhythm section — but being in a trio, I have to combine rhythm guitar and bass, and lock in with Travis, too. I love that. I like what the bass player does in a band. I’ve never wanted to be a lead guitarist, and I feel like what the bass does in music is what I do in bands: kind of the moderator, someone who connects things and takes an element from over here and something from over there and ties them all together. It fits my personality.
Between Simple Creatures and Blink, you seem to prefer playing in trios or duos. What do you like about that freedom as a bass player?
I love that I always get to do whatever it is that I want. I sing on songs that I want to sing on; if I come up with a cool bass line, we can feature that in a song; and if a song doesn’t call for a bass feature, then I’m happy to lay the foundation. I kind of get to do whatever I want at all times as a bass player, musician, and vocalist. I get the best of all worlds. I’ve been very spoiled. And the rad thing about Blink is that it’s three members who are all individually known. There’s no one who knows me who doesn’t know Travis or Matt, or knew Tom. Blink is cool because fans have a favorite member and we all have our own identities and our own place in the band. Blink has become a multi-generational band, where we have people coming out to our shows and it’s the first concert they’ve ever gone to, and there are people who have been watching us since the late 90’s. There were parents with kids, kids in groups, and older brothers bringing their younger sisters to the shows, and it’s just awesome.
How has your playing evolved since you first started playing?
When we first started off, I just wanted to play as fast and as loud as possible. I think in the past ten years we’ve spent a lot more time trying to play well. In the early days we’d play loud, we’d play fast, we’d jump around and try to put on the best show possible, but now we spend a lot of time trying to make a great set and play as well as we can. I still have a lot, lot, lot to learn as a bass player, and I continue to try to practice to get better. I think I’ve probably matured more as a songwriter than as a bass player. But I love playing bass and I love how I learned how to play bass. My technique is terrible. But I make it work.
You haven’t changed your technique at all over the years?
Not really. I grew up learning how to play by jamming along with songs by The Cure, Bad Religion, and The Descendants, and that’s where I got my foundation and how I cut my teeth, so that’s still kind of how I approach my playing. I find myself paying more attention to what Travis is doing with the kick. That’s what I’m trying to lock in with. I focus on how what he does with the kick translates to what I’m doing with the bass and what the vocal part is doing. If I learn any more or get any better, it might not sound like me.
You’ve done a rare thing as a bass player, becoming a celebrity and a household name.
I don’t feel like that on any level at all. I feel like a very lucky guy in a band that works really hard and stays true to ourselves, and other than that, I don’t know how we’ve been doing it for over 20 years. I don’t know how after band dramas and breakups and reforming and members leaving, we’re still selling out the venues we’re playing. It’s all a huge blessing to me. I don’t know exactly how we got here other than writing the best music that we can and working really hard at it. But I’m a husband, a dad, and a bandmate, and none of them really let me get away with feeling like a celebrity. That’s just fine by me.
What the best advice you’d give a young bass player?
Just go do it. If you want to be a great bass player, a great songwriter, a good engineer, just go do it. Practice what you love, learn from people around you, and keep your head up. From day one, the people who make it are the people who just go make it happen for themselves. The bands that fall off might have talent, but they don’t put in the work. Talent gets you halfway there, but hard work gets you all the way there.
Simple Creatures, Strange Love [EP, BMG]
Bass Fender Jaguar Basses with Precision necks
Strings Ernie Ball Super Slink Pink
Picks Dunlop Tortex .60mm