“It feels like a big middle finger”: Mark Hoppus, Alex Gaskarth talk Simple Creatures
With their collective quick wit and sarcastic snapbacks, Mark Hoppus and Alex Gaskarth could star in one hell of a buddy comedy. Until then, fans will have to live with Simple Creatures, the new side project from two torchbearers of their respective pop-punk eras.
The band were born in the shadows, when the blink-182 bassist and singer was battling post-tour depression and recruited his acolyte-turned-peer for some collaborative catharsis. While it’s tempting to draw parallels between Simple Creatures and +44, the band Hoppus formed with Travis Barker after fellow blink frontman Tom DeLonge departed in 2005—especially given the at-times darker tones and reliance on synths and drum machines—this new project wasn’t so much a want for Hoppus as it was a deep need.
“They’re two different things,” the bassist says. “Obviously +44 was me and Travis still wanting to continue making music together after Tom left blink, and Simple Creatures are way more Alex and I wanting to do something different than our regular bands. They’re similar in that they both occurred at a strange time for me personally, but they’re opposites of what I was trying to do at the time.”
The duo’s debut EP, Strange Love, is all at once familiar and foreign. The pair have their musical fingerprints and melodic sensibilities all over the collection’s six songs—from Hoppus’ on-a-dime swerve from his lower register to full-throated melody (“Ether”) to Gaskarth’s predilection for more elastic lead lines (the gutter-glistened “Drug”)—but it’s framed through a musical lens unlike anything they’ve explored in the past.
From the reggae-tinged, dancehall crashing “Strange Love” and the droning “How To Live” through “Adrenaline” (the kind of souped-up, angular ’80s anthem the Breakfast Club gleefully would have danced to atop of library tables), Strange Love kicks down Hoppus and Gaskarth’s songwriting guardrails and pushes into some of their most ambitious work yet. It’s especially intriguing, given how sharply it contrasts much of blink-182’s most recent album, the equilibrium-recentering California. With a bold, carte blanche attitude to songwriting, there’s no telling how Simple Creatures’ musical shapeshifting could inspire even greater creative freedom on blink’s in-progress follow-up.
While hunkered down in an L.A. practice space rehearsing their live show, the duo walked us through the band’s creation, their songwriting growth and the long-overdue idea of putting a bedtime on rock ’n’ roll.
Mark, why was Alex the first person you thought of for this project?
HOPPUS: Alex and I have talked pretty seriously about writing songs, whether for other people or for a side project or whatever. Originally I was setting out to record an album with a bunch of my friends, the people you meet at shows over the years or tour with that say, “Oh, we should get in the studio and make music sometime,” and you never get around to it. Alex was the first one I called, and it went so well I never called anyone else after that.
GASKARTH: After the first couple [of] ideas started turning into something, it felt like it was becoming a band. It felt cohesive. I went home from it not really having any expectations, but then I got a call a couple [of] days later from Mark and our manager, Gus [Brandt], saying, “I think this is a band.” This is the first time a side project had come up for me, so it was surreal but also a little strange. I was nervous to even go down that road, but it’s been super fun.
What was the first day in the studio like?
HOPPUS: The first thing we did was like a diet blink-182 or diet All Time Low. It wasn’t great. We listened back and decided it wasn't what we wanted to do at all. We started off with a completely different mindset. We had this idea of everything opposite: Whatever you’d normally do, try and do something different. If something made us feel like it wasn’t something we wouldn’t normally do, we took it as a good thing. We were trying to get away from traditional recording techniques and embracing strange keyboard sounds and ratty, shitty guitars, buzzy subs and programmed drums.
GASKARTH: It sucks when someone starts a side project and it sounds like their band. Why even do it? That became the ethos for the entire project: Any time it felt familiar or safe, we took a hard left and challenged ourselves to do something foreign and weird. That first idea created the rule for Simple Creatures: Keep it weird, keep it different, stay out of our comfort zone. It was like painting by numbers but working backward —erasing by numbers?
What about “Drug” was really appealing when you hit on it?
GASKARTH: The most exciting thing about “Drug” is it feels like a big middle finger. It’s just brash and trashy and sultry and gross and sludgy and weird. It felt like it married our backgrounds—coming up from pop punk and punk rock and the mindset of that—with these new trashy sensibilities we were starting to craft. I loved that it felt brash and abrasive. The “na na”s became the cheerleader of the whole group. That choir of “na na”s was our middle finger to what everyone would expect. It was, “Hello, fuck you. We get to do what we want.” [Laughs.]
Mark, the California era of blink really saw the band enter a new, collaborative space with a lot of outside writers and voices contributing creatively. You hadn’t historically done that with blink. How have you embraced this collaborative approach to songwriting?
HOPPUS: The way music is written, recorded, distributed and consumed is completely different than when blink first started off. [Back then], it was just the three of us in a practice studio writing songs, throwing ideas around for weeks and months ahead of the recording of the album. When we got into the studio, it was a matter of taking what we’d written and translating it onto tape. Now, with tape machines being gone and the advent of Pro Tools and the availability of recording equipment, you can record an album in your garage. The way we wrote songs is completely different now. It started with the untitled record; we really didn’t have anything written when we went in to record. We had some ideas and were going to work them out in the studio while we were recording, and that’s how we’ve stuck with it now. That’s transformed into having other writers in the studio throwing ideas around.
For me personally, I enjoy writing with other people because I’ve never felt like other artists diminished what I brought to the table. If I’m just left to my own devices, I just do the same similar tempo, rhythm and patterns. Having someone in the studio saying, “What about this?” and pushing me off-center is really valuable.
Alex, you do a lot of writing for and with other bands. This is different in that you weren’t writing with parameters or another artist’s style dictating things.
GASKARTH: This isn’t to fault anyone and say people aren’t trying cool stuff, but it was cool to not have any expectations and cater to someone else’s voice. When you’re working with other artists, you’re trying to write it through their lens. I’m not going to throw ideas against the wall that are clearly not what they’re trying to do. There was none of that here, no target we had to hit. It was very freeing. In general, music has become much more fluid these days because of playlists and streaming and the way people are consuming music. People are more willing to try different things, weird things. A perfect example is Bring Me The Horizon, who went off and made a dark-pop album. I don’t think anyone saw that coming, but it works for them, and it’s amazing. It’s cool to see a band that started heavily rooted in the hardcore and metal scene go completely left of center. For a new project, it allows us to start with absolutely anything in mind.
What were some of the musical touchpoints thrown around in the studio? I hear something like the Cure on “Adrenaline” but am curious about your other shared references.
GASKARTH: It sounded like you said Cher, which is awesome. So now I’m just going to reference Cher. [Laughs.] The Cure were a big one; we’re both huge fans. But “Adrenaline” is about as new wave as it gets. Really, it was more kind of the grittiness of projects like Nine Inch Nails and Kitten and Bones from the U.K.: marrying the sensibilities of modern beat-and-rhythm-based music with guitars that sound horrible because they’re DI-ed and run through a pedal. Doing everything the way you’re not supposed to. Instead of spending an hour micing up an amp to find the perfect tone, we were plugging things into keyboard amps and micing the speaker.
You both have traded in glossy, big-budget pop music for the majority of your careers. Here, it’s less about the packaging and more about the core idea of the song itself.
GASKARTH: Totally, and that was the most fun part. It was about getting the ideas out in the rawest way and not overthinking it. We didn’t say, “Hey, that’s not perfect. Let’s record it five more times.” A lot of what we laid down in the moment made it on the record, and I think that makes for a fun sound. We’re producing it the way you write pop songs, but it was done in such a raw and organic way that it marries the two sensibilities perfectly. I don’t think we intended to do that. It was more like, “These demos sound like finished songs. Let’s roll with it.”
“Lucy” is definitely the most left-field song on the EP. What was the genesis of that one?
HOPPUS: That song started with me picking up a bass and just noodling something. Zakk [Cervini, producer] and Alex were talking, and Zakk turned around and asked what I was playing. I said, “I have no idea.” He said, “Let’s put that in.” We hooked the bass through no amp whatsoever—this bass microsynth pedal—and plugged it straight into the computer and started writing. While we were writing the lyrics, I was asking Zakk about his girlfriend, whose name is Lucy. I said, “When are you guys going to get married? When are you going to make an honest woman out of Lucy?” I was teasing him about his girlfriend and getting married. Then we took that sentence and built up this narrative about a bank heist gone wrong.
How is the live set coming together? It’s obviously going to be a different vibe given it’s just the two of you—no drummer.
HOPPUS: We’re still working out the final bits of it, but it’s been really fun playing different instruments, standing at different points on the stage. The idea behind Simple Creatures’ live performance is to be able to be very agile and mobile and play a show in Paris one day, then fly to New York and do a show there, then fly to South America and play a show.
Because Alex and I are just two people, and there's points in the show where we’re both singing at the same time and tethered to microphones, the thought is to be a rock show with an EDM production. We perform at different spots on the stage and have these different points we satellite out from, making it very high-energy, even when we’re both singing. Not having a drummer onstage, you don’t get that kinetic energy of someone hitting things with sticks and that motion, so we have to fill in that space with lights and production. I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life with the best drummer on planet Earth sitting behind me hitting things and being a show all unto himself. To not have that there, I personally have had to approach the show completely differently and still make it interesting to watch. We have to make it rad.
As long as the EDM approach doesn’t mean the shows will last all night long.
HOPPUS: We’ve toyed with the idea of saying we’ll never go onstage later than 10 p.m. This is my idea: Have a band that’s the start of the evening, where you go on stage at 7 or 8 at night. The show’s done at 9, and people can go out after that. Rather than the headlining act be done at midnight or 2 or 3 in the morning, have your night start at a rock show, then people can go out to dinner. Why not?
Simple Creatures’ debut EP, Strange Love, drops March 29 with preorders available now digitally and with merch bundles. The duo will play their first show at Download Festival in the U.K., and tickets are available now.