Supergroup? You call that a supergroup? Nah mate. Simple Creatures are a super group. We pinned down Mark Hoppus and Alex Gaskarth to find out why this is more than just a side-project for two of rock’s true icons.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Alex Gaskarth is currently in the desert, scratching out the beginnings of the eighth All Time Low record. In the past three weeks, All Time Low have headlined Slam Dunk, and Alex has played Download with Simple Creatures. His bandmate Mark Hoppus has released new music from the imminent blink 182 record, and they’ve played the first show of their mammoth 20th-anniversary tour for ‘Enema of The State’ that’ll keep them on the road until September.
It’d be easy for Alex and Mark to focus on their day jobs, but Simple Creatures was always going to be a persistent, ongoing concern. It’s too much fun to put on the backburner.
“All Time Low’s been a band for over 15 years at this point,” starts Alex. “We have it dialled in. We know what the general idea and concept of the band is and we know how to do what we do. It’s just redefining it and finding new ways to keep it interesting, that’s sort of the process that we’re in right now. But switching gears is not hard. Simple Creatures is such a different and experimental thing; it’s two different hats.”
“The challenging part is mainly just plugging it in between our other bands,” he continues. “Just logistically, figuring out when things can come out and not interfere with what else we have going on, that’s probably the biggest task, but really, it’s not a big task when you think about it. We have plenty of time when we can do this stuff. At the end of the day, this band is for our enjoyment. It’s just about being creatively free and open.”
“It’s been way easier than I thought it would be,” adds Mark. From the songs, the name and the identity of the band to the look and feel of Simple Creature, it’s all just fallen into place. “It’s been harder to educate people as to what Simple Creatures is and to let them know that’s it’s not just a one-time, one EP thing we put out and forget about. We really want to pursue this as a full-time band but still keep our day jobs and not step on the toes of All Time Low or blink 182 and weave Simple Creatures between them. This is an ongoing thing that we want to do for years and years.”
“Initially, I was surprised by how much, not backlash, but just how much resistance there was to us doing something different than either of our normal bands,” offers Mark. “I guess it’s to be expected and there’s a learning curve with what people expect from you and what I do outside of blink 182.” But Simple Creatures aren’t turning down their big, neon vision for anyone.
“I mostly just ignore it. In blink, Simple Creatures and in life, I find that if I just put my head down and do work that I like, and believe in myself and believe in the people around me, then it serves me well. When I try and cater to what I think people would expect from blink or whatever, it doesn’t serve me well, and those songs never end up seeing the light of day.”
Simple Creatures were playing live shows as soon as they released their debut EP. It was a big leap for the group which started as a studio project, and whose two members live in a world of the classic band set up. “We wanted to establish that it wasn’t just something we were doing in our spare time. Mark and I had very much talked about if we’re going to give this project a name and put it out, then we should establish that it’s a real thing and that we want to build a following and take it to people. It was a priority to get it into rooms and play it for people live. Otherwise, we ran the risk of people just assuming it was two guys in bands that had a lazy Sunday and made some songs together.”
It also helped bring the world of Simple Creatures into focus. Their debut EP is an eclectic blitz of anything-goes freedom and creative flexing but face to face, that grimy house party feels whole.
“Once we started playing the songs live, it made a lot more sense to people,” starts Mark. “When we first announced that I was doing a band with Alex, people thought that the combination of a member of blink 182 and a member of All Time Low would probably sound a lot more like Diet Blink or All Time Lite. And it doesn’t. We specifically and intentionally didn’t make it sound like either of our other bands and that that was confusing for people because it was different from what they expected. But now that we have toured it and played it live people are wrapping their heads around it a lot more.”
“People expected one thing, maybe they thought it was going to something more in the vein of what we what we typically do,” adds Alex. “And some of the initial reaction was surprise: ‘What is this? I hate it. It’s not pop-punk. It’s not punk.'” But it’s 2019, and the idea of people making music in different genres isn’t as revolutionary as it might have been a decade ago. “There was also a lot of, ‘wow, this is new and fresh and different and cool. I didn’t know I wanted this, but now I have it, I’m in love.’ And that was my favourite reaction to it because we didn’t know we wanted it either.” Now, Mark and Alex are head over heels.
The pair have known each other for years. They’ve toured together, worked together on songs for All Time Low as well as TV theme tunes and talked about becoming a production duo for other bands. When Mark knew he wanted to make music with other people, Alex was the first person he called. After a few songs, he didn’t need to call anyone else to make a record. Simple Creatures belongs to both of them.
Mark needs someone to work with. “If I’m left to my own devices, just me in a studio with a session open, I tend to overthink things and beat a song to death to the point where it becomes too plain. I like having someone to bounce ideas off of and say ‘that’s cool’ or ‘that’s not’. That’s that give and take that makes the song better than the sum of its parts. It’s that way in blink, and it’s that way in Simple Creatures as well. When I’m alone, I’ll second-guess things but if I have someone there who I trust then I can push myself. I like to take things as close to the edges as I can. I don’t know necessarily know where the edge is unless there’s somebody there to say ‘you’re not even close to the edge yet, you’ve got plenty to go’, or ‘that’s way too weird, let’s bring it back a little bit’. Working with Alex, I’ve learnt to just keep pushing, to do weirder and weirder stuff and to really embrace the happy accidents.”
“Things clicked right away between Alex and I. I know that Alex grew up loving blink 182 and being a huge blink fan, but he is not deferential in the studio at all. He will stand up for what he thinks is right or stand up for what he thinks is not working in a song. It’s not like I’m doing a project and Alex is a Yes Man, we’re both equally invested and equally weighted in the band.” The pair come from a similar place musically, “our ideas mesh well together, but they’re not identical.” In the studio, they finish each other’s musical sentences and take them someplace new. “We support each other, and it seems really easy. When we walk into the studio, we’re laughing about stuff and songs just fall together.”
Simple Creatures want to sound like a Skins house party. They want it to feel like anything could happen, and it probably will. There’s a touch of danger but a lot more chaotic fun.
“We’ve been trying to throw everything at it,” says Alex, “and bring the sensibilities of what we know from our other projects into what we do in Simple Creatures. We also want to redefine ourselves and not play by the rules that we typically have to play by – but that does not mean that we want to sacrifice songwriting or quality.”
Alex and Mark wanted to shock, but instead of simply going for the element of surprise, the pair have made sure that the songs mean something long after that initial hit. “We are trying to create something really great and cool that people can fall in love with.” When the party’s over, Simple Creatures still want to offer something.
“A lot of the time with songs, I don’t really understand what they’re about until months later,” admits Mark. “In the studio, I try and adhere to the Jack Kerouac ethos of first thought, best thought. I come up with a melody, I come up with words, and I like what they say, I like the vibe it inspires,” and it’s onto the next thing. “It’s not until months later that I look back and realise the headspace I was in.”
Take blink 182’s ‘Bored To Death’. It was the lead single to 2016’s ‘California’ and to launch the record, the band set up an event at a big LA venue and invited loads of press. The first interviewer asks them what ‘Bored To Death’ is about, and Mark replied: “‘You know what, I don’t know’. Travis looked at me like I was an idiot. How can you not know what the song is about, you wrote it?” But that doesn’t mean the songs are meaningless. “A song like ‘Strange Love, that’s really about my friends and people going out and acting like they’re having a good time, but really, you’re kind of empty inside a lot of the time.”
“The project itself was born out of being in a dark place,” explains Alex. “Dealing with that, figuring it out and coming to terms with sadness, anger, fear, insecurity and all these carnal feelings and emotions that drive your behaviour. Whenever music comes from those circumstances, there’s a chance that it’s going to resonate with people who are going through that same thing. If our music can do that, or be a realisation, an escape or just a good time for people, that’s what this is all about.
“I want Simple Creatures to have the same vibe as blink 182,” starts Mark. It’s sonically different, because what’s the point otherwise, but “people feel an ownership of blink 182 because that’s how we feel about it.” There’s never been a divide between artist and audience, instead “it’s always been everybody’s invited to the party. Come down, have a good time with your friends and let’s go do this. I want the same vibe for Simple Creatures.”
“I know how I feel about Simple Creatures,” continues Alex. “I know what it means to me. Live, we just wanted to throw these weird parties and have our friends come and dance with us. We wanted to get in room with a bunch of fellow weirdos and dance our cares away. There’s also that feeling of, it’s okay to look at your demons in the eyes and realise that we all have them and we all have to deal with them in our own way.”
That message really comes into the spotlight with ‘Special’. But the driving fact behind its release as the first new music since that debut EP is because “really, it just felt like a banger,” grins Alex. “There wasn’t a whole lot more thought that went into releasing it next. It has a great vibe, it’s weird, and it continues the narrative that this project isn’t what you’re going to expect. It just continues to move things along and set up what’s next.”
Recorded during one of their four-hour sessions a few weeks before Download, ‘Special’ is still super fresh. “The ability to record, mix, master and release songs in a short amount of time is something that I really want to do with Simple Creatures. And that’s something we’re going to do with blink 182 as well,” promises Mark. “That song came together very easily. I feel like it was just brimming underneath the surface and waiting for the chance to get out. Luckily, we were able to harness that energy and get it out to the world, literally, within weeks.
“Alex And I approach that song from different angles. I think that for Alex, the song is more about that almost fake it till you make it attitude. You know you’re depressed, you know you’re in a bad spot, and you know you’re in a dark place. So just try and ignore that, go out and live life and hopefully, you will catch up with yourself and will be ok. It was an almost spiritual release for him. For Alex, it’s a lot more cathartic, and for me, it’s a lot more celebratory. I approached it more like a party song. What’s awesome about music is a person can listen to a song, and it can mean nothing but another person can listen to it, and it’s a song that defines this moment in their life. It’s a song that defines that person.”
“After saying it without saying it on ‘Strange Love’, I think ‘Special’ is the nail on the head of what we’re talking about,” continues Alex – “I just wanna feel good, I wanna feel special. Dig down underneath the pressure; I wanna fake my pain away,” it sings – “These two EPs aren’t in order, but they’re certainly telling this whole story of where we were at when we started this project. These songs are just how we were dealing with it.
“This song was a deep dive into this psychology of the ups and downs of being in music, and personally how it feels to be on this roller coaster. One minute the highs are high and then the next, the lows are very low. When a lot of your validity comes from standing on a stage and being applauded by people for hopefully doing a good job, and then that goes away, it becomes a struggle sometimes to wrap your head around that. Realising how to just be you again, separate of the tour bus and the dressing room, and 100 people around you all the time, all of that can be shell shocking. Learning how to deal and finding ways to find yourself again; these are definitely themes that we explore throughout a lot of this music.”
Between Alex and Mark, they’ve both been there. “So it’s something that we can definitely bond over and be there for each other. We don’t necessarily sit down face to face or have Mark lay down on the couch, and me there with a pen and paper writing down his feelings, but writing these songs and exploring these themes through the project, helps us both get these emotions out there and fully realize what we’re looking at.” It’s therapy for them.
Elsewhere on the upcoming EP, for now called ‘Everything Opposite’ (but that could change) and due for release Friday 13th September (but that could change) there’s live favourite and ‘Special”s sister song ‘One Little Lie’, as well as ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Thanks, I Hate It’ “which is about the reaction to the first EP,” explains Mark. “It’s about how, like I was saying earlier, you have to put your head down and do your thing.
“You can work hard to do something as different as special and as cool as you can. Every artist works hard to put themselves out there, and it’s a strange balance because you have to say something that means something to you and put yourself out there, you lean out over that abyss and bare your soul. Then people listen to it, and some couldn’t care less. That’s to be expected, but at the same time, as an artist, you always are a little bummed when people are like, ‘man that doesn’t do anything for me.”
The other two songs are still to be decided. There’s plenty to choose from, and the band are constantly writing, though with deadlines looming they’ll probably just focus on mixing to get the EP ready in time. Alex will work from his desert compound and Mark from the road.
“Really though, we wanted to have enough songs for a headlining set,” grins Alex. “That’s been the biggest challenge. We’re going to play these shows and we’re billed as the headliner but we’ve only got 35 minutes of music. It doesn’t add up. So we needed enough songs to go out and do the damn thing.”
“The second EP is a little more cohesive,” offers Mark. “The songs feel more like they’re all written at the same time. The first EP is very eclectic intentionally because we want people to know that we’re not one specific idea or sound or thing. But the second EP definitely has more really shitty sounding electronic guitars and grimy beats which is the core that Simple Creatures is developing.”
“What I love about that first EP is that it’s a very realised vision of what this band can be and what it can grow into, and what it can become,” beams Alex. “But at the same time, it’s in its infantile stages. It’s experimental, and it’s trying a bunch of different things. It doesn’t stay in one lane for too long.
“That’s the beauty of where this project is right now; it’s still developing into what it will eventually be. But it’s doing it in a way that is a bit more realised. We’re a little bit more experienced going into this so we can define what we want out of the project, even while it’s experimental and infantile.”
After EP2, Simple Creatures are hitting the road as soon as blink are back from tour, and then it’ll be time for their full-length. There’s just no slowing down.
“I imagine we’ll probably start some of it this year just to get ahead of it,” promises Alex, “and because we’re having fun with it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, three or four months from now, you’ll be talking to me again and it’ll be done.”
“I was thinking this morning about different directions that I want to take Simple Creatures,” teases Mark. “And I feel like the core of Simple Creature is shaping up to be this stompy, grimy, ratty house party on tour but I want to do some more ballady stuff there on there as well.”
Mark’s done bands outside of blink 182 before, but already it feels like Simple Creatures is allowed more of a free reign than +44 ever was. That band never seemed to really get its moment. “I totally feel the same way,” admits Mark. “I feel like +44 was such a great band. I love that album. I love the lyrics. I love the sound of it. I love where we took that band. But I feel like it never got its chance from the label or from the world. I feel like a great injustice was done to us on that album.”
“But I’m not approaching Simple Creatures the same way at all,” he continues. “+44 was me and Travis [Barker] post-blink 182 the first time, figuring out what each of us could do, what each of us brought to blink and where we can bring that into the next iteration of what we were at, at that time. +44 felt more soul searching and introspective.
“But when I go into the studio with Simple Creatures, it feels fun. There’s no expectation; there’s no history with this band. It’s something completely different from blink 182, and we can just go nuts and have a great time.”
+44 was something to do in the absence of blink. It was a replacement. Simple Creatures exists all on its own. But still, Alex and Mark respect the bands that got them this far. There’s no awkward lines drawn in the sand, or pretending that they don’t front two of the biggest rock bands around.
“I love, love, love blink 182, and have done for nearly three decades at this point. I will never turn my back on that,” promises Mark. “I’m excited to play with blink this week, and I’m excited to go on tour, and have this record come out. We have more music on the way and I love it. It would feel very disingenuous to me to get up and act like Alex didn’t have a long history with All Time Low and I wasn’t in blink 182.”
“We wouldn’t both be here, in Simple Creatures, without our other bands,” continues Alex. “It gives us a platform on which to stand and do this new project. If we were having to establish this from the ground up and go and convince people to give it a chance… I’ve been there before, and that’s a long and hard road. I feel very fortunate that All Time Low and blink 182 have given us a core audience to present this music humbly to and hopefully, some of those people like it. Then that can act as a vessel to carry it to anyone else that might discover it.”
They also don’t keep Simple Creatures away from their other bands. “When I was working on Simple Creatures before EP 1 was out, Jack [Barakat, All Time Low] was just starting to write songs with Kevin [Fisher, for their WhoHurtYou project]. We would drive around, play each other our new music and bounce ideas back and forth.
“Whenever it’s a new project, you go to the people you trust the most to get their honest take. I know who the people are in my life that are going to shoot me straight and not bullshit me. Getting to do that with Jack and feel our way through these new projects, that was really cool.”
Elsewhere, over in blink, Travis has a remix of ‘Drugs’ that will “hopefully come out in the near future. We have all these remixes we’ve been meaning to put out but have concentrated on putting out new music instead,” admits Mark. “I share all the music I’m making with them. I’m very fortunate that blink has always been very supportive of people stepping outside, doing different things and then taking that accumulated knowledge back to blink.”
From the very start, Simple Creatures have dreamt big. From the moment they released ‘Drug’, they were talking about multiple EPs, albums and tours. The harsh reality hasn’t dampened their resolve, and the pair are as determined as they’ve ever been to make this last forever.
“Rock is really still playing catch up,” starts Alex. “Alternative music, in general, is still playing catch up with what hip hop and pop have been doing for years now, which is being agile. Things don’t have to be beholden to these big, grandiose pre-order packages and record rollouts. Three music videos and a year of touring, I just don’t think that’s where we are anymore. We wanted to lean into that. The M.O. of this project is to be fluid, strange and to do things as we feel them. If we want to put out a song next week, we can. It doesn’t have to conform to the rules that a more established project might.”
“We want to take this to the stars and the moon. We want to take it as far as it’ll go,” he offers. “We just want to continue to put out music that we love, are having fun making and that feels freeing. If people are down for the ride, then we will go for as long and as far as we can.”
Taken from the August issue of Upset. Simple Creatures’ second EP is due later this year.