Box Car Racer emerged from a side door of the Blink-182 stable with its eponymous debut in the spring of 2002. With practically no promotional push leading up to its May 21 arrival, Box Car Racer succeeded beyond expectation, selling over 65,000 copies in its first week, largely due to the names tethered to the project. Created and led by Tom DeLonge, Box Car Racer also featured his Blink-182 bandmate Travis Barker on drums, with the LP including guest vocals from Rancid‘s Tim Armstrong, New Found Glory‘s Jordan Pundik, and, naturally, Blink-182 bassist Mark Hoppus. The core of the band was rounded out by lead guitarist David Kennedy, who would later go on to play in DeLonge’s Angels & Airwaves.
While the band’s sound would inevitably see comparisons to Blink-182 given its roster (and DeLonge’s distinctive vocal delivery) Box Car Racer was noticeably darker, heavier, and — save for the raucous, 65-second “My First Punk Song” — mostly devoid of the often puerile themes found on albums with bawdy titles like Enema Of The State and Take Off Your Pants And Jacket. The tone is evident in the track listing, where you’ll find song titles like “Letters To God,” “Sorrow,” and “The End With You” before ever even pushing play to dig into the album’s emotive opener, “I Feel So.”
Despite DeLonge never intending for BCR to evolve into a “real band,” the trio gained a bassist in Barker’s friend Anthony Celestino and took to stages across the U.S. for close to 30 shows through the end of 2002 — many with support from the Used and H2O. This only fueled the fire that would result in a subsequent decade-plus of fans begging for a second album, reunion shows, or a combination of both.
Leading up to the 15-year anniversary of Box Car Racer’s sole release (May 21), DeLonge spoke with Billboard about the project’s beginnings and the recent rumblings of a long-awaited reunion.
For the uninitiated few, can you give me a rundown of how Box Car Racer came to be?
We had a couple big records in Blink, and I knew that we needed to progress. I always considered my job in Blink to try to architect new arrangements and sounds to push the band forward. I took on that role, and it was by no means only me — everyone contributed to the great music that we did — but I made that my passion, I made that my focus. I knew that we needed to have a transformational album but I wasn’t totally sure what that was just yet, so I wanted to do something on the side and completely get rid of the standard protocol of how we [wrote] songs and how we [recorded]. It was too constrictive for me to sit there and try to get a guitar tone for 10 hours straight, and then you’d start to track at like midnight. The whole way we did it was really difficult for me, so I wanted to do something in the studio that was much faster, much more dynamic, much more emotional, and much more aligned with a lot of the punk rock roots that I’ve always been into. Not that I wasn’t into pop-punk; pop-punk was obviously in my DNA, but there was a lot of other stuff that I was into that I wanted to have come through that wasn’t just uptempo punk sh–, but was more post-hardcore and the beginning movements of what people started calling the emo stuff. I was always into these earlier bands that were doing that stuff but with much more of an edge.
So I went and did the Box Car Racer record and I was writing the songs and I was like, “Shit, I need someone to play drums on this,” and why would I not ask Travis [Barker]? He’s the best drummer ever and he could just come in and pop it out. Well, once we get started we want to do stuff to the best of our ability, so there wasn’t any kind of motive here to create a new band; it literally was an art project, but we just ended up being enormously proud of it and it sort of created a lot of wings for us artistically and gave us a little bit of a door opening for how we could progress the music that we love and that we make, but also not strike people over the head with something so radically different that they wouldn’t understand it. It was just a natural progression that was a beautiful progression at that point in time.
A lot of that carried over to the untitled Blink album. There are plenty of instances musically, like “Stockholm Syndrome” and “All Of This,” that could have fit on a Box Car album.
Oh yeah, it had all the effect. I always tell people that record was [Blink-182’s] best record absolutely because of the Box Car Racer record. It had nothing to do with anything else in my opinion, because there was so much drama around the Box Car Racer record in the band that we all had kind of a coming to Jesus moment saying, “Look, what are the things you’re looking to do musically?” to me, and I said, “This is the kind of stuff I wanna do. It’s much more dynamic, it’s more emotional,” and all those things I described earlier. So we said, “Well, let’s do that here.”
So we got a house and we didn’t record in a studio. We changed up the way we record and we changed up what we were willing to do — not just being complacent and satisfied. So much punk rock is like that. That’s what people hate about punk: You love it till like three records later and you’re like, “Fuck! It’s just the same shit!” So how do you progress something that seems like it’s unprogress-ible? [Blink-182’s] self-titled album came about because I went to “musical school” with Travis and we forced the door to come completely open and do many more things.
When was the last time you really listened to the Box Car Racer album?
Oh my gosh, I haven’t listened to it for… a really long time. I mean, if Box Car came out 10 years ago, my gosh.
15 years ago.
Wait, how many?
Oh, 15? Oh my god. I thought 10 was short. [Laughs.] I probably haven’t heard it since then. I mean, I traditionally listen to my music all the time because I make the music for myself, you know? It’s not out of vanity, because I definitely think I barely get by when it comes to musical skill set. [Laughs.] I just like what I do because all I’m doing is just celebrating the shit that I love, so I’m grabbing shapes and colors from all the music I love and trying to combine things. Like, “Here’s something from Journey and here’s something from Fugazi. What happens when you put it together?” [Laughs.] Then you’ll hear it and be like, “Well, that still sounds like Descendents,” and I’m like, “Ugh! I was trying so hard!” [Laughs.] So I do listen to my own stuff a lot but then I get bored of it and never listen to it again. So to answer your question, it’s probably been about that long.
Well despite it not being exactly fresh in your mind, looking back on it, how do you feel about the album all these years later?
No, I know it well. I think it’s dope. It’s a mainstream version of the post-hardcore and punk rock influences in my life, but it’s also very artistic. I think we did something with the recording of that record that’s never been done for the most part, where the variances and volume and sonic scope are just extreme. That was the first record I crafted. Not recorded, crafted — two totally different things.
In hindsight, do you think there’s anything you wish you had maybe done differently with that album?
No, not at all. It’s funny because it’s kind of like it was the best and worst thing for [Blink-182]. It was the beginning of a lot of tension in the band but it was also the thing that led us to writing way better songs, so what do you do? Change is hard for fans, for band members, and I never want to change just for the sake of change. I’m pretty strategic about how I do everything and I’m never gonna vary from my definition of what I think is cool. [Laughs.]
Was Box Car Racer always meant to be a one-off project to get out of your system or did you ever have intentions to carry it on after that?
There weren’t any intentions but I can safely say that we would have followed it wherever it led at the time because right when we finished it the label was freaking out. They were like, “Oh my god. What is this?! You might have done the most incredible re-branding and marketing thing ever done in music!” [Laughs.] They were saying all this shit because it was coming out of a pop-punk band that was really popular for being very polished in a way but very rated R at the live shows. So we came out with something really cool but the whole thing died very quickly because it created a really significant obstacle in [Blink-182] that really divided the band. The label sensed that and it was the last thing they wanted; it was the last thing anybody wanted. So we just put it to the side. We did one tour and then it was gone.
You tweeted recently that you and Travis had a serious conversation which obviously led to many BCR assumptions from your followers. You’ve since dropped more hints and even asked who fans would want to see guest on a second album. So how many beans can you spill? What’s going on?
[Laughs.] Well I’m not going to spill any beans, but Travis and I talk all the time. There was always talk of Box Car Racer; we’ve talked about it for a very long time. We just came out with vinyl, and we’ve gotten offers to bring it back. I don’t know if it was like Coachella, but we’ve had things like that pop up from time to time. It’s something that’s never died in our imaginations and it’s something that I think we’re willing to do. Whether we come out with some big announcement or we’re ready to say, “Hey, this is happening,” I don’t know any of those kinds of details. But I think that our passion for what we did lives strong. We do talk about it and we do want to do something but we have no desire to talk about details because there’s a lot going on in my life right now, and [Travis’s]. Blink’s doing really well right now and everyone’s in a good spot, contrary to what public opinion may be. [Laughs.] I have the best situation ever where that band can continue and they can do what they want. And I’m making major motion pictures and working with people in government, so it’s a big deal.
Do you have any stuff written that you think you would use for a Box Car album?
[Pauses.] You are such an investigator. [Laughs.]
You’re the investigator, not me.
[Laughs.] I think the safest answer is that the music I am doing now, that I’m writing now, lives more sided towards that [Box Car Racer] sound than traditional Angels & Airwaves, by nature of what I’m into at this moment.
So if you were to do another album, who are some people you’d love to get involved with it, as far as the guest situation?
You know, it’s funny: On Twitter I was talking to Anthony Green (Circa Survive, Saosin). His voice just makes me feel like I’m back in the ’70s or some shit. But, I don’t know… he would be good on that record. That’s a really good question. I mean, do you go with something electronic and edgy, or do you go with someone who’s more of a veteran of cool, where we come from? You know, try to get Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat) to come on there and scream something. Do you put Enya on there? [Laughs.] I could even see us doing an acoustic song with Ben [Gibbard] from Death Cab [For Cutie], you know? That’d be cool, too. I don’t think there are any limits at all; it just has to be someone very authentic. That’s all I care about.
I saw a lot of people responding to that tweet and suggesting Mark [Hoppus], which I guess you had to expect.
Oh, yeah. That was funny. I saw that, too. [Laughs.] I didn’t see that coming but I should have.
So if it came to be, what are the chances we’d get a conspiratorial concept album?
If we were to do an album, what are the chances it would be… If it were it’d probably have a twist because I am somebody who’s deeply involved in things that are contrary to public opinion when it comes to conspiracy. I know a lot of stuff and it’s just always different than what you think it is, and that would be a story I would like to tell even if it’s through a concept album. Your emotions cause you to define something that hasn’t been defined and your emotions aren’t always correct. And when you learn the real definition of whatever the subject matter is you might feel a little naive. That to me is much more cerebral and interesting.