Box Car Racer turns 20: a look back on blink-182’s crucial post-hardcore side project
When blink-182 were writing their chart-topping 2001 album Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, all three members found themselves trying to push the band in opposing directions. As Mark Hoppus wrote in the liner notes for the 2013 vinyl reissue of the album, he wanted to make a "bigger, better, and louder" version of their breakthrough 1999 album Enema of the State, while Travis Barker was aiming to incorporate hip hop and heavy metal into his drumming, and Tom was starting to embrace the influence of post-hardcore bands like Fugazi, Quicksand, Jawbox, and Refused. On top of all that, their manager Rick DeVoe was -- much to the ire of Mark and Tom -- pushing the band to write more hits. Mark and Tom begrudgingly obliged, and quickly banged out the album's hit singles "The Rock Show" and "First Date," respectively, but Tom needed an outlet to explore the darker and heavier sounds he was hearing in his head that didn't fit in with blink-182, so when blink were on a break from their busy touring schedule, Box Car Racer was born.
The first thing Tom wrote for the project was the riff to "All Systems Go," a heavy, chunky riff that Tom himself has (accurately) compared to Quicksand, and that sent him on the path towards writing a number of other songs in this style, songs he knew wouldn't be blink-182 songs. Tom always seemed like he had low expectations for the project, commercially speaking, but he wanted to get the songs recorded and first and foremost he needed a drummer. He debated hiring a studio drummer, but to save money, he asked Travis, the person who introduced him to bands like Fugazi and Quicksand in the first place. The name "Box Car Racer" came from Travis too, as it was the name of a band Travis had played in years earlier that lasted for two gigs. To give Tom a little more freedom guitar-wise, he also recruited second guitarist David Kennedy from the San Diego hardcore band Over My Dead Body, whose heavier sound made him a good candidate for this band, and when he needed a producer, he went with Jerry Finn, the same person who helped blink-182 achieve the widely accessible sound of Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. Recording sessions came together quickly, as Tom wanted to achieve something rawer and more stripped-back than blink-182's slick sound to suit the nature of the songs. The plan may not have been to make a commercially successful record, but with 2/3 of blink-182 and the same producer involved, it was kind of inevitable, and once blink's label MCA Records caught wind of the album they wanted to release it.
Box Car Racer's self-titled album, released 20 years ago this Saturday (5/21), opens with "I Feel So," which starts out with some meandering piano, and then a little acoustic guitar, before the full band comes roaring in. Tom lets out some distorted, noisy guitar over a typically rock-solid beat from Travis Barker, and then busts out one of those chunky, Quicksand-y riffs, like the one he'd written for "All Systems Go" (the next track on the LP). It's clear off the bat that this was an entirely different beast than anything blink-182 had released previously, and that gets even clearer once Tom finally opens his mouth to sing. His distinctly nasally voice makes it impossible not to realize you're listening to the blink-182 co-frontman, but the song's themes of confusion, anger, loneliness, and societal contempt had rarely come through in blink-182's albums. That continued throughout the entirety of the album, with songs that ranged from deeply personal and introspective to political and apocalyptic, and entirely avoided blink-182's juvenile humor, save for the 64-second "My First Punk Song." The man who once sang about sitting in a tree with his pants down was now telling you "the government is lying, the truth is found with reason." I guess this is growing up.
As Tom intended, Box Car Racer is not a pop punk album, and it doesn't have any songs that were written for the radio like Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket do. But it was still written and recorded by 2/3 of the biggest pop punk band in the world, and still produced by the exact person who helped blink-182 (and Sum 41 and AFI and Alkaline Trio and several other bands) make punk music palatable for pop audiences, so despite its darker tone and more serious themes, Box Car Racer was quickly accepted by the same musical mainstream that adored blink-182. Even without much promotion from the band and label, the album peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard 200, and it's not hard to see why. From The Beatles and The Beach Boys to Kanye and Beyonce, well-executed experimental albums from established pop musicians have achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success because their adventurous, innovative, artistic experiments came from musicians who had already mastered the art of writing pop music. With Box Car Racer, Tom DeLonge entered that same lineage.
Especially in the sellout era, a blink-182 member namedropping bands like Quicksand and Refused may have just been called a poseur by snobby punks, but this album really does offer up headbang-worthy riffs that rivaled those bands. The influence was clear, but Tom never sounded like a copycat. By Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, he'd developed a guitar style that -- while simple -- was entirely his own, with usage of octaves, arpeggios, and walking patterns that you'd never mistake for another guitarist, even after hundreds emerged that imitated him. At the same time, Travis' entirely original drumming style had a way of locking in with Tom's guitar playing and the pair sounded even more distinct together than they did separately. Tom's simplicity gave Travis room to go as nuts as possible, but he never let his complexity distract from the rest of the song. Like in blink-182, Tom's knack for writing words and melodies that stick is what made Box Car Racer so widely appealing, even on the heaviest, most discordant songs.
Box Car Racer largely finds Tom exploring his post-hardcore influences, but he pushed his sound in a few other directions too. He had never released an acoustic song until the limited Take Off Your Pants and Jacket bonus track "What Went Wrong," but Box Car Racer had the melancholic, acoustic guitar-fueled "There Is," as well as "Letters To God," which spends over half of its running time with just Tom and an acoustic guitar, before adding in weepy piano and then exploding into a post-hardcore rager towards the end. That softer, more somber side of Tom's songwriting was new at the time too, and it proved to be just as effective as the heavier stuff. He worked in some excellent alternative rock power ballads like "Watch The World" and "Sorrow" that occupied the middle ground between the soft stuff and the ragers, and there were some appealing outliers in there too. Travis brought a strong hip hop influence to "Cat Like Thief," which opens with a guest verse from Rancid's Tim Armstrong (and has backing vocals in the chorus from New Found Glory's Jordan Pundik) and sounded like a teaser of the debut album by Tim and Travis' rap-punk supergroup the Transplants, which would be released later that same year. There's also the aforementioned "My First Punk Song," which, true to its title, sounded like early '80s SoCal hardcore and seemed like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the people who insisted blink-182 weren't a "real punk" band.
One of the album's most unique and crucial songs is penultimate track "Elevator," a deceptively simple mid-tempo track that would almost pass for indie rock if not for Tom's snotty delivery, and a duet with the only blink-182 member not in Box Car Racer: Mark Hoppus. (Not to mention a nice orchestral coda - another new trick for the blink guys.) Mark may have wanted to stick to a more Enema of the State-style sound in blink-182, but "Mark was really interested in being involved in [Box Car Racer]," engineer Sam Boukas said in Joe Shooman's book Blink 182 - The Band, The Breakdown & The Return. "But of course then it would turn into blink-182 and Tom wasn't interested in that happening." It's been acknowledged by multiple band members on multiple occasions that Box Car Racer's existence caused the rift that eventually led to blink-182's 2005 breakup, but both Tom and Travis insist that it was never meant to look like 2/3 of blink-182 excluding their other member. "It looked like two guys in the band went off to do their own thing without the third guy, and that wasn't what it was supposed to be at all," Travis wrote in his memoir Can I Say. "I hadn't thought about how it looked until it was too late."
Mark was hurt that he wasn't included in BCR, but happy to sing on "Elevator," and the result was one of the best songs that Mark, Tom, and Travis ever made together. To help patch things up, Tom and Travis closed the book on Box Car Racer after their sole tour supporting the LP, and though the album's existence led to more tension, it also led directly to blink-182 making the most adventurous album of their career the following year: the untitled record. "I think that [Box Car Racer] record was the beginning of what blink could do musically," Travis said in Can I Say. Sam Boukas echoed the sentiment in The Band, The Breakdown & The Return. "Once the door was opened by Tom and Travis with Box Car Racer," Sam said, "Mark started to be more on board with that concept. He was also more flexible and the next blink album was able to be a pretty big departure from the previous two. Box Car Racer opened the door in that sense and I think the three of them wanted to be more creative and have more creative liberty on that next album."
Ideas for blink's 2003 untitled record started coming to fruition during the Box Car Racer sessions, and even if the band didn't say so, you'd be able to hear it. That record picked up where both the heavier post-hardcore vibes and more somber, melancholic vibes of Box Car Racer left off, but with Mark bringing his own influence to the type of music Tom and Travis had been writing, the three of them could push each other in all kinds of unexpected directions. Box Car Racer is kind of to blink-182's untitled album what Panda Bear's Person Pitch is to Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, one co-vocalist's successful side project that inspired the rest of the band to reconvene and make the most monumental album of their career in a similar style.
Box Car Racer hasn't had the same continued name recognition as blink-182, but the album remains a crucial part of the blink story for paving the path to the untitled record, and it also remains on par with anything blink released during their classic initial run. Much of it even tops Tom and Travis' main band. 20 years on, it feels like the gift that keeps giving, partly because most of these songs went under the radar compared to blink-182 songs and partly because this album offered a more adventurous side of Tom's songwriting rarely seen outside of blink's untitled album, an album whose magic was never recreated. Sometimes Box Car Racer-y moments make their way into Tom's Angels & Airwaves project ("The War," "Euphoria"), but the album largely remains an outlier in Tom's discography, a gem that captured a pivotal moment in his career as a songwriter that proved brief but highly enduring.