Machine Gun Kelly delivered a high-voltage shock to the music industry when he pivoted from rap to pop-punk with the release of his 2020 album, “Tickets to My Downfall.” Produced by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, the 15-track record’s heavy guitars, upbeat tempos and honest lyricism kickstarted a revival of the pop-punk genre for a new generation. What’s more, the album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — a career milestone for Kelly, who has been releasing projects for over a decade — and has a shot at nabbing several Grammy nominations. Before playing in Nashville on his “Tickets to My Downfall” tour, Variety caught up with Kelly to discuss his musical evolution and what a Grammy nom would mean to him.
How does it feel to finally be back on the road touring “Tickets to My Downfall”?
The energy in the building every night is passionate, it feels like a re-spark of a scene that people were keeping inside of them for a long time. This tour feels like a re-introduction for new generations of what the nostalgia of this scene is, but then an opportunity for those who have buried that element of themselves. … It’s allowed them to relive that. [It] feels like the prom that we all wanted to go to, like a giant emo prom.
Tell us a bit about your musical evolution from rap to pop-punk. What has that pivot been like?
It was never intentional. I always wondered why people think this is so new for me, when I spent half a decade on Warped Tour stages and covering songs by all different types of bands. This isn’t like some random jump — I was just becoming comfortable with myself. The easy thing to do for someone who is critical is to say, “Oh, this is just a repeat of something else in the past.” The truth of it is that it’s a completely new balance, production value, tone, subject matter and vibe. It’s almost like looking at a picture side-by-side with blurry eyes — if you’re not focused, they’re essentially going to look the same, even if one is the ocean and the other is the sky. They’re both blue.
“Tickets to My Downfall” is a possible Grammy contender for rock album and even album of the year. What would it mean to you to get that nom?
To get a nomination as Machine Gun Kelly at the Grammys, where it’s like, there’s already so much controversy even down to the name — there’s so many people that are going to look at that, me included, and be like, “Whoa, if you just hold on, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” Especially, dude, if we got an album of the year nom in a day and age where people can’t help themselves but to say that rock is dead? [That would] show them how alive it is.
What can you tease about your upcoming album, “Born With Horns”?
It’s more guitar-heavy. Lyrically, if “Tickets to My Downfall” was metaphorically high school, then “Born With Horns” is college. And I think like, in high school, you don’t really have a sense of responsibility, you have a fear of that responsibility, and so you want to explode and use all that energy for fucking off. And then college comes, which is this album, and you are aware of the responsibility and you still know how to have fun, but you understand that there’s a certain duty you have to your life to do something with it. “Born With Horns” feels like it has an objective or a real lesson that you’re walking away with.
What message do you hope the pop-punk revival sends to a younger generations?
Don’t let people douse your dreams with their fears, because your fire should run free. There’s someone right now who has the potential to be the greatest ever, who is being told it’s the dumbest idea to pursue a dream because the person looking at them was too scared to pursue theirs. It’s the same thing with people in the rock genre who don’t want to embrace me, or act like I don’t belong. … I’m not letting that narrative stick. I’m not letting people continue to fucking bully me out of doing something that has been true to me forever.