Travis Barker’s tattoos may be outnumbered by his growing circle of collaborators. It’s a multi-genre craft he’s perfected in the last two decades, whether it be dawn-of-the-21st-century drum sessions for P. Diddy, N.E.R.D. and Rihanna, playing along to Nirvana covers with Post Malone, or recent writing-producing gigs for rapper Trippie Redd’s “Neon Shark vs Pegasus” album, TikTok fave Jxdn’s “Angels & Demons” single and pop star Bebe Rexha. Barker brings his patented punk-powerhouse vibe, which he forged as a co-founder of the Blink-182 hit machine, to every project.
Perhaps no artist has benefited more — or been more transformed by Barker’s in-the-pocket pulse, searing sound and spirit of collaboration — than Machine Gun Kelly, the rapper-turned-pop-punk success whose 2020 album “Tickets to My Downfall” has been certified platinum on the strength of the single “My Ex’s Best Friend.” This month, Barker and MGK returned to the scene of the crime with a new single, “Love Race” (the video for which came out Wednesday).
Barker also has a light touch and a heavy hand on R&B child star Willow Smith’s newly released single, “Transparent Soul,” and another TikTok sensation, Sueco, and his new track, “SOS.” Rexha’s “Break My Heart Myself,” featuring Barker, is among the strongest tracks on her album, “Better Mistakes.” All that is just part of Barker’s studio tan, with work already out or coming up with Swae Lee, Poorstacy, Kennyhoopla, Jasiah, Dirty Heads, Cheat Codes, Yungblood, Wiz Khalifa, Run the Jewels and James Arthur.
VARIETY: Considering the arc of all that you’ve produced and and co-composed, do you have a sonic throughline?
BARKER: I’d say that 99% of all the things that I produce, I play drums on. I can hear my drum sound on those tracks. And love me or hate me, I have my own drum sound. Where some drummers are good at sounding like everyone else, I definitely have a signature that applies to all genres. That’s noticeable. I also think that one of my strengths as a producer is that I’m good at making or getting an interesting arrangement and combining together multiple genres within one new sound. Especially producing rock music that can cross over into pop, and knowing that the purpose of making a rock record is to cross over to pop. So maybe there’s not a bunch of crash cymbals in there, or drum fills. If I know it is an alternative track that is going to “live” at alternative, I might approach that a little differently.
It’s your drum snap that is the heart of everything you do. One thing about that snap, as well as the manner in which you approach records you produce: they swing. It could be Max Roach post-bop swing or Buddy Rich big-band swing. Is swing the thing?
I grew up listening to Max and Buddy. They’re two of my favorite drummers. I also like keeping things funky, even if it is a rock song. There are ways of hiding cowbells on downbeats that no one will ever notice, unless you solo-ed every instrument and the cowbells are revealed.It’s figuring out how to find that pocket without making it obvious to a non-musician. I like it when a non-musician likes one of my rock songs — that it makes them dance, but they can’t figure out why. Being able to execute that without distracting anyone is my goal.
What made you want to produce and compose in the first place, beyond your own solo records and those for Blink-182?
I’m not exactly sure. I know it started with making rap beats, and that was cool. Then it moved onto something more complex, a set of questions like, “Is this a good concept for a song? Can the artist relate to this concept? Does this concept relate to that artist? Are they singing about something true to them? Is it real”’ I feel as if artists that I work with such as MGK, Kennyhoopla and Jxdn Hossler actually were writing songs that I can relate to, relationships that I am in, or once happened to be in. We could combine our thoughts.
So you like the collaboration.
Yeah. Producing now is so much more than just supplying a rapper with beats. It’s everything from its sonics, its tempo and where it’s going to live to what its goals are, then making sure we write and produce songs that mean something — songs that someone beyond us will relate to, or apply to their own life. Now, my productions go so much farther than myself and the artist I’m writing with.
What you have done with and for Machine Gun Kelly is a level of transformation. Whether we’re looking at a Bebe Rexha or a Trippie Redd, what makes you want you want to work with somebody?
Well, take Trippie for example. I knew him for years. We had made songs together, and one time he said, “I want to make rock music with you so bad.” I love his early music and was good friends with XXXTentacion (with whom Barker also worked). He wasn’t somebody who talked about making rock music and didn’t know the genre. He loved the Deftones. He loved Nirvana. He knew how specific albums made him feel. That project was built on his knowledge and our friendship.
Bebe was somebody I had seen around at a few award shows. That was a phone call on her part. She told me she had something and that she wanted to do it with me. She didn’t even think of it as a lead single on her album. She just wanted to do the track, pay for the video — whatever to make it happen. Bebe thought something rock-inspired might get shadowed by the rest of her stuff on a poppy album, but it’s also a time when rock music is thriving.
Genuinely, I work with people I know. Or have some connection with. Or I am a big fan. With MGK, he had this song, “I Think I’m OKAY.” He didn’t know how to arrange it, or what drums should go over it. I did. I had a vision for it. I told him to get Dom, Yungblood, for it. It was a big song for him. That created a challenge for him: “Can I do this again? Can I top ‘I Think I’m OKAY,’ or is that a fluke?”
Is that how “Ticket to My Downfall” started, with the vision you had for it?
Absolutely. We got in the studio for a few days… four songs in five days. Two months later, the album was finished. At first you think, he’s such a great alternative artist, but no. He is a great artist. I feel like he could do any genre of music and master it, because he is so much more talented than people give him credit for.
Considering that he was this white hip-hop kid before this album, was there a conversation where you were going to turn his sound around?
Yeah. I felt as if between what was going on with hip-hop and him beefing with people and writing diss songs, he wanted to change what he was doing. He basically came to me and said that I was the only person who he could do this with. Was I interested? Yes. And I knew how to do it. First, I told him that there couldn’t be any rap songs on the project. There’s no rap verses. There’s no rap bridges. He agreed 100%. In order for people to take him serious, we had to make this a pop-punk project from front to back. And that’s all he wanted to do. MGK grew up playing on the Warped tour, and doing these pop-punk screamo tours. He was going to Blink-182 shows for the last 15 years every time we came to his hometown.
Blink was music that he grew up listening to and loving.
Yes. But he was like, “I’m a rapper. That’s all people know me as.” I felt like that for a long time, but the exact opposite: I was this punk-pop kid. There was no way I could ever play for Eminem or T.I. or Drake or Lil Wayne – all of which I did. I played the Grammys with those guys. He felt as if he was going to be forever boxed in as a rapper, and we just proved everyone wrong with that album.
You had a massive success with “Tickets to My Downfall.” Let’s talk about building “Love Race.” How do the two of you challenge each other, production-wise?
We had started fresh with seven or eight ideas, and worked on all of them over time, say, the last several months. We hadn’t yet had that full week at a time to work consecutively every day. It is, however, coming up to the time where we lock ourselves in and finish the new album. This was an idea that he brought me early on in the process, an amazing song. We had the idea to get Kellin Quinn on it. Re-did the production. We did like ten different versions of the one song — like, “Does it make sense for the third verse to be a complete dropout?” or “Should the third verse have more drums in it?” Or “Does the whole song stay flat with not a lot of crash cymbals?” Or, “Are there more drum fills, and it’s more of an alternative song?”
That’s the A&R guy in you.
We just kept perfecting and perfecting “Love Race,” up until the time the label was telling us we had to have it in, as they’re releasing it tomorrow. Then it went back to the drop verse. There’s no drums in the whole third verse. That only happened within 24 hours of turning the song in. And it’s just so dynamic and cool. It takes you on a different ride than how we first imagined it.
What can you say about the rest of the collaboration between you and MGK?
There’s definitely an album coming. What we have now is insane. Anyone who thinks that “Tickets to My Downfall” is all he had in him, there’s so much more. Different colors. At a whole other level. He’s outdone himself.
Have you outdone yourself?
Of course. I won’t continue working if I don’t outdo myself.
You just turned Willow Smith into something screamo-pop with “Transparent Soul.” How did the two of you get together? What did she want from you, and what did you believe her capabilities were?
This was a project that was already started before me, and I love coming in and being part of a project that needs reimaging. It’s fun being asked to take something in another direction. I’ve been friends with Jaden, Willow and their family for a long time. Someone reached out and said that Willow was doing something alternative pop-punk-inspired, and that she has some new songs with Avril (Lavigne). I listened to it and loved that Willow had a vision and that she could execute that vision really well. There’s not a lot of people occupying that space that I’ve heard do it as good as her, especially female artists. We just got in one day at Conway (Recording Studio in Los Angeles). Put on a bunch of songs. Played. Showed them ideas for songs. The “Transparent Soul” track is one that I played one time through; that was the take that you hear. No punch-ins. Sometimes I could kick myself because I didn’t do the same fill on every chorus, or the same kick pattern. They were quirky things that all complemented the song. When we played it live on “Fallon,” I had to remember every fill that I did, because I changed it every time.
You just released a collaboration (“SOS”) with Sueco, a rapper most of us know from TikTok and “Fast.” How did you two hook up?
That was another idea, one where Sueco needed drums and an arrangement and the collaboration went from there. I completed the bridge, and made the bridge part more of a drum part and a real section that happened in the song rather than just a drop-out part. I knew that Sueco was trying to do something in more of an alternative space. Sometimes when someone says that, you don’t know what to think. You’re afraid to listen. But Sueco is so talented. Such a good songwriter, and such a good producer himself. That was a fun track that came together so fast. And that was the first song we did together. There are more.
Whether we look at Sueco, Lil Huddy or Jxdn — all artists you are producing and writing with — they all have roots in, and followings on, TikTok. What’s the attraction? Especially considering you signed Jxdn to your label (DTA Records, a joint venture with Elektra Music Group)?
It’s funny about TikTok. A friend of mine (producer Russell Alia) was working on a track (“Comatose”) with Jxdn, and texted me to say he was trying to contact me as he had sampled all of the drums in my splice pack for that song. He hoped that I would dig it. Five minutes later, my 16-year-old son came to me and said that he had heard this song on TikTok, and that Jxdn was making decent rock music. I heard it, and reached out immediately, just knowing that I could do something special with this kid. I got into the studio with him and quickly realized that “Comatose” wasn’t a fluke. Jxdn could sing, was super talented, super hungry and was listening to Blink-182, MGK, Iann Dior, 24kGoldn and Taking Back Sunday. He got it. Now, if he was doing music like that by himself, just imagine what he could do with my help.
Producers, new and classic: who do you like?
Andrew Watt is crazy talented. We did a few writing sessions together (for projects yet to be announced)… Andrew gets the coolest projects. The Miley Cyrus album (“Plastic Hearts”) that he did is incredible. His work with Justin Bieber, too. He’s so versatile. Nick Mira is really talented. Omer Fedi, who I did a bunch of the MGK work with. Obviously, Rick Rubin and the OGs like Rob Cavallo.
Some pros within the industry say that Rick Rubin is the sound and the career — and the level of trust — that your trajectory as a producer is most destined to resemble, especially since you seem to be able to handle different genres. Thoughts on that?
Wow. That’s the biggest compliment in the world. MGK always says that to me. That would only be my hope. I just did a mixtape with KennyHoopla called “Survivor’s Guilt.” Kenny told me that there are no other producers and artists with survivors’ guilt. I just got a tattoo that says “Survivor’s Guilt.” [Although he doesn’t state why, or comment on the tattoo’s significance, Barker famously has PTSD regarding the 2008 plane crash that severely injured he and his dear friend Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein, the latter of whom died in 2009.] I am that close to my artists. That’s why I work with them. I can relate to them, and what we’re writing songs about. I feel as if they trust me. If I tell Kenny or MGK “Let’s scrap a guitar part, a bridge or a whole song,” they listen to me and trust me, because I just want a song to be better. That means more to me than any award or compliment — that trust, that belief in me.
Does that trust come down to who you are a musician, that powerhouse pop-punk sound, or who you are as a dude, your soul?
I think it’s both. Whenever I work with someone, there’s a lot of talking, as well as doing, that goes into it. You have to have a connection like that to warrant that trust. I mean, MGK is a brother to me. He knows he can call me, and has called me, at 4 am in the morning, if he needs me. I’m there. I don’t clock out. If it takes 50 to get to a song, I do that. This isn’t a job for me. It’s my connection, to them and their music.
Word has it that you’ve got a Blink-182 album coming in 2021. Are you going to be able to fit that in, between finishing off the new Machine Gun Kelly album and everything else you have coming?
I think we’ll start writing a Blink-182 album this year, hopefully tour, and put it out next year. We just finished the Jxdn album, and I’ll concentrate on finishing up the KennyHoopla album and Machine Gun Kelly’s album. Incredible.