How Travis Barker Became Gen-Z’s Pop-Punk Whisperer
“Rock music is on its way back,” says Barker. “I couldn’t be more proud.”
This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, in the July/August issue of the magazine.
When Jaden Hossler, the TikTok heartthrob now recording moody rock songs as Jxdn, was born, the future founder of his record label was busy making Take Off Your Pants and Jacket. Despite the generational gulf that separates them, the fresh-faced, freshly tatted-up, puffy-haired Hossler chose Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker’s DTA Records as his label over multiple other bidders, and enlisted Barker as his producer. He sees his elder as a musical kindred spirit, “a real-ass dude,” and “one of my best friends.”
Barker turns 46 in November, and has three teenage kids, one of whom led him to Hossler. “I tell my friends who don’t have kids, ‘Have kids, they keep you young,’” says Barker. “I skateboard with my kids, I box with my kids…. My kids like the same music I do.” For the past year or so, he’s been thriving as one of music’s leading Gen Z whisperers, helping to midwife a youthful rock revival that owes as much to Juice WRLD as it does to Blink and mid-’00s emo. (He’s also in a relationship with Kourtney Kardashian, which he’s shy about in interviews but less so on social media.)
“Obviously, there’s a huge pop-punk revival right now,” Barker says on a late-May day, when his studio work in L.A. ranges from the upcoming debut album from 23-year-old singer-rapper KennyHoopla to a collaboration with SoCal rockers Dirty Heads to an acoustic version of a Machine Gun Kelly track. “And rock music is on its way back. I couldn’t be more proud.”
He’s hopeful — not for the first time in his career — that he can help serve as a bridge to a wider world of rock. “Some of Jaden’s fans are like, ‘Whoa, Jaden invented a genre of music!’ So funny, but however they’re introduced to it, I’m fine with it,” Barker says. “Because I think even Blink was that. You know, a lot of kids discover Blink and then go back and discover the Descendents and Bad Religion and the Buzzcocks. So if kids listen to MGK and Jxdn and then discover these other bands, I mess with that. That’s cool.”
Barker has lent his drumsticks and songwriting-production skills to, among others, Willow Smith (a longtime family friend whose recent single “Transparent Soul” sounds like a lost Nineties alt-rock hit), Trippie Redd, and Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee. Most significant is his work with Machine Gun Kelly, the erstwhile rapper whose impressive 2020 pop-punk career reboot, Tickets to My Downfall, was a true collaboration between the two.
“Travis showed me the art of not overthinking,” MGK says. “There were times I’d walk in, we would plug in instruments, and whatever came out while we were playing would be the song. But then he also showed me that you can completely scrap a whole song, right when you think it’s done, and do it over until it becomes everything it should be. He would answer the phone at 5 a.m. if I called. The studio sessions became cathartic. There was no censorship. He encouraged the raw emotion to come out.”
Barker has been on his second life since 2008, when he survived not just a horrific plane crash, but also the crushing physical and mental trauma that came with it. He recently got the words “Survivors guilt” tattooed on his forearms, both to commemorate KennyHoopla’s upcoming album of that name and, he explains, because “survivor’s guilt hits home for me, man. I dealt with it for years. Tons of post-traumatic therapy, and I just couldn’t accept it for so long.”
Even before the crash, Barker had already started a side hustle as a producer, making beats and remixes for rappers from Bubba Sparxxx to Soulja Boy. His 2011 solo debut, Give the Drummer Some, was almost entirely superstar rap collaborations; Barker grew up loving hip-hop and metal, not just punk, and was eager to avoid being pigeonholed. “I think there was a period of time where people were like, ‘What is he doing?’” says Barker. “But it was natural for me.” He compares his experience to his friend Machine Gun Kelly’s: “He was boxed in as a rapper, and he was so much more. I felt like I was the same way. They were always like, ‘He’s a punk-rock drummer.’”
Barker’s recent burst of high-profile work with other artists was largely a product of being stuck at home. “It kind of happened by default because of the virus and how we were in lockdown,” says Barker. “Things really, really started to take off just with me being locked in the studio and accessible and not on tour.”
While Barker’s other work continues to pick up speed, he’s eager to carry on with Blink-182. The band, which last released an album in 2019, recorded several songs with outside musicians — Grimes, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Tracy — but he’s not sure just yet how they’ll come out. He’s in regular touch with Blink singer Mark Hoppus. (Hoppus revealed that he’s undergoing chemotherapy for cancer several weeks after Barker spoke with Rolling Stone.) “I just spent the day with Mark a week ago,” says Barker. “Yesterday he was like, ‘Dude, congratulations. I’m so happy for you.’”
As of late May, Barker’s plan was to spend time next year recording a full new Blink album sans collaborators, and then head out a world tour. “I think that’s going to happen more in 2022,” Barker says.”I have so many [other] things I’m obligated to do this year. I want to spend the right amount of time on the Blink album and make sure it’s one of the best pieces of work we’ve ever done…. It will be my priority. It will be the only thing I’m working on.”
Guitarist Tom DeLonge, who parted ways with the band in 2015 after years of acrimony (and whose spot in the lineup has been held down since then by Matt Skiba of fellow Warped Tour veterans Alkaline Trio), is now on friendly terms once more with both Barker and Hoppus, according to the drummer. Could a reunion happen? “Never say never,” Barker says. “I talk to Tom all the time. We send funny texts and stuff. The times of bad blood and the misunderstandings between us are so over with. It’s all love. We all three talk, and we’re all friends. So, yeah, I will never say never. I think if the time was right and it just made sense…”
In the meantime, Barker is embracing his creative renaissance. “I feel like I’m finally doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he says. “It’s what I get excited for. Like, I’m not an architect. I don’t know how to build a home — but I do know how to build songs. I like building, and I like producing things, and I like making something out of nothing.”
From Rolling Stone US.