How Machine Gun Kelly became the most important rock star on the planet
Truth be told, this isn’t quite how Machine Gun Kelly imagined his first-ever Kerrang! Cover Story would go. As we join the 30-year-old – via video call – in Bulgaria, he considers the legendary tales he read of journalists meeting his heroes “back in the day”, often realising that the environment was equally as fascinating as their on-page musings.
“Doesn’t it suck…” he begins in a deep American accent, pondering the nature of COVID rendering such face-to-face experiences an impossibility right now. “I loved when I read a cover story, and the writer’s like, ‘I fuckin’ walked into the room and it smelled like this, and he was fuckin’ doing this, yada-yada-yada.’ That was the coolest part of the story, right? I don’t like going to read an article and it being like, ‘Hey, so here’s the cover story, and here’s the first question.’ I like hearing about the process that it took to get this motherfucker to say anything.”
We’re going to level with you here, fine readers: in Machine Gun Kelly’s case, that excavation “process” actually involves very little work on Kerrang!’s part (“I’m an odd one,” he jokes. “I go from here, to here, to here, to here…”). Nevertheless, we can certainly try to make educated guesses about his intriguing surroundings for the sake of MGK’s debut appearance on the cover. The musician – real name Colson Baker, but Kells to his friends and fans – has journeyed from his usual residence of California to visit girlfriend Megan Fox as she shoots a new movie, the dark-hearted thriller ’Till Death. Such is the whirlwind of the pair’s lives, they leave the peaceful confines of their hotel room after cheerily greeting us and head to an on-set trailer at Sofia’s Nu Boyana film studios, before MGK locates a semi-quiet spot in a hair and make-up room to settle down for his first proper Kerrang! interview.
As for the smell? Well, coffee is likely floating about, as is a healthy waft of marijuana, given that Kells’ painted pink fingernails casually roll joints for the 90 minutes we spend in his (virtual) company. A pearl choker and tattoo reading Tickets To My Downfall rest above the neckline of a cream longsleeve jumper, which hangs smartly off his lanky 6’4” frame. His signature blond mop, meanwhile, is neatly slicked back today – an unexpectedly tidy contrast to the hairstyle that sticks in every which way for the photos that accompany this piece. Catching a glimpse of himself onscreen, he becomes curiously uncomfortable.
“I don’t like seeing my face – I only did this because my girl likes my hair pushed back sometimes,” he smiles bashfully. “But I don’t like seeing myself; that’s why I wear my hair over my face, so that in pictures I don’t have to look at it. Yeah… I think I’m gonna cover my face.”
Try as he might to avoid seeing his own reflection, Machine Gun Kelly’s face has been everywhere in 2020. The leader of a new rock resurgence, the rapper, singer, songwriter, guitarist and actor is gearing up to release the pop-punk album of the year with his phenomenal fifth studio effort, Tickets To My Downfall. And it’s just another string to the bow that cements MGK as one of the most accomplished, multi-faceted artists of his generation.
Dedicated followers of Machine Gun Kelly’s EST (Everyone Stands Together) movement will have already predicted this. Far from crumbling under the weight of a high-profile feud with Eminem in 2018, the self-coined ‘rap devil’ – whose stage name is both a reference to his accelerated hip-hop flow, and gangster George ‘Machine Gun Kelly’ Barnes – continues to prove himself as a dab hand at whatever he sets his mind to.
Breaking out of Cleveland, Ohio, since the release of 2012 rap debut Lace Up the musician has called everyone from Avenged Sevenfold to Migos studio collaborators; Linkin Park to Yung Thug tourmates. In 2019, meanwhile, Kells followed up his appearance in acclaimed post-apocalyptic thriller Birdbox by portraying Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee in hit Netflix biopic The Dirt – a film that is essentially credited for getting the glam metal titans back together. “Since playing Tommy Lee in The Dirt, so many of my fans have said how they wish they could’ve seen the real Mötley Crüe play live,” MGK said at the time. “I never thought I would see the day when this would become a reality.”
Hell, this year alone Machine Gun Kelly has garnered massive attention – in the face of a global pandemic, we might add – with viral lockdown covers of Paramore’s Misery Business and Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name, both featuring blink-182 drummer extraordinaire Travis Barker. This rock business clearly isn’t a part-time gig…
“I wanna start out by saying that I would like to normalise how we think about doing multiple types of music,” Kells asserts, before an explanation brimming with rock star confidence follows. “I didn’t ‘switch genres’; I’m versatile, and the wall isn’t boxed in. I would like to send good energy and appreciation to people doing things that go against what is an imaginary box that someone too scared to break out of puts around you. I would like to project creativity and love, rather than limitations. Limitations cause you to look at me with my pink nails and believe that this same hand won’t punch you in the face, right? Limitations would cause you to believe that, because I’ve put out four albums that are rap, I shouldn’t put out a fifth album that’s not rap.”
Hear MGK discuss the impact of COVID on the album
There’s also, he adds proudly, an element of simply just messing with people’s expectations. A quick glance at his Spotify page, for example, reveals an artist who has released chart-smashing singles with YUNGBLUD, Little Mix, Waka Flocka Flame and Camila Cabello.
“Nothing is supposed to make sense,” he explains with a glint in his eye. “You’re supposed to be uncomfortable, and that is where I am comfortable.”
A shrewd and intensely thoughtful artist, MGK predicts that not everyone is going to get his latest undertaking. But, in accepting that plenty of people “fucking hated” him already, the musician dug deep and ultimately found “the most raw version” of himself as he began making the confessional Tickets To My Downfall.
“I’m already aware that just my face alone pisses people off, so I really don’t have any nerves about how my music is gonna be received,” he says, genuinely at peace with that statement. “People are already angry that I was a street kid with blond hair and blue eyes, or that I was a punk kid who was on the hip-hop charts, you know what I’m saying? Mountain Dew Twitter already hates me.”
It is 3:33am on December 2, 2019. After an eventful day spent at Travis Barker’s recording complex in Los Angeles, Machine Gun Kelly has decamped to his own studio to continue an especially fruitful songwriting session. Fuelled – as ever – by weed and coffee, he sets to work with collaborator Mod Sun. The pair are searching for a lyrical hook to pin on a new song that sprang to life several hours prior. Most of the music is already there, as are many of the words. All it needs now is that one killer line…
‘You’ll be my bloody valentine tonight,’ MGK sings, as he and Mod Sun giddily stumble across the jackpot. The significance of this breakthrough is realised soon after.
“I only gave it a couple of hours before I called Trav and was like, ‘Yo, we should get in tomorrow and try this again; that was a really good vibe,’” he remembers of finishing up what eventually became Tickets To My Downfall’s superb lead single, Bloody Valentine. “And we went in the next day and made another great song. A lot of it felt like it was just being fed through me; I believe that the universe had a big part in that.”
Click above to hear MGK discuss the inspiration that fuelled the album
An ode to the Sunset Strip – and not a love song as the title might imply – Bloody Valentine went on to win the 2020 MTV Video Music Award for Best Alternative in August. Even more crucial, though, is that it was the key catalyst for one of the most important chapters in Machine Gun Kelly’s career so far. Not that it was intentional…
Kells’ entirely unplanned creative process would go a little something like this: the party-loving punk would head out for the night – and early hours of the morning, naturally – in Hollywood, wake up with fresh inspiration, and begin chipping away at the 15 songs that now live on …Downfall. He hasn’t felt the stressful burden of writer’s block since his second album, 2015’s General Admission, and recorded much of his latest material by simply playing it live with Travis and his bandmates. In fact, several imperfections were purposefully committed to tape.
“The best part about this project is that all the kinks are on the album,” MGK grins. “We kept all the imperfections because that’s just who I am. Every time we would go back and listen to a song, we would hear the mistakes in there where I would literally verbatim be like, ‘Fuck! I messed the line up!’ or I’d hear the metronome start and then I’d go, jokingly, like a drunk ramble: ‘And this one is titled…’ and then we’d start playing the song, we would just keep all of the personality. I’ve always been so inspired by the guitar players or the rappers who will let me see them for their truest self – which is not perfectly put together. I wanna see the perfect storm.”
“Not all of us are born with fingers that move like fucking Ferraris, homie,” he rants in good humour. “Some of us are just fuck-ups who look normal and wear shitty clothes because we can’t afford good ones, and we’re angry and we just wanna take out our angst and shit with a guitar. I’m not inspired by how good you are, it’s almost like the opposite. I wanna feel you.
“Kurt didn’t give a fuck how he sounded,” MGK continues, his impassioned beliefs gathering momentum with every word, “he gave a fuck how he felt. He was like, ‘Dude, my stomach hurts today. I feel like shit. I hate this song that you all love so much. I’m gonna play it terribly. I’m not even gonna sing the right lyrics to this shit. Fuck you!’ That is how I felt when I was 13, waking up and my dad’s still asleep in bed, and the kids that I went to school with fucking hated me, and I’d worn the same clothes for five days, and I was tall, skinny and didn’t fit in. I was a basement; where the fuck was I going to learn how to play like Steve Vai? I couldn’t! I was broke. No-one gave a fuck about me. Give me three chords, though, and tell me to show you how I feel, and I bet you I will.”
Tickets To My Downfall is a testament to these ardent ideals. Yes, there are infectious anthems oozing with the sun-drenched essence of early-’00s pop-punk (see: Concert For Aliens, Kiss Kiss, Forget Me Too featuring Halsey, Jawbreaker), but this music doesn’t come without Machine Gun Kelly also pouring his heart out. From “punk rock Bohemian Rhapsody” opener Title Track to the heart-wrenching simplicity of closer Play This When I’m Gone – a song written for Kells’ 12-year-old daughter Casie – this album, the musician says, will pretty much teach you “the ins and outs” of who he is.
Arguably the most personal song is the record’s stunning centrepiece, Lonely. Culminating in an audio snippet of the final conversation the musician had with his father James (who sadly passed away in July this year), it reveals that MGK had a “dangerous birth”, with his umbilical cord “stuck around his neck”.
“I was encouraged by someone to ask about my life, knowing that this could be the last time I was able to find out certain truths,” Kells says, his voice taking a considerably quieter, softer tone. “I think I ultimately chose to put it on the album because it can maybe help people understand my psyche a little more, that even before I came out of the womb, I was already trying to take myself out of this world – almost feeling like I shouldn’t be here or something.”
He refers to a key line in Bloody Valentine that perfectly sums up his persistently bleak headspace: ‘I’m over-stimulated and I’m sad / I don’t expect you to understand.’
“I do this thing where I bury how dark my thoughts are and don’t use my platform to show how low and depressed I feel when the cameras are off,” he says. “I fake my smiles and my happiness, and because of those things, people move on past my issues and go on to the person who’s waving at everybody saying, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m sad.’”
While his honesty is out there for all to hear, that same openness hasn’t always applied to what’s within. It now feels, though, like MGK is beginning to inch towards a place of inner-healing.
“You’ve got to understand that there was a large part of my career, and my life, where my heart was covered with stone, ice and barricades,” he explains. “I didn’t give a fuck what my heart was saying, because I didn’t have a heart that was open to everybody – and not even to myself – for a long time. I was almost feeling like I was lobotomised from my own feelings, or my own art. I just went to sleep and didn’t wake up for a long time. And I don’t blame anybody other than myself, but I’m very much awake now. Hopefully I can stop other people from having to learn that lesson, and I can be the example of how to be free in your expression.”
And it’s been quite the odyssey to get to this point…
Picture, if you will, the world-famous Goodyear Blimp. It’s floating in the sky, quietly doing its thing without any fanfare at all. Years go by, and still it drifts high above. Eventually, it “becomes less of a spectacle; you don’t notice it anymore”.
We’ll let Machine Gun Kelly continue the rest of what turns out to be a really rather apt metaphor…
“As soon as that Goodyear Blimp catches on fire, or that thing starts falling from the sky, I guarantee you every single eye is going to look up at it; every single phone is going to capture that moment; every single person is going to talk about that, right?” he asks rhetorically. “‘The Goodyear Blimp falls from the sky.’ But do the headlines ever say when you wake up on this casual fuckin’ Wednesday that the Goodyear Blimp is floating, alive and well? No. And that’s kind of sad: that it takes you to crash and burn to get people to pay attention to you again.”
This is exactly what the phrase Tickets To My Downfall means to MGK.
“There is just so much hidden pain in that journey to get to this point, in reflecting it brings up a lot of emotions that aren’t easy to bypass,” he continues, taking long pauses between thoughts. “If you could just give me 60 seconds to push those emotions into a different place…”
Pensively composing himself, head resting on the sleeve of his jumper, MGK takes a quiet minute, frowning at the floor. Far from being an awkward silence, you notice the cogs in his brain at work. He takes a sip of coffee, before eventually beginning to figure out what he wants to say.
“Tickets To My Downfall couldn’t have been my debut album because people wanted to see…” he trails off again. “I had to get to a certain height to then decline and crash, and people are aware of this height that I’m at, and they don’t want to see it rise anymore; they want to see it crash. There had to have been a journey for people to care about to still be tuned into, to then see destroyed.”
Listen to MGK discuss the duality of his personality
There was also a “maturation”, he says, that happened on record between last year’s outstanding rap album Hotel Diablo into Tickets To My Downfall.
“Even when I was making things that made me happy, I was susceptible to other people’s energy who were unhappy for me,” he explains. “So I was just like, ‘Uh, okay, yeah… you’re right, man.’ I go back and listen to Hotel Diablo and I’m like, ‘Fuck you, I had it right the whole fuckin’ time.’ It coincides perfectly with Tickets To My Downfall because it starts out purely a rap project, and then divulges into the deepest parts of my mind, soul, my past, revealing things that I’m like, ‘I’m probably this way because of this.’ And then it does this beautiful transition into the last song being I Think I’m OKAY, which is a pop-punk song. The deepest, most honest parts of your thoughts is Hotel Diablo, and it ends by being like, ‘You know what? I think I’m okay. I’m okay with all of this – and now I’m going to make the project that’s for myself and others who accept that they’re just different.’ And, I mean, dude: I’m just grateful to be alive. My friends point this out, my girl points this out… I was probably supposed to be dead a long time ago, so I’m just stoked to be alive at this point.”
Clearly, this ride that has come full-circle. From singing “terribly” to blink-182’s What’s My Age Again? at just 10 years old, to now writing a genuine pop-punk smash with Travis (who also executive produced Tickets To My Downfall), Machine Gun Kelly can hardly believe his luck these days.
“Travis has been an idol of mine since the beginning of my… balls dropping,” he laughs, both at the not-so-delicate phrasing of this statement, and the fact that the drummer – who has unknowingly been a part of the 30-year-old’s life since, er, puberty – can now be listed under both ‘collaborator’ and ‘longtime friend’. “If you were to tell 11-year-old me, or 15-year-old me, that I was gonna be driving a purple Aston Martin down Sunset Strip, making The Roxy stay open, just so I could play the album that hasn’t come out yet that I just did with Travis Barker… I wouldn’t believe you – but that sounds pretty fucking awesome.”
It all begs the question, then: what comes next? Beyond yet more global domination, does MGK hope to headline the likes of Download Festival and Reading & Leeds one day?
“The statement ‘one day’…” he contemplates. “I don’t like the way that statement makes me feel. It seems too out of reach. I’m sick of people telling me to wait. I’m sick of people telling me that a dream can be achieved if I do this, this, this and this, or that I’ve got ‘this’ but I’m missing ‘that’. You’ve got ‘that’ but you’re missing ‘this’. ‘One day’ is what you tell a boy who doesn’t know better; I know that I will headline festivals; I know that I will headline Reading & Leeds.
“I know the world likes to put dreams out of your reach,” Machine Gun Kelly adds with a shrug. “But I’m just realising that what I’m reaching for is right here.”
Machine Gun Kelly’s new album Tickets To My Downfall is due out on September 25 via Bad Boy/Interscope Records
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