Listen: State Champs have covered What’s My Age Again? by blink-182
Hear State Champs’ cover of blink-182’s pop-punk classic What’s My Age Again?
“Um, I’ve no clue. Sorry. Honestly, I don’t even know.”
Kerrang! has just asked Kenneth La’ron – better known as KennyHoopla – how he’s feeling as we sit down for our interview. He ponders the question for some time, seemingly searching for the words to articulate the complex array of emotions swilling around his head. It’s not a typical start to a conversation with a Cover Story star, but then KennyHoopla isn’t your average interviewee. A reticent and thoughtful speaker, every answer he gives to feels less like a considered search for the right words, and more like a stream-of-consciousness search for meaning.
You can forgive him the brain-fog, given his past 18 months. Released in May of last year, his How Will I Rest In Peace If I’m Buried By A Highway// EP arrived to great fanfare, marking the then-22-year-old as one to watch in the indie-rock world. It caught the attention of blink-182 drummer and go-to collaborator of the moment Travis Barker, who subsequently worked with Kenny on the blistering single ESTELLA//, in the process pivoting the Wisconsin native’s sound firmly towards that of the recent pop-punk revival. A whole mixtape’s worth of similarly life-affirming material recorded with Travis, SURVIVORS GUILT, arrives this week. But while his recent output has seen him likened to artists such as Machine Gun Kelly and branded a nostalgic return to the pop-punk boom of 20 years ago, Kenny is cautious and rather critical when it comes to such comparisons. For a man at the centre of the genre’s revival and someone benefitting from its nostalgic appeal, he has some surprisingly scathing views about how the genre has arrived at its current high-point.
“Even though I consider nostalgia something that’s always been a part of rock, and an element that can really add something to a song, it still sucks,” Kenny begins. “I just wish people could see it for the present, but I understand that such comparisons will come from making music with Travis. I see it as a challenge, though, to break out of that box and push things forward. Nostalgic music and pop-punk is very marketable now, but this isn’t some marketing strategy to me – I want to do something great for rock culture.”
Kenny’s new music exists squarely within the rock world. While recent discourse in the scene has been that of blurred genre lines and pushing the envelope of what rock can be, inspired by the successes of the likes of bands like twenty one pilots, Waterparks and grandson, Kenny’s approach is cleaner. Describing SURVIVORS GUILT as a “straight-up rock record with no trap beats or anything like that”, Kenny is taking great pride in making music that embraces the rock in its purest form.
“I love genres,” he says of his relationship with rock. “Genre is very important, because there’s a certain language that only comes with certain genres. There’s so much stuff coming out right now that’s looking to blend genres, but I'm at a point where I want to make something real and not hide behind these undertones of doing something ground-breaking. I miss straightforward rock, pop and rap music – I’ve always loved those sounds, and I’ve never seen a problem with them. A lot of people think pushing music forward is just about blending a whole bunch of sounds together. Being honest and putting your heart into your music, as cliché as it sounds, is what really pushes music forwards. Every time you're being yourself, you're adding something new to the conversation.
“Plus,” he continues, “all of our favourite artists are going to be gone one day, and so it's up to us to make sure that this shit stays in shape, and that rock and other great genres are not left all over the place.”
Despite his softly-spoken nature, there’s a boldness and a steely determination to Kenny’s words. Rock music has, in his view, become too complicated in recent times, so he’s not surprised that fans are now gravitating back to a sound that yearns for something simpler and pure of heart. Some may disagree with his assessment, but one thing is for certain: KennyHoopla was flying the flag for the pop-punk and emo scenes long before TikTok or Machine Gun Kelly made them cool again.
It was in Kenny’s childhood, in bedrooms in Ohio and Wisconsin, that a deep connection with alternative music was formed, and it’s that grounding which informs the enthusiasm with which he now fights for rock music to be heard…
KKenneth La’ron spent his childhood between his birthplace of Cleveland, Ohio and the city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with the majority of his formative years spent in the latter. A quiet, unassuming city with a small-town feel, it’s a place where people go about their lives with little fuss, an environment of contentment rather than wide-eyed ambition.
It made for the most unremarkable – insular, even – childhood. Kenny, he recalls, lived in an apartment complex where the other kids were “dicks” to him. He struggled to make friends. Rather than playing out, he’d stay in his room, play with baseball cards and listen to either the radio, or his mum’s large collection of CDs, which featured “a lot of gospel music and Nickelback”. He describes his family as having “lived under a curse”, but chooses not divulge any further details, those words hanging unresolved over the rest of our conversation like the long-winded answers he sometimes struggles to properly finish.
He didn’t have much, but one thing he did have was music. The All-American Rejects and blink-182 were in regular rotation on the radio, their tales of teenage angst the ideal introduction to rock for a young man who, for as long as he can remember, has “always felt like I have something to say”. A fondness for My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy soon followed, and it wasn’t long before the latter’s From Under The Cork Tree was being blasted out from his room daily and annoying family members and neighbours alike.
Kenny, having ingrained himself in emo culture, now wanted to do it for himself, and replicate the age-old story of a pop-punk kid from nowheresville making something better of his life. By age 14, however, he was almost completely estranged from Cleveland – a city of punk rock renown; by comparison, the closest Oshkosh got to a thriving scene was when the Warped Tour arrived in Milwaukee each summer – 90 miles away. Kenny would be 19 before he properly started out on his own musical journey.
“I moved to [Wisconsin city] Madison for a bit because that’s where I thought all the smart people were,” Kenny recalls. “But then I got kicked out of the house I was living in and had to come back to Oshkosh. It was actually a friend of mine who was living in a motel room who finally gave me my first chance to record a song, which I then released [online] the next day. People seemed to think it was cool, and from that point on, I really just wanted to get my story down.”
Kenny’s start as a musician was a similar story to that of his childhood – his face just didn’t quite fit. Beginning in the Soundcloud/DJ scene, he quickly came to realise that the music he was making was at odds with those he was surrounded by. The story he’d always wanted to tell, the one about the kid from nowhere and his journey of self-discovery, didn’t align with his peers.
“I specifically tried to disassociate from my friends who were making music, because I wasn’t associating with them or their story,” he says. “I wanted to say something [with my music], and I felt like I had something to say. I didn’t just want to be making noise like a lot of people were doing at the time.”
“So yeah, I guess that left me feeling pretty alone.”
Out on his own and doing things his way – the only way that made any sense to him – there were yet more obstacles between Kenny and his dreams of rock stardom. The biggest of all, it turns out, was himself. He knew the music he wanted to make – upbeat, anthemic, in-your-face rock – but the persona required to carry that off was the exact opposite of who he was on the inside. He’d grown up as the kid who’d hide away from the world in his bedroom, but now he wanted to be a star. Four years later, despite the energy with which he attacks his music, he’s still grappling with his identity. It takes its toll.
“I struggle with it,” Kenny says of the relationship between his stage presence and his real-life personality. “People can see me perform and hear the music, but that doesn’t mean they understand me personally. It makes me feel blurry in the head when I try to think about how I want to be perceived, and it fucking kills my spirit, because I still feel like no-one really knows me. But then I also don't want anyone to really know me because I’m not sure anyone would even understand. I go through cycles of wanting to be understood and thinking it doesn’t matter if I’m not, and the truth is that I’m no closer to figuring that whole thing out.”
One person who was able to relate to Kenny’s uncertain feelings was his collaborator on SURVIVORS GUILT, Travis Barker. The blink-182 drummer is an experienced head and a calming, measured presence in the studio, which was exactly what Kenny needed when trying to articulate his feelings through his music. Kenny believes them to be kindred spirits, and credits Travis with guiding him away from the self-criticism and lingering thoughts of inadequacy that had always blighted his musical. But with Travis at his side, Kenny started to believe in both himself and the record they had set out to make; one that would capture the same spirit of those he’d loved in his youth.
“I can't even make music with most people because I feel like I like weird them out,” Kenny says. “Things were just good with Travis, though. He actually told me that I’m way too hard on myself, and he could see how much pressure I’d put myself under and how hard I was trying to articulate my feelings.
“His advice to me when writing was simple: ‘You only have one chance to say it, so just say it, because you could fucking die tomorrow.’”
O nce Kenny and Travis were in the studio, everything started coming together quickly. The strength of their previous work on ESTELLA// – one of 2020’s stand-out pop-punk songs – soon began to replicate itself, with the personal connection between the two musicians feeding into their creative endeavours.
“Travis just gets it,” Kenny recalls of their studio time together. “And I see things the same. There’s something burning there – I see it in his eyes. We didn't even need to talk a lot of the time – it was more a case of keeping your mouth shut and letting the music do the talking. Shit has got real in his life, and it’s been the same for me, and when you get in a room with someone to make music and you share that understanding, that’s when the great stuff happens. It felt like we were in different rooms of the same burning building.”
None of this felt possible when he was hiding away in his room a decade ago, but now, having dragged himself out of a humdrum existence, Kenny truly believes he can conquer anything. Listening to SURVIVORS GUILT, it’s not hard to see why he has such faith that his music is destined for the top. As well as ESTELLA//, the new mixtape features Turn Back Time//, a reflective, emotional and positively massive rocker that feels like a neat bridge between blink-182 and Angels & Airwaves. Recent single Hollywood Sucks//, meanwhile, is a carpe diem pop-punk cracker that revels in proclaiming, as Kenny puts it, “how Hollywood and Wisconsin suck in equal measure”. Stepping away from the pop-punk formula, Inside Of Heaven’s Mouth// is Kenny’s nod to the Midwest emo scene, and a noticeably heavy outlier that is, in his words, “risky, and by design meant to put people off”.
Indebted to the music of Kenny’s youth and his journey from nothing and nowhere to a life full of possibility, the true charm of SURVIVORS GUILT lies in its simplicity, and the ease with which it conveys the thoughts and feelings of a complex and talented young artist whose ambition knows no bounds. Having dragged himself out of the mire, KennyHoopla now stands on the cusp of his breakout moment. But no matter what successes come his way, he’ll always remain true to the spirit of that young kid in Oshkosh who was in awe of the music that came through on his radio.
“I think if you can be honest, make infectious music and really speak your truth, that’s something that can move the world,” Kenny concludes. “With this project, we're making being truthful cool again, and putting it right at the forefront, though I’m not sure this kind of thing ever was truly ‘cool’. But regardless, that's what I'm doing. We're making authenticity. I just want my heart to shine through, and once I’ve done that then, honestly, I want to take over the fucking world.
“Somebody has to stand up for rock, so why shouldn’t it be me?”
KennyHoopla’s mixtape SURVIVORS GUILT is released June 11 via Mogul Vision Music / Arista Records.
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Hear State Champs’ cover of blink-182’s pop-punk classic What’s My Age Again?
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