Q&A: Travis Barker
Superstar skinsman Travis Barker seems to be everywhere, all the time. He came to the music world’s attention playing drums for Blink 182 then became hip-hop’s most in-demand organic beat-maker, whether playing live with The Black Eyed Peas or recording with The Game. A collaborative friendship with the late DJ AM led to the solo drums-and-DJing sets he now presents at his periodic Hyde Bellagio residency Give the Drummer Some (also the name of his first solo album), which may feature guests artists from his latest single “100”—or a marching band if he can help it. Barker spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen hours before hitting the first beat at the August debut of his Hyde residency (He’s back at Hyde on Jan. 2).
I interviewed DJ AM after your debut performing together in Las Vegas. He said you just paged him in one day and he suggested collaborating over dinner.
Yeah, that’s how it happened. It was a f*cked-up year because in a matter of six months Blink broke up and Transplants broke up, so I was sitting there going, “OK, what the f*ck am I going to do? I’m a drummer, you know what I mean? Do I start another band? What do I do? And I went to see AM one night, and I was like, “This dude is playing every genre he can fit into this two-hour set. This is crazy!” And I was like, “This would be the equivalent of playing with the best guitar player I could ask for, that knows every genre of music, that can play every genre of music.” And then I hit him and I was like, “I have this idea.” And he was like, “Aw man, if I’m going to do it with anyone I’m going to do it with you. Let’s jam.” And we jammed for like 8 1/2 hours. It was crazy. We played for 8 1/2 hours and we were like “Holy shit!”
Did he bring everything to your place?
We rented a rehearsal spot. I think I was just getting my studio at the time, so I put my drums in there. DJ AM was like, “Man, I don’t know how this goes down. I’ve only ever seen a conga player playing with a DJ and it was super wack. What are you thinking?” I was like, “Let’s just play.” And then bam, it just started happening. We weren’t even talking. We were talking through him playing records and me playing the drums.
Were you starting to give each other cues?
No, he’d be playing, and I’d be holding a beat or whatever (beats rhythm on chest), and all of a sudden he’d hit an a cappella section and it would be on the same tempo I was playing. Everything that ended up happening when we played our first set together was because of that jam session that first day. It was crazy.
Was the beginning of your everywhere-all-the-time work ethic?
Yeah, I mean, from the beginning, when I first joined Blink I remember … I had just joined, I was maybe touring with them for a couple of months. We were on tour with Warped Tour, and Black Eyed Peas was out there, Eminem was out there, and Ice-T. So I played drums with Black Eyed Peas every day. After that tour Puffy calls me and says, “I want you to be in this video.” So it was like if opportunity knocked, and I loved it, I was there. I had grown up on hip-hop. I was listening to hip-hop before I was listening to rock music. I grew up on Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Whodini, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Method Man. All this stuff I had grown up on, so … I had the opportunity to play stuff I grew up on, which normally used a drum machine. You have to understand, there wasn’t a job for a drummer in hip-hop. It didn’t exist. When people started hitting me up … I mean, I can’t take responsibility for creating the job for a drummer in hip-hop, but I know when it was presented to me, I was beside myself in happiness.
AM said when you guys met that he had seen it done but he wasn’t impressed with how it was being done. It was like there was this void.
We had both seen it done in New York. That’s what he was referring to. We had seen a conga player, but it wasn’t a full drum kit. So forever he was trying to envision: “Well, how does this go down?” And then it was just us getting in the studio. For me, it’s always been about getting rid of restrictions and limitations, getting ride of hard lines and genres. I love everything. Drums are in everything. There’s drums in every type of music. I listen to every type of music, so I feel like there’s nothing that’s weird for drums. I don’t even know what you compare it to. Just looking back at my career, I’ve played the Country Music Awards for a Buck Owens tribute with Dwight Yoakam and Brad Paisley. That same month I played with AM somewhere, and I played with LL Cool J somewhere. Drums are so universal. It’s a very universal instrument.
Early on before most DJs started out on turntables, many seemed to come from drums. If you have the innate sense of rhythm it takes to play drums, it seems to make it easier to crossover.
My son’s a great example. He’s 11, and he’s played drums probably on and off for five years, six years. And when I have turntables at the house, he gets right on them. He understands them right away. If he played for you right now, you’d go, “Has this kid been playing for five or six years?” And the answer’s “No.” He’s probably touched the turntables 20 times. The kid’s a monster.
I saw him singing with Transplants. He looks like he’s all ready to be a rock star.
Yeah, he loves music. The whole idea of cutting and scratching is very percussive. It’s very rhythmic. The idea of mixing records is very rhythmic. I think they go hand in hand.
Is Give the Drummer Some a natural progression from when you started playing drums with DJ AM?
The only time I bought turntables and a mixer, I got in a fight on a Blink tour and I broke my hand. It was a huge bum-out, but the cool thing about the summer was I stayed home and I learned how to scratch and cut and do a couple of things on the turntables, which was really fun. Then, after AM passed, I played with Mixmaster Mike. I played with A-Trak. I played with Z-Trip. I played with a couple of different DJs, and I had a great time. We did a couple of tributes to AM.
Six months ago I was sitting in my studio and I was recording a record with someone, I forget who it was. And I was like, “Man, the idea of drumming and DJing at the same time.” I’m with a group of people and they’re like, “That would be fucking incredible.” And I could picture how you do it—you scratch here, you do whatever. My wheels just started spinning, and everyone was like “Dude, it’s a dope idea, but it’s impossible.” And then literally from that point on it was just embedded in my head. And it kept … “How do I do this, because I really think it could be….” It’s the next level of what I was already doing with AM and everything. So I locked myself in my studio for like five, six weeks and I figured it out.
Did you use loop stations or is it strictly drums and turntables?
Yeah, I can’t play drums and then get over (to the turntables) every song, because some songs I’m only in for the verse and chorus, so I have to stop playing drums then get over here. Sometimes I’ll have eight, nine songs grouped together, and then I’ll go over and bring in the next group of eight or nine songs. Some of it’s already pre-recorded so I don’t have to worry about getting over to the turntables. Then there’s other parts where there’s a record that’s just rocking and I don’t even have to play drums, that I just have a scratch routine or something to scratch over. And then I have live drums up there, which is like a cocktail kit, like a New Orleans jazz kit basically, so you stand up. I’m not having to sit down and stand up. Everything’s just right here. And then I have a little electronic pad that has 808 snare, 808 kick drum, 808 ride cymbal, and a couple of other samples, like vocal samples. It’s hectic but it’s really fun.
So you don’t use loop stations or anything like that?
No, because I was always afraid if I hit the wrong loop station (pedal or control) and there’s silence, I go back into what I just played. It could be a mess.
You’ve done this before, right?
I did this here for a Famous (Stars and Straps, Barker’s clothing line) party, like fight weekend for Mayweather-Pacquiao. And then afterwards I was already planning a couple of other gigs and they said, “Yo, we had such a great response and everyone loved it so much that we’d like to give you a residency here.” So I’m here.
Do you feature guest artists at your residency?
Yeah, tonight I have IamSu! coming out. He’s on my first single “100.” He’s a rapper from the Bay. I just got done working on Game’s album, The Documentary 2, which is really great. Hopefully, these dates coincide with one of my friends’ or someone I work with’s album that comes out so we can promote their single and put it in my set. I also like the idea of getting a marching band or something to accompany me. That would be sick. I have all these ideas, but this is the first day, the launch of the residency, so I plan on bringing surprises and tricks out of the bag every time.
The way you have things set up you could have Prayers come out.
Oh, that’d be awesome.
I saw them play at a Halloween party in Vegas.
Did you like them?
Yeah, but it was almost a performance art set tied to the Halloween party. I don’t know what they are like apart from that context, but it’s interesting that you started working with them.
They’re great. I came across them through a friend. They were playing a friend’s art show, and I went. They had a PA the size of a speaker smaller than that chair (points). It was super janky, but I had already heard the Gothic Summer EP and I thought, “These guys are great.” It reminded me of the first Transplants album where it was like they were creating a genre. The first Transplants album, you can’t go, “Oh, it’s this.” It’s impossible. You can’t. It’s a mind f*ck.
I listened to it from beginning to end today. There’s nothing else like it.
Really? That’s awesome. I feel that Prayers are the same way. And then I meet Rafe (Rafael Reyes) and I meet Dave (Parley), and they’re the nicest fucking guys. Anyone that knows them and checks out the little doc Noisy did on them … they go and check out Rafael’s neighborhood where (used to be) actively in a gang since he was a kid, and how dangerous and crazy and lit his neighborhood is, and then you hear a story about how he grew up not liking rap music. He was a Cholo that liked Christian Death and Morrissey and Pet Shop Boys. That doesn’t exist, or if it does exist no one’s come out and done what he’s done. I just love their movement. I love how sincere they are and how bare bones. It’s just really pure, so I had a lot of fun producing their new album
The Cholo goth movement had been written about but there was nobody to point to and go, “That’s what that is.”
That’s like my first goth band, Cholo goth band. Prayers is the introduction. So yeah, I wish the best for them, man. They’re great.
Is this where we’re going next, more organic collaborations between musicians and DJs? It almost seems like we should be a little farther along than that. I see stuff sometimes that feels a little superficial, like someone will hit a cowbell a few times at a DJ gig at a festival.
It’s interesting you say it. Six months ago, Afrojack hit me up. He was like, “Hey, I want a bunch of live drums on my album. Come through.” And I came through, thinking I was just playing on one song. And he came in and he played the song, and he said, “OK, I’ll be back in a couple of hours. Check out this song. If you want, record to it. I’ll be back in an hour or so.” I immediately … he had a great foundation to a song. I came in and played drums on it, 15 minutes later, 20 minutes later he comes back and goes, “So are you going to play drums on it?” I was like, “I’m finished.”
“No sh*t. Let me hear it back.” And he goes crazy and says, “OK, here’s nine more songs to play on.” And all those songs were collaborative songs with real musicians, whether it’s Usher or Chris Brown, or this guitar player that just came in. Same with (Ultra Records DJ) Deorro. I just played … he wanted live drums, and I was like, “OK, what do you want?” And he was like, “No, no, no. I want you to have 16 bars where you do a solo in the first eight bars of the song. When have you heard that in an EDM song? So I feel like, yes, people are wanting to use live instruments in those songs. I did a record with Avicii that has Billie Joe on it, from Green Day, and me playing drums, and live guitar. It’s happening. I do think that’s the next step. I mean, there’s something about … I love electronic music. Even without live instruments, I love so much of it. But when you do add a live instrument, whether it’s a drummer, whether it’s a guitar player, it has dynamics that aren’t gated and compressed. It adds natural dynamics to a song that I think songs should have, or it feels good when they do have.
You can feel that in the work you’ve done in the past.
Did you come up with a name for your new album yet?
It might be Give the Drummer Some 2. That’s what it is right now, as I talk about it right now. I don’t know if it will be that, but that’s how I’m referring to it. It’s the follow-up to Give the Drummer Some 1.
Just today, Mark Hoppus just posted that you and Matt Skiba are supposed to go back into the studio in a couple of days (in August). Is that the plan? Are you recording as Blink?
Yep. I was just telling someone earlier, last year we had the Musink festival and Tom quite again, days before we started rehearsals.
Your own festival?
Well, it’s not my festival. I help curate it. It’s a gentleman named Bill Hardie’s festival. I just come in and help with getting different tattoo artists, curating the bands, bringing cars. And we were booked to play it. Basically Mark and I made the decision that we wanted to play it, and we thought it was fucked he was quitting days before rehearsal started, so we got Matt Skiba. The whole time all Matt really had to be doing was learning the set, and he would come in every other week with “Hey, man, I have this new song idea! Hey, man I have this!” And they’re great f*cking songs. It’s like “Man, this is cool. This person really likes doing this. This person’s really inspired to do this.” Originally it was “Hey. Let’s just get through this show.” We played a couple of warm-up shows to be ready before we walked out in front of 12,000 people or whatever was there. And then we were like, “Matt was a pleasure to work with. He’s a great guitar player. He’s a good friend. We’ve known him for years from Alkaline Trio playing with Blink. He’s already coming with songs that kick ass. Let’s get in the studio and see what it is.” I think it’s going to be great.
Sounds like once you heard those songs it was given that Blink 182 would continue.
Fans have been so supportive. When we played San Diego, even though I really never lived in San Diego, that’s Blink’s hometown. In between our sets and our encore, they were screaming, “Skiba!” The kids were chanting “Skiba.”
I noticed that people were really accepting about it in online comments after the announcement.
Honestly, when he quit, Mark said, “I wish we would still play this show.” And I said “Well, obviously me too.” And then we were like, “How could we do it? Who could fill in? The only person that could do this is Matt Skiba. Even months later, I was thinking “Who else?” There isn’t anybody else.
So Blink is still going to be a major part of your life.
Yeah, Mark’s my brother. I love Mark Hoppus. In any project I that I have, like if it’s my album and it’s an album cycle for me, that’s my priority. When Blink says, “Hey, Blink’s coming into the studio,” that’s my fucking priority. I don’t go wander off and do whatever else. I make whatever I’m working on a priority. And especially with Blink coming back with a new member, it’ll be very, very important to me.