Travis Barker In 2009: Pop-Punk Playa
Travis Barker In 2009
The Return Of Blink-182
Unlike the usual drab boxes that house recording studios, the Blink-182 compound is a tasteful structure on a hidden corridor in the San Fernando Valley. Maybe it’s the wrought-iron door or circular drive that makes it seem more like a reclusive actor’s home in the Hollywood Hills instead of an incubator of creativity.
The foyer’s hard-wood floors and high ceilings belie the man cave of separate tracking rooms, a sound booth, a design space for clothing line Famous Stars And Straps (where two employees pore over fabrics), chill-out room, and so on. While an assistant burns me a CD of Barker’s latest mixtape (more on that in a second), I peruse the unusual keyboards arrayed against the wall.
There is a disconnect between the real Travis Barker and the guy you see in the media. Can this polite, humble 33-year-old be the same attention-seeking fashion victim who invited a reality TV crew into his home to film Meet The Barkers?
And surely this small-ish dude is not the source of the ear-splitting din on a custom acrylic kit – a guy pivoting his entire torso with each stroke – as the photographer snaps away. After the shoot, I spy the sticks sitting on his bass drum and snatch them up. Maybe cradling them, totem-like, will provide insights into this man of many contradictions. Nope, the wood is silent.
It was approximately a year ago that Barker was involved in a horrific plane crash in South Carolina. Out of a crew of six people on board, the only survivors were Barker and creative partner Adam Goldstein (aka DJ AM). Barker was left with second- and third-degree burns over 20 percent of his torso and lower body. Recovery involved almost three months in various hospitals and burn centers where he received more than 15 surgeries, several blood transfusions, and multiple skin grafts.
The crash is old news by now, but the question on all drummers’ minds is whether it will affect Barker’s playing. The answer, as he frequently says throughout our conversation in a quiet SoCal drawl, “nah.”
Following surgery on his ulnar nerve to prevent the wasting of muscle mass, he regained full range of motion. There remains a numb spot on his wrist but he takes comfort in knowing it won’t get any worse. “I think I might have altered [my grip] a little bit,” he says. “Where my scar falls on my left hand I think it sucks to have the stick sit right on it so I might hold my left a little different, but I’ve adapted to it already.”
At the moment, the drummer sports a Stars And Straps T-shirt, baggy shorts, custom Vans, ball cap twisted sideways – the usual Barker attire. No scarring is visible on any of the exposed limbs. As far as being a player and performer, he is still the drum-crushing clown prince of pop-punk you hate to love.
The psychological impact of last September’s accident is not as easy to guage. Barker’s close friend and assistant, Chris Baker, 25, and Charles Still, 29, his sometime security guard, were both killed. How do you measure the impact of something like that? And as far as ever again casually hopping on a plane to make a gig, that seems unlikely. “Not to get too much into it but yeah, man, I struggled for a long time just leaving the house. It was baby steps.”
During a follow-up phone call six weeks later, Barker and entourage are motoring on the I-15 to kick off the Blink reunion tour the following evening in Las Vegas. When asked about his condition, he reports that during the Friends & Family show, a private concert held at the L.A. Forum just a few nights earlier, there was bleeding on the bottom of his right foot, 60 to 70 percent of which contains skin grafts. Barker remains optimistic: “It’s just a matter of trying to take care of it when I’m out on the road and make sure it doesn’t get worse.”
In a roundabout way, the accident was the catalyst for Blink’s reunion. During his convalescence, friends and fans sent cards wishing him a speedy recovery. Two of them were from Blink guitarist Tom DeLonge, who included his cell number. “When I thought the time was appropriate I texted him finally, and then we hopped on the phone together. After that I had hit Mark and I was like, ’Yo! I talked to Tom. It was cool, blah-blah-blah.’ Next step, we all just got together and hung out, talked in person.”
Back in June, five to six new Blink songs had been demoed for the planned 2010 release on Interscope. One finished track, “Up All Night,” can be heard on the current tour.
The original idea was to complete the new album by late 2009, but that idea was nixed in favor of touring first. One reason was not to create any added pressure during Barker’s recovery. A second reason was that the band’s long-time producer, Jerry Finn, died of a brain hemorrhage just a few months before Travis’ accident. “He was the closest person to our band, so it’s kind of hard to think of anyone else who would replace him.” Currently, the band plans to self-produce the upcoming album.
The postponement was also smart from a creative perspective. New venues, fresh crowds, and onstage hijinks should get the creative juices flowing. “I think anything that you do between times that you write and record records [matters],” Barker says. “It would be drastically different if we recorded it right now than if we did it after the road.” Between the ’05 breakup and the reunion, the Blink members have been in vastly different musical headspaces. At one extreme was DeLonge with Angels & Airwaves, a moody emo-pop band, while Barker and Hoppus, as +44, released When Your Heart Stops Beating in late 2006. A +44 follow-up album is in the works but Barker has gotten increasingly sidetracked with a variety of projects. At the very least, these clashing sensibilities should make for an interesting alchemy in the studio once the tour is finished. “It was always like that,” Barker explains. “If we all liked the same kind of music and we were all super in-tune with [each other], all listening to the same stuff, we’d make kind of lame music.”
Injuries have been a way of life with Barker long before the plane crash. While touring behind When Your Heart Stops Beating in the summer of 2007, he accumulated what he thinks were stress fractures in his right arm. “I’m like, ’Yo, I got this real dull feeling in my arm, and it’s killing me.’” It baffled the doctors, who thought it might be early-onset osteoporosis. “They were like, ’You had to have been doing something other than playing the drums.’”
Though the condition was never properly diagnosed, Barker chalks it up to 12 hours of nonstop drumming, stubbornly trying to get the perfect shot, while filming the video for Heart’s title track. But what’s really interesting here is not the injury, but how Barker worked around it. His one-handed playing through the bulk of the +44 tour, and especially on Letterman, triggering the snare drum with his left foot while he appears to be waving at you with his cast, is nothing short of miraculous.
If Barker seems all arms while playing, it’s because the drums obscure the stomping motion on the bass and hats, a technique he playfully describes as “leg up.” During the last major Blink tour in 2004, the right-handed player got a Lisfranc fracture, where his right foot basically broke in half. He managed to work the bass drum with his left foot. “I kept [the hats] slightly open basically all the time, and where I’d do both – like if I needed to close my hi-hats where it was tight, that was easy and I could still heel-kick with my left foot and then open it and be free when it was the chorus or louder part. “It actually made my left foot have the independence that I used to have when playing more challenging drum parts growing up,” he adds. “So I think it was cool.”
Ear To The Street
In just the last few years on his own, Barker has become increasingly interested in laying acoustic drums over commercial rap hits. He gives the heads a thorough pitting on the ghetto-fabulous video “Dope Boys” with G-Unit thug The Game, gets his whole body behind those long-arc swings on Eminem’s “3 a.m.”, and threatens to crack his crash/ride on Soulja Boy’s “Crank That.” Most recently, he was seen beating his kit to death alongside Jamie Foxx in the 2009 BET Awards.
But these one-offs are just the tip of the iceberg compared to what he’s doing with TRV$DJAM, his collaboration with DJ AM. “It’s kind of like a DJ playing turntables as a guitar player would be playing if he were with a drummer, but having an artillery of records, thousands and thousands of records to choose from, instead of riffs.”
TRV$DJAM got massive exposure at the 2008 MTV Video Music Awards, shortly after which they released Fix Your Face. The mixtape is unabashed party music, kicking off with a deconstruction of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” before Jay-Z, Rage Against The Machine, Beastie Boys, Michael Jackson, The Police, and other artists’ classic song snippets bleed into one another and set the tone for Barker’s chunky boom-bap, greasy funk, speedy punk, reggae one-drops, drum corps tattoos and, yes, the shuffle on Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain.” Their live set from Coachella Music Festival is available as Fix Your Face Vol. 2.
The releases in the TRV$DJAM series are free, so sample-clearance is not an issue. Even if it were, the mixes often feature artists Barker has worked with in the past, so it’s a quid pro quo. “Warren G performs with us, Too Short’s performed with us a couple of times, Paul Wall, a lot of people have come out and performed with us, so we try to include them. And it’s another way to break artists or put people onto new music before it comes out, and you blow it up like that.”
Barker gets so jazzed talking about TRV$DJAM he almost forgets to mention his solo record slated for late 2010, also on Interscope. “This is going to go probably through every type of music I’ve played. Some punk-rock stuff on there, some hip-hop stuff, electro, drum ’n’ bass, everything. It’s kind of left field, but it’s supposed to be.” The record will likely have the mash-up vibe of TRV$DJAM with a generous helping of rap-star cameos. “I’ll tour the record with AM because it’s going to be impossible to have everyone included on my record to be there, so we’ll kind of do what AM and I do when I go tour the record.”
Bringing His A Game For Blink 2.0, Hoppus, DeLonge, and Barker comport themselves with a greater degree of professionalism than in the hey day of Blinkmania. The band is still the soundtrack to frat keggers and Jell-O shots, rom coms and Warped Tour, but these days they actually rehearse. The words “click track” are barely out of my mouth when Barker interjects, “I love ’em. I mean, I prefer them, but with AM there is no click track. I’m just, ’Oh, s--t, what is he going to throw at me? What are we going to do right now?’ With Blink everything’s a click track [snaps fingers rhythmically]. I love that.
“Last Blink tour was just us four times as fast, five times as fast as it was on records. Like, we’ve practiced more for this upcoming tour than we have anything we’ve ever done in our whole life, so it’s pretty funny.”
So why didn’t the band use the metronome in the old days? “Back then we wouldn’t even think of that. Like, we were so into breaking down every song and playing them at the tempos we wanted. There was no practice to get a click track to play with to see if we liked it, to be honest [laughs]. I was the click track, but I think if we would’ve tried it back then, yeah, we would’ve liked it.”
The absence of a click in TRV$DJAM notwithstanding, Barker credits the project for his newfound discipline with Blink. “It’s like writing an hour-long song with one of your homies,” he explains of the mixtapes. “And then you think of how long it takes to write a three-minute song, but you have to compile 50 minutes worth of material together. So we end up playing a lot before we figure it out and then rehearsal takes an hour to go through the set, so it’s an hour worth of practice. That’s more than I’ve put in since I was 13. “I try to get to a place where I think of something and then I think about how to execute it onto the drums and make sure my chops are capable of pulling off what I thought,” he continues. “I fight with it, but I’m pretty much there. I think [the ideas for beats and my chops] grow at the same speed. I haven’t thought of way out sh--t that I can’t pull off yet, so I think I’m even right now.”
In case you thought Barker’s “leg up” approach to footwork was some juvenile urge to play as hard as he can, you’re only partially right. “For the most part I’m trying to make sure my bass drum, my snare drum, and every fill I do is the same volume, you know? I would always hate it when I’d go see drummers play and you get to their fill and you couldn’t hear it no more [laughs]. So I always try to make sure everything cuts.”
The Blink setup remains oddly fixed in time. The logic behind the one-up/one-down configuration is, he says, to “keep it simple.” And no matter how often Orange County Drums builds him one-of-a-kind tubs, the tops of his drums will always be perfectly horizontal and lie low. To underscore the point, he mentions a video from ’95 he recently posted on the Net. It’s a pre-Blink Barker playing a skateboard party and the kit arrangement is almost exactly the same as the one you see today. “I grew up seeing Mike Bordin from Faith No More,” he says. “He pretty much played flat, and that was the one thing that caught my attention. Then being in marching band, everything is flat. Stewart Copeland was flat. All my favorite drummers were flat. Mikkey Dee: flat. It was just the way I wanted to go. I always thought it was weird when I saw the drummer where their drums were, like, eating them.”
Taking Stock Toward the end of our interview, the conversation shifts to up-and-coming players. Barkers says he digs The Mars Volta’s Thomas Pridgen, and strangely enough, a player that used to be a pupil of Barker’s named Ilan Ruben, drummer for Nine Inch Nails. (“He’s just awesome.”) Then he lists Gadd and Colaiuta as the drummers he’d most like to jam with. (That’d be rad!) So it comes as something of a surprise when he mentions Animal (yes, the Muppet) as one of his earliest influences. “You’ve seen Animal and Buddy Rich, right? [The Jim Henson Company] actually hit me up to see if I’d be down to do that, so there might be an Animal-and-me drum-off some time later this year or early next year.”
Is that something he would enjoy?
“Hell, yeah. Animal? My first guy.”
Then the talk turns to pedagogy and the days of playing alongside former instructors Ed Will and Bobby Dominguez. Barker prefers to be the one in the teacher chair these days, playing along with his daughter, Alabama, age 3, and son, Landon, 5, at home on Saturday mornings in a learning-tool game similar to Horse, where Dad lays down a beat and the kids try to mimic it.
Thinking back to the explosive energy of his playing earlier this afternoon, it’s hard to picture Barker ever in his life having passively sat for a lesson while someone else had all the fun. If he wants to master a lick, he’ll dope it out on his own. “I feel like I know more about it and I’m more comfortable with it when I do it like that.”
The idea of sitting around aping the masters is an unlikely scenario for someone with Barker’s level of energy. He’s got +44, TRAV$DJAM, Blink-182, an upcoming solo record, and God only knows how many one-off collaborations and hip-hop remixes in the near future. A bigger concern might be whether he’s stretched too thin.
The drummer recognizes the need to change up his style depending on the environment he’s in, but the fear of not having something fresh to play each and every time he gets behind the kit is not something that keeps him up at night.
“I don’t know,” he says mulling over the notion. “Whether you love it or hate it, I think I have a unique sound.”
Besides the financial responsibilities that come with raising two kids, there is a mortgage, studio expenses, and various business ventures, all of which require a steady cash flow. It makes you wonder if the Blink reunion is a genuine musical rebirth or something that is economically motivated.
“I’m doing this to be with my friends on tour,” he says, his clear blue eyes never blinking once. “I only do things because I want to do them. I’ve never been someone to be like, ’We’ll throw X amount of dollars at you and you can act like a fool for 15 minutes.’ I’ve never been that dude.”
Barker’s 2009 Setup
DRUMS: Orange County (Diamond Fire Acrylic)
1. 22" x 20" Bass Drum (double-wide hoops)
2. 14" x 6.5" Snare Drum
3. 12" x 9" Tom
4. 16" x 14" Floor Tom
5. 10" x 8" Snare Drum
6. PD8 Pad
7. KD7 Kick Trigger
8. TD-20 Sound Module
CYMBALS: Zildjian (Custom Platinum Finish)
A. 10" A Custom Splash
B. 14" A Mastersound Hi-Hats
C. 18" A Custom Projection Crash
D. 21" A Sweet Ride
E. 21" K Crash Ride
F. 18" Oriental China Trash
G. Ridge Rider Classic Rock Cowbell
Travis Barker also uses DW hardware, Remo heads, Zildjian Artist series signature sticks, Roland electronics, Audix microphones, Metrophone headphones, and PureSound snare wires.
On The Rise
When Travis Barker wanted to take Blink-182’s live show to the next level, he approached Show Group Production Services, Inc., the company behind every stage contraption from Tommy Lee’s 360 degree-spinning riser from 1988 to Keith Urban’s floating chair.
The biggest challenge for SGPS was the time constraint and the short notice they were given to take the “free-flying rotating-riser gag” from napkin drawing to reality. “He trusted us to make it both cool and safe,” says Eric Pearce, chief engineer. “I think the biggest group effort was made when it came to deciding how to strap him in.”
In previous Blink tours, Barker had a six-point harness that made if difficult for him to solo. The company’s solution was to modify a race car seat with a 6" belt that went around Barker’s abdomen in order to free up his arms.
SGPS based their concept on the camera fly rigs used in the film industry. For Barker’s, there are four servo-winches pulling 3/8" cable, which enables X, Y, and Z axis movements. “You get a true flying-carpet effect,” says Katy Marx, SGPS’s general manager in the Las Vegas office. “You can do figure eights with it, you can ’coin-roll’ it. They’ve been moving cameras with a similar system for years and Eric just looked at it one day and said, ’Well, let’s make it move heavy stuff instead of just a camera.’”
The drum riser, which can lift up to 2,000 pounds, is meant to be easily transportable, breaking down into halves and carted onto a truck in between shows. The riser’s CNC-machined aluminum platform has roughly 7,000 holes drilled into it for semi-permanently bolting in the drum hardware. Hopefully Barker doesn’t decide he wants the snare moved half an inch, but if he does it’s still an easier option than calling a welder.
Sometimes bigger isn’t better. For example, the riser was not able to operate on the tour’s opening night in Vegas (of all places) because there wasn’t room to place the winch motors. But Pearce foresees no problems. “It does require a certain amount of clearance but it’s not as restricted as you might think,” he says. “Most medium to large venues in the country will easily support the flying riser.”