Travis Barker: Beyond The Blink
We’re hanging out at a Hollywood photo studio lined with images of rock royalty: KISS, Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses. There’s a lineage suggested here, and Travis Barker fits it to a T. He’d probably like that idea.
A teenage girl in stovepipes and sneakers hangs around, lugging a skateboard. She’s an aspiring drummer in a band, helping out the photographer. She gets all bug-eyed and shaky when Travis lopes in, all towering spiky Mohawk, neck tats, nose-rings, and droopy-butt pants. But there’s nothing to get nervous about. Travis is the definition of cool.
He exchanges small talk with his crew, does a bit of this, signs that. But once he settles for our interview he’s all ears and engaged response.
Everyone knows Barker as the infamous drummer for the pop-punk trio Blink-182, and since that band’s breakup in 2005 and subsequent sporadic reunions, he’s become a major media star in his own right – for his formation of the rock/rap rebels the Transplants with Tim Armstrong of Rancid and Skinhead Rob, and as half the duo TRVSDJAM, whacking tubs alongside the late Adam Goldstein, aka DJ AM. Barker and AM served as house band at the 2008 MTV VMAs, where they played with Katy Perry, LL Cool J, Lupe Fiasco, and Kid Cudi. Barker has also become the drummer of choice for a wide and weird array of decidedly non-power-punk artists including Mary J. Blige, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, Jamie Foxx, and Eminem. And that’s just the beginning.
As we speak, Barker and his Blink-182 bandmates are working on tracks for a new album, due out sometime in 2011; he’s also got a new DJ-drummer thing going with turntablist A-Trak; and he’s got his clothing line, Famous Stars And Straps, going, too – but that’s all for another time. Fact is, this man is dangerously busy, because his big project du jour is a debut solo album coming out on Interscope in February, called Give The Drummer Some. And though he offhandedly refers to it as a “little project,” it’s actually a stunningly starred aggregation of singers and shouters strutting their stuff to Barker’s beats, howls, riffs, and raves.
“I basically have made a bunch of music with all my favorite MCs, rappers, and singers,” he says with a hint of awe. “Everyone from Slash, Tim Armstrong, and Skinhead Rob from the Transplants and Rancid, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Lupe Fiasco, Slaughterhouse, Cool Kids, RZA, Raekwon, Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine, Big Boi, and Outkast … it’s a lot.”
Sounds like more than a “little project.” Must’ve taken quite a while to get it all together.
“Originally I was going to put out an album and it was going to be all my remixes that I was doing, which slowly turned into me playing 12 original songs instead of remixes. The remixes were kind of out there already, everybody already got them, so I did an all-original album that I do everything but sing or rap on.
“It’s all about what happened about seven years ago,” he says. “Blink-182 and the Transplants broke up – same year. So I started playing with DJ AM. And that was my new project. Now, with AM, I just went and jumped all the way in, and I discovered how cool it could be to play with a DJ, being a drummer.”
It was with AM, Barker says, that he really fell in love with producing music and making beats. That evolved into his solo excursions that have been taking on a larger and larger role in his career. But he emphasizes that he’s not on some big-ego rockstar trip, having to bust out solo to express his “real” true self, etc., etc.
“It wasn’t like I was in a bunch of bands and I was like, I’m going to go do my own thing,” he says. “It was more like all my bands broke up, and meanwhile AM and I were having so much fun doing what we were doing, and on the side I was just building beats for all the remixes I was doing for other artists. And that’s basically how I recorded my solo album.”
Speakin of the how …
“I’ve hired a studio that’s got an A and B room for drum kits. I spend a lot of time in Studio B doing my own stuff, finishing up my album. Last night I played on the new Xzibit record. And then in the other room I’m recording Blink’s album. I do it until I give out or the engineers give out, and we’re so tired we have to go home,” he laughs.
“That’s my life right now. And then every Tuesday I get together with the Transplants, which is my other band. And we’re about three-quarters of the way done with our album.”
Since Barker’s got so many pots cooking at all times, he’s got to do a lot of mental overlapping – and reconciling. It begs the question of whether his style of playing with the pop-punk super-stylists Blink-182 rubs off on his workouts with badass rappers like Lupe Fiasco?
He dismisses the thought completely.
“They’re totally different. If anything, I have a fresh outlook on everything, because there’s just such a variety of things I get to play. So when I have to jump into a Blink record, I’m on a fresh mind. It’s not like my rap or remix projects or the Transplants projects, and not like anything else. Any people who buy my album will be like, ’This is the other side of Travis that we haven’t seen.’”
WHAT THE DRUMMER GOT
Produced by Barker, Give The Drummer Some is an undeniably wicked hash of rude rapping rides that happen to showcase the drummer’s increasingly sophisticated brand of poly-funk percussion nirvana. “Can The Drummer Get Some” has The Game, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and Swizz Beatz wreaking havoc over a lot of beatbox and Travis’ sexy-mellow snare thwacks and breakbeat-type kick drum. “Carry It” has got RZA, Raekwon, and Tom Morello doing the chunky-funky with simple tom fills and a rock-steady machine groove. Good feel, fine timing, simple ax chords up/down/over beats and raps, and squawking harmonics for “Energy From Here To Infinity!”
“If You Want To” features Pharell and Lupe Fiasco atop tasty horn-section samples, buzz-y synth, and some slick double-time kick work. There’s an agitated air in Barker’s solo stuff, not high tension but definitely high energy, and even a little jazzy. A lot like the man behind the music.
Barker will release a single and a video once a month until the solo album drops in February, so by that time fans will have almost half the record. This week he squeezed in a performance with Cool Kids at the Music Box Theater in Los Angeles to debut the new 3D video he’s made with the Kids, called “Jump Down,” a wacky track with languid beats and squirrelly synths mutating into funny sonic mush at sporadic intervals. The song really flows, and it’s fun to watch, too.
“That track came about in our Studio A room, where we have a cocktail kit and a regular drum kit set up. One of the members of the Cool Kids, Chuck, also plays drums a little bit, so we each got our own kit, and I played the cocktail kit, cowbells, and go-go bells and toms and stuff, and he played the drums, and we just came up with a rhythm that became us playing together.”
Although the song was recorded and completed in a day, the reality is, like most things associated with Barker, there was a lot more going on below the surface. “That track lived with me for six months, and when something ages well, it’s awesome. I live with things for a long time before I ever consider them being done. I listen to them in all different types of cars and – I’m a freak; I could spend hundreds of hours on one track — and I’ll know if I need to.”
Even as we speak, Barker is shifting gears. Progress on the new Blink album is coming along just fine, he says. Just last night he wrote an entire song for the album, and he’s buzzed about it.
Nowadays, when a lot of drummers talk about “writing” their parts, they mean working out programs on machines. But Barker writes his “with just my two hands and a pair of drum sticks.
“I don’t program anything before I play,” he says. “For some of the hip-hop or electronic stuff, I’ll sometimes program beats and then play over it, but for Blink projects or for the Transplants, it’s just straight-up playing through stuff. I don’t like programming. I like playing it, and feeling it out, trying patterns or interpretations, and then just see what fits really good with the rest of the music that’s going on. And then – do a take.”
Barker’s a bit vague about what Blink has in mind for the new album, which at this point is being recorded without the aid of a producer. In fact, he seems a bit unsure about what it’ll sound like himself at the moment. But he’s not worried about it. Since their breakup in 2005 and subsequent regroupings, Blink have become less and less concerned with consciously achieving musical “progress,” says Barker.
“We’re not the type of band that sits around and says, ’Okay, this is going to be the sound for the next album.’ On the last album, when we went in to record, I said, ’We should pretend this is our first album, and not think about what we’re supposed to do or what people expect of us, but just do what we’re feeling, do what we wanna do right now.’ And I think we’ll do every record like that. I think every band should do that – as long as you’re not going way left and you’re going to bum people out.”
You see Travis Barker up there on that stage behind his kit, and it just looks … cool. Must be that flat setup he likes – everything hovering like a spacecraft in line with the floor. Hmm, it looks a little more difficult to navigate around the drums, though.
“You know, in a marching band, everything is flat,” he says. “I loved the way it looked, and I always set up my drums like that: one tom in front of me completely flat, two crashes completely flat, my ride completely flat. The only thing that’s not flat is my snare, which is tilted away just a little bit so I can get every rimshot.”
Though Barker uses his arms a lot when he plays, that too is a matter of musical context. “With Blink it’s like [he mimics himself playing, flailing his limbs in the air like an octopus]. But I’m not going to be disrespectful – when I played with Mary J. Blige, I wasn’t playing like an a__hole. I wasn’t hitting hard when I wasn’t supposed to. With Blink, I’m supposed to be hitting my drums as hard and as fast and as diligently as I can. My jazz teachers would probably throw up on themselves if they saw how I played like that, compared to the traditional way you’re supposed to sit and play. But there’s nothing traditional about Blink.”
That “whole-body” thing is a basic requirement of playing in any honest-to-goodness rock band, says Barker. And while he learned a lot about that from early heroes like Keith Moon, Alex Van Halen, and Tommy Lee, it was his earlier admiration for Buddy Rich that planted that seed.
“I loved watching Buddy Rich play. I loved all his cross-sticking. He was one of the first drummers I ever saw, and he was fun to watch, and he had chops. In the ’80s you saw a lot of guys who did, like, cool stick tricks and stuff, but they could barely play their drums. But Buddy, he wasn’t weak anywhere.
“There’s nothing worse than going to see a band play and their drummer is bored and it’s not happening. And now, it’s not even something I have to think about. When I sit down to play the drums, it’s like I feel like that’s my mouthpiece. Everyone should feel like that when they play their drums.”
The story is by now painfully familiar. But any account of Travis Barker, the man, the drummer, has to circle back to … the incident. Barker and DJ AM went down in that South Carolina plane crash in 2008, which claimed the lives of four of his closest friends, and Barker walked away with serious burns and deep emotional scars. None of which has, or most likely ever will, heal completely.
“Sixty percent of my body was burned,” he says flatly. “And my right foot, there was a time when they were talking about amputating it in the hospital. That would’ve given me more problems than I would’ve liked to fix.” He laughs, a bit sardonically. “Luckily, it didn’t happen. The majority of the bottom of my right foot is grafted, which happens to be my bass drum foot, so I just have to put a special pad on it every time I play, and then wrap it and put my sock on. If not, I get out of practice with a bloody sock.”
The left hand with the damaged ulnar nerve, partially repaired with surgery, is still a concern. “I still don’t have much feeling in a few fingers, but I can’t say I notice a big difference in my playing,” he says. “I still have the same chops I did in my left hand as I do in my right. It’s something more mental: If I think about it, I’ll mind-f__k myself. But I don’t really think about it. I mean, you have to. I just don’t acknowledge it.”
He had a lot of physical pain to avoid thinking about, however, which led to other problems. “All my ribs were broken. I wasn’t in a good place. When I first got in the hospital, for a month I couldn’t even talk. Once I could function again, I’d call Rob of the Transplants and say, ’Bring a gun. I beg of you. I hate this.’ I didn’t even know what my outcome was going to be. I was tripped out.
“For me it was like, what’s happened has happened: Not only are you screwed up in the hospital, you’re hearing doctors say ’amputation of the right foot,’ and stuff like that wasn’t good. I was on so many strong meds that I didn’t know where I was or why for a good month. And then when I figured everything out, I was a mess. I figured out I’d lost my two partners; that didn’t even register for a good three weeks after being in the hospital. And once I figured that out, I was in a worse place. The whole time I was in there I was like, ’Well, what room is everyone else in? I thought everyone else was in a room recovering, too. But that wasn’t the case.”
NO PAIN, NO GAIN?
Barker’s no stranger to epic injuries throwing him off his game, like the major fracture of his right foot he suffered on tour in Australia in 2003 (his foot actually broke in half!), which required having screws put in the foot to stabilize it. Unfortunately, he had a tour to do and wasn’t about to bag on it, so he started playing the kick drum with his left foot on a slave pedal.
Heroic? Yes. But basically Barker screwed himself substantially with that year of touring when he should’ve been home recuperating. To make matters worse, all that year he was on pain medication, whose addictive itch has a nasty habit of sticking around long after the initial pain has subsided. It gets worse: The combination of not resting and taking too many pain killers made Barker’s bones brittle, and he wound up breaking his arm during a video shoot where he played drums for ten hours straight.
But then he goes on tour again, playing with one hand, gobbling pain killers just to keep going, and all the while his bones are growing ever more brittle …
“I just kept doing the same thing over and over again to myself. I wouldn’t recover. I’d be on the road playing with the opposite limb because I couldn’t let go and I just wanted to play the drums and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”
Finally, though, after returning from a grueling tour with +44, Barker somehow saw the light.
“I just said, ’I’ve got to let my body rest. None of my breaks are healing right. And it’s because I can’t get off the Vicodins, because of all these surgeries, all these breakages of bones.’ It was just a monster.”
A TIME TO REST, A TIME TO PLAY
Barker ultimately did take four months off to let his arm heal, to get off the pills, to shake off the ghosts, and to prepare for his big return. Then his good friend DJ AM lost his life earlier this year to a drug overdose, which of course took a heavy toll on Barker. But he is indeed back now, and he’s feeling good. But then, he ought to, he works so bloody hard at it.
“Since my plane crash, I’ve been – knock on wood – the healthiest I’ve been my whole life. And now it’s just like a conscious thing: When it’s almost all taken away from you, you appreciate how healthy you are. I run six miles a day now, and I make sure I do it every day I can, just ’cause I can walk and run just like anybody else.”
He still loves to tour, too, but he’s learned to do it the right way – with his family in tow to help him keep it real.
“DJ AM was my one dude who was completely sober, and I could always chop it up with. And he was someone who’d survived everything – we were good support for each other. But he’s gone. So I like to bring my family out on the road when I’m touring. And the touring I love. I wake up about ten or eleven on the road, go to the gym, then I play my drums about four or five hours a day, before I play the two hours we play onstage. I just play all day.
“It must be that I love what I’m doing. For any of the projects I’ve got going, I do them all because I love them and I don’t expect much back. And it seems like those are the ones that turn out to be the most successful. The stuff I really love, I would do it for free.
“I’d play the drums for free. You know? After everything that’s happened, I feel like I’m on borrowed time. Not a day goes by when I don’t pinch myself and go, Whoa! You almost weren’t here. I have little to no complaints.”
Lesson: Barker Break Out
By now Eskimos have heard of Travis Barker. One of the best-known drummers in the world, Barker’s fame was initially due to his very conspicuous role in Blink-182, but later from his reality TV show, his easily remembered tattooed skater-punk image, his clothing line, and his stints fronting his own numerous music projects or working in the background as a session musician. There’s no doubt the man keeps busy. His latest solo release is a hip-hop record where his funky drumming is augmented, distorted, sliced, and diced to create the wicked grooves seen below.
“Can The Drummer Get Some”
This track has lots of layers of production on top of Barker’s funky beat. In fact, you might think I missed a few bass drum notes in the transcription. There’s an electronic 808-ish bass drum playing a two-bar pattern of 1e ah (3) ah (4) & 1 ah (3) ah (4) & that creates a busier sounding pattern than Barker is actually playing. The relationship between the two parts is shown at the bottom of the transcription.
“If You Want To”
This tune has an up-tempo funk groove with lots of snare drum ghost notes that keep the groove churning. Barker throws in a funky fill every four bars or so throughout the song.
Barker lays down a broken hi-hat/snare groove that he may be playing with both hands, moving his left hand to the snare on the (2) ah. He follows that with a pregnant pause on count 3 that makes the groove so much funkier.
This simple groove drives extra hard due to the accented sixteenth-notes that Barker plays on his hi-hats. This phrase loops repeatedly, creating a hypnotic rhythm bed.