Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract: ‘I’m tired of this boyband thing. I don’t want to be a boyband’

The pop-rap pioneers are back with a new album – a reaction to a year of grief, growing up and getting to know one another again

As the various members of Brockhampton, AKA the self-proclaimed “best boyband since One Direction”, log in to a slightly chaotic eight-way Zoom call, it is quickly apparent that no one is immune to lockdown cliches. The band’s producer Romil Hemnani arrives first, wandering past his laptop cradling a puppy, before returning 10 seconds later holding a different, much larger, dog. There isn’t time for anyone to laugh at my “Not a fan of journalists?” gag after he (the dog, not Hemnani) growls into the camera, before vocalist Joba, AKA Russell Boring, appears sporting shoulder-length hair and a patchy beard that screams “re-open the barbers”. By the time de facto group leader Kevin Abstract emerges, sitting in front of a swimming pool, with his rainbow-coloured dye job, it’s full house on the Zoom bingo card.

For a 13-strong collective of twentysomethings who, along with the eight vocalists and/or producers present today, include photographers and app programmers in their ranks, lockdown’s creative malaise has passed them by. In fact, Abstract says they recorded three records to get to the one they’re happy with – next month’s sixth album in four years – Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine.

Setting the template for the band’s mix of high-octane, sun-kissed pop and ragged skate-punk energy, 2017’s breakthrough Saturation trilogy – created while the band were living together in South Central LA – was quickly followed by 2018’s Iridescence and 2019’s Ginger, the latter two part of an unprecedented $15m contract with RCA. Each helped introduce the world to a new kind of “All-American boyband” that aimed to fuse Odd Future’s gonzo spirit with pop choruses. It was a label they relished subverting, both via their diversity – the group includes black, white, gay, straight, African, Irish, and Latin members – and an egalitarian, DIY ethos underpinned by endearing vulnerability. An early anthem arrived in the shape of Saturation III’s skull-rattling Boogie, with Abstract’s downbeat chorus of “I’ve been beat up my whole life, I’ve been shot down kicked out twice” riding a hedonistic mix of blaring horns, west coast hip-hop and screeching alarms. When they performed it in New York’s Times Square for MTV in blue paint they were quickly swamped by a febrile fanbase drawn to relatable party anthems for a depressed youth.

Early last year, the band appeared to be transcending their internet-made cult status and infiltrating the mainstream. Ginger’s honey-soaked Sugar eventually stalled at No 66 on the US singles chart, but it wasn’t for lack of trying: the band performed it on Ellen, created a TikTok dance challenge and employed Dua Lipa on a remix. When I ask why having a hit single is so important, it leads to a typically Brockhampton scenario of contrasting opinions. While rapper Dom McLennon, who keeps his cameraphone about an inch from his nose, would rather make “culturally significant songs that don’t exist on those forms of metrics”, Hemnani is less circumspect: “I definitely want a hit. I want to go to the club and see everyone dancing to our song. I want to get into an Uber and hear it on the radio. But I don’t want it to come at the expense of the soul of what we make.” Abstract leans into his screen. “I don’t want a hit,” he says, his thoughtful demeanour giving him a slightly pained expression. “I want to make things that connect on an emotional level and make people feel better about their day. Or that make them cry in their room alone.”

What is a boyband without hits though? Abstract ponders this before dropping a bombshell. “I think this is the first album where I’m really tired of this boyband thing,” he says, pushing his hand over his hair. “I don’t want us to be a boyband.” Why? “I feel like what we were trying to do we already did, with redefining [the term]. I just want to make music and let people call it whatever they want at this point. I don’t want to push this one thing.” So what are they now? “A community. Friends. Homies.”

While every member speaks passionately about Brockhampton, it is Abstract that lives it the most intensely. It was the now 24-year-old who posted a callout looking for band members on the Kanye West online forum, KanyeLive, in 2010. After 30 people responded he started AliveSinceForever in his home town of The Woodlands, Texas, a ramshackle collective who released their first EP in 2013. By the end of 2014 they had rebranded as Brockhampton, named after the street Abstract grew up on, and streamlined the members.

Abstract’s high school friends Ameer Vann, Joba, Matt Champion and Merlyn Wood were joined by McLennon and, later, the Northern Irish singer and producer Bearface, AKA Ciarán McDonald. The group immediately moved into an unfurnished house together in San Marcos, Texas, before moving to a second communal home in North Hollywood. “You’re being exposed to everything in front of you, immediately, all of the time, when you’re in a group like this living together,” remembers McLennon, who used to sleep in a corridor and write lyrics based on the beats he could hear reverberating through the walls. “It was a sense of community. It was so fun, just being able to walk into someone’s room and be like: ‘What you doing?’”

(l-r) Dom McLennon, Matt Champion, Kevin Abstract, Joba, Bearface and Merlyn Wood in 2019.
In the Brockhouse ... (l-r) Dom McLennon, Matt Champion, Kevin Abstract, Joba, Bearface and Merlyn Wood in 2019. Photograph: Ashlan Grey

One room they ended up in a lot was Abstract’s, often to watch the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls. “I think it’s an emotional thing,” Abstract says of the film’s importance. Hemnani, meanwhile, shares a realisation he recently had while watching Pixar’s existential classic Inside Out. “That movie really made me appreciate crying,” he muses, before comparing a good weep to resetting your iPhone. “That’s what it does to your brain. It’s a flush.”

It is this unironic emotional vulnerability that early fans connected to on the Saturation trilogy, a white-hot run of albums that culminated in them signing to RCA and scattering into separate homes across LA. The high didn’t last long. In 2018, the band announced original member Vann had been kicked out following allegations of sexual abuse (which he denied). The band retreated to Hawaii to start what would become Iridescence, an album that eschewed the festival-ready choruses in favour of pummelling mood pieces and cluttered emotional splurges. The band took a brief break, before returning with Ginger, a record initially billed as their “summer album” but that still carried the weight of a band coming to terms with sudden success.

Ginger’s press rollout also came with regular mentions of actor Shia LaBeouf, a mentor figure who would often host group therapy sessions at the band’s new creative compound. Do they have any comment to make given recent allegations of sexual battery and assault made against LaBeouf by ex-partner FKA twigs. “I feel like it’s not really our place to speak about the situation,” Abstract says after a brief pause. “But I wish peace and healing to all victims of any type of abuse.” When I ask if they’re still friends, Abstract looks down at the ground. “I don’t want to talk about Shia any more.”

The success of Ginger – No 3 in the US; No 11 in the UK – should have been bolstered by a tour but the pandemic forced them back into the studio. While work had already started on what Abstract calls “a pop album”, things changed “during quarantine [and] we thought we should just do something a little more hard-hitting, a little more raw, more rap-centred”. With more time on their hands, they tried new things; there were extended jam sessions (“We essentially performed the songs before we made them and we’ve never done that before,” laughs Hemnani); producer Jabari was elevated to full-time rapper; while a host of guest vocalists entered the mix (keen to keep it a surprise for fans, they ask that no names or track titles be divulged). The band also lived together again, both in a ranch in Texas and at Abstract’s house. “Here in my living room there were air mattresses spread out and everyone was just sleeping.” He smiles a big toothy grin. “It was like the old days, honestly.”

It was this reaffirming of their friendships that helped when tragedy struck. “I touch on certain things that are very personal on this album,” the chain-smoking Joba says slowly, his body turned to face the light streaming in through a window. “One being my father’s passing through suicide. Even before that, I was struggling with my mental health: depression, hopelessness, just darkness.” He says the pandemic has enabled him to sit with his feelings and “wonder why we’re still alive, and what we’re living for, and what we’re passionate about”. Religion, and its absence, crops up throughout the album. “God is often pondered by everyone and it’s something that I can say with certainty that I’ve found in many different places, and many different ways, and it’s elusive,” he continues. “It’s about stepping … into the light, so to speak. Or stepping into the hope and holding on for dear life.”

Abstract says needing to be there for Joba helped focus the emotional core of the album. “I think [this album] feels heavier than the other ones,” he says. “Maybe because we’re more explicit and it’s not just ‘Brockhampton are sad and we don’t know why.’” As on previous records, he is also aware his lyrics in particular will be under scrutiny. “At first I was like: ‘I don’t know how gay I want my lyrics to be on this album.’ I wanted to show different sides to me. But there’s a lack of representation in general, so I definitely feel like I have to be open with this shit when I’m rapping on songs.”

McLennon takes over, sounding more like your typical boyband member: “We all have an inherent gift to use our voices to galvanise people. Either to be like ‘I can do this too’, or to feel more comfortable in their skin.”

The conversation returns to lockdown, nostalgia and Roadrunner’s more psychedelic moments. “I’ve only listened to the Beatles for the last four months,” Hemnani confesses. “That’s it. They got a lot of albums.” Before we delve deeper into that thundering understatement, we are interrupted suddenly by a swirl of commotion. “Two ducks just landed in the pool,” Abstract says, twisting round and lifting up his laptop so everyone can get a better view. “Can you see that? I didn’t know there were ducks in LA. I’m so confused.”

The band lean forward in unison. “They just chilling,” Abstract smiles.

Brockhampton: Friends. Homies. Rap pioneers – and now budding ornithologists.

Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine is out 9 April


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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