We catch up with Machine Gun Kelly ahead of his headline London show.
I meet Machine Gun Kelly in a dimly lit dressing room at North London’s Islington Academy on a damp, rainy Monday evening. I’ve battled through a crowd of hardcore bandana-clad MGK fans hanging around the stage door, and passed a snake-crawling queue that loops the block, twice. Decked out in messed-up skinny jeans, Chuck Taylors and a plethora of intricate tattoos, Kelly cocks his head to one side, offers me a beer (which he opens with one of his many giant rings) and just as I’m about to feel slightly out of my depth, gives me a smile that melts away any preconceptions I might have about a rap-artist of his apparent stature. I needn’t have worried for a second, I swiftly find out, as Kelly – despite the usual backstage antics such as sloshing beer all over the floor – is as endearing and earnest as it gets.
I sit as he stands and we talk home, his latest album General Admission, the meaning of life… Sound a bit deep for a Monday night? It doesn’t feel it. There’s something about Kelly’s passion for the people he writes for (the underdogs he says) that is so thoroughly infectious. When he shows me a video clip of his fans in Paris all singing the French national anthem at his show shortly after the city’s tragic events, I almost see him well up with… Pride? Humbleness? Either way, I’m already an MGK convert. Not quite bandana at the ready, but here for the ride just the same.
Tell us a bit about what you’re about?
I’m a good balance between a person who doesn’t give a fuck and someone who’s really conscious of what’s going on around them. I have a big attitude, but I got a big heart so I guess that’s why the people who are like life time Machine Gun Kelly fans have like my face tattooed on them or people who drive 16 hours just to come to my show and follow us around the country for 8-10 dates or something like that you know, that’s why I guess there’s that connection because I’m like a mid west boy who made something out of nothing and kept that same rebellious attitude throughout it all and didn’t really loose it but also used my voice to stand for something also.
You’ve got so many fans outside! You can feel the excitement out there…
What is it that you really care about and what inspires you to write?
Writing is like therapy to me… so endless things inspire me to write I guess but I give a shit about the people that no one gives a shit about, because you know when I was doing custodial work for community service or when I was working in fast food and serving stuff up, I used to watch the pretty girls look past you know the hard working people like us who fuel our society. I watched the cool kids pass my invitation to come have fun to other people because I saw a bigger picture in life than just trying to be cool in the moment. I thought being cool was making it past 25 and moving out of your parents’ house you know what I’m saying. So many of my friends now still live at home and like don’t even know what downtown looks like. I had the world in mind, so I speak for the people who are just waking up and going to work everyday and don’t see a way out. I remember being that person and how much music meant to me, and how much those voices meant to me, and how much….If I was running away from home or sleeping at the train station for the night or a friends house and just having those headphones on and that voice saying the perfect thing to me is just like, you know as I see music kind of lose that thing a bit.
What do you mean by that?
Instruments are being stripped from music now and DJ’s are like headlining festivals and you’re seeing less and less bands. Instruments are being seen as uncool… I mean, fuck that shit, you can’t have music without music. That’s the music part. My stance is for the kids who don’t maybe know how to stand up for themselves, cause I know that I was lost for a long time and I was longing to be a part of something. An artist would come out and if they’re on stage and they would bleed up there and leave it all up there I would feel like you know they did that so I could have that escape, in the same sense that they say music is religion and they say Jesus was nailed on a cross and all that and had to suffer, it’s the same thing. When I see an artist up there and they’re like bleeding for me up there or they’re just breaking their neck giving everything and earning every ounce of sweat that they’re beating out, that’s the same sacrifice for me. Music is what I believe in and what I’m here for and what guides my life. I’m just doing it for the people who feel the same way. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not true about religion but I know how a certain chord feels when you strike it, because my body is… you don’t have to think about it, you just feel it.
So you’ve got a strong relationship with your fans, what’s the biggest moment you’ve had… what has most touched you?
I’ll give you an example, just a recent example: last night we performed in Paris and a lot of people were against us performing there and told us to cancel like other artists seem to have done in the past few weeks since the attacks, but we showed up anyway because again that’s part of the stance – creating the escape for the people who needed it. They needed it more than anybody so, we performed a song called ‘A little more’, and the lyrics in the song are very simple – “We all need a little more love”, and it sounds really simple but when you’re there with the chords and you’re in that atmosphere it’s like holy shit that’s so true. We finish it out, and all of a sudden everyone in the crowd just erupts and starts singing the national anthem and because everyone was there they were just singing to show they weren’t afraid. They weren’t scared and they were proud of where they were from and it was crazy!
In moments like that to you feel you’ve really made it?
Hell no! I mean we’re still playing in underground punk rock places. That was the Moulin Rouge yesterday we were playing at. A thousand kids, a tight deal. It’s not like we were playing Wembley Stadium… Actually, I take that back because also, I’ve played in front of tens of thousands of people before and I’d much rather take the feeling I got from that show, in that room yesterday to the feeling I get playing in front of tens of thousands of people.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up that gave you the feeling you’re trying to impart in your fans right now?
I think my political outcries are more so from my punk roots, so listening to bands like Anti Flag… Really a lot of it comes from bands that were talking about political things, not just parties… that were more screaming out against authority… A lot of DMX, a lot of Eminem, a lot of Tupac. You know, people that really knew how to make you feel a certain way. Today I was doing a photo shoot and I was listening to Red Hot Chilli Peppers, soaking in that timeless music and how they mixed Funk with Rock and Roll and the way people were looking at them at the time was crazy. Now, people are looking at me like I’m crazy mixing Rock and Roll with Hip Hop and Punk Rock, but fuck ‘em dude. Everyone’s scared of change, and then ten years later they say you’re great.
So that eclectic mix of inspirations is important to you… is it important to not just go down one road?
Definitely not… I was saying this earlier – Eminem did everything he could do as a rapper, let alone as a white rapper, let alone as a white rapper from the Midwest. I didn’t come into this game to be second to anybody. So if that means I have to be great in my own lane, even if I have to create my own lane which requires you digging the path, putting all the asphalt in, making sure it’s flat and good to ride… that takes a long time. It’s not like I’m seeing crazy media success from my journey but a slow journey equals a long journey.
Tell me a bit about General Admission – your latest album.
It’s the album that I wish had been my first album, it’s my sophomore album. I took three years to make it and I think when you’re 25 you’re a lot closer to who you’re going to be and when I made the first album I was very young and just got a record deal and was dealing with getting a lot of money and then losing a lot of money and fights and… and it just really was too much pressure I felt. So I just gave the album to the record label. But with this album I wanted every song to hit me, I didn’t just write a song then write a song. Even if it took me months between writing songs, I just waited until a song hit me. It sucked, and it was a very unconfident period for me. A lot of people who were on my team stopped believing in me and started treating me like people did back before I was signed… but that hunger gave me that drive to go out and make another one. To make a record that was the number one in the Hip Hop charts, after a three-year absence.
How do you go about making a song? Do you get a feeling you just need to write down or?
Some songs took months to make, some songs took months to wait until inspiration hit and then inspiration would strike and then they were just done! Like that song with Kid Rock, we made that song years ago, almost two years ago and we were like this sounds too much like we’re trying to be Kid Rock… it sounds poser-ish, trash it. Then a year later, Kid Rock actually got on the record, and when I heard him on the record I was just thinking oh my God, now I know what this song needs to sound like, and I wrote those verses in five minutes. The first version was too foul to clean up for radio… I mean, even if I wanted to clean it up. It was so foul! Every word was ass… It’s a Cleveland thing. It’s a compliment to everything you’re saying. We went to clean it up and it was like bleeeeep. So I rewrote the verses and it all come really quickly to me. Also, I wasn’t a badass a couple of years ago, when my friend was writing that hook about me. I didn’t have enough inspiration at that time to talk about being one. But I was having some moments when my friends were like Goddamn you’re the man. You know what I’m saying? There were also all these rumours about me, and all the crazy things I do, so I just came out to say this is all lies.
Back to performing, is it getting old yet? Or is it still a highlight?
It’s definitely not. Especially because this is the first time I’ve brought the guitar on stage and there’s such a moment when we cover All The Small Things and when we bust that out people in the crowd just love it!
Purchase Machine Gun Kelly’s album General Admission here.