They’re a boy band, but not as you know it. Texan titans Brockhampton – all 13 of them – are redefining the term with their patchwork songs of booming hip-hop and experimental pop. Yet their last, tense album ‘Iridescence’ spoke to a difficult patch from which they’re now “healing”. For the upcoming ‘Ginger’, their fifth album, the collective turned to an unlikely muse in one Shia LaBeouf, who has become their mentor. Jordan Bassett meets the lads (and six excitable rescue puppies) in their adopted home of Los Angeles, where he finds a band rejuvenated. PHOTOS: Matt Salacuse
Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles: 11 cheery young men are walking six unruly dogs in the blazing Californian sunshine, a tangle of leads and wagging tails. NME are filming the wholesomeness when a passer-by rolls down his car window and yells, “Hey! Those dogs can’t act!”
Well, we’re in Hollywood, where you suspect even the canines harbour big ambitions – expect to see at least one of them in the background of an episode of CSI: Miami in the coming months – but it’s true these are no stage hounds. They’re endearingly unruly and chaotic, not unlike the young men walking them. Brockhampton describe themselves as a boy band, but they’re a very different prospect to the choreographed moves of *NSync or the slick machinations of One Direction, the latter of whom provide them with semi-ironic inspiration.
They’re a distinctly DIY operation with 13 members in total (this number includes a web designer and a photographer, among other off-stage members who complete the collective). Combining pop melodies with hip-hop production, they take a patchwork approach to music, the songs a chaotic mix of styles and perspectives, hybrids that jostle with restless energy.
Here today we have vocalists Merlyn Wood, Matt Champion, Dom McLennon, Joba and Bearface; producers Romil Hemnani and Jabari Manwa; web designer Robert Ontenient; creative director HK; manager Jon Nunes; and founding member Kevin Abstract, an emerging talent in his own right when the band formed in 2015. They insist there’s no hierarchy to Brockhampton and seem to have no restrictive, overarching philosophy – except that at one point Romil intones with mock-seriousness: “Excellence is the bare minimum.”
In a nod to Wonderland magazine’s famous 2012 cover shoot with One Direction and five adorable Labrador retrievers, we’ve introduced the boy band of the day to half a dozen doggos of their own, the unpredictable pups visiting Kevin and co. from a local animal shelter. Romil’s in charge of the speakers, and Pop Smoke’s bassy, drill-inspired anthem ‘Welcome To The Party’ shudders across the room as puppies bounce around the studio floor.
Did Brockhampton enjoy their morning frolicking with the puppies of Big Love Animal Rescue?
Dom: “I made a lot of friends.”
Romil: “I really needed that, man.”
Jabari: “Best. Photoshoot. Ever.”
Each member of the band appears to have his favourite pooch. Bearface, for instance, is taken with TJ, the seven-week-old toy Chihuahua who was rescued from the streets of Tijuana. Dom, meanwhile, spends the morning petting Ziggy, a boisterous 15-month-old Shepherd mix (though he’s also quite taken with Tilly, a sandy ball of fluff he describes as “dope”). At one point, Joba holds Ivy, a Chihuahua terrier, above his head, singing operatically at her.
For Tilly, who’s to be re-homed tomorrow, this is a last adventure before she settles down with her new family. As blow-outs go, a terrier could do worse than photoshoot with a boy band.
It’s a time of change for Brockhampton, too: they’re on the cusp of releasing their fifth album, ‘Ginger’, which, after much teasing on social media, will be released next Friday (August 23). There’s no stream available when NME meets the band in the second week of August, though it is, they, say, “done”. ‘Ginger’ has been preceded by three buoyant comeback singles, ‘I Been Born Again’, ‘If You Pray Right’ and ‘Boy Bye’. These share a lightness of touch largely absent from last year’s ‘Iridescence’, which was recorded in London (at Abbey Road Studios no less) and inspired by the city’s claustrophobic grime rhythms.
Is the phrase ‘I Been Born Again’ an indication that Brockhampton, who took six months out of making music together before they began work on ‘Ginger’, are creatively rejuvenated?
“I would say that ‘rejuvenated’ is a word that rings true to me,” says Joba who, sporting a blonde mullet and exuding a languid, thoughtful air, resembles a young Win Butler. “Creatively and personally. Just growing an understanding of myself every day, with us all doing our thing and continuing to make stuff together. It felt like a new energy, a new beginning, a new horizon.”
“I think that this new record is confident, more than anything else,” adds Dom. “Everyone’s really sure of themselves, and sure of their abilities and all the places that the music goes to.”
Where its predecessor is a product of London, ‘Ginger’ was recorded in Los Angeles. “We were trying to make a summer record,” explains Kevin. “And California feels like summer all the time.”
Yet, says Romil, “there’s been a little bit of London in all of our music – especially with Bearface being in the group. There’s his breakdown on ‘Jello’ [from ‘Saturation II’] and on ‘Saturation III’ I used the rewind bit [a grime technique] a lot. I was watching a bunch of videos of grime DJs and I was just like…”
HK jumps in: “Wheel it!”
“I thought that was so cool,” continues Romil. “I was like, ‘Let’s just put that in our song.’ It was like that from the jump. As a whole ‘Iridescence’ was the biggest example of that whole influence.”
‘Iridescence’ was warmly received by fans and critics, but there was also the sense the album lacked the reckless abandon that defined the band’s first three albums and the mixtape that preceded them. Those records poured out of Brockhampton in a breathless two-year period – indeed, the studio albums were titled ‘Saturation’, ‘Saturation II’ and ‘Saturation III’, an indication of the band’s approach to flooding the internet with their creativity.
On ‘Iridescence’, they sometimes sounded overwhelmed by fame, the album punctuated with melancholy spoken-word interludes. “Some n*ggas should stop hitting my phone whenever they needing money or favours done,” Kevin laments over sweeping strings on ‘Weight’.
The group’s rise was captured in the Viceland documentary American Boyband, which saw them, broke but inspired, sharing a dilapidated house in Texas, touring small venues in an old van, determined to be heard. ‘Iridescence’ reached Number One on the Billboard 200 after the band signed an historic £12.5m ($15m) deal with RCA for three albums over six years. Is there anything they miss about their younger and more carefree salad days in Texas?
“Yeah, I miss how real it felt,” says Kevin. “Everything was rooted in just trying to have a good time and trying to make stuff that could, like, make us feel better. We were sad because of our living situation. People were sleeping on the floor; nobody really wants to live like that. But if we made a good song it was like… a real moment, a period of joy, you know?”
Brockhampton met, famously, on a Kanye West fan forum in 2012. Posting on kanyetothe.com, a then-14-year-old Kevin (his real name is Clifford Ian Simpson and his username on the forum was ‘Harry Styles’) wrote: “Anybody wanna make a band? Who’s down?” The post reached a group of boys not only from all around America, but from all around the world, too – Bearface (real name Ciarán McDonald) moved from his native Belfast to Abstract’s homeland, Texas, when he joined the house Brockhampton subsequently shared in San Marcos.
On ‘I Been Born Again’, Joba raps: “Texas ’til I’m dead / BBQ and cornbread.” Although they’ve relocated to Los Angeles, does the state of their origin remain important to Brockhampton?
“Yeah, I think it’s always important for any human being walking this planet to remember their origins or their roots or where they come from,” says Joba, who is prone to lofty pronouncements. “And the time that they put in to whatever they hope to achieve. It definitely has a lot to do with my humble beginnings and a lot of people from there who helped me out – including a lot of people from this group. It holds a special place in my heart.
“The pace is slow, the air is fresh, the food is good, the portions are big, the music’s great. It’s a great place to be.”
Roots are clearly important to Brockhampton: when NME compliments Merlyn on his necklace, a gold sofa that bears his name, he smiles, “Like most things I got it from my mom.”
Yet home is a complex thing, especially when Texas is so inextricable with gun culture. “It has me scared for my life,” says Kevin. “Scared for my mum’s life, for my cousin, my niece and nephew. Just terrifying. Dangerous, man. In Texas, your teachers have guns. Your friends and your friend’s parents. Everybody has guns. So, it is terrifying… Yeah, I’m just scared, honestly. I know so many people who are terrified. It’s an overall feeling, you know?”
Brockhampton, diverse in origin, sexuality and skin colour, bill themselves as an “All-American boy band”. In Trump’s distinctly straight, white, anti-immigrant America, this seems pointed.
“It goes back to me having this weird obsession with Hollywood and, like, American imagery,” says Kevin, who wears a James Dean T-shirt. “Trump gets elected, people stop caring about happy music because no one is happy. It feels darker, and I think that is one of the reasons why we were able to find success. Even our brighter songs are kind of tongue-in-cheek and ironic. It’s not just on-the-nose poppy stuff. People respond to those darker undertones.
“I think that matches how a lot of young people feel. Their parents are upset – they’re dealing with America, their jobs are shit, and that finds its way into the house, so the kids are on Twitter or Instagram searching for something that matches that feeling. And our music is doing that. [With ‘Ginger’] we were trying to make a summer album, but midway through we were like, ‘Damn, all these songs have hooks and are catchy, but they still feel kind of sad.
“The songs feel dark, but that’s because we chase what we feel in our hearts, not what’s on the radio.”
It’s interesting that Brockhampton’s first use of the phrase “All-American boy band”, in 2015, pre-dates Trump’s presidency.
“I’m in tune,” replies Kevin. “I’m always chasing a feeling. I was listening to an album that I never put out. It’s called ‘Death Of A Model’. I was 18 and I’d just finish high school. The album has Billie Eilish-type darkness. It’s kind of wild that that music I was making then would make more sense today, you know? The tone would fit in with what’s happening now. So maybe I sensed it.”
It’s also true that Kanye, having worn the MAGA cap, is even more divisive than he was in 2015.
“That’s my hero forever, though,” insists Kevin. “He makes the best shit and I wouldn’t be here without him being a brave figure. Words are dangerous, for sure, and I get why people are upset. I’m sure that, to an extent, he gets why people are upset as well. But if we’re talking about the impact he’s had on my life, I really wouldn’t be here without that guy. I’ve never met Kanye West and I don’t know him – but he feels like a family member, you know?”
Brockhampton use the word “family” a lot. They often describe one another as such and, before they began work on ‘Ginger’, another – perhaps unexpected – member entered the fold.
“Idol. Inspiration. One of the main reasons behind ‘Ginger’.”
That’s how Romil describes Brockhampton’s muse, mentor and, by all accounts, collective adopted big brother Shia Labeouf, former star of Even Stevens turned art house actor who once posed on the red carpet with a paper on his head scrawled with the words “I am not famous any more.”
Romil continues: “Just hanging out with him and having conversations helped us to figure out what we wanted to make. One of the first times he came over to hang out with us, after he left, Dom and ‘Bari started like the first three songs that made the album – that same night.”
The band met the mercurial actor, a decade older than them, when Kevin was looking for inspiration for the video to accompany his solo song ‘Georgia’, which was released earlier this year: “I was, like, ‘I bet Shia LaBeouf would have an idea’.” He figured Jaden Smith, a mutual friend, could put them in touch. “I just hit Jaden and was like, ‘Is there any way that you can introduce me to him?’ 20 minutes later, Shia texted me and we became friends from there.”
Jabari: “Right after talking to him Dom was like, ‘Okay let’s go and make some music.’ We had spent four hours prior to that just chilling around with him talking to us and putting us on game.”
Kevin: “He’s such a sweet guy. He’s vulnerable, he’s brave, extremely creative – the best actor we have hands down. He really cares about his craft, cares about music and cares about us as people. He lifts me up man, he does. He’s my mentor big time. I talk to the guy almost every day. He’s made me way more confident – way more.”
Dom: “His transparency definitely inspired me to find intention for this last album that we made, for sure.”
Asked to define LaBeouf’s ‘transparency’, Dom replies: “He was a stranger to me before that moment where I met him. I don’t recall many people where my first time meeting them, they were the most honest version of themselves. Usually you gotta get familiar with somebody, but he didn’t really care. He wasn’t trying to put his best foot forward; he was just trying to put his foot forward. That inspired me to be like: ‘You know what? I’m gonna try that too’.”
“He taught us a lot,” concludes Romil.
Brockhampton no longer share a house like S Club did in Miami 7, though various members do live together. Kevin and Romil have a place in Laurel Canyon, for instance, while Jabari and Merlyn are in West Hollywood. “We have all the creative [non-performing] guys together in a hub,” says Dom. “Sometimes I’ll crash on the couch or in someone’s room just like old times.”
“When we’re working super-seriously more often than not we’re crashing together anywhere there’s space,” adds Romil. “When you’re in that zone you kinda wanna stay in it all the time. I get serious FOMO if I leave the studio when everyone’s working. Even though my house is only five minutes away from where we work I get really stressed because I’m like, ‘Fuck! I wonder what they’re making right now. I should be there!’ I feel like that goes for most people.”
Joba: “It’s like a safe house from Grand Theft Auto. With microphones and synthesizers, all kinds of stuff.”
“The best part is just having family there,” says Kevin. “So if you’re going through something you can talk to someone in the house. That’s my favourite part, at least. The worst part for me is just that I know it’s gonna end at some point. I won’t always have this house to go to. People get older, you know. Somebody’s gonna have a kid or something.” He brightens. “Right ‘Bari?”
Brockhampton erupt into laughter, chanting, “Baby ‘Bari!”, an in-joke that betrays their closeness. Joba slaps his knee and beams, “Congrats, ‘Bari!” Romil promises: “Dropping soon!”
“That’s a lie,” Jabari deadpans.
Brockhampton seem relaxed, carefree. Maybe it’s the puppies. Yet there’s also the sense that they regrouped before ‘Ginger’. When the band signed their whopping RCA deal last April, an ‘industry source’ told Billboard that it was “crazy times”, continuing: “It’s like an Odd Future deal, but when Odd Future did that deal, it was close to $2 million.” After grinding it on their own terms, releasing music independently, living with mates and interacting with fans online, they found themselves in the adult world of deadlines and dollar signs.
Most 20 somethings would find that daunting. Added to that, though, the band announced the following month that founding member Ameer Vann, Kevin’s childhood friend, whom he’s described in familial terms, had left amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
“That’s complicated,” Kevin says quietly. “That’s complicated to me. I guess it’s just hard for me to talk about. So it’s probably a traumatic experience for me, for sure. I don’t want people to think I’m at the low I was at once it happened, ‘cause I’m recovering and I’m healing now. But it broke me, for sure. It crushed me. It broke me and the guys. We didn’t even know how to, like…”
‘Iridescence’ was their first record without Ameer, who was widely considered a key member of Brockhampton and was often spoken of as an extremely promising, gifted rapper. Within just five months, they signed a $15m deal, lost a key member (and friend) amid scandal and headed into Abbey Road Studios to record ‘Iridescence’, which was released in September. The shadow of Ameer’s dismissal loomed over that tense, claustrophobic album.
“My memory of London is just pushing and pushing,” says Joba. “We never really left Abbey Road Studios. We mixed the record upstairs; time was of the essence. I was walking down the street and got lost – it felt like a fever dream. I have this horrible image and feeling burned into my soul when it comes to London, so I need to go back and make some new memories.”
In the ensuring six months away, Kevin wrote his solo album, ‘Arizona Baby’. “I just think that the guys needed a break,” he says. “And I needed some form of therapy. So I wrote an album.”
When the news about Ameer broke, Kevin shared an Instagram live in which he admitted that “having to deal with family problems in front of the world is very difficult”. It’s undoubted that Brockhampton are family – you can tell as much upon meeting them – but the thing about family is you can’t kick someone out, because they’re family. So where does that leave the guys and Ameer? Kevin says “I don’t know” three times and then falls silent.
He directly addresses Ameer, his childhood friend, on the stunningly forthright ‘Arizona Baby’ album track ‘Corpus Christi’: “I wonder if Ameer think about me, or what he think about me… I think about the people that surround me and how I let ’em down / I’m doin’ that right now by even fuckin’ talkin’ ’bout this / I’m sorry Dom, I prolly shouldn’t be puttin’ all our problems on the front lawn.” They haven’t spoken to Ameer since he departed Brockhampton.
Did Kevin feel better for having purged some pain through his solo record? “For sure,” he says, “and it led me to meet Shia LaBeouf [via ‘Georgia’]. That helped everything. He’s helped me so much without him even really knowing what I was really going through. We connected, man. That’s one of my best friends.” They now host weekly drop-in sessions where, for four hours at a time, around 40 people from all walks of life sit around and talk openly.
“It’s a place for healing,” says Kevin.
With ‘Ginger’, thanks – oddly – in part to Shia LaBeouf, Brockhampton appear to be in a good place.
“We’ve lived a lot of life in the last couple years,” says Romil. “This our fifth record now. In two years. So there’s a lot of things you pick up as you keep going and as you get new experiences and as you make more music and meet people – a lot of that is reflected in what we made. So much happened in the last couple years that I wasn’t able to pull from that and put it in the music. And when it came to making this record, I finally had a moment to be like, ‘Oh! OK – this is what my life has been like. This is how I feel about it.’ And then we made music about that.”
They’re realistic about fame, too, with Romil insisting that the dizzying, potentially personality skewering heights of the ‘90s and noughties no longer exist thanks to social media.
“You used to see [famous people] on TV and the tabloids in the grocery store,” he says. “Now you see everyone all the time so when you do see that person walk on the street it’s still significant but it’s not what it once was. Which isn’t a bad thing; it just what it is. Everything changes and we all adapt to that.”
“Now it’s not just you having an opinion on what you see on the tabloids in the grocery store,” says Dom. “It’s everybody in the grocery store telling you how they feel about it at the same time.”
“What’s cool is you can’t really control [fame or popularity] any more,” says Kevin. “The fame that I was obsessed with as a child? That really doesn’t exist now. The power is in the people’s hands. If the people like something then they’ll push it and then you know you’ve got an ‘Old Town Road’ situation. The audience is a part of everything. That’s crazy: fans can have mad followers and be considered famous. There are so many levels to it. So it’s kinda sick.”
“With regard to how far Brockhampton can go, it can go as far as people want it to go,” insists Dom.
Kevin’s a fan of Lil Nas X, the rapper responsible for ‘Old Town Road’, who received homophobic abuse from trolls when he broke hip-hop taboo and came out earlier this summer.
“He’s brave,” he says. “He’s the one who’s just like, ‘I’m going to do this – I’ll take the hits because we need more representation [in hip-hop] in order to make this like a more normal thing to talk about, so that the next kid can just be, you know what I mean? He’s smart as hell; he knew that the hate was going to come. I didn’t get that type of representation [growing up]. I try to fill the same void for the odd ones out, the kid at the back of the classroom, so they feel like they have a chance to make it. I want to be more brave like [Lil Nas X].”
Yet Abstract is already brave, using Brockhampton songs to talk about his sexuality. On ‘Junky’ he explains that he raps about being gay because “not enough n*ggas rap about being gay”.
In real life, though, it’s sometimes more difficult to be forthright. Kevin had suspected his mum of being distant during their phone calls because, he thought, she was offended that he was so outspoken about his sexuality. “I was feeling like she would never love me because of who I am, which wasn’t really the case,” he says. “I judged her; I was just too hard on her, really.”
Was he being paranoid because success and burgeoning fame had put physical and metaphorical distance between them?
“Yeah, there’s paranoia in there,” he admits. “But also I heard my mum say things when I was growing up that made me think she was homophobic. But she’s not. She’s a sweet, sweet, sweet lady. She really cares. It’s just because she’s from the South and she’s older than me so she says certain things. But she’s definitely not [homophobic]; she never was that. That’s how people talk in Texas. Shit like that is what Shia’s taught me: family is family.”
He blames himself for the distance between himself and those close to him because he created a bolshy social media presence which he prioritised over real life. “I fucked up because I told the internet [about my personal life] before I told myself,” he says. “And before I told my friends. I should have looked at myself in the mirror at first and said, like, This is who I am.’ It felt safe [to share online] but I shouldn’t communication with a bunch of strangers at first.”
Besides, he says, the online ‘Kevin Abstract’, who was outspoken about social issues, wasn’t ever realistic: “It was a version of myself I only showed online. It was easier to get my depressed spots out through that outlet, a more vulnerable side of me. In the real life I’m mad awkward and quiet and insecure; I’m not being vulnerable at all. I don’t want to do that no more. I want to be present. I want to tell my friends that I love them. I want to be truthful with my music. I don’t want to go to the internet first. That leads to fake friendships with the audience.”
After a rocky patch, the band are, in their own words, “rejuvenated”, succeeding in their mission to have, as Kevin put it, “the weirdest stuff on the radio, the weirder people in charge”. After the tense ‘Iridescence’, their new music is looser, more freewheeling, as it was when they were broke and ambitious in Texas. The family remains a unit – now with added Shia Lebouf.
We gave them half a dozen puppies to play with for their NME photoshoot, but Brockhampton’s dog days are over.