Colson Baker knows how it feels to be the internet’s punchline. Back in January, a few months before he turned 30, the rapper known as Machine Gun Kelly went to a meeting at his label to make a surprise announcement: he was making a pop-punk record.
Faced with “genuine confusion” – as he puts it – from label execs in the room, Baker leaped onto the conference table and jumped around as his music played. Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker proudly posted a four-second video to Twitter, captioning it, “And just like that @Interscope will never be the same”, but it was hard to find anyone else on social media who shared his enthusiasm. The pile-on was quick and merciless. The most popular quote-tweet smirked: “When you’re 10 this is what you imagine being 16 will be like”.
For all the online mockery, the pop-punk idea was no half-baked daydream, even though Baker was then four albums into his rap career. He had already recorded the bulk of the new album in private with Barker, christening it with the fate-tempting title ‘Tickets To My Downfall’. “I watched the entire internet try to make a meme of me,” says Baker, who is softly spoken in person, and more self-conscious than you might expect of a man who’s six-foot-four-inches and looks like he could sharpen knives on his cheekbones.
Finishing a joint in his bedroom – which looks, as my mother would put it, like a bomb has hit it – he adds: “They were like: ‘Haha! Look at the guy on the table believing in himself! I’ve been the guy jumping up and down on the table believing in myself for-fucking-ever. I’m not up there tap dancing for some corporate label; I’m up there spreading my passion and my belief in the music I’m playing.” He takes a beat, then adds a punchline of his own: “Also, fuck you to any of the motherfuckers on the internet who tried to make a joke of what is now the Number one fucking album.”
It’s safe to say Baker is having the last laugh. Releasing a pop-punk album in 2020 might have seemed like a gamble, but ‘Tickets To My Downfall’ has spectacularly failed to live down to the promise of its name. It’s been his biggest UK chart hit by some distance (having peaked at Number Three), given him his first Number One album in the US, and perhaps most significantly it’s so far the only rock album to top the American charts in 2020. Who would have predicted in January that Machine Gun Kelly would be the year’s biggest guitar hero? Maybe nobody, except the guy jumping on the table.
“When I saw the reaction to that clip,” he says, “that shit hurt my fucking feelings, but in my head I saw this moment already coming. It took every muscle and bone in my body to not let my pettiness leap through and repost that video the day the album went Number One.”
Baker has more important shit to worry about than being petty online. Right now, for example, he’s supposed to be leaving the house to go and shoot a movie in Montana. It’s a western called The Last Son Of Isaac LeMay, in which he’ll play the final living son of an outlaw who becomes convinced there’s evil in his genes and sets out to murder his own offspring.
Baker has built up an impressive acting resume since 2014, showing flashes of charisma despite limited screen time in last year’s coming-of-age comedy Big Time Adolescence and this year’s superhero movie Project Power. He plays the titular role in the new movie; it’s his biggest part since his exuberantly goofy turn as Tommy Lee in 2019 Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt. It’s an opportunity Baker is excited about (although he currently can’t find his varnish remover, and cowboys don’t wear nail polish).
“Me and Yungblud are like Elton John and Jimi Hendrix back in the day”
The other problem is that he hasn’t packed – hence the mess. I’m sat on a bean bag while he hovers around, occasionally throwing bits of clothing in the direction of a couple of suitcases, which are cracked open like massive walnuts. Progress is slow, not helped by the chaotic untidiness. Somewhere in the rubble he comes across a pump-action shotgun, half-buried by a snowdrift of hoodies, and tosses it toward me. “I sleep next to it,” he says, by way of explanation.
On one side of the room sits a giant silver Buddha, serenely watching this scene play out while cradling a bag of weed in one hand. Above the enlightened one sits a pair of framed cartoons of Liam and Noel Gallagher, who we agree are “proper rock stars”. On the other side of the room there’s an overflowing bookshelf, from which Baker grabs a copy of the graphic novel Fight Club 3 to add to a pile of books his girlfriend, the actor Megan Fox, has given him for his trip. The last piece of luggage he picks up as we head out the door is the most important, he says: “I’ve got to take a guitar with me or I’ll go crazy.”
‘Tickets…’ is the first record Baker has ever played guitar on. He learned as a kid but didn’t pick up the instrument again in earnest until 2017, when he was looking for a new hobby to keep himself occupied on tour after coming to the disillusioning realisation that “you can only drop so much acid”.
Back when he was a teenager growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Baker’s first band were a Blink-influenced pop-punk group called The Dumb Bunny Trio. He played guitar and didn’t sing, but lost interest in the instrument when he started listening to DMX and Ludacris and his attention turned to rap. A string of self-released mixtapes and high-energy shows caught the attention of mogul Diddy, who promptly signed him to Bad Boy Records, and also Travis Barker, who in August 2011 invited the rising rapper to hang out backstage when Blink-182 played Cincinnati.
Once we’ve clambered into the back of the people carrier that’s ferrying Baker to the airport, I ask what he remembers about that show. He takes a tangent that winds up explaining much more about the reason Baker makes music at all. His main memory of that show isn’t to do with Blink, he says, but of meeting a fan named Ryan Yex outside. Yex uses a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, but when they met, in a moment captured on film, he told Baker that he’d been so inspired by the message in his music that he would one day walk. Sure enough, a year later, Baker played a show at Bowling Green State University during which Yex walked across the stage and into his arms.
“To me, those five steps he took were more important than the fucking first steps on the moon,” says Baker, still visibly moved by the experience. “It made me see that maybe we’re here for something broader than just putting on a show. Maybe there’s a movement.”
He sees ‘Tickets…’ as part of that same movement to inspire. Specifically, he wants to be the guy to encourage a whole new generation to pick up guitars and form bands. “I want young kids to be comfortable to pick up a guitar and try,” he emphasises, “Because that was an important thing with me. It wasn’t like I was on some Prince shit where the first time the world saw me I was nailing it. I had to struggle to get here.
“Fuck you motherfuckers who tried to make a joke of my album”
“But, honestly, dude, how cool is it that I had to go through so many stages to get to now, where I’m looking at myself like, ‘Oh, this is me’?” He says there’s something missing from today’s pop culture: “a lead singer with a guitar-playing four-chord pop-punk,” of which he adds, “That’s a missing link in this current day where you can either look like Billie Eilish or A$AP. Where is the pop-punk figure of today?”
Baker is not the sort of person to let a call-to-action like that go unanswered. He says the first seeds of ‘Tickets…’ were planted as far back as 2013, when Travis invited him onstage to perform Blink classic ‘Dammit’ with the band in Los Angeles. “‘Oh, shit!’,” he remembers. “‘I’m at the front of the stage and Travis is playing the drums… and it seems to work!”.
The idea was solidified by the success of ‘I Think I’m OKAY’, the guitar-heavy closing track on ‘Hotel Diablo’, the rap album Baker released last year. The song features outlandish British pop-rocker Yungblud, a new friend he bonded with online. “I reached out because I was a fan of everything he does, including his attitude and his way of dressing,” he says. “His raw voice is so good, and he has an immense love for rock ’n’ roll. Those energies gravitate towards each other.”
The pair have stayed close since, even recording a cover of Oasis’ ‘Champagne Supernova’ in April for Baker’s Lockdown Sessions YouTube series. “It was really free-spirited how we met and stayed friends,” says Baker, who sees their relationship in classic rock terms. “It feels like a dope, across-the-pond thing, like: ‘You hold it down over there and I’ll hold it down over here.’ Together we can make some sort of union of rock stars. We’re like Elton John and Jimi Hendrix back in the day.”
The recording of the new album’s driving rock ballad ‘Bloody Valentine’ convinced Baker that he was on the right path. He knew there was a risk involved in moving away from rap, but the song came together in a single day with Barker, Nick Long (the former frontman of indie-pop band Dark Waves) and Minnesotan rocker Mod Sun, a frequent collaborator. “There were a lot of parts to that song – eight-bar drum solo, fills interrupting the lyrics, multiple voices going on – but we assembled it all in one studio session,” explains Baker. “We were like: ‘Holy shit, we built a car in one day – and it’s a good car! Maybe this is the business we get into.’”
With ‘Bloody Valentine’ under his belt, ‘Tickets’ started to come together. ‘Forget Me Too’ – the song that Baker would one day jump around to on that table at Interscope – started life as a jokey freestyle to entertain Barker’s son. It’s about finding closure by cutting ties with an old flame, but took further shape when Baker received a text that was, he says, “somewhat along the lines of what the chorus is saying”. He then invited superstar Halsey – a friend he met on the set of Cameron Crowe’s 2016 TV show Roadies – to duet on the song; she happened to be passing the studio when he called: “She was like, ‘Alright – I’ll just pull over’. She walked in and did the whole fucking thing in like 10 minutes and dipped.” Baker looks a little awestruck. “We were like: ‘What the fucking high-pitched-vocal-range shit was that?’”
“I fell in love and became a better person during the making of this record”
In the early days of making ‘Tickets…’, he was spending most of his time “coked out of my mind in a drunken stupor.” In March, when the pandemic brought the globe grinding to a halt, he was in Puerto Rico shooting the indie thriller Midnight In The Switchgrass. Meeting castmate Megan Fox, Baker says, changed the direction of his life – and the meaning of his album title.
“‘Tickets’ is essentially my diary,” he explains, “because I did fall in love during the making of this record, and I did become a better person. It’s interesting. There was probably a crossroads in the middle of making this album where the title would have lived up to the reality. I think the universe caught on to me wanting to make a change. It was like: ‘Maybe we won’t make this a reality; maybe we’ll make this ironic.’ Instead of the downfall, go ahead and have the biggest rise of your fucking life.”
The couple’s relationship provided the sweetest moment on the album: snippets of Baker and Fox talking lovingly to one another (he tells her that he’ll “cherish” their time together) are interwoven with building guitar on ‘Banyan Tree – Interlude’. It seems to be the work of a more romantic soul than the one who rapped, on last year’s bruised single ‘Hollywood Whore’: “You ain’t never gonna see me trust / Even if I got a wife, she’s just somebody I fuck.” Falling in love in the time of lockdown has clearly left Baker a changed man. “You know what’s so beautiful, bro?” he asks as we make our way through traffic. “Love is the one thing that can’t be restricted. No one has the power to stop that, as much as so many have tried in my life thus far.”
If ‘Tickets…’ is a diary documenting some of Baker’s happiest memories, it also sees him refuse to shy away from the painful ones. His father died on July 5 this year, a date of horrible significance, as it was the anniversary of the release of ‘Hotel Diablo’, on which Baker had rapped: “Doctors told my dad he won’t be here a year from now”.
Their relationship had not been an easy one. Baker’s mother abandoned the pair when he was still young, and his father then left the country to do missionary work, leaving him to be raised primarily by his aunt. Father and son had only recently reconciled; the elder was delighted that his son was playing guitar again, and his death hit Baker hard. He disappeared into “a black hole” for a month, and when he emerged went straight into the studio.
“This album is gonna make the demand for guitar music go up!”
“That was the first and only song I’ve ever cried to while I was recording it,” he says, turning his eyes away from me as he talks about ‘Lonely’, the album’s epic and emotional centrepiece. “I didn’t write that chorus at all; I just went in there and started crying and screaming. I kept repeating the word ‘lonely’ over and over and over again and as I kept saying it, that’s when the tears started coming.”
Given that he bares so much of his soul on ‘Tickets’, he says he’s been frustrated to see the album dismissed by some critics as, in his words, “catchy hooks and surface-layer lyrics”. He points to riotous single ‘Concert for Aliens’ as a song that’s been misinterpreted. “People have been like: ‘Oh, he’s doing his best Tom DeLonge!’, a reference to the Blink-182 musician’s penchant for watching the skies. Baker complains, “That’s such a surface comment!” pointing out that he wrote its lyrics in lockdown after getting sucked into conspiracy theory wormholes online.
“That song is a time capsule of exactly what the fuck is happening right now. I was forced to be in my house, as was the rest of the world, so I dove into the depths of the internet. I got lost in alien conspiracies, and that makes you start looking at the sky differently. I was thinking about aliens looking down on Earth thinking, ‘Look at these idiot humans right now’. It’s a piece of fucking art about now that you can’t brush off just because you dislike me or my face.”
By now we’ve arrived at the airport, he’s checked in, and an increasingly annoyed security guard is trying to make us take the hint that his flight is boarding. Just time for one last question, then: Where does he go from here? He tilts his head back and grins, as if the answer is the most obvious thing in the world: “Make it into a musical!”
I call Baker after he lands in Montana, where it’s freezing and he’s driving around trying to find a cigarette shop, to check if I heard him right. Is he really making Tickets To My Downfall: The Musical?
“I just shot it in four days with Mod Sun,” he confirms. “It was my first time directing.” He thinks the idea may have emerged because of a running bit between him and Sun, where they tell each other that they have to leave shortly because they urgently need to watch Grease 2.
“Maybe that joke sparked the whole idea, because now we’re making a new pop-punk Grease,” Baker says with a laugh. “It was almost like shooting 14 music videos back-to-back, but with a narrative that’s outside of my personal life stories. It focuses on other characters, and then me and [Barker] are just the narrators. It’s an interesting concept because it hasn’t been done for an album ever, maybe outside of like Pink Floyd’s The Wall.”
A pop-punk combination of Grease and Pink Floyd sounds like the sort of brilliantly over-the-top idea that’ll probably get Baker laughed at on the internet again, but I get the feeling that won’t dent his enthusiasm. Remember: he’s a man on a mission.
“Let’s just be stoked about something,” he urges. “This album might be the reason why bands of our generation, instead of the Foo Fighters, Green Day or one of those established artists, get to headline Coachella and shit like that – because this album is gonna make the demand for guitar music go up! It’s tapped into the new generation of kids, the 13-to-18-year-olds, that those bands I just named can’t reach at this point.”
Having been told by his label that guitars don’t get played on the radio, he says he made ‘Tickets’ as “a love letter to the genre”. He hopes its success on the charts helps bring pop-punk back to the mainstream. To those who remain unconvinced, he suggests: “You have to fucking blur me and the name out,” adding: “I get that people are saying: ‘How the fuck did Machine Gun Kelly make the fucking biggest rock record of the year?’ I get that concept sucks for some people, and it may not have been your choice – but it fucking happened.”
He lets his moment of victory hang in the air, the mark of a man who is never going to stop jumping on tables. “It’s a good vibe, is it not?”
Machine Gun Kelly’s ‘Tickets To My Downfall’ is out now