The Pop-Punk Patriarch
Fresh off his first flight in 13 years, Travis Barker talks mentoring a generation of artists and finding strength in his new relationship.
Three days before his NYLON cover shoot in August, Travis Barker ghosted. As our emails about photography and creative direction went unanswered, we were all but certain we’d have to go back to the drawing board for September. But it’s hard to truly disappear in the Instagram age — especially when you’re one half of a couple with over 144 million followers combined.
On the eve of what was supposed to be our shoot, Barker and his girlfriend Kourtney Kardashian were joint-posting from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This would have been a flaky celebrity move, had the getaway not marked the first time Barker had flown since 2008, when he was involved in a tragic airplane crash that left him severely burned and traumatized, and that killed both pilots and two of Barker’s friends who were also on board. And had the circumstances of Barker’s return to air travel not been completely, romantically, out of his control.
“I didn't even know I was going,” Barker says while navigating his Rolls-Royce SUV from the rescheduled shoot to his recording studio just outside of Calabasas. His steering wrist is adorned with a black souvenir bracelet that reads “Kourtney,” threaded in a sunrise gradient. “I made a deal with her that she had just said to me, ‘I would love to do so much traveling with you. I want to go to Italy with you. I want to go to Cabo with you. I want to go to Paris with you. I want to go to Bora Bora with you.’ And I said, ‘Well, when the day comes you want to fly, I'm telling you I'll do it with you. I would do anything with you. And just give me 24 hours’ notice.’ And that's what she did.”
The flight, which Barker called “the easiest ever,” was a quick two hours. The night before, to prepare, he and a friend did some breathwork, which he practices to “go deeper” into his subconscious. He says the simple act of mindful inhalation and exhalation can make you laugh, cry, and feel high. In the afterglow of the trip, he feels “awesome” and, even in rush-hour Los Angeles traffic, emanates a blissed-out energy that can only come from conquering a great fear, or from being so in love that his iPhone lock screen is a photo of his girlfriend sleeping. He and Kardashian already have an idea of where they’ll fly next, but he’s keeping the destination to himself. (A week later, a flurry of paparazzi photos show the couple at the Dolce & Gabbana men’s fashion show in Venice.) “It's still something very new to me, but having something that gives me the strength and hope to be able to overcome things that were so traumatic in my life, it just says a ton,” he says. “She's definitely that for me. I'm invincible when I'm with her. It’s like I never dreamed, I never even considered flying again.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention to Barker’s output over the last year knows that his beach vacation was well deserved. Since the late-2020 release of Tickets to My Downfall, the chart-topping Machine Gun Kelly pop-punk record that Barker helped write, produce, record, and promote, Barker has been putting out projects at a breakneck pace, starting with January’s Downfalls High, a Facebook movie he and Kelly made to accompany Tickets, starring a cast of attractive Gen Z social media personalities with punk-rock aspirations — many of whom Barker, 45, went on to work with one-on-one in the studio.
“I'm invincible when I'm with Kourtney. It’s like I never dreamed, I never even considered flying again.”
In the lead role there’s Chase Hudson, 19, also known as Hype House co-founder LILHUDDY; Barker lent a helping hand to Hudson’s first album, Teenage Heartbreak, which is due out this month. Hudson’s on-screen bully is played by 20-year-old Jaden Hossler (who performs as Jxdn), a former member of the TikTok collective Sway House, who’s now signed to Barker’s label DTA Records, and whose July debut, Tell Me About Tomorrow, was produced and co-written by Barker. Barker first discovered Hossler through his 17-year-old son, Landon, who also has a bit part as a drummer in Downfalls High. Then there’s 19-year-old Nessa Barrett, Hossler’s girlfriend and another popular TikTok personality pivoting to rock music, who asked Barker to work his magic on an unfinished track of hers. "She was like, ‘Can you please help me? I'm having the hardest time... Can you make it awesome?’ And I was like, ‘I'll do my best.’”
With more than two decades of experience navigating the music industry and young Hollywood, Barker is uniquely equipped to serve as musical godfather to a generation of multimedia talents. After bouncing around the Southern California punk scene of the ‘90s, Barker found an uncommon level of mainstream fame, for a drummer, as the heavily tattooed and musically serious bad boy of Blink-182. Thanks to their radio-friendly sound, he and his bandmates, Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge (who has since left the group), would appear alongside pop acts like Britney Spears and 98 Degrees on MTV’s TRL in its new-millennium heyday; the network later gave him a reality series called Meet the Barkers in 2005, documenting his life with then-wife, model and actor Shanna Moakler, as they started a family and built their personal brands. Thanks to Barker’s talent and work ethic, his celebrity never managed to eclipse his musical reputation. As Blink went on hiatus — and as Barker got divorced and dealt with PTSD and drug addiction in the wake of the 2008 plane crash — the drummer only grew more in-demand as a collaborator across genres. Today, his touch is all over the charts; Willow Smith enlisted him for her rock rebrand earlier this year, and he’s recently lent his production prowess to rappers like Trippie Redd and Young Thug.
As for why his pop-punk sound is experiencing a renaissance in 2021, Barker — instead of waxing philosophic about our year stuck inside with our pent-up angst — matter-of-factly points to the commercial success of Tickets to My Downfall. “I know kids that heard that and were under the impression it was a new genre of music that was just invented,” he says. “At one point, Blink-182 was for sure that to some people ... For us to be, to a kid or a teenager, like, ‘my first punk band, Blink,’ and then as long as you discover Bad Religion and as long as you discover Minor Threat or Fugazi, then I'm happy. So if at this moment right now, if MGK [Machine Gun Kelly] and Jaden inspire people to go buy a Descendents record, I'm stoked.”
“I know kids that heard ‘Tickets To My Downfall’ and were under the impression it was a new genre of music that was just invented.”
Despite his unrelenting self-imposed work schedule, Barker himself is the embodiment of SoCal euphoria. He’s fueled by grueling workouts and alternative milk matcha lattes; he’s an investor in plant-based LA restaurant Crossroads Kitchen, and sells CBD tinctures through his brand, Barker Wellness Co. Laid-back in skinny jeans and sleeveless merch from his own record label, he casually drops Outkast lyrics in conversation with his surfer drawl, flashing a mouthful of tooth gems when he laughs.
His Zen demeanor is a welcome departure from the hyperspeed social media world his artists came up in. “I've never even seen Travis snap yet,” Hossler says. “I think it's because he doesn't have to. […] He has a lot of strength, but he knows how to lead, like, really well. And he's very gentle as well in the sense that he just carries a presence. I learn from that.” In a time when a constant stream of content is crucial to a rising musician’s success, Barker — who played the fame game but always put the music first — is the rare role model whose model of success still feels relevant.
“I don't really have a good relationship with my dad right now, and so he's been really cool and really stepping in … he's just a good person to lean on,” Hossler says. “He just really cares, man. And, like, even to his own son and watching him, how he's a dad. He's one of the greatest dudes I've ever met, one of the greatest fathers who just does it right. I'm not saying he's always done it right because he admits that he used to be a punk or whatever, but, like, he is just a good dude now.”
For Machine Gun Kelly, who says Barker is the person he can call for anything at any hour of the day, Barker is living proof that art doesn’t require self-destruction. “He showed me that I can attain a lot of the same highs that I search for elsewhere in music, because since his plane crash, he took the road to becoming sober,” MGK explains. “And that never affects the way that his art came off, or how I look at him like he's a fucking rock star, you know what I mean? He encouraged me to be in the studio and start to find highs in the music.”
Barker says that, in addition to allowing him to pivot full-time to producing and writing, the world slowing down amid COVID let him do more run-of-the-mill stuff like cooking and cleaning at home with his family. It created space in his life for the relationship that blossomed this winter with his longtime friend and neighbor, Kardashian, 42, turning some of the normalcy, like weeknight sushi dates or rounding up the kids for a day at Disneyland, into paparazzi bait. But Barker seems unfazed by the attention. He tells me he doesn’t know whether their relationship will appear on the Kardashians’ new Hulu show. A happy home life is its own reward. “I'm like, oh God, like spending time with my kids is so important and spending time with someone I love is so important,” Barker says. “And just both those things make being creative and making music so much better.”
A couple of years ago, Barker built a tricked-out studio — complete with a gym, office, kitchen, apartment, and art collection — 10 minutes away from his home, saving him precious hours of commuting time every day and, at times, enabling his workaholic tendencies. “Me and Travis invent ways to go to the studio, even if we have absolutely no reason to be in there,” Machine Gun Kelly says. “Our girls [Kardashian and Megan Fox] are like, ‘I swear to fucking God, if you guys go to the studio every single day, we are going to fucking leave!’ We had to be, like, banned from the studio from each other for a minute.” But the cozy location also allows for impromptu visits from his kids, Kardashian’s kids, and his artists’ kids. “The times when we were working on [Tickets], and we'd be in there ‘til 6 a.m. ... my daughter would sleep over with his kids, it was just kind of like a family support system going on to help us, you know, make that album,” recalls MGK. Coming from a broken home, MGK continues, he learned a lot from Barker about how to create a loving environment. “We really bond as unconventional dads, and he’s a great role model as a dad and made me want to become an even better father,” he says.
“Spending time with my kids is so important and spending time with someone I love is so important. Both those things make being creative and making music so much better.”
At the studio, Penelope, Kardashian’s 9-year-old daughter with ex Scott Disick, always finds her way to the drums, Barker says. “You can't be pushy, but you're like, ‘Oh, do you want to learn to play something?’ And she's always bright-eyed and like, ‘Yes, like I'm so excited to learn how to play.’ So she caught on really quick, like super quick.” The couple gifted her a pink drum kit, personalized with her name in script on the bass drum, and he’s teaching her how to play them on her own time. “Not weekly, like, ‘OK, Penelope, we have to do lessons today.’ But when she wants to learn then, or learn something new, I like being there to fill that little space, that creative space in her head. I think next, she's just going to record something at the studio.”
Barker’s son, Landon, writes music in addition to modeling, and his 15-year-old daughter, Alabama, has musical aspirations as well, singing and writing music in addition to making a splash in the beauty vlogging space. As much as Barker lights up discussing the young artists he’s working with, he gets downright giddy when talking about his children. “I love being a dad. I always say that's my best ... it's better than any song I've ever made or any accomplishment I've ever had or I've done. I feel like being a dad, just nothing compares, you know?”
“The days of hiding behind the label where they can make you a superstar if you have no personality are gone.”
Barker is quick to admit that being a pop-punk artist today isn’t at all like what it used to be. In addition to having to constantly stay connected with your fans, the pace at which artists are expected to release music has quickened; gone are the days of being able to record an album, go on tour, hibernate for a couple of years, and come back onto the scene with a new record. Perhaps the most stark difference, according to Barker, is the need for authenticity right out of the gate. “The most important thing is being real and not hiding behind the label; there's so many artists that are told how to be and what to do and people write their music for them,” he explains. “Whereas Blink was like, we do whatever the fuck we wanted and we had a lot of fun and we didn't take ourselves too seriously, and we were very genuine. I think the days of hiding behind the label where they can make you a superstar if you have no personality are gone. Social media is so important.”
When we pull up to the studio, Barker reveals he has a long night ahead of him. He has to wake up at 5 a.m. to load up his tour bus and drive to Las Vegas, where he’ll be performing a set with Steve Aoki, and he has to finish learning it before he hits the road. From there, he’s heading to San Diego to play with Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys. In between, he’ll find the time to finish an idea he’s presenting to MGK for a final addition to his upcoming album, Born with Horns, which is in production; he also needs to “mix prep” the songs and tweak the ending to one of them, per MGK’s request. He’s working on a deluxe album with Jxdn, and may partner up on an EP with alt-R&B singer-songwriter blackbear.
Barker says he’s looking forward to playing more one-off shows, as opposed to going on tour, which will keep him closer to his studio and his family. That is until next year, when he hopes to make a new album and play a massive tour with Blink-182 — the perfect opportunity to introduce a whole new generation of pop-punk fans to one of the genre’s most famous acts. There’s no telling how long this resurgence will last, but for Barker, it was never just a phase. “I grew up on punk bands. I still listen to them. I'll never outgrow that. I will forever,” he says. “That is why I'm young and that is why I still feel like I can do anything and I don't give a fuck. It's the best feeling ever.”
Top Image Credit: Barker’s own necklace
Photographer: Frank Ockenfels III
Stylist: Christopher Kim
Bookings: Special Projects
Videographer: Alex Van Brande