Why Everyone Wants to Work With Travis Barker
Why Everyone Wants to Work With Travis Barker
Travis Barker kicked off 2022 not with a resolution, but a confession: “I’m just a musical prostitute,” read one of his first Instagram posts of the year.
“I am,” Barker confirms today with a gentle nod, sitting behind the mixing boards in one of the two recording studios at his Woodland Hills, Calif., compound (the other is currently occupied by his 18-year-old son, Landon). “I just love music. It was kind of a dig at everyone that’s like, ‘Who’s he going to collaborate with this month?’ ” He’s seen the memes of the poster for the upcoming When We Were Young festival, with its stacked bill of pop-punk acts — the ones poking fun at him, “Like, ‘Travis Barker is going to be exhausted,’ ” he continues with a barely-there grin. “It’s funny — whatever.”
Barker, 46, may shrug it off — in person, he’s strikingly calm, especially compared to his incendiary spirit when sitting behind his kit. But over the past couple years, the Fontana, Calif., native, once primarily known as the drummer in Blink-182, has emerged as one of music’s most in-demand, influential hitmakers. In September 2020, Barker executive-produced Machine Gun Kelly’s Tickets to My Downfall, signaling a sonic metamorphosis for the rapper-turned-rockstar, which debuted atop the Billboard 200. Since the start of that year, Barker has logged 13 entries on the Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart and just executive-produced MGK’s mainstream sellout, which again debuted at No. 1 on the albums chart.
Shortly before Tickets’ release, Barker had launched his own label, DTA Records, in partnership with Elektra Music Group, signing rising stars jxdn and Caspr and, later, Avril Lavigne. Suddenly, it felt impossible to ignore: Barker was the creative force quietly powering the resurgence of pop-punk — and injecting rock music with new life in the process. “I’m not going to take credit for the sky being blue or my tattoos being black,” says Barker, “but we did bring that genre back.”
Yet Barker has never been interested in confining himself to one genre box, and launching DTA didn’t change that. The label’s first official single was “Gimme Brain,” a collaboration between Barker, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross — a result of the many years Barker had already spent establishing his credibility as a collaborator with rappers, too. “Back when he was starting to professionally produce and give people beats, it was at a time when all the hip-hop guys wanted to be rockstars,” recalls Barker’s longtime manager Lawrence Vavra, who first met the artist through the late DJ AM in the early 2000s (Barker has had the same small, core team for nearly 20 years). “So all of these guys, like Lil Wayne, really were drawn to Travis because they had so much in common already. He’s always been the guy who’s been able to have credibility in every genre he’s ever dabbled in.”
Now, Barker’s ever-growing list of collaborators includes not only his DTA signees but a mixed bag of artists, including iann dior, k.flay, WILLOW, Bebe Rexha, Young Thug and more. Last summer, he signed a worldwide administration deal with Warner Chappell. He was nominated for producer of the year at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in March (FINNEAS won). And industry gatekeepers have clearly realized he’s the kind of tastemaker now recognized by a wider audience: Barker recently anchored the all-star band (also featuring D-Nice, Sheila E and Robert Glasper) at the Academy Awards and, one week later, delivered an invigorating Grammys performance drumming alongside H.E.R. and Lenny Kravitz.
“I say no a lot,” Barker insists. “I would play on a million albums a year if I could — it’s just being smart and working with people I really love and have a lot in common with. I rarely do something that’s brought to me from a publisher or my managers. I usually work with people who I know and that I call a friend. That’s how Trippie [Redd] and I worked — he hit me through DM or called my phone. Same with X[XXTentacion].”
Even during Blink’s heyday, he was drumming in the video for Diddy’s “Bad Boy 4 Life.” And ever since starting a clothing line in 1999, Barker has been intent on keeping up his pace. His MTV reality show, Meet the Barkers, with his then-wife Shanna Moakler, premiered in 2005. In 2011, he released a star-studded solo album (featuring everyone from Kid Cudi to Corey Taylor; he plans to work on another). By 2013, he invested in a Los Angeles vegan restaurant (Crossroads Kitchen), in 2015 he released his autobiography, and last year he started a cannabinoid-infused line of wellness products.
There’s also the matter of his love life. Barker proposed to Kourtney Kardashian last October in grand fashion, on a rose-strewn beach, and while it was widely reported that they’d married in Las Vegas after the Grammys, the pair simply “practiced” saying “I do:” as Kardashian posted on Instagram, “after an epic night and a little tequila” they got married with no license, and they plan to wed later this year (currently they’re focused on having a baby). Needless to say, Barker will make several appearances in Hulu’s The Kardashians.
“Keeping up is the key,” says Vavra. “If you asked people 20 years ago [who Travis Barker is, they’d say], ‘Oh yeah, he’s a pop-punk drummer in Blink.’ Now, if you ask a random kid, I honestly don’t know what they’d say about him. I think that’s what he wants.”
Barker remembers precisely when he realized he wanted to sit somewhere other than behind his kit: He wanted to be behind the boards. He’d just joined Blink-182, ahead of the band’s 1999 mainstream breakthrough Enema of the State, which included the hit singles “What’s My Age Again?, “Adam’s Song” and “All the Small Things.”
“There came a time where I was like, ‘F–k, should I keep my mouth shut or should I say something?’ and that was with Enema,” he recalls. He started offering ideas on song structure, landing writing credits on a few tracks, and to this day die-hard fans cite his contributions as key to the album’s breakout mainstream success. “It was when I stopped being afraid to make suggestions,” Barker continues, “which is when I realized I love producing.”
By that point, Barker — who’d been drumming since age 4, when his late mom gave him his first kit — had plenty of experience seeing what happened when he did, or didn’t, voice an opinion. After graduating from high school, he worked as a garbage man while playing in local punk bands around Laguna Beach, Calif., eventually joining the Acquabats. They opened for Blink on a nationwide tour, and when the band’s original drummer quit in 1998, Barker was there to take his place.
“I remember doing photoshoots and the photographer was like, ‘Put flowers in your hair,’ or ‘You guys should all be in bed together,’ ” recalls Barker of his early days in Blink. “It was crazy, and we were so down to do whatever.” He doesn’t regret all the times the band said yes; he doesn’t even cringe remembering that European fans took the boy-band-parodying “All the Small Things” video literally, assuming Blink was one too. Still, “no one was ever like, ‘Hey, you could say you don’t want to do that.’ I think now it’s refreshing if the artist is a creative and has a choice or [makes] the decision. Understanding that you don’t need to follow the rules or keep it as sterile as whatever the record label’s rollout plan might be — it’s way more exciting.”
Barker also noticed what the labels didn’t do. “I feel like normal heads of record labels, you really can’t get on the phone,” he says. “At the heyday of Jimmy Iovine running Interscope, I couldn’t be like, ‘Jimmy, what do you think about this? Do you think this bridge is too long? … Me and my chick are having problems, talk to me.’ That didn’t exist.” (Iovine declined to comment.)
It made him realize that, maybe, he could offer something much more hands-on if he were to sign artists himself — which he did for the first time in 2004 with his own LaSalle Records, a former Atlantic Records imprint (the label is only active with digital sales distributed through The Orchard). As a label head, Barker saw how he could “shape [artists] and make sure the music is right and they’re making the right decisions and they’re smart with their money,” he continues. “Make sure they have a family of people around them who are going to help them and take them on tour and answer the phone at three in the morning when whatever is happening.”
Years later, when Elektra Music Group’s vp of A&R Johnny Minardi first met Barker, he was immediately taken by that willingness to go above and beyond for his artists. It was 2018, and Barker was working with producer John Feldmann to develop and produce rock band The Fever333; Minardi was signing the act to Roadrunner, an imprint at the just-launched EMG. He recalls “the first time our brains aligned” — a night when he and Barker bonded over an obscure Zack de la Rocha song called “digging for windows” — and they kept in touch.
“He would tell me stories of how he would develop and work with these younger artists and get their vision across and level them up — and then they’d go on and do what they do,” Minardi says. “He is so hungry to find new ideas and help an artist get to another place.” Well aware that Barker had previously started LaSalle, Minardi invited him to dinner and pitched him the idea of becoming a label boss once again.
“He immediately was like, ‘Yeah, I just would need the right team,’ ” recalls Minardi, “and I kind of was like, ‘Well, we’re the right team,’ ” referring to himself along with Elektra Records’ co-presidents Gregg Nadel and Mike Easterlin. (Outside of that trio, the only other person helping power DTA internally is Barker’s day-to-day manager, Daniel Rojas.)
Since then, Barker’s ability to gain the trust of others around him has proven to be one of his greatest strengths — whether as a creative collaborator or as a label exec. There was the time he reworked MGK’s “My Ex’s Best Friend” (off Tickets) only to learn that the artist despised it. “He was like, ‘I f–king hate this, this can’t go on the album.’ And I was like, ‘Will you just please trust me, please?’ ” says Barker. “My Ex’s Best Friend” became a Hot 100 top 20 hit, and MGK’s highest-charting entry on the chart since 2018.
More recently, Barker found he needed to win over Minardi, Nadel and Easterlin when it came to signing Lavigne — a “messy” endeavor, Barker says, because she had to kill an already-in-the-works record deal to join DTA instead. “They were like, ‘Wait, she hasn’t come out with music for how long? What did her last album do?’ ” Barker recalls of the execs’ reaction to his plea. “And I’m like, ‘No, just trust me.’ ” They reacted similarly to signing jxdn: “They’re like, ‘Who is this kid?’ and I’m like, ‘This kid is going to be a superstar.’ ” In both cases, Barker was right: jxdn is embarking on his first headlining tour this month, with most dates sold out; Lavigne’s debut on DTA, Love Sux, debuted in the Billboard 200’s top 10, and she’s joining MGK on his upcoming arena tour.
“It’s been easy and nice because he’s an artist, and he’s been an artist for a long time, and so have I,” Lavigne recently told Billboard of signing to DTA. “He’s not going to come in and tell me what to do, and that was the first thing right off the bat. He’s like, ‘I’ll give you my opinion and then you make your decision … and that’s much better than being forced by a label like, ‘No, this cannot be a single.’ [He] wants me to be happy. It doesn’t feel so business-y.”
Minardi admits that for the DTA team, its pop-punk reputation has become “a slight chip on its shoulder.” But though DTA may have been built on the strength of those stars, it’s Barker’s longtime genre-agnostic tastes that could prove the key to its longevity. Barker was raised on his dad’s favorites, Willie Nelson and Chick Corea. He listens to what his kids are listening to — he heard about jxdn from a producer friend around the same time his son Landon discovered him on TikTok — and has collaborated with their favorite artists, like NLE Choppa and XXXTentacion. (Landon, Barker says, will often steal his computer at night just to hear what he’s been working on.)
“[Travis] is everything a new artist like me needs, and everything that they want,” jxdn told Billboard in 2020 when he joined DTA, and Minardi believes Barker’s nature as a “protector”— as well as his willingness to let young artists play outside genre lines — is a key reason why he’s attracting so many to his orbit. “He allows this freedom to have an artist express themselves,” says Minardi, “and find themselves.”
“I won’t say, ‘This is pop-punk,’ ” Barker explains. “I’ll say, ‘This music — like Love Sux by Avril and Tell Me About Tomorrow by jxdn and Tickets — was all inspired by pop-punk.’ It doesn’t mean that it’s just going to be that or [these artists] have to be categorized like that.”
Even Blink-182’s 2003 self-titled album — a seminal entry in the genre’s canon — wasn’t, he insists, really pop-punk. It’s a sound that, however indirectly, has influenced the rappers he’s worked with, too — including the late Lil Peep, who would send Barker videos of himself covering Blink’s “Miss You.” Barker loves hearing the pop-punk influence in Olivia Rodrigo’s music, but he’s just as excited to see what genres she’ll experiment with next.
“It’s not how it was when Blink or Green Day came out where there were pop-punk kids, metal kids, rap kids,” he says. “Everyone has been inspired by everything for so long — it just got louder this year.”
Recently, Barker decided to take a rare day off. He spent it with Kardashian in Laguna Beach — a casual day of relaxation, albeit one captured by the paparazzi as a sandy PDA-fest.
“I was [once] a trash man there playing in a punk-rock band called Feeble, so to go back in 2022 with my fiancée and just have a day laying on the beach… I can’t say how amazing it is,” Barker reflects. “I feel like I’m learning how to structure my time, trying to work enough to where I feel comfortable and feel like I earn days off and vacations, which I never took until this past year.”
It’s not just Barker’s relentless work ethic that kept him from taking time off. For 13 years, he didn’t fly after surviving a deadly plane crash in 2008 that left much of his body covered in third-degree burns. (Four people were killed; the only other survivor was Barker’s collaborator and close friend DJ AM, who would die from an overdose one year after the accident). His willingness to get back on a plane finally changed last summer, thanks in large part to Kardashian. When the pair flew to Cabo, Barker posted a photo of them embracing in front of the plane with the caption, “With you anything is possible.” It has over 1.5 million likes.
“We’re very similar, with our backs to the wall,” he says of Kardashian. “We have no quit, and I need someone like that in my life.” Recovering from his accident was the only time, he says, that he ever felt close to losing his drive: “I would’ve been forced to be done because I didn’t like to travel or I couldn’t fly or leaving the house didn’t feel good at the time, but never inside was I thinking, ‘I hate playing the drums’ or ‘I hate making music’ or ‘I hate touring.’ It was more like, ‘F–k, how am I going to do this now?’ I remember talking to my therapist and he was like, ‘When is enough enough? You’ve done everything. You’ve played the Grammys,’ lists off the people I’ve collaborated with. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m not done yet.’ ”
Barker still approaches his craft with the intensity of a newcomer, calling it “fantasy to want so much and not put in the hours or work.” His compound is set up for maximum efficiency: There’s space to film anything from Instagram clips to music videos (with props such as a larger-than-life skeleton and the iconic wire-lettered “F–K” sign that would go up in flames during countless Blink sets), and even an on-site gym and showers. There’s a small outdoor space — just enough for a breath of fresh air, and perhaps a reminder of whether it’s still daytime, since Barker, his team says, rarely leaves.
“My friends always say, ‘You work like you’re broke,’” says Barker. “I feel unfulfilled if I’m not being creative and producing stuff, being productive — but I’ve also learned to make sure I’m not measuring my happiness by how much I work.”
That said, Barker has been working an awful lot lately. If he seems like the most omnipresent drummer on TV, that’s because it’s pretty much true: He’s made featured onscreen appearances upwards of 50 times throughout his career, becoming the most-requested late night guest drummer according to his team. “The feeling you get playing drums…it’s athletic and you’re sweating, you might be bleeding and it’s depleting as if you’ve just boxed for 10 rounds — and I love that,” says Barker in an amped-up whisper. His goal for each set, no matter who he plays with, is to “kill sh-t,” and that’s no overstatement: Even on video, his technical skill and tightly coiled energy are palpable, often making it seem as if he’s moving in double time.
He’s certain that the door is wide open for other drummers to become rock stars, too. “Everyone could have said it with me, ‘Is there room for another John Bonham? Another Keith Moon?’ Even another Tommy Lee?’” says Barker, who’s known Lee for years (and, he adds, found Sebastian Stan’s portrayal of him in Hulu’s recent Pam & Tommy “spot on”). “Those are drum heroes, and I never set out to be one. But it just happens and it’s a beautiful thing. Kids have to have their idols and their gods of their instrument that they just adore.”
He’s especially proud that now he can be that kind of idol for a kid picking up sticks for the first time. “To be the Keith Moon and the Phil Collins of drumming, where you’re fun to watch and you’re a great drummer but also produce and make drum parts that people air drum and are hooks in songs? That isn’t thought about or done enough,” he says. He’s just as grateful to have persisted through the electronic and programmed drum era. “So many people thought years ago, ‘That’s a wrap for drummers,’ ” he continues. “To see it outlast all of that, it’s never going away.”
Now, Barker is determined to expand the audience for his instrument. He recently partnered with YouTube Shorts for a series of clips from his life, and initially, he figured he’d capture random, celebs-they’re-just-like-us moments fans would enjoy — like his son Landon “getting his ass kicked” arm wrestling Kendall Jenner. But then, he changed his mind. He’d use the platform more intentionally and strategically.
Before leaving a session, Barker would block 15 minutes out and have someone turn on a random song, which he’d tape himself freestyle drumming over — like Gunna and Future’s “Pushin P,” or Adele’s “Easy on Me.” With Barker’s thunderous drums on its anthemic chorus, the pleading torch song transforms into a punch-in-the-gut power ballad that’s now been viewed nearly 800,000 times on YouTube and over 3 million times on his Instagram.
“I love Adele. I adore her, and I think her music is so good,” says Barker. “When I can really reimagine a song, especially a song that doesn’t have drums in it, it’s like a cleansing of the ears for people who know it. Having someone that loves Adele suddenly be exposed to the drums is crazy.”
It’s possible such mini music experiments remind Barker of his days drumming live with DJ AM. Perhaps they feel like irrefutable proof that he’s much more than a pop-punk symbol — a tastemaker with his finger on the pulse of all kinds of music. Or maybe they’re simply a bit of particularly impressive fun; a way to fill one tiny part of his busy day with what he loves to do most. “The one thing I don’t understand is when people get so upset — like, ‘Ohhh, can he pick a genre?’ ” he says, sounding truly baffled. “No, respectfully. I can’t. I don’t want to, either.”
Why Everyone Wants to Work With Travis Barker Travis Barker kicked off 2022 not with a resolution, but a confession: “I’m just a musical prostitute,” read one of his first Instagram posts of the year. “I am,” Barker confirms today with a gentle nod, sitting behind the mixing boards in one of the two recording studios…
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