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The Early Rise of Kevin Abstract


OFFICE — So American Boyfriend’s just come out, what’s this past week been like for you?


KEVIN ABSTRACT — It’s pretty calm. I guess things happen here and there that I get stoked off of, but it’s pretty calm. Yeah, it’s just been figuring out what I’m gonna do next— not figuring it out, but just trying to do it.


O — Well that’s nice that it hasn’t been hectic. Have you been doing a lot of press?


KA — Yeah, a lot of the press I did, I did right before the album came out, so I get to finally see those things come out. I’ve been planning a video for the next single, that’s been taking up a lot of my time. It’s for a song called Runner, it’s one of my favorites. I’m also planning this prom, like to have my own prom basically for kids that never got to go to theirs. People like me, and most of my fan base. That’s gonna be fun.


O — And you’re performing?


KA — I’m gonna do the whole album, I’m gonna have Jaden Smith come out, and the Neighbourhood.


O — So you moved here to LA about six months ago, right?


KA — Yeah, I moved here from Texas, and I lived in Georgia for a little bit, the last two years of high school. In Texas I lived in Corpus Christi, and I lived in The Woodlands, which is like a suburb north of Houston. Arcade Fire, some of them are from there.


O — What made you choose LA, as opposed to, say, New York, as your destination?


KA — New York’s too cluttered for the way I think about things, and sometimes I just have to be somewhere where I can go outside and breathe a little more, if that makes sense. See more of what’s actually around me, and be a little more in control. I like having control of certain things in my environment, when I’m in New York I don’t feel like I have that—maybe just not now because I’m, uh...I’m not rich. If I had more money, then maybe. But California feels like its own world, it’s crazy. Coming from Texas at least. I love it here.

O — Tell me about Texas.


KA —Well Corpus is kind of like a beach town almost, there’s the ocean, and the palm trees. That’s one of the reasons I like LA so much, because it reminds me of it. Except Corpus is not as beautiful as LA, but it’s beautiful in its own way. Selena’s from there. Pretty cool. The type of hip-hop scene there is like Baby Bash, Paula Deanda, just weird pop things. I was just always on the internet growing up, so I found Kid Cudi through Kanye West’s UniverseCity blog, that sparked a lot for me. Tyler, the Creator, Odd Future, all that stuff was like a really big turning point for me as an artist, and as a person. The Woodlands was just a boring suburb with a bunch of white people, not many black people or people of color, not too much culture I could resonate with. But what I found that I liked the most about the suburbs was the fact that there’s a lot of pain behind the beautiful homes and shit. I ended up bringing that to my music, and that’s what my entire album is.


O — What is that pain, where does it come from? I guess I’m not really surprised to hear that it exists.


KA — It’s not really surprising. I think it just comes from broken families, and lies. People should just be way more real with each other, and there’s a lack of that, in the suburbs that I grew up in. 


O — Do you think there’s something about the suburbs that’s inherently less honest?


KA — People just want to keep up with other people’s lifestyles and money, they all have to look a certain way and they don’t want to be real with each other. This guard is up, no one ever wants to let their guard down.


O — Do you feel like those were oppressive places to live? You mentioned The Woodlands didn’t have many black people.


KA — Yeah, I took journalism, and then after that I was on the newspaper, and the only article I wrote the whole year was about being black in the suburbs. It was cool, cause the few black kids that were there got to understand it and it resonated with them.Yeah, I heard a ton of racist shit growing up. At the time I didn’t realize it was racist, but now I have time to look back and reflect on how I was being treated and why that was not right. But I’m glad all of those things happened, because it helps with my perspective. Perspective is like the most important part of my work.


O — You’ve talked about social anxiety, and this past year we’ve seen artists like Kid Cudi and Kanye have to step back from their careers and take some time for the sake of their mental health. It’s unclear to the public exactly what’s going on, but as a young artist, and an artist who’s on the upswing in terms of fame and visibility, is maintaining your sanity a concern for you?


KA — I don’t know, I think Kanye West, Kid Cudi, those artists are super vulnerable, and super honest with their fan base and the way they use celebrity. So I really look up to them, because there’s so much on the line when you’re so much of yourself to everyone out there watching. I just realized recently that I have terrible social anxiety. I didn’t realize until someone pointed it out and then I was like “Oh, that’s what that is.”


O — That’s the term for what I feel.


KA — Yeah, exactly.


O — So do you feel like the things that make Kanye and Kid Cudi great artists are kind of the same things that leave them susceptible to these mental stresses and vulnerabilities?


KA — Yeah. Because you can be so honest with people that you start to question, “Was I too real at that moment? Did I say too much? I don’t know how America will respond to it. Or the world.”


O — You talk about America a lot—you’ve got a line, “I want to be American,” obviously there’s a conflict there for you. Texas is such an emblematic state of America—did growing up in Texas make you more American? Did it make you resent America?


KA — No matter how many times I say I want to be American to someone I’m still this black queer kid that’s wearing a headband and has dyed hair, so it doesn’t really make sense to them, they won’t accept that. But then to me and my friends, this is as American as you can get. This is the American dream, because we can do so much with our time and with our youth. We met online and moved to California together, that’s the dream to us. Since I’m an artist, I like telling people what I want to be and what I’m gonna be, and then just doing it. Like with the album title American Boyfriend you’d probably expect the cover would be this white kid from the suburbs, but instead I put myself on it, which is something I didn’t want to do at first, until I realized why I was doing it on purpose. 


O — I took that line “I want to be American” at face value, but it can also go the other way, meaning that you want America to be you, that you want to be a definition of America as well.


KA — Yeah, exactly. Just so other kids that listen to my music relate to me, so they have a voice.

O — There’s another line of yours, “I hate my last name, I hate everything it represents.” It made me wonder, how’d you come up with the name Kevin Abstract?


KA — So, in middle school I knew this kid named Kevin, I thought he was cool and I really liked his name. Then I asked someone to describe my music and they said “abstract,” so I just pieced the two together. I did it in middle school and it just stuck. I was twelve years old.


O — Tell me about the move out here, you came with a whole crew, right?


KA — Yeah, well the first move was going to Texas. We all used to talk online all the time, when we were in high school and stuff, and we knew we wanted to get to LA, but we’d rather go to Texas first. Everybody lived spread out, from Florida, to Connecticut, to Texas, to overseas.


O — Had you all met, or were these primarily online friendships?


KA — No, none of us had really ever met. We were just talking, every day, in a group chat.


O — Wow, I feel like things like that must happen, but you don’t really hear about it.


KA — It happens, but...yeah I don’t really know if it happens.


O — That’s pretty incredible that you all were able to get together in real life.


KA — Yeah, so we spent a year in Texas, just focusing on our craft, trying to make the best possible work we could make, that we were comfortable with and comfortable with sharing with the world. Eventually we were ready to come here.


O — Tell me a little bit about this place, Brockhampton House, is this HQ for everything? You said you had a studio elsewhere?


KA — I did, I was working at a studio in Pasadena, and in Hollywood, but I mainly do all my music stuff here, visual stuff here. We did the edit for the Empty video here.


O — Can you tell me a little bit about the figures in your crew, and the roles they fill?


KA — Yeah, there’s my creative director Hanock, and we do all of my clothes together, we do all of the video stuff, album cover, everything. It’s all just us two sitting in his room working. Then my producer Romil, he also handles a lot of the Brockhampton stuff in general, other solo artist acts. There’s Joba, our engineer, there’s Albert, our guitarist, and then there’s all the solo artists. Those are all the key components. Also Ashlan, he does any film stuff that you see pop up on social media. There’s no one in the group that doesn’t have a significant role or purpose. Everybody’s focused on something, we trimmed the fat a long time ago. There used to be like thirty of us online, but when we said we were gonna make the move, a lot of people weren’t down. Then in Texas we lost like two people. It was natural.


O — Listening to American Boyfriend I hear a strong ‘90s alternative vibe, and I was a teenager when that music was popular so there’s sort of a nostalgia to it for me, but for you, being younger, was that genre something you had to actively investigate or excavate?


KA — I guess I just thought about some of the first music I was ever exposed to, and how that affected me growing up. Everything in my work is based off of mood, and how something makes me feel, and that’s also how I develop my taste for stuff. So yeah I just thought about the music that I loved the most as a little kid, I wanted to make stuff like the Goo Goo Dolls’ Iris, the way that song makes me feel is how I wanted my entire record to make people feel.


O — So how were you exposed to that sort of music as a kid?


KA — It was just stuff like my sisters listened to. Then growing up you hear it and say “Oh damn, that reminds me of when I first heard it,” that whole nostalgia thing.


O — Yeah, Goo Goo Dolls must still be on the radio I’m sure. So you’ve got sisters, are they all older?


KA — Yeah I’m the youngest, and then I have a brother too. O — Are your parents in your life? How do they feel about what you’re doing and your success? KA — Yeah, I talk to both my mom and dad pretty often. I think they’re pretty happy, I don’t know. I’d say they’re happy, cause this is definitely not what my family wanted me to do, so it’s cool I’m making it work, slowly but surely. O — Any other artists in the family? KA — No, I’m the only artist. When I was fourteen I knew I wasn’t gonna go to college.


O — That early? What was the rationale, how did you know you didn’t want that?


KA — Um, what happened that year... I saw The Social Network, by David Fincher, and I just knew I wanted to do art.

O — Was film one of the first things you wanted to get into?


KA — I just knew I wanted to do art. But right now I’m writing a movie, because I met this dude who really liked the Empty video, and he’s trusting me enough—which is crazy—to like, write my own thing. So I’ll probably spend the next year or two doing that.


O — I figure the more you can toy with different facets of art the better.


KA — Yeah, and I like to start early too.


O — American Boyfriend, as you’ve described it, is super pop, but you’ve done music that differs from that sound pretty starkly. As each successive release of yours is going to make more of an impression on the public of your artistic persona, do you feel pressure to choose, to focus on any one genre? Or are you going to keep throwing curveballs?


KA — I might say keep throwing curveballs, cause I know I want my next album to sound like early Cash Money shit. It’s a curveball, but at the same time I want it to sound like a Kevin Abstract album.


O — Where do you seek out music?


KA — I listen to a lot of early 2000s music. R&B stuff, and hip-hop like G-Unit, Ashanti. That’s what I’m really into right now. I just surf the web, use Apple Music playlists, stuff like that. I kind of listen to the same music over and over. Might not be the best thing for a musician, but at the moment that’s what I do.


O — You supported the Neighbourhood on their European tour, are those some of the bigger shows you’ve performed to date?


KA — Yes, that and also Camp Flog Gnaw are the biggest shows I’ve ever played. I always, always wanted to tour with the Neighbourhood, so it was sick that I was able to do that. It was awesome because you get to go on stage every night and try to win these people over who have no idea who you are, and they listen to Twenty One Pilots, the Neighbourhood, the 1975, Halsey and stuff like that. So the fact that I was able to win some of them over, and get my foot in the door and be a part of that—like, I want to be a pop star, so it’s cool to win those girls over when there’s no way they’d ever hear my music. It’s not like they’re checking The Fader or anything, they listen to the radio. So it was really cool to expose myself to those type of people. And also to see that it worked, because it gave me a little bit of hope.


O — It’s nice, as an artist who’s used the internet to advance his life and career, that you’ve also still got these analog methods of getting your music out there.


KA — Right. I would ask these people if they’d ever heard of Young Thug, and they’d say “No.” I was like “Wow, that’s so crazy.” But that’s because I think with media on the internet, there’s this bubble that most of us are trapped in. You’re just in your bubble, and you can go outside of it but most people don’t, especially if you’re just in that bubble to get art and stuff. There are so many basic human beings that go to high school, and prom and shit, and they would never hear about someone like me. That’s why I want to transcend, and not just be this internet rapper, I want to be so much more than that. And I’m cool with the slow build-up, because then I feel like I’ll just be around for longer. 


O — It’s an interesting concept, how easy it is to settle into a certain corner of the internet. People always argue that the internet is this great equalizing, democratizing, globalizing platform, and everybody can see everything now, so the world is going to gain all this perspective, but at the same time you’re going to look for what you want, and not everybody knows how to look for it, and so it’s not quite so utopian.


KA — And it’s not healthy, because you don’t see the truth sometimes.You see what you want to see, and that’s awesome, but at the same time I just wish there was a way to expose all the fucked up shit. That’s why I think it’s important to talk about racism, and bad shit, and how people feel.


O — I think talking about those things, and also this tendency to seek out what you want and not necessarily be able to discern between the truth and falsehoods, have been a huge story since the election. People are in disbelief of how this could happen.


KA — If everyone sees this, then how did this happen? That’s why I say it’s unhealthy. For me it just felt like a wake-up call. There’s more than my bubble, there’s more than California. There’s Texas, where I’m from, and how those people actually feel. You forget sometimes, because the world is going where you want it to go. It is, but it’s not fully.


O — Right, or there’s a ton of people out there who feel the world is going in the opposite direction of where they want it to go, and sometimes those people are going to pull in their direction, and you’re like “Oh shit, what?!”


KA — Yeah, it’s a bummer. But I think within the next four years we’re going to get some of the best art that we’ve heard or seen in a very long time. People are going to be more emotional. Definitely more emotional.


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