Carry The Weight: BROCKHAMPTON Interviewed
It’s approaching half-past six on the first Monday of autumn, and dozens of teenagers - mainly girls, but a handful of guys too - are crowding around the iron fence in front of Abbey Road Studios. Across the street, a sprinkling of tourists take pictures, wondering what might be attracting this new generation of fans to the hallowed ground after which The Beatles named their 11th album.
A few unassuming young guys - think more skateboarders and video games enthusiasts than N*SYNC or the Backstreet Boys - descend the front steps and cross the car park to the cafe next door, and the crowd bursts into screams. The guys remain focused but polite, not entirely comfortable but not surprised by the reaction, as they do their best to weather the storm around them.
Inside the studio is a state of calm, although it’s unlikely to remain this way for long. Right now it’s fairly deserted. A body can be made out in a glass room just off the main space - half wrapped in a duvet, illuminated by the glow of a MacBook screen - but otherwise everything is frozen in time. Even absent of people, the essence of creativity lingers in the air, ready to spring back into chaos at any moment.
Individual plots can be deciphered from the set-up of the space, betraying the traits and habits of the individuals that usually occupy them: absent characters are represented by still life sculptures made up of synths, microphones, vintage magazines, self-help books, music documentaries, a skateboard and a Nintendo Switch. In a control room next door the 1988 anime classic Akira plays in silence by a whiteboard that appears to be the blueprint for an album in progress.
Today is the seventh day that BROCKHAMPTON have spent at Abbey Road, and they never want to leave. The 13-strong collective of guys, all in their early-twenties, file back into the main room, some members returning from their cafe break, others from a conference call upstairs. As we meet, each expresses their regret at the thought of heading back to Los Angeles in a few days. It’s producer Jabari Manwa’s 23rd birthday and, despite the time, is still only the beginning of the day for most of the group, who were up until the early hours finishing a song. Most still haven’t adjusted from Pacific Standard Time and are trusting their bodies to tell them when it’s time to get some sleep. “If I’m tired, that’s night time,” declares creative director Henock “HK” Sileshi. “Even if it’s 5pm.”
Despite having already established their unique amalgamation of rap, R&B and alt-pop music with last year’s ‘SATURATION’ album trilogy, and a 2015 mixtape, ‘All-American Trash’, it’s their first time creating an album in a professional studio. The ‘SATURATION’ albums were created in houses in South Central Los Angeles and North Hollywood where they all moved together - many members from Texas’ Corpus Christi, but others from Florida, Connecticut, Granada and Ireland. When Jabari excitedly makes reference to Abbey Road’s soundproofing, fellow producer Romil Hemnani laughs: “The things you get when you work in a real studio!”
Thriving under pressure, the group have announced the album before finishing, which Romil describes as their ritual, before the group’s mastermind, Kevin Abstract, qualifies: “For lack of a better term it puts a fire under our ass. We announce a project and then we work on it. We start at zero and work our way up.”
They’ve settled upon ‘Iridescence’ as a title, and while they can’t quite remember who came up with it, someone offers that it might’ve been Jaden Smith’s idea. “It’s such a bizarre occurrence in nature: something changes colour, based on the light hitting it at a specific angle,” explains vocalist, producer and engineer Russell Boring, AKA JOBA. “I feel like we’ve all stepped into a position where light hits us a little different. Sometimes we have to search within ourselves too see the light and let it affect us. That’s speaking on my own behalf, the way I interpret it: a lot of new feelings, a lot of new angles, a new perspective, new people caring. The list goes on.”
The idea to record at Abbey Road came about during a memorable festival run on which Pharrell Williams personally requested the group join N.E.R.D on-stage at Reading. Kevin explains that he knew a change of environment was necessary to achieve the sound that they were searching for: “We went to this house in Beverley Hills, and the record started to sound different - but it wasn’t what we were looking for. So we went to another house and that didn’t feel right [either], so we felt like maybe the house thing was a dead concept moving forward,” he says slowly, calculating his words as he goes.
“The most important part of BROCKHAMPTON was just that intuition. The fact that we trust ourselves and think about how things make us feel. The energy here is new and refreshing. It’s different - the right type of different; the different that we had been searching for. It was a sound that we had been trying to make, but we couldn’t articulate what we heard in our heads. Now it feels like something that we are proud of.”
Prior to their decision to shack up in Abbey Road, the acclaim BROCKHAMPTON had received off the back of last year’s three albums had thrown a spanner in the works. Throughout the ‘SATURATION’ trilogy, the group was thriving off their new surroundings: “When you’re in Texas and you have a dream, people tell you it’s far fetched,” says JOBA. “For a long time I told myself: when I get to LA shit will be different, and I’ll show you. For me, [when I moved to LA, I wasn’t] going back home regardless. We were desperate to make it work.”
Having three successful albums - particularly in such a short space of time - left the group with lofty expectations to deal with for the first time. “I’ve learned that when you become successful for one thing, people expect that one thing I got praised for, so I’m at competition with my old self constantly,” says Kevin. “Making three albums this year and scrapping them, then making this one have been like therapy; learning more things about myself and becoming more confident with my work - trying to get back to the root of why I do this, which is because there’s something in me that feels like I need to make music.”
JOBA admits that the process of canning three albums’ worth of material is devastating, however the decision was necessary to bring them to where they are today: “It felt like a disaster, and our world’s were crumbling,” he reflects. “But when I listen back to the songs that we made, a month and a half ago, I feel like I’ve grown and I hear growth in everyone else.”
“When you care about something, you’ll know that it’s not right,” Kevin adds. “Sometimes it’s better to start over.”
The mob outside - who’ve dubbed themselves EUROHAMPTON, in crude graffiti on the studio’s perimeter wall - could be perceived as adding to the pressure. But the relationship between BROCKHAMPTON and their fans is one of mutual respect and, if anything, the fan presence provides a source of inspiration. “I can’t even imagine going to wait outside to see someone I love,” admits Romil. “It’s really cool to know that we’ve been able to have such a positive impact on their lives, that they will do things like that. When I get here there are people outside, and when I leave there’s still people outside.”
JOBA praises their respect for the creative process: “Making an album is a taxing experience. I’m thankful that they aren’t pushy with photos. There’s a certain respect I haven’t experienced before, where they don’t try to stop me or get in my way. It feels as though they are there just to support us, to be able to say that they were there.”
At its core BROCKHAMPTON is rooted in transparency, and the concept comes up multiple times throughout our conversation. As a group of young men living and working together, it’s important for them to be open with one another first and foremost: “If someone has an ego you just tell them they need to knock off their ego, and it happens sometimes,” says Kevin. “Especially with success: ego might just come out in the studio or during a conversation. I think the reason we are able to get through making three albums, and success, is because we talk through things as a brotherhood and a tribe.” They’re spurred on and inspired by each other, rushing to studio sessions because they want to be there the whole time, and at times even having to make awkward calls home to their parents: “They keep asking me, ‘When are you going to come home and visit,’” says Romil, who grew up in Connecticut. “I’m like, ‘I can’t, I might miss something…’”
That tribe mentality extends to their fans, who have become invested in BROCKHAMPTON’s world. “We have an audience who cares because we’ve been very transparent,” Kevin continues. “The way social media, and media in general is now, everyone feels a part of whatever it is that they like. They feel like they’re a part of the process: a fan feels like they’re in BROCKHAMPTON. It’s not just a poster on their wall, which is why they expect so much from us.”
Kevin admits that bringing the audience so far into the work can have a downside, and he tries not to worry about fans too much while inside the walls of the studio, promising that he’ll return to thinking about them once the album is complete. Rapper and singer Matt Champion admits that he’s constantly considering the importance of the audience while he’s putting his ideas down: “It’s that voice in your head, ‘Will people understand me in this album as much as they did before? Am I being understood and am I speaking out in the way that I want to?’ It’s a constant argument of, ‘Should I care how people feel about what I’m saying? Or does it not matter at all?’”
Right now, BROCKHAMPTON are caught in limbo between being fans and icons themselves. They don’t want to lose inspiration from their peers and musical heroes, but they’re beginning to feel the weight of the super-human expectations that fans have of them. BROCKHAMPTON lore states that they all met on a Kanye West message board, and they are all genuinely really excited about music in general. Rapper Merlyn Wood is a big fan of UK music - pre-dating this trip - and reels off a list of names he hopes to meet, including Krept & Konan, Skepta, Novelist and Lancey Foux. Romil nerds out about specific drum samples used in ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, and JOBA is inspired by the history of the analogue equipment available to them at Abbey Road: “For this whole time [we’ve been sitting here], I’ve been listening to that,” he says, indicating a low hum that fills silence.
“People think that’s annoying. For me that’s the fucking tape machine that the Beatles did [‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’] on - the Studer J37. I’ve been fucking around with emulations of that on a computer, and then you hear it and it kind of puts into perspective like, ‘Damn, John Lennon, Paul McCartney; those guys were just human beings.”
The sobering experience of creating in the same space once used by The Beatles, and also - as they mention multiple times - Amy Winehouse and Frank Ocean, is a reminder that these icons are no less sensitive than the rest of us. “I feel guilty about the way that I looked at certain artists,” admits JOBA. “Where I was quick to discredit their work without really giving it a true listen. It’s shown me things I don’t like about myself, and a big reason why social media gives me anxiety is because I see myself in people that say things that hurt my feelings.”
‘Iridescence’ will prove to be a pivotal entry to BROCKHAMPTON’s quickly growing discography, and if all goes to plan, should draw them closer to icon status. While this will undoubtedly cause further challenges to their creative process, they can’t be phased by what-ifs right now - marketing, merchandise, tours, even fans, can come later. Presently they’re enjoying the creative impulses that carried them to this point in the first place.
“Being an artist is easy, you’re just painting,” says Kevin, right before a birthday cake is carried into the room for Jabari, bringing our interview to a triumphant end. “But being an artist with success, that’s when it gets hard. How are you going to sell that painting, or what if people don’t like the painting? Then you have to make a decision at that point: ‘Do I give a fuck what people think, or do I just want to paint?’ [Making this album] feels like painting again.”
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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Ashlan Grey
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
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