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Behind the Curtain: Focus and Precision, Thy Name is Travis Barker
The time is only a few minutes past 10:00 a.m in the morning and Travis Barker has already been beating on something for the better part of an hour. All around him, the unique choreography of a video shoot is revealed: camera operators and technical crew scrambling about in search of the perfect angle; wardrobe and makeup people finessing one final spike of Mohawk; and go-fers, posers and hangers-on desperately trying to position themselves in postures of self-deluded importance.
Drum crew and lighting techs are illuminating his green acrylic Orange County Drum & Percussion kit to glow like radiated frog parts. Last minute adjustments over, everybody scrambles to designated areas. The cavernous soundstage is momentarily silenced. Trav, as posse and family know him, fidgets impatiently behind the set, all angles and tats. He is a barely contained frenzy. Even sitting still, he moves faster than anyone around him. A stick of dynamite with drumsticks. A bat out of hell banging on a bass drum. A director gives the final countdown: “Three … two … one …” and a track from his new band +44 comes blaring out of multiple strategically-placed monitors, the volume threatening damage to every eardrum within a 1,000-mile radius.
The hangar-sized space resonates with the boom of Barker’s 24” bass drum and the sizzle of Zildjians. Travis immerses himself in what he is doing, both hands stretched out straight above his head in some grotesque imitation of a marching drummer. Literally rising from the stool in order to create maximum thwop, he is the modern vision of Keith Moon shaking hands with Gene Krupa. Krupa on crank; Moon on meth.
It is September 2006 and I have driven from my happy pad in the Hills of Hollywood to downtown Los Angeles where I will spend the day interviewing Travis or at least desperately trying to. I have been dispatched by Drum! Magazine to do a cover story on the drummer and +44, the project Barker formed with his Blink-182 band mate, bassist Mark Hoppus, when the band went on hiatus in 2005 (later to reconvene in 2009). I have already been at this empty warehouse located somewhere in the bowels of downtown for over an hour-and-a-half to ensure I didn’t run into traffic or miss anything. I wouldn’t.
Two minutes later and the shot is complete. The ballet has ended and everyone stands down. Or rather, everyone except Barker. For Travis the walking tattoo canvas, it is just another in a series of takes he will shoot doing the course of this very long day. He sits impatiently on his drum stool — inertia is a word not in his vocabulary — as the crew realigns cameras, checks light meters and sound levels. This entire process has eaten up barely five minutes, but the drummer was ready to go in two and he is antsy. He eyes everyone around him, staring them down with a look that says, “Who is holding this up?”
Travis Barker does not fuck around.
He and his new band, +44, are shooting the first video for their upcoming debut album, When Your Heart Stops Beating. The rest of the band is in the shot — old friend Hoppus and guitarists Craig Fairbaugh and Shane Gallagher — but they have little to do other than to provide atmosphere. Barker nailed this part on the first run-through, but the director needs a variety of lock-offs or different angles from which to choose. Unlike vocals and guitars that are always simulated on video, drums cannot be faked. So, the track is cued and for the 19th time, 20th, 21st, Travis bangs the drum loudly.
Though he is impatient, he is not complaining. In fact, this definitely different drummer lives for these moments. Since he was four years old and growing up in Fontana, California, all he ever wanted to do was play the drums. His mom bought him his first set when he was four years old and from then on, time, for him, was always measured in beats and bars.
“Everything’s okay when I’m behind my drums,” he will later reveal from the sanctuary of his private trailer. “I don’t have a care in the world. That’s where I’m supposed to be at. It’s what I enjoy so it’s awesome. I never think of it as work. Maybe after the eighth hour of filming this video and they’re like, ‘Can you play that same part again or do that same thing with your hands?’ you’re like, ‘Oh, come on.’ But it’s like, I can never, ever complain. That was my only goal as a kid was to somehow figure out a way to play drums and make enough money to eat. So everything that happened after it, I’m just smiling ear to ear. I never expected or felt like I deserved it. I was just thankful.”
The kid from California will spend nearly another hour redoing this part, bringing to the shot intensity, focus, and drama few other people would be able to muster after such a marathon grind. I would later find out that this laser beam dedication came from one place: his simple love for the craft.
Finally, the series of shots comes to an end. Two hours of playing the same 32 bars of demanding four-on-the-floor/16th note upbeats on the hi-hats has left him only minimally fatigued. His passion for the craft and a healthy lifestyle has paid huge dividends. In fact, if you passed him on the street and saw his whippet-thin body, you’d think this poor dude hadn’t eaten in a month but far from it. Daily workouts and a regular skateboard regimen has both increased his stamina and eliminated body fat. Even the assembled video crew was astounded by his seemingly endless reserves of energy.
(Editorial Note: Barker took part in rapper Post Malone’s recent Nirvana tribute set, filmed as fundraiser for charities battling COVID-19, as he seems to rarely turn down a gig these days):
I have been standing in a corner during the shoot. Earlier, I met the publicist and management team, the various hustlers and handlers, and was told that they were going to try and “squeeze” the interview in. Translated? You don’t stand a chance in hell of talking to Trav today so go stand in a corner and shut the fuck up. I would have left in three seconds after hearing that when I first arrived but I decided to be a trooper and stick it out. Besides, they had laid out a tasty catering table and I had been gorging myself on excellent sandwiches and sweets the entire morning. So I waited … and waited … and waited.
Finally as the afternoon waned, I was informed that there was a break in the schedule and I could do the interview. I was told to follow Travis. Walking behind him, I was careful not to trip over the myriad coils of camera and audio cables, trap cases and oh, yeah, the women. Beautiful girls standing around in poses of nonchalant detachment, the types of astonishing females you only saw around rock and roll royalty. I watched them as the crew and management scurried and they barely blinked an eye, but the second Barker walked by them, they began preening and purring and primping.
I watched this rock and roll ritual play out and all I could think about was, “Fuck. I would cut off an arm to be Travis Barker for one hour.” But the drummer was completely oblivious to what was happening. Not even so much as a sideways glance. Nothing. I was blown away.
We walk back to his temperature-controlled coach, a modern, custom-crafted bus with more space than my Hollywood guesthouse. We say hi to each other and immediately I’m struck by that same intensity and purpose he brought to his video performances. The words fall out of his mouth in cascades, an endless fount of thoughts, concepts and opinions. We talk for well over an hour (click here for a Q&A from the interview) and Barker lays out what +44 is and what he brings to the music as a drummer. He has no filter and no little amount of humility. He is proud of what he’s accomplished, but not boastful.
“I think with +44, our first circumstances where we had to write was in our basement. So I was writing everything on keyboard. I was actually writing keyboard parts and programming drums because I couldn’t be loud. I had a newborn in my house and whatever, and it was grind time for me. So I was sitting down there every night, just kind of like figuring out my MPC, figuring out my Triton, figuring out my MOTIF. Just kind of learning how to sequence, teaching myself, like opening new areas that I didn’t know before. So that was the beginning of +44. Mark was even programming drums. He was playing keyboards. Everything was kind of like electronic-driven, only because we didn’t have the means to have like a big room where we could set up and record real drums. So about 6 months went by of recording like that, and then we got a real studio and we brought everything to life.”
We are temporarily sidetracked when his children — Landon, Alabama, and Atiana — enter the coach and howl in pleasure at daddy’s return. He cradles one of his babies, who finds my Sony Pro Walkman microphone of particular interest. Barker gently removes the tiny hand.
There is a knock on the trailer door announcing lunch. Barker spends the time alone together with his children. While the rest of the crew waded through prime rib and chicken breasts stuffed with spinach, he remained in the bus.
In fact, no one would see him eat that day. I’m not sure if Barker ever eats. About an hour later, a handler comes calling and says Trav is ready to resume our conversation. Again, there is that Zen-like focus on the subject at hand. Lunch completed, the babies are handed over to his weekend nanny. We talk for another half-hour and wrap up the conversation.
He is summoned once again to shoot some 360° Steadi-Cam sequences. The models are still there, lounging in rapturous heat. Still, Barker cannot be bothered. He has a job to do. Seated behind his kit, Travis rotates his neck and extends his arms in preparation. Later, I’m told the day dragged on for another four or five hours.
I have no doubt Travis Barker was ultra-present in body and mind for every beat of it. That’s just who he is.
(Photo atop this piece comes from the Blink-182 music video for “Generational Divide”):
October 28, 2020