kevin abstract and shia labeouf in conversation: "if all this was over tomorrow, i’d still have those people"
Kevin Abstract talks intimately with close friend Shia LaBeouf about the fruits of their group therapy sessions.
Kevin Abstract – from bedroom producer to global superstar.
When Brockhampton performed at Coachella in 2018, each wore a different word in block yellow capitals across a bullet-proof vest. At a festival where political statements are scarce, artists usually punctuating their shows with anodyne sentiments of unity, peace and love, lead vocalist and founding member Kevin Abstract appeared on stage with “FAGGOT” written across his chest. It’s a slur he no longer uses, referring to it simply as “that word” in conversation. But once ingrained in his and his friend’s shared vernacular, and then directed combatively back at him after coming out, to wear it across protective armour sent a message to a vast audience of young fans about strength and survival.
Ian Clifford Simpson, as he’s known to friends and family, was born in the Woodlands, a planned community north of Houston, Texas. At four his mother lost her job and relocated him and his siblings to Kissimmee, Florida, a small city drenched in the effulgent reflection of neighbouring Orlando and its many theme parks. From there his family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, into a house on Brockhampton Street, before returning to Houston, not far from the neighbourhood in which he started life. Finally, he finished high school in Georgia; his mother dropping him at his sister’s house there one Christmas.
Across these different cities of the American south, Ian created Kevin, an identity rooted in metamorphosis. You figure it out, he says. Most people do. But the complications of his identity – the different ways in which a person, community or institution can alienate you – punctuate his lyrics with unyielding honesty, particularly in his earlier writing.
“My best friend’s racist, my mother’s homophobic,” Kevin sings on Miserable America, a track from his second album, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story, articulating where the most complicated emotions lie and the most empathy is needed. The album alone subverts the tropes of American kitsch; the girl next door and the all-American boyfriend. Across 16 tracks, Kevin tackles the myriad ways his own self jarred with the country’s prevailing norms, continuing the momentum of his first solo album, MTV1987.
MTV1987 was released two years earlier in 2014, at the end of his final year of high school. Though it received critical acclaim, it is no longer available on streaming services as Kevin doesn’t believe the album reflects the artist he is now. After school he returned to Texas, before leaving, permanently, for South Central LA, and has since released eight albums as a solo artist and with Brockhampton – nine including Ginger, a Brockhampton album slated for release a month after we speak. These are sounds united by their ambition, individuality and energy rather than their genres. His most recent solo project, third album Arizona Baby, released earlier this year, opens with a track so frantic and erratic in its production you might miss its incendiary lyrics about queerbaiting and gay sex.
Turning 23 between our first and second conversation over the summer, this feels like a pivotal moment in Kevin’s life. Fame and success have allowed him the luxury of introspection, and a recent friendship that’s developed between him and his idol, the actor and artist Shia LaBeouf, has rerouted him on a path towards self-preservation. The pair have begun informal weekly therapy sessions that take place on Friday evenings at the Brockhampton house in LA – a house once occupied by most of the band, but now acting as more of a creative studio. Shia guides a group of their friends and family through an open forum about what each of them is feeling that week. It’s the first therapy Kevin has tried, and its impact can be felt everywhere he says, from the band’s relationships with one another, to the new music they’ve made. Connected through a shared vulnerability, curiosity and ambition, Kevin and Shia sit down together to discuss the fruits of this therapy, as well as fame, life and love.
Read Kevin Abstract's conversation with Shia LaBeouf below.
Shia LaBeouf: Let me preface this by saying I’m so fucking honoured to be a part of this shit. You are a huge chunk of my joy in my life as of late. I just wanted to say that to calm nerves and set the table. So first thing I'm going to ask is... what question would you never want me to ask you?
Kevin Abstract: I’m cool with you asking me anything.
Ok we'll start with... I’ve never asked this because I met you as a fan. What do you do?
I am a musician, rapper, producer, leader of boyband Brockhampton, filmmaker and sometime photographer. An artist overall. I find myself doing whatever I need to do for the group, to support this art-house collective thing.
Of the things you have made: photography, music, videos, experiences, groups – which of it means the most to you, and why?
The first three Brockhampton albums. You play some chords and it creates this sound and then rappers put vocals on top and add drums to it and then it’s like bang! It becomes the vehicle to get you out of South Central. That’s always going to be the most important thing because we were starving, dying for opportunities, and it means a lot to me that we put our heads together and figured it out.
That was the beginning – the brotherhood you built first on the internet and then actualised. Looking back, is there one moment where you felt it click?
When we released Star. Making that song was a magical moment. I was just listening to it on a loop in my room and then I realised that we’d figured something out. We’d figured out our formula. I wanna get away from that in a way though, I want to find the new formula now.
Do you feel genuine happiness when you share work? You said the other night, “That was a fucking perfect show”, and I thought, this has to be him at his happiest. What makes a perfect show? Is it also about what the audience receives?
Yeah, it’s not just us. Some artists say that when they do stuff it’s all about themselves. It’s all about me while I’m writing but once we put it out, I’m obsessed with how it’s going to fit into the wider culture. When I’m on stage I’m thinking, “Are you having the best time you could possibly have?” You’ve been waiting in line all day. You wanna see us. I want to make sure I can give you that. I’ve been that kid who’s been waiting in line all day so I know what that feels like.
What is the best show that you ever experienced?
Watch the Throne in Houston. I’d been wanting to see Kanye and Jay-Z my whole life and I got tickets for Christmas. Floor seats. That was a big moment. I also saw Frank Ocean right after he put out Channel Orange. The album had just come out and it connected in an insane way.
What in your life are you most grateful for?
Friendships. The family that I’ve made for myself. They’ve saved my life in many ways. If all this was over tomorrow, I’d still have those people. Something happened to me at a young age that made me curious and caring about people. I’m grateful for that because I’ve met a lot of people since that aren’t.
You had no plan B. Was it blind faith or a certainty that you would make it?
A mix of both. I remember reading that you went through the Yellow Pages to find your agent. At like 10, I was doing the same. Calling studios in Corpus and trying to book time for myself. It’s wild. I also called Def Jam when I was 11 and asked to speak to the CEO. At the time, the CEO was Jay-Z. I wanted to meet him so bad.
Did you always want to be famous? And is it what you thought it would be?
Yes I’ve always wanted it. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’ve always wanted attention. Is it what I wanted it to be? No. It’s not the stuff I grew up romanticising. Trying to find my place within it all is like, damn that’s not what I thought of when I was younger.
Would you say it was a happy childhood?
While I was a kid I was happy. Everything felt awesome. Looking back though, it wasn’t the best, although it also wasn’t the worst. The Florida Project takes place in Kissimmee and the kids are so stoked, they’re having so much fun. It’s wild because I lived in Kissimmee around the same age as the kids in the movie and it was awesome. Looking back I’m just like damn that’s where I lived. It felt magic.
And then reality does its dirty trick on you and that goes away. Do you feel like magic has come back into your life?
Yes. I do.
Can you spot when the glitter fell on your shoulders, the butterfly landed and magic started to happen again?
I would say as soon as we moved to LA from Texas. I put out a solo album called American Boyfriend. The album didn’t do what I wanted it to and I wanted the group to have a shot. Once we brought all of our struggles together, into the music and videos, that’s when we caught magic. South Central, 2017.
If you could change anything about the way you guys came up, would you? In fact, looking back at Brockhampton as a whole, is there anything that you would change?
Nah. What I like about Brockhampton is that it can change and turn into so many different things, whenever it wants. That’s my favourite part. I wouldn’t change anything.
It is the most beautiful group of people to be around.
What would you want to know about the future of yourself and the group?
How long does it last?
How long does what last?
Not success or attention. The friendships. Maybe I’m asking because I have these weird trust issues.
Can you chart when those started?
I’ve always had them. Success made me even more paranoid but I’ve always been on edge. I want to just let people in. My trust issues aren’t something I’m proud of.
I can attest to it. When we started Friday therapy you were the least talkative motherfucker in the whole room. It’s a strange dichotomy to be the quietest and yet to be wearing some sort of leadership hat. Did you want to be a leader?
I always wanted to have my own thing. I wanted to have a record label when I was really young. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to be some sort of leader.
Is it hard to be the leader?
It’s hard to be a leader, but it’s harder having someone else telling me what to do. The group we were in before this got to a point where I wasn’t the leader, but I had such a strong vision in my head that I left that one and made Brockhampton. I called people from the last group, and was like, “I’m making this thing. I want to be the leader and I want you to come on, for this to be your role.” I was very clear and direct about it.
When we started Friday therapy, you said you started this because you want to get closer. You were just coming out of the solo album, wanting to reconnect and wanting to be vulnerable with the group. When is the last time you cried in front of them? Do you hold yourself back because you’ve got to lead the charge?
I hold myself back, yeah. Even if a tiny thing bothers me, I know I should speak on it because clarity is important. The most important thing right now is getting this album done and making the best thing we can possibly make. It’s like damn, let me not let that one little thing affect me. Let me make sure I am strong enough in this moment that I don’t let it build up and turn into resentment. All of that, on top of trying to write a perfect Brockhampton chorus, puts me in a weird headspace.
When is the last time you cried?
I cry all the time. Lately, I’ve been crying a lot. On stage, I try to hold back. I turn around you know, before. I don’t think it makes me weak or anything, I think I’m just afraid.
I think that’s incredible. When was the last time you cried on stage?
A few shows ago.
We were in Norway, and I was looking at the sky. I took my in-ears out to hear the crowd and they were singing one of Joba’s verses. I thought about being in South Central, recording that song and how we had nothing. The fact we all came together and built something was really powerful.
The studio is on fire, and you can only grab one song from your entire library.
It would be a new song, Dearly Departed, on the new album.
Yeah that song is fire as fuck. Ok final question: who are you?
How should I answer, my name or what I do?
However you want.
It changes. I am Kevin Abstract and I am an artist who is just trying to figure shit out day by day. That kind of sums it up.
I love you and I hope to see you so fucking soon. I can’t wait to celebrate your birthday with you.
Thanks man, thank you very much for doing this with me.
Photography Mario Sorrenti
Styling Alastair McKimm
Hair Bob Recine for Rodin.
Make-up Kanako Takase at Streeters.
Nail technician Honey at Exposure NY using Dior.
Photography assistance Lars Beaulieu, Kotaro Kawashima, Javier Villegas and Chad Meyer.
Styling assistance Madison Matusich, Milton Dixon III and Yasmin Regisford.
Hair assistance Kabuto Okuzawa and Kazuhide Katahira.
Make-up assistance Kuma.
Production Katie Fash.
Production assistance Layla Néméjanksi and Adam Gowan.
Creative and casting consultant Ruba Abu-Nimah.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.