Machine Gun Kelly Tells Dave Franco About the Year That Saved His Life
2020 has been the year from hell, unless your name is Machine Gun Kelly. While the world reeled, the 30-year-old musician and actor put out his first number-one hit album and fell in love with Megan Fox. Born Colson Baker, and known to his fans as MGK, Kelly took a hard pivot this year, from rap music into pop-punk territory, with his fifth record, Tickets to My Downfall. Trading his mic for a hot pink guitar naturally brought out the critics who had a lot less to say when the album, packed with anthemic earworms that recall the early aughts (the Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker co-produced the album), topped the Billboard 200 chart in its first week. And while this new collection of songs is sugar-coated with big hooks and is perfectly engineered for getting day-drunk by the pool, Kelly, who also directed the upcoming musical Downfalls High, returns to some heavy themes: addiction, heartbreak, and self-destructive behavior. But that was the old MGK, written before he met Fox on the set of their upcoming thriller, Midnight in the Switchgrass. After weathering the ensuing tabloid storm, the two have since settled into a relationship that Kelly admits has afforded him a measure of peace. But, as he tells his friend and former co-star Dave Franco, not too much of it.
DAVE FRANCO: How are you doing?
MACHINE GUN KELLY: I’m great. So good to see your face.
FRANCO: Back at you. First off, I just want to say that I’m so happy for everything that’s happening to you, man.
KELLY: Dude, thanks. It’s crazy because I feel like I was always pitching these dreams to you when we were in those car rides to work. Everything that’s happening now, I feel like I was in the car manifesting it.
FRANCO: It’s incredible. Do people in the music world treat you differently than people in the movie business?
KELLY: Yes. I think there is a boyishness to me as an actor that directors see in me, because there’s no shell and I don’t have a character’s name in front of me. When I was doing the show with Cameron Crowe [Roadies], it was the beginning of me hearing my own name again, and it was like the name triggered an innocence. Whereas with Machine Gun Kelly, it was like I had a giant middle finger out in front of whatever was happening.
FRANCO: Did it feel like you were putting on a character with Machine Gun Kelly?
KELLY: I’ve been Machine Gun Kelly since I was 15, so how can you even differentiate? When you grow up and that’s the only name you have, you embody that person. Machine Gun Kelly was a gangster. He wasn’t a reverend. When you take on that moniker, you take on some of that energy.
KELLY: It wasn’t like I went into it saying, “I’m going to be this character.” It was just that they fused somewhere along the way and I didn’t even notice it. It took my name being said to me to snap out of it. Hip-hop is such a pit-bull industry, meaning you want to be the toughest one in the cage. Especially during those times. Now there’s this beautiful vulnerability that everyone’s expressing, with artists like Juice WRLD, rest in peace, and Lil Peep, rest in peace. I was vulnerable in my writing, but people didn’t look past my image. Now, the image and the lyrics kind of meet in the middle.
FRANCO: That leads me to the next question: how much are you fueled by haters?
KELLY: My fifth album is my most well-received, my highest-selling, my biggest debut. That doesn’t make any sense in the history of how musicians usually come out. Your first or second album, for the most part, is your best work, or your highest-selling work. That is the peak of the fans interest in you, because that’s you spilling your whole life. I was more motivated by the fact that no one understood me every single time an album dropped. I would just sit there like, “What am I missing?” The chemicals in my formula weren’t right, because I wasn’t fully open yet.
FRANCO: Were there moments when you almost gave up because you were killing yourself for your music and it still felt like you were misunderstood?
KELLY: Yes. [The 2019 album] Hotel Diablo is that for me, because that was the first time I really expressed my true self with no outside influence, meaning the label. As a hip-hop album, it’s flawless front to back, and also a hint at the evolution of how I went into a pop-punk album. But it was coming off the tail-end of that infamous beef [with Eminem]. So no one wanted to give it the time of day. It’s like if you make a shitty movie and then you come out with a great movie right after, but people want to focus on the fact that they hated whatever you just did. What I did in the beef was exactly what it should be, but that project wasn’t welcomed. The next album came from already feeling like I’d counted out, so I didn’t even care what the public was going to think. That’s why the project was ironically my best received one, because it was the most effortless, with the least outside influence.
FRANCO: How much do you pay attention to the critics? When I recently released the movie that I wrote and directed [The Rental], I’ve never felt so exposed and vulnerable, despite the fact that the movie isn’t a reflection of anything in my personal life. But when you’re making music, it’s all personal. You’re talking about some of the most traumatic experiences that you’ve ever gone through, and there are critics out there who are inevitably going to say something negative about it. I can’t imagine how much that hurts.
KELLY: That was a huge factor on this album. I made four albums straight-up not giving a fuck what critics had to say. But this one, when the numbers were what they were, and the fans were as excited as they were, and the fact that we against all odds got the number-one spot, it was really weird to see that critics couldn’t even be like, “Hey, man, way to stick it out and finally show the world that you can conquer all the obstacles.” It was weird to see people be like, “Well, now because you got success, I need to go out of my way to go against the popular opinion and tear away at it.” It’s like, “You’ve already done that to me with those first four albums.” And it’s so ironic to see them be like, “Yeah, well, I shitted on you because everyone else didn’t like it and I’m agreeing with the popular opinion.” And now when the popular opinion is like, “We love this,” it’s like, “Well, now I need to go against it because that is the popular opinion.” I didn’t respect what the negative criticism was. It didn’t resonate with me. When you say, “It stops at catchy hooks and surface-level lyrics,” it’s like, “Dude, you missed all of the layers and why it’s so special.” They took the easy route and wrote it off. They didn’t dive in. Why, when the people love it, do you just think it means that it’s pop bullshit? It’s genius because it reached pop fan bases, but it’s not pop. It’s layered and deep. You just chose to stay in the shallow end.
FRANCO: Have there been people who have reached out to you personally to give you respect after having talked shit about you in the past?
KELLY: Yes. For as many people who chose to stay in the shallow end, there were people that I couldn’t believe took the risk to just dive into it and be like, “Whoa, this thing goes deep—respect for building this pool.”
FRANCO: I’ve always romanticized the life of a musician, where it seems like you can be your own boss and have full creative control over everything you do. As an actor, you go in and do your job, and then hope that the director, the DP, the editor, and the composers put it all together in a way that does justice to your performance. Do you find it frustrating to be an actor sometimes, where you don’t have input in every step of the process?
KELLY: Yes. I also think there’s an interesting thing that Hollywood has done to actors toward the latter half of this century. In the ’70s and the ’80s, it was almost like whatever it takes to get the shot and be who you need to be, do it. Something came in where they tried to censor art. “You can’t smoke in our trailers.” “You can’t go off script.” “You can’t live that character outside of work.” But how do you give a legendary performance if you can’t be lost in it? You can’t tell Picasso how to paint a painting. You have to just give him the canvas and let him do it. You can’t say, “The room has to be this temperature when you paint,” or, “You can’t drink whiskey or red wine while you paint. That’s against the rules.” There are no rules in art. Andy Warhol, whose magazine this fucking is, wasn’t censored. They didn’t tell him how to attain what it took to be great. Artists are weirdos, and actors are artists.
FRANCO: If you’re open to talking about it, can you tell me about your drug and alcohol use while writing and recording music? And do you have any kind of system in place for that?
KELLY: I think I watched myself believe that drugs were how you attained a level, or unlocked something in your brain, and I’ve seen the pros and cons of it. Adderall was a huge thing for me for a long time. And I went from orally taking it to then snorting it, and then it became something where I was scared to ever go into a studio if I didn’t have something. I wouldn’t even step out unless there was a medicine man who was going to visit me and give me what I needed. And that’s where it becomes a problem. You’re telling yourself you can’t do this without that, when really it’s in you the whole time. If that pill did that for you, then everyone who’s taken that would just be making albums and writing songs. And so that limited me.
FRANCO: Now that you are where you are, are you more careful about not getting in trouble, and is there anything about your life that you try to protect your daughter from?
KELLY: In regards to my daughter, I try to protect her from everything.
FRANCO: Of course.
KELLY: But I came from a father who was extremely religious and extremely strict, and wouldn’t even let me hold my pen the way I wanted to hold my pen. That made me rebel completely, and cut off communication completely, because I didn’t want to have any common ground with him. I don’t want to have that with my daughter. Honesty is the key to that relationship. But also, as I grow, that same person who I was when I was 25 isn’t who I am now. Currently, my drug of choice is happiness and commitment to the art, rather than commitment to a vice that I believed made the art. I’m taking steps. I had my first therapy session last Thursday. That’s the first time I ever went, “Hey, I need to separate these two people,” which is Machine Gun Kelly and Colson Baker. The dichotomy is too intense for me.
FRANCO: Was it helpful?
KELLY: I’m early in the process. The tools that I’ve been given to start with seem helpful, I think. I’m still kind of ripping my hair out. Why am I not changing overnight? How am I supposed to meditate for 10 minutes when I can’t even sit in my own brain for two minutes without distracting myself by doing something? That’s really hard. But the commitment to change is inspiring, and I think will reverberate through the universe and definitely through my family. I can see it already with the people around me. The willingness to finally be happy with my own self has invited a much more vibrant energy around us than before.
FRANCO: Do you have a mentor of any sort, someone you lean on creatively or to help with your mental state?
KELLY: Travis Barker has been huge in the process of grounding me, because he’s lived it. It’s much different than a priest or something, where I’m like, “How can you relate to me? It’s easy for you to tell me I can get through it when you’ve never faced these obstacles.” Whereas with Travis it’s like, “I know for a fact that you went through what I’m going through.” And then obviously, which I’m sure is the same with you in your relationship, when you have a partner, mine being Megan [Fox], sitting there with you on those dark nights when you’re sweating and not being able to figure out why you’re so in your head, to help you get out of your head and put it in perspective, that really, really helps.
FRANCO: Going off of that, do you think your contentment with your own work helped you get to a place where you’re open to settling down in a real relationship? Or vice versa? Maybe the relationship fueled the music?
KELLY: I don’t know how I would’ve handled it if this project had failed. We would’ve seen a much different person after this, and that person would’ve sunk very fast. I would’ve written myself off and I would’ve been like, “You’re a fucking failure.” I think I would’ve shut down.
FRANCO: Music has obviously been your number-one priority for so long, so that makes sense to me.
KELLY: I never want to see an artist being comfortable. So if I allow myself that comfort, then maybe I wouldn’t be the artist that I want to be. The discomfort is what creates greatness. So the relationship allows me to leave the spaceship and give myself to the cosmos. I have a partner who has the rope and can yank me back to the space station. But I don’t want to look at the rope. And I don’t want to feel the rope. I want to be like, “I’m leaving the space shuttle and I’m going to fucking go to Mars.”
FRANCO: That’s very well put. I want to jump to some quickfire questions. What’s your favorite venue in the country to perform at?
KELLY: Red Rocks in Colorado.
FRANCO: What city has the best fans outside of your hometown?
KELLY: Anywhere in Europe.
FRANCO: What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
KELLY: Probably Foo Fighters. I think it was in Belgium.
FRANCO: Is there a young musician who you really respect, but who most people might not know?
KELLY: KennyHoopla. And I really did and do believe Peep was going to be one of the greatest, but he’s no longer with us. But his music continues to blow my fucking mind.
FRANCO: What’s the most starstruck you’ve ever been?
KELLY: When I met Will Smith.
FRANCO: Talk about that a little bit.
KELLY: Me and Drake were talking at the VMA Awards. This was in 2013 or 2014. And Will Smith walked up just to say hi, and I don’t even think I got the word “hi” out of my mouth. I was like, “Ahhh.” I just held my hand out and he shook my hand. I don’t think he’s ever heard me talk once.
FRANCO: What album have you listened to more than any other in 2020?
KELLY: Everybody’s Everything by Lil Peep and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket by Blink-182. And not to be a dick, but Tickets to My Downfall by Machine Gun Kelly.
FRANCO: Who’s acting career do you look at and think, “They’re on a good path, I would love to have a similar type of trajectory?”
KELLY: I’m not going to lie, dude. At the beginning of my acting career, and for the most part until last year, I would have essentially five minutes to make an impression on screen. And I will never forget you going through the same shit, and actually making the biggest impression in any of the movies that you were in, where I would leave and I’d be like, “God, that guy’s so fucking charismatic and funny.” The impact that you’d make when I know you weren’t one or two on the cast sheet was so immense. With 21 Jump Street, you’re the first character that pops in my mind.
FRANCO: That’s very nice. I’ve always had the mindset that I would rather be a tiny part in a good movie than the lead in a piece of shit.
KELLY: I made the mistake of feeling less vindicated because I wasn’t getting much screen time, so I didn’t approach it the same. I would say my first real stab at, “Yo, I got to make an impression here,” is Big Time Adolescence with Pete Davidson.
FRANCO: You and I worked together on the movie Nerve, and I immediately recognized how comfortable you are in your own skin and how un-self-conscious you are on camera. Do you ever feel nervous doing anything these days?
KELLY: Movies are still 100 times more frightening than 10,000 people in a crowd.
FRANCO: Because you haven’t been doing it as long?
KELLY: No, I actually hope that feeling always stays. What you do on screen lives forever. Whereas with concerts, even though cell phones exist now, you’re still taught that concerts are an in-the-moment thing. If you’re there, you witness it. If not, you don’t. What you do on a movie screen, it’s up to every single person’s judgment and opinion to decide whether you’re good or you’re not.
FRANCO: Do you want to direct movies?
KELLY: I just directed a musical [Downfalls High]. That was probably the last thing I would’ve expected as a directorial debut. However, when something comes to you in a vision and you act on it and they actually hand over the money, you’re kind of like, “Maybe this is what was meant to happen.”
FRANCO: Who is the number one director you want to work with?
KELLY: David Fincher.
FRANCO: What’s yours and your daughter’s favorite activity to do together?
KELLY: She loves badminton right now.
FRANCO: I love that. How do you want people to remember you?
KELLY: Uncontained, no box can be applied. Fearless. That’s the word. Fearless.
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