There’s no doubting that KENNYHOOPLA is one of the most exciting artists to break through in recent years – but he’s not done yet. As he admits himself, he’s trying to take over the world.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Derek Bremner.
Sitting backstage at Reading Festival, KennyHoopla is momentarily transfixed by a television screen broadcasting Holly Humberstone’s confident Main Stage performance. Later on today, he’ll deliver his own explosive, twisting set on the Festival Republic stage before crossover rapper Yung Lean and mysterious pop-metal group Sleep Token that rattles through his most urgent cuts. “I’m going to try and give the crowd a little bit of everything,” says Kenny a few hours before he spins onto the stage. “Every artist is out there killing it, and I just hope I can do the same,” he continues before ambition overtakes gratitude. “I want to push it, truthfully.”
It’s Kenny’s second appearance at Reading Festival after a scene-stealing lunchtime appearance in 2021, and he feels grateful to be back. “So many artists don’t get invited a second time,” he explains, with the excitement around a lot of the musicians who blew up over lockdown fizzling out in recent months, unable to maintain the communal euphoria they first offered.
Bucking that trend, KennyHoopla is fresh from an arena tour with Blink-182 after releasing the Travis Barker-produced ‘Blink, And You’ll Miss It’ EP and being the first artist Bloc Party have ever collaborated with on dreamy indie number ‘Keep It Rolling’. “It’s not hard to be grounded, but it’s hard to even hear the crazy shit I’ve done,” he grins, wanting to carry those successes forward.
“I just went on tour with Blink, so now I have to make sure my music meets that level going forward, or what was it all for?” he asks, taking a similar approach to the various co-signs he’s racked up. “I want to do them justice.”
Still, there are a lot of expectations. “I hear a lot of people saying that I’m someone who broke through the noise,” and while he agrees, he describes the pressure as “a little toxic”.
“But it’s also an honour. There could be no pressure, and nobody could care about anything I have to say,” he adds, getting used to being the sort of artist people look up to. “It gets to a point where you’ve done the things that I’ve done or seen the things I’ve seen, and it would be disrespectful not to at least try and see it through, especially coming from where I’ve come from. I want the chance to be what other people see in me.”
Kenny was born in Cleveland, Ohio, before his mother moved their family away from neighbourhood violence to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He listened to hip-hop before discovering punk through Blink-182 and The All-American Rejects, while The Drums, Phoenix and Passion Pit sparked a lifelong love of indie rock. His childhood influences playlist on Spotify lists everyone from Drake and Jay-Z to Two Door Cinema Club and Wolf Alice. At first, he rapped over rock-inspired instrumentals for a series of standalone SoundCloud tracks, while his 2016 self-released EP ‘Beneath The Willow Tree’ brought a lo-fi swagger alongside crunching 808 beats. At school, he was made to feel like an outsider and couldn’t put a band together to bring his grand vision to life.
“I felt like there was something missing in my generation. We’d had Two Door Cinema Club, we’d had Radiohead; what was next?”KennyHoopla
“I felt like there was something missing in my generation. We’d had Two Door Cinema Club, we’d had Radiohead; what was next? My ambitions were always to be as big an artist as possible,” he explains, but he couldn’t find the same drive in those around him. “I guess it’s just got to be me then,” he reflects. Then came 2020’s emo-infused ‘How Will I Rest In Peace If I’m Buried By A Highway’, which quickly resonated with a global audience. Part 90s emo, part 00s flamboyance, the song and the following EP saw KennyHoopla championed as a vital voice in reinvigorating the pop-punk scene, as classic anthems from the likes of Paramore were rediscovered by a new generation. “I was just trying not to stray away from being a fucking weirdo,” he says.
On reflection, he describes his breakthrough EP as a little bit show-offy, but he wanted a platform to show people just what he could do. “It felt like the time to be loud because so many other people in the scene were being quiet,” he says. “I was angsty; I wanted to make an impact. I loved the idea of making words come to life. I just wanted to use my voice.”
Soon after the record was released, KennyHoopla found himself in the studio with Travis Barker, who was on a hot streak, having worked with the likes of Machine Gun Kelly, Willow Smith and Yungblud. “I was constantly thinking, ‘You’re in the room with Travis Barker, don’t fuck this up’,” but the pair quickly hit upon a rhythm that allowed them to create the eight-track ‘Survivors Guilt’ mixtape in two weeks. “It was artistically liberating. Having an OG like him standing behind my voice gave me a lot of solidification,” says Kenny, with Travis telling him his instincts were right and to not overthink things. “That really helped.”
‘Survivors Guilt’ was released in 2021 ahead of a support slot on Machine Gun Kelly’s ‘Tickets To My Downfall’ North American Arena tour. KennyHoopla was very much at the forefront of the continued pop-punk resurgence, which had now gone mainstream thanks to global megastars like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo taking influence from the genre.
His career was blowing up, but on a personal level, “I found the whole thing really traumatising,” says Kenny. From the moment he dropped ‘How Will I Rest In Peace’, he was compared to Bloc Party, Dev Hynes and “pretty much any other Black rock artist. I had to fight extra hard for my identity, and even then, I had so many big moments taken from me,” he explains. “I definitely lost my sense of identity, and I had so much shit to say about it all, but I felt like I couldn’t, so I stayed quiet and grateful.”
“I was at such a height, I got scared to fall,” he adds. “I’m a universe-fearing person, and I’ve seen things change for an artist in an instant.”
At the same time, he found a long-overdue sense of belonging within his fanbase. “I’d had breakdowns in front of Travis due to anxiety and pressure, but then to perform the same songs in front of an audience and see that loving a reception, it was liberating,” says Kenny. “When I was younger, I was always so excited about the prospect of having a fanbase because I knew I could finally find people like me.” He still has a close relationship with his supporters. “I truly am grateful for them. They literally are the reason I’m here.”
In 2022, KennyHoopla pulled back from the spotlight somewhat, focusing on live shows rather than new music and interviews. “I was trying to find the right people to be around,” he admits. “I have to make music that sounds like a band that’s been best friends for ten years.” But not releasing as often meant “things were happening with my mental health because I wasn’t being as consistent as I wanted to be.”
It’s where ‘You Needed A Hit’ comes from. Released at the start of 2023, the snotty, venomous track is a sarcastic pushback at the looming pressure to release music based on timelines rather than inspiration. He regrets he couldn’t spend as long as he wanted on the track, but there’s a newfound sense of confidence to the track that sees him twisting, then owning uncomfortable situations.
‘Keep It Rolling’, the collaboration with Bloc Party, ends up with a similar takeaway. Originally written together for KennyHoopla, Kele Okereke went on to text Kenny asking if Bloc Party could have the giddy indie anthem instead. “I thought he was going to hate me because my music had always been compared to Bloc Party’s, but in the studio, he ended up giving me so much love. I’ve always wanted to shout about my love for that band, but felt like I couldn’t because it would just push me further into a box,” says Kenny. “They’ve done a lot of things I want to do with my career, so to have that song together, it’s truly a blessing.”
However, he’s feeling “angst” about being a person of colour in the rock scene. “I know people are looking up to me, and it’s important to others that they can see a Black person making guitar music, but I don’t want to give my story to just anyone,” explains Kenny, who’s got no interest in tokenism. “It’s about finding that balance. Like everything I do, it has to be meaningful.”
“I was constantly thinking, ‘You’re in the room with Travis Barker, don’t fuck this up'”KennyHoopla
It has all led to ‘Keep A Window Open’, which Kenny describes as a reclamation of his indie rock roots. “I’m super stoked on it because I had a bigger hand in the creation of it than any of my other songs,” with Kenny acting as executive producer. There’s more new music on the way as well, with KennyHoopla wanting to break away from the pop-punk tag. “I’m in love with so much shit, I get lost in the sauce,” he admits, unsure about which specific direction he wants to head next. “I’ll figure it out though. I definitely want to explore the colour of sound, though,” he adds.
Like his music, Kenny veers between moments of raw vulnerability and swaggering confidence. “I’m getting to a point where I think I’m meant to do this,” he explains. “When everything around you crumbles, you see what’s left, and music has definitely always been there. I’ve just to keep doing what I’m supposed to be doing, keep being loud with my voice, and everything else will be taken care of.”
Later, he admits that he’s feeling “extremely numb” after a busy few months of touring and the loss of his mom. “I feel a little like an abandoned kid that’s been given the chance to have the world, and I have no choice but to do it for myself,” he says. He wants to inspire others, he wants to impact change, he wants to connect with people at live shows, and he’s starting to trust his gut a little more. “My mind is kind of chaotic; I think about everything, really,” he explains, not afraid of holding anything back either.
He believes his music is resonating with people because of the infectious, heart-wrenching guitar tones he’s been obsessed with since he was a kid and how much of himself he puts in every track. “People can feel that earnestness,” he explains. “I come out of the studio feeling like I hate myself and that life is horrible because making these songs brings everything up to the surface,” he continues. There’s no resolution to the cathartic, confrontational anthems, but the fact he’s unafraid to pour it all out makes for comforting, empowering music.
That’s not changing anytime soon, either. “I still have so much to prove. I’m realising that I’m really angry about a lot of things, and I have a lot of shit that I need to say. I have a voice, and it’s been torturing me because I haven’t been using it,” he explains. “I’m not out here trying to be that rock star cliche, but maybe that’s what I need to be.”
For his ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ mixtape, Kenny was throwing stuff as fast as possible at the page, with the record exploring how, as the youngest in the family, he’s always been around “super fucked-up, traumatic things” and could only watch on, unable to help. “You don’t know if you’re a victim or not,” he says today. On the record, though, he hid complex, vulnerable conversations behind sprawling poetry and songs about love.
This new music has nothing to hide. “I’m just trying to reflect on what I’ve been going through and who I’ve become,” he says. In previous interviews, he’d avoid talking about growing up poor, wanting any success to come from the music he’d made rather than the things he’d overcome. Now, though, he’s starting to realise that’s a part of his story. “As much as I wanted to run from my past, I think it’s important to talk about those things because that’s what made me. I’m in a place where I feel like I’ve worked hard enough to tell people the whole story.” Maybe it’ll inspire someone else to tell theirs.
“I’m realising that I’m really angry about a lot of things, and I have a lot of shit that I need to say”KennyHoopla
It all feeds into a growing concept Kenny is thinking about called “inner city mythology”. He still calls Oshkosh, a small town that’s slowly getting gentrified, home but lives in the more “beat up” north side. “There’s a lot of crime that happens, but you’ll see white, rich people on the internet that are so disconnected from it, they have no idea of what life is like outside of their suburbia. To them, a person having to steal from Walmart to feed their family is equivalent to the Loch Ness Monster. I want to talk about the real-life shit that goes on.”
“I know I can come across as reclusive and serious, but I understand that this is bigger than me,” explains Kenny, who wants to make the sort of music that can impact a life even if people don’t know his name. “I’m definitely having some growing pains, but I’m trying to be nice to myself because I’m still young, and I’m still learning. I go into every new thing ready to fail. I’m excited to learn before I win.”
With all this talk of new music, is a debut album on the cards? “It kills me that I’ve not had a debut yet,” says Kenny. “I’m ready for the next level,” but he’s still trying to build a team to bring his ever-growing ambitions to life. “I’m not going to waste my time making an album if it doesn’t live up to the vision. I’ve got no interest in releasing music just to be releasing music.”
“I’m saying fuck your consistency if it’s not on my terms,” he adds.
“What I’m trying to do, truly, is take over the world, and I know I’ve got a long way to go, but angels keep putting stepping stones in front of me,” says Kenny, his eyes once again drifting to the Main Stage livestream. “In short, I want to be on those big stages. I don’t just want to be a festival filler. I’m starting to realise that’s what a lot of artists are, just keeping their heads above water, but I want the whole experience,” he continues. “I want to be a fucking powerhouse of an artist. It’ll take a lot, especially as a solo artist, but I refuse to settle.” ■
Taken from the October 2023 edition of Dork.
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