By Joe Price
It’s four in the afternoon in Portsmouth, England, and Kevin Abstract is out cold, his body spread across three chairs in a dark dressing room of the Pyramids Centre, a big, pyramid-shaped venue right by the sea, next to a castle. When I open the door, he lets out a yelp, shielding his eyes from the blinding light shooting in from the corridor. Weary eyed, the blue-haired, Texas-bred teen born as Ian Simpson looks up and shakes my hand while apologizing for his lack of consciousness. A few seconds later, his producer, DJ, and writing partner Romil sticks his hand from around the door to greet me.
They just got off a nine-hour flight from their home of Austin, Texas to London’s Heathrow airport, and their lack of sleep is showing.
In the coming days, 19-year-old Kevin Abstract will be performing in front of thousands as the opening act for alternative California band The Neighbourhood on the four-date UK leg of their current tour. Kevin and Jesse Rutherford, The Neighbourhood’s charismatic frontman, have become friends. Kevin jumped at the chance to fill the opening slot, seeing it as an opportunity to test out new material from his forthcoming album, They Shoot Horses. It’s going to be an experiment, of sorts. While The Neighbourhood have flourished on radio with catchy, accessible music, Kevin Abstract’s sound is more challenging, blending forward-thinking pop with left-field hip-hop. It can be abrasive, confrontational, and deeply personal. “I hate my last name, I hate everything it stands for,” he confesses on an unreleased song “Empty.”
Kevin has been thrown out of his element for his debut UK shows, performing in front of thousands of people who don’t know him. It’s a difficult position to be in, but it’s also his biggest opportunity yet.
After Kevin and Romil’s brief nap, we take a walk around the building in search of coffee. “You get to hear all the new songs from the album,” Romil says excitedly. “Hope you don’t hate any of it.” Romil, the considerably more alert of the two, is bouncing around the empty venue ahead of their imminent soundcheck. Kevin remains quiet, looking disappointed as he sips his shitty coffee.
The friends work well to balance each other, both personally and musically. Romil’s beautifully melodic, bass-heavy beats provide fodder for Kevin’s impulsive personality, and the two have been inseparable since Kevin’s debut album, MTV1987. Their chemistry is unwavering, and it’s been made apparent in Kevin’s new music that they’ve both been growing as artists.
Kevin is reaching outside of his circle more with They Shoot Horses, enlisting Michael Uzowuru as executive producer for the album. Uzowuru has only been producing music since 2010, but he’s already developed an impressive track record that features the likes of Vince Staples and Earl Sweatshirt. Urzowuru is one of the only people Kevin has collaborated with outside the Brockhampton collective.
“Me and Romil always build the songs. We build all the drafts together,” Kevin explains “Michael Uzowuru is executive producing, and he’s been adding a lot of live instruments and musicians, and helping us with song structure and stuff like that. He’s teaching us a lot about music that we didn’t know. It’s really a Quincy Jones-esque process to making a record.”
As far as vocal guests go, Kevin is keeping it simple. “Jesse Rutherford might be on my album, but that’s about it,” he says, before elaborating that he wants the album to mostly focus on his own voice. From the sounds of the new material, it makes sense that he’s avoiding too many features for his biggest project yet—lyrically, it’s an extremely intimate look at Kevin’s coming-of-age experience.
Taking to the stage for soundcheck, Kevin and Romil discuss setlist possibilities, going back and forth regarding what song to open the show with. Stuck between a few options that they both agree would work, they decide to face the decision later, opting to focus on getting the sound perfect first. They Shoot Horses is a natural progression from MTV1987, but there’s a noticeable shift in sound and focus. “The new album is more accessible and more diverse,” he tells me. “On MTV I was trying to do the same thing, but I think I really found the balance here. And also the songs just sound a lot better.” While MTV1987 was downtrodden and quite often an angry piece of work, They Shoot Horses features more hope.
The biggest stylistic change lies in how he approaches his vocals. “I’m trying to sing a lot more on this new album,” he explains. “I wanna make sure that if I rap, that the rapping is necessary. I didn’t want to force anything. I want the story to grow, I want the narrative to grow. I’m trying to use both elements, rapping and singing, for different effects. One to tell a story and one to convey a mood. It all has to serve a purpose.”
They Shoot Horses still occupies that dark suburban universe that MTV did, but it’s more personal. “I was more talking about my friends on MTV. This album is way more about me and my perspective.” Backstage before the show, he paces back and forth, exhaling deeply. “I get super nervous up until the point I’m on stage and I’m about to perform,” he says.
Before we can wrap up our conversation, Kevin’s manager Anish comes in to announce that it’s showtime. Kevin slips on his in-ear monitors, perks himself up, and sprints to the stage. He opens with a brief introductory track called “Elizabeth,” then yells “BOO” at the audience. The majority are caught off-guard, and Kevin, standing in the middle of the stage, looks a little lost. It’s hard to tell from the side of the stage, but things don’t seem to be going quite as planned.
I was more talking about my friends on MTV. This album is way more about me and my perspective.
Hard-hitting tracks like “Bet I” and “Drugs” don’t go down well with The Neighbourhood’s crowd, but the new material does. “Echo,” “Empty,” and “Papercut” all connect, but the latter half of “Drugs,” which features an interpolation of Cassie’s “Me & U,” doesn’t elicit the response that Kevin is used to getting at his own shows. The crowd looks unamused. Reflecting on the performance afterwards, Kevin admits that it was awkward for him. “Damn, no one knows Cassie. It’s such a different audience.”
There’s a sense that these shows are an elaborate rehearsal for Kevin and Romil, who only found out they’d be supporting The Neighbourhood a few months before it actually happened. “I don’t really even know how this tour happened,” Kevin says. “All I know is I was hanging out with Jesse one day and we talked about it. I played him some new music, and he said we should do it. I didn’t know if it was actually going to happen or not. It was scary, I had to get in-ear monitors because I knew I’d have to hear myself on stage when I’m playing these big shows. But me and Romil had less than a week to rehearse.”
Jesse has been throwing support behind Brockhampton—and Kevin in particular—for a long time. “Jesse just followed me on Twitter one day, and this was after ‘Sweater Weather’ was a huge song,” Kevin tells me. “It was before I even put out MTV1987—I think it was right after the ‘Drugs’ video.”
Kevin has come a long way since that video, which was shot in his local Walmart. His cinematic video for “Echo”—shot and directed by frequent collaborator Tyler Mitchell—features elaborate tracking shots, dramatic color schemes, and was made in New York City, almost 2,000 miles from the small Texas town where Kevin grew up.
“I like doing those songs like ‘Echo’ first, because they’re super calm and people don’t expect much,” he explains. “I like bringing the element of surprise. I just knew I had to make those people pay attention. They’re just there for The Neighbourhood, so I gotta make sure anything I say on stage sticks with them in some way. I just want to make sure they remember my existence and that I’m a person, a real person that they saw in real life.”
When I met Kevin for the first time at the beginning of this tour, his sentences were short and non-committal. Now, three shows in, he’s cracking jokes every few minutes. I ask him about the shift in behavior. “Being on the tour and being away from home, just everything at once… I wasn’t really able to open up just yet. It took some time to get comfortable with everybody.”
Throughout the tour, brief moments highlight Kevin and Romil’s distinct personalities. On the way from Birmingham to Manchester for the show at the O2 Ritz, we get caught in a horrendous traffic jam. Initially, everyone just laughs at it, rapping along to Young Thug and shouting at other slow-moving cars from the window. “How far is Manchester?” Kevin asks nearby cars. “Have you seen Shrek!?” he screams out the window, which makes everyone laugh way more than it should.
A sense of worry settles in after we’re caught in traffic for more than three hours, turning a two-hour journey into an almost six-hour ordeal. Kevin remains hopeful we’ll make it on time, whereas Romil starts to look more panicked by the second. Getting out of the car in frustration when we’re at a complete standstill, Romil slams the door and paces back and forth before returning and apologizing. Kevin remains quiet, suggesting maybe we should contact Jesse to let him know that we might not make it for soundcheck. Frank Ocean comes on in the car, and a sense of relaxation settles in.
“I honestly thought we weren’t going to make it,” Romil tells me when we finally arrive, just in time for a brief soundcheck before doors open. Being stuck in such a confined place for so long, it’s easy to get a sense of their general outlook by how they react to the things happening all around them. To both Kevin and Romil, everything is either “fucking amazing” or “complete trash.” There’s no in-between, and besides “wifi,” “trash” is easily their most used word.
“Hey, do you hate me yet?” Romil asks at several points throughout the day.
In London, on the final night of their short time on tour, it feels like everyone’s finally gotten into a groove, and that Kevin is ready for the biggest stage of his career so far. The Roundhouse has a capacity of over 3,000, and has hosted artists like The Beatles and Radiohead.
As he walks into the enormous space for the first time, Kevin is taken aback by its size. “Jesus,” he murmurs, before saying “wow” five more times on our way to the dressing room. I ask him if he’s intimidated by the stage. “Absolutely. Just look at it.” Despite his concerns, he puts on the best show of the tour, effectively interacting with the crowd and getting the reaction to “Bet I” that he’s been looking for all tour. Perhaps it was the crowd, or perhaps it was Kevin’s confidence that night, but his performance at the London show was met with the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect for a headliner. “It was intimidating because no one knows who I am,” he says after the show. “But it’s exciting because I love seeing how people respond to the new music, or just me as an artist.”
Of all the new music, “Papercut” is the most revealing. He addresses his sexuality, his family life, and his difficulties growing up. It’s autobiographical in the ways Frank Ocean and Childish Gambino’s best material can be, directly addressing his own troubles rather than those of a character. “I’m starting to trust my artistry a lot more and just let my music do its thing,” he says. When asked about what prompted his decision to be more forward about his own sexuality in his music, he explained, “I just wanna be free I guess. There’s not really a voice for people who identify with me, especially in my genre.”
He’s always been careful to not say something unless he means it, which gives songs on the more personal side a considerable amount of weight. “I’m just cautious and mindful of what I’m saying, because I’m recording it, and I’ll put it online and it’ll be there forever. People will listen to it over and over and over, and it could get instilled into them and it’ll become a part of them if they like it. Those listeners could live by those words, and even if it’s less than a thousand kids, I’m still mindful of those 800 or 900 people who are constantly listening, just to make sure I’m saying something that resonates and means something.”
Since the tour, it’s been announced that Kevin will once again support The Neighbourhood, this time as part of their North American tour. Performing at 23 of the dates, the tour is set to last more than a month and marks a considerable jump from the four shows he played in the UK. Jesse Rutherford is clearly a huge fan of Kevin after this first run of shows—he watched Kevin’s full sets in Birmingham and London. When Kevin flexed about Jesse following him on Twitter while performing in Birmingham, Jesse shouted, “I LOVE YOU, SON!”
Full of grand ideas and limitless ambition, Kevin is aiming to do big things with They Shoot Horses. “I just want to be recognized as an artist. People like Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain. Moving away from this whole internet-born persona is just another era of Kevin Abstract, you know? I’m just trying to be more transparent with who I am. I want to be on TV, I want people to see me. I don’t want to just be on Twitter and SoundCloud anymore.”
I want to be on TV, I want people to see me. I don’t want to just be on Twitter and SoundCloud anymore.
It’s around four in the morning now, on Kevin’s last night in the U.K. He’s sitting on a bed in a penthouse in the center of London, staring down at his own hands. Despite his playful nature on the drive here, he’s serious and quiet now. We’ve come full circle, and Kevin is just as unresponsive as when we first met over three days ago in the dressing room of The Pyramids Centre.
These times with Kevin Abstract can be uncomfortable. It’s to be expected. He’s an introverted, blue-haired, black teenager from Texas, and he’s in London, thrown on stage facing unfamiliar crowds of thousands. In so many ways, both literally and figuratively, he’s outside of his comfort zone.
In Kevin’s case, that’s not necessarily a problem. Before passing out and waking up to board a flight back to Texas, Kevin said something that made me realize that he is completely at ease with being uncomfortable. He’s used to it, and he’s alright with it. In a captivating way, he almost seems to thrive off it.
I asked Kevin what he thought of the tour, and how he felt about the experience overall. He hesitated, then unwittingly smiled for a second and made eye contact. “It was one of the best weeks of my life, I think.”