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UNPACKING ‘SURVIVOR’S GUILT’
WITH KENNYHOOPLA

The 23-year-old tries to heal lifelong wounds with his newest mixtape, co-produced and written with childhood hero and punk godfather Travis Barker.

KennyHoopla’s earliest music-related memory is from naptime in kindergarten. “Only Time” by Enya came on, and rather than rock young Kenneth La’ron to sleep like all the other kids, it rocked him to his core. As much as he could at that age, he knew that this song was beautiful. “I was just obsessed with it,” the 23-year-old says, wistfully reminiscing, “and I couldn’t find it for the longest time. Until YouTube—probably until I was, like, 16. I was just like, ‘This is the feeling. This is it, whatever it is.”

KennyHoopla is no longer chasing that feeling.

He is making it himself.

The latest example arrived today (June 11) in the form of SURVIVORS GUILT: THE MIXTAPE (out via Arista Records). The eight-track project was made in just 18 days and produced by Travis Barker. The 45-year-old blink-182 legend’s unrivaled drumming is also featured. 

Before you can fully grasp how much it means to KennyHoopla to receive a co-sign from not only a universally certified punk godfather but his childhood hero, you have to understand where Kenny is coming from. On Jan. 4, he bravely shared “I am not okay” in a heartfelt letter posted to Instagram.

“No one could ever know KennyHoopla unless they know me as a person,” he says now, explaining why he decided to be so publicly vulnerable. “So, you have these interviews, and you know, my head works in scribbles. You try and explain these things and the way you see the world. You have to go to sleep with this vision in your head of this person people think you are, and you could die with that any day, so it can be embarrassing and humiliating. I was like, this is how I feel. This is Kenny, and this is what I go through.”

And it is what he has been going through. He grew up back-and-forth between Cleveland, Ohio, and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but mostly in Wisconsin. His mother initially moved them away from Cleveland because of the violence—she was once narrowly missed by a bullet while holding Kenny’s brother—but she couldn’t protect Kenny from Kenny. Only he could do that. At the time, he was too young to understand how—no kid should have to—so he hid in his bedroom. While he was physically alone, he wasn’t totally alone. He had rock music. He had blink-182’s “I Miss You” and Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Goin Down.” He was desperate to feel understood, and he knew he wasn’t going to get that from his immediate surroundings.

So, when Kenny was 19 years old, he began recording one-off songs with the most DIY setup imaginable. Before Billie Eilish dropped “Lost Cause” earlier this month, KennyHoopla’s October 2018 breakout single was titled “Lost Cause//,” featuring a chorus that bleeds: “And If I die young / I was born with a target on my head.” Millions of people related and streamed, and he rode that momentum through to his indie rock May 2020 EP How Will I Rest in Peace if I’m Buried By a Highway?//

SURVIVORS GUILT traffics in the same lane but finds Kenny in a different gear, accelerated by Barker’s encouragement. The last words uttered on the final track are “Quit your 9-to-5 and love me.” Of course Kenny wants to be loved, and more than that he wants his music to be loved, but most importantly, he is using his 9-to-5 to learn how to love himself exactly as he is. 

In a time when pop-punk and punk rock are enjoying a renaissance in the mainstream—Barker is also shepherding the way for Machine Gun Kelly, Nessa Barrett, WILLOW, and more—KennyHoopla still isn’t tempted to present in a tidy package or try to recreate punk’s 1990s and early 2000s glory days. He is singularly interested in this moment, focusing on “the new nostalgia,” and capturing the essence of now.

“A lot of things I did on this record, I haven’t done before,” he says. “I scream. I talk low. I use my voice. I wanted to give no room for people to say that I’m hiding behind anything—any vocal effects, any aesthetics or anything. I’m just out there.” 

He adds: “This makes me sound like even more of an oddball. At least from the rock records that have been coming out currently. It sounds more left field than a straight rock record. It’s all over the place, honestly. It sounds like scribbles, and that’s what my head feels like a lot of times. It’s like Vans shoes. I love Vans because skaters chose to adopt the shoe and make what they made of it, and it’s gonna be interesting to see what people do with this.”

SURVIVORS GUILT, to KennyHoopla, is “chaos.” But it’s his chaos. Keeping the “rawness” of rock music alive, he explains, has always been and remains a top priority. He has done his best to befriend his complexities, and he happened to befriend Travis Barker in the process.

Barker met Kenny in the storm. They met in person for the first time to make their November single “ESTELLA//,” the second track on SURVIVORS GUILT, and an innate comfort with each other allowed Kenny to explore the further uncomfortable in their studio sessions. They didn’t need to vocalize anything, Kenny says, because there was an unspoken understanding. 

“I’m super grateful that my hero liked me back, dude,” he admits with a childlike giggle, later saying: “It feels good, but it also showed me I have to make my own legacy as well. Because what anyone that I’ve ever looked up to has shown me, and what I’ve wanted to do for other people, is that you look up to them by being yourself and becoming something to look up to.”

At first, KennyHoopla was apprehensive about naming the mixtape SURVIVORS GUILT because he didn’t want to disrespect Barker, who has been through a hefty share of trauma and recently opened up to Men’s Health about the September 2008 plane crash that he is the lone survivor of. Kenny stops short of ripping open his darkest scars.

“I’m sure Travis could be out here with a sob story,” Kenny says. “Like, we all could. But I feel like real legends people could look up to don’t live off of their sob stories; they live off of championing them. They’re still here. It’s letting your life speak for itself. That’s how I’ve always felt was the way to move, too, so we just get along.

“Life is a life or death situation. You survive, and it’s like, fuck, do I even deserve to be here? Should it have been me? What am I even doing with my time?”

Beginning in September, KennyHoopla will be spending his time as an opener on Machine Gun Kelly’s Tickets to My Downfall  U.S. tour. He repeats how psyched he is three times. He can’t wait to lose himself in the music. He can’t wait for the opportunity to play for larger audiences than previously possible at his basement shows. To that end, he especially can’t wait to plummet with outstretched arms into a mosh pit, hoping fans just as helplessly in love with punk rock will catch him.

“I just want to be on the right side of history with it,” he says when asked about the responsibility he feels as a face of the new generation of punk, and what follows is the longest uninterrupted stretch of this conversation. His mind may often work in scribbles. Right now, though, he couldn’t be any clearer. 

“That’s all I can hope for,” he continues. “That people see that I cared about it and never treated any of it as a trend. I hope to one day, you know, be like a Travis Barker. I feel like it’s important to keep the real ones in and the fake ones to the left, and I feel like that takes a lot of care. It takes a lot of compassion, and I have that for rock—all of music, but especially rock. I hope people see that I really care and it really does come from my heart. It sounds annoying, and I sound like a broken record, but it’s such a rare thing to really sit down and do it from the heart and not for views or the label or to be trending. I just want to make anthems. Amazing, beautiful music to honor the past music [and] push it forward. I look around a lot, and I get confused. If we’re not here to add to the conversation or step it up, then what are we even doing?”

SURVIVOR’S GUILT opens with subdued track (or the closest to subdued a KennyHoopla song can ever get) “SILENCE IS ALSO AN ANSWER//.”  Kenny’s voice doesn’t come in until the 45-second mark. The music speaks for itself at first. It feels like naptime in kindergarten. But there is a difference between now and then. Once Kenny sings the first line about fake smiles on a balcony, it’s clear he will never again let 10 years pass before acting on something that moves him.

“Time is so short, but I long,” he says in an effort to articulate the overarching message he tried to thread through these specific eight songs. “I yearn. I long for so many things, and I’m still trying to figure that part out, but the point is that I’m longing. It’s just the feeling of longing for something so bad and yearning for something so extremely—it’s never-ending.”

Press play on KennyHoopla and Travis Barker’s Survivors Guilt: The Mixtape below now.

Words by Megan Armstrong

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