Photography by Nico Young
BROCKHAMPTON arrive in instalments. It takes four cars to transport them all to the San Fernando Valley backyard pool that is provides the location for today’s shoot. Just a couple of days prior, the 14-piece self-styled boyband announced that their expected next studio release, TEAM EFFORT, had been indefinitely shelved. “We spoke to God and she told us to save the album for another time,” they explained via Twitter. Just a few hours later, another tweet announced a new project, PUPPY, due to be released in Summer 2018.
As the band’s devoted fanbase assembled in various corners of the internet to discuss the news, the thought of waiting another few months to hear hotly anticipated new music seemed unbearable to some. The SATURATION trilogy of albums arrived within the space of six months, providing listeners with a constant stream of essential, joyful, revolutionary new tracks in which they self-assuredly swashbuckled through the confines of genre. The fact that the closing track of SATURATION III, “TEAM” closes with the same sounds that appear on the beginning of SATURATION I’s furious opener, “HEAT”, compels a repeat listen.
Once the boys all assemble at the house, the first priority is locating the aux. They swap the cable between phones as they collaboratively curate the soundtrack to the afternoon, a progression of Sheck Wes, Q-Tip and the BLACK PANTHER album playing out through tinny speakers. They take it in turns to gingerly dip a toe into the water. It’s apparently heated, but certainly not to a degree that could be described as comfortable. Just as I start to worry that choosing to shoot the “best boyband since One Direction” in a cold pool on an overcast day might not have been the best idea, producer Romil Hemnani leads the charge, executing a textbook bomb into the deep end.
A few days later, BROCKHAMPTON will sign their first record deal with RCA Records. It’s a big move for a group who have already managed to achieve so much while remaining independent. “But nothing really has changed,” explained Merlyn Woods when I caught up with the group at their recording studio later that week. “I feel like we’re empowered immensely by the deal, which should be a given, otherwise we wouldn’t partner with these people. Besides that, nothing has changed - we’re still just working.” Sat on a large corner sofa strewn with various art books, guitars, duvets and laptops, the group’s founder Kevin Abstract expanded on Merlyn’s point. “It just gives us more power to reach our goals - we want to be a worldwide boyband success. We want to be bigger than everybody.”
Stepping back in time and back to the pool, everyone in is shivering, BRICK’s photographer included. Our underwater photoshoot over, all are happy to climb out and towel off in time for the arrival of an industrial quantity of pizza. Whoever is now in charge of the playlist has just put on “Walk It Talk It”, prompting Romil to take a spontaneous survey of who is the better group: Migos or The Beatles. As the votes are taken and with The Fab Four soundly beaten, Joba rolls his eyes at his laughing bandmates before reaching for another slice. Discussion moves on to childhood musical memories, as Joba explains how he once peeled the Parental Advisory sticker from Korn’s ISSUES in the aisles of Best Buy, in order to trick his mom into buying it for him. “I was a little kid - I got my hands on that album way too young man. That shit changed me!”, he laughs. Bearface remembers playing a Limp Bizkit CD in the car with his parents, “and my dad was like “What the fuck is this? This is outrageous!” Joba chimes back in “That happened to me too! With Insane Clown Posse. I played it in the car and then my mom took the CD away. I’m not mad at her that though, that was trash.” As the now empty pizza boxes are cleared away, I hit record on my iPhone and sit down to capture the rest of the afternoon’s conversation.
BRICK: It’s been a momentous past year for all of you. What were some of your personal highlights?
ROMIL HEMNANI: Just getting to the point where my only obligation in life is to make the best art possible. I don’t have to worry about my family because they’re good, I don’t have to worry about rent, we don’t have to worry about working to establish our name or whatever. Now we’re at the point where people are watching, and it feels good.
HK: As a group, we’ve figured out where we want to go and especially now that we’re in a better position that alleviates a lot of the stresses that we had before, we can focus on making all the gears move.
MATT CHAMPION: For me, it’s been touring. I really enjoy seeing how our music translates in a live setting. I’ve learned a lot from that and having that opportunity. It’s fun, the shows have been wild.
HK: And we want to make them better too, touring is a learning experience each time, but now that we’ve got enough of that under our belt, we want to make the best experience possible. I feel like things are way more realised.
ROBERT ONTENIENT: The tours were really eye-opening, it was the first time we got to see the impact of what we had done.
DOM McLENNON: Yeah, we got to put a face to the idea of what’s behind propelling us forward. That was really crazy. It’s very rare in the world that you make something, and then directly get to see how it impacts people, and then get to travel the world connecting with them. So that in itself is really special. Something that stands out to me is the idea of personal freedom being something that’s attainable for myself and the people I really care about.
JON NUNES: That ties into what I was going to say too. A year ago, no one knew who we were outside of our core fans, so we didn’t have any resources or any help; we were still trying to establish and prove ourselves. Now we’re at a point where we’ve done that and people know we exist and we’re in this position to do whatever we want and take that next step and know that people are watching us, it’s just a whole new ball game.
ROMIL: We’ve experienced a lot of life in the past year. We’ve grown up a lot, very quickly. We can use the information we learned and apply that to what we’re gonna do next.
ASHLAN GREY: It’s nice to see everyone, for lack of a better term, flexed up the way they are. A year ago, a lot of us were starving. We didn’t have money. Now we can go spend a couple grand on new equipment that goes toward making this the powerhouse that it needs to be.
ROMIL: I did that two days ago. We were moving to a new house to record and I spent a couple grand on new gear. It felt so good being able to do that, to really invest in ourselves.
ASHLAN: Knowing that it all goes towards improving the machine and making everything better, that’s the best feeling ever. And knowing that everybody has enough to eat. Back in the day I used to eat half a thing of ramen - I’d break it in half and that was my dinner.
HK: And now Ashlan is spending 40 dollars on spaghetti! I want that on the record.
ROMIL: He did that last night! Then he didn’t even finish it.
ASHLAN: I took like four bites of it and I did not fuck with it. But I’m still humble!
HK: But for real, worrying about food and all this stuff, that was at the forefront of our mind. Now that worrying about money is more of a backburner thing now, we can focus on what we really need to focus on.
ROMIL: There was a period in time when people would get sick, I remember Ameer had a really bad toothache but he couldn’t afford to go to the dentist. Now we’re good, all we have to worry about is making the best art possible.
JABARI MANWA: Making SATURATION I and III were highlights for me, especially “BLEACH”. That was a really fucking good experience because when we made it we all knew that it was special. It turned out to be one of the most popular songs on the album that people love. It feels good to make music that impacts people a lot.
JOBA: Camp Flognaw was definitely a big deal.
KIKO MERLEY: Yeah, Flognaw was pretty awesome. That was amazing.
AMEER VANN: Moving into our new house, from South Central to the Valley, because it made the results of our hard work feel tangible. It felt like we had really created something. I don’t think we thought of it as significant then, but its definitely super significant now. It’ll be a year coming up since we moved into the new house, we moved in July.
JOBA: We haven’t even lived there a year yet?!
KEVIN ABSTRACT: That’s crazy.
JOBA: That’s definitely a highlight of mine too then, I’m sure we’re going to share a lot of highlights.
AMEER: It’s been a year since the day I recorded the “HEAT” verse, that was our first day working on Saturation songs. So much has changed since then, but that’s got to be the most significant thing. Just going from a house with no air conditioning to a house with air conditioning was huge.
JOBA: Low key, another moment is when we moved to North Hollywood and I rode a bike down the street and I felt safe.
AMEER: A lot of people think that we moved to South Central by choice, because it would have been an interesting place to live – that was not the case. That was all we could afford, and we could hardly afford it at that.
ROBERT: I was sleeping on the living room floor.
DOM: I was sleeping in the laundry room.
AMEER: We all struggled, we slept on the floor, we had to eat whatever, I don’t want to make it a sob story but we did what we had to do.
BRICK: What was the experience of moving into that new house like?
HK: That was a pivotal moment, definitely.
JON: It was a huge step up that needed to happen as far as our comfort and peace of mind.
ROMIL: The old house sucked. It was just not safe, either.
MATT: It was a good environment for making music though.
DOM: The space we were in was so cramped, but it was a double-edged sword because although you don’t sleep that much, any time you wake up you’re more than likely going to hear your favourite song being made. It was special.
JON: That’s the thing that was cool about it because that environment created the SATURATION I songs. If we weren’t all cramped and hot and angry in that house, we wouldn’t have made “HEAT” and shit. We wouldn’t have had to go outside and work with what we had, shooting the videos DIY and build the image from there. There was definitely something special that came out of it.
ROMIL: Yeah, sometimes I do miss it, because there’s a certain air around areas like that; you experience it a little more. It’s cool to be in a neighbourhood with white people and fences and stuff, but we used to be down the street from this Hispanic church, and they would play live music all the time, it was so cool and inspiring.
ASHLAN: We still have little nuances to keep us humble though, like I’m not sleeping in a bed for this album. Wherever we go, I’m sleeping on the couch because that’s what I did in South Central.
ROMIL: We don’t want to be too comfortable. Everyone is still sharing rooms. It’s good that we’re still all so tightly packed like that because everything is so spontaneous, there’s no on and off switch for a good idea. If it comes, you’ve got to act on it, and that’s why it’s nice having everyone around. The studio is always on. It’s literally always on. It’s really bad for the electricity bill, though.
JABARI: Everyone has been really inspired. I feel like we all want to experiment and we all know that we got to push the boundaries and do different things to be in the position that we want to be. It feels like the step we were supposed to take. [the move] has definitely brought a new energy. Interestingly enough it feels like SATURATION I again, that same vibe is coming back. Everyone’s there just creating, you walk into a room and hear something, then walk into another and hear something else, and you can be laying ideas down on top of that.
ROMIL: Literally, whoever wakes up first will start working right away, then as more people wake up they all come in and join the process. It’s really collaborative. The other day I got up at 10 a.m. and I sat in the living room and started making a beat. Ian woke up, he was still in his PJs, and he sat down at the mic and started recording, then Ashlan came in and started recording the whole process. We keep doing that all day until we go to bed, and it’s cool that that’s our life now.
BRICK: What can fans expect from PUPPY?
MERLYN WOOD: It’s going to be revolutionary.
KEVIN: It’s a summer album. We just wanted to make a different album. We got this new AirBnB and I guess just looking out and seeing LA the way we saw it, so beautiful, we wanted to make an album that sounded like that - something fun. The vibe of TEAM EFFORT was much more serious.
JOBA: I feel like TEAM EFFORT was tied very closely to SATURATION. PUPPY is it’s own thing, it was conceived exclusively from that era which opens up your creative mind.
ROMIL: When the next shit comes out, I want artists and everybody to look at it and be like ‘fuck! Where did that come from? How did they do that?’
JABARI: It's definitely going to help shift the sound of contemporary hip hop. As producers, that’s where we want to head with it. This is our moment where everyone is looking, everyone has their eyes on us, will it live up to all the hype? It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s cool at the same time because we’re still just making the music that we want to make.
MERLYN: I feel like the atmosphere of this album is a lot more relaxed from the previous SATURATION albums. Those albums were on a strict deadline – this album we have more time to relax, we’re just choosing to work hard every day. We also just came off a tour for two months, and we’re learning to pace ourselves. Whereas SATURATION era we would have sessions that would go for damn near 16 hours a day. Now we have sessions for five hours, then pause for a while, then go back to it.
ROMIL: Working on this album is awesome. It’s really collaborative, everybody helps with everything. It’s like Motown. Merlyn is a rapper in the group, but he’s been playing saxophone on a few tracks lately. He brought the sax out! It’s really cool.
HK: Back in South Central, the house had an open layout, and in this new house, the floor pattern is kind of the same way so it feels like we’re all back together collaborating and working on new ideas. I’m not really musically inclined, but just being around that creativity and work ethic really inspires me.
ROMIL: I know people are mad at us about the album title. People tweeted us like “PUPPY is such a stupid name” but it’s like “OK, we like the name PUPPY, so we’re gonna name it PUPPY.” If I was to make stuff for everyone else in the world but me, I would never be happy. I appreciate that people really care enough to have an opinion, but the reason that people like us is that we make exactly what we want to make and we never compromise. And we do it with our friends. What more could you want than living with your best friends and doing what you love every day?
JABARI: I feel like this album will be a reflection of the fact that we’re finally living - we’ve gone out and experienced the real world and are bringing it back to the art. The SATURATION process, I stayed in the house, I wasn’t having very many real life experiences, all my interactions were via the internet. We’re all trying to learn who we are as people, we’re learning more about ourselves as the days go by and it’s bringing something new to the creative process.
JON: It’s levelled up, its matured, its more focussed…
ROBERT: Those last two words definitely describe it. Focussed and mature. I feel like everyone is more mature, they understand what works, what doesn’t, and not even in a “satisfy the public” kind of way. People are understanding musically and artistically what works and that’s awesome.
DOM: There are so many different dynamics to our situation. A lot of people think its just start at the bottom, get to the top, happy ending, who knows, who knows, question mark, whatever. But there’s so much in between those points in the story. I think that what’s we’re really starting to tap into and getting ready to tell the stories of.
AMEER: The songs we’ve made for PUPPY have been more mature in perspective. The things that are being said reflect how much we’ve grown in this space of time and the different things we’ve had to encounter – basically all those changes – change in tax bracket, change in age, change in surroundings…
KEVIN: Change in collaboration. Fans got kinda upset last night because we were working with Skrillex. It’s funny though, because that’s how we already work, we could have a bunch of our friends over, it doesn’t matter if you sing or not - just help to make a good song. Now that we’re becoming more popular and these sort of people reach out, it’s like “Yeah sure, if you have a good idea come by and let’s see if we can make anything.” That’s why we call it a factory.
BEARFACE: Everyone’s good at something, people bring something to the table. People got mad because they thought working with Skrillex means that it’s going to sound like Skrillex, but we can utilise his input without making something that sounds like a Skrillex song.
KEVIN: When all these people come in they’re like “How can I help make the best Brockhampton project?” They keep us in mind, it’s not all about them.
AMEER: And in turn we don’t stifle their ideas. Whenever someone comes in, I make it a point to tell them “Hey, if there’s anything you want to put down, don’t be afraid.” I know it must be intimidating to come to a house with 14 people but if you feel it, record it, and we’ll all keep moving forward.
BRICK: How do you find the process of collaboration?
DOM: It’s definitely a very humbling experience to see how people approach your process, to see how people adapt to it, how they work or can’t work within it, and to see how quickly people get in their element. It’s one thing to want to be a part of something, it’s another thing to be in the room and have the opportunity to step up and try to make something happen. Seeing the way that people have done that is really cool, because that’s when it feels most organic.
ROBERT: The awesome thing is the collaboration process hasn’t changed from the first album. It’s still the same – the mic is in the middle of the room, if you have something you want to record, you do it. Jon’s recorded, I’ve recorded, anyone – if you want to record, go ahead. This time it’s exactly the same, it’s just we’ve got more people from the outside coming in.
KEVIN: If it’s a producer, I like for them to come with a pack of beats and we just listen. If the artist is inspired in the moment, the mic is literally in the middle of the room, we just pass the mic around and everybody records.
AMEER: We were going through a pack of beats last night and something just caught me and Dom and we put together a song and recorded it, then just moved on to the next thing.
JOBA: We want to work with anyone who is a fan of ours and if they’re an artist, I’d love for them to come by the studio and get their perspective. Because when it’s just us, sometimes we get caught up in our own little box of rules that we set up for ourselves so it’s cool to have someone come in and give perspective. They might not even make a song with us, we might just talk.
JABARI: It’s a new learning process. For me it’s about being more confident with your ideas when you’re working with someone more established, it’s still OK to give them ideas, help them go down the path that you want them to go, just being confident to do that. Previously we’ve always worked with people who have been on our level per se.
MERLYN: To me, it’s all very simple. I love being put into challenging situations when I’m recording, so having other people in the studio adds to that challenge. Making music with people you don’t know very well is so different to making music by ourselves.
MATT: It’s a weird experience, but I like it. For me, recording is not always comfortable but with everyone I normally work with, it is. So when someone new comes in I get kind of nervous because I don’t want to come off like I’m an asshole or I’m rude, but I’m really quiet and I don’t interject in stuff. It’s just being open and learning to put my wall down. But I enjoy it. I like having people come through.
ROMIL: Also if you don’t already know us, there’s a perception that ‘OK, this is what Matt Champion sounds like in his verses so this is what he’s going to be like as a person.’ And then you come in and it may or may not be what you expected. It’s weird to get used to people having an opinion on you before you even meet them. Before, we didn’t really have a fanbase, no one really knew us, so we never had to deal with that! But now people think they have an idea of who we are. Also we’ve all known each other for years and years – I’ve known HK since I was 15, I turn 23 this year. There’s a certain level of trust that gets built up over these years that you can’t replicate in a short amount of time. If Matt’s recording, I know exactly what he wants because we’ve been doing it together for so long. He doesn’t have to tell me what he wants because I already know from experience what he likes to do. The strength of our group is in our collaboration, so why not try new things and try to expand it?
ASHLAN: With my job, having to film everything, you can see people’s reactions while they’re making music with us. Because we can be making a song one minute and then the next minute we’re all listening to Sheck Wes, jumping around and dancing and shit. It’s just fun to us. I don’t look at it as work.
ROMIL: There are certain times where it does feel like work, but we always have each other to lean on. I remember watching this Beatles documentary, and they talked about how it must have sucked being Elvis because he was by himself – he had no one to relate to what he was going through. Even though he was the biggest rockstar in the world, that also comes with a lot of negatives and it was hard for him to express that. But they had four people, they had each other. And we have fourteen people, we’re all going through this together.
BRICK: Has performing live changed the way you view the songs, and does that experience influence your creative process as you continue to make music?
KEVIN: For me, yeah. I’m not a big fan of writing verses for songs, I like writing choruses. And I always think “Could I see a crowd singing this back?” I always keep that in mind now. A lot of the songs on SATURATION 3 though, I realised I wasn’t really considering that, because they didn’t translate as well as I thought they would live. I think sonically, some of the songs may have been too big for the rooms we were playing.
JOBA: I’m super aware of the crowd response, more aware than I ever have been, but I don’t let it dictate what I create or what I feel like I have to say.
ROMIL: Some of the shows we played were massive. Toronto was 3200 people or something crazy like that. And we were playing songs that had been made in my bedroom, literally, so I would never think ‘Oh man, we gotta perform this in front of 3,000 people, how is it going to translate?’ So now I’m a bit more aware of that. But it’s not something that is dictating anything creatively. We know exactly what we like, and we just make it.
JABARI: It definitely brought more perspective to what we’re dealing with as a group in terms of new fame and all that. Going on that tour was very eye-opening. I feel like we got glimpses of the stuff that Kanye used to be saying about fame, and could understand it a little. Of course, we haven’t reached that level yet but we’re starting to understand it.
BRICK: What are some of your ambitions for the year ahead?
JABARI: I want BROCKHAMPTON to be the biggest thing in the world. I can’t speak for everybody else but that’s me.
ROMIL: We want to be bigger than One Direction was. Super big. Like, annoyingly big. We want to make a really undeniably great album. We want to put on the best live shows we can. We just want to be the best thing out.
HK: The biggest fucking thing in the world. I want to rival our idols and inspire them with what we make.
MATT: That’s beautiful!
AMEER: To make the best art that we possibly can, I think that’s always the goal. That solely being the goal is the reason we’ve come as far as we have. It’s just a lot of fun making music together. The most important thing is taking the music as far as we can take it, and that in turn will make everything else OK. --- Right now we are at the forefront, at the beginning of it. This is only the foundation of the pyramid, I think we all envision this going much higher and much bigger.
JOBA: For sure.
KEVIN: I feel like we could lose all of this tomorrow, it’s not promised. So I want to make sure we leave our mark in every opportunity. Any platform we get, I just want to go as hard as we can and do the most unique thing and make sure that it means something ten years from now. We’re not just fucking around and being comfortable with our position.
DOM: I want to start building some businesses, get into real estate. In all honestly I kind of have a chip on my shoulder, generationally speaking, because preservation of wealth really isn’t a thing in urban African American communities, so I want to get that set up for my family. That’s my main ambition. But on the road to doing that, I want to do a lot of cool shit.
BRICK: Finally, is there anything else you want to add?
DOM: If I could tell people reading this anything, it is to believe in what you got. Believe in what you got.
JABARI: I just want to say: be you. To anyone who reads this, be you, and it will work out. This last year was the first time we were ourselves, unapologetically, and look at where it brought us. For years we tried really hard to be something else and took ourselves way too serious.
MERLYN: We were trying to pop off like, every single year. For years we were going to SXSW every year, trying to play shows, trying to get placements on websites that wouldn’t want to post about us. We’ve been trying to get on Billboard every day for every one of those years. We’re still working that hard, we still really want it.
JABARI: I don’t think people understand how hard we worked to get here. The only reason it worked out the way it did is because we actually decided, “OK, we’re a group - let’s start approaching this shit as a collective. Brockhampton is a single unit, and we’re gonna just move as that.” Once we totally understood that, that’s when everything really started happening for us. It’s beautiful, man. And it feels so good to do this with your friends.
MERLYN: It really does. We grind together, we shine together.