Colson Baker is one cocky motherfucker. But somehow he gets away with it. “Frankly, I really don’t like introducing myself at all,” he replied when I asked him to say a few introductory words about himself. “I don’t give a fuck if people know who I am. I didn’t come to be known as a face, people just come across my talent, you can make your own opinion of me from that.” So far public opinion of him has been pretty good.
Born in Cleveland Ohio, he exploded onto the music scene as a teen back in 2006, rapping under the moniker, Machine Gun Kelly – a nod to his raw, grassroots talent and quick-fire delivery. Famed for his rat-at-tat rhymes and rock god meets hip hop bad boy status, he’s come a long way since his first mixtape, Stamp of Approval. After carving out a name of himself on the underground scene, in 2012 he released his critically acclaimed debut album Lace Up, featuring the likes of DMX, Cassie and Waka Flocka Flame. General Admission was his widely respected follow up. Then, after nearly a decade of making waves in the subcultural shadows, Baker broke into the mainstream earlier last year with Bad Things, a sultry duet with pop songstress, Camila Cabello. With its echoes of Eminem and Rihanna, it marked a new direction for Baker.
Next up, the 27-year-old is trying his hand at acting. With notable performances already under his belt, in Cameron Crowe’s TV show Roadies, and silver screen thrillers Viral and Nerve, this year he’s stepping it up a gear, appearing in two sci-fi dramas, Bird Box opposite Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson, and Captive State, with Vera Farmiga and John Goodman. On top of that, it’s just been announced he’ll be starring as notorious bad boy Tommy Lee in the upcoming Mötley Crüe biopic, The Dirt. Taking a break from filming in New Orleans, we caught up with the young gun to find out how it’s all going.
Hey Colson, what’s up?
I’m just in the car, right now driving. I only started my day 45 minutes ago, it’s a chill day. I fancy myself as more of a vampire. My emotional state would be a lot better if I operated on normal hours, but my creative side thrives at night so I just gotta pick one, and I pick the creative one.
Let’s talk about acting, what is it you enjoy about the craft?
I grew up watching Jackass, and was oddly inspired by it. It was these home videos that these kids who looked like me and dressed like me were doing, they were taking their destiny in their own hands and showing this very un-filtered vision of what young teenage life was like. It was so cool. So I grabbed a camera and started carrying it around with me all the time, documenting everything. There was a point when I was like, “You know what? I just think I like being in front of a camera.”
Beyond being in front of the camera, what is it about inhabiting other roles that appeals?
So far, the roles I’ve played haven’t required me to be much different than who I actually am, which is a good thing because I believe who I am is entertaining enough. I know how to capture an audience. But I think it wears off after you’ve seen it a couple of times and so the two movies I have coming out this year are a bit different. My first real test of inhabiting a character will be playing Tommy Lee in the new Mötley Crüe biopic.
What kind of research have you done for the role?
Well, I don’t play drums and Tommy is an iconic drummer, so I’ve started taking drum lessons, on top of all the guitar playing and recording that I already do. Also I feel like if you’re playing Tommy Lee I think having sex has gotta be part of the research. I’ve never done that before – sex – so I’ll try for the first time. Just for the research.
Yeah right. What other film stuff have you got coming up?
I’ve got Bird Box coming up with Sandra Bullock and a whole cast of people. It’s my first ensemble cast so I’m excited about that.
How has being a part of an ensemble differed from your other acting work?
I did this movie called Nerve, which I love. Every location was shot guerrilla style on different locations – on train tracks, the back of New York streets. It was fast paced and always moving. But when we did Bird Box, the whole movie takes place in one house. So we would be spending 12-hour days in one room together. It would really make you go fucking crazy, which is how you’re meant to feel in the movie, all these people are trapped in this house going crazy.
Your roles are becoming much more varied and really fleshed out, are you starting to view acting more as a serious career or a kind of craft to hone?
You know, I’m struggling inside with the timing of this role. I feel with music, this is the most attention we’ve ever had thus far. We were going to do this US tour, which was to be bigger and better than ever before production wise, audience wise, money wise. But I had to cancel that to do this movie. Sometimes I still get that feeling in my gut of, “Fuck, I hope I didn’t choose the wrong thing.” I hope that everyone is still gonna be there when I’m done. But I guess, the bigger the risk the bigger the reward.
What kind of an actor do you want to be?
I really respect Ed Norton, he makes it art. I like that he went and did a guest voice in Seth Rogen’s Sausage Movie – a film about sausages fucking each other. You know, don’t ever take yourself too seriously, but when you need to then you kill it. They always say to me would you rather be a great actor or a movie star? I’d like to be both. I’d like to be someone who puts asses on seats and someone who drops jaws.
Is there anyone you’d particularly like to work with?
I think Nicolas Winding Refn makes great films. I’d love to work with someone in that realm of thought, he reminds me of Kubrick with his cinematic shots. You could hit pause on any of his films and take a screenshot and it would be a beautiful picture. I’d like to repeat work with the guys behind Nerve and my friend Cameron Crowe who I did Roadies with. Doing that was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life, the happiest I’ve ever been. I felt like I was at school again, I was the youngest, most unknown actor on set so I was always on my best behaviour, and my worst behaviour because Cameron loved me. So I was always smoking in my trailer and inviting all my friends to come hang.
What other risks have you taken in your life and career?
I think I’ve taken a huge risk just by involving myself in the fashion world as a model and just by being at shows. When you come from an underground scene, like I did, it can be looked down on. It gets you backlash. I’m a very alpha male type but I have no boundaries when it comes to art. Some people don’t know how to separate me from when I’m being an artist.
In what way do you get backlash?
Fashion isn’t on the same page as like music and film. When I was growing up in Cleveland, without Instagram or Twitter, I didn’t have any knowledge of any culture outside of the block I was living on. So then you look at all these people in the industry walking around in saran wrap and shiny sequin gowns, and you’re like, “What the fuck is that?” But the more you’re exposed to it the more you realise the work that goes behind it. When you’re sitting front row at shows or walking in them, you see how a piece of clothing can make you feel. It’s not because I have money now, so I can do rich people things. I’ve just been exposed to something that’s beautiful, whether I’m involved in it or not. But when you’re the voice of all these underdogs, and they’re seeing you look flashier than ever, or looking in ways that maybe they see as feminine, it’s a risk. But I don’t give a fuck what people think. All it does is add to the back catalogue of ballsy moves I’ve made. You know who I look back on and appreciate? All my idols had balls of steel. Even the women.
What women do you admire?
Madonna. Look at her with that Sex book. What?! Blew my motherfucking mind. Can’t stand a Madonna song, but I’ll be damned if I don’t respect everything about that woman. Just that book alone, especially at that time. I couldn’t imagine being alive at that time and seeing the reaction that she got or what her family were thinking.
The moment you first became interested in fashion, an industry that previously you might have disregarded as pretentious, ridiculous, superficial, whatever, did it surprise you that you began to have a genuine admiration for it?
Yes it did. But I like to put my ignorance on blast so that other people can learn from it. We live in a different time now though. I’m still young and a part of the new generation, but I’m more on the cusp. I was growing up before phones and videos really started blowing up. So you can look at pictures of me when I was 19 and be like, “Why was he dressed like that?” Now you can look at a 16 year old, and they’ll be looking fly as fuck. But that’s because they have access to culture so they know what’s cool. At 19, all I saw was my block. The only thing you’re looking at is MTV, and you don’t know how to attain the items that you’re favourite rappers are wearing. Nowadays, you can just shop everything online with a credit card. Back in the day, we’d only have cash, and we’d be going to the store to see if we could get 10$ off whatever Jordan’s they were selling.
As well as having greater access, there’s been a wide cultural shift. You’re favourite rappers are no longer dripping in gold chains, they’re wearing Raf Simons. Look at Young Thug, A$AP Rocky, Kanye. This in turn is influencing young kids to open their eyes to the fact that fashion is for everyone.
Exactly. Do you wanna know what did it for me? What made me see the beauty of fashion and past the gaudiness of it? I was in London for my first fashion week. I went out there with an attitude, I was high [and] I was just getting by. On the way to a show, it was raining so we had to stop by a hotel so that my agent could get a cab. I went in to the lobby and found this book called Savage Beauty about Alexander McQueen. I opened the book because the colour was so beautiful. I didn’t catch that taxi and I missed that first show because I couldn’t fucking stop reading that book. You know, he describes what every layer on his clothes means. A couple of hours later I went and saw my first show and it blew my mind. I haven’t looked back since.
Would you ever consider doing your own line?
I don’t think I would. I can look at things and appreciate them when they’re great and wear them the right fucking way. I would never be mad at doing high end merch, because I love merch. It always turns me on and inspires me. If anything I’d make band merch. If I can’t top Savage Beauty then I’m cool.
I guess merch is much more true to who you are anyway. Ok last question, what are you most excited about for 2018?
I’m excited about this speakeasy/coffee shop we’re working on in Cleveland. It’s called the 27 Club.
How long do you have left until you’re 28?
Hang in there.