The words “can i say” are emblazoned across Travis Barker’s chest. They’re woven into a tapestry of ink covering his slender body, from an ethereal Virgin Mary floating atop his head, to the word “Lover” curling over his abdomen, to a sunburst-backed tribute to DJ AM on his left thigh.
He’s so accustomed to going under the gun that the jabbing needle doesn’t really hurt anymore. A small anchor sits under one eye, a star under the other. A photo from January shows Barker smiling at the center of a small crowd as two artists tattoo both of his arms at the same time.
You’d never know by looking at him, but some of his ink is missing, literally burned off in the 2008 plane crash that killed four and left Barker and Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein critically injured. If you can read Barker’s story on his skin, it’s in the blank spaces, too.
Not all of his tattoos are symbolic. Some have been spontaneous. Some were an insurance policy against joining the real world.
“I think by the time I was 17 I had neck tattoos and tattoos on my hands,” says the now 39-year-old Barker. “I figured making it so that I couldn’t get a normal job would really force me into doing and committing to what I really loved, which was playing music.”
Barker’s musical origin story scans like the plot of an underdog movie. He grew up in Fontana, California, a largely Hispanic city an hour east of Los Angeles known as the founding place of the Hells Angels and a major trucking hub. After high school, he was playing music and working as a garbage man in Laguna Beach when ska superhero band the Aquabats asked him to fill in and eventually join the group. Barker’s big break: Performing as Baron von Tito while wearing the Aquabats’ signature spandex.
It wasn’t until he decamped for Blink-182 in 1998, however, that Barker became a household name. The oft-shirtless drummer was the heart of Blink’s irreverent pop-punk glory days, often credited as the group’s most talented musician. Pounding out tracks like “What’s My Age Again?” and “All the Small Things” off five-time multi-platinum record Enema of the State, he helped catapult the trio into mainstream consciousness.
Suddenly, the tattooed boys of Blink-182 were running through the streets naked for music videos and playing in heavy rotation on MTV. Looking back, Barker says they didn’t have time to digest their new fame. Playing more than 200 shows a year, “you’re just in it. You’re doing what you always did, you’re just doing more of it. It didn’t really even soak in.”
Their 2001 follow-up, Take Off Your Pants and Jacket, debuted at No. 1. But by 2005, internal tensions had taken their toll and Blink-182 announced an “indefinite hiatus.”
Barker used the opportunity to focus on side projects. He starred in Meet the Barkers, the MTV reality show that trailed newlyweds Barker and former Miss USA Shanna Moakler as they raised their son, went through a second pregnancy and dealt with the dramas of celebrity life, like $10,000 Christmas trees and custom furniture snafus. He also explored other genres, building an envious roster of collaborators from across the musical spectrum.
“A lot of drummers are specialists. They just sort of play one style,” says Drum! magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Andy Doerschuk. Barker, he adds, is “a great technician. ... He’s not necessarily stuck in one style.”
Nor one band. Barker has teamed up with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong on punk-rap project the Transplants and partnered with DJ AM to form mash-up super-duo TRV$DJAM. He recorded with Southern hip-hop artist Yelawolf, releasing a 2012 EP of raw rock-rap backed by marching-band snare and helicopter beats, and Barker’s 2011 solo album, Give the Drummer Some, features a laundry list of guests, including Pharrell Williams, Lil Wayne and Slash. In recent years, he has played alongside DJs like A-Trak for nightclub crowds.
“[Barker] chooses to play a very aggressive style, but he’s got the ability to be flexible within that context,” Doerschuk says. “I think he works hard to understand what’s going on out there in the music scene. He doesn’t want to be a dinosaur. He always seems to be on the cutting edge.”
Today, that edge isn’t about seeking fresh collaborators to spin while he plays or recording with the latest hip-hop star. On August 18, Barker will launch a new phase in his career with the debut of Give the Drummer Some, an ongoing gig at Hyde that is the intimate nightclub’s first official artist residency. A unique mix of DJing and live drumming, the show will find Barker behind a complex rig that includes a cocktail drum kit, electronic drums and DJ gear. The illuminated setup will change color with the beat.
“It’s kind of like live remixing any songs that I play in my set either with the turntables or my drum kit,” he explains of the new vector for his danceable playlist, ranging from Kanye West and Lil Jon to Tiësto and Steve Aoki. “It’s actually really difficult. It’s busier than any other set I have.”
Barker played a trial run of sorts during the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight weekend, which went off as an unequivocal success and spawned the deal to play six dates between now and March 2016.
“It was all the songs that people wanted to hear, and then his drumming on top of that added a level of energy that was unparalleled,” says Hyde Director of Operations Ryan Klaasen. “It was probably the best song selection and energy we’ve seen from Hyde in quite a long time.”
I remember another party more than six years ago when Barker brought it in front of a Vegas crowd and the place went crazy.
It was mid-2009, and less than a year earlier on September 19, 2008, a chartered jet carrying Barker and DJ AM had crashed upon takeoff in South Carolina, bursting into flames and killing four. The only survivors were the two musicians, who escaped the wreckage in critical condition and came through the trauma even closer friends.
“Sixty-five percent of my body was burnt, and I had tons of injuries that were supposed to be, ya know, forever,” Barker says. He underwent 16 surgeries and almost had a foot amputated, according to Rolling Stone. For a while his dominant left hand was numb.
There were moments, Barker says, when he wasn’t sure he’d ever drum the same way again. “You get in the mind-set where you’re going to push through and you’re not going to let anything restrict you. You’re actually going to surpass what they say you might not be able to do.”
That’s what happened at the Palms that day in 2009, when Barker joined AM for his Friday night residency at Rain. I remember watching the duo share the stage, facing each other and working in tandem. Barker layered drums on top of AM’s records until the soundtrack built into raucous celebration that shook the rafters. Sweating, jamming, putting everything into their performance, the two men seemed to be declaring their survival in musical form. It was one helluva party.
Later that year AM was found dead in his New York City apartment. An accidental overdose. Barker was once again left as the survivor, grappling with everything that meant and the loss of his best friend.
“When he was gone? Whoa. I locked myself in and only went out to do shows,” Barker told the Daily Beast in 2011. “I didn’t want to leave the inside of a hotel.”
But the trauma of the plane crash and that year had a faint silver lining. It brought Blink-182 back together. Older, perhaps wiser and definitely more tattooed, the trio went on tour and even recorded a new album. But old tensions bubbled up, side projects exerted their pull and earlier this year, Barker and bassist Mark Hoppus issued a statement that guitarist Tom DeLonge had left Blink-182 for good.
“When we did get back together after my plane crash, we only got back together, I don’t know, maybe because I almost died,” Barker told Rolling Stone in January. “But [DeLonge] didn’t even listen to mixes or masterings from [2011’s Neighborhoods]. He didn’t even care about it. Why Blink even got back together in the first place is questionable.”
Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba has replaced DeLonge for recent dates, and there’s talk of him joining Hoppus and Barker in the studio to record a new Blink-182 album. The drummer seems energized by the band’s new blood, but today his calendar is full of other projects and collaborations. He’s running his clothing line, Famous Stars and Straps, working on another solo album, mugging for Instagram photos with his two kids and preparing for the release of a memoir this fall whose title echoes those words on his chest: Can I Say?
As the drummer nears 40, it seems he is having his say, cementing an identity that long ago moved beyond riotous pop-punk and pranky antics. His drumming is no less aggressive, it’s just harder to classify. More diverse. More mature.
During a quiet moment last Monday afternoon, Barker sums it all up nonchalantly over the phone. “I just wanted to find a way to make enough money to eat, sleep and play drums,” he says. “I surpassed that goal years ago, but it’s funny because it’s still very simple for me. I do what I love and I love what I do. It’s beyond what I ever thought was imaginable.”
Give The Drummer Some Launches August 18, 10:30 p.m., $40+ men; $30+ women. Hyde Bellagio, 702-693-8700.