Three albums called Saturation, one TV series called American Boyband, and half of a headlining world tour deep into a career that’s still only a few years old, BROCKHAMPTON are a band by now accustomed to creating by their own design and living by their own rules.
With Iridescence, the group’s fourth album (and the first of a much-discussed-and-dissected partnership with RCA Records) dropping today, VICE New Zealand sent teenaged West Auckland rap duo Church & AP to meet with 10 of the band’s 14 active members in the back room of Auckland’s Hollywood Cinema.
Fresh from a screening of their other brand new project, feature-length documentary THE LONGEST SUMMER IN AMERICA, and despite feeling to various degrees the effects of a 14-hour LA-to-Auckland flight—producer Romil Hemnani copped to having had “like four coffees just to stay up...but I still feel great”—the band were lucid and open, conversing widely and candidly on topics ranging from the roles of aesthetic and identity in their art to the responsibility that they feel comes with being artists in the public eye.
Church: In our eyes, you guys have kind of shaped an aesthetic for youth in the same way as, like, Odd Future—I know you’ve mentioned that before. How does knowing that you have that much impact and influence impact your decision making? Does that change the way you make decisions?
Ian ‘Kevin Abstract’ Simpson: Yeah I guess so. You realise you have a voice, and when you realise you have a voice you start to be a little bit more particular about what you choose to say.
William ‘Merlyn’ Wood: I feel like if you’re talking to yourself in a room, you’re not going to be as particular about the details. If you imagine that you’re talking in front of a big group or in front of, like 100 people, you’re going to be very particular about what you say because, like, it has to be the truthiest truth about you that there is. It’s not like talking about yourself is different or less true.
Dom McLennon: You also can’t forget what life was before that, because your life before that got you to that life. So if I stop creating in the spirit of creating for myself, then I’d lose myself.
Romil: On that same token, creatively, it makes me want to push further and be bolder and be like “OK, how far can we take this?” Because when we first came out, we were doing stuff that was just like, us. You know, it was a little left-of-centre. And seeing how that clicked with people, it was like, “OK let’s just keep going; let’s just keep doing what’s true to us.”
Church: I think you tapped into a crowd that really got that, and there’s a lot of people that feel the same way. So when you guys are just openly expressing yourselves—never in my life have I seen a group come out that’s doing what you’re doing. Especially in rap music, there’s never been a group with openly gay members.
Kevin Abstract: Can I speak on that real quick? I think also that, it’s not that we’re open—I mean I say we, but it’s I—not that I’m open, but that I celebrate my sexuality, I’m explicit about it. I think that separates me from other open, openly gay artists…is a thought I had just now.
Romil: Yeah, and a lot of our favourite artists are the ones who are really honest and really vulnerable, and those are the ones that a lot of us have connected to. So that’s the kind of art that we make.
Kevin Abstract: For some reason, being gay can be such a sad thing in media, so it’s really cool to see someone like me who doesn’t look like, I guess the stereotypical gay guy. To celebrate that and embrace it, it makes it more of a positive; it’s easier for kids to identify with, who are in the closet and want to live a happy life.
AP: You guys are known for putting out merch…a lot of merch [laughter]. But what inspires your designs, and what are some of your favourite pieces so far?
Henock ‘HK’ Sileshi: As far as where inspiration comes from, I definitely want to keep it in line with the music; [it’s] not necessarily 1:1, but at the same time just thinking like – “Oh, this would look cool on a shirt,” like the same as when we create music, just throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. It’s really just an open canvas with, like, how we create and….with…wait what was the second part?
AP: What are some of your favourite pieces?
HK: Oh! Uh I remember I made this shirt as a joke in the group chat, with this tweet…our first Saturation project, and the Pitchfork review; I just put the review on the shirt and then our tweet about “ Pitchfork never review our shit again”, I just put that on the back and I sent it to the group chat because I thought it was funny and we ended up making it for tour merch. I think that, like, that’s why Pitchfork hates us.
Romil: And then they kept reviewing us.
HK: I think after they saw that and after we kept saying “Fuck Pitchfork” on stage, I think that may have come into the review process as well…that’s just my theory.
Church: This question’s for Merlyn, I just wanted to know how you incorporate your culture into music? Like for us, we’re Pacific islanders living in New Zealand, so that’s a part of our identity and we try to incorporate that. How do you try and do that, or what does it mean for you to be Ghanaian and be in like a mainstream American band?
Merlyn: I feel like some days I’ll walk, talk and eat like an American and some days I’ll walk, talk and eat like a Ghanaian, and I really feel like I’m wholly both things. That’s just me.
But to answer your question, to express that I think what you do is you just, talk about like, the experience—I don’t know, obviously it doesn’t feel a specific way to be black or to be a Pacific Islander, but like, the food that you eat; the flavours; the games that you play when you’re a kid. All that shit is like a shared experience between you and your people, and I think like by bringing—I love food metaphors in music as a way to bring in great imagery.
Merlyn: Yeah! Some like, hot, steamy jollof; some ripe, juicy plantains! Put that in the music and let people feel that and make people want to experience that too… that’s what I do.
AP: Why did you decide to call the album Iridescence ? Was it the same process as when you came up with Saturation and Puppy, or did someone just already have it?
Kevin Abstract: It was similar, I think. I was talking to our manager about what we should name the album, and she suggested a colour; I was looking at a bunch of colours and they all felt kinda corny, then my boyfriend suggested ‘Iridescence’—I typed it in the group chat and….yeah.
Church: I didn’t know what the fuck iridescence meant beforehand, but, like, I Googled it because of you guys.
Ian: That’s one thing too, when we pick a name sometimes, like—whenever we make a decision—it’s normally based off a feeling, and as we go on the actual story starts to reveal itself and the reasons we were attracted to it start to reveal themselves, if that makes sense. So now there are [other] meanings where that name makes sense, but at first it was just a feeling.
Church: So you guys go by feeling a lot?
Romil: Always. Not a lot, always.
Kevin: This interview probably would’ve been done five minutes ago if we didn’t feel good. Sorry if that’s rude.
Church: I’ve got a question for Dom: I saw a tweet today saying that your lyrics acted as a safe space for someone, and others saying that they could relate. I just want to ask you, how does it make you feel knowing that your songs and your music and your sound is that space for people. Like me being 17, AP being 18.
Dom: You’re 17? Holy fucking shit dude.
Romil: I thought you guys were in, like, your 20s.
Joba: You guys carry yourselves very maturely.
Church: That’s something we aspire to do, and seeing you guys—you aren’t too far from our age—how does that feel?
Dom: It’s interesting for me because, you know, I have this existential crisis I wake up with every day realizing that people give a fuck. It’s just like, “Oh shit, what’s next?” y’know?
But the thing about it is, for me, when I’m writing my songs, when we’re writing our songs together and I’m sitting there and I’m thinking about what, like, I want to put into the world, I think about why I make music. The purpose of it for me was like, I never felt like I was heard in my life, so music gave me a chance to say my piece for like 30 seconds, and someone couldn’t cut me off. You know what I mean? So I just kind of never lost the spirit of that, and because I never lost the spirit of that, the act of creating has become my safe space. And within my acts of creativity, if whatever I create in my safe space gives someone else the opportunity to have a safe space, I feel like that’s the energy I’m putting into what I’m creating coming back full circle. If that answers the question.
Joba: The idea of giving someone peace of mind, or them feeling as though your work gives them a safe space—the way I interpret that safe space is just, like, being understood; feeling comfort in being understood and wanting to stay in that.
Obviously that’s a beautiful thing to share with anybody, but it is a responsibility. And after a certain time, if you think about it, you obviously just want to help people. I mean, speaking for myself, obviously I have a lot of shit to get off my chest, that’s why I’m drawn to art and drawn to music. When the safe space changes, my view will change on the safe space, you get what I’m saying?
So it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s also a responsibility. At times it can be overwhelming, but it’s important to acknowledge it and remember that the safe space exists because of us being vulnerable about something, and trusting that we can continue to do that and create another safe space whenever this one may change moving forward, because we’re just changing, and we’re still feeling new shit. Like every day you wake up and you look at life and you take stuff in, you’re always taking stuff in and reflecting. You’re meeting new people who are influencing your ideas, who are influencing your thoughts—it’s scary at the same time, because responsibility . . . kinda sucks.
Dom: Can I ask you guys a quick question?
AP: Yeah, sure.
Dom: So like, out here, do y’all have like any spots that y’all just like go out to, to just chill, and just calm out, just disappear or whatever?
Church: Oh 100 percent, yeah.
Dom: So: imagine having that spot, right, and you’ve had that spot for years. No one fucking goes there when you’re there, then one day you go there and you see like 500 people taking pictures on Instagram. Just take that moment right there of just, like, driving up and seeing that, and that’s the feeling of your safe space becoming the safe space of so many other people. So what do you do? Do you teach them how to operate in that space, so that the spot doesn’t get burnt? You know what I’m saying? Or do you move onto a new space? Do you find your next home? There’s so many ways that you can navigate through that, and I think that we’re all kind of doing that in real time right now.
Matt Champion: Do you tell them to please leave your space?
Dom: For real! You know, like there’s a lot of different ways you can approach it.
Church: How do you treat that, if there are people that aren’t really genuine about it? Like if people give you compliments but it doesn’t feel genuine, do you kind of just accept that you’ve created a space for someone else and they’re just not in that, or do you always have to be accepting of everyone?
Dom: I think that’s that existential duality, like the reality of it is that at the end of the day, when I put that shit out into the world, whoever’s interpretation of what I put out and what they got from it is what they got from it; I can’t take that from them. You know what I’m saying? So who am I to say “Oh, this doesn’t mean what it meant to you; it means what it meant to me.” You know what I’m saying?
Kevin Abstract: It’s no longer yours but also, you do have the right to have an opinion on who is affected by it, because you wrote it.
Dom: It’s interesting, you choose how much control you have over it and how much you give away, you know, in real time. It’s a really interesting thing to be going through, you know.
Romil: And also, one of my favourite quotes is “Making good products is a humanitarian act.” So I try to view it like, if I make a really good product, if the music is really great and it moves people and makes them feel better and makes them want to dance, makes them smile, like it’s comforting when they’re feeling down or whatever, that’s humanitarian. I’m helping somebody. That’s just how I view it sometimes.
Joba: Sometimes you gotta throw that out the window as well, because like, if you make art for other people or for what other people are going to think about it, you’re compromising your own self realisation. And sometimes it doesn’t matter, it just has to be out, and you feel it in your chest, it’s like a hit.
Merlyn: I think it’s always a feeling that comes from yourself, like… [laughs] nah that’s all I’ve got to say about it.
BROCKHAMPTON'S album Iridescence is available now.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.