Kevin Abstract is Doing Fine, Thanks

It's a new era for Kevin Abstract, who recently released 'Blanket,' his first solo album since the band he grew up in dissolved. We meet up with him in LA to discuss the reaction to the album and where he goes from here.

Person in a graphic tee and camo pants stands laughing with hand partially covering face
Photo by Lucas Creighton
Person in a graphic tee and camo pants stands laughing with hand partially covering face

Consider the cover of Kevin Abstract’s Blanket as a creative director’s idea of a “cursed image.” The sagging polystyrene ceiling with broken fluorescent lighting, the mismatched skin tone of the translucent man mask with Manson lipliner, the tasteful motion blur, the intimate flash—the tableau is stylish enough to bait the critics and vague enough that every Redditor will think they’re the one who’s cracked the meaning. It practically begs for creepypasta. Who is this figure? Where is this domain that he lords over? What does he subsist on? What is his god?

As for Kevin Abstract, he’s already eaten, he’s got a house in the Hollywood Hills with a gorgeous glass facade, and when I walk in, one of the Nigo house tours is playing on the TV. The legendary BAPE founder is showing an interested camera a bunch of mint condition Kamen Rider figurines. Abstract, who recently released his first solo album since the band he grew up in dissolved, is already working on another. Part of this work is being more deliberate about what he takes in. Abstract has his laptop open, trying to locate the outfit Nigo’s wearing in the part he’s frozen the video on. It’s just a white tee and jeans, but you’d want to know where the white tee and the jeans are from. The simple things are hard to do this well. “I just want better swag this year,” Abstract says. He was less intentional when he was recording last year’s Blanket, an album not everyone knew what to do with. When he was working on his third solo effort, he’d just throw anything on to have motion in the studio. “I was watching movies that I’d already seen, like in high school and it was like coming of age stuff and dark,” he says.

“Coming of age,” “dark,” and a bit “high school” are all fair ways to describe Blanket— he sings at different times about lost love and inspiration, about mixed signals, about texts going green. A lot of this singing is done raspily, through his nose, and this, plus the huge bets on riffs and distortion, are what guide Blanket toward your head and chest. Occasionally it even hits you in the hips. But does it classify as emo? Is it even possible to make “a Sunny Day Real Estate, Modest Mouse type of record” that “hits like a rap album” as mentioned in a press release about the project? 

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I ask Abstract if he thinks Blanket might’ve been received differently if he’d never said anything about Sunny Day Real Estate. A chuckle escapes him. He insists it was what he was shooting for artistically— Midwestern emotional intensity that sounds good in the car— but he does regret “giving out all the ingredients” a bit. “I was actually annoyed when that quote came out,” he says. “In my head, I thought it was gonna be for the Spotify bio, but then I realized it was gonna be part of the press release as well. I was like, ‘oh fuck.’” The sharing of influences is part and parcel to doing press for a new album but it's a lose-lose when you think about it: followers of the referenced bands become forensicists, and listeners that may not have discovered those bands now have a rubric they can judge your work against. But you’ve got to start somewhere. “I wasn’t going into the studio as much as I should’ve been,” he says. “Once I was like ‘oh this is the sound,’ it made it easier to show up and work.”  

“I wasn’t going into the studio as much as I should’ve been. Once I was like ‘oh this is the sound,’ it made it easier to show up and work.”

One thing you notice about Kevin Abstract is how often he’s realizing things as he’s talking. He searches for the right words to describe exactly how this mindset helps him prize the useful ideas from the ones that are just cool, but settles on “the more you do it, the easier it is focusing on what you like, I guess.” It’s prudent to keep the eminence of the outcome as far from the act of creation as possible.    

To that end, for his first time out with this album, at Flog Gnaw in mid-November, what we had onstage split the difference between “pared back” and “thrown together”: Abstract was flanked by two guitars and backed by a drummer, the rest was pure commitment. He bounded around the stage to the title track in an opening salvo that became a little liturgical. “Blanket” is mostly primal screams, and Abstract strained for the very edge of his range, stomping on ants and casting off demons, powered by an apparently inexhaustible source of angst. He is still figuring out his stage presence in this era of his life. 

But angst is a natural place to go: after a decade of shaping the world’s idea of a ‘hip-hop boy band’ with a cast of friends and roommates over nine albums, Abstract now has a surplus of space and silence to fill. Brockhampton won’t have been the first group to have structural fissures opened up by creative differences, nor to have one or several of its members decide to call it quits. Imagine living in a house with 12 of your friends from freshman year where decisions are seldom made unless everyone agrees. Who wouldn’t want to strike out on their own, eventually?  I should add here that the show began with Ramin Jawadhi’s piano cover of “Heart-Shaped Box” from the season 2 trailer of Westworld, the one where Dolores decides she’s the protagonist and sets the world on a path toward the robot apocalypse. Abstract says he’s never watched Westworld, but goes along with me on the bar trivia. He adds that the vignette had been edited together the night before the Flog Gnaw set. It introduces a new character that isn’t quite Kevin Abstract, and isn’t really Ian Simpson either. “The Hero” as Abstract describes him is “heroic but always a little lost” which sounds like autofiction to my mind. “Being down to just throw yourself out there, feels heroic to me.”

“Being down to just throw yourself out there, feels heroic to me.”

The zaniest representation of this ethos happens deep in the setlist, right before a built-in encore. A man in a creepy, Mamou-style mache mask comes screeching from the wings, throwing his limbs wildly and covering every inch of the stage, filling in a potentially seizure-inducing play break. Immediately I think of Mardi Gras in rural Louisiana, of grotesque smiling faces in Spirit-bought court jester attire, an advancing army on horseback, perverting a celebratory occasion into something more sinister. Is there anything here about the evil of indifference, about the disquiet of suburban life, about that pit you get in your stomach when you pass through a neighborhood and can’t get a sense of what anybody there does for a living, or for fun? Try as I might, I get no lore about the mask: “me and my friend were just really into costume stores.” All that matters is that it makes sense to him. “I’m just so visual that I’ll see something immediately and be like ‘that song I did two weeks ago, this represents it.’” He adds that he likes the confusion it creates, and that it “just feels theatrical,” leaving the stage during a changeover and having someone clearly different come out.    

Person seated on bed with eyes closed, flanked by large soft figures on either side

It’s tempting to say this is all just channeling vibes and moods, but let’s call it the discernment of a practiced producer. Choose any song in the Saturation trilogy and notice Abstract tugging at the edges of a throng of competing ideas, pulling them toward the center. The best way to make everything cohere is to not place too high a value on any of it. Try something on, wear it once, throw it away.   

“I’ve just been working again, it’s been awesome. I’m comfortable where I’m at because I was so scared before putting out a solo album.”

Abstract feels optimistic about this coming year, so much so that he almost doesn’t want to share, for fear of jinxing it. “I’ve just been working again, it’s been awesome,” he says. “I’m comfortable where I’m at because I was so scared before putting out a solo album.” All in all, he says, it’s just good not to have to think about “putting out the first thing since the band broke up” anymore. “I’m like ‘oh I did it’ and I can just keep making music and not overthinking.” When I ask if this was the reception he thought Blanket would get, he mentions a koan he’s been turning over in his head, from Donald Glover’s wife: ‘if you do punk things, you get punk results.’ This here meaning, if you release an album without conventional cover art and chock it full of sketches of ideas and misshapen melodies mapped onto genre-agnostic music, you can expect a mixed reaction. In the referenced interview, Glover was discussing the impact and legacy of 3.15.20, an album with no artwork and studio residue all over the song titles— Glover, too, concedes that he might’ve gotten a different fan response if he’d put the music in a more traditional package, but then, “people are always going to want what they want.”

I ask Abstract how he deals with rejection. He doesn’t rush himself for an answer. The question sinks him deeper into the couch. “Depends on the form of it,” he says, after thinking for a while. “If it’s art, like, if the audience doesn’t like something, I just keep my head down and keep going.” He thinks a little more. “In other aspects of my life, if it’s like feeling abandoned by a friend or rejected by a romantic partner?” He flashes a grin. “I think I might become more desperate.”

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