On KennyHoopla's debut EP, how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?//, each track captures a particular shade of the landscape that the Wisconsin-based artist is trying to create in our mind’s eye
He searches for purity in his sounds, painting with bold strokes of everything from pop-punk to ambient trap. No matter what sound he chooses, it’s straight up; if they bleed into each other, it will ruin the bigger picture. It’s about finding the feeling. He sounds electric, crackling with the energy of the moment; he sounds like the future, and we’ve at last caught up with him.
Tell him as much though, and while he is gracious, he won’t believe you. “My head is just in scribbles,” he says. He chases after his thoughts like an unravelling spool of thread, trying to sift through the knots, all the excess, to loop through the eye of a needle. “Oh man, I just had it…”, he sighs, when the perfect expression slips through his fingers. But the chaos of his conversation is more organised than he thinks. After tripping over himself leaving behind a trail of apologies and self-doubt (“Sorry, hopefully this doesn’t sound dumb…”), when he at last allows himself to take ownership of what he has to say, he strikes gold.
It’s just one of Kenny’s many contradictions: he is uncertain of himself, yet unshakeable in his beliefs. The same applies to his first body of work, released earlier this year. For an artist still gathering his momentum, how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway?// confidently confronts the gunmetal grey of reality. Each track experiments with different sensibilities; they stand alone, each one with its own texture, mood and distinct sound. The first thing you’ll learn about KennyHoopla is he’s something of a shapeshifter. Indie-rock revivalism sits alongside experimental electronica and trap signatures, wrapped in rings of synth, like planets belonging to the same solar system, yet with radically different climates. What binds them together is his voice, this ragged howl, that doesn’t sing these songs as much as inhabit them.
You would think, listening to him, that here we have an artist who is sure of himself, to experiment with more in a 20-minute gasp than most artists gather the courage to attempt over the breadth of a career. But, “I’m not in love with anything I’ve made”, he confesses. “[The EP] wasn’t how I wanted it to be. I don’t think I’ve even tapped into the level I’m trying to hold my music to at all. I wish I had more time to improve it and shit, but I just wanted to show what I had sonically – an intro into the sounds in my head.”
When I ask if he thinks he will ever reach a place of satisfaction with his music, he says tentatively, “I’m getting closer, that’s what I feel. I think it’s possible – I’m just trying to make it possible.” He continues, “The world is going so fast and I'm on limited time. I need to get out from my own head. I've just got to get these colours and stuff out, and I'm getting closer, but I'm never really satisfied or anything.”
He talks about the ambitions for his work with a restlessness that seems to make his words feel like they fit three sizes too small. “I’ve accepted that I’m kind of crazy – not in a messed up way,” he hastens to add, “but I definitely have a lot going on up there, and it’s just trying to lay it out technically with the music, how to say things the right way and how to hit a certain tone.” Doubtful about himself he may be, but there is a certain wisdom in admitting, “It’s so early for me, and I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The spectre of “limited time” is something that looms over not only Kenny’s music, but also his mind, and it has done ever since he was a kid. “Living just to die / Bruising up my wings
Didn't even get to fly/ 21 going on 25 to life”, he sings, through layers of glitched distortion on “the world is flat and this is the edge//”. This undercurrent of existential anxiety runs through almost every one of his songs, tracing all the way back to his trail of unreleased SoundCloud experiments, with titles like “CASKET//” and “U R N//”. It comes from this fear of missing out, trying to hold onto time but feeling it pass like quicksand. “I just don’t understand how you can’t possibly be freaking out inside when the world is like this,” he says.
Kenny's mind is never relaxed. This existential dread gave rise to the EP’s title, with its beginnings in a poem he’d written in high school. “We’d just drive past graveyards and stuff, and the music would be loud, or whatever, and I’d just look over as we were passing them and it would always feel so weird, the paradox of the whole thing,” he explains. “They’re supposed to be resting in peace, but there’s so much life happening around them. You just hear about how spirits are still here and can’t rest because they didn’t finish what they needed to in life.”
His start in music was tentative. “I kept running away from it,” he said. “I didn’t want to add to the noise and make music just to make music. I was just waiting until I had a genuine approach to it. I had something to say, I guess – a different approach.” He promised himself he would make one song before he turned 21, which, of course, amounted to much more than that. “It’d got to the point where, emotionally, my back was against the wall, and artistically, I was ready to dive into making music, using the sonics and my voice to explain myself.”
Nothing about KennyHoopla is at all what you’d expect. He makes guitar music without having learned how to play it. He understands the instrument on an almost instinctive level: he mines from it what he needs and doesn’t worry so much about being tripped up by the technicalities. While his career is only in its infancy, his smattering of live performances, including the storied No Ceilings concert series in New York, are deliciously incongruent to how you’d imagine. ‘God bless the band’, as the indie-rock maxim goes, but KennyHoopla is cutting a different path. Cover your ears, and you’d almost be forgiven for thinking you were at a hip-hop show: a holy trifecta of the talent, the hypeman and the decks.
“I’m not trying to come off as some kind of rock star”, he insists. Doing things differently, casting his listless eyes upwards from the tired rulebook that dictates that his way of performing indie-rock isn’t ‘proper’, is a deliberate choice. “Whatever I am, I’ve always been this way: not doing things technically. I thought that would inspire other people, because it would definitely have inspired me when I was younger to see somebody at a show, performing indie-rock in a way that it isn’t supposed to be,” he says. “I specifically do that for that kids who feel like I felt, which is, ‘Man, you can’t do that because you don’t have a band’. I’m just playing the music, because the music is what matters.”
“Sorry, I’m trying to guide through my head right now. I don’t know where I’m going…” Kenny says, as I ask him about how he feels about ‘genre’: the big bad wolf. Most prefer to shrug off any confining label, or create something new and bespoke that sets them apart from the rest. But Kenny – and this is something I tell him often – is surprising. “When you hear a track from me, there’s not a lot of genre-bending,” he explains. “If it’s a rock song, it’s mostly straight, raw… any kind of genre I do is purely that. There’s not a lot of genre-bending on purpose.” When artists throw together different genres performatively, he can smell it from a mile off. “Being an artist, you can sense when something isn’t real. When I make music, it’s genuinely because that’s just what my mind sounds like. I think you can hear when it’s coming from their heart.”
"I would like to be a soundtrack to people’s lives... I want to make moments – that’s what it’s about: capturing moments in songs." - Kenny Hoopla
Kenny takes me deeper into his mind-fog, as he blindly tries to find the edges of his ideas. It’s fun to do, and interesting to listen to. One gem he has proffered in the past is self-identifying as ‘new-wave nostalgia’. He cringes when I bring it up. “I literally regret saying that, because as soon as I did, everyone started labelling me as that. I regret saying it so much.” He's often mentioned in the same breath as Bloc Party, and while his music does hark back to their propulsive sound, he insists, “I’m not taking from anything, and I’m not necessarily keeping it alive.” He does, however, allow for comparisons not in genre, but in feeling. What he means by ‘new wave nostalgia’, is “something that lives inside of us all the time, whether it’s the feeling of being in love or just being high on life. This feeling has always been alive in all the music that people compare me to. I’m so positive that they feel the same thing I feel. I have it in me, genuinely,” he says, before hesitating. “That’s what I mean by like… yeah, a new wave nostalgia. This is ours, I guess.”
What he means, I think, is this idea of indulging entirely in the present, and trying to capture impermanent moments that become memories, like lightning in a bottle. “A truth of mine,” he confesses, “is I would like to be a soundtrack to people’s lives, with my music and shit. I want to make moments – that’s what it’s about: capturing moments in songs.” He tells me about his passion for Skins (he prefers the much-maligned US edition instead of its UK counterpart, but he sees merits in both), about wanting to paint a picture of the party and the hangover of growing up. “I feel like that’s the mindset I’m in when I’m making music, something cinematic. I feel like I’m living in a movie sometimes, it’s almost funny.”
Movies don’t seem to exist in the vast expanse between the east and west coast, but his life in Wisconsin is stranger than fiction. In the wake of his brother’s struggles with addiction, leaving their mother to look after Kenny’s nieces and nephews, he left home with nowhere to go. He ended up living with a community of artists, his “wolfpack” – though he insists it’s not quite as romantic as you might imagine. For a while, he was so broke that he was living off free bagels from the corner store, staying in a room big enough to accommodate an air mattress and not much else besides. “Oh man, that was so interesting…”, he says, almost incredulously, as if he were dusting off an old souvenir, rediscovering a memory, for the first time in years.
It would be in a friend of a friend’s motel room, turned into a makeshift studio, that his first track would be born. He tells me, “I just have these characters around me, and I’m just trying to touch on all of it in my music. There’s a vibe here I can’t get anywhere else… there’s so much life.” What sets Wisconsin apart for Kenny, and why LA and New York will never be his home, is this sense of escapism. “Here, I feel like there’s way more normal people escapism,” he says, “small-town things. I can’t even explain it… there’s a certain culture here, in the way people move. I’m trying to create this world so I can dive into it, so I can process it.”
He understands that no matter where he runs, there he will be. “What I’m trying to do is get my method down so I can go anywhere, move or something, and I’ll still be Kenny,” he says. “With me not living in LA, not having my own band and coming into this from unfortunate circumstances, I’m trying to prove that it’s still possible to make your own shit, your own wave – you can come from what I come from.”
"I'm a very brave person, and I strive to become the best human that I can be every day, but in the best ways." - KennyHoopla
I learn later that what many could mistake for KennyHoopla’s self-doubt is, in fact, rooted in an excruciating degree of self-awareness. While he prefaces his words with the likes of, “Sorry, I’m talking so much…” and asks, “Does that sound stupid?”, he has an unwavering belief in his vision – it’s only the demands he places on his execution of it that causes him to question himself. I wondered if, on those long nights laying on his mattress in his box-room, hoping for sleep to stave off the hunger, if he ever doubted that it would pay off. “I feel like I didn’t have a choice,” he says. “I don’t know, I must have some guardian angels or some shit around me.”
He continues, “I’ve always believed you can get whatever you want, but you just have to meet fate, the universe, whatever you pray to, halfway. You can’t get whatever you want without doing the work. If you’re trying your best, you’re doing what you can, and truly believe in yourself – like really, truly believe in yourself – then that’s when the universe will meet you halfway. I never had doubts, there’s literally no time to consider falling. You just have to keep going - that’s literally the mode I’ve been in since I’ve been on earth. When I want to quit, I remember that I’m in this situation for a reason, and it’s to see out this vision. I just have to keep hoping the universe will guide the way, and shit.”
Everything you’ve heard of KennyHoopla is all there is, so far. “I’ve never even said that out loud before,” he admits, “because I don’t think that’s a good thing. So many people would look down on it and think I’m not a hard worker.” Recording music requires a level of privilege, and for the longest time, he had no means of getting within touching distance of studio equipment. Kenny’s output relied on appealing to the right people in the right rooms to feel compelled to help him commit his sounds to record. “Genuine energy never gets ignored,” he believes, despite the odds being stacked against him.
“I’m a person who just catches that spark”, he says, “and that’s not something I can do all the time, especially with, like, a mental illness, or whatever…” His transparency when it comes to what he describes as “the battle with my head”, and his total lack of pretence when it comes to sharing his experiences with it, is both refreshing and a lifeline for the growing community he is building around him. When it comes to writing music as a means of catharsis, he says, “People say it helps, and you’re supposed to, but I’m not sure, because I’ll still be feeling empty. I’m not trying to make this depressing!” he says, “I’m just being honest. I still feel empty, and I think that’s the reason why I still haven’t made a lot of music. I feel empty, a lot. I try to make writing cathartic, but when you feel empty it’s hard to write anything, because literally, what do you write when you don’t have anything in your heart?”
In the world’s Covid climate, where creatives carried the self-imposed burden of expecting to create the art to define our generation during lockdown, admitting to feeling uninspired felt like a dirty word, almost. With the added mental strain, Kenny is the first to advocate that it’s okay to simply get through the day. He says, “I’m a super open person, and I think that’s how we’re going to lead the world forward, by revealing who we really are and how we feel about things – not hiding. The world needs transparency to move forward.” He acknowledges, “The hardest places to reach are the most necessary.”
Kenny famously dislikes interviews – understandably so, when you consider how strange it is to be probed about your innermost thoughts by a stranger on another continent. “That’s the sacrifice of an artist,” he says, “that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed to give a fuck about anyone else. You have to put yourself on the line, sacrifice yourself and your reputation and where you exist in other people’s lives, and shit like that. I know I’m made for that. I'm a very brave person, and I strive to become the best human that I can be every day, but in the best ways. If being vulnerable, or whatever that is, then I'm all for it, because that's what's gonna help me grow.”
I ask what the cards hold for KennyHoopla, and there is an EP – but what he is most enthused about is an album. They say that ‘legacy projects’ are what help us feel a little better about accepting we’re all going to die one day, and Kenny speaks about his designs for his own with a brilliant clarity, for the first time. “I want to make an album where conversations about music wouldn't be the same without it, when I've put a permanent stamp on it, and you feel that if you removed my catalogue, then music would be different. I think, no matter what,” he thinks, “success is about finding the cure.”