Earlier this month, Machine Gun Kelly became the first artist of 2020 to top the Billboard 200 albums chart with a rock LP. It was a once-unlikely achievement from an artist who’d spent most of his career to that point as a rapper, but he didn’t do it alone: Tickets to My Downfall pulled off its successful pivot with assists from two long-time alt-rock veterans, Travis Barker and Nick Long.
Barker — co-writer, co-producer and drummer on nearly all of the set’s 15 tracks — is likely already familiar to audiences as a solo star and member of pop-punk superstar trio Blink-182. But even you might not be as familiar with Long, you’ve probably already heard a decent amount of his past work, too.
A pop-punk alum and veteran of Warped Tour bands as a writer and guitarist himself, Long achieved minor streaming success in the mid-’10s with his alt-pop solo outfit Dark Waves. But as label drama stunted that project before he could release a full-length album, he struck unexpected gold in a co-writing session with then-rising pop/rock artist BØRNS, and went on to work from there with such wide-ranging alternative artists as All Time Low, Papa Roach, Black Veil Brides and King Princess. (“The perfect job that I never knew existed,” he raves of his new co-writing role.)
Still, he’s never had full-album success like he’s found with MGK — first with 2019’s Tickets-presaging alt-crossover collab with Yungblud “I Think I’m Okay,” and now with writing credits on all 13 of the non-interlude tracks on the new album. “I never have ever been aware of the charts or anything like that, so it’s not really on my radar,” Long admits. “But it’s also something that I never even dreamed of happening. So yeah, I feel honored to be a part of the project — and if it can inspire people to start some bands or bring back some more music like this…”
Below, Billboard catches up with Long’s winding career to this point, while also talking about turning texts into songs with Machine Gun Kelly — and why it would “break [his] f–king heart” if the band Jawbreaker turned out to not like their song “Jawbreaker.”
I read that you started off your career in punk bands. Is that true?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve been in bands since I was like 10. They weren’t punk bands in the beginning, but then I guess the first band in high school, and then the first band that I started touring with right out of high school, were punk bands. Doing Warped Tour and stuff like that.
The first band that I toured with was called Staring Back. I grew up in Santa Barbara, and they were kind of a local band. Then their guitar player quit a couple weeks into the Warped Tour and I just got a phone call [to replace them].
How did that music compare to what you’re doing now with MGK?
It’s interesting, because… this was 2002. We were on a really small stage. We were, like, really roughing it. But we were right next to the Drive-Thru Records stage, and New Found Glory was on the tour, and bands I love. It was actually a really sick year: Bad Religion, Lagwagon, NOFX, Alkaline Trio… but the band that I was in was more, I guess, technical than some of the stuff that we’re doing with MGK. But it’s kind of all in the same lane.
So what happened in the decade in between that and when you started with Dark Waves?
Oh, f–k. [Laughs.] So after doing Staring Back for a few years, I quit and then started in a couple bands that I was singing in. Those kind of just fell apart from just whatever — typical band bulls–t. I started doing Dark Waves stuff in 2013, 2014 maybe, and signed a really horrible record deal in 2012 that kinda lead into all that.
And then in 2014 I wrote a song with some friends that started doing well, and I started getting invited to write with other people. I thought it was like, super-wack at first. Because I didn’t know — first of all, I just thought that everybody wrote their own music. So at first I was like, “Oh, this is kind of weird, that people write with people that they aren’t in bands with.” But I just started getting invited to all these different sessions.
My label was kind of not letting me put music out, and I’ve always just struggled so hard on tour, and was never making any money. And a switch kind of flipped and I went, “Oh, actually this is incredible. I get to write different kinds of music for different people, I don’t have to be on tour living in a van…” Kind of the perfect job that I never knew existed.
Was it the label drama that was the reason why the Dark Waves album never came out, or was it because you’d already kind of moved on to other things?
It was definitely both. But you know what, in retrospect I’m kind of oddly really grateful that neither Dark Waves or any of my other bands really blew up [in a way] that put me in a position that I had to be on tour forever to make a living… I mean, who knows, maybe that would be like an incredible path that would have happened, but I’m kind of grateful that things happened the way they did. Even if it was really tough at times.
You mentioned you wrote one popular song that eased your transition to that side of things. What was it?
It was called “Electric Love” by BØRNS… A good friend of mine, Tommy English, was producing some of my stuff, and producing some of BØRNS’ stuff — this is before BØRNS was signed to Interscope — and the three of us wrote a song for me one day, and the next day, he was like, “Do you want to come over to write something for Garrett [BØRNS]?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” I went over and my friend Josh Moran, who’s an incredible writer, was there. And we just wrote that… it went well in a way that I had never experienced.
You also had a co-write on King Princess’ “1950.” Was that another one that opened new doors for you?
Yeah, for sure. She’s so special. I met her when she was 16 — also, my friend Josh Moran introduced me to her — and immediately, when I wrote with her I was like, “There’s something about her. She’s just better than everybody I’m working with.” And we wrote “1950” I think the third time we worked together. She was maybe 17 at that point. And that definitely opened some doors for me.
When you do have co-writes with these solo artists or bands, is there something specific that you feel like you’re called on to add to the process? Is it more about the lyrics, the music, the feel?
Honestly, I feel like I play a different role every session. I think sometimes I’m the best lyricist, sometimes I’m the best at melody… I’ve been playing guitar since I was eight, so I play guitar on a ton of stuff that I write. So sometimes, that’s my role. I don’t know, I just try to keep my ego out of it — it’s not about it being my idea or whatever — I just want the song to be the best.
How did you end up doing “I Think I’m Okay” with MGK and Yungblud last year?
So my friend JKash [Jacob Kasher], who’s a writer, hit me up. He just texted me one night and was like, “Yo, can you come to MGK’s session right now? And bring a guitar.” I was like, “Yeah for sure.” But in mind I was like, “What the f–k am I walking into?” ‘Coz I knew that MGK did mostly rap…
I walked in, and he was like, super-cool just right off the band. And I don’t know how we got on it, but we started talking about like Rancid and NOFX and these old punk bands. And he was like, “Oh, that’s my s–t, I grew up on that!” We just kind of connected on that. And then he hit me up to write a couple more times, and we went in and did that song one day.
When did you know that was going to be one of the bigger hits from that Hotel Diablo album?
I mean, I always just like hope that the song’s even gonna come out, you know what I mean? I’m not really paying attention to stuff like that. But I guess, it’s cool — he invited me to go out and play some shows with him last year, which was like a nice little taste of touring. And it was cool when we went and played Reading and Leeds and stuff in the U.K., and it was cool to just see a huge crowd singing all the lyrics. That kind of brought it to life for me.
Was his transition to pop-punk and the sort of music you were writing together come about naturally? Did it feel like this was a good fit for him right away?
Yeah, super-natural. He hit me up November-December one day last year to go over to Travis Barker’s with him. And we kinda were just hanging out, and we’re like, “Oh, let’s f–k around with an idea…” Everything has just been super-organic and easy… nothing ever felt like some weird calculation. It was just like, going with the flow, you know?
When did it become clear to you that it wasn’t just a song or two that he was hitting you up for on the new album — that it really was the whole new album?
Dude, honestly? We just did one song — “Bloody Valentine” was the first song that we wrote — and then we just kind of kept [going], “Oh, let’s get together tomorrow!” And that at the end of that night, “Well, what are you guys doing tomorrow?” And then we literally just like, for two and a half or three months maybe, pretty much I think every single day, would just go in and spend 12-14 hours just making music. I think the only reason we stopped was because of COVID.
You just kind of woke up one morning and found yourself in a committed musical relationship?
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. Dude, also, just coming off being in bands and stuff… I feel so lucky with all of this stuff, and especially getting to do a whole album with somebody is such a cool thing. ‘Coz I’m usually just doing one or two songs with somebody. It was just such a special experience to get to do a whole body of work like that.
Were there any musical touchstones that you all had for what you wanted the final album to sound or feel like? You guys include some references to bands like Operation Ivy and Jawbreaker on the album — did those come from you, him, both?
I mean, Jawbreaker’s like my favorite band. We were doing a session one night — we went to go to a show afterwards, we were driving in my truck, and I was showing him Jawbreaker’s Dear You. My all-time favorite album.
I showed him some other songs too, and he really liked it. And then he came in the next day and he was like, “I’ve been listening to Jawbreaker, they’re amazing!” And I was like, “F–k yeah…” So I feel like, I didn’t bring that idea in. He brought that in after I showed him Jawbreaker.
It would break my f–king heart if Jawbreaker heard [“Jawbreaker”] and was offended in any way. I would, like, quit music, I think.
And what about the Operation Ivy “Knowledge” lift on “All I Know”? Whose idea was that?
So that’s kind of a crazy story. This other writer — maybe him and another guy — wrote this idea, basically that chorus, and sent it to Travis. And Travis played it for me and MGK one night… and I was like, “That’s sick, but — it’s ‘Knowledge.’ It’s such a rip.” And Travis knows that, obviously. So I was like, “Yeah it’s cool, but how could we possibly do that?”
So we kinda just decided, “Let’s just write it and have it be a blatant interpolation, and hopefully we can get those guys to sign off on it.” And obviously Travis knows Tim [Armstrong] and hit him up, and he talked to [Jesse Michaels] and got them to sign off on it… they got taken care of. But yeah, I really love that song. And I love “Knowledge” too.
What is it about this album, or about MGK as a rock star, that makes it translatable not just to old-school fans like you guys, but Gen Z listeners that didn’t grow up with this music and don’t have that much of a frame of reference for it?
Well, I’d like to think that just as far as sonically and the way that it sounds, that it has the same effect that that music had on me when I was a kid. And that’s just like… where you’re like, “I don’t know why but this makes me wanna f–king break things, and party with my friends and do everything at the same time.” And for guys who are maybe a little bit older, if it can be like a cool nostalgic moment for them, I think that’s awesome.
And beyond that, I hope people are connecting with it because it’s just an album of brutal honesty. None of it’s made up or fake, it’s just him telling the truth, and I hope that that resonates with people.
Of the collaborations on the album, was there one artist who you were particularly excited to work with? Anybody who you got in the studio with and got an interesting glimpse into their process?
Yeah, I was just happy to be there for all of it. But Halsey [on “Forget Me Too”] — she was really sweet. I’d only met her the one time that we wrote together, and she was really sweet. And I don’t know how she did it, but she came in and wrote her verse in like, 5-10 minutes. And dude, her voice — she’s just one of those singers where she got in and started singing, and you’re just like, “Oh, this is why you’re super-successful. You’re like, incredible at what you do.”
Have you started talking with MGK about working together after this?
I mean, I’d let him say for sure, but I think we’ll probably get in [the studio] — I’ve seen him since, and hopefully he’ll want to get in and do some more stuff.
He’s asked me if I would go play some guitar with him [on tour]. I’m not trying to be on tour all the time, but these songs are super-fun to play, and I’m friends with him and his band and everything. So I’ll probably go out for like a month here and there maybe.
Did you celebrate at all when the album debuted at No. 1?
Yeah, I feel like I really don’t know how to celebrate. I don’t, like, drink anymore, and there’s a pandemic. So normally I would just take my girl out to like a nice dinner or something. But last night — so that song “Bloody Valentine” just went to No. 1 on alternative radio… and [my manager Jaime Zeluck-Hindlin’s] husband also wrote a song that I’m pretty sure went to No. 1 on Billboard, “Savage Love” with Jason Derulo. And that’s Jay Cash, the dude who introduced me to MGK.
So she had a little party for us last night. Everybody got tested when they showed up. It was really nice — cakes and balloons, like a proper party… I feel like it’s tough sometimes to pause and celebrate something, but it was nice.