“One thing you’ll learn about me if you spend more than an hour with me is that I change my outfit constantly,” says Colson Baker, who you may know by Machine Gun Kelly, as he takes off his black ASOS jacket to prepare for a shoot-out on his arcade-style mini basketball game. Stripping off the jacket by its velvety red lapels, Baker reveals the full extent of his tattoo-riddled, wiry 6’4” frame. A big anarchy tat in the middle of his stomach is seemingly stamped on the red bricks engulfing his abs. He conducts much of the interview shirtless.
I’m at Baker’s Los Angeles house to talk about his role as drummer Tommy Lee in the upcoming Mötley Crüe biopic The Dirt, releasing on Netflix March 22nd, but he doesn’t want to get into that just yet. At this point, the 28-year-old is busy firing a steady stream of half-inflated mini basketballs my way. I look down for a second and a behind-the-back pass whizzes to my left and just misses a framed picture. “You could have shattered your whole glass,” laughs an associate playing pool right next to us. That’s the cue to move to our next location.
Baker didn’t sleep last night, which manifests in a twitchy energy, eyes darting to look for the next move whenever we’re stationary for too long. His house is populated by friends and associates, scattered throughout the premises. We walk past the guys shooting pool, a group of five chilling on a giant L couch in the living room and chatting about plans for Vegas this coming weekend, and another cluster surrounding a granite kitchen island, keeping an eye on the Bucks-Raptors basketball game. There are guitars and rock memorabilia covering most of the walls in his house and a small, blonde wood piano in the corner of the dining room where the game is playing.
The first piece of art Baker ever bought, he tells me, was the big photo of Marilyn Manson that’s hanging in his bathroom. Manson is full-nude and covering his junk. He’s backstage, on set for John Stewart’s The Daily Show. Baker explains that some girl finessed her way backstage with a camera, telling them she was with “the show,” and Manson stuck his tongue out, covered up, and posed. Baker, enamored with the hustle, had to cop it after hearing the story.
We sit down at the dining room table and I ask about Utah, where Baker recently went for the Sundance premiere of his new movie with actor and SNL-staple Pete Davidson. Baker responds that he’s tired and that he needs a drink before we get to it, and he takes a sip of some Don Julio from a mason jar. “It’s been a long-ass day,” he says, now clanking some weed from a grinder out onto the table, which he proceeds to roll into a filterless joint. “Do we have to do the interview?” he jokes. We head out to the porch for a little more privacy. He apologizes a few times for being in a “mood,” repeating that he’s exhausted.
“I love this shit though. Pain weather. That’s when the good shit comes,” he says, looking longingly at the sky and kicking his vans up on the porch table while taking a drag. It’s the first of a few instances in which he refers to pain with a glint of admiration in his eyes. It’s a rare gloomy day in LA. Just like Cleveland, I mention.
After a childhood spent largely on the move, Baker settled on the east side of Cleveland when he was 14, where he first established himself as the rapper Machine Gun Kelly. It was his rapid-fire delivery that earned him the nickname, given to him when he was working for free (he offered, already on the hustle) at the Sly Airbrush over at Tower City, where he would rap for anybody who came through the doors. For someone who got his name by rapping like a machine gun, he speaks very slowly and intentionally, often taking long pauses to collect his thoughts.
“Airbrushing was a huge part of that Southern rap culture back then,” he says. And there was a “big Southern influence on Cleveland. Gucci Mane was like a god to people. All the Houston rappers—Paul Wall, Mike Jones—would come through the Sly Airbrush and get their shirts and stuff.” Baker was 16, rapping for all those dudes, and wonders if they would remember him from back then. His rap career took off shortly after, as his first album, Lace Up, would debut at number two on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart in 2012.
But it wasn’t just those rappers who had a big influence on Baker growing up. He was obsessed with the early ’80 and hairmetal, a subgenre of heavy metal with more pop-inflected hooks and bombastic guitar riffs. He idolized members of Mötley Crüe and Poison, Skid Row and KISS. He called the collaborative autobiography of Mötley Crüe, titled The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, his bible, which was ironic given how he used to roll his eyes when his missionary father would recite bible verses at him when he “fucked up.” This was his fuck-up bible.
Reflecting on how these bands influenced his music, he states that “a lot of people don’t realize we were really taking that step, to go out there and tell people that it was okay to blend all these types of music and to bring that lifestyle and punk fashion into this world. Even with the live performance... unless you were a stadium rapper like Jay-Z, people didn’t have bands. It wasn’t a thing for rappers to have bands, and I’ll never forget the reaction when we came on the scene and we were doing that.” He pauses to re-light the joint and pensively looks up at the grey sky.
“I’m talking about loading all our instruments into a van, transporting that shit, six hours to Indiana for whatever show at whatever shitty little 150-cap venue to perform with acts like Big Sean and all that. People were lookin’ at us like, ‘Who the fuck are these dudes loading all this equipment?’”
When Baker, who first began auditioning for acting roles in 2012, heard that The Dirt was being adapted into a biopic movie, he knew he had to focus all his energy on getting a role as one of his idols. He’s coming off two successful movies—Birdbox, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi blockbuster with Sandra Bullock, which shattered Netflix’s streaming record for a movie in its first week with over 45 million streams, and Big Time Adolescence, the aforementioned project with Pete Davidson, a comedy that follows a young kid growing up under the questionable influence of his college dropout friend (Davidson), which just premiered to strong reviews at Sundance.
When asked if he was interested in film or acting as a kid, Baker cites the Jackass series as a huge inspiration. Fitting, since the single that first put a real national spotlight on Machine Gun Kelly in 2011, called “Wild Boy,” references a popular figure from Jackass on the hook: “Yeah bitch, yeah bitch, call me Steve-O / I’m a Wild Boy, I’ma I’ma Wild Boy.” Jackass struck a chord with him because it was “people that looked and dressed like me, listened to the same music as me, doing things that, even though they were bad, were things I could do. And the way it was filmed, it seemed like something I could film.”
So he bought a big camera that he had to load film into and would shoot everything he and his boys were doing: skating, rapping, egging cars, jumping off the roof of the school into bushes, and pushing people off precarious perches in grocery carts. You know, fun degenerate shit.
Jeff Tremaine, who also helmed the filming of the entire Jackass series, was directing The Dirt. Baker initially tried out twice for the role of lead guitarist Nikki Sixx, but was told his vibe was closer to that of Tommy Lee’s, the brighteyed drummer who once threw a television out of a Sheraton window and got the group banned from a city in Canada. He came back to interview four more times for Tommy Lee and got the part after getting into a car accident on the way to his final interview. “I was just so focused on getting this role, I was like fuck it, I don’t even care,” he laughs. He was uninjured.
By this point in our interview, Baker has abruptly switched locations, bored of the porch. He shows me his home studio, boasting about the interior design. “I picked these rocks myself,” he says before we head back inside, pointing to the black granite lining the purple-lit studio. There’s now a barber on-site, giving a fade to one of Baker’s neon-shoed associates over the long dining room table where Baker rolled his joint. He debates getting a shape-up before the photoshoot for this article, happening the next day.
Baker leads the way up a spiraling staircase and I comment on his impressive guitar wall, stocked with around a dozen gorgeous models. Asked if he has a favorite, he leads me into his room to pick up a black Gallagher sitting on a massive loveseat. “I grew up seeing an old Gallagher, always seeing people playing old hollow bodies,” he says. I quickly learn that Baker is the type of guy who has harbored particular dreams and who is particularly driven to achieve them. He takes a special pleasure in checking them off, one by one.
The first thing you notice when you walk in to his room is the giant silver Buddha figurine in the foyer. “Got this piece in Wisconsin. I was on tour and saw it and got it shipped out,” he proudly explains. Though he doesn’t believe in any religion, he says he’s spiritual and likes what Buddhism represents, and I can sense its influence in his calm, almost meditative openness. He’s very inviting, talking to me like we’ve known each other for years, but it’s possible that it’s his exhaustion that’s keeping his guard down.
He digs into his closet and pops out with a silky eggshell white, long-sleeve fishnet shirt without saying a word. He did warn me. His tattoos are still visible through the shirt. He’s plucking away at the Gallagher, more focused on the riffs he’s concocting than my questions, though he’s still listening and giving thoughtful responses.
Still noodling away on his guitar, he recalls the friendships the cast of The Dirt formed while filming. “As soon as we touched down and all had drinks together, that first hour that we got to New Orleans for filming, the next five months were a blur in the best way,” he says, perking up out of a slight malaise and laughing. “The office was a bar down the block called The Saint. That was literally the office.”
Working with Tremaine on the movie was another dream actualized for Baker, having grown up almost studying his work on Jackass. “The bond that he created between all of us off-screen, including with the production crew, is what made everything on-screen so authentic, as if there were no cameras there. It’s hard to make running around in a studded leather g-string and knee high white tube socks feel cool, unless Jeff Tremaine makes the environment so fun and free that you can do anything and it feels like Mötley Crüe, like we were right there.”
He grabs a hardcover book off a shelf above his bed and flips through images of cut scenes and outtakes from filming, among shots of the crew at The Saint. He didn’t know the book was being made, it just showed up in his mailbox one day. Tremaine signed the inside cover with a pentagram, which Baker shows me with a cackling laugh. He takes particular delight in remembering how the whole crew would mess with the director of photography, named Toby (“cool ass Australian dude”), by insisting it was his birthday everyday for five months. He points at a picture of Toby in a little party hat and laughs—“See, it was always his birthday.”
But as Baker knows all too well, there’s a dark underside lurking beneath all the glamour of living a carefree rockstar lifestyle. Nikki Sixx almost fatally overdosed, as portrayed in the film, and Baker has spoken openly about his own struggles with addiction. He turns to lamenting some of the people he’s lost in the past few years. “Losing so many key people in music and my life this past two years, I’m just okay with being here,” he says, drawing out the word. “I used to be in such a rush, I wanted everything so quick.” He re-lights his joint and continues. “Now I’m at this point where I just enjoy being able to make music, to pick up a guitar and jam. I’m just stoked to be here, because there’s so many people that should be here that aren’t.”
Now we’ve migrated to a room across the hall from Baker’s own, where a muted drum set stands next to the bed. The rest of the room is empty. He speaks while banging the padded set and twirling his drumsticks, looking like Tommy Lee without the long hair.
One of Baker’s favorite things to do while on the road, he tells me, is to visit juvenile detention and addiction centers to give the kids a pep-talk, tell them not to give up. He was one of those kids once too, so showing face in these places means a lot to him. It’s one thing to give money, he says, “but to actually see the difference [I can make] is really cool.”
Baker has come a long way from those days, and right now he shows no sign of slowing down. In addition to The Dirt and Big Time Adolescence, Baker will be releasing or working on at least two other movies in 2019. He’s still running his own music festival (five years strong), was the face of the John Varvatos 2017/18 campaign, and is launching his own coffee lounge, because—as he puts it—everyone needs a high one way or another. He’s thinking about performing in Vegas tomorrow, but he says his mind is really on his next album. He’s hunkering down to make what he believes will be “the one.” Before we part ways, I ask if Baker has any plans for the Super Bowl, which is a few days out.
He flashes a loose grin. “This album is my Super Bowl.”
Photographed by Max Montgomery
Flaunt Film Directed and Edited by Matilda Montgomery
Stylist: Jenny Ricker
Groomer: Kristin Heitkotter at Tomlinson Management Group
Location The Record Parlour, Los Angeles