Michael Barrios is in his San Diego bedroom, sitting by the window. His long-time partner, Daisy is beside him. Above her head are polaroid pictures tracing their four-year-long relationship. All of Barrios’ musical equipment is scattered across the floor, including his newest synth pad. There’s a disco ball above the bed. He’s a softly spoken, passionate man, and it’s been two years since his last interview.
It’s been three and a half years since the release of Barrios’ debut album under the No Hope Kids moniker, Our Time Apart. Next year will see the unconventional young artist make his return. With this upcoming release, he’s changing the name – although, he hasn’t gained much hope. Planning this currently unnamed new project (there are some cool album titles in play), returning to being in a long-distance relationship, and juggling full-time jobs with it all hasn’t been easy. But you can count on those experiences popping up throughout the album.
“I just wanted this album to be perfect,” says Barrios. “I feel like you don’t get that many chances, so the music really needs to hold up this time around. I’m putting everything into this one, so that’s why it’s taking so long. However, the hope is within a year after the release of this one, I’ll put out the second one which will be much longer than this album.” His music, mostly sitting within the alt-pop realm while including some musical surprises, outlines frank recollections of depression; relationship ups-and-downs, and the futility of a God complex.
Barrios began writing songs when he was three years old, subsequently being gifted an acoustic guitar at seven. As a little know-it-all, he insisted “I already know how to play” when his mother asked if he’d like to take lessons. It wasn’t until he was an indie-rock obsessed teen that he actually learned to play the guitar. At 14, his eagerness for playing music took over his life. “I needed a band, but I couldn’t find any bandmates. So, I decided, you know what, I’m going to learn bass. I’m going to learn drums; I’m going to learn everything because I want to demo these songs. I taught myself all these other instruments just to make a full song.” Something great came out of making music solo: if Barrios had a band at 14, he probably wouldn’t be making the music he is now.
Each song on Our Time Apart intentionally sounded different. With his new songs, Barrios is attempting to strike the balance of achieving different sounds while also having something to tie it all together. “Maybe I’ll use the same drum kit or the same synth pad in a couple of songs, something that keeps it rooted but all over the place everywhere else.” He’s going all out. Right now, he’s trying to include a horn section on the “bombastic, arena-pop” album opener. “And then I have another song that’s almost completely hip-hop, except I’m not rapping. It’s all over the place.”
Barrios’ influences are as diverse as the music he makes. It’s a wild, exhilarating challenge to pull them all into the same song. “Rather than, ‘Oh, let’s try to make a Taylor Swift song,’ it’s ‘let’s make a BROCKHAMPTON song with Radiohead guitars,’” he explains. Barrios is also trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, and he’s not sure that he’ll succeed. However, this album will be a part of something. A kind of universe.
“I want to bring arena shows to someone’s backyard,” Barrios remarks on his return to live performances, mostly consisting of house shows. “What I’m thinking is I don’t want to just be a group of people walking out, playing their instruments, and leaving. I want to have stage designs… I want the set to have a theme to it, where it tells a whole story.” Barrios promises over the top events, envisioning his own “rock star moment.” He scratches his head and almost bursts out of his spot to add, “but without the toxic parts!”
He aims to embody Harry Styles on stage. “I just really like him,” and, speaking of rock stars minus the toxic parts, “[Styles] seems really caring. He’s got that energy that a lot of people don’t have when they go out on stage. He’s not embarrassed to be himself. He doesn’t just stand there and do nothing. He has this swagger about him.” Akin to Styles’ brilliant sophomore effort, Barrios also wants to make a pop album with guitars on it, “not like a pop-rock record, but with guitars having a more textured role than the lead role.” He shares a suggestion with me: What if The Weeknd had a live band?
Of course, as a musician going into 2020, the role of social media in an artist’s life is increasingly important. “You live and die by social media if you want a music career in this coming decade,” shares Barrios. In addition to living online, artists also bear a brand-new responsibility they must prepare for: holding a platform. “You have to think of the many different ways what you said [online] could be interpreted. It could even go against what your own feelings are. You don’t want someone to adopt that message when it wasn’t even your message.”
Coming 2020, the future Barrios wants is touring and recording his own material. The plan for his upcoming album is to record 12 songs and narrow it down to the best eight. He puts together the entire instrumental first, before writing the lyrics in about 20 minutes. “Although, this time around, I have a ton of lyrics in my phone notes already – I’m thinking that I might just do it all at once so that the lyrics come from the same frame of mind. I don’t want to be boxed in.”
Despite the humility and lyrical trepidations, there’s no doubt that his ambition will take him further than any stretch of the imagination. Often a realist, perhaps a nihilist, Michael Barrios still has a dream. All he wants is to be up there, “playing to people and having them feel something when I’m playing my music.”