It’s 11 a.m. and there’s a reality show host and a Chippendale and an MMA fighter — and Jeff Thompson has no idea what he’s doing. He spends the first two hours of the afternoon dodging the eye of a panning camera, trying to find places to stand during the Thompson-less scenes — save the last two seconds of the day, that’s all of them — and more often than not he’s holding the big shiny light reflector for a videographer who spends most of his time shooting rock bands, not a bunch of high-school theater students for a hip-hop video, like he’s doing right now.
Three hours later, Thompson will still feel as overwhelmed as he did at the start of the day, when he first stepped foot onto the Green Valley High School campus, a school he never attended, decidedly in over his head. “I fucking hated high school,” he says.
Thompson’s here specifically because, after three months of searching, Green Valley High is the only one to lend him a classroom of kids for the better part of the afternoon. And even then it was only because his song “Falling Down Together” addresses bullying, a topic about which the Green Valley staff feels strongly. So today we’re all Gators because in order to get across the point of his song, Ekoh, as Thompson is known in the rap universe, needed the participation of high school kids, with all their raw, actual, no-acting-necessary awkwardness about existing. Which means Thompson, and a bizarre string of cameo artists (MTV’s TJ Lavin! MMA fighter Kit Cope! Chippendale/Amazing Race contestant James Davis!) spent most of the day resembling a group of grown-ass boyfriends trying to surprise their girlfriends during Spanish II. And Thompson is, by his own admission, totally fucking uncomfortable.
But he was uncomfortable long before he turned his sedan onto Arroyo Grande Boulevard. Because Zzyzx Road, his third release, recorded with former Air Raid Anthem vocalist Courtney Ballard, was a departure from anything he’d usually do in the first place. “Every song on this besides ‘Meet Me at the Bottom’ I questioned putting out,” he says. “They felt too poppy, too different, not hip-hop enough, not enough cussing … all the prideful rapper mentalities going through my head, I had to let go of.”
It sounds like rapper boilerplate, how a cocky upstart might talk if he doesn’t want to sound like a cocky upstart. But he doesn’t walk with a holy swagger. He doesn’t stare down teenagers as they dart from semi-circular conversations in front of him like hummingbirds. “They’ve got full beards,” he says sheepishly, laughing and trying to navigate camera equipment through a broken-dam rush from the lunch room. Watching his face, his discomfort is real. He unwillingly returned to his high school self, the outcast, punk rock-loving, substance-abusing Thompson whose writing infatuation would be immovably cock-blocked until he could finally sober up.
Every irk he had is true. Zzyzx Road, out March 19, is poppy, polished, rife with indications of a producer with a mainstream résumé (The Used, Good Charlotte), each designed the same way a major producer might when thinking about what catches on popular radio. And while that’s the case, it’s not why this album will be the most successful. “The first two albums, I tried so hard to be hip-hop,” Thompson says. “Now I’m trying to be myself.”
Thompson’s self, what I guess you could call his poetic side, finally eclipses his rap persona. Like in his own interior fist fight, the point finally goes to Thompson, not hip-hop, or at least what early Ekoh thought hip-hop was supposed to be. The live-instrument sounds, the introspection, the balladic piano riffs of what you’d associate with a ’00s pop-punk band, rhymed over with sleeve-worn influences (Atmosphere, Grieves, Macklemore, et al), finally show what he’s been trying to figure out since he decided his writing needed bass line accompaniment four years ago.
“I wanna be a songwriter,” he says, a stream of kids sputtering from the school’s mouth as the final bell rings, moments after Thompson bid farewell to the videographer, wishing him luck on editing, saying thank you to everyone who made even the most minute contribution, including the campus policeman who told him where a missing tripod may have ended up. “I don’t want to be punch lines and battle raps. This music is softer and more emotional, and that’s what really made a difference for me growing up. I wanna make stuff that turns your day around.”