It feels like Drake Bell has been an icon for so much of the past two decades, it’s hard to believe he’s managed to maintain such a steady following and keep his image so dynamic. Getting his first glimpses of the spotlight back in the nineties with minor roles in Seinfeld, Home Improvement, and Jerry Maguire, he got his first big break on Nickelodeon with regular appearances on The Amanda Show. That led to a role with his co–star Josh Peck on the hit show Drake and Josh, which earned him three Kids’ Choice Awards. On the show, he portrayed a rebellious teenager, Drake Parker, who plays against his more straight–laced step–brother Josh Nichols. Parker is also a popular musician, just like Bell in real life, who wrote the theme song for the series.
Since Drake and Josh, Bell has gone on to release two full–length albums, It’s Only Time and Ready Steady Go!, the latter a medley of classic rock covers and Bell’s originals. He has also released several singles and EPs through the years, each with its own distinct flavor, veering strongly from the rockabilly stylings of 2014’s Ready Steady Go! to stronger pop influences, and even some Latin influence on his most recent single “Fuego Lento,” which was released with both a Spanish chorus version and a full Spanish version. Street spoke with Bell over the phone about his decision to record in Spanish, the decisions that go into his image, and what he’s been up to since Drake and Josh.
34th Street Magazine: I want to talk about “Fuego Lento,” your most recent single. Previously, you’ve charted in Mexico and sold out tours there, too. I want to ask what you think is the reason behind your really strong Mexican fanbase?
Drake Bell: That’s a really common question, and I have absolutely no idea. You know, we put out It’s Only Time back in 2006, the show was really popular at the time, so when we went down to Latin America, it just took off. It was wild. We didn’t have any idea—we just got booked to go play in Mexico and Latin America. We were expecting to be playing the type of shows we were playing in the States: 3,000, 5,000, whatever. Then, when we got down there, we were selling out 10, 20,000 seats, and it was just wild. We really had no idea why.
Before we even got to the first venue we were gonna play out there, we went to this radio station. It was kind of like their Ryan Seacrest—everyone was making a big deal out of this show. As we were in there, he was asking us to do liners. So he goes, “First of all, what we want you to do is please thank the audience for keeping your song at number one.” We were like, “Wait a minute, what did you say?” And he’s like, “Your song is number one.” I was like, “Oh you mean like number one in rotation on the station?” He’s like, “No no no, your song is number one in Mexico right now.” I was like, “What in the world is going on right now? We’re not in Kansas anymore. Something’s a little different.”
I just sort of built a fanbase I’ve been able to cultivate for the past few years, just constantly going down there. Just recently, going down and playing all these festivals and collaborating with all these Latin artists. Hearing this music, I guess it just rubbed off on me, inspired me.
When I got home and was in the studio, I was like, “Man, we gotta do something Latin–flavored.” So we wrote “Fuego Lento,” which originally was “Slow Burn.” It was all in English, and then, as we were listening to it in the car, I was like, “We have to have Spanish in this, we have to do it in their language.” So I called a buddy of mine—he’s in a band called Los 5 from Mexico—and I was like, “Hey man, I need your help. Let’s collaborate on this. See if you can come up with a Spanish part.” And he returned the song, we pressed play on the Spanish chorus for it, and literally, we just fell down in the studio. It just made it a thousand times better. So then I went in and cut [in] the Spanish part, and put it out.
You know, I have taken Spanish, and I’ll speak in Spanish at my concerts, doing cover songs or just talking to the audience, but this is the first time we’ve got something original in their language. So it’s really popping off. People are really enjoying it.
Street: When you started writing “Fuego Lento,” who did you look to for inspiration?
DB: It’s mostly just the stuff I was listening to when I’m in the country. Because we’ll go out to clubs, we’ll be in restaurants, and you’re just completely surrounded and inundated with that music. I don’t know if there was any one singular inspiration. I went to the Latin Grammys, for example, and that was a big inspiration for me, because, you know, you go to American Grammys and everybody sits in their tuxedos and their nice clothes and it feels like you’re at the Oscars. Nobody’s partying.
And then at the Latin Grammys, I’m telling you, these people [are] in their beautiful gowns, the bands are playing, everyone’s standing on their feet, they’re putting their arms around each other. It feels like a different vibe. That beat, that music, and those rhythms force your body to not sit still.
I was at the iHeart[Radio Music] Awards recently, and [with] everybody that was performing, nobody stood. I mean, when Garth Brooks came out, everybody stood up because, fine, great, amazing show. But with all the other performers, everyone was just kinda sitting there tapping their foot. And at the Latin Grammys, all these people get up and literally everyone is out of their seat, moving, dancing, and I’m just looking around the entire stadium going, “Ah, okay, okay, this is what I need to incorporate into my music.”
Street: Stylistically, you’ve gone from punk to rockabilly to this new pop star image. Can you explain what goes into picking your image? What inspired the change?
DB: Well, I’m really into fashion. Like, highly, highly, highly into fashion. And I think a lot of my inspiration musically or stylistically comes from what I first see in fashion. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that’s what I think in my brain at least. Like, [to] my friends, it’s funny because I’ll tell them something about fashion, like “look for these colors, look for this thing,” and then in like, a year and a half, two years, all of a sudden it’ll be Gucci and Prada and everybody doing those patterns, and everybody will be like, “Wait, how did you know?”
Fashion is cyclical—there’s a way to predict what’s going to happen in fashion, and I’ve always thought that rock ‘n’ roll and fashion are intertwined. You can’t have rock ‘n’ roll without fashion, you can’t have fashion without rock ‘n’ roll. Like I said, I don’t know if this makes a lot of sense, but I think most of my imagery at least, like on stage and on the album covers, are all inspired by what time this is happening in the fashion world. I know that’s not going to make a lot of sense, but that’s kind of what it is.
Street: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re paying attention, you can see the cycles and you can see what the trends are going to be, but you just need that eye and that ear to be able to pick it out.
DB: Yeah, and I mean, fashion’s already ahead of the public as it is. We already know what Gucci’s putting out in the fall and the winter, but if you watch those, you can literally foretell what is going to be the spring/summer of the following year and the following year and the following year. Depending on who the designer is, and if that designer’s going to the same head designer in the next year or so, you can kind of navigate and just see where fashion is going to go. And so it helps to study that and incorporate that into your music and into your shows and into your imagery. You’re never really behind the gig, you’re kind of just always relevant.
Street: I feel like these days, celebrities have a lot of scrutiny around them. They’ve never been more closely watched, with social media and video and everything. Do you feel there’s a lot of pressure behind your image when you’re deciding what your style is going to be?
DB: Yeah, I think social media has kind of helped and destroyed the artist at the same time. It’s amazing to have such access to our fans, and you know, I don’t have to have an A&R guy. It’s great being an unsigned artist and having your fans be your A&R. I can go onto social media, directly connect with my fans, show them what I’m working on now, and what I’m going to be working on in the future, and get their take on what they think is cool, what’s not cool. So that’s a cool aspect about social media.
But also, the other aspect is that now we always need something. There always has to be something every second. You gotta put something out, you gotta do something. Everybody’s a judge.
I think that in the coming years we’re going to find out that this thing that’s in our hands right now is more of our enemy than our friend. It’s interesting that, right now, in this climate of social media, I’ve had more discussions about how we all want to throw our phones away, and not go on Instagram, and not go on Twitter, and not have any of this social media stuff. It’s too much. There’s too much access to the artist, there’s too much access to people, there’s too much need and want for people to impress other people and create these fake lives.
You know I was greeting fans the other day, and they were writing on their social media pages, “Looking at other people’s Instagrams, and all this is making me feel like I’m just not where I need to be in life. Am I doing the right thing?" and I wanna respond to them, “Guys, everything you’re seeing is fake. Just because you feel like you’re behind that person you saw on Instagram, that person on Instagram thinks they’re behind too! That’s why they go stand in the Gucci store and put on a jacket, that they didn’t even buy, that you think that they have at home now.” You know what I mean? They’re fake, guys. It’s hurting other people because they’re thinking that they’re not where they need to be or where they should because they’re putting too much power and emphasis on these fake lives. That’s really affecting young people, I think, because they are where they need to be in a normal teenager or young adult’s life.
Street: You mentioned Gucci a couple times. I have to ask about your cover of “Gucci Gang,” what inspired that?
DB: I had just hung out with [Lil] Pump, and I was at my friend’s house, and I was telling him about hanging with [Pump], and I had a guitar in my hand, and I was like, “Dude, I wonder if I could figure out a way to play ‘Gucci Gang’ acoustic?” So I was sitting with my guitar, and me and my buddy were sitting there, and we were strumming chords, and I was like, “Wait a minute, I think I got—I think I got it.” So then I started messing around with it, and it just became a joke. So then I went home and really worked it out, and then at a concert, I was like, “You know, lemme play this, let’s see what people think,” and literally, everybody lost it.
And I was like, “Okay, that was a good reaction to that,” And then I got the idea: I should just record it. I can record a funny, joke song. And so that’s what I ended up doing, and now, every time I’m in concert, everyone goes, “Gucci Gang! Gucci Gang!” They love it. It’s great.
Street: You’ve been releasing a lot of singles and EPs. I’m wondering why you’ve been skirting away from releasing a full album lately?
DB: Well, I think just because my music, I’m just so eclectic, I’m so impatient. It had been so long since I released music before Honest, especially original music, because the record before that was like the rockabilly stuff, which is an amazing record. But it was mostly covers. I had a couple of originals, but it was mostly covers. I hadn’t been in the studio making my own music for so long, that when I got into the studio, started making music, so much stuff started pouring out of me. I was doing this kind of pop stuff, then I was making some urban stuff, I did some stuff with Tank God, who did Post Malone’s “Rock Star,” and I did some stuff with Cassius Clay, who did all of Rich the Kid’s record. That was totally different than the Honest EP.
It was just kind of like I was so stifled creatively for such a long time, that I just started spewing out all of this different kind of music. And I didn’t want to have to wait until every song was done to put it on an album, or go, “Wait a minute, does ‘Fuego Lento’ really go with this urban stuff and this pop stuff?” And then, honestly, just being impatient, and not having music out for such a long time, I was like, “You know what? If it’s done, just put it out. It’s ready, it’s mixed and mastered—why do we have to wait for all these other songs? Put it out!” And it’s for the first time not having somebody tell you what to do. Somebody’s not saying, “Oh, this has to come out in the fourth quarter,” or “We have too many albums that we’re trying to work this quarter, so we’re going to wait until first quarter to put this album out.” I want my music out, like let’s go, come on. I was just, like, impatient. [Laughs].
Street: In preparing for this, talking with people about you, I think Drake and Josh has been really important to a lot of people’s lives, especially in my generation.
DB: The only thing I can say about that is that we are in talks, and Josh came up with a cool idea, and hopefully something happens. It’s closer than it’s ever been, and we are talking. But that’s really all I know.
Street: I understand you’ve been involved with the Thirst Project in the past. I’m wondering if you’re still involved, and if you’d like to say anything about that project.
DB: The Thirst Project’s amazing. I go to their gala every year. I was one of the first, I hate saying celebrity, but I was one of the first celebrities that started working with them. I was really close with Seth, the CEO and the person who created the Thirst Project. If you look into them, it’s amazing what they’ve done in the past, in their years of being an organization, supplying all different parts of the world with access to clean water. If you don’t know about the Thirst Project, go and look them up. It’s really a great organization. The cool thing about it is, when you donate, it’s not just done—you can actually see where your five dollars goes, and you can see the well that it helps fill.
I think when we first started, there were over a billion people on the planet that didn’t have access to safe water, and now, it’s really dropping. I mean now they’re at 800,000, they’re going to be at 700,000, they’re going to be at 500,000. It’s something that can really be solved in our lifetime. I know if you don’t really know the crisis, you say, “Oh, safe drinking water, we turn on the shower, we go to the water park.” But that ain’t how it is all over the world. Kids are dying just because of the water they’re drinking. They’re dying earlier with the diseases they have just because of the water that they have to drink. And if they had access to clean, safe drinking water, the survival rate would go up dramatically.
So, it’s just a cool organization to check out and a cool cause to learn about.
Street: It sounds really amazing. Thank you for working with them and for speaking with me today.
DB: Yeah, for sure man, thank you so much!
Drake Bell will be performing at Kung Fu Necktie, Thursday, Apr. 11. Dominy opens. More info can be found at Kung Fu Necktie's website. More info on The Thirst Project can be found at their website: www.thirstproject.org.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.