As seen in the November 2008 issue of DRUM! magazine.
Matt McGinley is miles away. It’s a hot, lazy day in June, the kind of 83-degree day in Pomona that makes the tar on Mission Boulevard slowly come to life. On any other day, thoroughbreds would be hurtling down the track at Fairplex Park, the thundering echo of their massive hooves rippling through the roaring grandstand – but not today. Today, lip piercings and eyeliner replace bits and bridles, and the collision of shiny patent-leather army boots meeting faded orange Boss Distortion pedals is responsible for most of the thunderclaps. It’s that time of year – the 2008 Warped Tour is in town.
At a time like this, most musicians among the 50-some bands on the roster would be backstage, gearing up to play, cooling off after a searing set or just plain goofing off – perhaps watching latest “it girl” Katy Perry’s set, hoping to confirm that she really kissed a girl and liked it. But not Matt McGinley. Unsatisfied with just going through the motions of the tunes of his increasingly popular indie hip-hop band, Gym Class Heroes, McGinley is in his dressing room, all alone, mental miles from the tour, and hunched over in the midst of mastering a new skill: double bass.
“I learned how to play [double bass] about a month before we went on the Warped Tour,” he says. “I have a Roland V-Drum electronic kit that I used to write most of the new album – bought it in the fall. I would set it up every day in the dressing room. I started playing steady triplets on the kick drum, then threw in my right playing quarters on the hi-hat, and my left on the snare. I started working through the variations in the songs. It definitely took me a few weeks. I was pretty diligent. I had my kit set up in my house between bedroom and bathroom, so I’d walk by and see it and feel guilty not playing it.”
Playing two kick drums is just one of McGinley’s latest challenges during the recording of the Heroes’ new full-length, The Quilt, and he’s not taking it sitting down – well, in a non-literal way, at least. The anticipated follow-up to the sleeper hit album As Cruel As School Children, The Quilt is new fodder for the 25-year-old drummer’s learning curve. The album’s summery hip-hop backbeats are laying the constrained groundwork – patchwork, perhaps – for McGinley to dare to try the untried. In this case, stealthily working two kick drums into a hip-hop set without a punk-pop audience calling him out on it.
“I’ve definitely tried to keep it fresh for my drum parts,” he says. “I do quite a bit of improvising. I just sort of go with my gut. I think as I’ve aged and matured as a drummer, I’ve become a little more disciplined in my playing, and I try to do what is necessary to support the music. When the time arises, I take advantage of it.”
A brave thing to do for a young drummer with so much to prove and so many ears listening. “It’s different playing to festival crowds – the festival audience messes with my psyche,” he says. “I’m less inclined to play around with the groove. It’s something about playing to these massive-sized crowds. When I’m in a club environment, I sort of get my jazz hands, and play around with the beat even more, and go over the bar line with my fills. I just try to be like John Bonham and make the stuff solid and groovy.”
That is, if John Bonham backed The Roots instead of Led Zeppelin. Either way, it’s working. “We started four years ago in a 12-passenger van with no trailer,” he says, chuckling a little at the mental image. “We’ve now moved up to two tour buses, which I think is a milestone in our career.”
As “Lake Trout Capital Of The World,” Geneva, New York isn’t the easiest place to get your rock on. A serene town in the Finger Lakes region of the state, Geneva is known more for its Seneca heritage and wine production than its recording industry legacy. That didn’t stop Matt McGinley. At the urging of his pianist mother, eight-year-old McGinley took up the drums.
By high school, he was hooked enough to start a band with classmates Ryan Geise and Milo Bonacci (“All the way back to a performance of MC Hammer’s ’You Can’t Touch This’ in second grade,” he says of Bonacci). After hitting it off with now-frontman Travis McCoy in class, Gym Class Heroes was born.
“I was into all the alternative music, and Travis had the same musical mindset,” he says. “It excited me. Travis was a drummer at the time; he played for a band that sounded like a bad Nirvana. The first weekend of school, both bands played a birthday party. We played rock and funk, kind of like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” but we had no musical identity. We played one original funk tune, and in the middle, Travis jumped on stage and grabbed a microphone and started rapping over it. It just clicked. We could feel the rest of the party being like, ’Damn.’”
In between months of playing gigs in popular college town Binghamton, marketing themselves on PureVolume and MySpace and attending the occasional college class, the bandmates went into the studio to record an album for friends. “We weren’t trying to make a hit record,” McGinley says. “We went in with a battle plan with all the songs listed on a big poster board. Did a lot of pre-production by ourselves, recording the songs off my alarm clock, actually, which served as a recorder.” By the third such session, what would become The Papercut Chronicles EP, the band was gaining traction in the area and significant experience in the studio. Then one day the phone rang.
“As soon as I got back to college [at SUNY Oneonta] a couple days later, I posted three songs on PureVolume, and we had already been hit back by interested people, one of which was a graphic design artist on tour with Fall Out Boy who offered his services,” he says. “I sent him a couple songs to get inspired by, and he wound up playing the CD for [Fall Out Boy bassist] Pete Wentz, who was starting to have an idea of putting together his own imprint.” The phone call came shortly thereafter, and, in an instant, the record label cyclone touched down directly on McGinley and Co. The fledgling band signed with Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen in 2004.
“We kept trying to do things to make us look like a band you’d want to sign – went out, took promo pics by ourselves, shot video, tried to show them that we were really hungry and eager to make this something full time. All we wanted was to sign to a label that was going to take care of us. We weren’t going into it trying to be millionaires. We didn’t want a big advance. We wanted a big van to tour in.”
Opportunities beyond New York State borders stacked up quickly, and the band played its first Warped Tour in 2005, eventually opening for The All-American Rejects. It was a challenge to be the odd-band out, musically, on every show’s bill.
“First it was intimidating,” he says. “We’re this weird, black-sheep hip-hop rock band opening for Less Than Jake and Fall Out Boy. Kids didn’t really know what to expect. We played hip-hop music at a rock show. After the kids got through the initial shock, they were actually bobbing their heads to the song. You could tell they were appreciating it. That’s when we were like, ’This is going to be a pretty interesting ride.’”
The snowball kept rolling. In 2005, the band recorded its first major full-length, As Cruel As School Children. For such a do-it-yourself band, the process of recording under the wings of a record label was a learning experience. “It was our first time being able to spend more than a week on a record and work with a producer in a real studio,” McGinley says. “It was nerve wracking. We’re not used to working on songs or writing songs with other people. Once we started to realize that these people were looking after our best interests, we stopped being overly defensive and took their advice.”
It was particularly hard for McGinley, who had up to that point internalized his drum parts. “I had never tried to translate someone’s gibberish into a drum groove – translating someone’s mouth grooves into a crazy awesome beat,” he says. “It helped me play more critically and helped bring the best out of me.”
To boot, McGinley had never played alongside the drum programming that peppers the album’s tracks. “I’m used to playing raw, organic drums,” he says. “I didn’t know if I should approach it thinking that my parts would be compromised, so I played my ass off. I tried to be better than the drum machine.”
If Gym Class Heroes built the monster in 2006, they rode the beast to Valhalla in 2007. Buoyed by the hybrid hits “Cupid’s Chokehold” and “Clothes Off!,” the record catapulted the band into the consciousness of a rising generation of music fans – and familiarized them with the straightjacket nature of a hit single.
“All of a sudden ’Cupid’s Chokehold’ started taking off like crazy on the radio,” he says. “That song was from our previous record. We’d do a late show and they’d want us to play that song, and we wanted to play the new stuff. That song we arranged and recorded in our bedroom for like $80. You want that song? After a while, we just stopped fighting it. The public spoke.”
PATCHING THE QUILT
The concept behind the Heroes’ new album, The Quilt, is to expose the patchwork of musical influences that inspire the band’s hybrid style – an effort to return to the electric, instrument-driven hip-hop that the band used to get signed in the first place.
“Our biggest task over the years [has been] trying to match the energy and chemistry of a live show on a recorded album,” McGinley says. “We’ve always sort of struggled with that. It’s a good thing and a bad thing when someone comes to your show and says, ’You’re so much better live.’ That’s awesome, but … damn. So for most of the album, we tracked it live in a room in L.A. Me and Disashi [Lumumba-Kasongo, guitar] and Eric [Roberts, bass] would record together in entirety. We might nail a song on the second take or we might nail a song on the twenty-second take.”
For example, on the track “Like Father, Like Son,” a McGinley mistake ended up a fortunate drum fill. “Nine-tenths of the way through the song, I told the engineer I messed it up, and he played it back, and it came out sounding ridiculously awesome,” he says. “This weird linear groove that locks into the beat perfectly, accented off the bell. We ended up using that take as the winner. It’s stuff like that that makes me really happy to track live. It’s one of the most sincere ways of recording, as opposed to isolating yourself in a drum booth and running the song. It definitely made me a sharper player in terms of consistency. There are actually a couple mistakes that made it onto the record that I’m really fond of now. We finally found the right process for recording this band, but it only took about 11 years.”
As a result, the album is a diverse affair. The track “Live Forever (Fly With Me)” shows McGinley toning his playing down to a somber, almost tragic level to match McCoy’s lyrics about the loss of a cousin. But on the album opener, “Guilty As Charged,” the funk machine is on full blast, channeling Earth Wind & Fire at their brassiest, with McGinley sitting in the pocket, slapping a sassy big band swagger from his snare and hi-hat. “Each song has its own identity – that’s why we came up with the idea of the quilt,” he says. “Each song is separate, but together they form a patchwork of something different.”
McGinley applies a similar philosophy to his technique. “I try and think of the overall song,” he says. “Each hit I take, I try to make sure it’s the most appropriate and suitable. That’s the biggest change I’ve made in my playing over the years. I’ve been able to discipline myself to make the songs breathe more and not have the urge to fill every inch of space. It only took 11 years, 8 albums. Okay, that’s kind of an embellishment. It’s probably more like seven.”
While on tour with Heroes, McGinley is diligently chipping away at completing his college degree by taking online classes from Boston University. “I feel like, as a professional musician and a full-time touring musician, it’s important to balance your life with something else,” he says. “It’s not for something to fall back on, as people say. It’s mainly to bring balance to your life. I’ve really enjoyed having something that’s so different from what I’ve been focused on right now.”
Far too busy to study his craft in the past, McGinley has trained his eye on getting back into the woodshed. “I’d really love to study with a drummer in R&B or gospel drums, and just get really sick at that. If nothing else, I’d really love to take lessons again, to incorporate something else into my playing. As a musician, there are always new tricks you can learn.”
And plenty of time to work that into Gym Class Heroes too. “Longevity is the name of the game for us,” he says. “We’re in this for a serious amount of time. I look up to bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers to guide my career. A band like that has been making and pioneering great music for years and years. We aspire to do that – to create music that pushes the envelope and sounds different.
“I really hope to grow old with my bandmates. I hope to be performing Gym Class Heroes songs when I have gray hair and I have a walker.”
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