When Travie McCoy answers the phone, the rapper says he is in a New York studio “just recording some music”. The Gym Class Heroes front man is then asked if this means his fans can expect some new music from his chart-topping group. McCoy remains coy. “You can expect some music soon, that’s for sure,” the rapper replies, stopping short of confirming his current recordings may be with Gym Class Heroes.
But one thing is for certain – McCoy’s hip-hop-pop-rock hybrid are headlining the Fat As Butter festival on Saturday and will have crowds leaping with excitement as the sun sets over Newcastle harbour.
Gym Class Heroes are no strangers to Australia’s shores but, unlike his band mates, McCoy is often too snowed under with media commitments to visit our country’s tourist attractions. “The boys usually get to [look around] but I usually get stuck doing a shit-ton of press,” McCoy says. “So I don’t get to indulge – but they’ve got to go out and see kangaroos and crazy stuff. Hopefully this time the tables will turn and I’ll make them do all the press while I go and hang out with kangaroos.”
Gym Class Heroes appeared in 2001 with the self-released record …For The Kids, before being discovered by Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz and signed to his Decaydence record label. Their sophomore record, 2005’s The Papercut Chronicles, and its single ‘Cupid’s Chokehold’ – which featured Fall Out Boy vocalist Patrick Stump – gained international exposure.
The four-piece has since released three more albums, the most recent being 2011’s The Papercut Chronicles II. Their sound has remained an unpredictable fusion of music genres, underpinned by McCoy’s laconic rap style. Hunter fans can expect Gym Class Heroes to be just as unpredictable on stage.
“We try to differentiate the live show from the album as much as possible,” McCoy says. “Whether it’s changing the songs up or just the energy – if we set out to make the rock show exactly like the CD there would be no point in coming to the live show. People could just sit at home and listen to the album. We try to go all out live and keep the energy up to a thousand – we try to make the show an occasion and make people feel like they are a part of something.”
When recording their songs, the reaction of a live audience isn’t far from McCoy’s mind. “There’s definitely parts to songs where I consciously make an effort to [allow] crowd participation – I think ‘This will sound great when five thousand people are singing along,’” McCoy says.
The rapper and Gym Class Heroes drummer Matt McGinley met in year nine in Geneva, New York. By 1997 they had formed the earliest incarnation of the band and would go on to draw fans from many genres. They were invited to play the punk-orientated Warped Tour in America four times between 2003 and 2008. Influenced by both rap and hardcore punk, Gym Class Heroes’ sound incorporated a wide range of styles.
The melting pot expanded in 2004 with the inclusion of guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo and in 2005 with the addition of bassist Eric Roberts. “It was something that wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision,” McCoy says of their diverse sound. “Musically we all come from pretty diverse musical backgrounds and there’s obviously a lot of music that we all enjoy. With Disashi growing up in Africa – in the Congo – he listens to a lot of cool world music as well as other stuff that he experienced once he moved to the States. My dad was a bass player growing up, so from an early age I heard everything from Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes to Red Hot Chili Peppers. Matt grew up on Paul Simon and stuff like that. So when we got together all that shit found its way into what we do. It’s a very, very democratic process when it comes to writing.”
While they’ve kept their full spectrum of influences in their music, McCoy feels Gym Class Heroes have improved at structuring their songs. “They always say that you have your entire life to write your debut album,” McCoy says. “Especially when you put it out on a big scale – whether it’s an independent label or a major label, it is the world’s introduction into who you are as a musician. With our first record, a lot of it was written from the ages of 16, 17 to 20, 21 – there’s a lot of years and a lot of growth in between there. On [2011’s The Papercut Chronicles II] I think there’s definitely a lot of growth from us as individuals and musicians and songwriters. On our first album we had no idea what we were doing. We wrote until we felt like it was done and we had no sense of song structure. I didn’t know what a bridge was or how to count bars – in a sense it was the purist album we’ve ever written because of that. Because we didn’t know how to write a well-structured song – there’s an innocence and a naivety to that record that can’t be duplicated. But as we grow as songwriters we aim to write songs that will stand the test of time, that years from now will still sound good. That takes a lot of effort as far as the basics of writing a well structured song. I learned a lot from listening to guys like Daryl Hall and John Oates – their music will never get old, it’s timeless. I take what I’ve learned from them into the studio.”
While McCoy grew up on a steady diet of hip hop and hardcore punk, he has since come to appreciate the music his parents listened to – artists such as Phil Collins and the aforementioned Hall & Oates. “All the shit that I heard as a kid and hated, is all the stuff I love now,” McCoy says. “You let all the good stuff fall by the wayside and listen to whatever is popular with your friends. But all that stuff I despised back then is everything I love now.”
McCoy’s creative energy is apparent in his prolific output. Besides being a talented graphic artist, he also released a hit solo record in 2010 called Lazarus which featured the Bruno Mars collaboration ‘Billionaire’. McCoy confirms that he doesn’t like to take a break from working on his many projects.
“I just recently went through a dry spell creatively – this week was probably the worst case of writer’s block that I’ve had in years, it’s quite depressing,” McCoy says. “I am so used to being able to express myself, whether it’s with poetry, writing, lyrics or painting – I just hit a brick wall this week and it sent me for a loop. I’m trying to recover from it now. You can’t be on your A-game all the time. In a sense it can be your brain telling you to step back and assess things.”
When McCoy began work on Lazarus, it was during a dark period. He was overcoming an addiction to painkillers and also went through a break-up with pop star Katy Perry. The artist wrote a lot of “sad and sombre” material for the solo release but ended up scrapping it to go in a more jubilant and positive musical direction. He is not sure if he should ever release that dark collection of songs.
“Honestly, that’s something that I fight with myself over almost on a daily basis,” McCoy says. “Now being in the studio, I’m writing knowing that I have a vault full of songs that I thought were awesome at the time – and probably still are awesome – but are very, very personal to me. “It’s a chapter of my life that I’ve gotten past and I’d hate to rehash a lot of those feelings that went into writing all that shit. “But at the same time I think I would be doing myself and my fans a disservice by keeping that stuff to myself. “Whether that chapter of my life is closed or not, there is still some really good stuff that was written during that period. “I might actually have to return to some of that stuff to get out of this [songwriting] funk I’m in.”
No matter his mood, McCoy still draws on personal experiences for lyrical inspiration. “For the most part a lot of it is just every day life, things that I learn from by getting through them and overcoming them,” McCoy says. “I just try to be as clear and concise as possible. Music has been around forever so for me to think that I’m the first person to write about a particular subject is completely silly. If I’m going to write a song about a particular subject I’m going to do it from my perspective and try to do it better than how anyone else has done it. It’s all perspective.”
McCoy has worked with a very long list of artists, from Daryl Hall to Cee Lo Green, T-Pain, Adam Levine and Travis Barker, but there is one musician that he would love to make music with. “There’s a ton of artists [I’d like to work with], but Andre 3000 is someone I’ve admired since the summer of ’93, when Outkast brought out their first album,” McCoy recalls. “There is something about his voice and his tone. But also the cadences and rhyming patterns that that dude comes up with are f***ing astronomical. He’s just one of those artists that’s far beyond his time and I’d love to just hang out in a [recording] session and pick his brain and hope that some of it would rub off on me.”
Given McCoy’s unwavering creative energy, one can only assume it is just a matter of time.
Gym Class Heroes play Fat As Butter on Saturday at Camp Shortland, Newcastle Foreshore.