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Matt McGinley: A Gym Class Hero

Matt McGinley

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.”

Beginnings

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.”

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