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.”
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.”