Interview: Gym Class Heroes
Mon, 22 Sep 2008 20:35:30
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It's hard to stand out these days. Given the ease of promoting music, the industry is oversaturated beyond belief. The Internet's one-hit satiation reigns supreme. Fans are more concerned about what song would play well on their Facebook page than they are about experiencing an entire album from start to finish. So even if an original knockout of a record were to drop, would it be heard? It's gotten like that old adage, "If a tree falls…"
However, in an age where MySpace play counts and page views dictate the music industry zeitgeist, Gym Class Heroes stand out. They take it back—way back. On their latest album, The Quilt, the quartet employs a boundless '70s rock ethos and cranks out an infectious 21st century hybrid of hip hop, alt rock, punk, ska, reggae and even—gasp—a hint of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Sitting backstage at The Academy in Dublin, Ireland, Gym Class Heroes frontman Travis kicks back. His band just dropped a perspective-shifting record that's bound to skyrocket them to the next level, and he's eager to discuss it. However, like any child of the '80s, he's down to talk about how awesome He-Man is, too.
It seems like there's a theatrical sensibility to the album. Would you say that's the case?
Definitely. Sonically, we wanted the album to be as big as ever—hence the brass section and whatnot. I think we've all grown as musicians. We drew from what we liked best about the last record, but we aimed to exaggerate and amplify it on this one.
Was there anything that particularly inspired your lyrical evolution?
I feel like that was natural too. Between the last record and now, I've just been writing nonstop and working on a bunch of different side projects. Before—I'm not even going to lie—I was the biggest procrastinator ever. I'd wait until the last minute to finish my songs. If I had some songs to finish, I'd wait until the day before the deadline to go into the studio and get them done. This time around, I was just writing songs even after I had lunch [Laughs]. I'd have lunch and then write a song. There was hardly any pressure this time around, as opposed to last time. On the previous album, we had just gotten off the road, and the label was like, "Alright, you have a month to write a record." We were just like, "Okay." This time around, I feel like we were all prepared.
Did having that extra time encourage more experimentation?
Yeah, definitely. We didn't have that much time last time around. We definitely tried to goof around and put new sounds and textures on The Quilt.
How did the collaboration with Daryl Hall come about? It's one of the best tracks.
I agree. Daryl Hall is my hero. Actually, a few years ago, we named one of our tours the "Daryl Hall for President Tour," and it got back to his camp. His management found out, and they asked us, "What's this all about?" They did their homework and saw that in every interview I do, I namedrop Daryl Hall at least once or twice. He's been one of my biggest influences since I was a kid. We built this relationship back and forth through our management for a while. He came out to one of our shows, and then we built a real friendship. I went to a bunch of their shows. I did the "Live at Daryl Hall's Place" show, which is an online show he has. I was a guest on there. The song's really personal for me, so I asked him if he'd like to do it, and he said, "Of course." He went above and beyond the call of duty. I knew he was going to do his thing, but he went beyond even what I thought he was going to do. We've been together for eleven years as Gym Class. That's one of the perks of being in this band. We can do whatever we want. We can put a seven-and-a-half minute long song on a record. Usually, record labels won't let you get away with shit like that.
Especially these days—you could do that in the '60s and '70s, but now it's not so common.
Everything's so single-based today. People don't really take time to focus on a record as a whole. I think that's what we definitely tried to do. We were like, "Let's make this the best album possible," as opposed to saying, "Let's make a few hot singles and fill the record with filler to make it play long." We took as much as time with the songs that are singles now as we did with the songs that we might not ever make a video for or might not ever release to radio.
Would you say anything was possible within the landscape of these songs?
Yeah, sure, I think we were definitely inspired by bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. You won't hear the psychedelic vibe on the record. However, we were inspired by those bands as far as doing what we wanted and what we felt as opposed to doing what the book said or doing something formulaic.
How was working with Estelle?
That was amazing. It was such a fun song. I think it was the best choice for an opening song as well. She's become a really good friend of mine over the past year. We met when she had a showcase in New York. We just hit it off. She asked me to perform with her and do a verse on a song during her performance, and I said, "Sure." We did the whole texting/email thing and kept in touch. When it came time to do the record, on the demo, I actually sang the hook on "Guilty as Charged," but I was like, "Damn, I think Estelle would kill this part." We called her and sent her the track, and she killed it. The breakdown of the song was kind of crazy. Her vocals got crazy. It's just one of the high points on the record. I loved it.
What's the story behind the last song, "Coming Clean?"
Since we put out our first record, it's always been important for us to put emphasis on the album's very last song. When they get through the end of a record, a lot of people will be like, "Oh, whatever." We didn't want to do that with any of our records, so there's always been a really strong emphasis on the final song. That's the last impression when somebody listens to your record all the way through—if they even do listen to it all the way through because a lot of kids have ADD [Laughs]. If they get to the end of your record, you want the last impression to be a strong one. That way it leaves them wanting more. We've always taken a lot of time choosing the last song and making sure that it leaves a good impression. "Coming Clean" is one of my favorite songs. Lyrically and musically, it's like, "Wow." The piano is so dark and eerie. We definitely took our time with it.
Where did the album title come from?
It actually came from a poem that I wrote a year and a half ago. It just felt perfect. Each song has its own identity and personality, and we're like the stitching that keeps everything together. The record travels off into all of these different genres and places, but we're like the constant in the experiment, so to speak. All in all, I couldn't think of a better title. When we thought of it, we were like, "That's the winner! That's the word!"
The cover art fits that vibe too.
I always work with the artists. I'll give them the concept and we'll be in touch to make sure that the message comes across aesthetically. We put so much into the music that we couldn't half-ass the artwork. I would never do that. I would never sell Gym Class short like that. So aesthetically, I always make sure I'm a part of it. The artist is an amazing guy, and he definitely captured what we were going for with that painting. A lot of times, artists leave the packaging up to their label, but I've always been very hands-on with the artwork.
It'd be cool if you guys did an animated film to go along with it.
We've been talking about that already. We've been discussing doing a cartoon for the next video—something where we're not even in the video. We were watching animated videos the other day and coming up with ideas for who would be suitable for the job. We found a couple of older videos where the animation is kind of shoddy, but at the same time, it has a nostalgic, vintage quality to it. It's kind of like He-Man's animation where you're like, "Wow, those colors really sucked back then" [Laughs]. His mouth doesn't even match his words, but it makes you feel young when you watch it now. That's the kind of vibe we want to go for. So we'll see what happens.
Given the story elements of the album, that'd be perfect.
We've never had anything animated for us before, so I don't know how much it costs to animate, but it's got to be cheaper than this CGI shit is [Laughs].
“People play it way too safe. We didn't play it safe at all. We practically made our career a sacrificial lamb with this record.”
The '80s cartoons all had a warm quality.
Totally! It's comforting almost. When you come from that generation, you're like, "Wow, I remember that episode." It's not even all just that. Aesthetically, the cartoons were really warm, like you said. I just got all of the seasons of He-Man on DVD for my birthday. I started watching them, and I never realized how shitty the quality of these cartoons were when I was younger, but when you're a kid you don't care! I was watching The Smurfs the other day, and I was like, "This sucks!" [Laughs] Then I was like, "Wait a minute, that's the beauty of it." Yeah, it's not the best, but there's something about it. The nostalgia and the comforting feeling really mean something.
The cartoons of today are so sterile. They aren't the same as they were in the '80s.
I feel like creativity is dying. I'm definitely not going out of my way to change the world or make people wake up and be more creative, but we're in a generation where people can't even come up with original movies anymore. They just make sequels, or, not to complain about it, they just take comic books and make movies out of them. It's like, "Man, what happened to the creativity and originality of it?" I don't go to movies anymore unless it's to see Will Ferrell movies. That's the exception I'll make. People play it way too safe. We didn't play it safe at all. We practically made our career a sacrificial lamb with this record. I think we do it with every record, but in the same sense, I think a lot of people don't know what to expect from us. We just take advantage of that every time we put out a record. That freedom is something a lot of bands don't get. I'm just happy we're in the position that we're in. We can do a song like "Live a Little," and people will turn their heads and say, "This is a little different, but it's still Gym Class Heroes—what the fuck are those guys, anyway?" [Laughs].