Gym Class Heroes Strip Down for ‘Unplugged’

by Li Zhou, Viacom

Pop-hip hop band Gym Class Heroes took over Metropolis Studios and got sonically undressed for the taping of the premiere of their VH1 Unplugged – an experience lead singer Travis McCoy hopes to tell his kids and grandkids about years down the road.

McCoy, sporting his trademark piercings and a New York Yankees hat, said during the taping that this was an opportunity for the band to “have some fun, play some songs, strip down, and get sexy.”

And they did all that – but they also showcased unexpected elements of their music, mixing it up with an impromptu beat boxing and jam session, as well as bringing on strings duo Black Violin as guest artists to provide accompaniment for their songs.

The group, along with featured artists Neon Hitch and Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, sang to an intimate audience in a warehouse-like room, debuting raw, fresh versions of their Top 40 hits, including “Stereo Hearts” and “Cupid’s Chokehold.”

Afterward, we caught up with Matt McGinley, cofounder and drummer for the band, for some color on what it felt like to join the ranks of legends like Nirvana in Unplugged history, how the group constantly changes its creative process, and what songs you have to check out on their latest album.

Li Zhou: How does it feel to join some hardcore music icons in doing an Unplugged?

Matt McGinley: It feels awesome—we definitely all grew up on the show. To be given the opportunity to perform at such an incredible iconic event is nuts. It’s also cool because people are going to see a completely different side to our band, which is really exciting. To perform these songs acoustically is not something we really do, there’s a lot of massive production, sonically, to put together the full song. When you have to strip away all of that, it’s kind of a vulnerable thing for all artists, stripping the layers of production away speaks to the songs you’re performing …if  you can play it on banjos, vocals and it will still retain its meaning.

I gauge how seriously we take things by how much we rehearse for it. Usually we don’t rehearse that much before a performance, but for this we spent a couple of days rehearsing and reworking arrangements. We didn’t just want to reproduce the songs with acoustic instruments – we added a lot of melodies to songs that hadn’t been there before — it was a chance to reinterpret the song in a new way.

It was also our first time working with a string section, something we’ve wanted to do for years. When we were first flirting with the idea to work with strings, it was like: how does this work? Do we provide them with sheet music? But then after working withBlack Violin, we realized they just listen to the music and respond—there’s a huge nonverbal dynamic—it’s definitely the start of a beautiful relationship.

LZ: What have been some of your favorite Unpluggeds?

MM: The Nirvana Unplugged—their cover of Bowie’s “Man Who Stole the World” was pretty incredible. Seeing Dave Groll, that was the first inclination that he was more than a drummer, I think that was a pretty important moment in Unplugged history. And the Jay-Z Unplugged – when he brought The Roots out as a backing band with these really incredible arrangements.

LZ: Gym Class Heroes is known for not getting boxed in—experimenting across genres and partnering with diverse artists. What does your creative process look like?

MM: It depends on the foundation of the song. A song like “Stereo Hearts” for instance, we had the skeleton of that song established and it was a mid-production thing to bring Adam Levine into that, whereas a song like “The Fighter,” Travis wrote that song in a half hour with Ryan Tedder…I think having a wide variety of influences is definitely something that pours over heavily—we kind of established ourselves as this oddball, ambiguous sort of band musically that could collaborate with everyone including Busta Rhymes and Daryl Hall. It has become something we take advantage of, being in this gray area.

LZ: Many of your songs from “The Papercut Chronicles II” have become huge hits, but of the ones that have not gotten as much exposure, which one or two do you think people absolutely need to check out?

MM: There’s a song called “Solo Discotheque,” we play live almost every night, it’s actually the first song we wrote for this album. The album is now 10 songs, but it was cut down from 30-35 ideas. This song steered our writing in the direction we wanted to take the album, it’s moody and dark and melodic.

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