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New Friend Request: Gym Class Heroes

When you’re only one inch shorter than Michael Jordan and nearly covered in tattoos and piercings, it’s difficult not to be an intimidating figure, but right now Gym Class Heroes’ frontman Travis McCoy looks even more imposing than usual. It certainly isn’t due to a flamboyant wardrobe; McCoy is dressed as a fashion-conscious high school student, sporting a windbreaker, crooked cap, and, yes, Air Jordans. No, it’s the white contact lens McCoy is rocking—it throws off his facial symmetry and makes him appear slightly unhinged, like he could lose his cool at any moment. While the rest of the Heroes munch on pizza, McCoy ignores his vegan pie and peruses a selection of magazines before picking up a popular men’s title, which wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the fact that his girlfriend, Katy Perry, is gracing the cover. In other words, it’s just another day in the life of Gym Class Heroes, an unlikely group of misfits from Geneva, NY, who became one of the most beloved bands in both the pop-punk and hip-hop scenes without actively trying to achieve success in either.

“I’m not a pussy, man,” McCoy responds when asked why the freshly tattooed heart on his Adam’s apple is only an outline. The band’s on-tour tattoo artist, Craig Beasley, started the piece after last night’s show in Albany, NY, but McCoy had to stop. “My face got all hot and I was like, ‘All right, enough,’” he says. “Sometimes you gotta just know when to stop; you’ll put your body into overdrive and pass out and it’s all bad.” Of all the band’s members—drummer Matt McGinley, bassist Eric Roberts, and guitarist Disashi Lumumba-Kasongo—McCoy is by far the most inked, which makes sense when you consider that at the tender age of 15 he apprenticed as a self-described “shop bitch” at a tattoo shop in upstate New York.

“At first I was like, ‘I’m not going to spend my time in a tattoo shop not getting paid when I could be out chasing girls.’ But I learned a lot from the time I spent there,” McCoy explains as he chain-smokes Parliaments on the steps of the Philadelphia photo studio where the band’s INKED photo shoot is taking place. Although McCoy abandoned the shop to pursue the academic route, he dropped out of art school at 20 and started tattooing a month later. “I was shadowing really good artists and it just sunk in,” he explains. “I did my first tattoo on the guy I was apprenticing under, and during the first couple lines I was shaking,” he recalls with a laugh. “He was like, ‘Suck it up, quit being a pussy!’ He had quit smoking cigarettes, so I drew a cigarette smashing itself out, and it came out dope as fuck. Ever since then I’ve been at it.”In fact, McCoy has tattooed the inside of both of McGinley’s arms, which the drummer later shows off with a grin. McCoy has a “gentle touch,” McGinley says. “When you’re a 19-year-old kid that’s getting a tattoo from your friend who’s maybe only done it three or four times before, you need that reassurance,” he says when asked what it was like to be tattooed by his bandmate. Sporting a V-neck T-shirt that allows his enormous chest piece of a lighthouse peek out from the top, he adds, “Travis was definitely a cool dude to have tattoo me.”

It was ultimately McCoy’s skill with a mic—not a tattoo machine—that made him famous. Gym Class Heroes’ fourth full-length album, The Quilt, debuted at number 14 on the Billboard charts this fall and features producer and guest credits ranging from Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump to hip-hop and R&B royalty like Busta Rhymes, Cool & Dre, and Estelle.

The R&B track “Live Forever (Fly With Me)” has special significance because it features a contribution from Daryl Hall, whose portrait is tattooed on the top of McCoy’s right hand. (Don’t worry—John Oates, the other half of Hall & Oates, is on his left.) McCoy was originally going to get his band members’ faces tattooed on his shins before inspiration took hold of him. “One day I was looking at the Private Eyes cover and I was like, ‘That’s really fucking awesome.’ And I looked at my hands and was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ And so that day Craig just did it.”

McCoy knows firsthand how surreal it can be to see yourself carved into a stranger’s flesh. “We get fans all the time that come up to us with tattoos of our lyrics, and there have even been a couple portraits,” McCoy says. “At first it was super-flattering, but then sometimes it’s just a little outrageous. For example, there’s a girl who got my girlfriend’s entire CD cover on her whole back. There’s a line, I guess.”

With his frontman status and unique look, McCoy is clearly the most visible member of Gym Class Heroes, and probably the most likely to have his face immortalized in ink. However, that could all change with The Quilt, which is the band’s most collaborative effort to date and shows what a tight unit the band has become since McCoy and McGinley started it back in the late ’90s.

Things were different back then. Although the band experienced some local success early in their career, they didn’t receive their big break until Stump, the Fall Out Boy frontman, discovered them. They signed to bassist Pete Wentz’s Fueled by Ramen imprint Decaydance, which released the band’s second album, The Papercut Chronicles, in 2004. Merging elements of soul, R&B, hip-hop, and rock, the album was a combination of just about everything the group listened to collectively. They played smaller stages on the Vans Warped Tour before breaking into the mainstream with 2006′s gold-selling disc, As Cruel As School Children, which featured the ubiquitous crossover radio hit “Cupid’s Chokehold.” After a seemingly endless span of touring, the band started work on The Quilt last year. Despite the success of previous albums, the Heroes knew they wanted to experiment with the writing and recording process this time around to allow all of their individual influences to shine through.

“I would definitely say that this is the most collaborative album I’ve played on with the band,” Lumumba-Kasongo says. “I remember the very first day we started jamming out and working on the songs. I thought, Man, I haven’t felt like this since I was in high school jamming out in a garage. So it’s kind of cool, ’cause it was that same feeling, except we were recording for a major album.”
McCoy knows firsthand how surreal it can be to see yourself carved into a stranger’s flesh. “We get fans all the time that come up to us with tattoos of our lyrics, and there have even been a couple portraits,” McCoy says. “At first it was super-flattering, but then sometimes it’s just a little outrageous. For example, there’s a girl who got my girlfriend’s entire CD cover on her whole back. There’s a line, I guess.”

With his frontman status and unique look, McCoy is clearly the most visible member of Gym Class Heroes, and probably the most likely to have his face immortalized in ink. However, that could all change with The Quilt, which is the band’s most collaborative effort to date and shows what a tight unit the band has become since McCoy and McGinley started it back in the late ’90s.

Things were different back then. Although the band experienced some local success early in their career, they didn’t receive their big break until Stump, the Fall Out Boy frontman, discovered them. They signed to bassist Pete Wentz’s Fueled by Ramen imprint Decaydance, which released the band’s second album, The Papercut Chronicles, in 2004. Merging elements of soul, R&B, hip-hop, and rock, the album was a combination of just about everything the group listened to collectively. They played smaller stages on the Vans Warped Tour before breaking into the mainstream with 2006′s gold-selling disc, As Cruel As School Children, which featured the ubiquitous crossover radio hit “Cupid’s Chokehold.” After a seemingly endless span of touring, the band started work on The Quilt last year. Despite the success of previous albums, the Heroes knew they wanted to experiment with the writing and recording process this time around to allow all of their individual influences to shine through.

“I would definitely say that this is the most collaborative album I’ve played on with the band,” Lumumba-Kasongo says. “I remember the very first day we started jamming out and working on the songs. I thought, Man, I haven’t felt like this since I was in high school jamming out in a garage. So it’s kind of cool, ’cause it was that same feeling, except we were recording for a major album.”

Later in the day, Lumumba-Kasongo elaborates on McCoy’s sentiment. “We definitely have each other’s backs, which is a good feeling, because I’ve heard that in certain bands—and I’m not going to call them out by name—a member will be going through a very serious problem and come to the band, and they’ll just be like, ‘Screw that,’ and leave them high and dry,” he says. “That’s messed up, especially when you’re in a band, because when you become part of this industry and this world, you’re very isolated. You don’t have as much support as people think, and there are very few people who are actually close to you. So if the people who are in your actual band aren’t there for you, you’re in a very dangerous place.”

But just because they look out for each other doesn’t mean they look like each other. When all four members line up to take photos while jumping on a trampoline, it’s obvious just how physically diverse they are. Sporting a shaggy mop of black hair, a leather jacket, and a recently tattooed sleeve on his left arm, Roberts looks uncannily reminiscent of a young Nikki Sixx—a comparison perpetuated by the fact that he says he plans to spend upcoming time off accompanying porn star Shyla Stylez to the Adult Video Network Awards in Las Vegas. The break from touring and recording takes place in February, when Lumumba-Kasongo—the band’s only nontattooed member (he’s considered getting a map of his parents’ birth continent, Africa, on his back)—and his girlfriend are expecting their first child. Rounding out the foursome are McCoy, of course, and McGinley, who displays a perpetual grin and sports a plaid hat with earflaps that would make Elmer Fudd proud. Impressively, he manages to make the style look cool.

Despite their stark contrast in appearance, lifestyle, and ideology, it’s clear that Gym Class Heroes are one cohesive unit these days, cheering each other on and laughing as each member takes a turn on the trampoline in an attempt to see who can catch the most air. (Lumumba-Kasongo wins the contest by a long shot.) Their differences mesh into a sound so original that the band members themselves are hesitant to label it. “When people try and categorize us or figure out where they think we should fit in, I don’t even have an answer,” McCoy says.”People will ask me, ‘Do you feel more comfortable on hip-hop tours or rock tours?’ I’m like, ‘I just feel comfortable around friends.’” He continues, “It doesn’t matter if they’re hip-hop bands or rock bands or pop-punk bands; as long as they’re cool people and kindhearted and realizing that we’re going to be in this together for the next month and a half, I don’t give a fuck who we’re on tour with.” But it’s easy to see why Gym Class Heroes are an anomaly in today’s highly homogenized musical culture; it’s not like there’s another band that can cover Lamb of God on a summer Warped Tour and then head out to tour with Lil Wayne and T-Pain. The fact of the matter is, Gym Class Heroes are so off the grid that there’s no template to follow when it comes to what they should or shouldn’t do—something the band considers a blessing.

“I personally like straddling the lines because I think that it’s pretty representative of the band and of me personally,” says Lumumba-Kasongo. “But at the same time, it’s a natural thing for us. I think it’d be a whole different thing if we were trying not to fit into anything. But the simple fact is that when our iPod has Mastodon and Kanye West on it, then that’s going to come across in the music.” He adds, “If we were to just say, ‘All right, well, let’s just be this, whatever this might be,’ it would limit our freedom and it wouldn’t represent us as people, which is something I think your music should represent. It should be an expression of you.”

“We’ve been the proverbial sore thumb our entire career,” McCoy agrees. “Even before we got signed to Fueled by Ramen, we were playing shows with death metal and hardcore bands and whoever would let us play with them. I wouldn’t even consider us a hip-hop band. Musically, it’s just all over the place. In a sense I think what’s made us successful and attracted people to us is the fact that we are this thing that stands out. We don’t look like every other band on Warped Tour, and we definitely don’t sound like every other band on Warped Tour. It’s fun to be outcasts in that sense.

“Art imitates life,” he summarizes, explaining that his band will never fit in, just as he’s dealt with not fitting in his entire life. “As corny and clichéd as it sounds, it’s the truth.”

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