a long talk

The Highs and Lows of Travie McCoy

The Gym Class Heroes front man almost went broke making his new solo album. He wouldn’t change a thing.

Photo: Thomas Falcone
Photo: Thomas Falcone

When I first spoke to Travie McCoy for this piece in early September, his piss had never been clearer.

He was a full month into sobriety then, following an intense eight-day home detox, after which he spent 30 days doing nothing but therapy, working out, and drinking water. “The plan was just to nip it in the bud before it got out of control,” McCoy said of his drinking at the time. “I’ve had issues with addiction in the past, so I know the signs and the triggers and all that shit, and isolation is a big one. I have a pretty addictive personality, and it’s really not that fun at all.”

When we catch up ten months later, he’s honest right off the bat: He’s been drinking again. “The dopest advice anyone has ever given me is ‘Everything is good in moderation, even moderation,’” he says with a laugh. By now, he’s all too familiar with the ups and downs of addiction and the reality that neither state is often permanent. His candor about something that so many people wrestle with is refreshing, and he is clear that it’s still something he wants to get on top of. “It’s definitely a vice that I feel like I need to get rid of ASAP, but for the time being, I’m not overindulging. As long as I can stay true to all my commitments and be coherent and not be a douchebag, I’m doing alright.”

The winding path toward sobriety is a familiar journey for McCoy. In the 2000s, the then-front man for the platinum-selling rap-rock act Gym Class Heroes became addicted to opioids after being prescribed them for a knee injury. Following a few attempts at recovery, one finally stuck in 2012, and he’s been off them ever since. But when the isolation of the 2020 lockdown hit, he found himself drinking every day. That indefinite uncertainty and idle time on top of the loss of loved ones, including his grandfather and a cousin, blindsided McCoy. Past experience with recovery allowed him to cut the problem off faster than he might’ve ten years ago. While he has reintroduced alcohol into his diet, he also tells me that he’s doing well — with a fiancée, his dogs, and a new album (Never Slept Better, his first in 12 years, out now).

McCoy grew up in Geneva, New York, as a quiet, introverted kid who preferred to sit alone and paint or write than hang out with other kids: “I was antisocial from the time I was 6,” he tells me over the phone. “I was like, Fuck this, playground my ass. I’m gonna write shit in my journals!” Never feeling like he fit in, McCoy threw himself into the hard-core scene and started to write music that blended that background with hip-hop. He formed Gym Class Heroes as a teenager in 1997 with his friends Matt McGinley and Ryan Geise. In 2003, they signed to Fueled by Ramen, the same day, they finished writing their future platinum-selling hit “Cupid’s Chokehold.” Later, they joined Pete Wentz’s label Decaydance, an incubator for alternative artists that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. Wentz and McCoy were among the few people of color visible in the scene at all, and their success made space for fans and artists who didn’t feel like they belonged.

Gym Class Heroes’ playful, self-referential, and genre-bending tracks baffled critics but they had their fans. The third single, “Cupid’s Chokehold,” featuring Patrick Stump and sampling Supertramp, saw their push into the mainstream. By 2010, McCoy had struck out on his own, releasing his first solo full-length, Lazarus. Its lead single, “Billionaire,” featuring then-rising star Bruno Mars, gave him a new level of mainstream fame.

Recently, though, things have been quieter for McCoy. Prior to “A Spoonful of Cinnamon,” the first single from the new album, it had been six years since his last solo single and a decade since he released anything with his band. His most recent break would’ve been unthinkable in the mid-’00s, when McCoy and Gym Class Heroes were Top 40 mainstays. It was during this time that McCoy’s personal struggles, including the addiction he had been battling since he was a teenager, got pushed into the public eye. A highly publicized relationship with pop star Katy Perry, who played the love interest in the video for “Cupid’s Chokehold,” ended just as publicly.

For Never Slept Better to come to fruition, McCoy had to lay his personal and professional issues to rest. That meant admitting a difficult home truth: that Gym Class Heroes, a band he had been in for most of his life, was over. With 40-plus years of living behind him, McCoy is excited to finally release the record he always wanted to make. He seems to feel, for the first time, mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared to share himself with the world again.

How are you doing? Last time we spoke you were in good spirits.
I’m doing great. I had a great night playing dominoes with some friends of mine last night and my fiancée just left to go on some errands, but I’m loving life. I got an album dropping! We’ve had a lot of videos out, a lot of singles. It’s all been really well-received. I can’t lie — I did expect people to react the way they have. They’re fun songs, and they let people know where I am with the state of things.

How would you describe this record?
The whole record is ten years in the making. That’s a lot of life, a lot of loss. There are songs on the album that I wrote years ago that we revamped and turned into other things. I had some issues with management and labels, I guess they wanted another “Billionaire,” another “Cupid’s Chokehold.” I’m like, “I’m 40 years old.” That shit was cute when I was 19 or 20, but that’s not who I am and that’s not the music you’re going to get from me. We definitely weren’t seeing eye to eye, and it took a few years to come to the conclusion that this isn’t the right fit. It was tough because I had been with all these dudes my entire career, so as far as starting over, it was hard. Beyond that, we laid some grudges to rest pretty early on in the making of this record. That was another hurdle.

Like what?
A band I’ve been in since tenth grade is halfway in the grave, and it was tough. I decided to bite the bullet and say, “Fuck it, I started something, I’m going to see it through.” That’s what I did. I don’t want to say it’s a chronicling, but it is. Starting out with “A Spoonful of Cinnamon” and letting people know I haven’t gone anywhere, but here’s how shitty my 2020 was. I’m sure you had a shitty one, too. Then we got to lighten things up with “Love Me Back to Life.” The album isn’t all doom and gloom, it’s a lot of good times, sour times, super happy times, and shitty times. That’s the formula for making a great album, you have to go through all those emotions. The albums that I cherish go through all of the emotions and they don’t hold back. I didn’t hold back at all.

Do you think it’s different from everything you’ve done before?
It’s very different, but it’s within the span of ten years. It was ultimately made to be different. I was going through different phases of my life trying to understand why I didn’t feel comfortable with management and a label and I was second-guessing things. With Gym Class, it started to crumble, and it was hitting me. Shit, this is all over ten years. It’s the chronicling of the last ten years of my life. The highs, the lows, the very highs, the very lows. There’s a common thread, and I think it’s overcoming the low lows. The songs that are better are happy and triumphant. Those came from making the songs that weren’t so triumphant.

You wrote your album before lockdown, right?
We actually started writing it around five years ago as a Gym Class Heroes album, but there was a lot of miscommunication and internal madness, so we decided to put Gym Class on hold for a little bit. I felt like I had invested so much into this album, I couldn’t just let it sit on the shelf until it faded away. So with Gym Class disbanding for the moment, I went to my label and management like, “Yo, like, I got to be out. I can’t go out on tour as Gym Class Heroes without Gym Class Heroes. I just don’t feel right.”

Didn’t you end up changing management completely?
Another hurdle I had was dealing with management, but I was still flying back and forth to Nashville, working on a record in between all of that shit. It came to a point where the well ran dry on our recording expenses, so I started paying for the sessions on my own and damn near went broke trying to get this record finished. Honestly, it was the best choice I could ever have made. The more the album progressed, the more things started getting better for my career. I got back in contact with my original booking agent, which was awesome. We both cried like girls, and it’s awesome to have him on the team. Our long-time tour manager for Gym Class Heroes is now managing me and doing a hell of a job.

You’re now on an indie label, Hopeless Records, too. How did you make that choice?
We called majors first and it wasn’t what I wanted, but I wanted to see what the reaction was. They were like, “This is fucking awesome, but what are the singles?” I’m like, You guys missed the whole point. It’s an album! But we said fuck it, let’s talk to some indie labels and do this shit on our own. We’ve come this far, why not go the distance? Hopeless felt right. It fit. When they listened to the album on their own time, the feedback I was getting, I was like, They get it. I couldn’t be more excited.

It’s hard to do things your own way on major labels. I can imagine that they just want you to make them a ton of money.
It’s been that way since the beginning of the industry, and it works. They do it a million times until people get sick of it, then someone else does something cool, then they find a million kids to do that. I’m not a kid anymore. I know what I like, I know what I want. I haven’t always had a vision for what we plan to do, but this time, I absolutely have to do this shit right. Majors can be cunning and stifling. When I signed with Hopeless, it felt similar to the way I felt when I signed to Fueled by Ramen. It’s a tight-knit group of people who actually care about each other. I’m independent as fuck for the rest of my life.

By signing with Fueled by Ramen and Decaydance so early on, you knew how it should be and what you deserve.
I never felt comfortable in those major-label buildings. The first time we went up to Atlantic, there was all this “Welcome to the Family Gym, Class Heroes!” shit posted everywhere. I touched one of those posters, and it was still warm off the copy machine. I’m like, Man, they put this shit up right before we got here! I’m not a sucker. We still laugh about that shit. The last time I was in a major-label building, it was some time before the pandemic in L.A. They would ask me who I was listening to and they would say, “How many views do they have?” Like, really, that’s how we’re signing people? I can show you some really dumb videos that have a lot of views. Are you gauging artistry by how well somebody can do the flossing dance? What the fuck is going on? Why are you giving these kids record deals?

You have to wonder what it even means or how long it’s sustainable.
This shit means problems is what it means. The sad part is there used to be this thing called artist development, which was before even we got signed. I was never taught how to do an interview. We never thought “Cupid’s Chokehold” would launch us into the stratosphere, and I wasn’t ready for it. I was nowhere near ready for what was to come. But in the process, I feel like it gave me tough skin. In artist development, they show you the ropes and how to have a long and prosperous career. There’s none of that anymore because they don’t expect any of these kids to have long and prosperous careers. They don’t take the time out to tell them how to build because they know all this shit is a flash in the pan.

It’s a really hard world to stay sane in, and I know you’ve struggled. How long were you sober before?
I was real bad on opioids back in the day. I went to a treatment center. I’ve literally stopped counting the days, but I think it was 2012. Close to ten years. For a long time after, two and a half years after I got clean, I was having relapse dreams every night. Every night, I would wake up feeling guilty and have to reassure myself that I didn’t go anywhere. You learn a lot about yourself, and you learn how to be aware of when you’re starting to fall back into the old behaviors. Beyond that, I feel like I’m not my true self when I’m wasted. Going into this record cycle, I don’t want to be fucked up. Back in the day, there were Gym Class tours that I barely remember. I’ll be scrolling YouTube and a show will pop up, “Gym Class Heroes St. Louis 2006.” I’m like, Holy shit, who is this dude? He looks cool as shit but he was completely on another planet.

Is it harder to spot if it’s a different problem? Does your mind kind of goes, Well, at least it’s not opioids?
Absolutely. When I was younger, I never bought into AA. After my first time in rehab, I was like, Fuck this, this shit is a cult! More and more, I had to keep healing myself after relapsing, and the more shit started to make sense. There’s a lot of knowledge to gain from people who have been through way worse than you have. That’s one of the things that was always in the back of my head when I was in my first rehab. I was like, Alright, I won’t do Oxys, I’ll just do Vicodin. There is always an alternative in an addict’s brain. I told myself after my last rehab years ago when I stopped doing opiates for good, like, I can just have one drink now and then. That was my thing, I would just drink rosé and shit. Then I moved upstate, and now I live out in the country, there’s absolutely no way in hell you’re getting drugs out here. This is my sanctuary.

When you don’t have to buy something on the street, when you can be prescribed something by your doctor, you put faith in that system. They took advantage of that.
In the States, they didn’t really call it an epidemic until rich white kids started dying. There were kids in the streets dying every day. When heroin started reaching the fucking Hamptons, they’re like, “We need to take care of this.” What are you really doing to stop this? As opposed to putting people who need help in jail? They’ll never put the people whose fault this is in jail. That’s how I got caught up in doing opiates. I destroyed my right knee and I had to get all these surgeries, and they gave me Oxycontin without telling me it’s terrible for you. Spending a summer in the hospital with your leg in a sling and constantly being poked and prodded and feeling nothing feels awesome.

When I finally got out of the hospital, they sent me home with a huge prescription. That’s where it started, and I completely bottomed out after that. I remember running out of my second prescription and being without them for two or three days, and it was the worst thing in the fucking world. I was sweating and puking out of every hole. I was hallucinating — it was intense. One night, at three in the morning, I had a cast from my ankle to the top of my thigh, and I was in the kitchen with a butter knife trying to cut it off, crying. My dad’s like, “What are you doing?” I was babbling. It’s crazy how they’re so quick to prescribe these crazy heavy narcotic drugs.

But you’re good now? I know you’re in therapy.
I have a really awesome therapist that I’ve been seeing since I got out of rehab. He’s this old Italian guy from the Bronx, the coolest motherfucker ever, he rides motorcycles and shit. The first time I met him, the first five or six sessions we had, I was just balled up in the chair listening to him talk. I warmed up to him. He pretty much saved my life. Him and my niece definitely saved my life. I have a really good psychiatrist as well, and they work together in the same building. They have a good relationship, too. It’s cool to have a dope team.

You have your fiancée, too. Heading into an album cycle and tour and everything, I imagine it’s scary to do that without support.
I’ve had to do it before, and I’ve made it through plenty of tours sober, but it’s definitely not the easiest thing. I get so high being onstage. By the time the show’s over, I just want to sleep. I feel like I got a lot of that amateur rock-star shit out at an early age. I’m too old to be going to college parties and shit. I got fur babies at home.

It’s great that you’re in a good place but also to hear you getting to be yourself on this album.
For a long time, I felt there was this dark cloud that had this huge microscope just hovering over my head at all times. I felt like I couldn’t even think my own thoughts. There’s songs on the album, like “Karma Kama Sutra,” where I’m more overtly sexual than I’ve ever been, but for the most part, it’s because I was scared to. Having that freedom to say whatever the fuck I wanted was what made me fall in love with music in the first place. I don’t like doing something I’m being told to do or constantly getting criticized for not meeting someone else’s standards in real life with my creation. It got played out, and I took full advantage on this album of not having to live up to any standards.

Travie McCoy with Bruno Mars. Their 2010 single “Billionaire” went four times platinum. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Back in the mid-’00s, it felt like you were part of a wave of artists blending quote, unquote alternative music and hip-hop, but it’s everywhere now. 
The internet will tell you it’s something new, but people who were rocking with us from day one know. We didn’t give a fuck. We were four dudes from four different backgrounds, and we made music together. It just happened; it wasn’t intentional. I feel like a lot of shit out now is so contrived, but this shit happens in cycles. What they considered alternative music back in the day, your Nirvana or your Soundgarden, that was way more pure. I listen to that shit today. I grew up with everything. I listened to old jazz records, Philly Soul. I love anything from the ’70s and early ’80s. That’s my shit. Mostly stuff I heard growing up — I’m a nostalgia junkie. I love shit that brings me back to being a kid. I listen to everything, but it’s a weird space we’re in musically. I feel like a lot of people make music for TikTok, which is so fucking crazy to me.

The music industry, especially alternative music, has changed a lot.
It’s weird, but there’s always going to be a resurgence of people going against the grain. There always is and always has been.

You grew up with hard-core, right? That’s where you found your place.
Having all this pent-up aggression, thank God I found music. I grew up near Syracuse, New York, which is like a hub for New York hard-core, like Earth Crisis and Snapcase and all those bands that would come through. I would go there just to take out all my aggression, just like beating kids down and then picking them up and hugging them. It was a good time.

You were well-located for it. New Jersey and Long Island weren’t far away.
Philly too. Philly is two hours from New York. It has an insane hard-core scene.

If you’re a weird kid, like you were, it gives you a place to go.
That’s the beauty of it — how music can bring people together. While the opening band was getting ready to break down or whatever, before the show, I’d always go look at the line of kids and see the scale tip by each person. You got 45-year-old housewives, teenagers, Black, brown, white people. There were so many different types of people there to see us, and it always put a little cheeky smile on my face. I was like, Oh shit, we did this. Everybody’s there, no fussing, no fighting the whole time. Just enjoying themselves and having a good time. That’s always literally my favorite part of touring, looking at that line.

Your music was born in that in-between space, and you made that space for kids, too, especially people of color in alternative music.
I get so many emails or kids I bump into on the street, kids who wouldn’t necessarily tell their homies that they listened to Terror or Taking Back Sunday or Fall Out Boy or something. They would say, “Gym Class Heroes gave me the strength to put my homies on the block on this, and now my homie loves Panic! at the Disco!” That shows you how strong and powerful music is. I’ve been working on a project about growing up biracial and being one of the only kids in the scene at the time that was somewhat accepted.

I’m excited for it, and I’m glad you finally get to release these projects that are totally you. 
It’s one of the best outlets — that and swimming. This is totally off subject, but I just bought this eight-foot blow-up for the pool. It’s a pirate ship. It’s sick.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Highs and Lows of Travie McCoy