“I felt like Hannah Montana.”
Chris McKee had the best of both worlds: a baseball player by day, musician by night. But most recently, the latter has become the main role of his world. The front man of the up-and-coming band Zephyr Pilots shared an exclusive look into the mind of a self-taught musician, and what it means to keep moving.
From a young age, McKee had dreams of becoming a Major League baseball player. He possessed raw talent, which he worked on from the age of 4 until he graduated from college. But setbacks ensued, and down the line, he could see that this would not be his ultimate path. “I was about 11 when I started thinking about music, and the fact that I could see myself making it.”
Chris is a product of the 90’s. His childhood was supplemented by punk rock, which would become the main influence for his music style. His father, Chris McKee Sr., was a part of the punk scene- joining the Nardcore band Ill Repute while young McKee was still in diapers. “It was easy to be influenced by the atmosphere because it was all around me- the high energy of the music drew me in,” said McKee. Bands such as Bad Religion, NOFX, and Pulley were foundational for this budding artist. But listening was only part of it. For Chris, the real progress began when he picked up a pair of drumsticks.
The first time he sat at the drum set with headphones on, he knew what band he wanted to play to. Good Riddance was a band that the family had listened to on the way to baseball tournaments. While his sisters sang along, Chris was studying. He analyzed Sean Sellers’ drumming technique- like the how he plays with one kick drum instead of two. McKee knew that if he was going to learn the drums, he was going to do it right. So he learned how to play like him.
From then on, Chris studied other technically strong drummers. He attributes another drummer to laying his musical foundation, this time Rush’s Neil Peart. Soon, McKee was able to replicate the drum fills and the technical chops. “Listening to him play was mind blowing. Once I started playing to Rush, I had multiple lightbulb moments.” Chris figured that if he could conquer the hard stuff, everything else would be easy. Why start small when you can aim for greatness?
That mindset is a big part of McKee’s creative philosophy. If he wants to do something, he is going in 100%. “I used to spend a lot of time micromanaging what I did. But you can’t try to live a certain way. You just gotta do it.”
When he was 16, if he didn’t have a baseball tournament, he was playing drums in bars with Doublewide. The double X’d hands that signified his underaged nature drove the tempo of every song. “I felt like I was Hannah Montana living this double life of musician and athlete. I hid the musician part from my friends.” During this time, he also taught himself how to play guitar and bass. When he built up the courage to write his own music, he had a lot to prove.
“There. I did it. Now you can see that I can do this.” He showed to himself and to those around him that making music was possible; and he wasn’t planning on stopping any time soon.
The now 23-year-old has since written over 50 songs. Themes range from self-improvement to shedding light on the happenings of the world. “I’m no lyricist. But most of my lyrics come from life experiences. I don’t want my songs to be too emotionally based– there’s enough of that in the music industry,” Chris said. But it’s not all serious. Some songs have a fun cynical take, which helps the listener get a look from his perspective. He continued, “I want my music to be thought provoking– to cause listeners to reflect on how they handle things.”
McKee’s creative process is nothing short of inspired. He explained, “If I’m starting from nothing, I’ll focus on a rhythm or a beat in my head. Then, I’ll go to my guitar and play along to the beat that’s in my head. From there, I just play around with things that I think will sound cool. Half the songs I’ve recorded are just made up. If it doesn’t work in my head, it’s not gonna work.” He went onto say, “I’m a drummer first, so I think in rhythms. I don’t think in notes.” For him, making music is like a revolving door- in order for it to run smooth, you need to go over and over again, working out the kinks wherever they come up. His favorite thing about making music? Hearing it all come together.
Zephyr Pilot’s sound is a culmination of SoCal punk, 60’s & 70’s rock, with a dash of hair band. On paper, it sounds like a lot. In the words of Chris, it really is a “rag tag mix of different genres that’s got something for everyone.” But listening is a completely different story. One can feel the methodology of each note and beat placement. It all works together.
Though he doesn’t tend to focus on emotions, a large part of music to Chris is the feeling behind it. Stevie Ray Vaughn is another musical role model to McKee. He explained, “We both have a similar mentality toward music. It was more than music to him. It was a feeling.” In order to let the music speak for itself, the musician must let the instruments sing the loudest.
Just as Vaughn was greatly influenced by the scorching sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Chris has emulated his artistic abilities after some of rock’s finest. But no matter how hard one tries, an artist will never become who they are trying to replicate. This is the thing that McKee finds most beautiful about growing as an artist. “Some of the reasons why the best musicians are the way that they are is because they failed to emulate an artist. In the process, they found their own sound.”
Failure is all how you look at it. If your sights are set on becoming one thing, but you excel in everything else, you will always see yourself as a failure. For McKee, some of the bands that have impacted him the most are the ones that have mess ups. Their mistakes show him the importance of pushing forward– to keep driving toward the goals that he’s set both musically and personally.
Though he is just cutting his teeth in the music world, Chris shared his vision of what he wants for the future of Zephyr Pilots. As a current one-man band, he said, “It started this way because it had to. But there’s something missing in the creative process. It’s missing the rest of the band. The only angle is coming from me, so it needs more contribution.” His ultimate goal for the band is continue the creative momentum that he has started. “If I can do that, then I’ve done my job.”
From discussing musical inspiration to life philosophies, Chris McKee has shown what it means to possess a dedicated mindset. He has learned from his past and looks forward to the future. He knows what he cares about and finds a way to integrate it into his music. “There can be many problems that pop up into your life at once, and things can get overwhelming, causing you to lose sight of what’s in front of you,” McKee says. He explains how limiting your attachments to each and every problem you have can, in a way, free you from yourself. He said, “YOU choose what you care about, the rest will sort itself out.” A nice reminder amid today’s chaos.
With strange times like these, one can hope for some musical guidance. Zephyr Pilots is rock for this generation. Don’t sleep on this one, his debut LP comes out on Spotify and Soundcloud April 1, 2021.