Late in 2014 mysterious rumblings from a few music blogs told tales of a reclusive Scotsman living in Missouri. He was releasing music under the name American Wrestlers, but no one knew his name, his pedigree or his story. That such a vaunted record label as Fat Possum Records, onetime home of the Black Keys, would be releasing American Wrestlers' music only led to further intrigue.
The reality is a little more mundane. Gary McClure, the man behind American Wrestlers, lives a quiet existence with his wife in Benton Park. By day, he unloads trucks for UPS. In his free time, he records rippling, kinetic rock songs on a bare-bones setup. When asked about the mystery behind his band's rollout, McClure shrugs off the idea of self-promotion, something the soft-spoken 34-year-old is not especially skilled at.
"Well, you've got to have a story, haven't you?" McClure laughs.
"I find it hard to talk about music, to talk about what I make, in any interesting way," he continues. "You're either going to sound melodramatic and full of bullshit, or you're going to sound patronizing and condescending. When I sent stuff off, I couldn't think of anything interesting to say."
That lack of back-story led bloggers to draw their own conclusions, though McClure's tale is far from ordinary. McClure was born in East Kilbride, Scotland (the home of the Jesus and Mary Chain, he notes), and moved to Manchester, England, as a teenager. In Manchester, he joined forces with Phil Kay and formed Working for a Nuclear Free City, an often instrumental quartet that married the psychedelic sheen of shoegaze with the beat-driven, loops-and-layers approach of the Chemical Brothers.
The band had a respectable following and a few brushes with indie-level fame; one of its songs was used in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, and in 2007 its album Businessmen & Ghosts was nominated for the Shortlist Music Prize amid a crowded field that included Arcade Fire, Wilco, Burial and LCD Soundsystem. (Feist's The Remainder would be the eventual victor.) Nuclear Free City would release one more album in 2010 before calling it quits, but McClure's experience with the band gave him a taste of mainstream success while tempering his future expectations.
After the group disbanded, McClure made a record called Wreaths, which featured Kay's lush string and horn arrangements. When that record failed to gain traction, McClure describes becoming "disillusioned" and felt spurned by the music industry's machinations. He moved to St. Louis in February of 2014 and married Missouri native Bridgette Imperial shortly thereafter.
Because all of his musical gear was left in storage back in Manchester, McClure was forced to improvise when it came time to write and record the songs that would eventually comprise the American Wrestlers debut. He employed a Spartan setup -- his wife's Yamaha keyboard and her $300 Ibanez guitar, a pawn-shop Epiphone bass and a drum-machine app triggered from his phone -- all recorded into a Tascam 8-track. The resulting album doesn't try to hide its lo-fi origins, and the limitations gave McClure the chance to make his first truly solo record.
"I thought, 'Well, if I could write what I wanted to, what would it be?'" McClure says. "I think that's what I was writing when I wrote this new record. When I was twelve I heard bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and that was my thing. That's how I learned to write songs -- from those guys, from obsessing over those records."
While the hallmarks of grunge are not the dominant strain on the American Wrestlers debut, the guitar-driven, direct-to-tape energy shows equal parts tunefulness and DIY invention. Lead single "I Can Do No Wrong" rides on fuzzy bass and a metronomic 4/4 beat, but McClure's multi-tracked guitars whip and weave around his sweet, expressive vocals. If the recordings are slightly rough around the edges, the pop hooks and smart dynamics are irrepressible.
Pleased with the results, McClure says he "spammed" about 200 music blogs with a few tracks. Two weeks later, seven or eight labels got in touch.
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"I was scared shitless. 'OK, what do I do now?'" McClure recalls. "Fat Possum got in touch, and the guy said, 'I've listened to this six times on repeat; can I buy the vinyl?' I said I hadn't got any. He said, 'Give me the word, and I'll start the vinyl pressing immediately.' So that was it."
Say what you will about the utility of record labels in the days of declining hard-media consumption: The affirmation, financial support and outreach of a record label is still the brass ring that many artists reach for, and it remains elusive for many bands with deeper catalogs and more rigorous touring schedules than American Wrestlers.
"I couldn't tell you why this record was picked up," McClure says. "I finally accepted the idea of having a nine-to-five for the rest of my life, and making music and sending it out and a few people would hear it. And that was it -- that's what I do now, and that's fine."
Time will tell what success awaits American Wrestlers, though Fat Possum has committed to a two-album deal (the self-titled debut will be released on April 7). A significant hurdle facing McClure is how to take his bedroom recording project to a wider audience. When we first spoke in the middle of January, he was still looking for bandmates to round out the project's live incarnation. That lack of a live band caused him to bail on a supporting slot at Off Broadway in early December at a show that featured Middle Class Fashion and Nashville singer-songwriter Tristen. Despite the support of his label and an agreement with the respected booking agency Windish, McClure seemed stumped on how to find the right players to give wings to his solo recordings.
But by early March, American Wrestlers was (mostly) ready to make its live debut in its adopted hometown. At a free Sunday night show at Fubar, the current lineup took the stage after a blistering set by local twosome Volcanoes. Supported by his wife on keyboard, bassist Ian Reitz and drummer Jacob Ryan Michael, McClure moved through the bulk of the new album with closed-eyes intensity and little stage banter. The band was still finding its legs, but the strength of the compositions and McClure's strong, high-tenor vocals seemed to win over the 30-odd people in the audience.
"It went all right. I thought it was gonna be a disaster," McClure said a few weeks after the show. "It's not the best, but I feel like I got away with it." To date, though, no further shows have been booked, as McClure's search for a steady drummer continues. And while he is equally nervous and excited for what comes next -- press, reviews, tours -- McClure remains level-headed about what indie-rock success means in 2015.
"I just don't expect much more. The record label gave me a couple of guitars, and I got to travel to New York," he says. "That's more than I ever thought I would get. I would love to give up my job, but I'm probably gonna have to work forever. It's ludicrous in this day and age to expect more."
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