- Press photo courtesy of the band
When St. Louisans first encountered Gary McClure in the spring of 2015, he was ready to take American Wrestlers, his bedroom recording project, into the limelight. He had parlayed a set of his self-recorded songs, redolent of kinetic pop and lo-fi crunch, into an album on the respected Fat Possum label and had done so without the benefit of a web presence, a backing band or a single live gig. That self-titled record led McClure to a few benchmarks of mid-level indie success: a national tour, receptive coverage in the music press, and increased visibility at home thanks in part to a performance at the 2015 LouFest.
McClure is no naïf when it comes to the music industry; the Scotland-born singer and guitarist first found acclaim with the genre-jockeying Working for a Nuclear Free City, a Manchester, England-based quartet, and he put out a few LPs under his own name after that band dissolved. And yet the past eighteen months have seen an accelerated maturation process for American Wrestlers, which is now a full-fledged foursome capable of translating his initial home recordings into nervy, muscular songs that can bristle with fuzz or peel back to reveal tender, tuneful centers. On its sophomore release, Goodbye Terrible Youth, the band has amplified the forcefulness of its grunge-era antecedents while narrowing in on an effervescent lightness that highlights McClure's high tenor voice.
Over coffee on the Mud House's sun-dappled patio, McClure is eager to talk about any music other than his own — at least initially. He's affably modest with a reserved geniality, though his intensity rises as he expounds on certain topics. He can opine on the paucity of decent British bands, the clean chime of Roland Jazz Chorus amps and, when asked about some of the more pop-oriented elements of Goodbye, he name-drops a certain '80s yacht rock staple.
"Weirdly, I just discovered the musician Christopher Cross — do you know this guy?" McClure asks. The soft-rocking Texan is an odd reference for a musician whose love of Nirvana has been an indelible influence. But there is a softness in certain corners of these songs that was coated in tape-hiss on the first American Wrestlers record, as well as an increased attention to the dynamics offered by the band (which is rounded out by Ian Reitz on bass, Josh Van Hoorebeke on drums, and McClure's wife Bridgette Imperial on keyboard and guitar). And while McClure's own guitar work can veer more toward traditional rock posturing — there are even a few honest-to-God guitar solos this time around — he's also willing to vary his approach, as with the pearlescent leads on "Give Up," the album's first single, or the lightly chorused acoustic guitar on the pensive set-closer "Real People."
"I think there's a very thin layer of cheese — it's very faint, but I deliberately put it in there," explains McClure. "It's a rejection of being cool; there's something about hipness that feels so exclusive. I think with something that has more mass appeal, there's more honesty in it than someone who is trying to be removed and pose-y and trying to make something that isn't for everyone."
The everyday nature of the would-be rock star is something that McClure, who works in a warehouse for FedEx when not on tour, learned early. His uncle Roddy Frame led the Scottish new wave band Aztec Camera in the 1980s; Frame gave a teenaged McClure his first guitar and amplifier.
"When I was very young, I learned quite quickly that someone who does that kind of thing isn't special," says McClure. "When you're very young, it's just your uncle, and then all of a sudden they can do this amazing thing — they can sing with this amazing voice and play guitar so well. So it broke that barrier down."
McClure carries on the family legacy on the band's sophomore record. "Vote Thatcher," the album's first and most blistering track, continues the thread of anti-Thatcher songs like those by the English Beat and Elvis Costello, though McClure's pronouncement — "I still can't believe you died" — carries with it the long view of history.
"So much of the world never changes; it just repeats itself," says McClure. "So really the song is about her being dead and not being dead, and the things that happened during her reign are happening again."
Likewise, McClure sees a certain circuitousness to his own career, which is currently in its third iteration as he settles into his mid-30s. In the lead-up to Goodbye Terrible Youth's release, he found himself featured in a music magazine spread about up-and-coming acts.
"I said to the woman interviewing me, 'You know, this is my third one of these for this magazine.' She thought that was hilarious," says McClure, who had been similarly profiled with each of his previous acts. "I don't know what you have to do, but I'm grateful to be in this position: I made a record and someone put it out! This is my ninth record, so I'm gonna be writing my tenth record. If someone puts that out, I'm a happy man. That's more than anyone gets, honestly."
Stream three of the tracks off Goodbye Terrible Youth below: