- Photo provided by the band
Reached by phone one Tuesday evening, Brian McClelland is in between the two poles of his existence: fresh off a twelve-hour shift from his day job as a 911 dispatcher for St. Louis County and en route to practice with one of several bands he plays in. As we speak (on a hands-free device, of course — his main gig has instilled a safety-first attitude), McClelland pontificates about the cost/benefit analysis of his several side hustles. While he has spent the better part of two decades playing bass and singing with pop-centric bands, McClelland also keeps busy as a karaoke host and director of videos for local bands through his Blip Blap! enterprise.
"We don't do it for money, but because it makes us and our friends happy," he says of the two efforts, which have made him a go-to for well-made visuals as well as big-hearted, full-throated sing-alongs in local bars. "I hope that it pays for itself. What's funny is the thing with karaoke started as a joke, but I'm getting karaoke gigs that pay more than band gigs."
Still, it is clear that McClelland's heart lies squarely within the confines of the three-minute pop song. He's shown this over and over again, as the leader of the power-pop quartet the Maxtone 4 and then as a supporting player in the hook-heavy Tight Pants Syndrome and the earliest incarnation of Middle Class Fashion. In the past few years, though, he's focused more on his own project Whoa Thunder, a band that began on a lark but has evolved to support his full-bodied and emotionally potent rock songs. With the release of the Depths of the Deep End EP, McClelland plumbs his own personal trenches and comes back with six bruised, battered but unbeaten pop songs.
"I went through a really rough year emotionally, so a lot of these songs are cathartic to perform," says McClelland, whose recent divorce provided more than enough grist for this batch. "That's new for me. It's more of a direct emotional experience."
Whoa Thunder originally began as a songwriting project for McClelland and a few bandmates who were musically untutored but well intentioned. "The goal was for them to play those songs live and we never did," he says with a laugh. "The first record I made began in 2008 — it was several years in the making," he says of the album You're Under Attack, which came out in 2013. "There was some darker stuff in there too, but it was a fun, goofy record."
Depths of the Deep End shows many flashes of pop savvy, but even on an initial listen you'd be hard-pressed to call it "fun" or "goofy." Opening with "Uncomplicated," the six-song EP begins with a whisper but leans heavily into slashing synths and whip-smart dynamics, with McClelland's strong and emotive vocals charging through the arrangements.
The next song, "Just a Few Things to Do," serves as the EP's centerpiece, and not solely because its five-and-a-half-minute run time is a comparatively epic length for a quick-hit pop songwriter. On the track, Joe Taylor's swoopy synths fill in the majority of the mid-range, leaving room for McClelland's most studied and performative singing to date.
Taylor's contributions underline the fact that Whoa Thunder has the benefit of being a real, live band this time around. What began as a recording project has, in the past few years, sprung onto stages across St. Louis, as McClelland has recruited some of the city's sharpest rock and pop musicians to help realize his vision. A few recent lineup swaps keep the roster in a healthy state of flux, and McClelland's longtime harmonic foil Jenn Malzone has recently been contributing vocals.
The pair began singing together in Tight Pants Syndrome and split off to form Middle Class Fashion a few years ago. That band quickly became Malzone's own provenance and a platform for increasingly electronic and beat-oriented music, but their partnership continues to pay dividends in concert and on this EP, which ends with their duet "Saints."
"We just have a really symbiotic relationship," says McClelland. "It gives me a feeling I've never had with anyone else."
McClelland and Malzone's musical relationship offers a juxtaposition on an album inspired by the dissolution of a different kind of partnership, but it's a compliment to Whoa Thunder and its leader that these songs remain largely impressionistic and less interested in the blow-by-blow of heartbreak.
"I always thought I was the most optimistic person in the world because I got married three times," says McClelland. "This last one knocked the wind out of me in a really big way."