Despite acknowledging last year's much-heralded American Wrestlers got him signed to a "cool record label" in Mississippi's Fat Possum Records and allowed him to hit the road for a multi-city tour, Gary McClure says he still in many ways views his music career as something resembling a failure. "No one has really told me I've 'made it' says the singer-songwriter who performs as American Wrestlers. "I always feel like I still haven't quite gotten where I want to go."
A lifelong musician who talks like he's his dues and is still waiting to reap some rewards, McClure is understandably skeptical. Sure, he was in the moderately successful Manchester band Working For A Nuclear Free City before re-locating to St Louis with his now-wife, Bridget, but when you're McClure, a thirty-something who is still working a full-time job loading trucks at a warehouse dock by day who had to read Rolling Stone's review of American Wrestlers during his lunch break, it's often hard to see the brightness beyond the shadows. "It's so different than how I imagined it would be when I was younger," he says of achieving some modicum of music-industry success. "Maybe that's a sign of the times."
If all goes to plan, however, McClure may be quitting his day job sooner rather than later: today the Scottish-born musician is set to release the second American Wrestlers album, Goodbye Terrible Youth; he kicks off a North American tour later this month. While his debut was regularly labeled as "lo-fi" ("Does it even sound lo-fi?") his latest is a more straightforward, no-nonsense rock-riff attack. It makes sense once you consider McClure is a self-professed 90 grunge-rock snob who says he learned to write songs by mimicking his shaggy-haired heroes. "It felt kind of brave to do it," he says of penning hard-charging new songs like "Give Up" and "Terrible Youth." "There was nothing to hide behind."
Where American Wrestlers was recorded at home using a Tascam 8-Track and a bass he bought at a local pawn shop, this go-round, despite still recording at home ("I've recorded in a proper studio in my life," McClure says with a laugh) he utilized a laptop and "decent mics." Despite recording on a cassette, the entire affair shimmers with a more polished sheen. To that end, tracks like "Blind Kids" and standout "Amazing Grace" jangle with crisp electric guitar and sweet synths. The musician additionally recruited producer Clay Jones (Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse) to mix the LP. "He took all my crap and managed to make it sound polished," McClure says in trademark deadpan.
For McClure, creating something meaningful that will outlast him is seemingly more important than ever. "When I lie awake at night the thought of death comes up and it just scares the shit out of me," he admits. "It drives me to make more things though. But I still feel like I could be doing more." Below, McClure opens up to Noisey in a revealing interview in which the American Wrestlers mastermind details Goodbye Terrible Youth, his outsider perspective on Donald Trump's presidential run, and why he finally feels some hope for the future of rock music.
Noisey: You seem to be taking your recent success with a major grain of salt. ** **Gary McClure: I have no idea what I'm doing with this stuff or how people take it or what people think of it. I've done it for so long. When I'm recording an album it's almost like it's a schizophrenic thing: I know exactly what I'm doing but then at the same time I have no idea what I'm doing. It doesn't make sense. For example, there's this kind of cheesy kind of tinge to everything, almost like a Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA thing. At the same time that's just me being honest when I sing. On the one hand, do people think it sounds like a cheesy thing and think it's cool because of that? Or does it sound like a straightforward 90's rock sort of thing? Or do they like it because it sounds lo-fi? Or does it even sound lo-fi?
This album is much more sonically crisp than its predecessor.
For starters this was recorded on a cassette. My old band, Working for a Nuclear Free City, we recorded very much like an electronic producer would record — myself and Phillip Kay. Everything was done in one day and we would work in sections. So we'd do guitar and then work around his guitar phrase and add lyrics on top and then see what we could put on after that. And we did that for so long… thousands and thousands of songs. After all that I realized the one thing we'd never done was just sit down with an instrument like a guitar and write an entire song the way people usually do it. And when I found out I could do that it was this great surprise. "I can actually do this thing I thought I could never do."
What was the hesitation?
I got into music from Nineties rock bands. A lot of the grunge stuff. That was my big awakening and I learned to write songs from that. And the only other guy that could really do music in a good way was Phil. We ended up together because of that. There was no one else who could get good results. So we compromised. I think I tried singing once and it was really bad so I just felt like 'I can't do it. Fuck that!' For years we did music together and when it was finished it was almost like I came back to being a really young teenager again. It was like I picked up where I left off. I followed where my heart was which was that whole Nineties thing. It was really the natural way to go.
**You can definitely hear the 90 rock influence on this project. It's funny that in 2016 it's such a wild notion to release an honest rock record. ** Touring last year we bumped into a lot of bands and I heard a lot of music that was going on and there were a lot of bands who were honestly and truly from a performing arts background. Like their parents had paid for them to go to these performing arts schools. And there's nothing wrong with that. Whatever does it for you. But I couldn't find any depth anywhere. A few years back there was nothing in music that touched me in any way. But recently artists like Mac Demarco and Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile are writing great songs. And that gave me the confidence to think "Let's just try to write some really straightforward great songs cause these guys are doing. Obviously they have their own unique sounds but maybe I should go ahead and try that."
**Your first album was more a shot in the dark: you were writing music if only to see if it connected with you and perhaps others. Did this one feel different? People are paying attention now. ** This time I had a really great label waiting for one so I think that gave me the drive to do it. The drive is always there and the songs just happen. Why do I do it? These two albums are about a failed musician. Self-analyzing, it's about failed legacy and what it really means.
Do you still feel like a failure?
In the last couple months things have really started picking up with this record in a way they haven't before. It's funny though because I just did like my third "Introducing" spot for a magazine. I'm still "Introducing."
Is that funny to be viewed as a new artist after 20-plus years?
Yah. Maybe I should be more excited about things. But it's all good. I'm totally grateful. It's not a cynical thing where I'm like "Agh, not this again!"
Then again, you still have a day job.
I totally do. It's still a terrible grind [_laughs_].
Do you find it ironic then when people think you've "made it" as a musician?
Yah. I guess so (laughs). Part of it is really frustrating: I find myself with this terrible grinding day job with these menial tasks and every fiber of my being is wanting to create something and I can't do it because I'm stuck in this bullshit job.
Let's be honest: at least you're doing something creative in addition to you "dead-end" job.
That's true. I'm really hopeful about this new album.
Let's talk a bit about it. I honestly believe "Amazing Grace" is one of the best songs you've ever written.
You're not the first one to say that. When I wrote that and then I recorded it I was like "Should I keep this one? Should this one go on the record?" A part of me felt like it was too sickly sweet or something. I worried about crossing an emotive line. But again, it was all totally honest. Listening through now I think that one and "Someone Far Away" are the best songs on there. A lot of people nowadays are looking for almost a stylistic thing in music but people are responding to that song purely because it's a good song. That was really surprising. I never expected people to get into it.
It jumped out at me as such an obvious choice.
I think maybe I didn't give people the credit that they deserve. I didn't think people would get the songwriting aspect of it and would be more interested in the textures and styles and the way everything sounds. But that's good that people are responding to it. It's an actual song. Pretty much everything musically and melodically really happened quick. For most of the songs I write I pick up the guitar and I'll hit upon a couple of chords and I'll just sing the melody. The entire song will come together in a matter of minutes.
Do the lyrics come next?
For "Amazing Grace" I remember playing acoustic guitar and I sang the chorus 'When people sing 'Amazing Grace' and I have no idea where that came from. But it fit. It just came out. I thought "Well that could be a song. There's gotta be something there." After a period of weeks and months it was finished. But I think a lot of it has to do with the election and just this idea of choosing sadness and misery and automatically being defeated or something else.
Speaking of the election, do people back home in Scotland think the whole Trump phenomenon is insane?
My brother laughs and says, "I hope you're looking forward to your new President Trump. He's gonna kick you out of the country." I'm just waiting for him to deport us. It's just ridiculous, isn't it?
I've never seen anything like it. Before I let you go, when did it start to sink in that your life as a musician had changed?
I think it's been a very gradual thing. Recently I've felt more welcomed, I guess. But it doesn't affect the way I've been writing actually. I've found in the last month since the album's finished I've been writing more than I have in the last two years. I think a couple of my best songs have come out. I think right now is a really exciting time for music. In the Nineties even there was more competition but I think now it's almost like everyone is experimenting together. It's almost like a reclaiming of the past. It's almost like you can write a song that has the same chords as a Police song and I can call it "Pet Sounds." And you can get away with it. People will be like "That's cool!" In the Nineties people would have called you out for it. You couldn't just rip off people like that. Now you can really just write anything you like. Almost in a punk way you have a freedom to do whatever the hell you want to do. With the American Wrestlers project I feel it was worth it. I don't know why.
Maybe because you're doing something worthwhile and creating something you enjoy.
Oh, there's no enjoyment [_laughs_].
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.