Gary McClure, the brains behind lo-fi power-pop band American Wrestlers, has a tempestuous relationship with music that is as compulsive as it is cathartic. He’s as pragmatic about the current state of the music industry as one can be, especially in regards to the indie landscape, but that has never discouraged him from making music — a passion that he feels inexplicably obligated to pursue.
Growing up in Manchester, England, McClure found it difficult to elicit attention for his music in a city known for its underground scene. So after a stint with his band Nuclear Free City, he began posting home recordings on Bandcamp and was discovered by blogs and his future wife, Bridgette Imperial.
Without much hesitation, McClure relocated to St. Louis to marry Imperial, who joined his subsequent project, American Wrestlers. He quickly took to the Midwest, finding it refreshingly accessible and affordable. Though it was somewhat difficult to find people with aligning musical sensibilities to join his band, he attests, “It was easy to meet people who worked in radio and local journalists and the bands were welcoming. When I used to work in Manchester, it was very competitive and people were snobbish about it.”
So where did he ultimately find his bass player Ian Reitz and drummer Josh Van Hoorebeke? “I went to Craigslist, and it was the worst. Everyone likes Rush for some reason. No matter what else they like on the list, Rush is gonna be there.”
American Wrestlers doesn’t share many similarities with Rush, minus a few power chords here and there, but ultimately McClure’s project is an intimate, DIY affair that combines shoe-gaze with alt rock, utilizing arrangements that are melodic but never redundant. And though his sophomore LP, Goodbye Terrible Youth, is lyrically dense — exploring themes such as politics, romance, and observational musings about society — it’s the instrumentals that carry the album.
I spoke with McClure about his paradoxical obsession with music, the inspiration for his record…and also mortality, shitty music, and rich kids in Brooklyn.
Photo credit: Bridgette Imperial
You’ve had an interesting journey. I read that you were working at a UPS facility while working on your first album. What makes you feel compelled to make music despite having to have a day job to stay afloat?
I’ve always worked. I even worked up until the first leg of the tour, just horrible jobs. That never seems to change, but sometimes I feel like the reason I [make music] is because I’m still totally terrified by the idea that I’m gonna die. When I’m at work, it feels like I’m wasting my life, so I feel like I’m driven by that. I think I’m just aware of how important it is to make art. There’s so much ideology floating around, most communication is bullshit, and art is this very pure form of communication because it doesn’t really use words.
But would you say a lot of your music is lyrically driven?
Lyrics are bullshit. They’re a vehicle to carry the melody, really. I’ve forgotten why I make music. This is my ninth record, and first of all, I don’t really know what else to do, and secondly, I find it hard to stop — history is behind me now and I’ve put so much effort in and sacrifice that there’s no way I can switch it off.
It’s also, like you said, the idea of being obsessed with mortality. You can either go about your day despite it or try to make sense of it and live your days the best way you know how, and if that’s making art, then that’s what it is.
Everyone is aware subconsciously of the burden the soul has. That’s why people get drunk and high so much, because in the back of their mind, there’s this awareness of having this soul and not knowing what to do with it.
I think most of the time, I wish I’d rather be just playing video games or something, because I would probably be happier doing that. So it’s not really happiness driving me, which is stupid. I’m a total idiot because that’s what you should be doing with your time, being happy…isn’t it?
But it’s a compulsion, like you said. Are there moments when you get visceral joy, like when you’re performing or if you come up with an amazing arrangement?
Totally. It’s in that moment of creating or being on the stage, and all the rest of it is just crap.
Would you say that you find the process itself of making music enjoyable, or is it more of a burden?
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve written more than I have in the past year, and it’s very enjoyable in the way doing a crossword is. When I get something, it feels really good, but a couple days ago I thought this new bunch of songs was the best thing I’ve ever written. Then I was playing them last night, and I thought they were shit, and this morning I was like, “Well, maybe they’re okay.” It always feels good when you finish something, but after that, anything music industry-related…it sounds like a cliché, but it really just is horrible.
Well, you’re on Fat Possum Records now. Did you seek them out or vice versa?
The first record was on a cassette recorder. It was supposed to be a bunch of demos, and I just decided to send them out to local blogs. And then seven or eight record labels got in touch the next week, and I never even contacted any of them, so they must have read the blogs.
Fat Possum was by far the best one [among them]. These guys have been really good this time around. They really work hard, and they’re putting a lot of effort into it.
Did they have a part in producing this album? ‘Cause your first one was home-recorded right?
Both of them were home-recorded, but the second one I had a band play on and I got a bunch of decent microphones. I used a computer rather than a cassette recorder. I sent them off to get mixed by a guy named Clay Jones. I think he engineered or produced some Modest Mouse stuff.
Do you think this album, Goodbye Terrible Youth, sounds more elaborate than the last? Was the recording process more meticulous this time around?
Every time I record, I try to make it as best as I can, but I’m just not very good at producing music, so it’s not really a lo-fi-by-choice thing.
It’s lo-fi but it’s pop-ish, so it’s an interesting juxtaposition, which is what makes it unique.
Completely switching gears, you’ve obviously been affected by politics, as we all have. Has that influenced the album a lot?
Yeah, increasingly so. I’ve never felt like I’ve had more to write about.
It kind of feels like it’s the Y generation’s first real “movement.” Are you excited for the art that’s going to be produced because of it?
Definitely. Like in the ’80s in England, and in the Factory era, you had all that great stuff coming out. It was all very dark in the English music scene, for sure, so hopefully we’ll get a bunch of really dark and serious stuff.
There’s been a deluge of very well off or wealthy kids making music. Record labels can’t afford to support [their artists], and the artists can’t afford to support themselves, so it’s easier for rich kids to get into it and take a risk. It’s been disappointing the amount of bands I’ve met who have people in them who went to dance school and stuff — it’s totally bizarre.
Anybody can make music — I don’t want to criticize anyone — but it’s such a strange thing to hear people from these performing arts backgrounds making indie music.
There’s so much indie music that sounds vapid because the members have nothing to draw on, and they end up singing about how great the beach is, and it gets tiresome.
It feels like any kid in Brooklyn can buy themselves a chorus pedal and a jangly guitar and get an Instagram account, and if you’re good enough, you’ve got it made. There’s a lot of that, and there’s no depth. There are very few bands writing good songs.
How do you feel like your music breaks that mold?
I try to write songs with a bit of honesty to them. I try to be as honest as I can. But there are people like Courtney Barnett, who is one of the world’s greatest songwriters right now, and Mac Demarco and Kurt Vile.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you’d be able to easily tell what was purely manufactured and what wasn’t. Now it’s like kids have found a way to manufacture themselves in an indie context, so you’re really getting this façade in a place where there shouldn’t be one.
I think a lot of indie artists are stuck because they don’t want to subscribe to that current electro-pop sound, and they’re just going to be touring bands their whole lives, and they’re okay with it.
It’s very hard to make money anyway, regardless. Everyone is in a position now where they have to make art for the right reasons ’cause there’s no money. And still, people do it for the wrong reasons, and it’s kind of mental.
Is the title of your album Goodbye Terrible Youth as straightforward as it sounds?
No, I had a great upbringing. Great parents, and I dunno where it came from. I think it was more like a thing where I had a melody that had to fit certain consonants or something, and it all felt right. It felt like a good album title.
I didn’t really interpret it as you having a terrible upbringing. I thought of it as feeling so naïve when you’re young, and everything is difficult to navigate, and then you get older and develop some hindsight and perspective.
I like that. Maybe it’s more like that, and maybe it’s sort of sarcastic as well. ‘Cause a lot of young people have the pressure of being blamed and held responsible for everything, and at the same time, they feel very irresponsible. At the same time, most people tend to hold onto their youth like it’s a golden thing.
Do you ever feel like you’re gonna get burnt out?
No, I’m totally obsessed with it now. It’s the first thing I think about and the last thing I think about. I’m gonna try and put an album out every year. American Wrestlers might last another album. Depending on how this one does — if no one buys it, I’ll just can it, change the name, and make something else.
American Wrestlers is performing at the Bootleg Theatre on January 20th with support from Kera and the Lesbians. You can purchase tickets online or at the door.
Their album, Goodbye Terrible Youth, is available for purchase now via Fat Possum Records.
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*Lead photo credit: Bridgette Imperial