By Marc Hogan
Gary McClure has something to get off his chest about his new album under the name American Wrestlers.
“The whole record is so personal,” the Scottish-born, formerly Manchester, England-based singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter tells Radio.com by phone from his newfound home in St. Louis. “I was avoiding this when I was talking to journalists before. I was avoiding the idea that any of it was personal at all.”
The sense that McClure is confiding in his listeners is part of the appeal of American Wrestlers’ self-titled debut. But the complicated tension between secrecy and intimacy—between publicity and privacy—also plays a bigger role in his story, one that helps to tease out the album’s latent autobiographical themes.
Though American Wrestlers are new, McClure is no stranger to the music business. He previously played guitar in Working for a Nuclear Free City, a Manchester band that landed its shoegaze-rippled indie-dance workout “Dead Fingers Talking” on the series premiere of AMC juggernaut Breaking Bad. But industry-related obstacles stood in the way (the group’s eponymous 2006 debut never saw a proper U.S. release) and by 2013 and 2014, McClure and producer/keyboardist Phil Kay had enough ideas, in different musical directions, that they each released solo albums.
McClure acted as his own publicist for his solo effort, Wreaths, which featured strings arranged by Kay, but the result was a disappointing lack of press. In the meantime, in February 2014, he married Bridgette Imperial, a Missourian he had met when she was studying abroad in England, and the two settled down together in her native state, where he used his freshly acquired green card to find a job lifting boxes in a UPS warehouse. It was beginning to look as if McClure’s days playing in front of any decent-sized crowds were finished.
Then, last August, music journalists received an email introducing a then-mysterious venture called American Wrestlers. “I moved here not so long ago from far away,” McClure wrote, but he withheld any other identifying details. Unlike McClure’s album under his own name, the attached song—first single “I Can Do No Wrong” — spread quickly across a range of music publications. Before long, American Wrestlers had signed to esteemed indie label Fat Possum.
“It’s that always the way?” recalls McClure, who revealed his role in the project to Stereogum this past March. “When you’re finally done, that’s when there’s just a miracle that catapults you.”
American Wrestlers is a record filled with such happy accidents. Its best songs have a direct melodic charm that centers on winsome vocals reminiscent of Phoenix’s Thomas Mars (“I’ve never heard a Phoenix record, by the way,” McClure swears). But the album’s construction using a pawn-shop 8-track tape recorder also gives it a ramshackle looseness that recalls the early work of fellow home recordists such as Kurt Vile or Fat Possum’s own Youth Lagoon (McClure says, “Really, man, I was trying my hardest to make it sound good and clear!”).
Lyrically, American Wrestlers can’t help but evoke the massive changes in McClure’s life these past couple of years. The driving, guitar-powered “Holy,” with its central image of a forgiving angel, was “written as a love letter” to Bridgette, McClure explains, though he adds that it can also be about transcendent life experience. Likewise, though McClure says he finished second single “Kelly” before the national debate over events in nearby Ferguson, the title pays tribute to a homeless man, Kelly Thomas, who was beaten to death by police in 2011.
“It’s weird, man,” McClure says of his move to America. “Making a leap like this, it’s like changing your whole life.”
Underneath it all—whether the veil of lo-fi haze or the mask of the American Wrestlers alias—McClure tells Radio.com that while each song has a specific subject, they also relate to a secondary narrative about his own quixotic struggle to be heard.
“The whole story is completely there,” he acknowledges, in his genial Scottish burr. “Of me being a frustrated artist, and having this record and feeling almost like a musician that no one would ever hear, and being convinced of that. It’s all there, plain to see.”
For instance, while McClure says “I Can Do No Wrong” is about being “the leader of the free world,” when the 34-year-old sings that “I’m not young and I can’t wait my turn,” the personal resonance is clear. And though McClure says that album-opening “There’s No One Crying Over Me Either” is about everyone “shouting ‘what about me’” into the social-media void, the song’s narrator certainly doesn’t exclude himself from those unmourned masses, either.
To be sure, the trend of artists concealing their identity generally exhausted itself several years ago. But the decision to do so here only highlights the undercurrent of futility on American Wrestlers, and the unexpectedly warm reception that has greeted it.
“The amazing thing is that it worked!” McClure says with a chuckle. “It was completely like this Trojan horse thing. I felt like I’d been knocking on the castle door for so long.”
Plus, while the trials and tribulations of an independent musician can be self-indulgent lyrical territory, even as a subtext, McClure is an avowed fan of among the bands most acclaimed for it: New Jersey stalwarts the Wrens. He and Working for a Nuclear Free City bandmate Kay “were listening to (the Wrens’ 1996 album) Secaucus way back when,” McClure says. “We were like, ‘This is the best album ever made. Why has no one ever heard of this band?’ It just made no sense. They had everything there.”
McClure recently assembled an American Wrestlers touring group, and he has plans for a second album via Fat Possum. The Wrens took seven years to follow Secaucus with their landmark The Meadowlands; their next album is expected later in 2015. Whatever the industry ends up holding for American Wrestlers, it will be far too soon to declare McClure down for the count.
American Wrestlers’ debut self-titled album is out now on Fat Possum.