American Wrestlers frontman Gary McClure thinks about death a lot. But it’s not as though the macabre paralyzes his creativity or prevents him from writing music—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. “One day the sun is gonna expand and all of human history will be wiped out,” he says over the phone from his house in St. Louis. “I get tortured just thinking, ‘I should be doing something right now! Don’t you want to do something?’”
Part of the Scotland native’s restlessness may have something to do with the fact that he works a mundane day job “loading and unloading trucks” in addition to writing and recording under his lo-fi pop moniker, which also features his wife, Bridgette Imperial, on keyboard, as well as Ian Reitz on bass and Josh Van Hoorebeke on drums. But that certainly doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s found underground success in the (now-defunct) Manchester-based noise-pop project Working for a Nuclear Free City, in which he performed for over a decade. Soon after the group disbanded, McClure met Imperial, who was studying overseas. They fell in love, and McClure traveled with her back to St. Louis, where they were married.
Once in Missouri, McClure started working on what would eventually become American Wrestlers’ debut album—an auto-didactic effort so DIY, it makes most lo-fi recordings look like something Diplo would produce. But to his surprise, American Wrestlers caught the interest of Fat Possum Recordings, who rereleased the album and will soon distribute its follow-up, the glossier Goodbye Terrible Youth (out on November 4). “This time I actually got myself a laptop and some decent microphones,” he says. “And then Clay Jones in Mississippi mixed it. He made it sound nice and polished. I really tried my hardest to not be lo-fi.”
Below, McClure expands on American Wrestlers’ latest work, why democracy isn’t always a good idea, and why he’s ready to get the hell out of St. Louis.
Paste: Hi, Gary. Glad you were available to speak so early on a Friday.
McClure: Well, I’ve got a day job, so.
Paste: Oh, yeah, are you still working at the same one?
McClure: No, I’m working at a similar, terrible drudgery kind of thing. It’s just like loading, unloading trucks. That kind of thing. You know.
Paste: Yeah, sure. But not the warehouse you mentioned from the last album cycle.
McClure: No… they’re all the same though.
Paste: Hopefully this’ll provide some distraction. The record, from what I can tell so far, has getting really great feedback. That must feel good.
McClure: Yeah. I’ve done some interviews, but I’m not really hearing much back yet. With regards to people like it or not, so…
Paste: Well, I like it.
McClure: Oh, thanks! Thanks a lot.
Goodbye Terrible Youth is coming out rather quickly after last year’s self-titled. How soon after recording your debut did you begin writing for this one?
McClure: I think as soon as I knew that Fat Possum were gonna put [the debut] out, I’d already had a bunch of new ideas. It’s hard to remember when and how these things come together. They kind of flow into my head, and while I’m at the terrible day job they kind of write themselves in the background. It’s like my brain kinda works it all out, like what the drums should do and maybe the melodies from different guitar lines and stuff will come up. And then eventually, when it’s all written, I’ll do the lyrics and then I’ll record it. But like for example, I already have like three new ones, which I think may actually be my best ones. I almost want to tell them to stop. “Stall the press! I’ve also got new really good ones!” But it’s too late.
Paste: Where does a title like Goodbye Terrible Youth come from?
McClure: I think it’s all kind of Freudian. I wrote [album tracks] “Terrible Youth” and “Amazing Grace” and all these things, where we sing with a guitar, and then I’ll have like half-words. Sometimes I’ll record a demo with half-words, and my wife will see that. “I’m sure you’re singing something there.” And like it already has words on it, but they’re not really words. And then those’ll be the right thing phonetically. And then I’ll try and work out which words—like the vowels kind of have to stay the same and stuff. And I think Goodbye Terrible Youth just kind of fit. They were the right sounds or something. And then, I went back at the record and there’s all these references to youth. You know?
Paste: Yeah, like “Blind Kids.”
McClure: “Blind Kids,” yeah. And the second line in the first song [“Vote Thatcher”] is, “If youth comes over, it’s gonna be a quiet night tonight” or something like that. So yeah. And at first I thought maybe I was being really down about being young. I dunno.
Paste: I’d love to know what you were thinking when you wrote “Vote Thatcher.”
McClure: Yeah. “What the hell were you thinking?”
Paste: Well, I assumed you were being sarcastic. I understand she’s ">not exactly a popular figure in the U.K.
McClure: Yeah, a lot of people still despise her. I realized after I finished it, “Shit! The election!” Hillary got the nomination, and I thought, “A lot of people’re gonna think that I’m being anti-feminist or something,” which couldn’t be further from the truth.
But then I think it was really more about [Thatcher’s] legacy, and I think a lot about that, and how much that really matters, and how much changes, and how much stays the same, I guess. I think everyone strives to give their life meaning, don’t they? Even at the sacrifice of immediate happiness. And the idea of when you die, what you’ll leave behind, how much that really matters, and how much the world really doesn’t change, and how much it changes. More about that kind of thing, rather than the poetical… yeah.
Paste: What were your feelings on Brexit, being from the U.K.?
McClure: Brexit was the first time I ever thought, “Damn, democracy isn’t always a good idea, is it?” Sometimes people shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions. We should have experts who say, “Look, this is a really bad idea,” and they know what they’re talking about, and we should listen to them.
It’s scary when you think about Donald Trump, and you think, “That’s never gonna happen.” That’s the way I thought about Brexit as well, I thought, “There’s no way they’re gonna leave.” But yeah, that could happen.
Paste: Moving back to the album, what decisions did you make this time around to shine up the recording process?
McClure: [On the last record], I got myself an 8-track, a cassette on it, and I think there was a lot of reasons for that. Some of it was nostalgia, and some of it was—I liked a lot of the tape-y sounds, and tape has a nice compression to it. And another reason was that the band I was in before, Nuclear Free City, with Phil Kay and I, we would write a lot of stuff in loops, and it was kind of a half-indie band, half-electronic who recorded like electronic artists would record. So we never wrote a whole song before and then recorded it. So next time I knew that if I limited myself to this cassette I would have to write the whole thing first. I couldn’t go in and just cut parts and put them together. It kind of forced me to do that. Plus I couldn’t actually afford a better way to record.
The last record was really hard for the radio stations to play. There were songs on there that were too long, which were intended to be edited, ‘cause the whole thing was supposed to be a demo, but Fat Possum were like, “No, it’s just great, let’s just put it out.” So. But this time around I could edit it a little bit more. But yeah, a lot of it was to make sure radio could play it, too.
Paste: It almost feels like lo-fi recording is the default method now—in the interest of saving money.
McClure: Yeah. It is so different now. I would say in the 1990’s if you listened to an Oasis record or Siamese Dream or something, back then the record label could take a bunch of young kids and give them hundreds of thousands of dollars and just see what happens. “You want an orchestra in here? Let’s get an orchestra in. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it won’t.” And now everyone has to record with [less] budget—unless you’re Beyoncé or something.
But I think all this [lo-fi] songwriting has really picked up, like Courtney Barnett, or Mac DeMarco. I think people are really writing good songs again. Rather than just a textural kind of thing.
I was listening to [Barnett] thinking, “I’m sure she’s into the same kind of thing—or she she learned writing from the same place I learned writing.” And I thought, “I’m sure she’s a Nirvana fan.” And then later on I read that she was really into Nevermind and stuff. And that’s where I learned to write songs, by just copying all that stuff.
Paste: How long has it been now that you’ve lived in St. Louis?
McClure: I think this is my—is this the third year? Yeah, like three-and-a-half years.
Paste: Do you and Bridgette want to stay?
McClure: No. [Laughs.] People in St. Louis will hate me for this, but it’s so hard to do anything. To find a decent photographer, or a guy to make a video. Or a girl to make a video. It’s just like, it’s just so hard, man. And it was so hard to find a band. It’s like, all the artists are leaving. And as a kind of outsider, as a European, as well—the racism is so apparent, and so shockingly apparent in the whole system here. It’s undeniable. Every job I go to, all the low-level workers are black. And all the bosses are white, you know? It’s ridiculous.
Paste: That’s an unfortunate reality of many American cities.
McClure: People can make all kinds of excuses, and say, “Well, that’s because this guy had a better education, so he got the job”—so why does he have a better education? Because he lives there. There’s no denying that the whole system is still wrong.
Paste: Do you ever think about moving?
McClure: I’d love to move, but I can’t afford to do it. You can buy a house here for nothing. For the cost of a car. So. And it’s not so bad, it just gets so hot here that you can’t leave the house, for most of the year you can’t be outside for more than eight minutes.
Paste: Where would you like to take American Wrestlers from here? Do you want to put out a third album as soon as next year?
McClure: Yeah, I’m really excited to get another one out next year, as early as I can. Luckily I’ve been writing very fast, I think faster now than I have in the last two years. There’s some chemicals shifted in my brain, or something. That happens now and again. A big spurt, working with a ton of stuff. But yeah, I’d love to get another one out. Also just because I think about death a lot. I feel the pressure of death and the burden of the soul, you know?
I just can’t help make songs. I can’t help but write them. I just feel compelled to do it, I don’t know, and I think if I don’t do it as quickly as I can and as much as I can, I’m kind of cheating something, whatever it is. I feel guilty and I just get depressed. And now the sun’s kind of shining a bit. Gotta kind of make hay while the sun shines, I suppose.