Review: American Wrestlers Put Listeners in a Lo-Fi Submission Hold With Self-Titled Debut
Release Date: April 7, 2015
Label: Fat Possum
When you hear the origin story of American Wrestlers — wayward former member of a critically acclaimed U.K. band moves to the U.S. midwest for love, goes solo, and isolates himself with the cheapest equipment possible to record the Album He’s Always Wanted to Make — the visions it inspires are of folk-rock over-earnestness, of long-subsumed, deep-dwelling poetry flowing out into tearfully confessional recordings. (Visions of Bon Iver, essentially.) That’s one of the reasons why American Wrestlers, the self-titled debut LP from the recently re-christened Gary McClure, is so refreshing: The album certainly sounds like one man’s vision, but it’s a vision that’s exactly as unassuming, comforting, and accessible as you would assume it not to be. It sounds like a guy who’s finally found his home.
And truth be told, in the most literal sense, it sounds fucking terrible. The term “lo-fi” has come to be predominantly associated in underground rock with the omnipresent hiss and static of a 20-song Robert Pollard LP, but the audio of American Wrestlers is shitty in a more 21st-century way: poorly compressed, tinny-sounding, and frayed around the edges. That sounds problematic and might be a hard workaround for some audiophiles, but it ends up being as warmly evocative and familiar sounding as traditional lo-fi, except that instead of recalling youthful memories of poor car-radio reception, it instead takes you back to the early days of MP3 downloading, before you understood the difference between 96kbps and 320kbps files (and were too busy freaking out over WinAMP visualization skins to care anyway).
It’s a good match for the album’s tunes, which are gloriously open-armed and instantly connective. The soupy sonics, looping guitar riffs, and McClure’s surprise shredding may put American Wrestlers in league with bands like Real Estate and War on Drugs, but the melodies are pure ’70s AM gold, worthy of that other American-named band of European imports. You could go mad trying to recall what crossover classics the heart-clutching hooks to jams like “There’s No Crying Over Me” and “I Can Do No Wrong” are vaguely reminiscent of, but it’s more that the music is in McClure’s DNA than him pulling off any specifically insidious thefts. In that respect, AW is a lot like Phoenix, another out-of-time group who found that the quickest way to the cool kids’ hearts is through reminding them of all the markedly uncool musical touchstones they’d grown up on and could never quite escape. (McClure’s pinched wail and tendency to garble his already difficult-to-comprehend lyrics is also disconcertingly reminiscent of Phoenix singer Thomas Mars.)
Ultimately, the most appealing thing about American Wrestlers is its lack of obvious guile or pretension. The album’s not strictly lightweight — “No One Crying” drips with despair, while “Kelly,” the catchiest and brightest thing on here, was inspired by a story McClure read about a homeless man who was beaten to death by police — but nothing about it feels calculated or even overly rehearsed. Like the American Wrestlers moniker or the walking tiger photo that adorns the LP cover, the album feels birthed out of a fleeting and unpredictable moment of inspiration, urgent but without the burden of undue foresight or planning. McClure will probably never give us a For Emma, Forever Ago, but he might give us a sweet spin on Hot Chocolate’s “Emma,” and that’s just as valuable.
SPIN caught up with Gary McClure after a shift at the St. Louis factory that still serves as his day job, to talk musical inspirations, the difference between U.S. and U.K. living, and the importance of being a songwriter for your time.
Does anybody at your job know you as a musician, or as American Wrestlers?
No, I tend not to tell anyone about it.
Why is that?
Because I don’t like the questions that people ask and its weird, it’s almost like it’s just something that doesn’t interest me. I’d rather talk about something they did that day. I think it’s because people might think that you think you’re better than them or something, you know that kind of thing? Like, “La-di-da you’re a musician.”
What has been the biggest adjustment for you about living in the U.S.?
I don’t know, man. I just feel so much better here; I don’t if it’s the weather… I used to have a really chronic depression in Manchester and when I came here it was like some psychic wave came, I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was my whole life had just been collecting little bits in my subconscious of just…well, maybe it’s just [British Prime Minister] David Cameron. There’s no David Cameron here, is there? He’s like, nothing here, it’s a fucking brilliant feeling that this guy’s just nothing. No one cares.
And no CCTV, that’s fucking brilliant as well. You don’t realize, everywhere in England, every corner… it’s like V for Vendetta, y’know? Everything’s being photographed at all times, and you don’t kind of realize until you leave you start to feel a lot better and it’s like “Why is that? Oh, it’s because nobody’s watching my every move.”
Do you listen to American radio much?
Yeah, when I first moved here and my wife Bridget and I, we were driving around Missouri because there were certain jobs we were working on or stuff we started with her parents for the house, so cross country Missouri and the radio was on all the time. It was that and some other stuff, like we had this album by the Church, we played that a lot and that’s amazing for driving at night and we had this mixtape which was actually a cassette, so that had probably some bearing on some of the American Wrestlers album: Dwight Twilley, Blue Oyster Cult and all that shit.
What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
I don’t know, I didn’t like music until like 1991 or 1992. It was almost like music was nothing, I just had no interest whatsoever. But then I heard [Nirvana’s] Nevermind and I put on one track one day and it completely blew me away, it just slapped me in the face. After that I just spread out into everything, it completely changed my life and I always think shit, why didn’t anyone ever mention that? Because that is completely how I learned how to write songs, it’s just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, or something, and then another, bit then you end with the chorus. I think all my songs always do that and I always stick to three or four chords and a strong melody.
Have you heard much that your voice sounds a lot like the lead singer of Phoenix?
Yeah, so many people have mentioned that, but I’d never heard of Phoenix before.
So you’re not even familiar with how his voice sounds?
Yeah, I’m not, so I put a song on and was like “Shit, I have heard this song before,” and it was really good. No disrespect to Phoenix, it’s weird that I ended up sounding like this guy but I don’t know how. And it’s not a bad thing, he’s got a good voice.
Do you prefer making music by yourself at this point?
Yeah, I don’t think I can make music with anyone else ever again, actually. Actually, that’s why I was feeling stuck in a way, I think I realized I can’t… we used to make music with loops, and experimental noise. We were very computer focused… and then I kind of got into writing songs so they were straight like just guitar and singing and everything would be written, so that I could sing it through with a guitar from start to finish. And then in my head, I could hear all the parts that go with it, so bringing another person in, it just always kind of felt like no, that’s not really what I wanted to do with that.
The press release I got for your album talks a lot about the cheapness of the equipment you recorded on, is that something you did purposely or is it just out of convenience? Do you like being lo-fi?
This album, it was never… I had no expectations for this, I was fully in the in the belief that no one was ever going to hear my music, ever, just because of past… Not failures, I wouldn’t call them failures, but in the past, the music business always felt impenetrable to me. And I would find new reasons for this, like “Oh, I’m not fashionable enough,” or “There’s too many musicians doing this,” or “Everyone can do what I’m doing so why would they listen to what I’m doing?” “I don’t like the right kind of music,” all kinds of shit. So I just thought, “Well, fuck it man, no one’s ever going to hear what I’m going to make.” And I wasn’t telling myself that to try and fool myself into making something really good, it was genuine.
I thought people would like “I Can Do No Wrong.”I wasn’t entirely convinced about the rest of it just because I couldn’t hear it through outsiders ears. I got this frightening response, not only all these bloggers, but all these record labels started getting in touch. And I thought “Shit man, what have I done? I must’ve done something good.”
If a label offered you tomorrow to go into this big studio with this big name producer and all the bells and whistles that come with that, would you jump at that chance?
Some labels offered that actually. And Fat Possum, I just loved their label. There was so much good music on there, and they just seemed like someone who would genuinely were willing to put it out just because it was good. Of course, every label is a business and of course they’re a business too, but it really felt like they really liked it. I kind of expected them to do the same, to offer the studio thing, but they were like, “Okay, let’s just get it pressed up,” and I was like, “What, are you nuts?” But then they just mastered it and all that. And I think they were right not to mess with it, because if I had re-recorded it there would’ve been real drums and everything, and I would’ve lost that nice dynamic the drum machine has, which I think saved it from being too middle of the road in some places.
Are you worried about the lyrics of your songs not coming across because the sound of your voice can be muffled at times? “Kelly” is about such a serious topic, but it can be hard to penetrate the lyrics of that…
Well, that’s why I make sure that they put a lyrics sheet with the record because I like that old school feel, plus I think they’re quite good lyrics compared to a lot of people’s lyrics, actually. There’s such a lack of meaningful songwriting I think, and if you look at the news, the world is on fire and it’s running with blood right now. It’s insane, mankind right now is concentrated on all these new innovative forms of distracting themselves when the world is on fire. And I think, actually, if you’re writing a song right now, and you write about being happy or being at the club and dancing, or shaking it off or whatever the fuck it is, not only can you not excuse yourself as some escapist romantic, but you’re actually the enemy of humanity and the soundtrack to ignorance.
Songs are for other people, they’re not about me being a cool guy and giving you some weird persona and being a star and that shit. That shit is over and gone now, no one does that anymore. It’s about writing something, it’s art for art’s sake and there are so many people who are in it for the wrong reasons, I guess. In fact, I think a lot of labels can only sign bands when they’re young kids who are financed by their parents because no one can afford to leave their jobs and go on tour for no money. The labels certainly don’t pay for anything anymore. I kind of feel dismayed, I think it is because I’m getting older, I get dismayed but a lot of stuff that’s around, a lot of music that is around. It just seems like with every new form of music where there is really good stuff and there’s a handful of bands who are really good but it’s like, in the years to come after that people just copy some of those traits to try and convince the next generation that they’re deep and meaningful when in fact it is just another lack of substance wearing the clothes of that thing that was good, if that makes sense.
Is there anybody out right now that you think is kind of properly representative of the times or making stuff of substance?
Of course, there’s good stuff, it’s not all bad. That last Mark Kozelek album was fucking terrific, it was very brave actually. I think people kinda fell out with him, because of the War on Drugs thing, but there’s some good stuff on there actually. The War on Drugs, they’ve got some good songs too, but I’ve always loved Mark Kozelek. Also, there’s a bad called Pure X, have you heard them? They’re really good man, they’re kind of part of the reason I wanted to go with Fat Possum.
I end up always listening to old things actually, there’s just so much old music. There’s a big store near me that sells vinyl and cassettes, it’s one of the biggest vinyl stores I’ve ever been in. That’s another thing, I spend $9.99 a month on one of these streaming services, the popular one. Spotify, that’s it. And at the end of the year, I was like, “Shit, what did I even listen to? I could’ve bought 12 nice vinyls, and I could’ve had them forever and listened to them over and over again.”