Gary McClure talks about his band American Wrestlers in a way that makes its existence seem paradoxically both a fluke and inevitable. When the Scottish musician moved to St. Louis in 2014, he did so for personal reasons, leaving the relatively successful project Working for a Nuclear Free City behind him in Manchester, England. The story of how he got from there to where he is nowtouring on a well-received second American Wrestlers' album, Goodbye Terrible Youthilluminates McClure's unrelenting drive to write and his unabashed fondness for the music he grew up listening to.
American Wrestlers' self-titled debut, released in 2015, was written and recorded entirely by McClure, demo-style to a cassette, at his new home in St. Louis. It featured a lo-fi recording approach and efficient arrangements that illuminated McClure's innate sense for melody and balance within his self-described "retro alternative rock." When that batch of songs was recorded, American Wrestlers wasn't a band in any practical sense: there were no other members, no record deal, no online presence. "I was convinced no one would ever listen to it," McClure says of those recordings created during idle time as he waited for his green card to arrive.
But people did listen and the response was predominantly positive. A&R staff at Fat Possum Records liked a track posted on a Scottish music blog and was one of nine labels to reach out about working with McClure. Once Fat Possum agreed to put out the recordings under the American Wrestlers banner, McClure needed to turn his bedroom project into a band capable of bringing his compositions to life on stage. This turned out to be harder than one might expect, but after hours of combing through Craigslist posts for potential members, one or two false starts, and six different drummers, American Wrestlers became a band. (The current lineup includes McClure's wife Bridgette Imperial on keys, Ian Reitz on bass and Josh Van Hoorebeke on drums.) The first LP was released; the band toured and fans and music journalists were generally into it all.
Fast-forward to fall 2016, and Goodby Terrible Youth is released. The record is about as natural and incremental of a follow-up to that debut as one could expect. As with the first album, McClure wrote and demoed all of the material in isolation, bringing songs to the band to record. They'd strip away his demo trackskeys, drums, bassone-by-one, recording as individual players but remaining relatively faithful to the demo parts. The result is a recording of a collective of players, while nearly everything that you hear emanated from McClure himself.
On writing in a more collaborative fashion, he says, "It's not that they can't do it; they can. When writing, I go through every different combination I can. I'll try all the complex variations." The resulting demos created in isolation are, for McClure, the distillation of hours of trial in service of the greater concept of the song and efficiency of melody. This is a shift from the writing style of Working for a Nuclear Free City, in which McClure and his partner Phil Kay wrote very collaboratively. As McClure tells it, they would often start a new song in the morning, workshop it all day and scrap it if it didn't come together by evening. McClure estimates that WFANFC left upwards of 2,000 unfinished ideas behind. But he's not eager to go back to that model, stating gleefully, "Now I can make the music that I wanted to make as a teenager but was stopped by Phil's interference."
Goodbye Terrible Youth presents American Wrestlers as a full-fledged band, with live drums replacing the drum tracks of the first record, and a sound that more closely reflects that band's live performances. When touring off that first album, McClure recalls the dissonance of concertgoers buying the demo-like LP at the merch table after seeing them perform as a full band: "There were guys buying the vinyl going, 'I love that, I've never heard of you guys before. I loved that show, I can't wait to get this home.' I thought, should I tell them?" With the new album, no caveats will be necessary.
From the almost-anthemic "Amazing Grace" to the propelled jangle and fuzz of "Give Up," the new album from American Wrestlers will resonate with fans of the band's debut and surely appeal to a lot of listeners new to their music. It's colored with the types of melody and texture more common in '80s and '90s alternative rock, presented more currently with a fresh, non-nostalgic vision. While McClure's initial deal with Fat Possum records only these first two albums, he's already started work on a third. "I've tried to write the next record almost before the new one's out, so I don't feel there's pressure. I've already got four songs...just in case Goodbye Terrible Youth gets really good exposure."
It seems likely that we'll see a third LP from American Wrestlers, but McClure is less confident that the band will continue much beyond that. Ruminating aloud on the longevity of the project, he says, "I think it has one more record in it. I think after three, maybe I don't know, it feels weird to do more than three." Whatever the fate of American Wrestlers, McClure is unlikely to stop writing any time soon: "I've put so much of my life into making music now, I can't stop."
The American Wrestlers will celebrate the release of Goodbye Terrible Youth at Off Broadway this coming Thursday, December 15 with the help of Bruiser Queen, Commander Keen, and The Free Years.
On November 22, Jim James called in to Wax Lyrical for a little conversation with Caron House in advance of James' upcoming performance at the Pageant on Tuesday, November 29 with opener Twin Limb. Like all our radio programs, the entire broadcast of that evening's edition of Wax Lyrical can be found streaming from the 88.1 KDHX archives for two weeks after the initial air date. Enjoy the full show here or read the interview below.
Caron House: I'm thrilled to be joined via phone with Jim James. Welcome!
Jim James: Hey, how's it going?
CH: It's going well. How are you? You're out on tour right now, correct?
JJ: I am.
CH: You'll be in St. Louis performing at the Pageant in a week. What are we in store for on this tour?
JJ: Well, I don't know. I think that's up to you. [laughs] I think it's different for everybody. Obviously, I hope people come and have a good time, and -- I don't know -- just get emotional and have fun. I hope it's a beautiful thing for whoever comes.
CH: Each night's a different energy, kind of a choose-your-own-adventure thing?
CH: I want to chat with you a bit about the new album, Eternally Even. You're very well know for fronting My Morning Jacket and as a member of the supergroup Monsters of Folk. You've collaborated with all kinds of artists including Elvis Costello, Jay Farrar, and Rhiannon Giddens. What makes you decide to step aside from that and launch a solo effort?
JJ: I like to do as many different things as I can and I love to just play music by myself in the studio when I'm not at home. With the solo stuff it ends up being collaborative with a lot of people anyways, but it always starts out me at home messing around with stuff. Then it's also fun, once the album's over, to go and do a tour for it with a different band and just enjoy playing music with new people. It's always kind of a different journey. But I feel like that's what makes life fun.
CH: Solo albums offer a different way to collaborate, you're saying?
CH: For this solo album, you enlisted the help of a co-producer. You brought Blake Mills on board. What was the dynamic like working on this album with a co-producer?
JJ: Blake's great! I feel like sometimes your head gets buried so deep in a project -- especially when you're working on it by yourself -- that you really need somebody else to come in and help you figure out what's good and what's bad. Blake's really great at doing that and just has amazing ears and amazing thoughts. He really knows what he wants and what he thinks sounds great. Yeah, it was really great working with him.
CH: Jim, as you were starting to think of this new album, Eternally Even, what did you set out to accomplish when taking this on?
JJ: A lot of things. I mean, there are a lot of things going on in the record. There's a lot of personal stuff and there's a lot of stuff just thinking about and talking about the world. What a crazy time we're in right now. I think most everybody's heads are spinning no matter what or which way you voted or which way you tend to lean. It's just a really difficult time for our country and for the world.
I wanted to talk about some of that stuff and talk about hope for peace and love and acceptance and equality. Just a hope that some of us can start to drop these labels that we put on ourselves of liberal or conservative -- or even man and woman and black and white and gay and straight. All these labels really divide us, and I feel like the divide-and-conquer technique has been working so well. We all need to be talking about how we can stop this. How do we just see each other as equals, no matter what our life path is? And also really just trying to talk to people from different walks of life -- or who may have voted differently from us -- and trying to see where we can find common ground.
CH: That is a very worthy goal, and I understand after this tour you're not resting on your laurels. You're actually going back into the studio; there's a new My Morning Jack album on the way. What direction are you going to take with this album?
JJ: I don't know. We'll see. I've got a bunch of songs written. And you never really know until you're actually in there recording them. It's hard. You may think you know which way it's going to go, but then it always surprises you.
CH: Jim James, such a pleasure chatting with you, and I look forward to seeing you when you perform at the Pageant on November 29.
JJ: Thanks so much.
KDHX and the St. Louis Blues Society are two of the cosponsors of the 15th annual Baby Blues Showcase that will be held at BB's on November 27. I sat down to talk with its organizer, Jeremy Segel-Moss, a founding member of the Bottoms Up Blues Gang and chairperson of the Blues Society.
Bob Baugh: What was the genesis of the Baby Blues Showcase?
Jeremy Segel-Moss: Fifteen years ago started playing music with the Bottom Up Blues Gang. At the time (2001) all the old blues masters Oliver Sain, Bennie Smith James Crutchfied, Johnnie Johnson, Tommy Bankhead were still thriving at BB's and other clubs -- BB's was our church, our temple. The music was and is remarkable. It was always busy and there was no way a bunch of white kids who were new could get a gig there. My organizing brain said if we could find a night . . . and it turned out the Sunday after Thanksgiving was open. The owners, John May and Mark O'Shaughnessy, were gracious enough to let us try. It worked. We packed the room.
BB: What were your goals with the Showcase?
JSM: Our first goal was to play at BB's and to give other young musicians the same chance. Our rules are that musicians must be under 30 or the band median age under 30 and they had to have a level of professionality. We also want a mix of styles. After five years my own band aged out, but it didn't take away the responsibility to have a moment each year where young blues artists have a place to play.
BB: What are some of your fondest memories of the past 15 years?
JSM: Having Marquise Knox do one of his first big shows when he was 14. Finding Aaron Griffin (son of Larry Griffin, one of St. Louis' pillars of blues) who was just beginning to emerge and having Pokey LaFarge before he broke big. Marquise's first show was one of the most memorable. He pulled a "Big George" (Brock) heading off the stage, he came down the stairs, took off his shirt and danced his way out of the room. It was like "Wow!" And there was the time the U City Jazz band played. There were a lot of kids. They had a chance to set foot in BB's and play. It's a place where you will see pictures of all the greats on the wall and a young musician can see that they are part of the river and can be a part of a community. What is most memorable every year is the crowd. They go crazy. The kids pick up on the magic and it makes the music is better. It just makes me smile.
BB: What are the challenges in organizing the Showcase?
JSM: It's always evolving. Al Holliday and Paul Neihaus age out after this year. Some years are easier and some you need to look farther and be more creative. Sometimes you run into individual musicians with talent but they aren't in a group. Then there is the issue of race. These shows tend to be more white than black. Finding young black musicians like Marquise to carry on the tradition is difficult. Blues are not prevalent in that age group. That becomes a real frustration because blues comes from Black heritage. I believe everyone can have the blues, feel the blues, even play the blues but making sure it does not get whitewashed is really important to me. There are young folk who play blues music who are black but they're not on the scene. They play in church but they are not looking for a music career. We keep working at it. That is a constant for me. I try to do my best every year.
BB: What can you tell us about this year's lineup?
JSM: For the 15th anniversary we want a solid well-rounded show. We will start with the St. Louis School of Rock. Jordan Heimburger is really good with those kids and they bring a rockin' good show. Marquise Knox and Aaron Griffin are two of our mainstays and most talented young musicians. I'm excited they want to continue play the show. We don't pay very well but musicians here are willing give back to the community. We are also excited to have Al Holliday and the East Side Rhythm Band. The Blues Society submitted his record to the International Blues competition for best self-produced album. Nick Pence and Friends represents that Rum Drum Ramblers, Ethan Leinwand, kind of music. He's played in multiple bands with unique sounds. These are musicians that blur the lines between blues, rock, boogie, R&B and soul. This is Paul Neihaus's last year. He plays lots of instruments and is one of the go to side musicians in the industry. He gives back to the community too. His Blue Lotus Studio is the home for the production of the STL Blues Society 16 for 16 compilation which is due out in January.
BB: Any final thoughts?
JSM: I'm happy with annual event and that the city shows up and supports it. You get people like Alonzo Townsend, this year's MC, who is able to vocalize things to his own age group. He's out there with such a message of positivity. He started co-hosting five to six years ago and learned the tools. We also try to pay back with fundraising for "Play It Forward," an organization that networks with all music teachers in the city and provides instruments to students whose families can't afford to buy them. We also collect food to help feed some people. This is one night a year young musicians get to get together and be celebrated by the community. The whole thing goes into making a better St. Louis. Come on down and join us on November 27.
On Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1976, The Band gathered at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom to end their 16-year career with a show that would be more than just a farewell show. As Robbie Robertson said, "We wanted it to be more than a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration." Their farewell party guests included Van Morrison, The Staples Singers, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, and Bob Dylan. Two years later Martin Scorsese released performance and interview footage from that night as The Last Waltz, setting the standard for concert films and music documentaries.
The concert's fortieth anniversary's is being marked with a special edition release of the concert album and film. In January an all-star lineup led by Warren Haynes and including Michael McDonald, Don Was, and John Medeski among others will be taking "The Last Waltz 40" on the road.
But for St. Louis brothers Mark and John Moynihan (a.k.a. Johnny Vegas), The Last Waltz is worthy of a celebration every Thanksgiving, and they've been hosting their own tribute show for ten years. Each year they tweak the lineup, the set list, and find ways to build on what The Band originally created.
In April, 2006 the brothers hosted a tribute to The Band for Mark's birthday. "It was the weekend Bob Dylan was playing two shows, so we lied and told everyone he was going to be there," said Mark. "That was our first gimmick."
That Thanksgiving, they did it again and haven't missed a year since. This year's show at The Ready Room (4195 Manchester) features Mark's band Racketbox, along with The Stag Night All Stars, a collection of musicians who were regulars at Johnny's weekly Stag Night events. They include The Red Headed Strangers, Old Capitol, Sadie Hawkins Day, Old Souls Revival, Alligator Wine, The Scandaleros, The King of France (John Joern of Fattback), Rev. Whiskey Richard, horns by Funky Butt Brass Band and, as the Moynihans call them, "the usual gang of idiots." It's not unusual for the night to end with over forty musicians on the stage.
For the Moynihans, The Last Waltz had an impact during childhoods full of Beatles 8-tracks, an uncle's reel-to-reel tapes on quad stereo, and the required dose of KSHE before they moved on to The Grateful Dead when they got tired of "Carry On My Wayward Son."
Mark says he first remembers seeing the documentary on VHS sometime in the late 70s on VHS: "It blew me away. I cherished that tape."
"I remember when MTV started up and they'd use clips from the movie," Johnny adds, "like 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.' That's when I noticed who they were."
Conversation with the Moynihan brothers winds around musical heroes, how many have died, how Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm from The Band went too soon, what became of the group after The Last Waltz -- an evening of three people who have been deeply affected by an iconic band captured on film at a pivotal moment, even though it didn't capture them at their best.
For Mark, "Rock of Ages [The Band's 1972 live album] is a superior performance. They were really on top of their game." This year Mark and Johnny will attempt to recreate some of the sound of that earlier album with the help of the Funky Butt Brass Band in addition to Randy Reece of the Zydeco Crawdaddies who's been the regular horn player since the start of the event. As Mark tells it, "Randy showed up at The Shanti and we asked if he'd like to play horns for us at the first tribute. He's done it ever since."
The horn section keeps growing, and they're getting closer to Allen Toussaint's original horn arrangements. "Last year Adam [Hucke] and Aaron [Chandler] from Funky Butt showed up right before the show. We gave them the song list, wrote down the chords, and they just rocked out," Johnny says. "Yeah, they knew all the songs already," Mark adds.
As far as tributes, you won't see anyone dressed in a leisure suit à la Van Morrison as in the film. The Moynihans have never wanted this to be a costume party or a musical replica. "We encourage everybody to interpret the songs however they want," Johnny says. "They can get weird. We don't want carbon copies."
"You can't sing like those guys," Mark explains, "The mismatch of different styles they had, you can't recreate that."
Even though it's a tribute to a specific musical event, the Moynihans have never adhered to the track list of the documentary or album, preferring instead to delve deeper. "They got onto me at rehearsal the other night about the flow of the show," Mark tells, "asking if it was really right. But if we tried to play The Last Waltz it would fucking suck. We tried it one time and it was a mess. There's so much other stuff. It's more of a tribute to The Last Waltz and to The Band. We do almost all of the songs, but there are some great songs they didn't play that night. A whole other show's worth."
When Old Capitol joined the line-up five years ago, they brought "Atlantic City" from Jericho, The Band's 1993 album recorded without original member Robbie Robertson and after the death of Richard Manuel. "We tried to do it once or twice and it sucked," Mark confesses. "Thank God Old Capitol came along!"
They started the 2014 show with a full Dylan set. "That was too much music. We had to scrap that," Mark goes on to say. "I loved it. It was killer. When I say too much music, I mean we just don't have enough time. We could do six hours, easily but it's generally a four-hour show."
"These days," Johnny says, "we work harder at pumping new blood into it." To that end, "Racketbox is adding at least one new song this year -- 'The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show' -- and somebody's doing 'Chest Fever,' which we've never had before, and 'Live is a Carnival'. We did another one we took a stab at, and it was a swing and a miss."
The show brings out a the extended Moynihan family and lots of familiar faces, people who don't make it out as often anymore because of age, parenthood, or sobriety. It's grown into its own holiday gathering, as much tradition as the food on the table the next day. It's grown deep roots in the fundamental connection between people and music. As Mark says, "We've lived and breathed this music for so much of our lives." And it shows in the best way possible.
St. Louis' own Brothers Lazaroff have addressed sociopolitical topics before in their music; but their seventh studio and first self-professed concept album, Dangerous Times, has a more urgent tone, taking a cue from the current state of American politics.
Coming from a decidedly darker place, brothers David and Jeff Lazaroff say Dangerous Times is their "response to the bigotry and fear-mongering" coming out of the 2016 Presidential election -- particularly from the mouth of Republican candidate Donald Trump. They don't go so far as to name names in the album's tunes -- though they don't really have to.
"Listen, there's disappointment on all levels as far as Hillary and past administrations' connections to the military industrial complex. That's all very true and very valid," says guitarist/vocalist Jeff Lazaroff. "She's a centrist, no doubt about it; but she is just along the lines of where change goes gradually, where he is a total call out from strongman authoritarianism, using fear and manipulation and dividing people along those lines as we've seen of color, gender, religion."
The brothers express these feelings most pointedly on the album's title track within its first lyrics, "It's dangerous times that we are living in / I'm crawling out of my skin / fear takes center stage once again / ripping us apart from within." Even the guitar riffs that follow are somewhat foreboding.
Though they didn't set out to make a concept album driven by a central theme, it just developed that way naturally, the brothers say.
"We were together on a family vacation last year and the real thing that hit us was when the Muslim ban was announced," says Jeff. "At first it just started off ridiculous and what we thought was a joke; but then, when it started having fascist overtones is what started us having inspiration into some of the tunes we were messing with lyrically."
That said, it's not all gloom and doom. Dark themes and lyrics are matched with upbeat, even jovial instrumentation, such as on "Don't Look Now," where David's dreamy pedal steel and Nate Carpenter's bouncy piano make a tale of fascism somehow danceable. As the album progresses, the tunes move to a more hopeful place, felt most heartily in the declaration song "Gonna Be Okay," providing some reassurance.
"I don't think it was intentional; but we definitely did discover that in this record the songs did fall into two camps," says Jeff. "You had the songs that were just appalled by the fascism and bigotry and hatred and just saying, 'Don't ignore this, look at exactly what it is for what it is;' and then there's this other camp that was almost like, 'Okay, now look away from it and there's a higher level of consciousness that overcomes that stuff and it's more powerful -- that hopefulness."
In addition to band regulars including Carpenter, drummer Grover Stewart, bassist Teddy Brookins and violinist/sound designer Mark Hochberg, the brothers brought in their cousin and mentor, Stuart Rosenberg, from Chicago to play his Mandocaster electric mandolin on the album, resulting in a rich and layered psychedelic rock sound infused with a rootsy twang. Rosenberg also joined the core band for its recent CD-release show at the Tick Tock Tavern, playing to a full house of fans and friends.
With a steady local show schedule, Brothers Lazaroff has built a strong and loyal fan base over the years, playing regular gigs at various clubs, as well as their popular annual Hanukkah Hullabaloo performances each December. (This year the performance will take place at Joe's Cafe on December 10.) Jeff and David's Jewish heritage figured heavily into processing their feelings about the bigotry displayed in the Trump campaign that inspired some of the album's more pointedly political songs.
"We had family members deeply involved in the World War II effort and we have an uncle who was an orphan out of Poland who was adopted by a great aunt of ours, and then our synagogue has tons of holocaust survivors; so you're constantly hearing that lesson of how a community was scapegoated," says Jeff.
Adds David, "More than anything, no one expected it to happen in Germany. It took 20 years to build that movement, where all of the sudden it was okay to do that and to exterminate people -- and that took just two years. So, the idea that 'this can't happen here,' that's what they thought in Germany."
In the end, they choose to focus on the positive, letting their feelings speak loudest through their music, noting, "We offer up these songs, our attempt to process the insanity and call on love."
No matter what the outcome of this controversial election, Dangerous Times is an album that's certain to remain relevant for years to come -- as both a snapshot of 2016 America and an example of fine musicianship from one of St. Louis' most beloved bands.