w/ Spectator and Necessities | 10.06.17 | Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Ave. | $10 (includes free download of the new EP
When I met Brian McClelland in February of 2017, I was first struck by how tall he was. I had known him through Facebook for almost three years, but was unaware he was almost a foot taller than my 5’4” frame. His band, Whoa Thunder, was playing a benefit for Stray Rescue on Super Bowl Sunday. It was my first time meeting him in person, and he towered over me. That said, he greeted me with a friendly smile and the impression I had his entire attention for the few moments we talked. I would come to find out later, this is typical of McClelland—both the smile and the ability to focus on something, be it a conversation, watching an artist perform, or working on his band’s first release since 2013’s You’re Under Attack.
This was never so apparent as when I interviewed him in the weeks leading up to the release. McClelland is focused but affable, whether talking about music (both his and other people’s), his life, or the state of the city—and the world. We started with the music, as was apt, and he was more than willing to share an early influence. “The first thing that made me play tennis racket guitar in front of a mirror was Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog record, which I still love to this day.” (McClelland loves the record enough that he fronted a one-off Rick Springfield tribute band named Working Class Dogs in 2015.) “I was the youngest of three, and the only guy in the house because my dad died when I was three, so it was just me, my two older sisters, and my mom.” Those sisters, two and four years older than McClelland, provided the soundtrack to his younger days, though he doesn’t recall all of the music as fondly. “I listened to what they were listening to when I was a kid, so I was listening to Leif Garrett and Andy Gibb, and all this terrible stuff.”
Around the time he would have been escaping “The Wanderer” on repeat, McClelland picked up his first instrument. In the 5th grade he started learning the saxophone and playing in jazz bands, but by 6th grade had picked up a bass. “I was never very good at saxophone,” he confides, “but bass I took to pretty well.” McClelland doesn’t currently play bass in a band—in Whoa Thunder he plays guitar and handles lead vocals—but in three of the five bands he’s been in, bass was his instrument. “My main instrument, the one I play when I want to be confident and actually contribute something that’s interesting to a band, is bass.” He follows that up, however, with the addendum, “Or now, singing. I enjoy singing now more than probably anything, in the last few years. That’s part of the reason I enjoy karaoke so much,” he says, referring to the twice monthly Karaoke BOOM nights he hosts. “That was an avenue for me to just practice singing a lot. It’s more fun to do it in a social way like that than in a practice space by yourself.”
The karaoke nights, one at Sophie’s in Midtown and one at The Monocle in The Grove, are fun, though lately so busy that McClelland rarely gets to sing more than once or twice, usually at the very beginning or very end or the night. In a way, he’s brought the problem on himself, as he and the other “regulars” foster a supportive atmosphere and the events have been steadily more attended. McClelland also hosts movie nights in the backyard of a building in his Cherokee Street neighborhood. I asked about how those got started, and he disclosed he was actually a movie guy before he was ever a music guy, seeing movies 2-3 times a week with his family from a very young age. The karaoke and movie nights simply serve to bring together his loves of music, movies, and people. “I just like creating parties, bringing communities, different types of people together, and that’s just the avenues that I’ve chosen the last year or so, since I’ve been on Cherokee.”
McClelland has lived in St. Louis and the surrounding area his entire life, save summers in Maine with his mother’s family, but has called Cherokee Street home since 2014. He fits in there, and the vibe of the area seems to match his personality. They’re both vibrant and artistic, and maybe a little conflicted as well. This isn’t to say McClelland is brooding or angsty—there’s little outward expression of negativity to him—but there’s a depth there. He has his moments of perfectionism. When I asked if he wrote other than music, he confessed his earlier attempts at fiction didn’t go well. It wasn’t for a lack of talent—it was just that he couldn’t finish anything. “I’m really good at starting and middle-ing things, but there’s no ending that will ever make me happy, so I can’t finish anything, which is kind of a bummer.” He sounds momentarily despondent, but then the resilience shines through as he adds, “I had these things I really liked, which I might end up adapting into narrative shorts or something like that.” He also had to laugh later when I clarified he had said “middle-ing,” telling me with a chuckle, “I like making up words.”
The ability to work with what’s in front of him—and create something new if he needs to—is part of what has kept McClelland at this for so long. The band Whoa Thunder was originally started in 2009 as a kitchen table solo project for him. He added in his wife at the time, Kimberly, and their friend Sarah, saying, “Neither one of them were musicians and my goal in that band was I thought it would be fun to start with non-musicians that had interesting voices.” He handed keyboards to Kimberly, a bass to Sarah, and went about teaching them to play. Though they’re listed on the liner notes for Whoa Thunder’s debut, 2013’s You’re Under Attack, McClelland played the instruments on the recording, with the goal of the band eventually being able to perform live—but his bandmates informed him, several years in, that they weren’t interested.
Rather than pack it in or try to convert Whoa Thunder back into a solo project, McClelland set out to find band members that would perform live. Over time, and quite a few lineup changes, including changes that involved both of his kids joining at one point (Kirsten is 24, and Alex, 20), Whoa Thunder had the same lineup for close to a year and a half. That’s changing now with the addition of Stephen Nowels on bass and Jason Hackett on lead guitar, who join the existing lineup of McClelland on guitar and vocals, Mic Boshans on drums, and Joe Taylor on keys. The band collaborated last year to put together the song “Hop To It” and McClelland plans on that song being the band’s first-ever music video. Through all the uncertainties, however, the band has made good. You’re Under Attack got such a glowing review from Eleven Magazine that McClelland got actual CDs printed. Last year, the band tied for best Indie Pop band in the Riverfront Times annual Music Awards. The other winner? One of McClelland’s former bands, Middle Class Fashion.
That said, for the new EP, Depths of the Deep End, rather than every song being a collaborative effort as McClelland had originally hoped, most of the songs were recorded in demo format, and then he brought those to the band. That way of doing it was part of the reason the EP didn’t come out sooner. “’Hop To It’ was such a fun experience to make it together that I did not want to just record songs and demos and then bring them to the band and say, ‘learn them,’ because I wanted to do it as a band.” When that failed to materialize—most of the band members have other bands or are otherwise just as busy as McClelland—he realized he may have to go forward a different way. “Eventually, a year later, I realized I should just bring songs to the band because it was too hard to get everyone together.” Between the lineup changes and trying to get everyone in the same room at the same time, the EP was a little slower coming out than anticipated. “Everything was delayed a year, getting the new lineup to ‘Hop To It,’ then another year realizing that we couldn’t collaborate on every song. It had to be me, steering the ship, and bringing the songs to them.” While it’s unclear if the next record will be an EP or an LP, he is reassuring of one thing: “I’ll tell you this, the next record will be a lot faster.”
What will determine the EP or LP decision the next time around will partially depend, he says, on how much he writes in the next two months. The person most likely to be songwriting with McClelland at this point is not, however, one of his current bandmates. “Most of the songs I brought to the band after ‘Hop To It’ were songs I wrote with my son, Alex, because he’s been my main collaborative partner. He’s 20 now, and he’s a really good guitar player.” There are logistical issues with that as well, since Alex is currently a senior at Mizzou, but he’ll come home some weekends and they’ll “have a blast creating. It’s super, super fun.”
When I asked if he’d ever considered using something like PledgeMusic for paying for recording an album, McClelland tells me, “It makes me uncomfortable to do it myself.” It would make more sense, he says, “If I had a fan base, spending my time touring and really putting time into it.” There are logistical issues with touring for McClelland, mainly his full-time desk job (he’s a 911 dispatcher, and only 7 years from collecting a full pension). He thinks that for a band to have a successful PledgeMusic campaign, they need a bigger fan base than what they’ll build locally. “I’m the guy who loves playing music, but I’m not putting that kind of time out of my life into it. I’ve been touring and stuff, but never to the extent that those guys have,” he says, speaking of local band (and good friends) Bruiser Queen, whose PledgeMusic campaign is at 73% with over a month to go. “Unless you go back to these cities every six weeks, it’s really just a fun trip for you and your friends. You’re not gaining anything out of that, professionally.”
One thing is for certain, though, and that’s that the next record, whatever form it takes, will get made. As he told me during one of the interviews, “I’ve got some fucking tenacity.” It’s apparent he does. He’s aware of what’s out there to compete with in St. Louis, though he’s incredibly supportive of the scene. “The amount of quality singer-songwriters and bands in St. Louis is just getting more and more every year, and it’s been kind of humbling to me.” Rather than get discouraged, though, he just uses it to make sure the music is as good as it can be. “It really makes you realize there’s so much great stuff going on and it makes you reach into yourself a little bit more, a little deeper, and try to come up with something that’s more interesting.”
McClelland admits that sometimes, though, it’s not easy to see yourself the way that others do. He tells me, “I’m my own harshest critic in every way.” Later, he adds “I like who I am as an adult. I’m bettering myself every year of my life. I like who I am. But I definitely have a self-loathing tendency in my brain. The biggest shit talker about me is me, in my head.” He says that though he had friends, he remembers being a bit of a melancholy child. As an adult, though, most of the melancholy has been replaced by caffeine. When I jokingly asked him what super power he’d like to have, he told me earnestly, “I know what my super power is. It’s my energy level. I’m like the Energizer bunny.”
That energy level is one of the many reasons Depths of the Deep End is finally in existence, and McClelland kindly offered to debut an exclusive track from the EP, “Uncomplicated,” which is one of the songs written with his son Alex. Jenn Malzone, McClelland’s former bandmate in both Middle Class Fashion and Tight Pants Syndrome, who will be releasing her own new record soon, provided harmonies. The song starts simple but gets more complex the deeper in you go, not unlike its creator. Check this song out now, and the rest of the songs at Off Broadway, Friday October 6th, at Whoa Thunder’s CD Release show. As the band says in “Hop To It,” they’ll be, “busy building the world we want.” | Teresa Montgomery