Twice as loud, half as popular was the slogan often found on his posters and merchandise when Mike McClure launched his solo career in April of 2004. “That was really kind of stretching it a little,” McClure laughs, suggesting he exaggerated the latter and was being modest on the former. Six years later as he releases his seventh album as the Mike McClure Band, Zero Dark 30, he remains one of the most popular and influential artists, producers, and songwriters working in the Texas/Red Dirt scene.
With the February 2010 release of Zero Dark 30, McClure has entered the most prolific stage of his career – putting out three full-length studio albums in a span of less than two years. The wealth of music has been fueled in part by the studio he's built in the basement of his Ada, Oklahoma home.
“It makes it easy to roll out of bed, come down to the basement and make it look like I'm working. The basement's got real cool wood walls, wood floors, and it's underground. It sounds killer in here – perfect reverb. I keep all my stuff down here – the hats, the wigs, all the wrestling stuff, and one microphone.”
McClure first came to prominence as a founding member and front man for the popular and ground-breaking Stillwater band, the Great Divide, a group that led the way in establishing the modern Red Dirt sound. But McClure's musical career started much earlier than that in his home town of Tecumseh, Oklahoma.
“My first electric guitar was a Hohner Strat copy. I was thirteen. My neighbor's dad won it in a poker game and sold it to me for sixty-five bucks. I went up to look at it and he was sitting there strumming it, not plugged in to anything. I told him, 'It's not very loud.' I got an amp out of the Sears catalog. A three watt amp that I blew up. So I took the head of that and ran it into a blown up stereo speaker for distortion.”
McClure's earliest shows took place in the garage he and his band used to practice in. They built risers and the rock band DIY-staple, a coffee can light system. His earliest gigs outside of the practice room included setting up in the corner of the gym at high school basketball games along with his high-school buddy, drummer John Humphrey (formerly of the Nixons and now playing with Seether). “They'd have a time out and we'd just go to town then or any time something stopped.”
By the time he was seventeen, McClure had moved on to playing gigs in local clubs, but outside of a scholarship offer to play guitar at Seminole Junior College, he never made any real headway with music until he hooked up with J.J. and Scotte Lester and Kelley Green to form the Great Divide in 1993. In 1998 the band became the first Stillwater group to score a major label deal when they signed with Atlantic. The band left Atlantic in 2000. McClure released a solo album (the now out of print Twelve Pieces) in July of 2002 and the band parted ways in early 2003.
The formation of the Great Divide coincided with the beginning of McClure's songwriting career. Both the Great Divide and Garth Brooks went on to record one of the very first songs he had written, “I'd Rather Have Nothing”. “That was a good start,” McClure offers. “It's been downhill ever since.”
Despite the songwriter's self-deprecating remark, a listen through the songs on Zero Dark 30 finds McClure in top form and taking another step on the rock path he started down in 2004. It's a sound that has been defined by his Red Dirt power trio (“sexiest power trio since Rush,” McClure volunteers). Drummer Eric Hansen came on board immediately and has remained a bedrock of the group. Red Dirt forefather Tom Skinner (an early influence on McClure) joined the group in 2006 as bass player and backing vocalist. Another significant addition to the sound of the Mike McClure Band became a part of Team McClure in 2006: veteran engineer and producer Joe Hardy (ZZ Top, Steve Earle, Chris Knight, Georgia Satellites, and many, many more).
McClure first worked with Hardy while he was producing Cross Canadian Ragweed's Garage album. Universal South president Tony Brown recommended that McClure enlist Hardy's help on some of the mixes with his right-on-the-money prediction, “I promise you'll like him.”
“He's the one that really produces my records now. I loved Everything Upside Down, but it was all over the map. Not that my records aren't now, but they seem a little more cohesive as far as landing on a sound. Knowing what Joe is capable of doing influences what I do. He really understood what I was trying to do, even if I didn't. He helps me make a killer record.”
The sound on Zero Dark 30 is the finest example of the McClure-Hardy combination to date – tight, crisp arrangements with a wall-of-guitars backdrop, and strong melodies from both the lead vocals and a powerful, free-range bass guitar.
The tone of the record is established from the first groove on the standout track “Mother May I”, a song written from the viewpoint of a polite stalker. The pace slows down for the albums high point, “A Breakdown”. The tune is not only one of the best non-rockers that McClure has recorded in the past six years, but some of the most well-turned lyrics he's ever written. “The stones that used to rise up from the water to guide my path are gone / but I know I'll find another path this time if I have to climb every stone alone.”
McClure delivers the kind of song he does better than anyone else with “Devil of the Daughter”, soon to be a live favorite (if it's not already). Long time fans will be intrigued by the updated version of “In My Ears”, a song that originally appeared on Twelve Pieces (guitar fans – get ready for a little bit of Red Dirt fret board tapping). With a whispered vocal and a slinky groove, McClure tries out a whole new vibe on “Down Like A Drop”. On “Swinging” it sounds as if McClure resurrected the Hohner Strat played through a blown speaker sound. And it works, helping to create one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album.
As with all of the other Mike McClure Band records (with the exception of Camelot Falling, released through the Smith Music Group), Zero Dark 30 was released independently under the MMB's Boo Hatch label. “Boo Hatch is a label – a real label. Like, a sticker,” McClure explains. Having seen the negative side of a record deal during his time on Atlantic, McClure has steered clear of them. “That, and lack of interest has led me down the independent route.”
Thankfully for fans of Texas/Red Dirt Music, his lack of interest hasn't extended to songwriting and the making of the records. With any luck and with the roll he's on right now, maybe some day soon in a basement in Oklahoma he'll be wearing a wig and a pro wrestling championship belt as he lays down the vocals on another killer tune.
~ Michael Devers
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