By Gregory Barr
As a sought-after producer and songwriter, Mike McClure has spent years putting his sonic stamp on top-selling CDs by the likes of Cross Canadian Ragweed and Stoney LaRue. And now, more than a decade after his breakthrough stint with Oklahoma country band the Great Divide, he has just finished up creating and polishing just the right sound for another artist he is very familiar with: Mike McClure. By his own admission, the 11 tracks that comprise his new solo album, Foam, illustrate that he has finally reached the point where his songwriting fits the sound and technical skills of his three-piece band. So if McClure just happened to be a college quarterback, this would be the time his coach would drag out the football cliché and say that “he brings the whole package” to his latest album, which just might catch the music industry off-guard as one of the sleeper hits of 2006.
Few artists who appeal to both rock and country fans might be comfortable releasing a CD that is so deliberately diverse in its styles. While there are numerous alternative country, “Red Dirt” or Texas bands that blend rock and country riffs together, it’s rare to find such a disparate approach. Some cuts on Foam sound, such as “Belly of the Beast” and the appropriately titled “Fire,” leap out of the speakers as if they were songs McClure might have written for ZZ Top, complete with buzz-saw guitar riffs and massive rock hooks. Others, like “Flood,” brim with McClure’s soulful vocal grooves and multiple Eagles-style harmonies. Still others are outlaw country, plain and simple, cut from the Steve Earle cloth. And yes, others sound destined for Texas Music Chart radio lists. But McClure says that he has long gotten over the idea that an artist has to try to tailor a sound to fit a certain demographic or appeal to the radio gods. As he gets ready to put away his studio gear and take his band out on the road to support the release of Foam, McClure says he has never been as excited about introducing his new music to both his established fan base and those who will be getting their first taste of his rock solid, old-school sound.
You have been at this a long time, making your own music and working as a producer. This latest CD not only has a solid, thick rock sound on several cuts, but you seem to have pushed your own envelope in terms of songwriting and performing across the board. So where does Foam fit in, in terms of your own musical development?
It’s taken me pretty much these past three years to figure out exactly what kind of band we are. I think this record is a good statement of what this band is all about. And the whole ’80s rock thing is a big part of what has influenced me, listening to ZZ Top and AC/DC, that was my era of rock in high school when I graduate in 1989. Back when I started (in the 1990s) with the Great Divide, I was rock player but I wound up in kind of a country band. And besides rock, I was into all kinds of stuff, like Steve Earle, Van Morrison and Merle Haggard. I just never was afraid to put rock and country in the same sentence. You know, I remember back a while ago there was a whole generation of musicians, back when country music was all Garth Brooks and Clint Black, that if you played rock, it was “apologetic” rock. So I’m just calling it what it is, rock ’n’ roll.
What really seems to stand out and make the songs jump out of the speakers is the work of your band — bassist Tom Skinner, and in particular, drummer Eric Hansen. Did you tailor your sound in some cases around Hansen’s powerful style on the drum kit?
Eric has been with me for the duration in the past three years since after I left the Great Divide. And he makes it possible for us to work as a three-piece band. He can really carry the load back there, so I can even stop playing (guitar) and let him and Tom carry it. What Eric does is equally as important as what I do.
So did being comfortable with the band’s sound and musicianship also help you in the writing process?
I used to write stuff on guitar just by fooling around with different riffs and pulling stuff out of thin air. But this time, I could hear the end result more fully formed in my head. Eric and I have been playing together long enough so I know what he’s going to do. I had never worked with a total groove drummer before, so it makes a big difference in the kind of music we can play.
Rather than just work on your own to produce this new CD with your regular studio partner, Travis Linville, you brought in a heavyweight engineer, Joe Hardy, who has been behind the controls for Steve Earle (Copperhead Road) and ZZ Top (Afterburner), among others. What did he bring to the final product?
I met him when I was working on Cross Canadian Ragweed’s Garage CD, and he had been hired to do the mix. I really liked his work, and he’s a cool dude. Yes, this was the first of my CDs that I had outside help on, but he did a lot more than work on the sound. Joe played quite a few instruments and he did these really cool harmonies (in the lead-off track) “I Know,” that kind of freaked me out at first to hear that wall of sound thing, but now I really like it. At the beginning of the (recording) process, I would send him the rough tracks with scratch vocals to listen to and he would add instruments to them and send them back. It really blew me away.
One thing that’s certainly interesting is the fact that all of the tracks are either strung right together with no break in between and some fade directly together. What was the idea behind that?
That was Joe’s idea. After we finished (recording) he wanted to present it that way, so people would listen to it all the way through as a complete album rather than 11 separate tracks. That’s what we were going for. I really haven’t heard of it being done very much, maybe on an old Pink Floyd record or something.
You were able to come to Houston and record all of the basic instrumental tracks at Billy Gibbons’ studio, the Foam Box. What was that experience like, especially for a guitarist who digs ZZ Top?
Yeah, I’m a big fan, so I was kind of like a big goofy kid in there, but I haven’t got to meet (ZZ Top) yet and would have liked to. I got to use some of Billy’s amplifiers, and I had his Marshall combo chained together with my Orange (amplifier) and cabinet, and had that whole rig just blaring. I mean I always loved his guitar tone. And that was the main thing for me that was different this time, using the guitar amps. I had used guitar simulators in the studio so you could just dial up those tones, but with Joe (Hardy) he thought they were (crap) and convinced me to use the amps. And I went out and got a (Gibson) Les Paul. I was always trying to make these rock sounds out of a (Fender) Strat but for certain things, you just need a Les Paul.
Some artists like to spend most of the time honing their songs and figuring out arrangements before they go into the studio. Considering the width and breadth of the sounds and styles you were able to come up with for Foam, did you spend more time than in the past on this album?
We did the basic tracks together as a band, and then I worked up other guitar parts in the studio. We also did some vocals at my studio, Dirtybird Recording, in Norman (Oklahoma) and Cedar Creek in Austin, where we overdubbed some harmonies and Lloyd Maines added his steel guitar. But I started working on this last December (2005) so I really got to take my time and figure out all different kinds of guitar solos, which was a cool process. I had all kinds of time to analyze it, and I know there are different schools of thought on that. Bob Dylan would knock out the whole thing all at once with his full band, but I don’t think that approach has ever worked for me. I like to pick songs apart, but certainly not to the point of taking the fun out of it. I would load the scratch tracks into my iPod and jog around singing different parts. It was very cool luxury that I had never had before.
You’re really in demand as a producer these days, besides your work on several Cross Canadian Ragweed albums. What did all that studio experience do to help you with your own album?
That sheer volume of time you spend in the studio messing with amplifiers and working with so many really good engineers makes a difference, when you learn different (microphone) techniques. Before, I really didn’t pay any attention to that, I just wanted to play my songs, and it really changes your approach once you become aware of the process. Now when I have a song or a sound in my head, it’s easier for me to go get it. Or at least maybe I know which engineer to call.
So what other producing projects are you working on at Dirtybird Studios? Any new artists we might watch for?
I just finished up a CD for Level Route, from Paris, Texas. Other ones I’ve finished are CDs for (Texas artists) Tyler McCumber and Boyce Edwards Band, and I’ve been doing demos for Jagg, this band from Oklahoma. I’ve heard from Cody (Canada), and I think we’ll be starting on a new Ragweed album next year. I really like working with them. It’s important for them to have an outside person they trust to work with. When you’re in close quarters all the time in a band, and you’re in the studio, sometimes the communication doesn’t come all that easy, but as an outsider I can look at things differently. If I think something isn’t working, they will at least take a look at it. I’ve done four CDs with them, and they just keep getting better. One of the coolest things was seeing their “Purple” album (Cross Canadian Ragweed) signed to Universal.
And speaking of Cross Canadian Ragweed, their new live double CD, Back to Tulsa, just came out, and I see that three of your co-writes with Cody are on there, including “Dimebag” and “Cold Hearted Woman.” Even though you have five co-written tracks on your own new album, you don’t really do a lot of other co-writing for other artists, do you?
Not really. A couple of my new songs, “Fool’s Holiday” and “Calling All Cars” were written with Adam Odor, the engineer at Cedar Creek. I get inspired working with him. But I don’t really think about who I might co-write with next. Cody and I will co-write songs that he has ideas for but hasn’t quite finished up yet. Co-writing is a different sort of animal, that’s for sure. Some people, they can get a little huffy if you say you don’t like a line in a song.
The Oklahoma country scene is still often tagged with the Red Dirt label. Is it still valid, considering how the lines are blurred now between what is being performed by so many of the younger Texas and Oklahoma bands?
The way things have gone, I really don’t think there’s too much difference now in the sound coming out of Oklahoma or Texas. I’ve even heard people talk about Texas Red Dirt music, which is pretty strange. On one hand, you know the marketing people need buzz words like “grunge” to sell something. But you also know that any time a “scene” comes along, it doesn’t take long for it to get watered down. For me, Red Dirt was those older groups out of Stillwater, Jimmy LaFave and Red Dirt Rangers. But now there’s a huge influx of new bands all the time, but of the few innovators to come along, there is a lot of imitators. I think maybe somebody needs to stomp dance on it, the way Kurt Cobain came along and cut through the hair metal scene.
Most of the lyrics on Foam seem very personal and introspective. And you don’t mince words in some of them, especially “Saints in the Twilight,” in which the protagonist is seething about his woman’s behavior. Are you drawing on your own experiences or, like some writers, can you just make it all up?
Writing for me some of the time is a way to deal with things in your life. My wife and I have been married 10 years, so we’ve had some argumentative nights to draw on, and a lot of great times. So the one song, “Lucky Man,” describes how I feel about my wife, but that other song, “Saints,” is from when we were fighting. “Belly of the Beast” was about a period of frustration for me, and I just took off on a tangent. But really, I can mix both worlds. That song “Fire” was more about writing a balls-out rock song, so I just made up some lyrics. And “I Know” was actually based on a story I heard about something crazy that happened with Billy Gibbons. The songs are mostly snapshots of all of the ups and downs, and are partly true and partly fiction.
So now you’re finally going to try out these songs in concert and have a chance again to be Mike McClure the artist rather than Mike McClure the producer. How do you feel about the reaction from your fans to the material?
Getting out there with these songs is kind of scary and equally exciting. It seems things keep building a little bit at a time every trip. And now, maybe, this CD might finally kick the door open a little bit wider for us.