Danny McClain, Grand Ulena's relentless drummer, played hard and died young

Apr 14, 2011 at 4:00 am

Danny McClain died March 28 at the too-damn-young age of 31. He had been a relentless drummer, an engaging personality and a musician of immeasurable creativity.

McClain had been performing locally for more than half of his life. In his early teenage years, he manned the drum stool for the band Newt Raw, which experimental musician John Wiese describes as "fast high school punk, exactly what you want." Wiese was immediately impressed with McClain's intensity as well as his scathing wit, and the two formed the rhythm section of post-hardcore band Johnny Angel in 1997, with Wiese playing bass. (Johnny Angel would have a far-reaching if indirect impact; its members eventually played in bands as diverse as Sunn O))), Unbroken, Wolf Eyes and Motion City Soundtrack.)

Area bassist Darin Gray of Dazzling Killmen and On Fillmore was another early fan of McClain's. He remembers meeting McClain in the late '90s, when he was in his early thirties and McClain was just eighteen. "There was no question about it: He was the best drummer in St. Louis," Gray recalls. "He'd been on his own, taking care of himself since he was sixteen or seventeen. I've still never met an eighteen-year-old kid who was so together."

After Johnny Angel disbanded, Gray and McClain formed the instrumental trio Grand Ulena with guitarist Chris Trull of Darling Little Jackhammer. "I think in the early stages, people viewed Grand Ulena as a group I headed or put together, because I was older and had been playing longer," Gray says. "But it was quite the contrary. Danny's role in the group was enormous. We wrote around his drums. Those songs are basically a showcase for him to play drums."

Grand Ulena's avant-garde sensibility and punk-rock ardor provided an ideal platform for McClain. "He had this amazing ability to push and pull and just stretch time like taffy," Gray says. "But at the same time, he could also be on a razor's edge of precision. He was playing rock rhythms but stretching them and redefining what that even means. It's completely unique; I can't think of another drummer who does that."

McClain's elastic control of tempo is prominent at the 3:13 mark of "Between Tholozan and Oleatha," the opening track of Grand Ulena's remarkable Gateway To Dignity. Recorded mostly live in one day in 2002, Gateway documents the young drummer's jaw-dropping command over the chaos he inflicted upon his kit.

The band's sole full-length album was an important step to exposing audiences outside of St. Louis to Danny McClain. Guitarist Shane Perlowin of the Asheville, North Carolina, trio Ahleuchatistas considers it "one of the most important rock records of the 21st century" and spun it for drummers who initially auditioned for his group. Meanwhile, Ezra Sandzer-Bell, bassist of defunct Chicago math-rock outfit Piglet, calls Gateway "incredibly impressive and inspiring. I had never heard anything like it before, and it's a record I will always cherish."

(In McClain's honor, Grand Ulena's former label Family Vineyard Records has posted Gateway to Dignity and the band's Neosho EP for free download on http://www.family-vineyard .com/grandulena.)

For all the adulation Danny received, Darin Gray remembers his difficulty coping with being misunderstood: "It pained all of us when people would say we were just improvising or playing noise, but it was especially difficult for Danny because he put all of his guts into every song."

Bob Adams played drums in the Chicago band Ten Grand, which toured with Grand Ulena in 2002. "Danny was unbelievable," Adams says. "When I first saw him play, I thought he was just throwing his sticks at his drums. I don't understand anything about the way he played drums. Listening to his records now, I still feel like a third-grader in algebra class."

According to Gray, McClain's personality bridged the potential gap between his abrasive music and its audience. "He brought a sense of humor to the band that was unparalleled," Gray says. "He helped people feel like they were a part of something that was very abstract. Whereas if he didn't have that ability, people would have been standing around scratching their chins and wondering what we were trying to do. He helped people laugh and be comfortable, or at least feel good about being uncomfortable."

Throughout his tenure in Grand Ulena, McClain was involved in various improvisational noise projects, including John Wiese's group Sissy Spacek.

By then, Wiese had moved to Los Angeles. "But every time I returned to St. Louis I would try to play with Danny," he recalls. "How could I not? His playing was breathtaking, full of drama, tension and emotion. I secretly have always wanted to be a drummer, and his talent was never wasted on me. He was an incredible musician who melted all of his influences into something completely personal."

Around 2005, however, Grand Ulena's momentum slowed to a crawl. The band imploded under its own ambition; practice sessions lasted up to ten hours, and months of writing and rehearsing resulted in less than a minute of new material. The exhausted group eventually went on a hiatus.

"We had hit a brick wall, and we decided to just take a break until we could clear our heads," Gray says. "It was like we were in a corn maze with big flags tied to our backs, and we could only see each other's flags while trying to make our way to each other. The saddest part about Grand Ulena is that I do know that all of us thought we would get back together and play again."

McClain's friend and frequent collaborator Joe Raglani recalls that McClain never stopped drumming: "He loved to play out, and he would jump at any opportunity." On February 20, Raglani performed at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center alongside Brain Transplant, a quartet featuring McClain. It was McClain's final performance.

The exact cause of Danny McClain's death is currently unknown, although he had been diagnosed with the flu four days prior. He had been living with his sister Mary Ann Starr, who called an ambulance after she noticed his condition worsening.

In a comment left on Riverfront Times' website, she writes, "He was still responsive when EMTs arrived — although he was very groggy and lethargic. He suddenly stopped responding to questions, and the EMT who was assessing him lost his pulse." The ambulance technicians and paramedics in the emergency room at St. John's Mercy Medical Center were unable to revive him.

Starr reports that McClain suffered from "narrowed coronary arteries (runs very strongly in our family), and his flu had progressed to pneumonia." Whether these conditions were the sole cause of his death or a contributing factor is still unknown; a toxicology report remains unfinished as of press time.

On the weekend after McClain's death, Joe Raglani hosted a memorial concert for McClain with performances by Brain Transplant, Spelling Bee and Raglani himself. All proceeds from the show were given to McClain's sister Mary Ann to offset funeral costs. The results are a testament to people's love and appreciation of Danny McClain: Raglani raised more than $2,000 and received contributions from the likes of Wolf Eyes and Jim O'Rourke.

For Raglani, the benefit was bittersweet. "We kind of had a falling out and were out of contact for a while," he says of his old friend and musical partner. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to do this benefit concert, to say sorry for the way things went down between us."

In his last few years, McClain suffered through many personal hardships, including the death of his mother and a robbery that contributed to the musician losing his apartment and ultimately his job.

Friends say music was his ultimate escape. "Whatever was going on in his life, it never affected his musicianship," says Jeremy Kannapell, who performs as Ghost Ice. "He never performed subpar, no matter what."

Raglani concurs. "I've never seen Danny play a shitty show ever, which says something about his talent — but also about his priorities. Music was always number one with him."

"Most people will say Danny is a great drummer, and that really just scratches the surface," Gray says. "He was exceptional, yes, but he was unique, as a musician and especially as a person. There's not many people like that, and he was one of them. It's a great loss to the world of music and the world of art.

"We were fortunate to have a light like that in the middle of so much darkness. When that light goes off, it's tough to recover from."