Gamblers – An Indie Band You Shouldn’t Bet Against

When life throws a seemingly endless amount of hurdles in front of you, navigating through a day can seem like a feat of Olympic proportions. For a time, Gamblers founder, and frontman, Michael McManus deserved a gold medal just for getting out of bed in the morning.

In a remarkably brief period, McManus went through the loss of his grandfather, the loss of his mother, the breakup of a seven year relationship, and his car was hit as part of a massive multi-car accident that left him with numerous injuries, and took the lives of four people.

The songs on Gamblers’ recently released album Pulverizer seem to address all of this, but the album was actually written before the majority of those tragic events happened.

Blending lyrics about the realities of life, love, and mortality, with the warmth of ‘80s sounds, Pulverizer is an indie pop-rock album that manages to do what many might consider impossible – it finds a way to feel good while addressing emotionally difficult topics.

McManus is joined in Gamblers by bandmates James Usher (guitar, above photo: R), and Johnny Hoblin (drums, and percussion, above photo: L), and I caught up with all three of them via Zoom to find out more about how Pulverizer came to be, and the added meaning some of the songs now have. They also discussed which baseball players, and drag queen, they’d love to hear use a Gamblers song as their theme music, and the very real post-tragedy affliction of survivor’s guilt.

Side note – Johnny was on a train to Montreal with a spotty connection, so Michael, and James did most of the talking. 

Even though the lyrical content of Pulverizer seems like it stems from all the tragic events you experienced, you wrote it before most of those things happened. When you listen back to the album now, and when you perform it, does any of it have added meanings, or layers for you after the fact? 

Michael: Yeah, for sure.

I mean, it’s one of those things where in life you just kind of go – I can’t believe things are playing out like this – but then it also is somewhat not surprising.

I guess the spiritual aspect, like everything is “what will be is meant to be” … is really strange.

I don’t think I’ve ever said this, but when the accident happened I was actually listening to a song called “Headed for a Cliff” (from Pulverizer). I was checking a master, and I had it really blasting really loud, so that’s kind of like just a weird thing.

But yeah, a lot of it, like “Running From My Grave” is obviously dealing with the idea of mortality, and then I was dealing with almost my own mortality in the accident, then my grandfather passing away in the beginning of the process, and then my mom passing away at the end of the process.

The song “Headed for a Cliff,” I wrote that when I was at the end of my relationship. I was writing about it on “Headed for a Cliff,” but we still were together for probably a year after that song was written. It was one of those things where you kind of know, like this relationship is probably going to end, and I’m dealing with that.

It was almost a seven year relationship, and it was very complicated because I was a stepfather, so it’s one of those things where you didn’t want to really give up because of everything that was at stake, and just kind of dealing with things in real time.

Does that make “Headed for a Cliff” an especially difficult song to perform, or is it cathartic? 

Michael: It’s funny because we’d have these relationship check-ins every a few months. I remember having to tell her, “Yeah, when this new album comes out, there’s some things on there that I’m talking about …”

She would always want me to open up more, and that was difficult for me, so I think I was kind of preparing her, like, “Hey, there’s some shit in these lyrics that may make you uncomfortable, and for whatever stupid reason I have an easier time talking about how I feel in a fucking song, rather than just using my voice in front of you,” which is probably some form of cowardice at the end of the day.

I wouldn’t say that. Personally, I write emotions way better than I speak them. I think we just have our preferred ways of communicating with people, and for you, it’s through lyrics. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly, and I guess for some people it’s easier to speak to them than others.

I think in relationships, there’s so many emotions at play. It’s so easy to Monday morning quarterback it, and be like – I should have done this, I should have said this, I should have done this better, I wish I was more.

I could sit there, and do that all day, and believe me, I do. I beat myself up.

All that said, the actual music of Pulverizer feels good, and part of the reason for that is you have strong ‘80s influences that you weave into many of the songs. What draws you to that particular decade for musical inspiration? 

James: At the beginning I don’t think that was exactly intentional, or a goal.

Really, we set out to approach every new song with a new musical approach, and a new sound. We were exploring new sounds, so early in our writing sessions we ended up with a good mixture of different genres.

Once we were over the hump, when we were getting closer to having a full album’s worth of songs, we started thinking more about planning for the album, and Mike and I talked a lot about the divide I saw – there were some electronic elements, and there were some very organic, real, band elements – and finding a way to bridge the gap to keep those coherent on a record, and make them work together, instead of against each other.

That’s when I tapped into – oh, yeah, mid-‘80s commercial pop. They were dealing with studios at the time that had just started getting really heavy usage of synthesizers, beyond the ‘70s keyboard aspect, and were synthesizing bass, and using electronic drums, but still struggling to keep a live band feel.

So we honed in on records like, I’m a big fan of Huey Lewis and the News. That Sports album has a good balance of feeling like a live bar band, but it’s full of slick production, and stuff like that.

Are you going to go into the full American Psycho thing right now with Huey Lewis and the News’ Sports? 

James: You’re the first person that has called me on that!

I’ve been playing with Huey Lewis in every single interview, and I’m like, I know I just sound like American Psycho.

There was a Patrick Bateman feel to what was about to happen here. 

James: Yeah, there’s something there for me to look at. I’ll bring it up with my therapist, but yeah, I love that record.

And of course, Cindy Lauper, She’s So Unusual.

John’s really big into Phil Collins, a few of his records from the same era.

That’s where that ‘80s stuff came in – like, yeah, there’s a way to bridge the gap here.

I would even say, at the end of the day we didn’t make a strictly ‘80s record, but that was a helpful production area for us to go to in order to keep these songs all vibin’, because I do think all these songs, even for the different genres, are kind of pop rock, indie rock. There’s hooks, and there’s choruses. That’s why we went with the ‘80s that was a little more commercial, rather than like some of the cool new wave shit. We were like, hey, we’re going down the middle, you know, rock n roll.

So you haven’t walked into a guitar center, and asked about a keytar? 

James: It really would work for us, wouldn’t it? Damn. Yeah, if I could get my hands on one, I would.

Now, I know there’s a baseball fandom in this room. I would like to know which player would you most like to see use a Gamblers song as their walk up, or warm up music, and which song would you want them to use? 

Johnny: Darryl Strawberry, “Running From My Grave.”

Wow. He just beat a heart attack, so that’s kinda perfect. Now that we’ve covered my Mets, is there a Yankees player any of you would want to see use a Gamblers song? 

Michael: Maybe Andy Pettitte coming out to “Pulverizer,” because he’s going to pulverize the starting lineup of the opposing team.

How would you compare the heartbreak of a breakup with the heartbreak your baseball team can cause you? 

Michael: Oh, man. I guess I have a longer relationship with the Yankees.

Listen, I was spoiled. This is how used to winning I was – in 2000, during the subway series, the Yankees lost one game. They lost the middle game. They won the first two, then they lost one, then they won the second two. The one game that they lost, I cried in the shower the next morning. I was bawling tears because they lost one game in the subway series, which they went on to win.

Unfortunately, they did go on to win. I was there for Game 5. 



So I understand that I was spoiled growing up because growing up in the ‘90s was, you know, the time for them.

My father was a big Mickey Mantle guy. He even met him, but my dad would always talk about how terrible they were when he was young, so it comes in waves.

But your baseball team, they’re kind of always there for you.

Look, the 2004 ALCS, I’d probably rather go through a breakup than deal with that again.

James: I just want to add into the sports convo, I’m not a sports fan, so I’m just gonna pick my favorite drag queen, Trixie Mattel, to come out to … did we already say “Running From My Grave”? Yeah, that was for Darryl.

This is the only time in history Darryl Strawberry, and Trixie Mattel will be in the same thought process. 

James: {laughs} OK, well, then I’ll keep it.

By the way, I just realized if John’s train gets hijacked we’re all going to see it as it’s going on, but we won’t hear a thing. We’ll just see the picture. 

James: My God, it’ll be like watching Under Siege 2 on mute.

Closing things on a more serious note, Michael, you and I both have at least temporarily cheated death, with your accident and me being a cancer survivor, so I’m wondering if you’ve dealt with any sort of survivor’s guilt, because I know I’ve experienced it. 

Michael: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I saw a child be put on a stretcher who then I found out died.

You know, there’s no rhyme or reason.

What if I wasn’t going to the store?

I was on my way back from my studio, and I was going to the grocery store. What if I wasn't going to the grocery store? I could have been in the middle lane. I probably would have been in the middle lane. But the point is – what’s the rhyme or reason behind that?

I had also been speaking to one of my partners at my studio. We were leaving a session, and for whatever reason we didn’t get in the car right away, and leave. We ended up talking for like a half hour, just about the goings on of whatever we were dealing with, which was not typically common. So why did we choose to spend 30 minutes when I could have, you know … if I got in the car 30 minutes earlier, like I would have on a normal day, I wouldn’t have been at the accident.

So you play all those scenes in your mind, and I mean, I look totally fine, and for the most part, I am, but I did have a concussion, a tear in my shoulder, and I have a tear in my back. At the end of the day, though, you can’t compare that to any of the serious injuries that happened in the accident.

When I’m driving in the car, I do have PTSD about it. When I’m sitting at a red light … I’m jittery. I’m anticipating an impact, or I’m anticipating my windows blowing out. It’s definitely crazy.

But yeah, especially in an accident like mine where so many innocent people had their lives ripped away from them for no fucking reason, including young people, it’s tough.


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