Clutch is serious business. Just a casual glance at their album titles – Pure Rock Fury, The Elephant Riders, Blast Tyrant – suggests a white-knuckled grip on real rock’s bucking energy. Then, press play and they leap upon one with the certainty and speed of a jungle cat – eyes fixed, teeth sharp, muscles rippling. Since the early 90s, this Maryland-born quartet has done things their way, resonating powerfully with the primal energies of fundamental masters like Sabbath, MDC, Skynyrd and Muddy Waters. Clutch oozes the same kind of baseline rightness and raised fist authority as these touchstones. And nearly 20 years on, based on the crackling evidence of this year’s Live at the 9:30 DVD (released May 11 on the band’s own Weathermaker Music), they’ve only gotten stronger and more richly individual since they bolted out of the gate.
Evolution and experimentation have been constants in Clutch. The growth and tenacity of their instincts keep pushing things along, where their latest studio album, 2009’s Strange Cousins From The West, is far and away their bravest, most resounding work yet. It’s a hopeful sign and speaks to a general philosophy in the band that there’s always more to be done, more places they might improve.
“There’s no rulebook. There are bands that are there to rehash what’s come before, and there are great ones at it like The Ramones. They did The Ramones thing and if they tried to detour from that people screamed bloody murder. But I think if we did another version of Strange Cousins From The West Clutch fans would be upset,” says Neil Fallon (vocals, guitar). “This band, for whatever reason, it’s taken us a lot longer to arrive at the sound we have because it’s never been discussed. It’s just a perpetual work in progress.”
Rock ‘n’ roll, in the classic style of the 60s/70s, was a wide-open genre that hungrily drew from every other genre, and then gave it colorful, swinging balls. While this idea has been somewhat lost in the iTunes classification mentality of the new century, Clutch drags one back to when rock was as much about an open-minded mentality and charged attitude as it was any particular flavor of notes.
“Probably a lot of it has to do with the younger players needing to be part of a genre, be it metal or the Top 40 punk rock thing that happens all the time now. People so much want to be part of that genre and sound and look like people in that genre,” observes drummer JP Gaster. “When I first started seeing shows, I’d already missed all the Hendrixes and the Creams, but I got to see punk rock shows. That was real energy there seeing bands like Fugazi or Bad Brains. These were bands you might call punk rock or hardcore, but just to call a band like Bad Brains ‘punk’ is a disservice. The music they made was cosmic. To this day, that stuff is as riveting as Mahavishnu Orchestra and as heavy as any John Coltrane song or as soulful as any Robert Johnson song. Those are really powerful pieces of music. They called it punk rock but it goes back to that more open-minded kind of thinking.”
Unlike many jaded fucks in bands, Clutch seems to dig the nuts ‘n’ bolts behind making music, the work of it that puts grease under your nails. They are in many respects the definition of a working rock band in the best sense of the phrase.
“One of the things that’s helped us stay together is everybody in the band still wants to learn – to play their instruments better, to learn more about music – and eventually that’s going to be incorporated into your playing. If you’re of the opinion that you’re satisfied with your musical abilities and the music you’re playing then it’s game over. That’s like a kill screen. I don’t see where the adventure is in that,” says Fallon. “One of the joys of working on a record is you don’t know what it will be. You apply those skills you’ve learned – sometimes unintentionally – and you have the joy of discovering something, especially when it’s a communal thing because it never goes exactly as one person intends.”
“Because of the way songs are born, there’s a lot more emphasis on the concept behind it,” says Gaster. “We’ll have a riff or a groove, but a lot of times these are ideas that have come together over the course of a year or more.”
“There’s been so many instances where I’ve written a riff, John-Paul listens to it and he’ll start playing a beat but he’s completely changed the one around. Where I thought the one was gonna be, he heard it differently. Sometimes it’s worth hashing out, but more often it self-corrects itself,” continues Fallon, touching on the healthy friction point inside a lot of great music. “When things are perfectly in tune and things are all synched up, it’s not that interesting. A lot of beauty in art in general is in the imperfections. Perfection is incredibly boring and dead.”
This band surely likes some mess on their thing. As disciplined as Fallon, Gaster, Tim Sult (guitar) and Dan Maines (bass) sound, there’s always the sneaking sense that everything could fly off the rails and kill every bystander if they gave their inner wildness free rein. It’s an exciting tension slathered with disappointed devils, ham radio squawking dissidents and suburban shoguns. Their rugged forthrightness and sonic flexibility has made the band fans amongst a wide spectrum of listeners – metalheads, punks, jam band kids, prog nerds who like it heavy, classic rockers. Clutch doesn’t fit neatly into any one of them, but offers something worthwhile to each.
“The range of fans is definitely surprising, and it continues to grow. There’s all kinds of people in the audience these days – every genre of what you’d call rock ‘n’ roll represented – and we’ve got all ages and whole families coming now,” says Gaster. “It’s so much fun to be up onstage playing and there’s a 5-year-old or 7-year-old standing there in front, keeping time or playing along. That means a lot. That makes an impression. One way or another, you’re going to speak to that kid that night and he’s going to remember that. And hopefully he’s going to come back and see more shows.”
“We always had the philosophy that we’ll play in front of anybody. We never said we don’t want to open for that band because we might pollute our fan base with their fans, which is pretty arrogant of any band to do,” says Fallon. “Early on we played hardcore shows because they were the easiest gigs to get. Your usual hardcore promoter isn’t often the most discerning A&R rep. We played [legendary Berkeley punk club] Gilman Street once, and we were selling t-shirts for maybe $7 dollars and 7-inches for $3, and we got accused of trying to capitalize on people and being greedy and sell-outs. Really? And this coming from a guy who gets picked up by his mom in a Volvo. A lot of punk bands are like strange, eccentric artists who’ve found patronage amongst the royalty. They put themselves on a pedestal. But I’m getting off topic now [laughs].”
The lack of a clearly stated objective has allowed for this wide-open audience, who each attach to different aspects in their ever-shifting sound. There’s a lot of ways to enjoy this band and no judgments about what aspects one chooses to focus on.
“I didn’t really realize until the past five or so years, but one of the biggest influences on this band was Fugazi. Maybe not musically so much, but I saw a lot of Fugazi shows and with that band it was all about the music. There was no light show; sometimes it was just florescent lights in a terrible hall. And there was no image. It was almost like a negative of what a band is supposed to do,” says Fallon. “We didn’t consciously adopt that philosophy but it definitely brushed off on us. You don’t have to go on tour and bring your own goddamn smoke machine. Just bring your guitars, a map and a credit card and you’ll be alright.”
“When you try to advertise yourself – dress in a certain way and such – it’s a marketing thing. We are this kind of band because we are wearing this and you already know what we sound like. That really trivializes the music,” continues Fallon. “I’m glad that over the years I can come back into clubs we played 20 years ago and they have promo pictures of us on the wall and there’s not one promo picture where I think, ‘Goddamn, why was I wearing that?’ I know there are plenty of bands that look at their promo picture from 1993 and go, ‘Oh shit!’ It wasn’t intentional on our parts, just a happy accident it worked out that way, one of the unintentional benefits of being a lazy dresser.”
This bare bones, music first attitude is apparent on Live at the 9:30, which features an end-to-end performance of Clutch’s fan-adored self-titled album from 1995, and the accompanying documentary Fortune Tellers Make A Killing Nowadays. The concert, captured at a regular Washington, D.C. haunt, offers a charged reminder that the germ of what they would grow into was already present in their early work. This set is a clarion announcement that even in utero one should never go into any Clutch record with too many expectations.
“That’s probably for the best,” chuckles Gaster. “We’re embraced in San Francisco and Austin – cities that like weird stuff. When we started this band the intention was never to make a million dollars. The fact that we can make a few bucks off our records these days is incredible. But you have to put out something people really want. These days, albums come out with just one or two good songs and that’s it. That’s pretty frustrating, and we really make a point of putting out good albums in the classic sense with good packing that you can read along with or check out the imagery on as it plays.”
Clutch has gained even more control over their output and destiny in the past couple years by launching their own label. After years of bouncing around labels, both major and independent, the band now decides when and what comes out.
“Record labels like Atlantic and Columbia are in the business of selling platinum records. A gold record is a failure in the CEOs’ minds. We’re not that band,” says Fallon. “Sometimes something unexpected like Nirvana happens, and every record label wants to drop all their bands and pick up any band that remotely resembles Nirvana. We got caught up in that huge wave of record labels looking for ‘another one.’ They’ll sign 50 of them knowing 49 of them will be dropped but that 50th one will pay for that a hundredfold. That business model that they use hasn’t changed. It’s been the same since the 1960s. But because of the Internet and incessant touring we can reach the fans and cut out all of the unnecessary middlemen and middle-women and middle-processes, album cycle psychology and that nonsense and put out our own records. It’s pretty liberating. It’s financially more lucrative than being on a major record label because you’re not borrowing money from someone. And it’s just nice to know we can put a record or go on tour when we want to.”
“In the 90s half the battle with labels was because they couldn’t get our music played on radio. Even when we worked with producers and tried to make music designed to be played on the radio it never sounded like the other music on the radio [laughs]. But we tried!” exclaims Gaster. “At the end of the day, we just sound like Clutch, and I think that was frustrating for the people at labels and probably alienated us from 90-percent of rock radio. There were always a few guys in each town who really championed the band and did the best they could but still to this day, there’s no real radio to speak of.”
The reissues of earlier releases and the gorgeously packaged Strange Cousins reflect a real respect for their fans and care in the overall presentation of their music, adding in fascinating graphics, bonus tracks and other value-added dimensions that make a real difference to dedicated followers.
“We definitely wanted to do something that shows this is a real thing, and we wanted to make it a little better than the DRT releases just out of spite [laughs]. With DRT, on paper, that was supposed to be a 50/50 deal and they stopped paying us. We went to court and got the masters back. But for years they were so dysfunctional it was like we didn’t have a label anyway. So, it wasn’t that much of a leap to do it ourselves since we were already doing so much ourselves,” explains Fallon. “It baffles me to this day that bands brag about multi-album deals with Bumfuck Records. Oh really? By choice you chose to do that? Okay, if you think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. People talk about [putting out their own music] as if it’s this mysterious thing, but it’s really not that hard if you get the right people involved and you’re willing to do a bit more work. Like anything else, if you’re willing to do a bit more work then you get a bit more reward.”
With any luck, Weathermaker will also provide a platform for Clutch’s instrumental alter-ego The Bakerton Group, where the foursome is joined by Opeth keyboardist Per Wiberg. Bakerton lets out even more of the funk in their bloodstream as well as exposing much buried jazz tendencies. More than anything, Bakerton is a sandbox without rules for these veterans.
“Truth be told, JP, Tim and Dan write more music than I could ever write lyrics to. I am definitely the slowest one in the caravan. For every one riff or song I’ve written, there’s a dozen others I haven’t,” says Fallon. “Instead of throwing these things away, [The Bakerton Group] is an outlet to put the music out regardless. And when you stop thinking of a song as intro/verse one/pre-chorus/chorus/verse two/pre-chorus/chorus/bridge/chorus it becomes a much more challenging animal. It’s also music for music’s sake. I think sometimes people get confused and ask, ‘Why the hell would you do this when you already have a band?’ Well, it’s not about having a band; it’s about making music together and it’s fun.”
“Per is fantastic. He’s a good friend of ours who we’ve known for a lot of years. What a monster player Per is! He’s really a lot of fun to be around,” says Gaster. “[Opeth] is serious business. When they get up there and play their thing it’s a completely unique experience. Just to call it metal does it an injustice. Those guys transcend so many genres and cover so many bases, even in one 7-10 minute song.”
While known to many as a formidable live act, Clutch treat their studio work with equal seriousness, finding a rare balance between the two.
“It’s always fun to make new songs. We’ll finish up a tour that was a month or six weeks long and we take a week or two off. And then right away we’re getting back together to jam on new ideas,” says Gaster. “We rehearse at my house. I have a little home studio here, so we keep things mic’d up all the time. We get together in the afternoon to jam up stuff – a riff or two, a concept and how those parts might come together – and then record it right away. Then a lot of times we don’t listen back to it for months at a time. We’ll do that 2-3 times a week during breaks from tours and before you know it there are 50 riffs sitting around to cherry-pick and cannibalize. Neil is really good about coming over with stuff that’s almost a completed song and we might have a riff that will go along with it from a previous jam. It’s very fun and fluid the way things come together. There’s no rules.”
It’s rare for a band that’s been around for decades to be producing better and stronger work all the time, especially when their early catalogue is pretty outstanding. Clutch is a happy exception to the rule, consistently forging ahead without worrying too much about regurgitating any prior glories.
“A lot of bands try to live in that [earlier] time and try to get back to that energy. That’s a very difficult thing to do, and I don’t think we ever really tried to do that on any of our records. I think we knew that whatever mindset we were in was of that time, and every record is a different stage in the band’s development, and I think we try to embrace that more than anything,” says Gaster. “That’s what keeps it fun. If you’re always trying to make that song you did 10 years ago, it’s not fun. If we did that I think we would have quit a long time ago. That’s not challenging for us.”
The blues have been emerging in a striking, original way on recent Clutch albums, particularly Strange Cousins, which brings them back to crossroads way far away from the too-clean Robert Cray-esque tone of most contemporary electric blues. With Clutch, the blues feel dangerous again.
“We listen to a lot of blues music but we don’t ever try to play a straight-up 12-bar blues in a traditional way. And if we did try, it’s still going to sound like us. We’ve been playing together so long it’s hard for us to not sound like ourselves,” says Gaster. “At the end of the day we really are the culmination of four different voices.”
The bare bones nature of Clutch – just four guys making a holy/unholy racket – is fundamentally appealing – rock ‘n’ roll at its purest – and anyone prepared to throw down with them is in for a beautiful bruising.