By: Dennis Cook
The past 20 years have produced no better rock band than Clutch. A bold, blunt statement but 'bold' and 'blunt' are two things Clutch excels at. Yes, there are a handful of great bands that reside in the same line, but in terms of rock's key fundamentals – real craftsmanship, a rebellious undertow, a boogie addled soul, an unabashed willingness to speak truth to power, a love of volume and electricity – Clutch has it locked down and has continued to evolve in fascinating ways with every album and tour. The force and quality of what they do is a sound to crush the lazy and distracted with profound focus & broad dynamics. Heavy and subtle, complex and brute force, Clutch is simply mighty rock 'n' roll kung-fu.
The name of the band's website kind of sums it up: www.pro-rock.com. They approach everything they do with a respect for the music and their fans that's positively inspiring, which has garnered a deeply fierce core fan base since they hurled out of the gate in the early 1990s. One can hear their evolution very clearly in their recorded work, but the psychic pimp slap of what they do is felt most immediately in the live arena. Without flash pots or smoke, Clutch seizes a hall and grips it tightly for as long as they occupy the stage.
One can check out a pretty dandy approximation of the experience on the band's new DVD Live at the 9:30 (released May 11 on the band's own Weathermaker Music), which captures a performance at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club, where Clutch played their entire 1995 self-titled album bookended by prime live staples. Neil Fallon (vocals, guitar), Dan Maines (bass), Tim Sult (guitar) and Jean-Paul Gaster (drums) simmer and grind in a really winning way throughout the concert, which is captured in an unobtrusive way that scoops up the energy and vibe of live Clutch without trying to turn these brainy blue-collar road warriors into video vixens. And the live disc is accompanied by the homegrown documentary Fortune Tellers Make A Killing Nowadays, which gathers insights from fans and band members as they snake around the States.
"It's a rare and fortunate thing we have. A lot of things can go wrong, by one's own doing or fate just deals a sour hand. But because we're friends first and a band second that made it easy. No one was looking at the band as the stepping-stone to a band that might get them success or that kind of mindset," says Neil Fallon. "With the best bands, the sum is always greater than the parts. If people aren't focused on the same thing, it becomes apparent that it's four musicians instead of a cohesive unit. I'm glad we never really had to talk about what kind of band we wanted to be. I'm sure that's a pretty awkward conversation [laughs]."
The members of Clutch have been playing with each other since high school in different variations, "mostly bad hardcore bands," according to JP Gaster. Unlike many bands pushing in on their 20th anniversary – August of 2011 – Clutch has seen no lineup change from the original quartet. Everyone is still on the same adventure, and that commitment shows in Clutch's music and general demeanor.
"When we got together properly in 1993 it was a bit more focused, but even back then it was never the intention to make a career out of playing music. More than anything, we just enjoyed playing shows and making records, and we never thought what we would do would actually support ourselves, let alone families. And the music was never intended to do that from the beginning," says Gaster. "Our favorite music was always the stuff you weren't hearing on radio, the bands that weren't popular. So, we never really tried to make a career out of it. It just happened very naturally."
Actually, Clutch did it the old fashioned way with sweat and muscle on the road and an almost vulgar commitment to serving their vision in the studio. Add in a great deal of respect for their listeners and you've got the prime ingredients for sustainable longevity.
|Clutch in concert|
"We get out and we play 100-percent. We play the hardest we can, and it doesn't matter what the size of the venue. We could be playing in front of a 100 people or we could be in front of 25,000 and the intention is the same. We're there to play as best we can and as hard as we can," says Gaster. "We always make an effort to keep things as fresh as possible. The good thing about being in this band is there's a lot of points in the set to do different things and stretch. We can do the blues or funk or a dub thing, and all these things are very much in the moment. We're not just going through the motions. We're really playing and trying to make a good concert for everybody. Something that simple is refreshing to people. There's not a lot of bands that just get up there and play balls-out rock 'n' roll."
In Clutch's music one hears the swirl of rusty string blues, true psychedelic fervor and 60s modal jazz sparring with the sharp, true edge of musician-wise punk rock like Bad Brains and Fugazi and the sweeping, massive whomp of Black Sabbath and other pioneering hard rockers. Rather than simplify, Clutch complicates beautifully.
"These days, a kid says he wants to be in a metal band, his perspective on metal is what happened in the last three years," says Gaster. "There's no really going back and seeing where this music came from, its history, and there's not a lot of experimentation. A lot of people just don't have the time or energy to go back and study those kick ass old records."
Live, Clutch is like one powerful, flexed muscle onstage, the strength of what they do coming from a collective place. This vibe comes through in their studio work, too, but in concert with the amps up high and the music unfolding right in front of you it's impossible to miss.
"As far as studio and live, I've come to the conclusion that albums, even vinyl records, are a new invention. It's a very new phenomenon to have recorded music. Live performance goes back tens of thousands of years, and there's a deep psychological need or ritual that we can only get live," says Fallon. "Maybe it's because it's a very fleeting, temporal thing that will only happen in that manner that one time, whereas recordings are just dead. They're just artifacts. As much as I love records, ultimately there's only so much information in them."
Clutch taps into the primal, communal urge to gather around a fire and beat sticks against the earth and dance and scream at the heavens.
"Live music is pretty primitive in some ways. You can go anywhere in the world – Australia, Berlin or right here in Rock Island, Illinois – and when the lights go down and the music goes up, it's virtually identical. Geographic distance disappears. It's a shared language in a lot of ways," says Fallon. "Lately, I've heard bands bemoaning the fact that they have to go out and tour and work to make money. Straight up, fuck you! Frankly, it pisses me off. To act like you're doing someone a favor by playing music or it's your cross to bear is so ridiculous. What would you rather be doing? If you have an opportunity to make a living playing music that's the golden ring. That's all you can really hope for."
However, being a hard touring band isn't without its downsides.
"It's real easy to focus on the one kid giving you the finger or screaming, 'You suck!' It suddenly washes out the other thousand people that are bobbing their heads. So, I always try to keep in mind that often when people watch someone onstage they feel like they're watching TV. It is annoying but you can't always preach to your choir," says Fallon. "[The live experience] is definitely mutual and reciprocal; it goes back and forth. There's definitely a camaraderie amongst Clutch fans you won't get at a stadium band. I'm not saying I don't want more people to come our shows but I also love that people aren't coming to see us for shits 'n' giggles."
Back To The 9:30
Live at the 9:30 works as a fine primer in the Clutch live experience, where the band has operated in a pretty fearless manner throughout their career, embracing the moment and not worrying too much about perfection or polish.
"It took us a long time to warm up to cameras. It immediately made us self-conscious about what we were doing. The best shows are when you forget that you're playing and the music flows right through you. But Agent Ogden, who directed [Live at the 9:30], had a really good gauge of our personalities and didn't try to be too oppressive," says Fallon. "That particular show, where we do our self-titled record from beginning to end, we rehearsed once the night before in Boston. When we realized we had a decent take, we never did it again, probably because it was too much like work trying to reproduce parts instead of the open book a jam lends itself to."
On revisiting the self-titled record, Gaster says, "It was a lot of years since we'd revisited a lot of that material – 'Droid,' '7 Jam' and even 'Rock N' Roll Outlaws.' It was interesting to listen back to a record I made 15 years ago and try to get myself back into that mindset and figure out where some of that stuff was coming from. It was definitely a fun exercise. I don't think we played exactly like the record, and that's probably for the best. In a lot of ways, I think we're better players than back then, but those songs are still really fun to play, every one of them."
"When we talked about [playing a whole record live] that was the only one we could think of doing where we wouldn't feel upset about a song. When I listen to some of the records I can hear a thousand shoulda-coulda-wouldas," says Fallon. "It was a really interesting exercise because I don't normally listen to our records too much. I'm too busy looking forward. Listening to [the self-titled album] I was surprised by things, and of course, critical of others. I think we played it better live than we did in the studio. It was definitely like reading a high school diary entry [laughs]. What seemed so important and crucial then just makes you scratch your head now and think, 'Dumbass!' You get the luxury of hindsight. You cringe at some parts but hopefully that's because you've grown."
While the play-a-whole-album thing is becoming more commonplace on the concert circuit, it's still a gift and thank you to longtime fans to breathe fresh air into a friendly old soul.
"We don't take it for granted," says Gaster with clear sincerity. "If there was one record we were going to play in its entirety, it's this one. For us, we really found our sound on that album. For us, it was a breakthrough record and I think we made the songs in a way that we felt came together very naturally. It wasn't about trying to pummel people with some sort of heavy vibe or doom people out. I think we really found our own voice on that recording."
Anthrax, Ham Radio And Liquor
One area Clutch gets short changed is their lyrics, which are often bizarre, almost always opaque and rife with possible interpretations. They sometimes have the sharp tipped brevity of good punk or blues but also range into Captain Beefheart/Zappa territory. Politics are a definite subtext but I challenge anyone to pin down exactly what's being shouted from the bully pulpit. More briefly, when Neil Fallon opens his mouth interesting shit tumbles out.
"Early on I related to a lot of hip-hop acts because I wasn't concerned with singing. It was very rhythmical, and I loved people like Chuck D and Tom Waits for that matter," says Fallon. "If you can tell a short story in the space of a song, it can last forever because when people listen to it they're always going to put in their own two-cents and subjective opinions. I don't ever have an answer to what a song is truly about. I just know it sounds like it is about something. I provide to enough specifics that people can sink their teeth into it, but not so specific that it's a static thing."
"Any song is a license to lie, as you would in a short story. No one can tell you that you can't write about something," continues Fallon. "When people see someone up onstage screaming, they tend to think they're like that all day, but nothing could be further from the truth because I have the luxury of doing that for an hour and a half every day. Society accepts that kind of madness. I think it's part of the reason people go to shows, to experience that luminism for 90 minutes. There's an element of escapism to the lyrics but not in a way that ever tries to pass itself off as real."
One reoccurring thread in the Clutch songbook is tunes related to Abraham Lincoln in some way.
"The initial interest started when we were doing our early shows at the 9:30 Club in [Washington], D.C. The club shares an alley with Ford's Theatre. At one end of the alley is the bricked up window they say [John Wilkes] Booth jumped out of and broke his leg before getting on his horse and riding away. At the other end of the alley is the Hoover FBI Building. I used to sit back there and sneak beers and bug out on that," says Fallon. "Then, oddly enough, when we went to do the 'A Shogun Named Marcus' video, it was on a farm in Maryland where they captured George Atzerodt, who was assigned to kill Lincoln's Vice-President. They captured him in the house you can see in that video."
"So, Lincoln was always popping up on the radar unintentionally," continues Fallon. "Growing up in Washington, D.C., I'm kind of blind to the monuments, but as I got older and showed out-of-towners the sights I was struck by the Lincoln Memorial. It's kind of wild. It's a Greek temple to a god, and it's not that long ago. In terms of history, 1864 is yesterday. America is a brightly burning star. I'm not an America basher, but being an American I feel obligated to be a critic – as I think any artist should be."
The longer Clutch goes on the more independent they become. The band has run their own label for a few years and has slowly been regaining their back catalog from its various label homes and reissuing the albums in great expanded editions that gather up b-sides, live cuts and more in thoughtful packaging. It is but one sign of many that there's no one besides Clutch calling the shots for this band today.
"It really is very empowering. From the inception of the band, the labels were always kind of a headache for us," says Gaster. "Whether we were on an independent or major label or one of those between labels, those people are in the business of making money off your records. That's all well and good, and in the best situations, you can strike a balance but more likely than not it's not gonna happen."
"The most frustrating thing about the 90s for us was jumping from one major label to another. These people would see we'd sell 100,000 records and tour pretty relentlessly, but they never could put the equation together," continues Gaster. "They'd look at us and the numbers and think, 'We, being Superstar Records Number One, can make them a million seller.' So, somebody would sign us to their label and inevitably within a few weeks of release they'd realize, 'This is not easy music to work. There's not much of a gimmick here and just look at these guys!' And then we'd be back to square one again where the label wasn't willing to do much of anything, be it getting records into stores or promote a bit more or even make another record. We'd go three years between records, which was very frustrating. In those days it seemed like people would actually fight you if you tried to do anything creative. Having Weathermaker, our own label, is fantastic. All those headaches are gone. We're able to make the records we want to make, whenever we want to make 'em. I think we've made more money off Weathermaker in two years than we've ever seen in our entire careers from royalties."
Perhaps more than anything else, Clutch has maintained their musical curiosity despite wrestling with the industry for close to 20 years. One hears them stretch backwards and forwards in time to create a present sound that's alive, searching and gutbucket real. They haven't lost a driving desire to do something different with their instruments or with one another, and the music crackles with these intentions.
"We try to keep it fresh and as exciting as we can. I try to practice with my drums everyday and think about my drums everyday. I study as much as I can, and I try to listen to as much music as I can, and I know the other guys do too," says Gaster, who embodies his band's confidence in the face of the competition. "Oh, I'm not worried about other bands [laughs]."
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