Are Clutch the best band in rock today? Many would say yes, including those who voted Book Of Bad Decisions the best album of 2018 in Classic Rock. We caught up with the band to talk about Nothing, mosquitoes “the size of small birds” and the importance o
We caught up with the band whose Book Of Bad Decisions was voted the best album of 2018 in Classic Rock, to talk about Nothing, mosquitoes “the size of small birds” and the importance of humour.
Back in the mid-90s, down a back road in Arizona, a stoner punk band called Clutch found Nothing. Not ‘nothing’ in a figurative, band-has-big-existential-crisis sense, but a tiny ghost town called Nothing. They were chugging through the West between remote gigs, in a van prone to breakdowns, and wound up next to an old sign. It read: ‘Welcome to Nothing where we have nothing, believe nothing and ask nothing’.
The band drove in cautiously and found the Nothing, Arizona Art Museum, essentially a barn with a big stack of papers, crayons and thumb tacks; pictures drawn by passers-by were tacked all over the walls and ceiling.
“It was filled with Arizona sunlight and dust, and all these papers were kinda fluttering in the wind,” Clutch singer/lyrical mastermind Neil
Fallon recalls. “And there was no one there. It was just this ghost town. So we did leave our little piece of art there. I’ve looked for it on a map [since then] and I can’t find it. But I have seen online that it wasn’t a fever dream, and this place does actually exist. I kinda like the idea that I couldn’t find it again. It’s sort of like the Brigadoon of the American West.”
Such were the early days of Clutch, when Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster weren’t thinking too hard about the future, and just wanted to rock.
This was a world of 4am blow-outs on derelict highways, surrounded by mosquitoes “the size of small birds”, and bizarre scenes in 24-hour diners.
“It’s always really strange, sort of like a David Lynch movie,” Fallon says. “I remember years ago we were at some diner, thinking this place looks like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. It was two at the bar, they’d just closed, everyone was still drunk, we were the odd ones out, and I just kept that image in my back pocket for years.”
Fast-forward to 2018, and it crops up in the song H.B. Is In Control on Clutch’s twelfth album, Book Of Bad Decisions. But for years Fallon shied away from writing about personal experience. The sci-fi worlds of sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick, the dystopian landscapes of Cormac McCarthy, and all the art galleries he’s walked round over the years (in times of writer’s block) always seemed to offer more exciting inspiration. Lately, however, something has changed.
“I realised that after about twenty-five-plus years there’s this untapped reservoir of stories that you can make interesting with a liberal helping of poetic licence,” he explains. “And usually with time, looking back the facts get blurred, and that helps exaggerate things to some degree. We’re not trying to write an autobiography here, so we can get away with that.”
There are many ways to approach a band with as much history and (for want of a less imperious term) ‘substance’ as Clutch. Today they’re a rock-centred prospect, compared with the stoner vibes and fiery punk of their earlier records, but you’ll still find layers of funk, punk, metal and more stirred into their monolithic grooves. This hearty but enigmatic modus operandi has led to a number of descriptions and labels. By turns they’re the four high-school buddies who turned a hobby into an almost 30-year career; the hard-touring road dogs raised on DC hardcore and Go-Go music; the affable nerds who’ll listen to bebop, Muddy Waters, Funkadelic and the Allman Brothers as readily as hard rock; the self-starters who left the major-label world to start all over again, on their own terms (and their own label, Weathermaker); the least rock-star-like guys in rock, with the no-bullshit riffs; the smartest guys in rock, with the freakiest songs…
The best band in rock today? In the eyes of many, yes. And looking at the evidence it’s not hard to see why. To quote Classic Rock’s review of Book Of Bad Decisions, “Clutch don’t make bad albums.” They’ve played all that record’s songs on tour since its release in September. They boast one of the most loyal fan-bases in rock, albums in the US and UK charts and increasingly vast sell-out shows – and they’ve done it all without a shred of concern for traditional standards of rock stardom.
“One of the things we learned early on is we don’t have to pander to that idea,” drummer JeanPaul Gaster says. “Our favourite bands were groups like Fugazi, the Melvins; bands that toured clubs, that were not concerned about their look. In my mind all that stuff really came from hair-metal. And when we started playing music you could try to get into the hair-metal wrap, where it seemed like everybody was just trying to get signed, or you could play this thing called hardcore, or alternative, or whatever it turned into, where bands were more concerned with playing shows, making music.”
Given the success of their punchy previous two records (Earth Rocker and Psychic Warfare), it’s saying something that Book Of Bad Decisions is as good as it is. But Clutch don’t do laurel-resting, so they sought a new challenge, and more a of live sound. Where Earth Rocker and Psychic Warfare were precision-produced, in Texas by Lamb Of God producer Machine
(with a lot of “sonic consistency”), Book Of Bad Decisions was cut in Berry Hill, a onesquare-mile artistic community just south of Nashville, heavily populated with studios.
“It’s really a community,” Fallon says, “they swap gear, they call each other up for help… I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
The producer of Book Of Bad Decisions was Tammy Wynette’s former front-of-house guy Vance Powell, who has worked with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Jack White and Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown. His is a production style learned entirely on the road, which filters into the heavy but natural, almost spontaneous feel of Book Of Bad Decisions. Gaster enthuses with likeable geekiness about the snare drum sounds he used to build each song’s character. During the pre-studio writing process, Gaster is the “default documenter,
“Our favourite bands were groups like Fugazi, the Melvins... bands that toured clubs, that were not concerned about their look” Jean-Paul Gaster
recorder and organiser”, and after writing sessions in their Maryland band base/Weathermaker HQ
– a warehouse filled with guitars, amps and vinyl – it’s him who tends to mix the demos in his home studio.
“Vance is really good at giving each song its own musical personality,” the drummer says brightly. “Between us we were able to mould these tonal characters to fit the song. But it was very much an organic kind of a process; it was not premeditated in any way.”
Still, for all the organic looseness involved, Clutch are still one of the tightest bands around. Does that come simply from years of experience, or are they really tough critics of one another?
“We’re very comfortable with the way one another plays,” Gaster muses. “Oftentimes when we’re working on these ideas, there’s very little verbiage. It can be a quiet place in that way. I think often we’re better just communicating through the music. We all sort of instinctively know what one another is going to do, though that’s not to say there’s not surprises.”
Surprises include bright honky-tonk keyboards on Vision Quest and rich Hammond B3 organ elsewhere, played by local friend/Lionize keyboard player Chris Brooks, with whom Gaster does blues gigs from time to time. Oh, and a song about crabcakes, Hot Bottom Feeder, which was conceived in the studio.
“I think Neil had intended to use some completely different lyrics for that song,” Gaster says, laughing, “but the next morning we get into the studio and he said: ‘Look, I’ve got some lyrics but really it’s just my crab-cake recipe.’ And we were like, hell yes, we’re gonna go for that!”
As album tasters began to feed out into the world, first impressions were markedly more ‘real-world’ than their previous records. At a time of fraught political tensions in the USA, first single How To Shake Hands placed Fallon in a fictional presidential campaign – inspired by Ry Cooder’s John Lee Hooker For President. Predictably, everyone thought it was their poke at the current state of affairs in American politics. How much did events in the States impact this record?
“I’m always a little bit weary of that because it dates a song,” Fallon reasons, “but if you paint with broad enough strokes you can make a song go beyond that. I think a song like How To Shake Hands we probably would have written regardless of the environment, because the American electoral process is absurd regardless of what era it is.”
And that’s what a song like this is all about: commenting on the absurdities of an entire system, not taking sides. Clutch know what the people want, and, as Fallon sings, ‘What the people want is straight talk, and no jive’.
“I have my political opinions but I check those at the door,” he says. “All I ask is other people do the same. Everyone pays good money for a ticket, regardless of their political inclinations, but I think it’s our job to kinda transcend that, at least for a few hours out of the day. I think one of the great things about live music is that you forget about life for a while. There’s a couple of hours that you’re in the club, you even kind of forget who you are. I think that’s a healthy thing to do.”
Do you want to forget who you are when you go on stage?
“Sometimes I have to work myself up to it, because I don’t think getting on stage was something that came naturally to me to begin with,” the frontman says, “and every once in a while I’ll have these fits of anxiety where I still feel that way. I think a lot of the things I do on stage are more nervous affectation than anything else, kinda like over-excitement, and I think it has to match the music.”
For Fallon, matching the music means working with storytelling that reaches way beyond exhausted rock clichés. His bookworm tendencies are well-documented, but comedy has had a similarly profound impact over the years. He describes Bill Hicks as “just as much a philosopher as a comedian”, and speaks thoughtfully about the parallels between that world and his own musical one.
“Lyric writing and comedy both require the creator of those things to be an outside observer, and to be able to remove your biases and see the world from afar, whether it be a fabricated hindsight or trying to see your world from the outside looking in.”
Hicks gets a name-check in How To Shake Hands, and lyrics throughout the Clutch catalogue have long-revelled in humour and absurdity. This can be traced back Fallon’s formative years in Washington state, where as a kid he would listen to late-night “blue comedy” on the radio in secret.
“I saw comedy on TV while growing up, and before that there was an AM radio station called WJOK that played comedy twenty-four-seven, and after ten o’clock that’s when the censor regulations stopped,” he remembers. “I was supposed to be asleep, getting ready for school the next day, and I had my radio under my pillow trying not to let my parents hear me cackling. I think that was probably a big influence on me. [He trails off for a couple of seconds] And it’s actually just now I realise it. I hadn’t thought about WJOK in decades.”
This comedic influence combines with years spent injesting the music of old blues icons such as Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, in addition to the hardcore punk and Latin stars of DC, and much more. It’s all these voices, plus comedians, authors and their own plethora of gonzoid stories that feed the Clutch operation – and make it as commanding and as uncontained by era and genre boundaries as it is.
“Sometimes comedians can just make you cackle because of the absurdity of their material, other times they can really make you think,” Fallon offers. “And you can say the same thing about certain music artists.”
A straight-talking, hard-hitting rock band that can be funny and make you think? Now that’s really something.
“One of the great things about live music is that you forget about life for a while.” Neil Fallon
Book Of Bad Decisions is available now via Weathermaker Music.
Not a band to let the grass grow around their feet: (l to r) Jean-Paul Gaster, Dan Maines, Tim Sult, Neil Fallon.