Clutch

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

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Polly Glass

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.

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