"I never had it in my head that I would be in a rock band, not by a long shot," says Clutch frontman Neil Fallon. "I think Jean-Paul [Gaster, drums], Tim [Sult, guitars] and Dan [Maines, bass] knew from the get-go they would do this for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, it took a lot more convincing for me." He laughs.
Nearly 20 years have passed since Clutch's first release, 1991's Pitchfork 7-inch, and not only has Fallon been fully convinced of his musical calling but, in the process, the Maryland-based band has amassed a substantial catalog that includes nine studio albums, five live releases, and a handful of EPs. What's more, throughout the '90s, Clutch's hardcore-influenced, groove-heavy riff rock helped define that decade's stoner sound, while in the new millennium, their persistent willingness to expand their style brought them into the realms of traditional down-home blues and far-out psychedelic jams.
While Clutch's recorded sound may be most prominently colored by Sult's mammoth riffs and Fallon's gravelly, booming vocals and surreal, pseudo-social lyrical critiques, the true strength of the band is revealed at Clutch's live shows. Anyone who's witnessed one knows that when all four players lock into a brutal, funky groove—to use a title from one of their own songs—the mob goes wild.
Upon the release of Clutch's ninth full-length, Strange Cousins From the West (Weathermaker), Fallon takes Revolver through the get-ups and get-downs of Clutch's catalog.
Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes, and Undeniable Truths
(East West, 1993)
Upon settling on the name Clutch in August 1991, the band cranked out its debut 7-inch, Pitchfork, that October. Based on the strength of that recording, as well as 1992's Passive Restraints EP, East West offered the band a deal. Clutch delivered Transnational Speedway League a year later, which featured highlights like "A Shogun Named Marcus" and "El Jefe Speaks," and introduced Clutch as one of the premiere groove-heavy alternative bands in post-grunge hard rock.
"We wanted Transnational to sound like the Melvins. So we went to Jonathan Burnside at the Razor's Edge Recording in San Francisco, where they'd done a lot of records. The stuff we recorded there was a lot slower and representative of our early influences, stuff like the Melvins and Swans. But I got burned out at that session pretty quickly and we came back to New York for a second session. That's where we wrote 'A Shogun Named Marcus,' 'Rats,' and 'El Jefe Speaks,' which were faster and had more of a sense of humor. That's when I figured out how to keep going, at least lyrically speaking. I discovered that I could just make stuff up and tell a story. Whereas the more emotional stuff was going to be difficult to sustain, unless I planned to be in a bad mood for the next 20 years."
(East West, 1995)
With one album under their belt, Clutch were more confident when they entered Silver Spring, Maryland's Uncle Punchy Studios in December 1994 to record their self-titled sophomore album. Clutch's songwriting was also more self-assured and reflected the band members' recent rediscovery of the classic rock that inspired their youth. Tracks like the build-and-release jam "Spacegrass" and riff-tastic "Big News II" helped Clutch to become the band's best-selling album to date, as well as what is widely considered to be one of the high points of '90s stoner rock.
"Prior to this album, we were listening to a lot of metal and hardcore, like Prong, Bad Brains, and Cro-Mags. Then we rediscovered classic rock, which added more swing, more riffs, and less power chords to our music. Back then I was learning a lot about rock and roll, too, discovering bands like Cactus, Leaf Hound, and Captain Beyond. This album reflects my absorption of a lot of those influences. We were also really coming into our own on this album. You have stuff like 'Big News I,' which was a watershed moment for us, and 'Spacegrass,' which we loved because it was so different. I remember the atmosphere the first couple times we played 'Spacegrass' live. There were a lot of middle fingers and people with their arms crossed looking at us like, Oh great, this is Clutch's Spinal Tap space-odyssey moment. [Laughs] That song was the first of many of those installments."
The Elephant Riders
Based on their rising grassroots popularity—as well as the major labels' increasingly desperate search for the next Nirvana—Clutch landed a Columbia Records deal. But with nu-metal quickly becoming the new hot genre, Clutch often found themselves, to their dismay, lumped in with the rap-rocking backward-cap crowd. All this amounted to a bittersweet time for the band. While Clutch had an inflated budget to play around with for The Elephant Riders, along with it came new levels of label expectations, meddling, and accountability. The worst of it came when the band wrote and recorded this regionally inspired album in its then-hometown in rural West Virginia only for label brass to reject it. They then forced Clutch to re-record the entire thing under their watchful eye in New York with prominent classic-rock producer Jack Douglas (The Who, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith).
"It was a great luxury to go to New York and record with Jack Douglas, but at the same time it wasn't the easiest record to make because of [the label's] involvement. It's embarrassing to think about how much money [Columbia] dumped into this record. It wasn't even money in our pockets! That's not to say I don't like the record; it's just I associate it with things that the listener doesn't.
On a positive note, [the concept of this record] came when we were living in West Virginia around Harper's Ferry, which is an area inundated with Civil War history. I wanted to get into that but not have it come across as being a history lesson. Originally I had drawn a picture of a Civil War guy on the back of a brontosaurus, and I had even done Civil War/dinosaur lyrics. But it turns out a lot of those dinosaurs' names have too many syllables. [Laughs] So we settled on elephants. After the fact, someone asked me if I was inspired by the movie The King And I. I've never seen it but apparently there's a reference about the King of Siam offering Abraham Lincoln elephants to use in the Civil War, which was actually based on true events. But I hadn't known any of that. I [arrived at it by] complete accident."
(River Road, 1999)
After being summarily dismissed from Columbia ("They're still trying to recoup everything they put into The Elephant Riders," says Fallon with a laugh), Clutch regrouped and refocused on 1999's Jam Room. Released independently on River Road, Clutch went back to doing what they did best: kicking out the jams. The aptly titled album is the sound of a band exorcising its demons, as heard in cathartic tracks like "Gnome Enthusiast" and "Who Wants to Rock."
"When I listen to Jam Room those songs sound like the equivalent of when you're on a bad road trip and you get home and you're finally able to scream behind a closed door. That's exactly what 'Gnome Enthusiast' is. It was very therapeutic for us to go into our house and record Jam Room just to record it. We weren't worried about a single thing, no marketing plan or anything. We just went for it."
Pure Rock Fury
For Clutch's fifth release, the band once again found itself the focus of major-label interest. Clutch approached the music with their characteristic enthusiasm and bravado, but this time out the band maintained a healthy level of skepticism towards their new label, Atlantic. Pure Rock Fury was also Clutch's first of two successful collaborations with producer Machine, and featured guest appearances from some of their guitar heroes, including Wino and Mountain's Leslie West. The album produced such Clutch classics as the rap-rock spoof "Careful With That Mic..." and West collaboration "Immortal."
"When we went to Atlantic to record Pure Rock Fury, there was still a belief that the band was going to, in their words, 'blow up.' But we definitely had much more cautious optimism. When you're young, it's easy to get stars in your eyes and believe everything you're told. It takes a few years before you can take a more rational and practical approach to it, and just make a rock-and-roll record and let everything else be damned.
The success of 'Careful With That Mic…' surprised me, because it started as a goof. I had this proto-rap thing that I figured would never see the light of day. But, lo and behold, people said it was entertaining. I kept saying, 'Hell no,' because I thought it would seem as if Clutch was trying to cash in on the rap-rock nonsense. Of course that's exactly what people thought when it came out, but really it was an anomalous goof."
For their sixth album, which bears the full title, Blast Tyrant's Atlas of the Invisible World Including Illustrations of Strange Beasts and Phantasms, Clutch reunited with producer Machine. Along with leading the band into its first all-digital-recording session, Machine's notoriously manic methods helped elevate the group's sound as they continued exploring the idioms of country blues ("Revelator") and southern rock ("The Mob Goes Wild" and "Cypress Grove"). Blast Tyrant's blues-jam final track, "WYSIWYG," hinted at the organ-colored sound that Clutch would fully adopt on the following year's Robot Hive/Exodus.
"Machine's a great guy, but he's definitely intense. He comes in on 11 and leaves on 11. But he never asked me to run around the block or anything. Plus, I would've said no anyway. [Laughs] I remember we were at the end of preproduction and Dan had brought in a CD of some songs he had written. On it were the two riffs for 'The Mob Goes Wild,' but they were a lot slower. Machine suggested we hear what they sounded like really hyper-caffeinated and sped up. We did it and everyone was like, 'Wow. That does sound good.' So then all we did was add lyrics. Those are some of the best songs: the ones you can write in just one day."
Clutch invited keyboardist Mick Schauer into the songwriting mix for 2005's Robot Hive/Exodus. The resulting record was a romping collection of Clutch's signature grooves, just padded with extra weight care of Schauer's wooly Hammond lines. Clutch took their growing love of classic blues to the next level with covers of Howlin' Wolf's "Who's Been Talking" and Mississippi Fred McDowell's "Gravel Road." To help capture the racket, Clutch tapped indie producer/Jawbox mainman J. Robbins, whose organic approach proved to be the mirror opposite of Machine's.
"J. and Machine's methods aren't exactly 180 degrees apart… Let's just say J.'s approach is more like a Montessori schoolteacher, whereas Machine's is that of a Phys Ed teacher. [Laughs] J. will let the band do its own thing and he'll capture that sound in the most appropriate way, whereas Machine will get in there and strip everything down to its nuts and bolts. J.'s also a great engineer and musician. To have that triple threat working for you is a real gem.
The 'Who's Been Talking' and 'Gravel Road' covers came about because I was listening to a lot of blues records. The older I become, the more I appreciate the old blues as the source of all things rock. It may not seem like it to some people, but I think that one guy playing old blues guitar is more terrifying than anyone dressed in corpse paint."
From Beale Street to Oblivion
Featuring an ominous title evoking the historic blues Mecca in Memphis, Tennessee, Clutch went back to their roots and recorded From Beale Street to Oblivion straight to tape. This time around, Clutch had already written and thoroughly road-tested their new songs before entering the studio with renowned heavy-music producer Joe Barresi (Melvins, High on Fire), which allowed them to concentrate on performance and made the recording process all the more inspired. The record also featured a guest appearance by Five Horse Johnson blues harpist Eric Oblander.
"The title, which came from the song 'The Devil & Me,' was a result of my becoming much more cognizant of the long arc of rock and roll, which first happened during Robot Hive. Also, I had somewhat of a nihilistic mood at the time, because of what was going on politically. I had recently moved very close to Washington, D.C., so every day I would see Marine One, Marine Two, and Air Force One fly over my house. Perhaps I was becoming more paranoid and suspicious…but I wanted to deal with it in the most artistic way I could without writing a protest song, which I feel can become self-righteous. So I came up with a song like 'Mister Shiny Cadillac.' I've always wanted to avoid those kinds of things but it just eventually crept into the music."
Strange Cousins From the West
For their new, ninth studio album and first on their own Weathermaker label, Clutch once again joined forces with producer J. Robbins. In true Clutch fashion, the band mixed pseudo-factual, über-surreal subject matter with swinging, hard-driving blues rock on standout tracks such as "Abraham Lincoln" and "Algo Ha Cambiado," the latter a cover version of the Argentine band Pappo's Blues' original that Fallon sings entirely in Spanish.
"J. did a such a great job before, and he's local to us in Baltimore, which allowed us to stay at home. That was important this time around because of our families. We also didn't want to break the bank by staying in hotels in California.
Jean-Paul had this whole batch of Pappo MP3s, and when I first heard them my head exploded. I just couldn't understand why this guy wasn't a household name. I did sing a version of 'Algo Ha Cambiado' in English, but it didn't sound as good as the original Spanish version, which we ended up using. I don't even speak Spanish fluently, but I can understand it for the most part.
I'd say for me, the standout track is 'Abraham Lincoln,' because it's the most unique song on the record. It was the slowest, but easiest, song to write. The minute I heard the riff, I knew what it'd be about. I think that the Civil War themes will always be a preoccupation for me, but I am by no means trying to be [noted Civil War historian] Shelby Foote."