If brevity is the soul of wit, then it’s impressive that Clutch has kept their wits about them for so long. In direct defiance of brevity, the Maryland group has soldiered on now for two decades, letting the years age them like fine whiskey and fermenting their brand of hard rock in a blues-soul sourmash. Clutch’s early sound tapped the vitriol of the D.C. punk scene, but rather than railing against political machines, singer Neil Fallon’s lyrics rebelled against logic like an inflamed Zappa, barking about alien conspiracies and new world samurai. But despite their affinity towards distortion and rock clubs, their rhythmic alliance to hypnotic grooves rather than brazen riffs set them apart from their hard rock comrades.
In an exclusive interview with Joonbug before their summer tour kick-off show at the Brooklyn Bowl, drummer JP Gaster implicated an unlikely influence: “Growing up in the DC area we were exposed to go go at a very early age. In the eighties, a lot of those go go beats were very swung sixteenth style grooves, so that feeling of swing came from that. Shortly after that I started studying with a big band drummer who got me into the jazz thing. I still think about [jazz drum legend] Elvin Jones every time I play. It keeps the music grooving.”
If their debut Transnational Speedway was a belly-of-fire manifesto, their self titled second LP played to a slow toking smolder, an east-coast smoke signal hailing the black light anthems of Kyuss and Fu Manchu to the west. But after the major labels failed to smell the southern-fried Sabbath the band was cooking, the band released a conceptual trio of albums for now-defunct label DRT. From the groove metal beast of Blast Tyrant to the classic rock emancipation of Robot Hive/Exodus to the blues elation of From Beale Street to Oblivion, the DRT recordings represents the rare survival of a 90’s band by cooling their heels on 70s style. Now at the helm of their own Weathermaker label, Clutch is free to play their music by their own rules.
“Labels have always been a source of great frustration for us since the beginning, whether we were on a major label or an indie label or an indie label that thought they were a major label,” says JP. “Although the industry has changed in the last ten, even five years, at the end of the day labels are there to make money off your music. Being able to take all that out of the mix, the politics and machine that will never really understand your band, is really liberating.”
Having reclaimed the ownership of the DRT recordings, Clutch has reissued the three albums on Weathermaker, packaging them with bonus discs that chronicle both live assaults and studio spelunking.
With the recently released Blast Tyrant reissue, the band found a quieter side tamed by their recent embrace of the summer festival circuit. “Last year we did Bonnaroo” recalls JP, “and the folks there asked us to do a more intimate set along with our loud set. We ended up taking a look at some of the older songs and translating them to an acoustic dynamic.” The resulting translations command the band’s trademark brute swagger with a whole new vocabulary, nestling nicely on the reissue’s bonus Basket of Eggs disc.
It’s been two years since their last LP, Strange Cousins from the West. Their work horse pace puts them due for some new material, but it’s hard to roll tape when you’re on the tour bus rolling round the world. “We’ve been pushing the record further and further back,” says JP. “If tours come and there’s work on your plate than you have to do it.” The band has spent the bulk of the past eight months sharing the stage with the likes of Black Label Society and thrash rock titans Motorhead. “Of course,” JP reasons, “if Lemmy [Kilmeister] says he wants you, you gotta go.” But while longer tours would often break lesser bands, Clutch’s time away from home has only bound their jams tighter.
“So often we go on tour with bands who will play the exact same set list every night and say the exact same things,” laments JP. “That’s a really uninspiring way to put on a rock show. So we try keep things as fresh as possible.
“We came up with this concept many years ago,” he explains.” Tonight Dan [Maines, bassist] makes the setlist because his name starts with D. Tomorrow night I will make the setlist because alphabetically, my first name comes next, and so on. One thing’s for sure, you’re not allowed to complain about any of the songs that are on anyone else’s setlist.”
Surely no one on stage or in the crowd at Brooklyn Bowl that night could complain about the setlist. Clutch tore into a salvo of Blast Tyrant deep cuts and then stretched as far back in their discography as forward. From the raging rapture of “Animal Farm” to the Hill Country banger “Electric Worry,” the live show is a crucible: the band melts down their hardcore roots and blues-painted soul to forge a sound that raps impatiently on the walls of classic rock. Guitarist Tim Sult and bassist Dan Maines flank the stage with a gargoyle’s stoicism. Neil Fallon stomps and reels about, unleashing wild stares and sly hooks with the flick of his hand. He could be mistaken for a Pentecostal preacher were it not for the jeans and black tee. Instead he recalls Grizzly Adams possessed by the spirit of Phillip K. Dick. JP, washed in red light beneath the medieval neon banner of the Robot Hive days, asserts everything a rock drummer should be. He’s the centrifuge of the band, a pulsing gravity well blasting out swinging grooves to the guitar riffs before swallowing them into a pummeling cadenza. He’s the wordless frontman, the bite to Fallon’s bark that is only getting sharper as the band grows long in the tooth.
“As I get older I more and more enjoy practicing.” JP muses with practice pad and sticks dutifully at his side. “I really like putting on my head phones and just figuring stuff out. The most tedious part about being on the road is all the downtime, so if you can find something to occupy your brain a little bit, it makes the time pass.” But as much rock as Clutch brings to the stage, little of it spills off into tour debauchery nowadays. The band just enjoyed a month long before their summer tour, and JP hinted at the extracurricular activities that kept him sane.
“I pull weeds in my garden, practice on occasion, cut the lawn, drink a few beers.” A brief trick to the soul’s longevity, and one that should keep Clutch rolling for another couple decades.
Visit the band's aptly addressed website for for upcoming tour dates.