Brigands of the Mojo Hand
CoC talks to Neil Fallon of Clutch
by: Jeremy Ulrey
Fusing the thunder of Thor, the electric mischief of Loki and the populist grounding of Prometheus, Clutch have whiled away the better part of two decades teaching man the joys of cacophony, the wielding of fire, and -- the perfect bridge between the two -- arson. Carefully yet methodically immolating any and every aspect of their own sound that smacks of stagnation, the West-Virginia-by-way-of-Maryland quintet have time and again eluded the tantalizing temptation of resting on their laurels. For though they've never been true superstars, the band have amassed a sizeable cult following, not to mention a prodigious catalog so swollen with sustenance it almost demands to be milked for all it's worth.

And still they stick to the lure of the road, pausing between towns only long enough to flesh out embryonic songs in the studio; songs which were likely birthed in the narrow strictures of a tour bus sleeper. Preferring to headline clubs over being relegated to opening act on arena tours or festivals, the members of Clutch absolutely live and breathe the intimacy of a packed roadhouse... except when they're vegging. On inquiring into what he does with his free time, frontman Neil Fallon states: "After a tour I like quiet. Listen to the world a bit. Crickets. Dogs. Wind. Ya know... Zen the fuck out." Succinctly put, the diametric opposite of the boisterous rock that seems to metastasize out of the aether whenever the guys regroup from whatever mini-vacation they've afforded themselves. "We just wander around the woods staring at a broken compass and tree moss." No wonder there's something inherently elemental in Clutch's alchemy of sounds.

Having started out at the dawn of the '90s as a more or less metallicized hardcore unit firmly ensconced in the triangulated crossfire between the likes of Helmet, Therapy?, and Prong, Clutch have not so much progressed over the years as regressed. _From Beale Street to Oblivion_ is the least metallic, the least stoner, and certainly the least hardcore of all the records, itself more of a distilled version of its predecessor's dabblings in classic southern rock and meditations on the blues. Their tongue is no less firmly implanted in cheek as it has been since the first real sign of the band's sense of humor, 1993's breakthrough "A Shogun Named Marcus".

To wit, even while taking political and zeitgeist potshots on songs like this year's "You Can't Stop Progress" and "When Vegans Attack", there is zero sign of the bratty, me-first angst characterizing much of today's music industry; dig on lyrics like "You know I can't quit this riot / Strictly professional insurrectionist kid, and I can't deny it". Clutch are no polemicists, merely bracket busters. Explorers by nature, half the reason they rarely seem to come home may be merely a concession to their emphasis on the journey rather than the destination. As Neil makes plain, it doesn't even seem to matter which way they're headed. "I think a fear of redundancy is one of our muses. Directions? Directions are for sea-captains and errand-boys."

The tracks dealing with identifiable themes such as those above are more or less an anomaly, the majority of the record lyrically treading Neil's usual "found art" method of taking mundane, everyday observations and spinning some sort of free association, psychotropic fantasy out of it. Over the years, his voice has matured greatly from a guttural rasp in the early days to a more soulful instrument expertly capable of wedding melody and rhythm with hellfire preacher testifying. His perceived shortcomings on earlier records may be one reason he chooses not to live in the past creatively. _From Beale Street_ does include a re-recording of _Jam Room_'s "One Eyed Dollar", but fans should chalk that up as more of a one time fluke. "As far as wanting to re-record anything else, I wouldn't mind re-tracking the vocals on everything from _Transnational Speedway League_ to _Pure Rock Fury_. But that would be too Spielberg."

And yet even the most independently creative of muses have their go-to guys when they're running low on inspiration. Neil: "My favorite lyricists are Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Kool Keith, Chuck D and Mr. Lif, too. All those have great senses of cadence, story and fuck 'em if they can't take a joke style. As far as books go, I'm a fan of Phillip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon and Stanislaw Lem. They're great humorists as well."

"But as far as music is concerned, I don't listen to much other than classic rock, the blues, and some odd hip-hop and dub (i.e., at this moment, Can, Robert Pete Williams, Mr. Lif, and Augustsus Pablo)." That said, 2007 finds Neil a long way from his hardcore roots. "I tried listening to the Sub-Humans the other day. Couldn't do it. Too fake cockney. Too no bass."

Perhaps the true genius of Clutch is in metabolizing all those influences without falling prey to the genres-in-a-blender trap. With the instant accessibility of unwieldy amounts of cross-pollinated music at the click of a mouse, it's become de rigueur for bands who want to be deemed part of the vanguard to cover as much of the musical map as possible, nearly always lacking in the synthesis and execution in spite of whatever enthusiasm they may have brought on board. Not so with Clutch. Neil chalks it up to "Instinct. There's nothing too terribly premeditated in our sound or style. We just keep hammering away at the stone until a form appears." There is nothing disingenuous to be taken from this statement. To the contrary: it's the very self- consciousness those other bands bring to their search for the Superstring Theory of Rock that hamstrings their own intentions.

With Clutch there is a palpable chemistry at work which makes for more of a gut check approach to paring any superfluity off of the creative impulses which govern any given song. They tend to take their time and explore complementary stylistic blends at the length of an album, rather than ramming the entire musical prism together at once like mad atom smashers presiding over their next single. This is undoubtedly why Clutch are on their sixteenth year as a band, with no real line-up changes save the recent addition of Hammond organist Mick Schauer. Schauer has so far been used sparingly, only when the song really needs it, which lately has been on the bluesier, funkier numbers; just a further example of how the band keep their sound lean by feeding it as much as it needs but no more, lest it grow fat and cumbersome.

Up until now, the only real side project has been the instrumental Bakerton Group, which is simply Clutch sans Neil Fallon. With its favoring of old R&B and classic rock grooves, the Bakerton Group was in many ways the precursor to Clutch's current direction. A bit more jazziness is inherent in Bakerton, particularly in Jean-Paul Gaster's tasteful work on the kits, and Mick Schauer is given much freer reign; but it's interesting to watch Clutch as its own band align itself on nearly the same musical tangent. Time will tell whether Bakerton remains a separate entity or if the encroaching aims of both bands make the concept of a side project irrelevant (although the Bakerton Group does have an album -– their debut -– nearly in the can, according to their MySpace page).

Thus far, Neil has seemingly been content to lose himself in the wilderness while his bandmates were off doing their own thing, but recently his relationship with the "Viva La Bam" crew turned up a new opportunity, and when time permitted, Neil and good friend Jess Margera managed to work up a little side venture (currently untitled). "Jess asked me to sing on a project he was assembling with Jim [Rota], Jason Diamond and Dave Bone. I said sure. We sent songs back and forth via the interweb and recorded a four song demo early in February. No grand plans, just having fun. Straight up rock and roll."

Neil and his bandmates can afford to be a little freewheeling in their priorities these days. A lucrative deal with micro-indie DRT Records has allowed the band to re-establish creative control after a tumultuous series of one night stands with a pretty good cross section of the Big Six record labels. None of their former labels have really had a clue how to market the band, and the fact that Clutch seems to radically alter their approach to making music with each album probably didn't help. Yet the exposure undoubtedly helped in the end; with a devoted cult following now under their belt, Clutch can expect to sell at least a few hundred thousand copies of any given album. More than enough to keep the bills paid and a little whiskey in the tank. From there, Neil is willing to take the rest of life one album at a time: "No doubt there is a story line in this record that I haven't been made privy to yet."

(article submitted 2/5/2007)


ALBUMS
9/8/2009 J Ulrey 8 Clutch - Strange Cousins From the West
5/1/2007 J Ulrey 9 Clutch - From Beale Street to Oblivion
1/30/2006 P Schwarz 9.5 Clutch - Robot Hive / Exodus
GIGS
7/8/1998 A Bromley Slayer / Clutch / System of a Down Slayed, Once Again
8/12/1996 A Bromley Clutch / Orange 9mm / Fu Manchu Clutching Onto the Last Orange
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