Clutch: Rock'n'roll Preachers

Clutch standing in a dark, green-walled room.
Clutch: Maryland's finest.

The beard is in vogue. If you’ve spent any time in east London over the last few years, you’ll know this. Tonight, however, it’s more present than ever, as a robust gathering of hirsute gents (and less hirsute ladies) fills London’s Brixton Academy. Beer and T-shirts bearing the slogans of hard rock bands are plentiful. The atmosphere is smilingly chilled. But then come forth the band: Clutch.

Beer flies. Four thousand beardy faces roar in ferocious delight. The music thumps back out at them, more fearsome and more fun than you’d ever expect from such unassuming-looking, middle-aged blokes. If ever there was a reminder that appearances can be very, very deceptive, this is it. And at the front stands vocalist Neil Fallon – a gesticulating blues demon for the 21st century, knees bent and poised like a coiled spring. Or a pint-sized gladiator, ready for battle.

Ah, Clutch – four men from Maryland, USA, streamlining hardcore punk, go-go music, metal, funk and – yes – a lot of blues into a monstrously satisfying hard rock whole. If they’re not already in your life, we wholeheartedly implore you to rectify this. With the most primal of blues souls, the fiercest of rock chops and the grooviest of tunes, they tick too many ‘yes’ boxes to be missed.

And then, of course, there’s Fallon. A bug-eyed, hard rock preacher with a head full of brilliantly absurdist lyrics and a lion’s roar of a voice, he’s one of the most commanding live frontmen in rock today. If you took the compelling essence of John Lee Hooker and revved it through a chainsaw, you’d end up with Fallon.

“To me, these are the guys that invented it,” he says, of those early bluesers channelled through his voice. “And it carries a lot more soul and spirit than trying to emulate it. That’s what I try to do – let’s not make any bones about this, I do try to emulate it.”

We meet Fallon with drummer Jean-Paul Gaster backstage at Brixton. In just a few hours they’ll be playing here; their biggest-ever headline UK slot. It’s the end of the tour and they’re both knackered, albeit unfailingly polite, in a normal, unfussy sort of way.

They’re not your stereotypical rock stars. Visually, they could pass for roadies, or IT professionals. They both speak clearly, and in full sentences. Gaster has a kindly, paternal demeanour and Fallon (clearly trying to preserve his voice for tonight) almost purrs his responses, like a deep, gravelly bass amp.

Clutch have been together since 1991, releasing a steady stream of albums to an equally steady following – small but fiercely loyal, as their sound evolved from hardcore punk roots through funky, bluesy and rocky textures. Then, in 2013, they released Earth Rocker, the groovy, more-ish apotheosis of their career to date. It was a game-changer. Suddenly the wider world cottoned on to what fans had been raving about for over 20 years.

Now, they’ve upped their game again with album 11: Psychic Warfare. Faster, groovier and uproariously good fun, it was recorded with producer Machine in Texas. While most of the material was written before they arrived there, the rootsy surroundings found their way into the album.

“The studio was located in the hill country,” Gaster tells us. “I’d never really spent much time out there, and it was beautiful. Previous to that, Machine was in Passaic, New Jersey, which isn’t quite as scenic!”

“I think if there’s any specific point of influence it would be A Quick Death In Texas,” Fallon says, slowly. “The lyrics were written while we were there. Had we been in Passaic, it wouldn’t been about a quick death in Texas. So sometimes those stars align in a favourable way. The song and the environment kind of compliment each other.”

It’s this element of fatalism, combined with a strong spirit of independence, that’s made Clutch one of the biggest ‘cult’ bands of the 21st century. They’ve released albums through their own label, Weathermaker, for over a decade (following periods with major labels). They’ve never stopped looking incredibly ordinary, or resiliently avoiding fancy staging, commercial campaigns and gimmicks. And they merge sub-genres that really shouldn’t sound so cohesive all together. But it works, and fills Brixton Academy-sized venues.

“I like being on the margins of acceptable rock’n’roll, because it tells me we’re doing something right,” Fallon says, in measured tones. “It’s taken a long time to get here, but in hindsight I realise that because of the patience and maybe the boldness of us, it’s gonna last for the rest of our lives.”

If Clutch are indeed a cult group, it’s seemingly a pretty massive one. Do they like to retain a degree of an outsider status?

“I think there’s no helping it, because it’s the same four people,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But if the cult gets bigger, I’m all for it.”

Clutch: (l-r) Jean-Paul Gaster, Tim Sult, Dan Maines and Neil Fallon.

Clutch: (l-r) Jean-Paul Gaster, Tim Sult, Dan Maines and Neil Fallon.
(Image: © Gerardo Ortiz)

To understand Clutch, you have to look back to their formative years in Maryland. The blues didn’t feature directly at first, though rootsy music in a broader sense did. Fallon, Gaster, guitarist Tim Sult and bassist Dan Maines became friends in high school, where they began ingesting the wealth of heavy, multicultural music brewing locally. Among this was go-go music – a vibrant, funky hybrid of rhythm’n’blues and early hip-hop.

“Some of my earliest high-school memories are of kids singing go-go songs,” nods Gaster, “whether it was Run Joe [Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers] or other songs.”

He chatters enthusiastically about go-go. As a style, it’s pretty much unique to Washington DC, and clearly a source of local pride – not to mention a wellspring of inspiration for his drumming.

“The thing that most impressed me with go-go music was all the percussion that happened around the groove,” he continues. “You have a drummer who plays a very specific rhythm, and then congas, timbales, cowbell rhythm… the parts on their own don’t sound like much but when you play all that stuff together, that’s where all that funk happens.”

They were also sucked into the DC hardcore scene – set alight at the turn of the 80s by the likes of Minor Threat. Not to mention local heroes Fugazi.

“We just missed the high watermark of Washington DC hardcore shows like Void or Minor Threat,” Fallon says. “I was too young to go see those shows but we did see Fugazi quite regularly. I didn’t think they left much of an impression until later on in life. They would go to any strange place and play, and burn down the house.”

Said strange places included churches, VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) halls, community centres, libraries… All generating an impact on the young Clutch for their ethos – their sense of community – at least as much as their sound.

“The sort of machismo slam-dance thing was kind of frowned upon at Fugazi shows,” Gaster explains. “That also left an impression on me, cos early on, I remember going to see metal and hardcore shows, and for a young man it’s kind of impressive when you see guys jumping around in the pit. But it didn’t take long for that kind of idea to grow old. We were much more into the music, and not trying to make a scene.”

Saying this, both Fallon and Gaster cite DC legends – and proud Rastafarians – Bad Brains as a major live inspiration. Known for their fast, furious brand of punk, as well as strains of funk, metal and reggae, Bad Brains shows were otherworldly, almost religious experiences for the young Clutch.

“It was very much like a church experience, because you forgot who you were and where you were and what time it was,” Gaster remembers. “That was an eye-opener. It wasn’t choreographed. There was some sort of urgency to it that the whole thing just exploded in. It got me hooked.”

With so many different sounds involved, it’s amazing that their music is so very digestible. And that they didn’t get swallowed in a cloud of brutal hardcore nights and associated excess (Fallon actually developed spinal stenosis in 2013, due to “bad DNA and years of headbanging”). Ultimately their collective measured mindset prevailed.

“For me, there were three key reference points for Clutch,” Fallon says thoughtfully. “One is go-go, then DC hardcore and also the Maryland doom scene with The Obsessed, Pentagram and loads of other bands that were playing very slow, doomy, riff-orientated stuff. Whether we knew it at the time or not!”

Indeed, for all the high-octane fury of Fallon’s live persona, he’s an amiable, easy conversationalist. Sitting opposite us, the eyes that pop out of their sockets on stage are softened and smaller. Back home he finds release and inspiration “doing really zen things like pulling weeds from the garden”, as well as spending time with his wife and son.

His beginnings were similarly calm. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, before moving to Maryland, he had a normal suburban adolescence. He enjoyed the academic side of school but not “the social aspect of it”. Like most pubescent males he had “an excess of energy and a lot of angst”, and singing became an outlet. At 15, he worked in a seafood shop, owned by the father of Nate Bergman – now frontman with reggae-rockers (and Clutch labelmates) Lionize. Back then, however, Bergman was five.

“He was a little shithead too,” Fallon nods briskly. “But the things he [Nate’s father] let us get away with were pretty wild, so it was a great job in high school. I accidentally killed about $200-worth of lobsters once. That’s another story I suppose…”

Still, amid all the hardcore and lobsters, where did the blues specifically filter in? For Gaster, it was childhood serendipity that first led him to it – and his father’s conservative attitude to the media.

“My father was a great advocate of public television,” he grins. “We did not see a lot of sitcoms in our house, or game shows. None of that stuff was allowed to be on the television. But the great part of that was they had a lot of concerts. And my father would just watch whatever was on there – it might be a classical thing, but I remember seeing blues artists on there. I was just a kid but I knew I liked it.”

One of those artists was Stevie Ray Vaughan. Inspired, the young Gaster went with friends to see him live. “I remember thinking, ‘wow, how cool is that guy?!’” he exclaims. “I thought he was an alien or something. I didn’t know somebody could play guitar like that. And I was able to see him two more times after that. He’s got a special place in my heart.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan has a special place in my heart… I thought he was an alien or something.

Fallon, conversely, found the blues during one of Clutch’s first tours. Driving across America in their white van, they pulled into a truck stop where he bought a compilation CD called The Roots Of Robert Johnson. It became his soundtrack for late-night drives, filled with the likes of Skip James and Son House.

“There were some artists that I’d never heard of on there,” he recalls, “but I was introduced to the fundamentals. That really caught my attention because it seemed so powerful. So much has stemmed from the blues, but when you go right back to the beginning, it seems to hold a lot more weight.”

They agree that contemporary blues is a different beast to those ‘fundamentals’ – with slavery, cotton fields and moonshine to draw from, rather than mortgages, mindfulness and existential crises. They don’t, however, consider the blues any less powerful or relevant today.

“You can play that original 12-bar or 16-bar form in a million different ways,” Gaster enthuses. “It’s a platform for you to express yourself on an instrument, vocally or on guitar or even on the drums. That never gets old.”

“Absolutely,” Fallon says. “The conversations and the forms transcend circumstance. As far as lyrics go, yeah sure, I have a much easier life than a sharecropper, and I realise that. Most people do. Even some of the most hard-up people today end up having a better time than if they’d been born in 1910, just about anywhere. But people are still people, and people still have heartbreak, misery and there’s still violence and sadness, and also people still want to get drunk and go to a bar. That’s never gonna change. Just because life has become easier for a lot of people, it doesn’t make their emotions any less sincere.”

In 2005, they covered Johnson’s Who’s Been Talking? on their album Robot Hive/Exodus. It’s haunting and authentic. Shut your eyes and it sounds like an old African-American man is singing. It’s this kind of primal early blues, we suggest, that gives so much hard rock its real power, rather than amp stacks.

“Some of the most terrifying music I’ve heard has just been one person with one guitar, or a maybe a trio,” Fallon agrees. “It can be a lot more intimidating than all the amplifiers and guitar effects in the world.”

Some years later, Robert Johnson played a helpful role when Neil met Lemmy (who passed away shortly after this interview) during a support stint for Motörhead. Over the last couple of decades he and the band have met many of their heroes, but this proved a particularly starstruck moment.

“Neil was brave enough to go and talk to him!” Gaster grins. “In fact, you talked about the blues!”

“We did,” Fallon smiles, modestly, but with obvious relish. “Actually, I gave him a Robert Johnson record come to think of it.”

Gaster: “God, I wish I could have thought of something like that!”

Fallon: “It was a copy of King Of The Delta Blues Singers slowed down, one that’d been corrected. I gave it to him and he’d never heard of it. And it was cool that I was giving something to Lemmy that he’d never heard of, whether or not he actually listened to it! I thought, ‘What if I could tell my 14-year-old self this, that one day I’ll be doing this?’”

These days, their attitude to rock’n’roll excess is much the same as it ever was – don’t let it fuck with the music, or the show. They say they’ve never been the band to “go to all the after-shows”. Fallon suggests those who’ve been in the industry the longest tend to be the most down-to-earth, while the younger ones are more often “just… insufferable jackasses”.

“We play festivals these days, and it’s kind of funny to watch all the guys walk around in corpse paint or with big hair,” Gaster chuckles quietly. “We’ve always sort of been outside all that. I think the way we behave now is not all that different to how we behaved 15, 20 years ago. I have a better time out here now than I did 15 or 20 years ago. I’m even more appreciative of it.”

They haven’t quite sworn off “hungover shows” in favour of green tea and kale shakes, though their forties have brought certain changes.

“I have a yoga mat and I’m not ashamed to admit it,” Fallon says. “I need to throw it away though, it’s disgusting. It’s been on so many backstage floors, it smells of beer and God knows what else.”

People have used terms like ‘escapist’ in describing Fallon’s lyrics. This risks implying an airy-fairy detachment from the world. Yes, fantasy plays its part – Fallon has drawn from Philip K Dick, among others – but it’s not all dragons and wizards. Songs like X-Ray Visions (‘Telekinetic dynamite/psychic warfare is real’) and Sucker For The Witch (‘Every time I set to write/lyricals on the women/I always seem to end up/the victim of some terrible ass-kicking’) revolve around real-life vignettes, dealt with wittily and bizarrely. You wouldn’t want to reduce him to just a sci-fi nerd, in other words.

“Well I just recently learned you can take things that happen in real life, and run with it,” he reasons. “It’s basically all just a tall tale set to music. And also its easier to sing a song night after night if it’s fiction, because you can constantly reinvent it in your head and find that it’s still fresh. I think lyrics that are emotionally grounded about… y’know, your big break-up or how much you love so-and-so…”

It’s what most rock’n’roll comes from…

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Fallon says, “but I can’t imagine singing that song every single night and getting the same kind of lifespan out of it.”

This nuanced attitude doesn’t come out of nowhere. Music aside, Fallon is informed and articulate with a considered worldview. He laments the rise of Donald Trump, and the dissatisfied, corruptible side of 21st century America.

“What scares me is the amount of people that think Trump’s the best fucking thing invented since the wheel,” he says. “It’s a real head-scratcher because ultimately anyone in office needs to have policies, and the only thing I’ve heard this guy say is that he wants to exclude people. And that excites some people because it appeals to their most base instincts. It’s the easy thing to pound your chest and point your finger at somebody else as the cause of your problems.”

You can’t talk world affairs (certainly not to a touring band) without bringing up the attack on The Bataclan in Paris back in November.

“The nightclub, the show – it’s a sanctuary from the rest of the world, and it got infiltrated and desecrated in a horrific manner,” Fallon says.

Clutch were on tour shortly after, which led them to Paris; a show Gaster describes as “probably the most important show we’ve ever played as a band”. But can we look forward optimistically, even after events like these, viewing music as something that can indeed bring people together?

“That’s the main job of music,” Gaster nods. “To bring people together and leave those things outside.”

And that’s the thing about Clutch. It’s huge fun, but serious as hell. You’ll sing, shake your head, and know you’re dealing with music that means something.

“You get people singing along to the same lyrics, and they’re coming together by default,” Fallon says.

He pauses for a second. “Ultimately music is entertainment. Entertainment sounds like a cheap word sometimes, but it shouldn’t.”

Psychic Warfare is out now on Weathermaker.