2001's Pure Rock Fury was a make-or-break moment for Clutch. And – at least so far as the music industry was concerned – they blew it. Unable to break the Top 100 on the US music charts, the record was regarded as another underperformer in an age where rock and metal bands were still regularly topping the charts. So the band were dropped by their label, Atlantic Records.
“There was a surplus of apprehension when we were dropped by Atlantic,” admits vocalist Neil Fallon. “We spent the next few years reflecting, thinking about getting back in the van and starting over. But once you’ve had the luxury of a tour bus and opened up for big bands, for all intents and purposes achieving what you set out to, you have to have those conversations about whether to continue or look at doing something else.”
Luckily for us all, they persevered. Having spent much of the 90s bouncing between major labels, the band opted to go down the independent route when mapping their future. A live record and compilation (Live At The Googolplex and Slow Hole To China respectively) were put out via their own label, River Road Records, before they ultimately signed with DRT Entertainment to put out their sixth studio album. Now they just had to write it.
“I remember [the writing] being very hectic because I procrastinated... which explains a lot!” Neil chuckles self- depreciatively. “Even when we went to record, I was often still writing up the lyrics a day or two before I was due to do vocals, which I don’t do any more because it drove me insane. But hey, sometimes insane is what gets it done!”
Working alongside the producer Machine, the band de-camped from the home of drummer Jean-Paul Gaster (where much of the pre-production had been done) and set up camp in New Jersey to record. There, the producer put the band through their paces as he trimmed the fat, removing the instrumental jams that had become part of Clutch’s core sound. He also introduced the band to modern production techniques, recording using Pro Tools and click tracks to tweak each individual section of a song until it achieved maximum impact – a far cry from their old methodology of playing a song over and over until ‘they got it right’.
“Machine had a very different approach that was shocking for us – but being shocked out of our comfort zone was exactly what we needed,” Neil says. “Blast Tyrant put wind back in our sails in a lot of ways and was different to what we’d done before.”
The 15 songs that comprised Blast Tyrant covered much of the diverse sounds and subgenres Clutch had mined in their first decade. Hardcore, stoner and funk were all filtered through a classic rock prism, whittled down until the band sounded tighter and more focused than they had since their 1993 debut Transnational Speedway League. Fittingly, their choice of lead single was one of the record’s most immediate songs – a three-and-a-half minute funky sucker-punch named The Mob Goes Wild that cast the band’s eye for irreverent humour on the clusterfuck that was the Iraq war.
“I would have written The Mob Goes Wild around December 2003, so well into the shitshow,” Neil says. “There’s danger in naming particular politics because it does date the song – but sometimes that’s great; just listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on Ohio and its probably one of the best documentaries of the Kent State shootings ever made. With [the Iraq Invasion], it was probably the first time I’d experienced almost... war as entertainment, from the civilian standpoint at least. It was always on TV and I thought it to be gross for everyone involved.”
While the band found the coverage of the war coverage tasteless, they weren’t any keener on the label’s initial suggestions for a music video that explicitly played up to the song’s lyrical themes.
“We ended up bickering with the label about the video,” Neil recalls. “We were given a handful of treatments and one of them involved me in paramilitary gear with silver aviators on against an upside-down American flag; this real cliché, jingoist garbage.”
Instead, in true Clutch fashion they went in completely the opposite direction, pairing up with Ryan Dunn and Bam Margera, who had earned notoriety when prank shows Jackass and Viva La Bam (among others) became a hit on MTV. Residents of southern Pennsylvania (a short drive from Clutch’s own home in north Maryland), Ryan and Bam had become fans of Clutch during one of the band’s many shows in Pennsylvania. Introduced by Bam’s brother (and CKY drummer) Jess after a show at Pennsylvania’s Trocadero Theatre, the pair had an idea for a video and Clutch weren’t about to pass up their own shot at MTV stardom.
“The label immediately turned their idea down,” Neil says. “But we were just like, ‘These guys want to do it and they’re on MTV; rock bands don’t even get played on MTV anymore so the only way we’re getting on MTV in 2004 is working with those guys!’ Eventually they saw the writing on the wall and relented – they weren’t getting a literal interpretation of the lyrics from us.”
Filmed on March 1, 2004 (just weeks before the album’s release), the video showed a punch-up in a sleazy bar while Clutch play the song behind a chicken- wire fence, Blues Brothers style.
“All I remember is doing that song a thousand times behind all this chicken wire!” laughs Neil. “I was really distracted because I’d just got a puppy and couldn’t leave him at home because he was only 10 weeks. I spent most of the time chasing this six- pound Boston Terrier around the bar.”
Even when The Mob Goes Wild hit heavy rotation on music video channels, it wasn’t an immediate panacea to Clutch’s struggle to break through to the mainstream. Released in March 2004, Blast Tyrant (or to give it its full title, Blast Tyrant Atlas Of The Invisible World With Illustrations Of Strange Beasts And Phantoms – eat your heart out, Rob Zombie!) peaked at #147 on the Billboard 200, while The Mob Goes Wild reached #39 on the Mainstream Rock Charts. But then, Clutch were never a band to be judged by traditional metrics, and Mob... allowed them to reach audiences in an entirely new way.
“By that point Napster wasn’t this spooky thing any more and it changed people’s attitudes,” Neil reasons. “Suddenly you weren’t risking $20 on a CD, you had someone that heard The Mob Goes Wild and shared that with their friends who would all then go to see the band live. After that we saw that our shows were getting a lot bigger, and we knew it wasn’t because DRT were promoting us because they just didn’t have the money!”
While Blast Tyrant wasn’t a complete rebirth for Clutch, it did give them second wind to start a new phase of their career and vindicated their decision to continue – in more ways than one.
“Sometimes this business gives you opportunities you’d never otherwise have had, for better or worse,” Neil says with a smile. “One of my favourite memories of recording Blast Tyrant was in this place in Hoboken called Waterloo. Billy Milano from S.O.D. and Methods Of Destruction lived underneath; he’s a real character, this larger-than-life guy who was a bouncer for years at CBGB’s. He invited us over for dinner, where he cooked an incredible Italian meal. If you told my 15-year-old self that I’d be sat eating a meal with Billy Milano beneath a studio I was recording an album in, I’d never have believed it!”
Gaining traction in a way they never had with major label backing, Clutch were now well on the road to breaking out of the underground for good. It wasn’t just fans and journalists that were paying attention either, as promoters helped them spread their rock’n’roll gospel to new congregations.
“One of the great things about [the success of Mob...] was going places we’d never been before,” Neil says. “Like Greece, I don’t think we’d sold a single record there. But when we finally played there were 3,000 people in the crowd that knew every single word, particularly on Regulator and The Mob Goes Wild. That’s testament to the power of sharing these things.”
As one of Clutch’s most-played songs (second only to Electric Worry), The Mob Goes Wild stands as one of Clutch’s most enduring anthems. Played more than 740 times live, you’d think the novelty might have worn off, but Neil is quick to refute the idea.
“I think it’s fun!” he laughs. “The lyrics are at times serious, but they’re also tongue in cheek and sometimes humour is woefully lacking in hard rock and heavy metal beyond novelty schtick. I like a good laugh and there’s turns of phrase that may not be a joke or pun, but there’s a levity I enjoy. That is one way to do it night after night.”
Considering 30 years on from formation Clutch are beloved as one of the most consistently brilliant and effortlessly creative forces in rock, it’s fair to say they’ve had the last laugh.
Published in Metal Hammer #350. The collectors' edition coloured gatefold vinyl of Blast Tyrant is out now via Weathermaker Music.