Celebrating a quarter century is a rare benchmark for active bands – much less retaining the original lineup – . but that’s the milestone that Clutch hit in 2014. The band has held their formation together and evolved their sound, regardless of whether they were performing in the dankest Germantown, Maryland bars or Europe’s biggest festival stages. Clutch has also eluded the overzealous genre-identification that pervades metal (hair metal, death metal, nu metal and everything in between) with chunks of their back catalog appearing in the road-reaching show Sons of Anarchy and countless video games.
We met with drummer Jean-Paul Gaster to talk about their 25-year career, and how the glory days of metal were not all that fans might imagine. For example, the band’s tour plans for their latest (and most successful) record Earth Rocker were put on hold for over a year when frontman Neil Fallon went in for serious throat surgery for a childhood injury.
“He’s doing great, but that was a scary time. The worst part about that surgery was that it was pretty invasive. It involved going into part of his throat and actually moving his vocal chords. It was dangerous not only to his health, but potentially for him as a performer. But everything ended up going well and surely enough, the first time he came by for a practice, you better believe he brought that mighty voice of his.”The band is defined by their work ethic even when not actively touring or recording. Gaster outlined how the band stayed in creative form during Fallon’s recovery.
”We just got together and jammed. We weren’t so concerned about putting together fully realized songs as we are just feeling out the jams. We’d share some ideas and there’d be some vocals thrown around. We try to come up with a concept, work with it a bit and then move on to something else, so those little building blocks later come together as pieces of a puzzle for the album. Sometimes you cannibalize them, sometimes you just hang onto them as seeds for a record down the line.”
It was clear from their performance at Riot Fest Toronto that the band haven’t lost a sense of urgency.
“As a band, we don’t really sit around much. There’s a good chance you’re always going to find us on tour, so if we’re at home for more than a few weeks, chances are we’re going to get together at someone’s house to play and jam. You know, we do this band full-time. It’s the first thing I think about in the morning and the last thing I think about at night. Some bands stop touring for 4-5 months and they put things on hold – they don’t even play their instruments. I can’t do that. Maybe I wish I could at some point, but we’re lifers.”
Even while touring, Clutch is hard at work on the follow-up to Earth Rocker.
“We’re working on that right now, actually. We’re writing songs, we just met up with Machine (Earth Rocker’s producer) and things have just been really productive. We’re working hard to make an even better record than Earth Rocker, but at the same time we’re finding that we don’t want to repeat ourselves. At this point, the stuff that we like best sounds least like Earth Rocker so for us that’s just part of the fun.”
Clutch’s set is devoid of special effects. Even during club shows, there’s no light show, or gimmicks of any kind. Clutch is a proletariat’s band, and gimmicks are not necessary.The call-and-response of “Mob Goes Wild” is a setlist mainstay.
“It’s a pretty popular tune, so we play that a lot. I will say this: when we DO play that song in Canada, we’ve noticed that it has a special resonance.”
The band’s not only hit the quarter century mark – they’ve even managed to keep the original roster on-board. Gaster shed some light on the band’s longevity:.
“You have to be honest about what it is you’re in a band for. For us, it was because we wanted to play good shows and make good records. We didn’t do this because we wanted a career; we didn’t do this because we wanted to party; we didn’t do this for the chicks or to be big stars on MTV. We did this because we like music. That’s not to say that those other reasons are illegitimate, but if you want to keep your shit together in the long run, make sure that your band-mates are like-minded. Whatever your goals are, it’s going to be a better deal for everyone when you’re all on the same page. We all have a unified attitude towards the small and big things. We’re all at practice on time. We’re all at soundcheck on time. If you can’t all be as dedicated to the work aspect of being a band, then it’s going to be really tough being a band.”
That work ethic and unity has paid off creatively and financially, having garnered placement on television, including the Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and during countless UFC fights. The band’s also been part of soundtracks for video games like Left 4 Dead, Tony Hawk’s Underground and Need for Speed: Pro Street. The discussion veered over to commercial use for bands, and how careful Clutch is about where their music ends up.
“Well, up until now we just found our music involved in projects that we thought were cool any way. If someone approached us to have a song in a movie we just thought looked like shit for example, we probably wouldn’t go for it. There are a couple of things to remember here, though: the industry itself is a shell of what it used to be. Maybe years ago bands would find themselves in a situation like that and say ‘I’m not going to sell out.’”And maybe years ago you could have made that argument, but at this point, bands are struggling at the local pubs, let alone getting gigs across the country, let alone a record deal. So the fact is, if this is what you do for a living, you have to find ways to make money any way that you can. For some people that means sacrificing who you are artistically.”
“You never know what’s going to come from what. We’ve talked to fans who’d never had the chance to see us live but ended up hearing us because we ended up in a video game or on a TV show. That’s what they were into and maybe they wouldn’t have been exposed to us otherwise. Any way that you can get your music out there, it’s going to benefit your band. It’s important for bands to create and utilize as many tools as they can get their hands on. You’re never going to make your living purely off record sales. You’ve got to profit from concert tickets, merch and whatever else comes your way. That’s how a musician has to think these days. We’re all here to make a living off of music – you really just have to do whatever you can to spread the word.
Over the last 25 years, Clutch has toured with almost every notable band in metal, and we asked them to distill their favourites to a top-5:
5) On Motorhead: It was the most inspiring tour, it was amazing to watch those guys play those songs after so long and still have that energy. Everyone knows that Lemmy is rock and roll, but everyone else in the band is just as passionate.”
4) On Thin Lizzy: It was inspiring to see the way they kept so passionate about songs they’d written so long ago, but also with an always-changing lineup like that.”
3) “Even when we started out, we got a chance to open for Sepultura on the Chaos AD tour. Those guys were so powerful on stage and we got to watch them every night. It was like a freight train.”
2) “Monster Magnet early on was really notable because it really opened our eyes to a different style of metal and gave us a bit of a new direction in our style. Dave Windorf was himself a pretty inspiring guy to tour with.”
1) ”Our first US tour with a band called Four Walls Falling. They were this heavy, straight-edge band from Richmond Virginia. At that time we weren’t hardcore or straight-edge, but they saw something in us any way and asked us to join them. It did a lot for us in the long run and we were really thankful for the opportunity.”