Close observers of the two stompingly heavy, thrillingly ebullient recent singles put out by Maryland rockers Clutch might have noticed a few curious references in their lyrics: Red Alert (Boss Metal Zone) and We Strive For Excellence both seem to throw in cultural touchstones from a simpler age than the troubled one we now live in.
The former asks: ‘Can you pass the Voight-Kampff test?’ and ‘Are you familiar with the Roy Batty Method?’, while also throwing in mentions of a ‘Doc Tyrell’, and ‘the Tannhauser Gate’. All of which, movie buffs will know, come from seminal 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, while ‘Boss Metal Zone’ is the name of a classic guitar distortion pedal. The other, We Strive For Excellence, talks of how ‘We pledge allegiance to the denim flag’ while throwing in talk of illegal M80 firecrackers, ‘BMX grips’, a ‘Farah Fawcett lighter’ and other minutiae familiar to the youth of the 1980s (especially American ones).
According to Clutch frontman and lyricist Neil Fallon, such details were the result of lockdown songwriting sessions in which the freedoms we were all missing suddenly came into focus sharply.
“I think going into writing the record [Clutch’s new album Sunrise On Slaughter Beach], I was thinking, okay, I don’t really want to write a bunch of lyrics that are going to constantly remind me of 2021 and all the things that went along with that. And as a parent, watching my son having to do home schooling and unable to interact with his friends, it really put into focus the joys of, you know, getting on your bike, planning to run away from home for half a day.
“It’s sort of a rite of passage, and it made me write nostalgically about that because I felt bad for my son being unable to enjoy that kind of thing.”
Then again, he admits that often songs come to life from a chance encounter or a phrase that sounds good. As was the case with Boss Metal Zone.
“I’ll see a phrase out of context and it’ll stick in my head. ‘Boss Metal Zone’ sounds so absurdly 1984 to me, like the logo on a heavy metal T-shirt you would get at the dollar store. It also sounded like a name for the binder you would take to school which would have a fake denim cover over it, and you would take a ballpoint pen and dig a Twisted Sister logo into it or something. All that stuff falls together for me in my memory bank. Along with stuff like Blade Runner, of course, which I loved back then and still love now.”
Classic Rock is talking to Fallon and Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster on a day off in Belfast before their rescheduled show. The fact that these dates are a year late in taking place tells a familiar tale. Once the pandemic took hold in March 2020, Clutch, like so many of their contemporaries, found themselves having to embrace an unfamiliar alternative universe in the absence of live shows, by performing livestreamed sets in front of an online audience that they couldn’t see or hear, let alone flick a plectrum to, trusting that they weren’t just shouting into the virtual void.
For both Fallon and Gaster it was a surreal experience. “We did the very first show just on Neil’s laptop computer, which was sat in the corner of the room,” Gaster explains.
“At first there’s no adrenaline rush, like you get with people,” says Fallon. “I kind of felt like an actor that has to do scenes in front of a green screen, interacting with objects that aren’t there!”
“But once we got our heads around it, it was like when we were on stage than being in a practice room,” Gaster adds. “There was an energy there and an intensity. It really felt like a show. And in that way it was very enjoyable.”
Fallon: “For one of the shows, we told people that they could buy a vinyl record of it, which was nerve-racking because, you know, if you have a train wreck, that train wreck is going on an LP! But that kind of made it feel more like a live show if there was a bit of trepidation. Then after the fact you would see, oh, six thousand people watched it from various parts of the globe. So that was gratifying.”
“We were so impressed with how many people took the time, and made an event of it and they would have friends come over,” Gaster says.
Another effect the global restrictions had on the making of their new album Sunrise On Slaughter Beach, at least in the beginning, was on the intended mood of it, even if that didn’t ultimately develop as expected.
“We had this idea that we were going to make kind of – for lack of a better word – kind of a party record,” says Gaster. “Something that would be uplifting, a really fun album. But the more we wrote, the less it came out like that. It’s a moody record, a darker record, and in some ways it’s a heavier record than previous Clutch albums.”
That rings true at times when listening to the record: the lead-off singles are certainly taking no prisoners in terms of intensity, and there’s a lot of humour in there. Elsewhere, though, it’s a more diverse listen, further confounding anyone who ever tagged Clutch with the various labels they’ve had over the past 30 years, whether it be ‘alt.metal’, ‘stoner rock’ or ‘blues rock’.
The nine songs range from the melodramatic take on the ancient vampire tale of Mercy Brown to the bluesy grunge lurch of the title track; from the jazz injections on Three Golden Horns to the windswept metal adventure of Mountain Of Bone; from the wistful closer Jackhammer Our Names to the surreal horror story of Nosferatu Madre.
Throughout, though, the thunderous bottom end is a constant characteristic – it feels like you’re listening to a record created, and designed to be played, live at high volume. Underpinning the muscular riffs and a crunching rhythm section are gutsy grooves informed by the blues, and there’s also a touch of organic funk in there. It’s a trait, the band insist, that has seeped into their sound from their formative years growing up near Washington DC.
Clutch formed in 1990 out of a bunch of kids who grew up in Germantown, Maryland and went to hardcore shows in the city as well as soaking up more mainstream hard rock and metal sounds. But those weren’t the only shows they were attending.
“When people ask about where did the groove come from in our music,” Gaster explains, “I always point to the fact that there’s a very specific kind of funk that was the sound of DC in the eighties. It was very, very popular and it was called go-go.”
He refers to acts such as Trouble Funk and EU, who aren’t often name-checked these days (not by rock bands, anyway) but who were the toast of the US capital back then.
“It’s a very percussive kind of music,” Gaster continues. “And the feeling that you got when you went to one of these shows was that it was a real party vibe. The band played for forty-five or fifty minutes straight. They didn’t stop playing between songs, they’d segue from song to song. And the common denominator to all these songs is a really heavy back beat.
“So now, when I first hear a heavy riff, right away I think of Junkyard Band, I think of Rare Essence, Chuck Brown And The Soul Searchers. These are grooves that I grew up listening to, and they have become part of not only my DNA, but Ithink everybody’s.
“Then there’s other stuff too, of course, like a lot of reggae; we all really enjoyed that. And in the nineties there was a lot of hip-hop going on, whether it was Notorious B.I.G or Wu-Tang Clan. Gang Starr and Public Enemy were huge for us. So we just took all of these influences and we didn’t discriminate, you know. We just took the stuff we liked then made our own thing out of it.”
Those influences were explored more fully on albums such as 1999’s Jam Room instrumental collection and in the band’s side project the Bakerton Group, while Gaster and his bandmates, particularly Tim Sult, have regularly played with reggae-meets-stoner rock project Lionize.
There are neat touches of experimentation threaded through the new album that add ear-pricking moments, including the use of unusual instruments such as vibraphone (on Three Golden Horns, more of which later) and the theremin (on the sci-fi themed Skeletons On Mars).
“I enjoy picking up a new instrument,” Gaster says of his vibraphone playing. “And I think it helps to expand not only the sound of the band, but my drumming as well. You know, if I practise on vibes for forty-five minutes, chances are when I get on to the drums I’m gonna play something different to what I would have played otherwise.”
Fallon’s use of the theremin [a weird, electronic instrument, famously used on Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love], meanwhile, came from a similarly trial-and-error approach. “I actually wanted to put a talk-box on there, because I’ve always loved it, but then it just kind of made it sound more like a Peter Frampton song than a sci-fi epic. So you had to try to find out. And then you heard the theremin, which is a lot more difficult to play than I realised. But now all of a sudden you’re talking, you know, flying saucers in 1955 – which I love!”
Gaster’s drumming heroes include jazz players Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, and some of those influences seeped into Sunrise On Slaughter Beach on Three Golden Horns, on which Clutch sound briefly like they’re duelling with a be-bop quartet, injecting angular jazz chords and polyrhythms. Meanwhile, Fallon’s ear-worm vocal hook insists – not entirely seriously, we can presume – that ‘jazz music corrupts our youth’. The lyrics, it turns out were inspired by the music.
“We were just in the middle of a jam, and I think we took a break,” says Gaster. “We had the jazzy breaks in it, and we were talking about the saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, an amazing player and he was completely unique in his approach.”
“He was able to play three horns at once – and very well at that,” Fallon adds. “And that inspired the line: ‘Roland Kirk’s three golden horns’. Sometimes you can have too much time, you can get too analytical, and you start writing from the brain, as opposed to the impulses of the heart. The phrase ‘jazz music corrupts our youth’, I just wrote it down in my little journal one day. And when I heard the jazzy feel on those passages as well, it felt like a good place for that line to live in.”
That instinctive approach to lyric writing also informed the surreal nightmare of Noseratu Madre, in which Fallon sings: ‘I was accused of witchcraft aboard the Mayflower ship/They threw me overboard, ten stone of ballast chained to my legs.’
He grins at the mention of it. “It all started when I just kind of laughed at myself when I said ‘Nosferatu Madre’. Like, how do you make a song out of that those two words? And it is kind of a campy, B-movie horror idea, like something from a Hammer film or something. Because no one was speaking Spanish on the Mayflower, butthen again we’re not writing historical dissertation. It’s certainly absurd – and I love absurdity.”
Evidently so, judging by the title track, in which we are confronted with an apparent stream-of-consciousness journey through curious passages mentioning ‘blue-blooded freaks’ and ‘maritime tragedies’, after informing us that: ‘I’m not betting on wild horses… I demand to shut my clam the old-fashioned way/ Under a strawberry moon bell hand and wearing no clothes.’ Sounds great. But there aren’t any clues as to what it all means?
Fallon, a committed subscriber to the view that the listener should make of it what they will, offers only some background: “Well, Slaughter Beach is a real place in Delaware that we sometimes vacation at, which is also a protective wildlife preserve for horseshoe crabs and other species, but there’s just this Pink Floyd-esque surreal presence there.
“It’s along the banks of the Delaware Bay going into the ocean, and there are these giant World War II towers that kind of just come out of the sand dunes, and they were used to make sure the Germans weren’t coming up the Delaware Bay into Philadelphia.
“With the name Slaughter Beach there are several different versions why the place is called that [ranging from a Native-American massacre to the large numbers of crabs that don’t survive the spawning season]. But I like the name and I like that ambiguity.”
Whatever you make of such imagery, that track and the album in general sound satisfyingly epic, and they feel like the work of a band at the peak of their powers. Which begs the question from the two 50-something men: how do the four members of Clutch (bassist Dan Maines and lead guitarist Tim Sult make up the quartet alongside Fallon and Gaster), who have been in this band together for more than 30 years keep those creative juices flowing and retain their lust for live performance, at a time when many of their contemporaries would be comfortable with their armchair and slippers by this stage in their lives?
“What keeps us going after all this time?” Gaster asks himself. “Simple answer: we still love making music together. We were never in pursuit of being rock stars. Even back when we started, stuff that was on MTV or rock radio we found corny and we didn’t want to do that. We’ve always felt like outsiders, felt apart from any industry trends.
“Not long after we started, the grunge thing got big, so people tried to lump us in with that. And since then, so many labels, so many terms get thrown around, but we never felt the need to fit into those scenes or even fight against them. We never lost the thrill of just playing in a band.”
In recent years, the longevity of the band has doubtless been boosted by them creating their own label, Weathermaker Music, which Fallon believes allows them freedom from the pressure so many other artists feel under to forever pursue that mythical commercial ‘next step’.
“Some people find that kind of difficult to understand,” he says. “People still cling to the old business model of: you have to get signed by a label and sell more and more records. And to this day, I run into people that we’ve known for decades. And they’ll say: ‘Who are you signed with now?’ ‘Oh, we put out our own records.’ And they look at you like: [sympathetic face] ‘Ooh, sorry to hear that.’ Like you’re some kind of orphan! But I feel the exact opposite. Why would you sign to a label for seven albums or a three-sixty deal, when you’re basically in indentured servitude until they decide to drop you?”
Not that running your own show is a walk in the park, of course.
“There have been dark nights of the soul,” Fallon admits. “There’s been times where I have personally asked myself: ‘Is this sustainable – either mentally, emotionally, financially?’ But whatI remain thankful for is being able to make a living in the creative arts in any capacity. And one thing that makes a difference is, we’re not saying: ‘Oh, this is the record that’s going to break us.’ You know. Ever. No one cares. We’re happy at the level we’re at.”
And Clutch are sustaining that level very nicely, thank you very much, due in no small part to a rock-solid fan base that ensures they can sell outshows like tonight’s gig in Belfast without many worries. But more importantly, while retaining the essential gut-punching heaviness that was always the essence of their appeal, they’re also subtly but surely expanding their musical horizons.
And wherever your personal Slaughter Beach happens to be, whatever a ‘boss metal zone’ means to you, they sound like places you’ll want to hang out.