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Q&A with Clutch, Playing at Culture Room on Friday

It’s possible that the musicians of Washington, D.C.-area punky, metally, bluesy hard rock quintet Clutch do not know how to take a break. They blasted out of the gate running in 1991 with a seven-inch single, “Passive Restraint,” snagged a deal with EastWest Records, and hit the road. Since then, across 12 albums, they’ve often forgotten to come home, building a near-mythical reputation for explosive live shows, whose bootleg recordings are coveted and traded by the band’s legions of fanatical followers.

Led by the slightly gruff, but doggedly determined Neil Fallon, the band has touched the near-mainstream a few times, most notably in the earlier part of this decade with the albums Pure Rock Fury and Blast Tyrant. However, its unpredictable music evolution, traversing everything from stoner rock to hardcore to blues, as well as Fallon’s uncompromising, obtuse lyrical references, have kept Clutch firmly in cult territory. It’s just fine with the band members, though, who have severed ties with their most recent label, DRT, in favor of distributing their latest live DVD/CD combo, Full Fathom Five, through their own web site.

New Times caught up with Fallon recently by phone to discuss the band's regained autonomy and current tour. The full interview follows after the jump. -- Arielle Castillo

Clutch and the Sword perform with Graveyard and Never Got Caught. Friday, September 26.

Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Ft. Lauderdale. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets cost $19.99 in advance. All ages. 954-564-1074; www.cultureroom.net and www.ticketmaster.com

You just played the same venue in Ft. Lauderdale earlier this year. Your band has always been known for playing a staggering number of shows, but after so long, how do you stay motivated to keep doing it?

That's sort of an exceptional circumstance. Last time we were at the club was a series of nine shows where my voice was blown out and I couldn't sing, so we played instrumentally. So in order to make up for that we wanted to come back as quickly as we could.

What happened, and how did you recover?

I stopped singing for a month. It's a long story. It was overuse, basically.

So what have you changed now about your vocal habits?

You just try to be smart. The older you get, the more conscious you have to be of what you're putting in your body. It's maybe not as resilient as it used to be, so you have to just try to think about tomorrow. Sometimes it's easier to get lost in today.

So Clutch isn't much of a party band these days.

Not nearly as much as we used to be.

What happened to finally bring about the release of your live DVD? It seems like, in interviews, you've been talking about making a DVD for several years now.

I would say, more or less, that the band does not like being around video cameras in any way, shape, or form, so it took a while to find somebody that we felt cool with. We met this guy Agent Argonaut, from San Francisco, and he came along with some of his buddies and filmed the shows. We finally compiled enough that we were happy with it.

We started making DVDs in the past and they've gone pear-shaped. They couldn't be finished for one reason or another. We've always just been concentrated on… We're not really interested in doing anything other than playing.

Why do you have such an aversion to video cameras?

I couldn’t tell ya. That's just not our jam.

Why did you decide to also package the DVD with a live CD, when you released another live album [Heard It All Before: Live at the Hi Fi Bar] earlier this year?

We had the live audio takes to put out there. Not everybody's interested in watching a live DVD. Maybe they want to put a live CD in their car; it's a lot easier to put those tracks into your iPod. You cant put a DVD in your iPod really. Well, I'm sure there's a way to do it ,but I'm not smart enough to do it.

How did you decide on the set list for that? Is it hard for you guys to really crystallize one rendition of a particular song, since you have so many songs, and they can change when you play them live?

It is. Particularly with making a DVD, there might have been an awesome performance, but the video wasn’t up to par. Or the video was awesome, but the video wasn’t up to par. You have to wait for the stars to align. The DVD is a compilation of a couple different sets. Then when we went to the live CD, we didn’t put "Big News 1 and 2," because that was on a live CD already.

Were there any songs you wanted to include that didn't make the final cut?

I wanted to get "White's Ferry" on there, but it didn’t end up on there, I don’t think. I don’t think we ever played it, or if we did play it, it was only once or twice during that run of shows. And it's easy to miss things; you got so much going on, it's easy for things to fall through the cracks.

How have your fans reacted since you started doing live records a few years ago, since they love to bootleg your shows?

I don't know. I avoid reading about that stuff like the plague.

It seems like your relationship with DRT was going pretty well; you had released three albums with them, which is the most you've done with any one label. Why did you decide to sell the DVD/CD only online?

Nothing could be further from the truth, and I can't really speak more to that, s we're in a lawsuit with them at the moment. You can rest assured that we're done with them.

So the selling-online thing is for legal reasons?

There is a legal aspect to it. We had intended for it to go straight into stores on the release date, but it got a little hiccup because of some unforeseen events -- that sounds like legalese. Our intent is not to sell it strictly online, but that's what we have to make do with at this particular moment. Eventually, it will be available.

It's hard getting started with this. It's not as easy as one might think, being your own record label in a real way. Anyone can say they're a record label and put stuff out online.We've ut stuff out ourselves for years, but as far as actual distribution and promotions as any other record label, we take that responsibility now ourselves. So it's a matter of trying to find a balance now of who does what.

In this day and age, it's so easy to reach everybody. We wouldn't be able to do this 10 years ago, or 15 years ago. But it's so easy to reach the rest of the world, it's kind of silly to include more middlemen than you have to. We don’t have any illusions about us becoming a platinum band or having huge radio hits. We know who listens to us, and we can make a great living writing and playing our music, now that we know what is expected of us.

We know how much an album should cost to make, how much we should press up, how much we should dedicate towards a video or something like that. Sometimes with labels you get wrapped up with their budgets with other bands, and it can become incestuous and confused. But just putting our own music out, it's easy to know who you're working for.

We put out our own record in '99, and we've put out a number of our own records. What it comes down to is money. And I'm not a businessman, and I don’t ever want to be the guy sitting on the other side of the desk, but to be a serious and legitimate business, it requires a certain amount of startup funds that have never been there, because we've been too busy making car payments. That’s the long and short of it. So now we're in a better place, and I don’t think anyone has any illusions that this is a fast track to a fortune. It's more being able to derive your own satisfaction from what you make. If there's a mistake, we can only blame ourselves and learn from it, and try to do it better next time.

Do you all feel any pressure, maybe internally, since your last few albums have gotten such high critical marks?

No. We wouldn’t know how to write a hit if our life depended on it. I think it's all coincidence. Sometimes we write a song and people react to it, and sometimes they don’t. I think it would be a real mistake going into the songwriting process thinking, What will people like? If you do that, you might as well be working at McDonald's.

You have had some mainstream radio airplay in the past, though. What do you think made people react to those specific songs?

I don't know. To be honest, I don’t really listen to broadcast radio. We've always gotten played on college radio. John Nardachone, who works for us now, and worked for DRT and Atlantic and Columbia when we were on those labels, is a big part of it. He knows these radio stations and can make phone calls. Usually the guy will play it at 2 a.m. on the metal specialty show, and then maybe so-and-so hears it, and word of mouth is usually the best publicity.

When do you find the time to write new material when it seems like you're always on the road?

We always kind of record riffs and put them away in the filing cabinets, so when it comes time to make a record, we have some already done. After this tour coming up, October, November, December, and January,will be spent writing the Clutch record, and we're not gonna be doing any touring. We'll kind of switch gears there. I think sometimes the pressure of a looming deadline is a good inspiration.

So you'll just put out the record whenever it's done?

Pretty much. We can put the records out now when we want to, and follow the advice of our manager or our label manager, about when is the best time to do that, and we can work around that. There might be some pressure, some desire from a distributor for it to be out at a certain time, and we would certainly work with them. But at the end of the day, we'll do it when it's good for us.

The title of your last album, From Beale Street to Oblivion, was one of the most direct references you've made to your interest in blues. Is that still influencing your songwriting?

Sure. I mean, I listen to it all the time, and still try to learn blues rudiments on guitars, and I'm sure that will be an influence. But I don’t think we're gonna go into the next record saying, We're going to be more blues.

Well, what do some of those saved-up riffs sound like so far?

It's hard to say right now. We're in the middle of recording a Bakerton Group record, and we're gonna record that in October, so I'm kind of focused on that. I haven't really thought about the Clutch record yet.

How do you separate your songwriting for Clutch from that for the Bakerton Group, since it's the same members in each?

The Baker Group is a much more loose. Obviously I don’t have to worry about lyrics because it's instrumental. There are certain things, maybe more mellow ideas, that could happen. With Clutch, I think a little bit more four-on-the -floor. They're not too far flung from each other because it is the same guys.

What about The Company? Are there any plans to do a full-length album for that project?

We're trying. Once again, people are waiting for me to write lyrics.

How long has the music been finished?

Oh geez… We got together in when was it, June? There are eight songs total. I've got four songs done, and I've got another four to go.

What's taking so long with the lyrics?

I couldn't tell ya. Sometimes I say, Well, tonight I'm gonna work on this, and I'll sit and stare at a blank piece of paper, and then go upstairs and watch TV. Sometimes I'll be driving down the street and it'll come to me. The muse is very unpredictable. I try to work at specific times, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn't happen.

Do you plan to work with Joe Barresi again as producer on the next album?

We certainly hope that the next Clutch record will be recorded by Joe Barresi. The Baker Group record will be recorded by Jay Robbins. That'll come out in late January, early February. The Clutch record is probably not gonna be done until late summer.

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo

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