Consider Clutch the kale of a metal head’s diet: a superfood long growing in the underground, ever-ready to spread leaves sprouting a wealth of heavy metal health to those willing to try. In such a light, and depending on which circle pits you may plow, Clutch may be the best or worst kept secret of the hard rock underground. The band has spent over two decades digging out a groove in the rock world, headlining perennial tours and opening for many of classic rock’s pantheon.
Having harvested so long their red-blooded rock with a blue-collar work ethic, their now graying hairs have produced ten studio albums, four live albums, a B-side collection, their own Weathermaker Music label, and legions of die-hard fans. And if you can’t call yourselves among the latter, well then it might be about time, as mama used to say, to eat your vegetables.
Trafficking as high-volume riff dealers, guitarist Tim Sult churns out the their brand of southern-fried Sabbath with the ruthless efficiency of Walter White. The rhythm section of drummer Jean-Paul Gaster and bassist Dan Maines keeps the music swinging hard like a wrecking ball and Neil Fallon’s rabid bark invokes Howlin’ Wolf reading Philip K. Dick on an LSD binge. Their powers combine to combust once again on their new LP and forerunner for Album of the Year, Earth Rocker.
The collection of songs sees their return to working with producer Machine who last manned the board on their blues metal monolith Blast Tyrant. Thankfully, the music within lives up to the legacy. Now on their first headlining tour since a global trek with none other than Motörhead and Thin Lizzy, Tim Sult took time out in San Francisco, CA to speak with Guitar Messenger about the new album, the prospects of becoming a senior citizen of rock, and the possible afterlife repercussions of wah pedal punishment:
LD: Congratulations on the new album. It’s only been out a week and you guys have already been on the road for a month. How’s the tour been so far?
TS: It’s been absolutely amazing! I might go so far as to say it’s been our best tour ever. After twenty years…
TS: Yeah, it’s been twenty-two! I did lose count. It’s just getting better and better, which is awesome.
LD: The new album encapsulates your live sound better than any album you’ve done since maybe Pure Rock Fury. Was there an objective philosophy going in that you guys were just going to make a lean, mean rock record?
TS: Yeah, I think so. Honestly, I really forget what we were talking about back then, but I’m pretty sure what we were trying to do was make the best Clutch album we could make.
LD: What does that mean to you – ‘the best Clutch album?’
TS: To me, honestly, the new album is always the best Clutch album. But it seems like this time our fans have responded a little bit more to the Earth Rocker album. You know, maybe we were successful in writing the best Clutch album ever this time. We just had a collection of harder-hitting rock songs. Who knows? Maybe we just got lucky.
LD: Another staple of your guys’ sound is grooving in odd meters and rhythmically Earth Rocker is a pretty straight record, very backbeat oriented.
TS: Yes, I guess there really isn’t any time stuff on there at all, is there? There’s a little bit on ‘The Wolf Man Kindly Requests…’ I don’t think we really intentionally did that. It just kind of happened that all of the songs ended up being in 4/4.
LD: What’s the songwriting process like for you guys?
TS: We usually just get together and jam. We start throwing riffs out and seeing what happens, you know? We just collect a bunch of riffs and go with whatever Neil [Fallon, vocalist] responds to, as far as spots to sing on. We’ll find a riff that Neil has some cool vocals on and just kind of base the song on that.
LD: You guys are pretty prolific in terms of B-sides and non-album material to throw out on live sets or in between LPs. How do you document them all?
TS: I guess I didn’t realize we were so prolific…
LD: Really? One of my personal favorites is your [B-sides LP] Slow Hole to China.
TS: Oh yeah! Slow Hole to China was recorded between The Elephant Riders and Pure Rock Fury. A lot of people think that’s an aborted album, but it really wasn’t. They were really just demos. That was never meant to be an album. It was just something we put together.
LD: Another great project you guys did recently was the Basket of Eggs acoustic side of the Blast Tyrant reissue. What was it like going back to songs that you’d written for your second album and re-envisioning them removed from the hardcore influences?
TS: It was surprisingly simple, actually. We tried a few different songs and just started playing the ones that were most natural to playing acoustically. Obviously, we took liberties with the songs. We didn’t try to recreate the songs or the riffs in any way whatsoever. It’s mostly just based around the vocals. We just took the vocal melody that was already there and built something totally different and did not rely on the original music whatsoever. But yeah, it was awesome, a great exercise and hopefully we’ll be doing a lot of that again. We have a really cool acoustic version of ‘Abraham Lincoln’ that we still haven’t released, so maybe that will be another one of our prolific B-sides that we have stashed away.
LD: Does the band-dynamic shift when you lower the decibel level for an acoustic recording?
TS: No, quite honestly it feels exactly the same to me. I love it. It’s fun and natural. From ‘A Shogun Named Marcus’ to ‘Gone Cold,’ it all sounds the same to me [laughs].
LD: The last time I saw you guys, you played what eventually became ‘The Wolf Man Kindly Requests…’ but I think you called it ‘Newt Gingrich.’ How did that develop from the stage to the studio?
TS: That song itself, from what I remember, is the oldest song on that album and also the one we changed the least. I’m pretty sure that one was set in stone from Day One. There’s an old version of that, which we played at our beer release party that’s up online and I’m pretty sure the arrangement and every riff is the exact same, except that I approach the solo a bit differently.
LD: Speaking of your solos, you seem to be playing a lot more melodically with more of a Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley sound. The solos are less Wah-affected and you seem to pace yourself a little more.
TS: Honestly, my original intention going into the album was to try to play more surf-style solos. And the guitar solo for ‘The Wolf Man Kindly Requests…’ is totally 100% Chuck Berry-influenced right there. I was just trying to go for an old-school Chuck Berry rip-off solo. While this album is possibly our heaviest and fastest album that we’ve done in a long time, it’s the most melodic, as well. I think that just naturally happened and I like that – I like the melodic stuff a lot.
LD: What gear were you using on the album?
TS: I was trying to keep it as simple as possible, so for my heads I had a [Marshall] JCM 900 and a JTM 45. The cabinets were an Orange 2×12 with Celestion Vintage 30’s and a Marshall reissue cab with the 30-watt Greenbacks. Those were really the only heads that I used on the album. The guitar that I used was a Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul Junior ‘57 reissue. So it’s just like a 90’s Les Paul Junior with the P90 pickups. The only other guitar I used on the album was an acoustic Gibson 60’s Folksinger for the acoustic track on the album [’Gone Cold’].
Both the Junior and the Folksinger are a complete nightmare to play. The necks are massive. My hands are way too small to play those guitars, but I did it in the studio anyway. The only other guitar I used was during the picking part coming out of the solo of ‘The Wolf Man Kindly Requests…’. I actually used [producer] Machine’s [Fender] Telecaster to play that little picking part just for eight bars. But everything else is the Junior and the Folksinger. The tone of them is absolutely amazing, but I have trouble playing them live.
LD: Do you feel like you’re constantly reinventing your tone or searching for that perfect guitar-head match-up?
TS: For this album I was definitely going for a heavier, more gain-y tone, I would say. I was starting to feel with the past few albums that we’ve done, that my tone was getting a little bit too clean. It is constantly a work in progress. I think for a while I was going for the ‘Free’ tone, like the old-school perfect Marshall/Gibson tone, but maybe that got little too clean for the Clutch material.
LD: Did you double track a lot of the rhythm parts on Earth Rocker? They seem more beefed up than the past couple albums.
TS: Yes. Up through Pure Rock Fury the rhythm parts were triple-tracked, but then I kind of quit doing that once we started recording on computers.
LD: What was that switchover to digital like for you?
TS: Oh, it means nothing to me. I’m not hands-on with engineering or production in any way whatsoever. That’s way too much work. I just show up in the studio and record. But at this point I think going back to tape and recording the old-school way… I don’t think that would be the right thing to do.
I think modern production styles have changed enough, or maybe my ears have just changed that I think digital recording sounds better these days. To me, when I hear some old-school analog recording it just sounds kind of old to me and I’d rather just move into the future instead of trying to make something retro.
LD: There’s a couple new effects that surface for your solos.
TS: Yeah, there is an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG. That’s one of my favorite effects. And the reverse setting on the Line6 DL4 – that’s definitely one of my favorite effects of all time. And wah. That’s as far as it goes for effects.
LD: Can you put a number on how many wah pedals you’ve burned through?
TS: I’ve definitely destroyed quite a few of them, that’s true.
LD: Do you ever fear that if you die you will come back as a wah pedal?
TS: Oh my god. [Laughs] I have a new fear now. Thanks for putting that in my brain. Yeah, I’ve gone through so many wah pedals and quite honestly my ankle hurts way too much these days to wah, but I just still do it anyway. Maybe one day I’ll stop using them. I’m too old for this. I’ve been doing this for twenty-two years. I didn’t use a Wah pedal the whole time, but I’m definitely feeling it.
|Clutch Earth Rocker: Earth Rocker Lyric Video.|
LD: It’s become a part of your sound.
TS: Well that sucks! That’s why I can’t stop using it! I need to find a substitute. That’s what the Micro POG is for, gradually bringing that in. I did get a pretty cool phaser right before this tour from Big Joe Stomp Box Company. Pretty nice stuff – they sound awesome. I’ve been playing that live for ‘Abraham Lincoln.’
LD: Do you have a warm-up or practice routine?
TS: I usually try to warm up before the shows, for sure. Honestly, the best warm up for me is playing through the old books that I used to go through when I was young. I went through the Method for Modern Guitar books when I took lessons. Now that I’m forty-three years old I’m still stuck on like page twenty-five of Book 1. Honestly, just going through that real simple stuff is the best warm-up for me, you know? Just playing really simple chords, but reading them at the same time. I don’t know, it’s just a great warm-up for me. It makes the show so much better.
LD: You guys had the privilege of touring with Motörhead and Thin Lizzy. What did you learn from them?
TS: Well, I’ve said a lot in interviews for this album that Earth Rocker is pretty much just a cross between Thin Lizzy and Motörhead, realistically. I think what I mostly learned was that you can be a senior citizen and still be in an awesome rock band. That is kind of where I’m looking towards in my future, so I think maybe that gave me a lot of affirmation that I can actually continue doing this as I’m rapidly approaching my mid-forties. Just seeing Lemmy and the original drummer from Thin Lizzy [Brian Downey], and [Thin Lizzy guitarist] Scott Gorham… seeing those guys still doing it and sounding absolutely awesome is totally inspirational.
LD: You guys are on the road so much. How do you stay sane?
TS: It honestly doesn’t feel like we’re on the road that much, to tell you the truth. We have a lot of time at home. This is probably our biggest headlining tour that we’ve done in a long, long time… possibly ever. Actually, at this point I’m not staying sane. I’m going completely crazy! But here I am! Once I go home I’ll be fine, sometime in August. My sanity will start coming back, because we have a little bit of a break.
LD: What is one of the craziest live memories of Clutch on stage?
TS: I think probably one of the coolest things that’s ever happened was opening for Slayer and Iron Maiden and having the crowd start chanting for them. Then we start playing for a while and they just stop chanting and start listening to us. That was definitely a proud moment for us, playing our unique style of heavy music for those kinds of fans and being able to win them over. That would probably be my best stage experience.
LD: What are you listening to these days?
TS: Well, I’ve been playing with this band Lionize, so I’ve been trying to learn some of their songs. Aaaand [pulls out iPhone and scrolls through] for some reason I’ve gone back to the Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion Technician album constantly. Faith No More’s Angel Dust is the last thing I listened to. I always listen to the Clash on tour. Betty Davis, she’s awesome. For some reason, I started listening to old Fishbone again. I think I hit a kind of nineties kick. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – awesome stuff. That’s pretty much what I’ve been listening to this tour.
LD: Having grown up as a band in the early nineties and crossing into the digital age, do you have any advice that you’d give to younger bands?
TS: I guess the most important thing to do with your band is to not quit. Just don’t stop doing it. That’s the way to get ahead. But kids these days have grown up in a whole different world with the whole social media thing. Obviously, there was no Internet when we started off. Bands these days have a totally different life than we do. We kind of had a sixties or seventies mentality: bands get signed to the label, the label gives them money. It wasn’t as DIY back then, but we had enough of a DIY attitude to actually get out and do it ourselves through just seeing punk bands.
LD: And you guys are even running your own label now [Weathermaker Music], as well. What has that afforded you?
TS: Basically, we just do anything and everything that we want to do and actually make money on the CD’s that we sell. We could never do that when we put out CD’s through other labels. We never made any money off any of our albums when we put them out on other labels. The most important thing is just to not quit. Just keep doing it if you believe in it, you know? And if you don’t believe in it just get a regular job – no big deal.