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Over the past decade or so, Clutch have become the musical equivalent of comfort food. The recipe may vary slightly from album to album, but, for the most part, you know exactly what you're going to get: crunchy, Southern-fried riffs from guitarist Tim Sult complemented by a thick, hearty groove from bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, topped off with a heaping helping of Neil Fallon's subversive, humor-infused lyrics.
On their ninth studio album, Strange Cousins from the West, Clutch employ the "addition by subtraction" approach, ditching the organs and harmonica on its previous two releases for a stripped-down sound.
"When it came time to do this new record, we were looking for a new sound, and for some reason, taking away those elements seemed to open up new ideas for us, in a way," says Maines. "It wasn't until we started writing the songs that we decided that maybe we would try scaling it back down to just the core of the four of us and just really see what would happen with that. It definitely gives the record a more up-front, in-your-face sound."
Still, Strange Cousins is hardly a radical departure from the Zeppelin-style blues-rock that makes up the bulk of the band's recent output. Clutch have built a reputation as a must-see live act, thanks to their penchant for extended jams — and the latest batch of songs seems custom-made for such improvisation.
"We just started playing those songs live, and we haven't really had the opportunity to kind of play around with them and stretch them out," Maines says. "Definitely on these two tours that we have during the summer, that's something that's gonna come into play for sure, because that is a big part of our set. We like to segue one song into another or stretch the middle section, just to make it more interesting for us and the audience."
While there are still more heshers than hippies at a typical Clutch show, the band's gradual transformation from an aggro punk-metal outfit into a full-fledged jam band — albeit a pretty heavy one — is not lost on Maines. Despite the flowery undertones such a term implies, Maines says he's okay with the label.
"I'm cool with that," he says. "I've been listening to a lot of Mahavishnu Orchestra lately, and I would consider them a jam band. It's some sick stuff. It's definitely not patchouli-like."
Perhaps most important to Clutch's continual evolution is the stability of its lineup. In an era when bands swap out members with the frequency of a typical pro sports team, Clutch's chemistry, on record and onstage, has been bolstered by a lineup that has remained unchanged since the band's formation nearly two decades ago.
"I think it's the most important thing for us," Maines says. "I really think that the music that comes out of Clutch is only a result of the four of us, or whoever else we include in the project. I think if you took one of those four elements out of the whole, it just wouldn't be the same. Somebody was telling me he's heard it described as the four of us basically sharing the same brain. We've played together for so long that that is kind of true in a way. When we start improvising on the stage, it's almost like I can tell what direction either Jean-Paul or Tim is gonna take it. I think we react very well together. Musically, and personality-wise, I think we're very similar people. Luckily it just seems to work. Nobody's pulled a knife on anybody else yet."