There are times when journalistic integrity and putting one’s self well outside of the story are simply too difficult to entertain, let alone do. When the opportunity to speak with drummer Jean-Paul Gaster of Clutch about the band’s upcoming Phoenix show popped up, I met it with, quite honestly, a fair amount of mixed feelings.
Gaster and I, your humble music writer, have history. I had honestly hoped we could put this history aside and maybe even laugh about it now, more than 20 years later. I wanted to let him know “it’s all good in the hood,” as the kids say, and actually spend the vast majority of our time talking about Clutch and what they’ve been up to all these years.
I’d like to think our conversation would have been interesting as well, regardless of the chance to bury a long (and now kind of funny) hatchet. See, in the early ’90s, Gaster and my then-girlfriend (who I lived with at the time) met through mutual friends and ended up sleeping together, even though they were “just friends.”
However, Gaster blew me off. He wouldn’t take my call, and he didn’t respond to a batch of very straightforward and, dare I say it, thoughtful questions via e-mail.
On one hand, I have to admit I hope he knows exactly who I am and remembers what he did, but on the other, I guess I feel like he’s done enough cool stuff over the last 20-plus years that he could see the humor in it the way I do at this point, and know it is very much water under the proverbial bridge. I thought maybe we could laugh about being young and dumb, and move forward to more interesting things, but no dice.
To be honest, I’ve never gotten to meet Gaster face to face (although there have been opportunities, as our bands have played together a few times, and each time mysterious circumstances conspired to prevent it), but from what I’ve heard about him, he’s a “nice” guy. At this point, I suppose that’s all that really matters, but there is still that little nagging doubt related to him sleeping with my then-girlfriend back in the early ’90s. Yes, he knew she was involved with me. Is that the work of a nice guy? Maybe. Perhaps he was just trying to comfort a lonely soul. I know my actions in those days certainly contributed to the situation, and I’m definitely not an innocent victim here by any means.
Either way, I still would have liked to ask him a few questions about his band, because I know a lot of people dig Clutch. I actually didn’t dislike Clutch at first, either. I’m sure many might understand, based on the hints I’ve dropped, as to why I may have soured on them for a time, but here in 2016, they’re just another band to cover, and I really did want to talk to Gaster and lay any harsh feelings to rest.
From a musical standpoint, as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve always had to tip my cap to any group of four dudes who can make a career of doing what they love and create such an ardent fan base. It would have been interesting to talk about how they have been able to keep it going for so long with the same band members. Too bad we couldn’t have talked about it like a couple of dudes who love music and have, over the years, been in a few of the same places.
Historically, the Phoenix cherry was popped for Maryland-based rock band Clutch a long time ago, in what feels like a galaxy far, far away. Like the Force, sometimes it feels like Clutch is everywhere, because they play a ton of shows.
In October of 1993, Clutch played the Library Café on Indian School Road supporting a very stoned, very awesome Monster Magnet. Not too many of the locals knew much about this weird quartet from somewhere back east, who were vaguely reminiscent of a more straightforward Rollins Band, even down to their tiny version of Henry Rollins on vocals, Neil Fallon. Fallon’s the type of guy who should have a business card that reads, “Angry Little Fucker.” Needless to say, the band made quite an impression.
Over the next year or so, Clutch, who has basically had the same four members for the entire history of the band, went from being “that angry little band that opened for Monster Magnet” to a Valley favorite. Fallon, guitar player Tim Sult, bass player Dan Maines, and Gaster almost always play to a packed house here in town. They toured in 1994 with Sepultura, Fudge Tunnel, and Fear Factory, which was a monster bill, and if memory serves, came back for a hugely triumphant show at Boston’s in Tempe not long after, where things got a little kooky in the sweaty pit and clearly cemented the Valley’s love for an up-and-coming band.
Clutch fans are devoted, even if the music is rarely challenging, although consistently solid. Fallon writes clever lyrics, and the rhythm section is ridiculously tight after playing together for so long. Sult plays guitar like a Japanese auto-assembly line, which is to say, the man is highly efficient and not a single note is wasted, but there isn’t much about Clutch’s music, outside of Fallon’s often tremendously biting lyrics, that is truly memorable. To their credit, over their 11 full-length LPs, there are some really good moments, but also a bunch of songs that, when listened to back to back, sound extremely similar to each other.
Clearly, this is a formula that works for the band and their fans. While they haven’t come up with anything nearly as catchy as the first song, “A Shogun Named Marcus,” off of their first record, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes & Undeniable Truths, they keep spewing out one record after another. Longtime fans may be pleased to know Clutch’s current release, Psychic Warfare, is their first original material in a while that truly harks back to the days of their first album, much like how Star Wars 7 (and whatever the hell its tagline was) totally references the original Star Wars.
Clutch is difficult to classify in terms of genre. This would also have been cool to talk about with one of the dudes who makes the music. Originally, they had a sound that resonated loudly with East Coast hardcore and metal, which made them a great fit on the aforementioned 1994 Sepultura tour representing the heavy sounds happening east of the Mississippi. It was a great show to see, actually, because outside of Sepultura, the other three bands on that tour were all still discovering their sound.
Over the years, though, Clutch drifted heavily towards the stoner rock genre, cranking out some pretty heavy tunes on records like their self-titled second effort, Clutch (1995), Elephant Riders (1998), and From Beale Street to Oblivion (2007). The band has explored elements of the blues, and even a little funk at times, but has fairly consistently remained steadfast in pounding out listenable, high-energy rock music that weaves around Fallon’s typically astute social commentary.
If anything, after years of mostly ignoring the band, it has actually been nice to get a little reacquainted with them from, let’s say, an understandably skeptical distance. It would have been great to actually hear what Gaster thought about all they’ve accomplished, but what can you do? Maybe next time.
Clutch is scheduled to play Comerica Theatre on Friday, May 27.
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