Your previous record, Strange Cousins from the West, came out in 2009. Why such a long gap before releasing Earth Rocker?
Well, we just didn't stop touring. We would plan on stopping and then some opportunity would present itself, like Thin Lizzy or Motörhead or Volbeat and it just kept going and going. Finally we decided to put our foot down and say, "Enough, let's just make this record."
Was there a specific idea of where the band wanted to go with this record, musically?
I think the one thing that we talked about was we just wanted to make a faster record and a more efficient record and I think that's really the only guidelines that we had.
This record is definitely faster and also heavier than some of the more recent albums.
We had written a couple fast songs and we realized we were having fun playing those songs, and it kind of threw a bit of cold water on our face because when you're a band for 20 years, it's easy to get into a comfort zone. We usually play between 95 and 100 beats-per-minute and that's all well and good, but sometimes you've just got to push yourself a little bit. I know Tim [Sult, guitarist] had mentioned that he felt like his guitar tone was getting too clean and he wanted to gain it up.
There are also some different elements, like harmonicas and tambourines. Are you looking for ways to switch things up at this point in your career?
Well, there was a lot of harmonica on [From] Beale Street [to Oblivion] and then it disappeared on Strange Cousins. Believe it or not, there's actually tambourine probably on every Clutch record that we've done, it's just more pronounced on this one and it's easier to point out. You'd be surprised how much tambourine is on metal records.
What is the writing process like for Clutch these days?
It's pretty much the same as it's been for the past 20 years. One of us will write a riff at home or we just get together and start jamming and then when somebody does something cool, we all kind of look at that guy and we say, "Do it again." Or Jean-Paul [Gaster, drummer] will come up with a beat and we'll try to write a riff around it. It's pretty organic and democratic, so when all is said and done, we can't say who wrote what exactly. And then those guys patiently wait for me to write lyrics, because I'm terribly slow at doing that, and then we keep at it until we feel satisfied.
Is there a formula that you stick to when writing a Clutch song, or is it more just what comes naturally?
I think the best formula is just kind of going in and seeing what comes out, almost like automatic writing, you can call it automatic riffing. You get into a room and just play what comes out of your hands and trust your heart and your gut and not try to over-think it too much because that's usually when self-editing happens and recalculation occurs and I don't think that's ever good music.
Clutch are known for these iconic, groove-based riffs. Is it ever challenging to come up with unique, heavy, catchy riffs? Or to outdo yourselves?
No. I think that's what we do best and one thing I learned on this record, and this is coming from Machine [producer], is that. There's a song on the record called "D.C. Sound Attack" and the opening riff of that song we were kind of sitting on the fence about. We were saying to ourselves and to Machine, "It just kind of sounds too much like a Clutch riff" and Machine looked at us and said, "Yeah, and your point is what?" And then we realized, yeah, that's what we do. It's important to try new things and it's important to stay fresh, but it's also important to not be afraid to do what you do best.
Considering how intense a live Clutch slow is, do you ever take into account how the songs will transfer to a live setting when you're writing?
Well, one thing that we tried to do with this record is play as many of these songs live as we could before we went into the studio because often what sounds like a great idea in the studio is not such a great idea on stage, and it's important to put things through the trials before recording. When you write a song for the first time you want to hear a riff 64 times and usually you shouldn't play it 64 times, you should only do it four or eight, and a live setting will make that crystal clear.
How do you feel the band's sound has progressed since you first started out?
I'm pretty happy with how our sound has progressed, that's one thing that I'm pretty proud about, is that I think we've never stopped trying to learn how to improve ourselves individually and collectively as musicians. And I'd like to think that I'm a better singer than I was in 1993, I listen to those first records and I kind of wince at what I was doing back then and I've since learned how to respect melody and pitch. I think that's maybe what Clutch fans like, is that they've watched us progress.
Clutch's sound is very distinct and I think that has a lot to do with your vocals. How would you describe your vocal style?
Well initially, back in the early days when we were much more rooted in hardcore, I was of the very adolescent and naive opinion that you shouldn't do melody because melody was commercial and you don't want to be commercial, you want to be punk rock. And that was a pretty idiotic attitude. Down the line I discovered people like Tom Waits and Allan Wolf and guys that had much gnarlier voices, but those guys do do melody. Sometimes people say I sound like a preacher or gospel singer or least trying to be and that's never really intentional, it's just I listen to a lot of blues that has a lot of hollering, for lack or a better phrase, in it and that was easy for me to do because I wasn't born with a Freddie Mercury voice, it was a little more cartoonish.
Is there a specific theme behind this record, lyrically? Why title it Earth Rocker?
Each song is its own idea and it's by no means a concept record, but one thing that I was thinking about during the writing of this record and I think creeps into songs here and there, was just about rock 'n' roll and the state of it now, that it's so easy. And that's great that you can put your band on the internet, you can buy guitars easy, you can find new bands in the comfort of your home, but I have a bit of a romantic nostalgia for the days, I wasn't even alive then, but the '50s when it was forbidden, you know, when records were being burned. I'm not saying that was a good thing, but there is something appealing about the danger of it. And even later on in heavy metal, when Jello Biafra and Dee Snider and Frank Zappa had to go before Congress to testify against the PMRC. The older I get the more I think about these things because I think a lot of people, especially young kids, just think that this is the way things are and perhaps even take it for granted, myself included. The songs on the record that kind of comment on that are "Earth Rocker," to a degree, and "The Face." "Earth Rocker" is more of a self-motivational speech. And the title, we say a phrase called "full-time jammer," which we use to describe somebody who's decided to dedicate their life to rock'n'roll, come hell or high water. "Full-time jammer" just had too many syllables, so I went with Earth Rocker, it flows better.
You are quite a talented wordsmith and many of the songs are like stories. What's your process for writing lyrics?
Usually it just starts with two lines. Sometimes I write the songs very easily, for example "Mr. Freedom," and it took five minutes for me to write that entire song. And then there's other ones, like "Oh, Isabella," which took months. And it's a matter of trying to find those two lines that just pop out and you realize, "Oh, well I have these two lines, now I can write pages" and maybe convincing myself that there's a backstory that I can draw from and maybe I'm the only one who's privy to it, but that's all I need. I see it as a licence to lie and write a fiction, and that way anything is game for a topic and I just tell myself that for those three or four minutes I'm the world's foremost expert on the subject. And then I remind myself after those four minutes are over that that's not the case, it was just a tall-tale.
Does inspiration come from anywhere and anything in your everyday life?
Yeah usually, just taking things out of context. Inspiration usually comes at the most inopportune times. When I sit down at my desk, thinking that I'm going to write, usually all that happens is I end up getting drunk and accomplishing nothing. But, other times, when I'm just driving or walking down the street, something will pop into my head out of nowhere and thankfully we live in the day of cell phones where I can just record it into the cell phone or type it in there and use it for later on.
What did you do before the technology made it so easy?
Lots of little, tiny pieces of paper. Or calling home and leaving vocal ideas on the message machine.
It's pretty amazing that the four of you guys have been together in this band for so long, without having any core member changes, which is rare. What do you attribute that to?
Collective fear of day jobs. That and we enjoy doing it. Sure, there were dark times when we kind of asked ourselves, "Can we keep doing this and eat?" The other thing is a sense of humour has certainly helped, and we never defined what this band was going to be or was not going to be, so when you don't set goals like that you can't fail.
Clutch have been able to transcend genre and play with so many different types of bands. Why do you think that is?
I don't know. I know we're often considered a heavy metal band because we've toured with a lot of heavy metal bands, but heavy metal purists don't consider us a heavy metal band. When we were signed to major labels that was one of the things that was always frustrating for us and for them because they didn't know exactly how to market us because it wasn't easy to put that moniker onto us. I think we wear that as a badge of honour, you know, sometimes being unique may not have commercial rewards, but it has artistic rewards.
Has there ever been a time when you felt like you really didn't fit the bill for a show?
The most violent reaction we ever received from a crowd was when we happened to open up for Nickelback one time. This was about ten years ago, and keep in mind we're a band that have toured with Slayer, Iron Maiden, Pantera, some real heavy hitters and those crowds were really great and receptive. But man, I tell you what, the Nickelback fans in Knoxville, Tennessee, given the chance, they probably would've torn us limb from limb, which is a real head-scratcher. But, it's alright, it was only one show, not an entire tour, thank God.
With such a dedicated, cult-following type of fan base, do you ever feel pressure to live up to your fans' expectations?
Well it would be dishonest to say that I don't care. I mean, I want people to like every record, I want people to keep coming back. But at the same time I also know that Clutch fans scrutinize us enough that they would be able to detect us patronizing them and I think they would call us out on it very quickly. I'm sure there's some folks that fall in love with one album or a couple songs and that's it, but I'd like to think that the majority of Clutch fans are in it for the long haul and sure, they may be disappointed in this, but they always know there's something else down the pike that they might like even better. There's a very sensitive honesty and sincerity detector in the Clutch crowd, I think.
You also have a couple side-projects, with the Bakerton Group and the Company Band, as well as the label, Weathermaker Music. Is it a challenge to make time for all of these projects?
It can be. I mean, our plates are pretty full, but I'd rather be busy than not busy. The label, we've had a good team with us now and it's more work, but that's okay, it's not digging ditches. I'm just glad that I can do something creative and make a living at it, I have a lot of friends that are creative people and would love to be in that position, but they can't, they have to keep it for the weekends or after work or what have you. So, if it stresses me out having a record label and a band and a couple side projects, then great, stress me out.
Clutch are known as the Maryland band. You've incorporated the flag into your logo in the past, and I think that's a big part of who you are as a band. How has being from Maryland impacted the band? Or impacted your sound?
Well we liked the Maryland flag just because it looked cool, I mean it's definitely the most renaissance festival-looking flag in the union. We're lucky in DC that it's a great music scene and it's not so big that you get lost in the shuffle, I mean we went to see some great bands here when we were growing up, like Fugazi, the Bad Brains, tons of metal shows. And also there's this big Maryland doom scene, like, well they're from Virginia, but Pentagram was a big part of that, and Wino and the Obsessed. So I kind of see this band as a product of those two scenes, the DC punk rock scene and the Maryland doom scene, and to some degree the DC go-go scene, those were all three big influences on us when we were first starting out.