The Unclutchables

Contrary to what their names might lead you to believe, Jon Cougar Concentration Camp aren't Nazis, The Cocktail Honeys are not some throwback lounge act, Lords of Acid ain't lords of anything, and Clutch are extremely, well, hard to handle. Not only is the Maryland-spawned quartet practically impossible to genrify, they change labels more often than Billy Bob Thornton changes marital status. "We do one record and then it doesn't do anything, and then we get dropped," says Clutch vocalist Neil Fallon, rather matter-of-factly. "On the other hand, this record (Pure Rock Fury) is getting more airplay than any of our other records combined. So, for the label that's a good thing. Because we don't want to have to develop new relationships again. It's nice to get a business relationship going where there's some element of trust. We don't want to have to think about where our next paycheck's coming from when we're trying to write music. We just want to be comfortable, and be given the opportunity to express ourselves."

Aside from being the rock band equivalent of an army brat, Clutch can't be tied down to any other sonic niche than the simplest, most basic one. "I just call it rock 'n' roll," says Fallon. " ... You've got your four-piece classic setup: drums, bass, guitar and vocals and it's loud and it's blues-based, and that to me is the working definition of rock 'n' roll."

When the band started out in 1991, they had a lean, punkier sound. As they've moved from indie to major label subsidiary, back to the minors, to Columbia and back again, Clutch has gotten funkier and jammier, but no less heavy. Pure Rock Fury (Atlantic) is a dense, often psychedelic, crush of rocker's rock, glittering with tribal drumming, deadly riffage and Fallon's sometimes funny, always way-out lyrics.

"It's nothing that we've thought of consciously," says Fallon of the band's evolution. "Each album that we've done made perfect sense in each period of time. ... When we first started out, the music was much more simple and the lyrics were much more emotionally based. But I think we bore very easily with what we do, and are always trying to look for something else that's more difficult to play."

On Pure Rock Fury, the band challenged itself with the track "Brazenhead." Recorded as it was written in the studio, the song came into being with the assistance of Dog Eat Dog's Heartbeat on congas and guitarist Scott Weinrich (The Obsessed, Spirit Caravan). Then, the band recorded the song live at the 9:30 club in D.C. and, copping a technique from Miles Davis, used both live and studio tracks to create the final version of the song.

"Brazenhead" is an unabashed thudder, typical of what Clutch sounds like now — vintage, fleshy Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin, freed up by a distinctly hippie (OK, stoner) vibe. Guitarist Tim Sult is a straight-faced, demonic soldier, and along with the unmerciful-but-funky rhythm section of Jean Paul Gaster (drums) and Dan Maines (bass), he creates a unique assault that provides the perfect backdrop for Fallon's occasionally surrealist poesy. On "Open Up the Border," for instance, the music brings to mind a more rubbery Helmet, but Fallon's subterranean tones tell of "The Merry Wives of Windsor/ I swapped for cans of Spam/ While sipping fine Darjeeling/ with an Englishman/ I know folks in Liverpool/ as well as in Bombay/ All veterans of the trade."

So what the fuck does it mean?

"This was sort of inspired by something I learned in Denver," Fallon explains. "There's a group of guys, basically, they're just junk traders. They make their living by bartering junk, whether it be car parts of refrigerators or this, that and the other. And I kind of took that and exaggerated it a bit, and almost made it, I was thinking, like a Road Warrior type of situation."

Clutch had the music for the song "Red Horse Rainbow" for a long time, says Fallon. "One day we were practicing and I was just kind of singing gibberish into the microphone. And none of them were words. But the guys, after we finished practicing, they asked me what I was singing about, why I had said, "I believe in black horse rainbows.' Which I didn't think I'd said, but for some reason, they thought I had. So I kind of thought that was a cool image, and just switched it around a little bit. Having got that image, it kind of brought out, for lack of a better phrase, this fantasy metal thing. ... I grew up on that stuff, so this is sort of, you know, maybe my version of that."

So where else does Fallon's lyrical inspiration come from? He cites science-fiction writers like Gene Wolf, Ray Bradbury and Stanislaw Lem, as well as Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart and "a lot of old blues guys." But mainly, he says, "I just try to be a good listener. A lot of stuff I may hear in a conversation or on TV and just try to take it out of context. ... I try to just work with them on a sheet of paper so that they could stand on their own, instead of just having a bunch of "oh babys' and kind of fillers, you know, try to put some concrete nouns in there with good adjectives."

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