Hard to believe, I know, but over the course of their nine studio offerings, Maryland groove gods Clutch have gone from Eastwest hardcore-tinged upstarts to established blues rockers putting out albums to ever-greater fanfare, most recently via their new self-run label, Weathermaker Music. Released just yesterday (July 14), Strange Cousins from the West is in many ways the archetypal Clutch record for 2009. It hones in on the direction the band has taken since 2004′s Blast Tyrant — the beginning of the DRT Entertainment era, which culminated with 2007′s From Beale Street to Oblivion — planting mature riff-led rock songs with varying degrees of blues elements deep in the cerebral cortex of the audience while vocal madman Neil Fallon weaves tales of sleestaks and time spent in county lockup. If you can get past “Let a Poor Man Be” without a new brain-tattoo, consult a physician.
The man behind some of the catchiest guitar lines in stoner rock history, guitarist Tim Sult, recently sat down for an in-person chat at the House of Blues in Atlantic City, NJ. Clutch was headlining a bill with Wino (featuring Clutch drummer J.P. Gaster) and Shadows Fall, who replaced a missing Monster Magnet. The interview took place deep in the bowels of the Showboat casino, in some back room where on another night high roller executives might mingle with bored-looking women half their age and the scruffy likes of yours truly most assuredly would not be allowed.
Sult (like bassist Dan Maines, to whom I spoke a few months back about Clutch side-project The Bakerton Group) was humble to the point of being puzzled why I’d want to talk to him, but though our discussion was relatively short, it nonetheless gave me something to look forward to in that night’s set. Hope you click that “Read more” doohickey and dig it as much as I did.
It seems like you?ve found your sound over the years and refined it as you?ve gone along. Do you think of the band now as where you want to be or on your way?
It?s always a constantly changing thing. I think the most important thing is that we at least try not to write songs that sound exactly the same. At least for me, that?s the most important thing, to have a piece of music that is its own separate entity, as opposed to being able to interchange riffs. With some bands, you can just take one riff out of one song and put it in another song and it would sound perfectly fine. Maybe some of our stuff is like that, but I think at least for me the goal is to make each song its own separate entity, instead of just trying to write the same song over and over again and hope one is better than the next one.
When you guys are writing, do you write more songs than you?re going to record, or do you just write the songs you know you?re going to want?
It?s happened both ways. With this last album, we really didn?t have too much of a surplus of songs. We really only recorded one extra song that didn?t make the album. In the past we?ve recorded maybe three or four, five, that didn?t make the album, but this one we only recorded one extra one. It just really depends.
Why was it left off this time?
We just decided that we had to leave one off and that was the one that ended up getting left off. It?s actually going to come out as a free download or maybe on the vinyl version. It?s not a terrible song or anything like that. And Neil also did an English version of the Spanish song that?s on the record. So that?ll come out too, eventually.
How do you feel about working an album release through your own label? Is it different?
It is different, because this album cycle seems to already be more successful than any album cycle we?ve already done. The album hasn?t even come out yet. It?s coming out in like two weeks, and already at this point it seems like we?ve done more press, better press, it?s coming out in more countries than any of our other albums have ever come out. That?s awesome, but the fact that we were on major labels and they couldn?t accomplish the same things that one guy can accomplish at a desk in New Jersey ?
Nardachone?s pretty fantastic, to be fair ?
Yeah. So the answer to that question is it?s awesome to have our own label.
It seems like a lot of people are going that route and finding the same thing, particularly a band like Clutch. You have an established name and fanbase.
We?re in a perfect position to do it, so the time was right.
Was there anything specific coming off the last record you wanted to do differently?
Not particularly. For me personally I wanted a little heavier guitar tone and I think I accomplished that with this album. From my point of view, that?s really all I was going for.
I would agree with that. On the last record, I kind of bemoaned the mix. Nothing against Joe Barresi, but what happened with the guitars?
Looking back on it, I think maybe the guitars definitely do not sound like my guitar tone live, and I think on the new album it sounds like my guitar tone live, which I like. As far as recording-wise.
Of course you guys have put out a bunch of live records too, but is that the goal for the sound? Every album you guys do and even the last couple, it?s always sounded different each time and I?ve always thought that had a lot to do with who?s producing the record.
I think that might be the case.
How involved are you guys with the sound overall?
Totally. 100 percent involved.
How does the producer?s input come in?
I would say the most hands-on producers we?ve ever worked with were Jack Douglas who produced Elephant Riders, and Machine, who produced Blast Tyrant. With both those guys, we got together and did actual, real pre-production, where the producers had ideas for arrangements and stuff like that, as opposed to us just doing it all ourselves and not really worrying about pop arrangements.
How was it this time?
Working with J. [Robbins] is a very smooth, easy process. He?s definitely got all kinds of great ideas, but for this record, we really just went in and busted it out very quick. It?s very organic. We really didn?t think too hard about it. I would say it was the easiest album that Clutch has made probably since? ever. Ever! Ever, I?m gonna say.
It?s got a real natural flow to it. Elephant Riders, for example, feels very song, song, song. This moves right along and is smooth sounding. When you were actually recording, how much was done live?
Most of it. We go in, record basic drum tracks, so we?re all playing together. We just all get in a room and start playing. We keep as much as we can possibly keep, we?ll go through and fix guitar mistakes if we have to. At least for me, this album was very, very organically done. It didn?t feel like we were just building songs on ProTools. It felt like they were actual, real, organic songs.
You need to keep a balance, right? There?s the cut and paste commercial approach to it, then there?s the total other way, two-inch tape, the whole thing.
We definitely didn?t record on two-inch tape for this one. I think we did on Beale Street though. You never know (laughs). It sounds good. It all sounds good. It?s just different versions of awesome. Whether you?re gonna use ProTools or two-inch tape. They?re just different versions of awesome.
How about touring? You did this tour around the album release, and then you?ve got the September/October dates. The forever tour.
Not really. We?re doing this month here that we have coming up in July, then we have a month off. Then we do the next month after that. Basically it?s a two-month US tour with a month off.
How do you keep your head in all that? Is it just a matter of making sure you have that time off?
It?s really easy. I don?t feel like we tour all the time. Say for example, a band like Kylesa. They just drive around Europe in their van for three months straight. We really haven?t had to do anything that hard in a long time. Being on tour in Clutch these days is really not a difficult thing.
How does it compare to back when?
Touring in a van back in the old days is definitely the complete opposite of a bus tour, especially when you have negative $5,000 in your bank account. It?s a whole different deal. Touring now is awesome. Touring then was awesome too, but it was a whole different thing. We were so young and full of hope (laughs). Now we?re still full of hope. Just not young.Clutch, Gods, Maryland, Weathermaker