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Fast, Loud, Live: Clutch On Returning to the Road With 'Sunrise On Slaughter Beach'

Thursday, 10 November 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Dan Winters

If Maryland rockers Clutch had a dollar for every time their latest release was hailed as the best of their career, their bank account would resemble the GDP of a small country and they could easily retire. But for a group who live to create immense studio records and unrivalled live shows, any notion of walking away would be, at best, unthinkable and, at worst, musical blasphemy.

After 30 years of pumping out bluesy, boozy rock ‘n’ roll with a barrage of intoxicating heavy funk-metal grooves, not to mention witty, wise and fantastically evocative lyrics, Neil Fallon, Tim Sult, Dan Maines and Jean Paul Glaster recently made what might be—you guessed it—their finest work to date. 

A thrillingly varied and idiosyncratic colossus that resulted from a very different creative process, ‘Sunrise on Slaughter Beach’ proves that necessity is the mother of invention. The outcome may be as splendid as ever, even if the pandemic-lined road to album number 13 was a new one. 

Prior to the band arriving in the UK for two separate headline tours, one in November followed by further gigs throughout December, we caught up with bassist Maines to hear all about the unique creation of the LP, while also learning how their individual and collective skills combine to create a signature brand of sonic voodoo that continues to go from strength strength. 

Every Clutch album seems to get labelled as your best yet. Does that ever get inside your heads and add extra pressure to outdo yourselves?

We think about types of songs, types of music, that we’d like to incorporate into an album and I think that, given the amount of time we were afforded for this album, we ended up writing a lot of material, which makes it all the more ironic that it’s actually our shortest. For that reason we wanted to make a concerted effort to make sure each song had its own space that it occupied within the album as far as what type of song it was, tempo-wise, feel-wise and instrumentation-wise. 

Speaking for myself, after ‘The Book Of Bad Decisions’ came out, which I love, my only complaint was that maybe we put too many songs on it. That was something we were definitely paying attention to when it was time to come up with an order for this release. We recorded more than nine songs in the studio, so there are B-sides to ‘...Slaughter Beach.’ Those that were left off are not terribly unique when stacked up against the nine we chose to put on the record. So our thought was ‘well, let’s just trim the fat’ and that’s what we did. 

You’ve said that, initially, writing this record wasn’t going as quickly or easily as you’d hoped and maybe the level of inspiration was not at your normal level. Why was that and what was the turning point?

Covid definitely had an impact on our headspace. I can’t think of a time where we had not toured for as long, for any reason. It was challenging and took a little time to get over that slope. Some of the stuff we were writing was cool and some probably wasn’t, but there was a point we finally felt comfortable, probably after doing [live stream shows] Doom Saloons. We were enjoying that, it improved our spirits a lot. You’re not in front of an audience, you don’t get that immediate feedback, but we still knew you guys were out there, people were having fun and it was a lot of fun for us. 

That set things in motion and then we made an early decision about who we wanted to work with on the album, and that was Tom Dalgety. He started working with us, physically being in the room with us, at least six months before we recorded. That was a big motivation. Thankfully he was already making trips to the States because he was working on two other albums at the same time. Pixies and The Cult. So we blocked out time for his schedule, we would write, he would come to our rehearsal space in Maryland and hang out for a few days, listen to what we were doing, give us notes and then take off. Then we would re-team two or three months after that. That’s when everything became like a snowball and we were feeling good about where this music was headed.        

Jean Paul has said that ‘Sunrise...’, in some ways, is the most different record you’ve made in a long time’ because you didn’t work the songs up on the road like you normally do.

It definitely affected the decisions on certain instrumentation. I don’t think if we’d been playing the songs live we would have been as quick to put backing vocals on as many as we did. We are very hesitant about doing things on record we know is going to be difficult to translate to a live show. But I’m glad we decided to go with those vocals because they did a fantastic job. 

The one real standout instrument, the theremin, was actually Tom’s idea. Skeleton On Mars had a ‘60s sci-fi feel to it and his thinking was that a theremin is a well known instrument in that whole genre. It just happened that the studio in Baltimore we record at, J. Robbins’ Studio, he’s a damn good theremin player. So he laid down those tracks for us and Neil has been brave enough to purchase a theremin and does a great job live.      

On We Strive For Excellence, you initially hold your bassline back and then kick in later on during the verses. It increases the momentum and propulsion in such a simple but effective way.

I try to come up with a bassline that doesn’t follow the guitar part, unless we decide it sounds best if the guitar and bass are doing the same thing. The simplest ideas are always the ideas that don’t come to me quickly, for some reason. It was probably Tom who said, ‘You know what, in the second half of the verse why don’t you just go bum bum bum bum.’ A part doesn’t have to be complicated to have a big impact.  

You’ve said that, in Clutch, it’s all about trying sit in the pocket with Jean Paul. For people who might not understand that, how do you describe being in the pocket? 

It’s just finding the tempo of the song, whether Jean Paul’s emphasising quarter notes, half notes or eighth notes, and trying to lock into the heartbeat of the song. Subconsciously I’m always thinking of a melodic bassline before the note factors. I want to complement but also elevate. Jack Bruce is one of my favourite bass players.

He was a big influence on, not my early development, but by the time self-titled came around I was definitely listening to a lot of Cream and Jack Bruce was a big influence on the basslines I was writing for that album. That approach always sticks with me. He’s a very melodic player. People like Chris Squire, he’s better at approaching the bass as a percussive and melodic instrument at the same time. That’s something I try to be better at. It sometimes works better to think of the bass as a percussion instrument and as a drum in itself. That will help a lot.  

Tim’s work on this album is, as ever, deeply textured, evocative, versatile and powerful. Would you say he’s an underrated guitarist who deserves more acclaim?

He’s one of the best guitar players I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if he’s underrated. I like to think, as a collective, everybody in this band holds their own in their own capacity. But Tim is somebody who, when I was in the band in the beginning and learning to play bass, I was watching Tim. I’d only been playing guitar for about a year before I started playing with these guys. I picked up a bass for the first time, didn’t really know what to do, so I watched the guitar player. I learned a lot from Tim, no doubt, and we like to call him Timmy Hendrix.    

As ever, there are some cracking middle eights on this record. Where some bands just use them as functional passages, yours are always dynamic, dramatic and add much more colour and atmosphere. What’s the thought process behind how you approach and construct those parts?

You definitely want that part to be a tangent, something that could theoretically stand on its own in a completely different song, but acts as a glue to the rest of the song. The big part is making sure it’s a strong foundation for vocals. I’ve noticed, working with producers in the past, the four of us have a very different idea of what a verse and a chorus and a middle eight is than an outsider.

There were many times, where we were discussing the arrangement of a song with Tom, one of us would say ‘Why don’t we do the chorus here?’ thinking everybody’s idea of the chorus was the same. For the four of us it usually was, but Tom was like, ‘That’s not the chorus. I would never think that that was the chorus.’ But for the middle section, number one, it has to be a departure of some kind from the bulk of the song and it’s also got to be a great foundation for Tim to play a lead over, or for Neil to be able to put vocals on, that really makes the song take a tangent or a little side step.      

The day after you launched the new record you played it in full during a live stream show from Hammerjacks. Was there any trepidation about doing that seeing as your new songs, as you’ve said, hadn’t been forged on tour and road tested prior to recording them?

There was some of that because, like you said, we had only been playing three of those songs in front of an audience prior to recording it. Since that Baltimore show was on the front end of the tour we tried to play the stuff as much as possible during soundchecks, as well as throwing them in the set lists here and there. Streaming shows like that, even in a controlled environment like our jam room in Maryland, can become a bit of headache because you never know what’s gonna work until it’s time to push forward. Despite all of that, I thought it went down really well and it was definitely a lot of fun to play those songs for somewhat of a hometown crowd.

Have the new tracks started evolving now that you’re playing them live and getting that belated audience feedback?

One thing I’ve noticed is we’re playing the songs a lot faster.

Even Red Alert (Boss Metal Zone)? 

Especially that one. There’s a different energy between playing the song in your rehearsal space and in front of an audience at a venue. That’s the main reason we like playing new material on tour before we go into the studio. We get a chance to tap into that kind of energy. You’re feeding off the crowd and it does give a sense of whether something works or not. It has been a unique challenge to get on the road and play some of these songs because a few were built in the studio. Or certain parts didn’t come into action until we were in the recording process. 

So it’s like a weird backward step, listening to the album to figure out what you played. We try to play a pretty diverse set every night and a lot of times that requires going on Spotify and listening to a song that you haven’t played in a while. I’m always surprised when I notice how much a song has changed between the way that it was recorded and how we ended up playing it live over the years. But that’s one of the things that makes it exciting and keeps you on your toes.     

And finally, with the band about to return to the UK for two separate runs, it’s well known you guys each take it in turn to pick your setlists. So what can fans expect when it’s your turn to craft the running order?

On this last tour I found myself gravitating towards the really old stuff. Stuff from our Earache EP and the first LP we did ‘Transnational Speedway League’. If you give yourself enough of a break, you go back to something and it breathes new life into it. The new album, there are a few songs we maybe played 10 times before they were recorded. Those were exciting to play because there are things about the new album I definitely approach differently after playing them in front of an audience.

A lot of it isn’t anything anybody would necessarily notice, but the dynamics become a little more apparent when you’re playing live. Parts you want to pay a little more attention to, as far as a certain swing you didn’t notice beforehand. Those are things that come with playing a song more and more times. That’s one of the reasons we started doing the ‘Weathermaker Vault Series’ recordings, because a number of songs have been in our live set over the years that we’re just better at playing now than when we were in the studio recording them. It’s nice to be able to have that second chance at updating our interpretation of a piece of music.    

Clutch Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri November 11 2022 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow
Sat November 12 2022 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE O2 City Hall
Sun November 13 2022 - LEEDS O2 Academy Leeds
Tue November 15 2022 - EXETER Exeter Great Hall
Wed November 16 2022 - BRIGHTON Brighton Dome Concert Hall
Tue December 13 2022 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Wed December 14 2022 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy Birmingham
Thu December 15 2022 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy
Fri December 16 2022 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Sat December 17 2022 - LONDON Roundhouse

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