Coming Through in the Clutch

Rock bands are used to dealing with the unexpected. Missed sound checks, flat tires, broken strings, nonexistent hotel reservations and stolen amps are all part of the routine for the privileged few who get to make music for a living. Just watch out for the cock punch.

Thus Neil Fallon, vocalist with pile- driving rockers Clutch, describes the unexpected things that can derail a band's tour in a millisecond. For Fallon and his band, the CP took the form of a washing machine that slipped off a dolly while it was being moved by guitarist Tim Sult. The wayward Maytag crushed Sult's left wrist only a week before the band's tour began August 20 in Indianapolis. The band was ready to cancel the tour when Jack Flanagan, a longtime member of Clutch's inner circle, stepped in to fill Sult's slot.

Even though the shows will go on, the band still faces a difficult few months. "We're shit out of luck for the rest of the year," Fallon concedes on the phone. "There's the new album to finish, so it looks like it won't be done until 2004. You can't get mad about it. Shit happens. Tim's wrist is all held together on the outside with these wires -- he looks like the Terminator -- so it all depends on how well he recovers. I'm sure he's thinking up all these new terrifying riffs he can try out."

Luckily Fallon is more than capable of hoisting the tour on his shoulders. Had his razor-wire vocal chords been silenced, the Zeppelinesque, Maryland-based band's tour certainly would have been canceled. Fallon's stream-of-consciousness lyrics can claim that much of the credit for that critical esteem and fan support the band has won. Of course, no band can tour without its front man, but in this case it seems doubly true.

Led Zeppelin, Black Flag and Frank Zappa are the names most often used in attempts to describe Clutch. One of those three always mystifies Fallon, who is content to simply call his band's music plain old "rock and roll."

"I never listened to Zappa in my life until I started to see all these comparisons turning up," he says. "I suppose it has to do with some off-the-wall lyrics, but that's a stretch. I mean, we're certainly not esoteric math rock."

Maybe not, but Clutch has had no trouble gaining fans over the years by offering up a basic, unalterable formula: left-field lyrics and thundering bass lines backed by powerhouse drumming and a smattering of wa-wa pedal.

Hey, it could be Zeppelin. Fallon concurs, saying that the ageless band is the only hard rock outfit he still feels passionate about.

"I'm really not a fan of rock music much anymore," he says. "I suppose it has to do more with the fact that I'm surrounded by it constantly, at clubs with other bands. So the traditional four-piece rock setup can become very redundant."

Fallon, who names Tom Waits and Nick Cave as his songwriting idols, says Clutch has avoided becoming a cliché by still putting most of its energies into its live show and by having some kind of story to tell, even if it's a vague or obtuse one. Whether he sings about 1973 Dodge Swingers or "Leathean grazers" or exhorts the youth of America to "build your ship and sail across the sea of flames" -- Blue Öyster Cult, watch out -- it somehow seems so authoritative.

Though he doesn't mention any names (hint: skim down the roster at Buzzfest 12), Fallon says it's too easy for young bands to base their experiences on teen angst, and adds that musicians who keep reaching back to sing about the same things over and over are fakers.

"Singing about that kind of emotion when you're 31 isn't the most attractive thing you could do as an artist," he says diplomatically.

Fallon was seven when he heard an acid rock album, from which he learned that there were songs out there that weren't inane love ditties. Soon thereafter he discovered Zeppelin, and then hardcore punk. By the time he and his friends graduated from high school in 1989, Fallon had already been to his first Bad Brains concert. The sophisticated D.C. punk band taught him that there was more to the so-called hardcore scene than mere naked aggression.

"Sure, you can easily tap in to that basic instinct, because violence sells," he says. "But what do you do when you keep it turned on to 11 all the time and paint yourself into a corner? Release an after-the-brawl record?"

Still, the emotion of the live performance is what keeps Clutch on the move, considering its music will never find a home as a beer commercial soundtrack. The band's latest album is its first live recording, Live at the Googolplex, recorded on old-fashioned eight-track technology complete with out-of-tune guitars and other little mistakes left in. Considering Sult's situation, it looks like that and an upcoming B-sides/out-takes collection will have to be enough to satisfy fans until that next studio album, the follow-up to the bludgeoning Pure Rock Fury.

And when the new record does come out, Fallon suggests, his fans may be in for a surprise. Fallon believes that changing things up -- drastically, if need be -- is vital if you want to have a long career. "That's a risk you should be prepared to take as an artist. Artists who change for aesthetic values have more to say as creators, otherwise you're one of these bands that sticks with a specific sound because they know it will get played on the radio."

Ergo, expect to be alarmed. "I think it's time to bring back the power ballad," he says with a laugh. "I've been doing some recordings on my own which are kind of laid-back compared to what you might expect. I think the acoustic guitar fingering might scare the bejesus out of the Clutch fans."

Not to mention critics. What music scribe worth his spot on the guest list could compare a guy to both Bryan Adams and Frank Zappa with a straight face? Clutch appears Saturday, September 6, at the Engine Room, 1515 Pease. Mastodon is also on the bill. For more information, call 713-654-7846.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr