When Columbia Records signed Clutch in 1998, the band, which formed in 1991, had already built a substantial following on the strength of a couple indie releases and a relentless touring ethic. No doubt the major label intended to take the band's guttural-roar blend of funk, classic rock and metal all the way to the bank. The Hollywood suits heard ringing cash registers in the growl of Clutch's smoking rhythm section, and expected the band to appeal to the same masses who were lapping up the rap rock and "nü metal" that were there then, but gone now.
Things didn't exactly work out as planned. Clutch never broke huge, and Columbia gave up after one record, Elephant Riders. Atlantic Records next gave the band a shot, releasing 2001's Pure Rock Fury to similarly underwhelming commercial results. It's a story familiar to many: band builds following; band signs major label deal; band fades into obscurity after getting dropped like a hot potato by said label.
But Clutch found a different story arc. With the release of their latest album, Strange Cousins from the West—the band's seventh release since 2004, including live collections—the prolific Marylanders are bucking history. With little mainstream airplay, let alone hit singles, the band continues to grind out a living making music on their own terms. How is this possible?
"I think first of all, when we started the band the intention was to play shows and make records, and that was really it," says drummer Jean-Paul Gaster. "I don't think anybody here thought that we would make a lot of money. I don't think we ever thought we would actually make a living at this, doing this for as long as we have. So, I think the basic intention from the very beginning was just about the music, you know, and just keeping that honest. That still holds true to this day."
Dedication to the music, plus a grueling road schedule. Gaster says the band—including lead singer/guitarist Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult and bassist Dan Maines—performed as many as 250 shows a year when it first started, but looks to keep things a bit "more humane" now.
"You know, we have just released a new record so I suspect that we'll do 150–200 shows some time in the next year," he says.
Much has been made of the evolution of Clutch's sound. Earlier records are much more abrasive, and reflect a closer kinship with the punk bands the group would often play with as part of the hardcore Maryland/D.C. music legacy. In recent years, beginning with the release of 2004's Blast Tyrant, Clutch embraced a bluesy, earthier-sounding approach. An organ player, Mick Schauer, was added for 2005's Robot Hive/Exodus and 2007's From Beale Street to Oblivion, which deepened the discussion. For Strange Cousins, the band is back as a quartet, even as the sound builds on the steady progression that began in 2004. Gaster says it wasn't a planned evolution, but rather the result of musicians growing and maturing together.
"A big challenge for a musician is to find his own voice, and you do that by practicing and listening to records, picking out those things you like, and thinking about things that you don't particularly like," he says. "I think it's been a natural progression. It's been something that we don't really talk about that much. We just get together and we make the music that we want to make. We all are...we've all sort of dedicated ourselves to this lifestyle of making music. At the end of the day we all are musicians, and a musician's job is to play music. I think that we're just better at making the music these days."
Strange Cousins marks the first official Clutch studio release on the band's own label, Weathermaker Music. (A couple live albums were released in 2008 and 2009.) Owning a label has also allowed the band to experiment with side projects, including The Bakerton Group, which is the all-instrumental version of Clutch. Weathermaker also released a Bakerton album earlier this year titled El Rójo.
"Obviously if you are the label, you can pretty much put out whatever you want. So that makes things a lot easier from the get-go," Gaster says. "Every label is going to have their fingers in the pie, even just a little bit, because at the end of the day every label, even if it's an independent label, is there to make money off your music. End of story. And you've got to be aware of that; once you are then you can sort of function in that reality. So, having Weathermaker, you sort of take that out of the equation. I can't think of any label out there who'd say, 'Sure, we'd love to sign Clutch, and, by the way, why don't you guys do an instrumental record first.' You know that's not gonna happen!"
With the release of Strange Cousins, Clutch plans to spend the summer on the road promoting it onstage, and then reload for another spin through the country in the fall before heading overseas. Gaster understands the band's appeal in the United States after having traversed it multiple times over the better part of two decades, and plans to deliver on fans' high expectations.
"I think Clutch is the kind of a band where people bring their friends," he says. "Often times those are folks that sometimes don't even really know that much about the band or the music, but we play in such a way that it's sort of a, it's sort of a fun hang, you know? People come and it's kind of a party atmosphere, and everyone has a really good time."
Clutch plays The Wilma Theatre Sunday, July 26, at 7 PM with Baroness and Lionize.