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In Clutch's world, it's either go hard or go home

As Clutch prepare to unleash another round of groove-laden jams, we dig inside their musical upbringing...

America is broken, perhaps beyond repair. The headlines tell you all you need to know: police shootings, gang warfare, racism, riots, murder, an unfair economy, poverty, corporate greed. Amorality has swamped humanity. The results are in, and hatred and greed won.

Neil Fallon feels this all more keenly than most of his countrymen. It is, he agrees, easy to look at America and despair. 

“It’s always been in despair,” he says. “There’s an invalid argument that there was a golden age here. Maybe there was for some people, but that person’s golden age was someone else’s nightmare. On the other hand, when you see the same street-corner building burning over and over again on a 24-hour news cycle, it tends to make it look like the sky is falling.”

When he talks, it sounds like he’s thought about everything he’s going to say well in advance. He speaks slowly and evenly in clear sentences, never stumbling over his words, even when it’s an explosive subject. Here he is, for instance, on the recent spate of police shootings in the US, in which young, unarmed African-Americans were killed by the very people who were supposed to protect them.

“If you’ll allow me to wax philosophical for a moment, people – not just Americans – have a very short memory. US history is short. The Civil War and slavery just happened yesterday in terms of human history, and the United States is still dealing with that. It will always be dealing with that. It defines what this country is and is not. When you see riots in any US city, not just because of the economy or a police killing, it has to do with a very ugly period in our history, which just happened yesterday.”

There’s no undercurrent of controversy for controversy’s sake here. In an era when bellicose swagger is part of the rock star’s job, Neil Fallon is out there on his own. 

“There’s a small-town psychology in America that gets exaggerated on a national level,” he says. “We think that we are the centre of the universe. And we’re the farthest thing from it.”

Clutch have just released their 11th album, Psychic Warfare. Like its predecessor, 2013’s Earth Rocker, it streamlines their multitude of influences – hardcore punk, classic rock and metal, the blues, jazz and Washington, DC go-go music – into a relentlessly kinetic whole. Next year marks the band’s 25th anniversary. Both Neil and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster insist they have zero intention of celebrating it.

“Absolutely not,” says Jean-Paul, as upbeat and direct as his bandmate is thoughtful and considered. “We’re turned off by nostalgia. We’re always thinking of something new.”

To understand Clutch today, you have to know where they came from. Getting together in Germantown, Maryland, they were simultaneously removed enough not to be swayed by every passing cultural fad and close enough to the great metropolises of America’s East Coast to latch onto to the important stuff. New York and Philadelphia were four hours’ drive; Baltimore was 45 miles to the south, and the nation’s capital, Washington DC, was on their doorstep.

It was the latter that exerted the greatest gravitational pull on them. The clubs and dives of south DC were their stomping ground, most notably the 9:30 club, cradle of the influential Dischord hardcore scene spearheaded by Minor Threat and, later, Fugazi. 

“I can’t count how many times I would see Fugazi roll up to a place that wasn’t suited to a rock show and play under fluorescent lights,” says Neil. “No light show, no t-shirts for sale, they just burned down the house. That bare-bones ethic affected us deeply.”

But they were affected just as deeply, if not more, by DC’s other prominent music scene: go-go. Essentially funk on steroids, go-go emerged in the early 70s as a reaction to the cultural chaos of the late 60s – riots, poverty, racial unrest. It was pure escapism. Sets would last two or three hours, with no breaks between songs. “Chuck Brown, the guy who originated it all, noticed that people would sit down in the breaks between the songs,” says Jean-Paul. “So they just got rid of them and carried on playing.”

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