- Dan Winters
Like many teens that grew up in the ’80s, Clutch guitarist Tim Sult gravitated to the hard rock music of the era.
“I got into rock and classic rock and heavy metal when I was a younger teenager,” he explains via phone from his Maryland home. “I was influenced by stuff like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden. I liked the hair metal stuff of the day, too, like Motley Crue’s ‘Shout at the Devil’ and the first Ratt album and all that. The early Ozzy stuff with Randy Rhoads was a huge influence as well. Black Sabbath too. That was the stuff around in my era when I started playing guitar. That’s the era I come from — when hair metal was still metal.”
[jump] Somewhere along the line, however, his style of playing morphed as Clutch became a truly unique act in the hard rock world. While the band’s music could be called heavy metal/hard rock, the group also draws from the blues and from progressive rock.
“I think our music comes out the way it does because we’re all involved in the creative process with every song and we’re contributing as much as we can,” says Sult. “Even though Neil [Fallon] is the main lyricist, we work on the music together and we just start beating up riffs until their vocal friendly. That has a lot to do with it. Every song is a true collaborative process.”
The band’s latest album, Psychic Warfare, simply can’t be pigeonholed. A terrific collection of tunes that show a breadth of musical influences, it might be the band’s best effort yet and it serves as a testament to the band’s staying power.
When the group first formed in Maryland in 1991, Sult admits the guys didn’t have any idea that they’d be together some 24 years later.
“Well, I don’t think we were thinking in quarter century terms as that point,” he says. “We were just hoping to be together for two years. Every time I think about it, I think it’s really a miracle.”
Released in 1991, the 12-inch single "Passive Restraints" got the band some attention from a variety of labels and set the group on its course.
“That was the first time we ever got played on the radio,” says Sult. “We got to go on tour and play some real shows. That was where it all started. Just the fact that we went on tour and never came back. That was the first time we got radio exposure and national recognition.”
The exposure resulted in a cult following of loyal fans. That, in turn, caught the attention of major labels and they came knocking. Columbia Records would release the 1998 album, The Elephant Riders.
“We have four albums that we put out on major labels,” says Sult. “For us, there were a couple of times where we got tour support and it helped us to get out there. Our early albums would have never gotten into stores if it weren’t for the fact that we were on major labels. We never had that much of a negative experience but at the same time, from our first album on, we knew that if we wanted to do it and keep doing it, we would have to depend on ourselves and not a record label constantly funding us. Or we would just drown in debt. Early on, we figured out how to be self-sufficient and pay for our own touring and make it all happen on our own.”
Given the band’s unique approach, it’s easy to imagine how confusing the music might have sounded for major label types who often adhere to convention when it comes to marketing and promoting bands.
“I’m pretty sure about 97 percent of all employees at every major label we were on were very confused by what we were doing,” says Sult. “The fact that we had an audience was what drew them to us. They would come to our shows and see that people came to our shows and knew who the band is and enjoyed the music. Looking back on it, our early music is even less commercial than our current music that we make these days. I understand the fact that most people at major labels were very confused by what was happening with Clutch.”
For the new album, Psychic Warfare, the group took its time when it came to writing the songs.
“We started the songwriting process about a year after we ended the songwriting process for [2013’s] Earth Rocker,” says Sult. “It was a while ago. We recorded Psychic Warfare almost a year ago. We waited a little while to put it out. As far as the songwriting process goes, we did a lot more pre-production this time with the producer. We would write a batch of songs and fly him up from Texas to our rehearsal space and try to refine those songs as much as possible. We would forget about those five and try to write five more songs. We had several batches of songs we worked on. In general, we spent more time on the songwriting process than we ever have with any of our albums in the past.”
As a result, the recording went much smoother as the band knew exactly what it wanted to accomplish in the studio.
“We had every single part that we knew we were going to record,” says Sult. “We had demoed and done pre-production. When we got into the studio, we were more focused. We were more focused than we’d been on any other recording. On the older stuff, going into the studio was more loose. We would write material in the studio but this time we didn’t do that.”
The album really resonated with fans. It debuted at No. 11 in Billboard Top 200 as well as at No. 1 on both the Rock and Hard Rock Charts. Prior to its release, the band released its tenth studio album, Earth Rocker, via its own label Weathermaker Music. That album entered the Billboard Top 200 chart at No. 15, giving the band its highest chart position to date.
With its woozy vocals and bluesy guitar licks, one of the album highlights, “A Quick Death in Texas,” sounds like heavy rendition of a ZZ Top track.
“Musically, that was the last song we wrote for the album,” says Sult. “We finished when we were in Texas getting ready to record. I know [singer] Neil [Fallon] wrote the lyrics for it. I don’t know if you ever heard of the ’70s band Captain Beyond. The original singer of Deep Pruple ended up in the band. They have one or two albums that are totally awesome that you should check out. Musically, the song sounds like a cross between that band and ZZ Top. They’re like a real heavy riff band.”
The twangy “Doom Saloon” provides a great segue into the album’s second half, which comes off as a bit more subdued than the first half.
“It’s the intro to ‘Our Lady of the Electric Lights,’” Sult says. “We just broke it into two pieces because we wanted to. It’s a bit different than anything we have done in the past. It has a Pink Floyd-meets-Americana vibe. It does kind of usher in the second half of the album.”
The band’s concerts have always drawn well. Sult says the old fans keep coming back, and new fans continue to come as well.
“It seems like we do have a working class fan base — just regular people,” says Sult. “Over the years, these regular people have grown up and their children are into us too. There is a lot of gray hair at our shows but there are more younger people than I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing to look out on the crowd and know that a large percentage has never seen us before. That’s amazing that we can go out and play shows and so many people are seeing us fro the first time. We don’t have to rely on getting the old people to continue coming back. They seem to do that anyway.”
So what’s been the key to keeping the band together without any lineup changes?
“We have always tried to move forward artistically,” says Sult. “We’re always writing new material. We try not to repeat ourselves. We could have easily said, “We have so much success with ‘Passive Restraints,’ we should make every song sound like that.” The fact that we didn’t do that and that we just continue to play shows is important. We just haven’t gone away. As far as building a fanbase, that’s the most important thing. We’re looking forward to the next song, the next tour. We’ve never stopped. We’ve never been at a stand still and had nowhere to go. We’ve always had a place to move forward. It’s a minor miracle when I think about it and how long it’s been. It doesn’t seem like that to us. It doesn’t seem like 25 years. It just seems like part of life.”
Clutch, Crobot, Valkyrie, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 30, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., 216-881-2221. Tickets: $25 ADV, $29 DOS, agoracleveland.com.