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“You kill that deer?” a man asks, staring down at the mangled carcass lying in the blood-soaked brush. “Uh, no,” Neil Fallon answers uncomfortably. “It was just lying here when I came home.” Fallon motions toward the car-crushed doe at the end of his driveway.

The man kicks the animal in the belly. “Well, it’s pretty bloated,” he proudly declares. “I’d say it’s been dead ’bout six hours.”

“Yeah?” Fallon replies, slowly making his way back to the house.

“‘Bout six hours!” the man yells, first eyeing the deer, then Fallon.

Returning to the spot a few hours later, Fallon searches for the deer’s body, only to discover a trail of matted grass leading alongside the road, bits of fur and flesh caught in the dense West Virginia thicket.

“Damn,” he mumbles to himself, “free meat.”

“Stonewall Jackson stayed in this house.” Jean Paul Gaster announces, perched on a makeshift bench on his front porch. “I’d imagine, back in the day this was a beautiful house.”

Today, however, it’s home to Clutch, a band that has ventured out of Maryland, its home state, to live in this slightly dilapidated house in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.

“Originally there were gardens that went all the way down to the Potomac River,” says Gaster, sounding more like a tour guide than a drummer, as he points down a tree-covered hill.

“I tried to make some bike trails down there,” Dan Maines, the band’s bassist and BMX expert, mumbles. “Too much mud.”

It’s an unseasonably warm January night, and Clutch is having a cookout. Gaster hops up occasionally to check the chicken on the grill, while Maines, Fallon (Clutch’s singer), and Larry Packer, the band’s recording engineer, lounge on a porch that recalls Sanford and Son more than grand 18th-century living.

“It’s warm like this because of the comet,” Packer observes, leaning back on a tattered couch. “You should ask Tim about the comet.” But Tim Sult, Clutch’s guitarist, has already turned in for the night.

“Yeah man, Art Bell. Tim’s really into Art Bell,” Gaster says, explaining that Sult idolizes the idiosyncratic radio host and conspiracy theorist. Bell’s show, which airs between 2 and 6 a.m. on 930 AM, has attained an extensive cult following. Bell’s latest thesis, that the U.S. government is suppressing information about a comet hurtling through space on a collision course with Earth, is Sult’s main topic of conversation these days.

Imminent destruction aside, the Clutch boys have found an idyllic spot to record their third full-length album. Built in the 1780s, the macabre mansion is cradled among heavily wooded acreage—not a place you’d like to happen upon on a dark and stormy night.

“Four women used to live here before we did,” Gaster explains. “They were here for about eight years.” The band members have only lived in the house since June. “One of them actually wrote a diary about how she would ‘hear the ghosts’ and ‘feel the spirits.’ She was kind of like a hippie chick,” he smirks.

“But you think about all the people who were born here, died here, and were even conceived here…” Gaster trails off.

“Our real estate agent is supposed to be looking up the history of the house,” Fallon says. “Guess she’s still working on it…” Either that or she’s found it and doesn’t want to show it to them.

Phantoms or not, I insist on a tour.

“This house has a lot of tone,” Gaster claims, standing in what appears to have been a formal living room but which is now occupied by Orange stacks and a massive drum set. “You walk in this house, set up your drums, and you can’t help but play well. There’s so much weight to it.”

He points out the ornate woodwork throughout the house. “Judging the style of it, I’d say it was redone in the ’20s,” Gaster observes, standing beneath a chandelier in the foyer. He’s a proficient woodworker, to which his handmade bedroom set attests.

“The barn in the back would make a killer woodshop one day,” he smiles. “If we sell some records.”

But living in this Blue Ridge paradise hasn’t been without its pitfalls, such as the recent fire.

“It’s amazing how much smoke it takes to wake a person up,” Gaster recalls. “The smoke was so dense I couldn’t see a foot in front of me.” The fire, started by embers caught beneath the wall and the fireplace, was, according to the firemen, burning beneath the floor in his bedroom for two days.

“That was no fun at all,” Packer says, recollecting visions of gathering expensive recording equipment from the second story to save it from the smoke. Luckily, all the fire left behind was a few charred floorboards and a scent reminiscent of a Hickory Farms store.

“Back in that corner,” Gaster says, continuing the tour by pointing into what was once a sun room, but is now a storage room piled with guitars, drum heads, and cables, “I found two 5-foot black snakes wrapped up around each other, mating.”

The house, like something out of The Amityville Horror, was once so overrun with snakes that it has become a local legend.

“One of the guys that was here putting out the fire was working on plumbing in the basement…” Fallon says.

“This was 20 years ago!” Gaster interjects, laughing.

“And he said there were snakes all over the fucking place,” Fallon continues. “Hanging from the rafters, all over the floor. He came running out of the house, leaving all his tools behind. He said if we found his tools we could have them because he’s never going back down there.”

The members of Clutch have known each other since their high-school days in the late ’80s at Seneca Valley in Germantown. They have played music together in one lineup or another ever since.

“In the very beginning we had a hard time getting shows,” Fallon admits, crouching in an upstairs room next to Packer’s mixing board. “But I remember when we got a call from d.c. space. They didn’t know us from Adam, but we gave them tapes and bugged them incessantly enough to let us play. And they did.”

“If you’re in a band,” Gaster states, “coming up in D.C. is hard.”

“Unless you’re a doorman at a club,” Packer quips.

“D.C. is a hard place to get shows,” Gaster continues. “A lot of my friends who play in bands in the area can’t get shows. The new 9:30 Club certainly won’t give them a chance, but then again the bottom line is people are just trying to make money. Why would you book some local band who isn’t going to draw any people?”

“But 9:30 was hip,” Maines remembers. “I loved the old place. I thought getting a show there would be really hard because all the bands I wanted to see played there.” And what bands inspired Maines to trek into the city? “Bad Brains,” he smiles. “Just Bad Brains.”

Clutch’s first recorded release, a 7-inch single called “Pitchfork,” won much acclaim in the independent music press in 1991.

“There was a fella in New York, Jim Welch, who got wind of our 7-inch,” Fallon says. “He was in charge of the American branch of Earache Records.” Earache, an English label known for its grindcore roster, offered to release a Clutch EP. “He came to one of our shows,” Fallon continues. “He was honest enough to tell us to get a lawyer and a manager beforehand. We didn’t have the slightest idea that was in our best interest.”

Welch was right about the lawyer. Clutch’s experience with Earache owner Digby Pearson was pretty much a nightmare.

“I can’t think of one band that’s on Earache that has anything good to say about them,” Fallon says. “We shared a bus with Fudge Tunnel (a band signed to the label), and the stories they told us were just precious. They live in the same town in England [that Earache is based in]. They said they’d go to the label’s office, knock on the door, and Digby would hide behind his desk and pretend he wasn’t there.”

“You know, when this whole alternative thing started to happen,” Gaster asserts, “‘alternative,’ ‘punk rock,’ whatever name you want to use, a lot of bands started getting picked up by major labels. Then the indie labels took off. The bottom line is, Earache is an indie label with a huge reputation.” He shakes his head. “And they’re just a bunch of rip-off artists.”

“In retrospect,” says Fallon, “we’re happy with what they did with the record, but we’re not happy with what they’re doing with our money.” He claims royalties from the EP were never paid to Clutch. “Earache says they’re paying somebody some money, but it hasn’t been us.”

“Well,” Fallon smiles, “we got some free death-metal CDs out of it.”

Over the past few years, Clutch has dealt with its share of music industry blowhards but in the process has reaped the benefits: creative and financial freedom.

“It’s kinda worked out so that we don’t have to kill ourselves in a regular studio,” Gaster shrugs. “Where you go in, you’re booked for 12 hours, you record for 12 hours.”

Having the house, which they affirm they will buy after the release of the record, has worked to their advantage. “We rented this house to make the best record we could possibly make,” Gaster claims. “And we wouldn’t record it here if we felt like we would be compromising the record in some way. Every time we go into high-budget studios it never seems to work out very well.”

After signing to eastwest, a division of Elektra, in 1993, Clutch felt the pressures of being on a major label.

“When we signed they immediately started to talk about producers,” Gaster continues.

“And they forgot about me,” Packer pouts. He, along with the band, has co-produced the majority of Clutch’s recorded material. Since the initial eastwest album, Transnational Speedway League, the band has returned to Packer’s Uncle Punchy Studios in Silver Spring to record subsequent releases.

“We were a young band, and we thought that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Gaster protests. “So we listened to what people said and made a piece of garbage. That record could have been a lot better than it was.”

“We drove all the way out to San Francisco to record it,” Fallon recalls. “That was a mistake. Once we got there, we stayed in some hotel and then we had to get [the record] done in a certain amount of time. We felt rushed.”

“We finally learned our lesson,” Gaster admits. “So we went back to Larry’s studio. We’re comfortable there, and we make good-sounding records.”

While Clutch has attained underground success, its attempt to garner mainstream airplay has met with unforeseen hurdles.

“Radio these days isn’t really what the listeners want to hear,” Fallon says, shaking his head in disgust. “It’s all backdoor politics, some guy getting paid to convince radio stations what to play.”

“Every band out there doesn’t deserve to have their song on the radio,” Maines explains, “but I’m surprised we don’t get the kind of radio play you’d think we’d get. There’s no explanation for that. Right now we’re on Atlantic, which I assumed was a major label.”

“They’re a big label, right?” Gaster honestly asks. “You’d think if your band got signed to a major label you’d at least get played in your hometown.” Clutch’s first single, “Big News I,” off its latest, self-titled release, immediately became the most requested song, not in D.C. but at a Detroit radio station. “They play our song a few times a week on that station, and you wouldn’t believe what it does,” Gaster says. “You can go to a town, have people at your shows, and actually make a little bit of money.” The group’s popularity in Detroit gave Clutch what many bands would consider a dream show: “We headlined over the Misfits and Anthrax,” Gaster smiles. “Which is kind of cool, I guess.”

Another high point was last month’s “Super Bowl of Hardcore” at the Capitol Ballroom, which Clutch also headlined.

“That was a really great show,” Gaster recalls. “I don’t think we’ve ever had that good of a show in D.C. It was cool. I watched Agnostic Front play from the side of the stage with my Uncle Eddie.”

“Uncle Eddie’s a cool guy,” Packer remarks.

“Yeah man, Uncle Eddie loves to party,” Gaster smiles. “He’s a huge Clutch fan.”

Uncle Eddie is a 45-year-old Uruguayan.

Clutch consistently plays successful one-off headlining gigs. Most recently, however, the band returned from a coveted opening slot on the Marilyn Manson tour.

“People ask us all the time what it was like touring with Marilyn Manson,” Gaster says. “But it was like any other tour—it was long. Except, that guy would walk around with a silver contact in one eye and in women’s lingerie, but then he’d come up and ask you, ‘What’s up man? How you doin’?’ and I’m supposed to respond to him in a serious fashion.”

After giving me the grand tour of the house, the band members quietly reconvene on the porch—all except Sult, who still sleeps serenely; he has been surprisingly unfazed by all the commotion.

“You’d think making a record like this, the music would be a lot more relaxed,” Gaster says quietly, balanced on his bench.

“Yeah,” Maines lazily agrees, leaning against a column, Dr. Pepper in hand.

Every few seconds, the now-chilly breeze wafts the smell of burned-out coals from the grill in our direction. Over the mountains an air-raid siren shrieks, seemingly unheeded. And I sit, sipping on some microbrew with the words “Blue Ridge” in its name, staring at a rubber snake at Maines’ feet.

“It’s taking us a lot longer to get these songs together, don’t you think?” Gaster says, looking up at Maines, who has just taken a swig of his soda.

“That’s because,” Maines chokes, “they’re more complicated. We’re trying to do something different.”

“Well guys, I’m going to bed,” Fallon groans, lifting himself off the weather-beaten couch. “Good night,” he waves, the screen door slamming behind him.

For a few moments we sit, the clap of the door ringing in our ears.

“I guess,” Gaster says pensively, breaking the silence, “we’re trying to make this record sound like a mix between Steely Dan and Eye Hate God.” CP