This is a great interview that appeared in Flipside #69, Nov/Dec 1990. I've made no edits to the original text, so Clawhammer as one word, Jon as "John", that's Flipside's fault. This is reproduced without permission. Forgive me, Flipside!
(introduction)Clawhammer are one of those bands you might see casually a few times, then one night they catch you off guard and totally devastate you like the latest strain of killer virus. The funny thing is, you can never shake it. You're not exactly sick, but you'll never be the same again. After quite a few singles and one LP, these guys have crafted an unrelenting rock sound and energy that is all their own. Do yourself a favor .....
Clawhammer were interviewed by Al and Stf 10/5.90 at Ugenes. Photos by Al.
Al: You guys are from Long Beach or Hollywood, or where?
John: We used to be from Long Beach, but Chris moved to Hollywood and Bob, our newest addition as of 6 months ago, lives in Reseda, at the Cowgirl pad in, I guess Van Nuys. So now where just from wherever.
Rob: We're from Los Angeles county.
Chris: I used to live in Orange County, El Toro...
Al: John, you were also originally from Orange County?
John: Yeah I was raised there, went to High School in Brea. I lived in Fullerton for awhile.
Al: Were you in bands in Orange County?
John: Yeah, in Fullerton I was in the Electric Tombstones and then I was in the Pontiac Brothers for about 6 months.
Al: You were! I never knew that. Did you used to know all those Fullerton people?
Chris: Tell them you taught you how to play guitar John.
John: Oh yeah, Mike Palm of Agent Orange taught me how to play guitar. They used to live right down the street from us. I bought my first guitar from him. I used to roadie for Agent Orange, their early shows.
Al: Did you ever go to the Commonwealth Pub?
John: Yeah, I used to go there all the time. The Tombstones used to practice just across the street from there. We'd get all drunk and go "Let's just go set up and play at the Commonwealth Pub before the next band goes on". We'd tell them we were told we could play tonight and just set up and play.
Al: How much does growing up in Orange County and learning guitar from Mike Palm effect how you are playing guitar now?
John: Um, my guitar style no.... I had two brothers who lived up in Hollywood so I was up there all the time too.
Al: Your playing is pretty different than that early O.C. punk.
John: I don't know - just Beefheart, MC5, Stooges and Black Flag records influenced my guitar playing more than the city I lived in.
Al: Were you guys in any other bands Chris?
Chris: I was in Catch 22 and then I was in an instrumental band called the Sun Demons that did all Link Wray songs at parties. Then I was in Action Now, which were also called the Direct Hits. That was like when I was 16. Paula Pierce quit and I took her place. (Laughter).
Rob: He was cuter but Paula played guitar better! I'm from the San Francisco bay area, I moved down here to go to school down at UCI. That's where I met Chris. This is the first band I've been in that played shows around here.
Bob: I'm from New Jersey, I played in a bunch of dumb bands with my friends. I was in a bands called the Snivelling Little Rat Faced Gits when I was in college - that went on to be a pretty good band after they kicked me out. They never did any records. That was my brush with greatness before these guys. I also play in Crawlspace. I was playing with them as soon as I moved out here and got acquainted with these guys through that.
Al: What did you like about these guys that made you want to join?
Bob: I really like that they are able to rock really hard, but that's not the only thing they can do. The dynamic level can go up and down a little bit - it's not a straight jacketed, volume constantly on ten, intensity level always, always way up thing. They're able to get that way when necessary but not exclusively. And when it is all the way up to 10 it is really really powerful.
Al: Who takes credit for writing most of your music?
John: Well, lately me because you guys haven't been writing anything.
Chris: It started out John and Me, but mostly John. It's either John or co-written by me, John and Rob.
Stf: Is there one force in the band telling everybody what to do?
John: Yeah, Satan I think! No, we'll all have an idea for a song and I'll "suggest", with a big fist how it should be played! The thing is, they play really good and I trust what they're gonna play. That's why we got Bob to join the band because he knows what we want. The band words really well together so there's no seperate egos in the band.
Rob: Me, Chris and John have been playing together in this band for 3 years! So we have a pretty good idea of what each other wants.
Al: That dynamic range is something you guys strive to work in...
John: Yeah, yeah, balls out obnoxiousness but weird at times. If it takes cutting the sound completely out...
Chris: We have our definite influences but we don't want to sound like them. We do our best to capture the energy and the essence of the bands we really like without exactly sounding like them.
John: No, we don't want to emulate any band directly.
Stf: So who are those influences?
Chris: It's wide ranging.
John: Originally when Chris and I met it was like Replacements, Stooges, MC5 and then shortly after that we found out that both of us were total Beefheart fanatics so we threw that in.
Chris: I answered an ad in the Recycler that said "Piano player wanted for a band influenced by the Replacements, MC5, Stooges..." I had never seen the MC5 in an ad before and they were my favorite band at the time. That was before Sub Pop and nobody talked about the MC5. I was like, fuck, he wants a piano player but...
John: He blatently told me "Pianos suck, add an extra guitar!". So I said what the fuck. Everybody else that answered the ad were like "Well, I like Bad Company a lot!" or "I have a synthesizer and I can make wave sounds on it". I'm like "FUCK!"
Al: What did you want with a piano player in the first place?
John: Just to have like on guitar and a piano banging away like Little Richard or the Stones. Like that, not like Yes.
Chris: I didn't even know John liked Beefheart at first. I was leaving his house one night and I said "By the way, do you like Beefheart?" and he's like "Yeah, I love Beefheart!" "Yeah, I love Beefheart too!" So we jumped in bed together! We have a lot of other influences too like Eno, and like Black Sabbath are one of my favorite bands, Black Flag...
Al: John, didn't your brother have something do to with getting Clawhammer together?
John: When I was in the Pontiac Brothers for like six months and didn't like it very much - I just didn't get along with them, they're really into watching sports...So when I quit I stopped playing music for like six months. Then Phil called me up, he had just joined up with Trigon Records and they were doing a compilation of L.A. bands. He knew I had a lot of songs and that I wanted to get a band together so that's when I put the ad out and met Chris. That early stuff was actually originally recorded as Orange Clawhammer, named after a Beefheart song. Then we just dropped the Orange after awhile. Rick (previous drummer) didn't like it, it was too psychedelic.
Chris: Also when I lived in West Covina there was this guy who took a Clawhammer and killed his wife and two kids and then beat himself in the fact with the claw end of the clawhammer and killed himself. He was crazy I guess! But the police came in and thought somebody else had killed the whole family with a clawhammer. So for two weeks when I was little in West Covina there was a scare and everyone was afraid of the Clawhammer murderer. So dropping the Orange was fine with me. It's pretty amazing that somebody can kill themselves with a clawhammer!
Al: Who does most of the lyric writing?
John: I do.
Al: Really, you're so inspired.
John: Do you know what I sing? I just sing noise usually live. The song we did at sound check I don't have any fucking words for! (But he sure was singing something!)
Chris: When we record, the day before we go into the studio he tries to write all the words to the songs.
Stf: Is it that you don't care for the lyrics or...
John: I guess I care, to some degree but...
Chris: I have an opinion about what he thinks. I think you care a lot about the lyrics, you just don't think they are important.
John: My attitude always was and always will be that lyrics come second to music, the sound and intensity of punk rock or anything. What I'll sing, I mean I forget the words to our songs and usually it doesn't matter because the PA is so shitty - the guitars are doing all the talking, the instruments, bass drums, cymbals, whatever. Half the places you play you can't ever hear what you're saying so that's one valid point right there for how secondary they are.
Bob: I can't even understand your words on the lp and it's recorded pristinely. I tried to write them down when I was learning the songs...
John: I like to take phrases and just make them so they are different languages. Without saying the actual words. I mean I am saying things that mean something. I like to make a just "eeeoooowwww" like an airplane or something flying over your head.
Bob: John doesn't write lyrics so much as he speaks in tongues.
John: I was born in Virginia! Have you ever heard people speak in tongues? I have. In Hollywood right around the corner from the Anti-Club. We thought there was a party at this house and we listened and nobody was speaking a word of english - they were moaning, and hissing and growling. Then somebody said "Quiete, quiete", it was in Spanish but they weren't speaking Spanish - just these weird sounds! All of a sudden they stopped and just started talking. I don't know what they were doing.
Al: When you are on stage and you're playing live and all amped up is it easy to just flow with words like that, like an instrument?
John: Yeah... I could imagine and this has happened sometimes where you're pissed off at someone and you start throwing insults at them. Like a soundman or something.
Chris: Do you think about the words before they come out?
John: Naw, they just come out. Sometimes they don't make fucking sense at all. I learned that from Danny McGoo when I was in the Electric Tombstones. He never had words for any songs, we'd tape every practice and then he'd go home and write words to the music. I don't like to do that so much, I like to sit down and write a song about something - kinda about something. I'd listen to Danny's words and it would just be a bunch of nonsense, maybe I just learned that when you write songs the lyrics just aren't as important.
Al: When you do end up finally writing about something, what are some of the subjects that crop up?
John: Besides my brother's feet, murderers... just about people, people that are fuckig up on drugs, fucking up on life.
Chris: Yeah just like the difficulty in getting through life.
John: You know like when you read some fucking really weird story, like in the news or something, something really twisted, I just go oh well I'll write about this guy. The words just end up stupid and funny and weird and obnoxious. That's why I've written a lot of songs about that kind of stuff. You know "Papa's Got Us All Tied In Knots" was originally about John Wayne Gacy. I was just sitting on the toilet one day and the song came to my head... Just weirdos...
Stf: You guys play around L.A. alot, do you really feel you fit there?
John: Well, we draw the most people at our shows there.
Rob: It took a couple of years for people to become receptive. We played a lot of shows that nobody came to but now it's getting really good.
Stf: Just because you've kept playing or what?
John: Yeah, we keep playing, that's what does it. Put more records out, we're getting good reviews, that really helps.
Chris: I think we are difficult to classify because we don't fit in with any scene at all. We kinda do but not really. There's no market for us to tap into. But it seems to be getting a little bit bigger slowly, I mean pople who like us really seem to like us.
John: You know when you go to see a band that you really really like and you think "Goddamn, I wish I could do that!" That's what all of us are doing in this band. Just doing what we really like, getting that feel out of it.
Chris: The only thing we consciously try to do is make sure that everything we do we like ourselves and that was the end of it. I've tried really hard to make sure that I never thought about what other people would like, just about what I like. So I think we've stuck to that the whole time.
Stf: Do you think it has been harder for you because of that?
Chris: I don't know. I think that the way we've do it is that if we're good, we're gonna stick around and be doing things. If you try to second guess people - you might hit it and be really good and get popular, but it's chancy.
Bob: it's all chancing, bands that are doing what we're doing are chancing it with the approach of fuck anyone, we're just gonna do what we want to do.
Chris: It's real punk rock - that's what it was all about.
Bob: That's what pure rock and roll has been all about every since day one.
Rob: The return that we get out of this band is pretty much limited to the music, to whatever we get out of playing on stage and getting the records out.
John: I don't know about you guys but practices are sometimes as much fun or more fun than a gig.
All: Oh yeah...
Bob: The chemicals of it all.
Chris: A lot of people say it's luck, but bands that get popular out of luck die after a short period of time. They get into plane crashes! No, I mean like if they're not really good, but just happen to be in the right place at the right time then they'll die right after that. Bands that stay around a lot time and are really popular, I think it's because they're good. I'd go crazy if I couldn't do this. If I couldn't play guitar and go to practice, and do what I do then I have no idea of what I would be like...
John: That's why we like doing things with independent labels, they don't give a shit about what we do.
Chris: Long Gone John (Sympathy) gives us complete, total, absolute freedom. Everything from cover art to what we record. He hasn't done anything but help us financially and stand aside.
Al: What's coming up with you guys touring or recording-wise?
John: We're touring next week. Up the west coast. We're calling it the West Coast Whack Attack tour because we just put out a single, one package deal with Sympathy called Double Pack Whack Attack. It's four covers, we do Patti Smith's "Pumping My Heart", Pere Ubu's "Final Solution", "Gut Feeling" by Devo and "Blank Frank" by Eno. It was Long Gone John's idea to call it the West Coast Whack Attack tour.
Chris: We did that single, we're gonna record the first Devo album for a cassette only release - in it's entirety.
Al: Wow, are you gonna play that live?
Chris: I don't know, maybe we'll have a show...
John: If we can we're gonna get Mark Mothersbaugh with us to do something with that.
Chris: Then after that, which we'll record after our mini-tour, we'll start our second album in like January.