Friday, May 7, 2021

From Sabbath to Solo: Inside Tommy Clufetos' New Trip

Ted Nugent. Alice Cooper. Rob Zombie. Ozzy Osbourne. The mighty Black Sabbath. This isn’t just a list of some of the most important and successful Hard Rock/Metal acts in history; it’s also sampling of the artists who’ve utilized the talents of Detroit-born drummer extraordinaire Tommy Clufetos. Now, the man behind the kit has stepped out front and center with today’s release of Beat Up By Rock N’ Roll, the debut album from his new solo project, Tommy’s RockTrip.

If you think Aerosmith peaked on Rocks and your music collection has more Foghat than Five Finger Death Punch, then Beat Up By Rock N’ Roll is the album for you. Clufetos delivers 11 songs (while performing lead vocals on three) of truly classic sounds that would have found a home on ’70s Rock radio. Like many albums released so far this year, Beat Up By Rock N’ Roll is the result of the kind of extended downtime that a regularly working and touring musician can only experience during a pandemic.

“Nothing was going on at all for anybody; we were all just sitting around,” he recalls. “An opportunity came up for me to do a record, which I’ve never had the opportunity, time or desire to do. I’m fairly creatively fulfilled playing for other people; that’s my favorite thing. But there was nothing going on, so I had this block of time. I went, ‘You know what? Why not do it?’ It was a chance for me to do something musically that I’ve never done. I had never written a song in my life, and I had never written lyrics in my life. I had never put a band together on my own. So, I thought it would be a good musical challenge.”

To help make his sonic ideas a reality, Clufetos enlisted a former Alice Cooper band cohort, Eric Dover, to handle vocals. Easily one of the most underrated performers in Rock, Dover has enjoyed an eclectic musical journey that has run the gamut from fronting Slash’s Snakepit to playing guitar and keys in esoteric early 90s Power Pop oddballs Jellyfish. Currently a member of The Lickerish Quartet, Dover makes it clear from his first note on album opener “Heavy Load” that he was the perfect guy for the job.

“Eric is an awesome vocalist; he can do so many things and so many different styles. That being said, I think he’s the best when he sings straight Rock ‘n’ Roll. As avant-garde as he can go, he’s a kick-ass rocker at heart. He has a very unique voice; it lent itself very much to the music that I came up with. I was so happy and ecstatic when he agreed to do it. It was a pleasure, and it was effortless with him. All I had to do was say, ‘Here’s the melody; here’s the lyrics. Go in there!’”

Lead guitarist Hank Schneekluth, bassist Eliot Lorengo and rhythm guitarist Nao Nakashima join Clufetos on all tracks.

“They were just a bunch of young guys who I kind of scouted out on my own. I didn’t want a bunch of, let’s say, ‘known’ players. Everybody kind of does this guy from this band, that guy from that band. That’s not really my trip; I wanted to kind of make it my own thing, using young guys who I could corral and rehearse. I wanted the music to be played the way I wanted it to be played – with a certain kind of attack and tightness. Sometimes, when you’re dealing with ‘more experienced’ guys, they don’t listen as well. My stuff is an older style, and more guys are more Metal now. I’m very proud of the guys and the way they did it, and I’m sure they’re very proud, too. It’s just a great, little cool Rock ‘n’ Roll record that I set out to make.”
One of the album’s many highlights, the blazing early Van Halen-flavored “Welcome To The Show,” was co-written by Clufetos’ longtime friend – and notorious former Iggy Pop guitarist – Whitey Kirst.

“He’s out of his mind! I’m a very pragmatic, together guy, and we’re total opposites that way. But when we play music, we don’t even have to talk; we just fit together like a glove. I wanted him to play guitar on my album, but he was stuck in Canada doing some stuff.”

Beat Up By Rock N’ Roll’s most touching moment, “Power of Three,” is a tribute to family that features Clufetos on vocals and his father, Tommy Sr., on sax. That adorable voice you’ll hear comes courtesy of the drummer’s four-year-old daughter, June Grace (“Junebug”), who recites the alphabet as the tune comes to a close.

“She loves the song; she’s proud of it. I hope when she’s old, she can have this gift and this little love nursery song that her daddy made for her.”

Although he was already well established in industry circles for his percussive skills long before 2012, that was the year Clufetos truly gained international attention by being selected to replace Bill Ward in Black Sabbath.

“It’s the most I’ve ever had to dig into the drummer,” he recalls of his five-year stint with the group. “Bill has a very unorthodox style. In all really great bands, every musician is very important – whether it’s Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath or Deep Purple. Each player really matters. In Sabbath, there’s four guys, and each guy had a counterpoint to make that one sound. So, I really had to do my homework and go, ‘What makes Bill Ward him? What’s making it work or making it different?I really did a lot of homework and studied. I’m pretty good, but I’m not the world’s greatest drummer. I never claimed to be, but I am good about digging into what makes who I’m working for special and trying to be the best drummer they could hope for. That’s my goal; I want their musical vision to come out. I want them to feel confident in what I’m doing. When you’ve got a confident drummer back there, you’re free to go do your show and sing or play guitar and just not worry about what’s going on back there. When it’s shaky back there, it makes you shaky out front, so I want to be solid.”

In terms of playing original-era Sabbath material, being “solid” on the drums means being able to get your head around the ebbs and flows of Ward’s trademark style – an organic, feel-based explosion of soul that could never occur in the presence of a metronome. While successfully acclimating to such a technique would be daunting for some, Clufetos felt right at home.

“With Bill Ward’s thing, even though it may move, symphonies move – but they move in unison. Fish move in unison. Great things move together. Chuck Berry may waver; Jerry Lee Lewis may waver. None of the music on my album was recorded to a click. We didn’t even wear headphones; it was all in one room. I wanted to take that approach of the old-school way. ‘Perfect’ ruins Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Naturally, he sometimes faced the inevitable backlash that comes whenever someone fills the shoes of a beloved band member. In Sabbath’s case, added pressure came once various media reports indicated that Ward’s departure stemmed from (in his words) an “unsignable contract.” So, in walked Clufetos, a guy barely in his 30s at the time who suddenly found himself taking over THE drum throne under a cloud of controversy and skepticism. Fortunately, a combination of focus, unquestionable talent and good old-fashioned Detroit grit enabled him to make one of the most revered drum positions in music truly his own.

“I understand the situation. You’re coming in and substituting or filling in for an icon in a band. Somebody’s gotta do it. I wanted it to be me, and I wasn’t afraid of the challenge. I got asked to do it, and I was proud to do it. I was proud of the job I did, but I understand it from a fan’s perspective. I can handle it, and it’s a part of the gig. I don’t think many people walked out of any concert disappointed, because I was there – and we rocked people. I was part of that; I was part of the four guys up there, and I was very proud of the job I did. It was a total honor; it was my pleasure. To play with those three guys was the musical peak thus far in my career.”

Mere weeks from now, Clufetos will have new opportunities to showcase his live skills when he hits the road with The Dead Daisies. Already a Daisies veteran via a run of fill-in dates he performed with the band back in 2015, he replaced former drummer Deen Castronovo (Journey/Ozzy/Bad English) earlier this year shortly before the release of the group’s excellent new album, Holy Ground. Interestingly, his new role will put him on stage every night with yet another Hard Rock/Metal icon: Daisies singer/bassist and fellow Sabbath alumnus Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple/Trapeze/ Black Country Communion).

“What a great singer and bass player – and a snappy dresser! We’re gonna make some killer music. I guarantee it.”

With an unreal résumé made even more impressive by the fact he’s still in his early 40s, Tommy Clufetos is poised to enjoy a career as lengthy of the ones experienced by the legends he has powered through his drumming – and he’s fully prepared to reach that goal no matter what it takes.

“I don’t have a choice, my friend. I sold my soul a long time ago to get in this business, and I put all my eggs in one basket. I don’t believe in Plan B, so it’s what I do. It’s my craft; I take it very seriously, and I’m just getting warmed up – I guarantee that. I didn’t have rich parents; I didn’t get a silver spoon in my mouth, so this is how I make money and support my family. I have to do it – and that’s a good thing. Music has given me everything in my life. Having that pressure of not having a back-up plan has been the greatest gift.”