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Tools for Success : Claw Hammer Ignores Rules of Rock, but the Foundation Is Built for a Major-Label Act

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The four members of Claw Hammer freely admit that they lack many of the accouterments that an aspiring, success-oriented alternative-rock band ought to have. They don’t seem very concerned about it.

“We’ve never had a manager, never had a lawyer. We haven’t toured enough. There’s a lot of things we should have done that we didn’t do,” says co-founder Christopher Bagarozzi, breezily running down the check-list of rock-biz do’s and don’ts Claw Hammer has managed to ignore.

“I’d love to make tons of money,” the burly guitarist continued, “but for me the goal was to be in a band that I liked, and I didn’t care if anybody else did. I wanted to please myself.”

In its seven-year existence, even without the assistance of managers and lawyers, the Long Beach/Los Angeles band (playing tonight at Our House in Costa Mesa) has managed to make a good deal of thoroughly wired, hard-edged music that weds a bluesy feel with a punk-rock sense of abandon.

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The key feature of Claw Hammer’s sound is the raucous yet honed guitar interplay between Bagarozzi and the band’s other founder, Jon Wahl. Largely dispensing with the distortion and simple-mindedness of grunge-style guitar, Claw Hammer’s four albums feature two equal players riffing and soloing freely and simultaneously in a way that implies chaos yet adheres to well-conceived structures.

The Claw Hammer guitarists are steeped in the underground-rock tradition, citing as models such twin-guitar precursors as the MC5 and Television. At their sizzling best, abetted by the flexible bass-and-drums team of Rob Walther and Bob Lee, they can call to mind the thrust and probing spaciousness achieved by the Meat Puppets, whose Curt Kirkwood is one of the best guitarists to have come out of the indie-rock boom of the 1980s.

Wahl, who sings and writes the lyrics, tries to make up in maniacal impact what he lacks in melodiousness. His drawling and yelping echo and amplify the nasal style of Television alumni Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, with some of the twisted-blues phrasing of avant-rock hero Captain Beefheart thrown in.

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Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica” album held a place of honor at the front of a stack of LPs in Wahl’s living room, where the members of Claw Hammer gathered for a recent interview. That’s not surprising for a band that named itself after one of the album’s tracks, “Orange Claw Hammer.”

The room’s dominant feature was a large portrait of a female nude with her feet in a fish tank and a crestfallen look on her face. The dominant feature of the conversation was the absurdist quip: Ask a question about Claw Hammer, and all four members’ first instinct is to say something facetious.

Claw Hammer started pounding late in 1986 after Bagarozzi answered a musician-wanted ad placed by Wahl.

A product of the fertile Fullerton-area punk rock scene, Wahl had attended Placentia High School where classmate Mike Palm, the leader of Agent Orange, sold him his first guitar and taught him how to play it. Wahl got some national exposure in 1985 when he joined the Pontiac Brothers and played on their acclaimed U.S. debut, “Doll Hut.” But he quit the Pontiacs after nine months, despite their then-bright prospects.

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“I wanted to do something weirder, something more like Claw Hammer is doing,” he explained.

Bagarozzi was living in El Toro at the time, taking film classes at Cal State Long Beach and getting frustrated over his inability to find a band he liked playing in. When he saw the influences listed in Wahl’s ad--the MC5, Mott the Hoople, the Stooges and the Replacements--he answered it and got the job, even though the ad sought a piano player, not a guitarist.

D.A. Valdez moonlighted as the new band’s bassist until his duties as drummer for the Pontiac Brothers called him away on tour. He dubbed the band Thunder Lizards for its first gig, a name that made Wahl and Bagarozzi cringe. They chose “Claw Hammer” after discovering a mutual admiration for the arcane but enchanting Beefheart.

Walther replaced Valdez on bass in 1987, after Claw Hammer had debuted with singles for Trigon Records, a label owned by Wahl’s brother. Lee signed on in 1990 after the band had recorded its first album.

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“We were never serious at first,” Bagarozzi recalled. “I never thought we’d put a record out. I thought we’d just play. We played for years in L.A. to hardly anybody showing up.” A shared billing at Al’s Bar in 1989 with Nirvana was attended by about 70 people.

But Claw Hammer began to win fans. One was Long Gone John, owner of the Long Beach-based independent label Sympathy for the Record Industry, who underwrote the band’s first three albums. Another was Brett Gurewitz, guitarist with the successful punk band Bad Religion.

“They are my favorite band,” Gurewitz said in a separate interview. “Their improvisational bits are absolutely genius, and they do it within the context of pop songwriting. I think that makes them a lot different and a lot greater than pretty much anything I’ve heard recently.”

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Gurewitz has produced all four Claw Hammer albums, taking a live-in-the-studio approach. He says he would have signed Claw Hammer immediately to Bad Religion’s own label, Epitaph, but he didn’t want to usurp the smaller Sympathy label. With its 1993 album, “Pablum,” Claw Hammer moved to Epitaph, which could afford more promotional and distribution push.

Among the band’s more eccentric moves was its decision in 1990 to duplicate in its entirety Devo’s first album, “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!” Band members say they got the idea from the New York City band Pussy Galore which in 1986 released a song-for-song recapitulation of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street.” Claw Hammer got Devo’s blessing for the project, which featured rough, slam-it-out takes on each song from the influential New Wave artifact.

Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo provided liner notes for the Claw Hammer tribute, which was called “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are NOT Devo!”

“Could I listen to this album every day?” he mused. “Maybe if I was younger. Maybe if I still had the brain cells to sacrifice.”

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Lately, Claw Hammer has been weaning its live audiences from the Devo stuff.

“It gets the kids going. It’s an easy crowd-pleaser,” Lee noted.

“I guess the Devo thing is a big crutch,” Wahl confessed.

The songs from “Pablum” are a typically skewed lot. Among the ones most readily intelligible (Wahl says he emphasizes sound over sense in his lyric-writing) are “Speak Softly,” an acerbic slam at Michael Jackson issued before his latest celebrity conflagration. In “William Tell,” Wahl set out to reprimand Beat author William S. Burroughs for the episode in which he accidentally shot his wife to death in a drunken attempt at a feat of marksmanship. But in writing the song, Wahl decided a non-judgmental approach would work better. “Nick” is a straightforward if impressively manic account of a chat Wahl had with a homeless man at his neighborhood self-service laundry. Among other virtues, it’s the only song I’ve heard that includes the phrase “LA Times” (the paper is cited not for any journalistic attributes but for its utility as cheap bedding).

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Claw Hammer has gone on a few national tours including a 1992 trek with Mudhoney and a 1993 outing with Rocket From the Crypt. And now that big record companies are scouring the independent ranks for new alternative stuff to throw against the wall, Claw Hammer has had contact with a few major label scouts. Walther says they all tell the band to get a manager and a lawyer.

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With the change in mainstream tastes, it really is conceivable that a band like Claw Hammer could be a major-label act.

“It’s possible. Whether that’s a good thing or not is something else,” said Lee, who works with Walther at a medical equipment company in Sylmar. Wahl, the band’s oldest member at 32 (Lee, 25, is the youngest) works in the warehouse at Epitaph Records, and Bagarozzi is unemployed.

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Epitaph recently anted up $5,000 for Claw Hammer’s first video, “William Tell.” Band members noted with a combination of pride and sarcasm that MTV rejected it out of hand because it contained scenes of boozing and implied violence.

Plans call for another album for Epitaph before this winter is out; Wahl says any future move to a bigger label would be contingent on the band members getting total control over all creative decisions.

In the end, they say, Claw Hammer hasn’t changed much from the band that started out wanting just to please itself.

“If (commercial success) happened, that would be nice,” Bagarozzi said. “But as soon as you try to figure out how to get rich off it, whatever it is (that makes a band special) won’t be there any more.”

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He isn’t about to trade a special essence for commercial success. “If you’re playing in a band you don’t like, it’s worse than having a 9 to 5 job.”

* Claw Hammer, Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver and the Iron-ons play tonight at Our House, 720 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa. Show time: 9 p.m. $3. (714) 650-8960.


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