Q&A With the Fluid's James Clower
James Clower's guitar helped fuel the Fluid, which is getting back together for a June 20 appearance at the Bluebird Theater (click here and here for the facts). And he's also the player most eager for the band to keep going, as he makes clear in this revealing Q&A.
Clower offers background about his early years in Colorado and his eventual meeting with Garrett Shavlik, the Fluid's future drummer; the time the two of them shared in the thrash combo White Trash; an early White Trash tour, which gave him an idea about what lay ahead; the formation of MadHouse and its transition into the Fluid when singer John Robinson joined the core of Clower, Shavlik, Matt Bischoff and Rick Kulwicki; remembrances of clubs past; the first recording, Punch n Judy; hooking up with Germany's Glitterhouse and Seattle's Sub Pop; the initial journey to the Pacific Northwest and the warm welcome that awaited; collaborations with noteworthy producers Jack Endino and Butch Vig, both of whom went on to share studio time with Nirvana; a romance with Hollywood Records that proved to be short-lived for a slew of unfortunate reasons; the serendipitous events that led to the Fluid's unlikely return; and his willingness to consider dropping out of Metro State, where he's currently taking classes, if circumstances make a longer comeback possible.
It's cool to stay in school - but not as cool as being in a great rock and roll band.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?
James Clower: Pretty much from Boulder. I was born in Georgia, but we moved here when I was a year old. So I grew up in Boulder. That's where I met Matt and Garrett.
WW: How did you originally get into music? Was it through older brothers and sisters or friends?
JC: No. I have a little brother, but I was just always into music. The Beatles were pretty much my favorite band. Pretty much still are. That's what I grew up listening to - other stuff, too. But my dad found a guitar when I was about twelve - an acoustic guitar. So I took lessons...
WW: Where did he find it?
JC: My folks got divorced, and he moved into this house - and there was this shed behind the house, and there was a guitar in there. He found it there. The action was about an inch high or something; it was really hard to play. But he bought me another acoustic - a new one - and that helped a lot. That's when I was twelve, so that was what? The summer of '75. And my mom bought me an electric a couple of years after that.
WW: And you said you took lessons?
JC: Yeah, I took lessons through the city, and learned a couple of songs. It was only, like, a few lessons. Then a friend of my dad's - another artist friend - happened to play blues really well. So he taught me some stuff. I learned from him. I took lessons a couple of other times through people who were around, but didn't really take a whole lot of them. I just kind of got into the whole blues thing - kind of taught myself and just went from there.
WW: What was your first band?
JC: The first music that I played was with a friend of mine who lives in New York now. This was in, like, seventh grade. We would get together and play Beatles covers. We did that for a while, and we discovered all the other stuff. I remember hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time ever over at his house.
WW: Did that make a big impression on you?
JC: It did. I actually hated the Pistols the first time I heard them.
JC: Yeah (laughs). I was listening to the Beatles and Elvis Costello. Like, the hardest thing I listened to was the Jam. I was into all this really nice, musical stuff. I love the Pistols, obviously, but it took me a couple of weeks. When he first played them for me, I remember hearing "God Save the Queen" and saying, "This is garbage." (Laughs.) And he looked at me like, "What the fuck are you talking about?" But a week or two later, I was like, "Oh. I get it."
WW: Once that happened, did you get into music that was harder and harder?
JC: I guess that had something to do with it. It just kind of made everything else make sense, too.
WW: What was the path that led you into the Fluid?
JC: I met Garrett in the summer of 1980. I was playing music with a couple friends of mine, and we didn't know any drummers. A mutual friend of ours introduced us, and Garrett was just getting ready to go out to L.A. He moved out to L.A. - he had some friends out there - and then, in September of 1980, I decided to move out there, too. We didn't live together or anything, but we hooked up a few times. We had some mutual friends. He came back earlier, and I came back at the end of 1981.
WW: How old were you then?
JC: I was nineteen - and I saw Garrett the day I got back. I was in touch with him, and he was living with Matt at the time. So he introduced me to Matt, and we started playing music pretty much right after that. They were playing with some other people, and then we started playing together, and that's how the band White Trash was born.
WW: When you moved to L.A., did you do it for musical reasons? Or did you just want a change of scenery?
JC: I just wanted to get out of Boulder. I was seventeen, and I wanted to get out, and my dad lived out there. I went and lived with him. It was fun. I got to see a whole lot in a year and a half. I got to see a lot of Black Flag shows and a lot of Circle Jerks and a lot of everything.
WW: I'm sure that was very influential on the band.
JC: It was. Definitely.
WW: Why did you decide to return to Colorado?
JC: I'm not sure, actually. Maybe I just got tired of L.A. I don't know. I was doing music out there, too. It was a lot of fun. But for some reason, I got tired of it, probably because it was L.A. Back then, L.A. was pretty cool, but now it's just a different thing.
WW: How would you describe the music of White Trash?
JC: It was about as punk rock as you can get - and I don't even know what that term means anymore. Fuck, it's such a weird term. It's just about as generic as any term you could throw out there.
WW: But back then, it meant some specific.
JC: Yeah. It was just loud, obnoxious, fast rock music.
WW: Who were the members?
JC: Me, Matt, Garrett and our singer, who was named Louie. That was the original lineup. It changed a few times. Matt moved to Denver, and then Garrett moved not too long after that. Garrett moved in, like, '83. We had the original lineup for a year or so, and it changed a couple of times. In fact, when we went on tour, Garrett was drumming and Mike Anderson on bass - Mike ended up moving to Seattle and being part of Blood Circus. Local Denver guy. He played bass and a guy named Granny Cleveland played guitar in that one. We went on a tour and we played, like, four shows in a month or something like that.
WW: How far did you go?
JC: We went all the way to the east coast. We played a show in Milwaukee and spent about a week there, and then we played a show in Richmond, Virginia. And we came back and did another show in Milwaukee and - God, I don't even know what the other ones were. It was fun, though.
WW: So it whet your appetite for doing more touring?
JC: Yeah. It definitely got Garrett and I prepared for the Fluid's first tour. We did, like, twelve shows in three weeks or something like that. So there was a lot of downtime on the Fluid's first tour, but Garrett and I were used to it.
WW: How did White Trash evolve into something different?
JC: I'm not sure, exactly. Matt left and moved down to Denver and started playing with the Frantix. That's how the whole tie-in with that happened. And not too long after that, that's when the Fluid formed, because he moved there in about '83, and the Fluid got together in '85. It all kind of evolved into that. We didn't just want to play blistering hardcore anymore. We wanted to play some other kind of stuff.
WW: I understand that you guys were originally called MadHouse. Is that right?
JC: Yeah. We got together and called ourselves MadHouse, and Rick was the singer as well as the guitar player. We did one show as MadHouse. That was at the Turnverein in April, I think, or March, maybe, of '85. I moved down there around then and we did that. And then we hooked up with John. So we did just one show as MadHouse.
WW: And when John joined, that's when you became the Fluid?
JC: Yeah. We saw John at a party, and he said, "I'd love to sing for you guys." So we said, "Sure," and got together and talked with him, and it went from there.
WW: Was it clear from the beginning that you were a great live act? Did everything feel right the first time you played together?
JC: Pretty much. That's always been our main focus, is playing live. So yeah, it was a lot of fun from the very beginning.
WW: Where was the first official Fluid show?
JC: That was the Turnverein, too. It was in June or July, I want to say. I've got the poster somewhere. [The actual date was July 5; the Fluid played alongside Acid Ranch, Chelsea Girls and Brother Rat at what was then advertised as German House. The flyer is posted at www.trashistruth.com.]
WW: What was the scene like back then? Was it good? Or pretty sparse?
JC: It was pretty good. It was better than it had been. There still weren't that many clubs, but it was getting a lot better - and obviously now, there are a lot of places to play. But it was fine. We got good crowds, a lot of really excited fans.
WW: What were some of the places to play? And remind me where they were...
JC: We played the Turnverein a lot, over at 16th and Clarkson. They don't do shows there anymore, but we played there a bunch. That's where a lot of the big shows in town were. The Garage came along a little bit later, but that was always a good place to play. We played a place called the Longhorn Saloon, which is where Coors Field is now. We played one show with Mudhoney at a place called the Grove - I think that was over on 17th, or maybe 19th. I'm not sure. We did a show called the Rock & Roll Circus, which was a bunch of bands at us, at the Gaylord Events Center, over at 17th and Gaylord, I think. We played the Funhouse, too. That was a fun place to play. And later on, we'd play 7 South a lot, which became the hi-dive. That was always a great place to play.
WW: When did you start recording?
JC: We wanted to record, but we didn't have any way to do it. And then this friend of ours, Brian Nelson, inherited some money or something - somehow came across some money and put out our first record for us. We did that in 1986.
WW: That was Punch n Judy, right?
WW: Where was that recorded?
JC: It was recorded at the Rice Paper Box Company - this warehouse. I don't remember a whole lot of the details. I know Rick can fill you in a lot better on that. But it was just a little warehouse we recorded in.
WW: How long did you have?
JC: We did it fairly quickly. I don't think it took us too long to do.
WW: What led to its release in Europe?
JC: I don't know. We put it out here - there were only 1,000 copies of it ever made - and we took a bunch on our first tour and gave them to radio stations and stuff. We were actually in New York in about '87, '88, and I saw a copy in a record store there for fifty bucks - and that was back then. So they made their way out there - not many, but some of them. But one of the guys in a band called Broken Jug, they were over here, and they were on a label called Glitterhouse. And he saw the record or heard it or found out about us or something, and I think he saw Rick down in a club one night and said, "Our label would like to see about putting it out." So they did that. They did their own release, and I think they added another song to it. So that happened, and then they financed the second album, Clear Black Paper, which we recorded down on 27th and Champa in this warehouse that's still down there, actually. We put that out on Glitterhouse, and Sub Pop found out about it. Sub Pop wanted to release our album, and Glitterhouse wanted to put out Green River's album - so they just swamped licenses. That's how that happened. And Sub Pop put out our next two albums, the third and the fourth.
WW: What was Sub Pop's reputation like at that point? Did people know about it outside the rock underground?
JC: I don't know. We barely knew about them. They had just started up, and we were their first non-local band to sign. They were just starting out, too.
WW: Even though they were new, did you have a sense that something interesting was happening around the label? Or did it come as a surprise to you that so much was bubbling up in that Pacific Northwest scene?
JC: I think there was a little bit of a reputation that preceded it. But once we got up there, we met a lot of people, a lot of other bands. And that's how we got a real idea of what was going on.
WW: Who did you meet when you went up there?
JC: We played with Mother Love Bone on our first show, and we saw the guys in Mudhoney. I think we already knew the guys in Mudhoney by then. They'd already been to Denver. But we ended up knowing all the guys. We knew the guys from Mudhoney really well - they're still really good friends of ours - and we knew all the guys in Soundgarden and Nirvana. Nirvana opened for us one of our first shows up there. That was before they were big. In fact, we were coming out of the studio - we were just unloading from recording Roadmouth, and Nirvana was on their way in. Literally, unloading stuff in to record Bleach. So we got to know those guys early on - watch them rise to superstardom and then disintegrate.
WW: Roadmouth was recorded with Jack Endino. Were you the first band on the Sub Pop label to record with him?
JC: I don't think so, but we were among the first. But he actually did a horrible job on that album - and he admitted to it. Years later, we saw him when we were up there. I wasn't up there at that moment, but he apologized to Rick. I think it was Rick and Garrett and Matt, if I remember. But he admitted that he did a less than perfect job on it. I don't remember what the excuse was. But it was like, "Great. Thanks a lot."
WW: At the time, did you feel that it didn't quite capture you?
JC: Yeah, that's always been our problem - been our problem with all our recorded music. It doesn't capture us, because we are a live band, first and foremost. Rick and I came to the conclusion years later that we should have done every album as a live recording. That's one of the things we'd really like to get out of this reunion, is the ability to re-release all of our music properly mixed, the way it should have been.
WW: So even though Roadmouth sounds imperfect, you feel that if you tinker with the raw material, you can at least get closer to your live sound?
JC: Yeah, definitely. As long as the masters still exist for all these albums. Like Glue went pretty well. That was by Butch Vig, and as far as I'm concerned, that's our best recording. Even on that, there are a few things that could be changed, but as far as capturing us, that went pretty well.
WW: Butch Vig recorded that before he recorded Nevermind for Nirvana, right?
JC: Yeah. We did that in February of '90, and I think they started working on Nevermind later that year - that fall or something. So we were right there. We were right on Nirvana's coattails. Same with Soundgarden. They took off, too, and we were sitting there in the dust like, "What happened? Wait for us!"
WW: Was there any frustration about that? And because you were on Sub Pop but not located in the Pacific Northwest, was that a detriment?
JC: Not so much. But once we got onto Hollywood Records, it just wasn't that fun anymore. It didn't seem like it was about playing. It was more about doing all the other stuff associated with being on a label. I think that's ultimately what broke us up.
WW: It seemed that Hollywood didn't really know what to do with you guys. Was it a situation where every band associated with Sub Pop was getting signed, and you were their choice, but they didn't really have a clue what to do after that?
JC: I think so. The president at the time, Peter Paterno, he was like an attorney for bands like Metallica and Guns N' Roses. He knew the music scene really well and he liked us, he genuinely liked us - and he was the one who signed us. And as soon as we were on the label, everything got handed over to all the A&R people and everything else - and they absolutely loved us and praised us and everything else. And they did a good job of packaging the album and getting it out there. But it seemed like as soon as that happened, it was all over.
WW: They didn't find a way to market the album, to give it a longer life?
JC: Yeah. I don't really know all the details behind that, but I think they could have done a better job trying to sell it. I mean, it's Hollywood Records. It's not like they didn't have any money to do promotion with.
WW: You mentioned that you see Glue as your best recording. What did you think of Purplemetalflakemusic, the album you did for Hollywood?
JC: I don't like it, personally. I just don't think it sounds very good.
WW: Who was the producer on that?
JC: The guy who engineered was Mike Bosley - really good guy. And I think he genuinely tried to do us justice, but when we did Glue, we recorded and mixed it in, like, nine days, and spent $6,000 on it, or something ridiculous. When we did Purplemetalflake, we did four and a half weeks recording alone and spent like 125 grand. And it took, like, another two weeks to mix. Garrett and I came back to Colorado. The rest of the band went to L.A. and mixed it, and for all that money, we should have had The White Album, but we didn't. It just didn't turn out that great. There was a lot of production, but not a whole lot of substance there. It just doesn't sound like we sound.
WW: You talked earlier about how you were primarily a live band. Was that part of the problem - that this long, drawn-out recording process diluted what was best about the band?
JC: Yeah, somehow it did. We're all accustomed to the recording process, and that's not a problem. But for some reason, once you split us all up like that, it's not captured the way it is live.
WW: So everyone played in isolation booths and things like that?
JC: Yeah, for the most part - and like I say, that's fine. I guess it depends on the engineer and the producer. And overproduction isn't something you can do with this band. It's just got to be represented the way it is. And I know it's not that hard to do. Recording music isn't that scientific of a process. You just do it. But for some reason, we just couldn't get it on that album.
WW: Were there already some cracks beginning to show in the band around that period of time? Were things getting tense? Or was the breakup really all due to the album's commercial failure and the problems with Hollywood?
JC: Well, I think being on a major label in general was a detriment to us. But I think what basically happened is, our last tour, we were out for nine weeks, and I came home with twenty bucks in my pocket. We wanted to at least make enough money to pay bills being on the road, and we didn't. We came back with nothing, and they wanted us to go right back out and keep pushing the album. And we were like, "What do you mean? We have been pushing this album." They didn't understand that we didn't have any money, and we needed to make money doing it - and we couldn't even cover our cost of living. That all just kind of snowballed - kind of pushed us to the edge. And we said, "Screw it. We don't want to do it." Looking back on it in past years, I thought, we shouldn't have done that. We should have stuck it out and things might have been different. But the fact that we broke up and then fifteen years later decided that we want to get back together and do it is perfect, because we've always wanted to do this on our own terms, and do it because it's fun and because people like it. And lo and behold, that's what we're doing.
WW: After the band broke up, what did you do?
JC: I did some playing - not a whole lot. Garrett and Matt did the most of it. John did some, too. But I didn't do a whole lot with it. I played with some friends of mine both here, in Boulder, in Denver, and in Seattle. I moved there for seven years. I moved there in '98. Garrett had moved there the year before, and I was getting really tired of Boulder again, which is not hard to do (laughs). I was talking to him, and he said, "Come up here for a few days and see how you like Seattle. I'll bet you'll want to live here." So I went up there and said, "Yeah, I want to live here."
WW: Did you play in bands there during that seven year period?
JC: I did a little bit. Garrett and I played together with a guitar-player friend of ours. I actually played bass. We did that for a little while, and then Garrett went off with some friends of his and formed a band and has been playing pretty much constantly since then.
WW: What are you doing these days?
JC: I went back to school. I'm at Metro studying mechanical engineering.
WW: How far along in the program are you?
JC: I'm a sophomore as of this semester. So I've got at least two full years, if not three.
WW: And what are you looking at career-wise when you're all done?
JC: Hopefully playing in a rock band again. We really are all hoping that this will take off and we can do something with it again, and now, we're actually in the best position to do that than we ever have been. After playing together a few times, I think all our secret desires really came out and we all realized this is what we really want to do.
WW: Were you in touch with all of the guys after the breakup, or just a few of them?
JC: All of them, pretty much. John came up here about two and a half years ago. Saw him for the first time in a long time. I ended up going down to Texas and working on his house for a little while. Garrett's been in Seattle, and I've been in touch with him - and Matt and Rick live here. I've been seeing those guys every week.
WW: How did the reunion idea come about?
JC: John Robinson was in New York, ran into Jon Poneman and Megan, who's a longtime Sub Pop employee. She's one of the head people, she helps keep the whole thing running. He ran into them in New York, and Jon said, "We're going to be doing this reunion show, and we'd love it if you guys would play." And John was like, "Yeah, I want to do it. I'll talk to the rest of the guys." He told me about it, and I said, "Hell, yeah, I'll do it." And then we all talked about it and decided it was a good thing.
WW: You mentioned that you've been playing together. Have all five of you played together?
JC: Not yet. It's been me and Rick and Matt and our really good friend John Call, who was the drummer for Baldo Rex and did a bunch of other stuff, has been filling in for Garrett and doing an absolutely fantastic job. He's been the main reason that it's been going so well. We wouldn't have been able to do it without him.
WW: How's the material hold up? Has it stood the test of time?
JC: Honestly, I think it's better than ever. I really do. I try not to think about it too much, just being an artist and doing what we do and just enjoying it for what it is. But I've heard so many people tell us we were so ahead of our time when we were together. And even though music is just music, it really transcends time the better it is. And I think it's all totally relevant now. Just the opportunity to actually put that out and have it enjoyed and appreciated again is just amazing, and if we can somehow find an even broader audience and just get it out there, that's great.
WW: You mentioned your hope that the older material would get remixed. Is there anything specific in the works about that? Is Sub Pop interested in doing a compilation?
JC: We haven't talked to them about that yet. We feel like everything is just riding on these shows this summer. We want to come out and basically just kill with it. We're not doing this to show up fifteen years later and say, "Look, we can still do this." That's part of it, but we want to do it as well as we possibly can. We want people to go, "Wow. Where the hell have those guys been?" We don't want people to just show up and go, "Oh, yeah, I've seen those guys before." But I think things are going so well with just the three of us, and with John Call sitting in. John Robinson's really excited about it, Garrett's really excited about it, and I think once we all get together, it's going to be a really over the top thing. At the same time, it's real simple and straight-forward, just the way we've always done it. But I think this is a really good time in the country for music like ours, because there's not a lot of bands doing what we do, and even as simple and straight-forward as our music is, nobody's doing it the way we do it. There are a few bands out there that do that kind of thing, but by and large, there aren't a lot of over the top rock bands, and we want to get in on that. We want to take our rightful place in line, as it were.
WW: The label "grunge" I'm sure will be applied to you guys. Has that name ever meant anything to you? Or have you always felt that you're a rock and roll band, as opposed to a rock band?
JC: That term was just kind of silly. It was applied to us and immediately slid right off, because we weren't from Seattle, for one thing. And what does grunge mean anyway? First it was "grunge" and then it was "alternative." It's like the term "punk rock." People just need a term to put to something to legitimize it or whatever. I've always had a hard time describing our music, and I always just revert back to rock - and if you have to put an adjective in front of it, call it "hard rock." It's all borne out of our hardcore roots, but it's got just as much to do with the Stones or Elvis Costello or anybody we like. It comes from all over the place, and there's so much good music out there to draw from. Our influences are all over the place.
WW: For you, does this reunion work in part because all five of you are still around and plan on participating? Would it not work if any of you either weren't here anymore or didn't want to take part?
JC: It would work on that level, but our main goal is to have everybody do it, and it really wouldn't be the same without any of the original members. We thought about that, but even given logistical problems of having Garrett in Seattle and John all over the place, those things can be overcome and don't really matter when it's all said and done. We couldn't really do it the same way without all the original members. Having said that, we could pull it off if we had to, and I think it still would be a great product. But the most important thing is doing it with all original members.
WW: Do you keep up with the current Denver music scene? And what do you think your legacy is on it?
JC: I haven't really given a lot of thought to it. Looking at this as an outsider, there are definitely people who think we're legendary, who think we're the greatest, and that's so cool to me. I still can't get over the fact that people like us so much.
WW: You're still remembered as one of the greatest live bands to ever come out of Denver...
JC: I've had people tell me recently that at the time they thought we were the best live band in the country, and we potentially still could be. The whole thing's just super-exciting to me. The fact that we get to play again, for one thing, but the fact that there's potential to take this somewhere.
WW: So you're looking back to some degree, but you're also looking forward.
JC: Totally. We all prefer to do this than do what we're doing. I'll drop out of school in a second. I did that - I went to Metro in '85, '86, and I quit because the Fluid was going on its first tour. And I have a few regrets about it, but none really. This is a good move, and we got to do what we got to do. But now, the opportunities seem like they're better. We have complete control over what we're doing. We also kept all our publishing rights. We never sold those. So the potential for remixing and re-releasing stuff is huge. I'm working with a really good friend of ours, Jim Hucks, who's a photojournalist and a really big Fluid fan. He shot a lot of shows of ours over the years, and a lot of his stuff is going to go on the website. And we're going to do a documentary - shoot our shows in Denver and Seattle this summer. And my cousin is a freelance screenwriter who lives in L.A., and he's going to help us. We're hoping that Sub Pop will be willing to put it out. We're basically just kind of picking up where we left off and trying to do all the right things now. We really want to be able to tell the story of the Fluid. That's a lot of what the website is going to do. We just have this huge opportunity to set a few things straight and say, "Look, here we are again. We're doing this." And who knows. It could be an extremely lucrative thing.