Desperation Town: Long Beach Oddballs and Closeted Beefheart Fans – The Music of Claw Hammer

This series is a collection of stories and interviews from the bands, labels, clubs, zines, and scenesters who were around a period of underground rock n’ roll music in Los Angeles between 1985 and 1990. All pieces are written by Chris Ibanez and Matt Hutchison. 

In the late 1980s, when Los Angeles was still an affordable city for starving artists, there weren’t many bands who effortlessly mixed punk rock and rust-tinted electric blues with an idiosyncratic groove and rhythm like Claw Hammer. From 1986 to 2000, Claw Hammer carved out a name for themselves across America’s college campus radio playlists and alternative culture scene with a seven-album run across three labels and countless solo and support tours across the States.

A prominent element in the Long Beach quartet’s songwriting is the band’s deep appreciation for the hard-hitting guitars of the MC5 and the experimentation of Captain Beefheart, something Jon Wahl (guitars/vocals) expands on some more: “Most of the tunes that Chris (Bagarozzi – guitar) and I wrote brought out the Beefheart in both of us; that’s why our stuff sounds off-kilter. One day after we met each other, Chris asked me before he left, “Dude, do you like Captain Beefheart?” which I never admitted to anyone because everyone in the punk scene back then was anti-Zappa and anti-Beefheart and always aligned the two, which didn’t make sense. Beefheart’s stuff was never quirky; he was amazing, and credit goes to him for our band name.” 

Bagarozzi, backing up Wahl, confirms this anti-Beefheart sentiment for the times. “Publicly mentioning you’re a Beefheart fan was not encouraged back then; you were looked down on for doing that, and I loved the guy. What’s funny is, it took me a lot longer to tell Jon I was also a Devo fan (laughs).” 

In 1986, Wahl considered his time playing music finished after playing in various bands around Orange County for years and wrapping up a brief run as a guitarist for The Pontiac Brothers to focus on becoming a sculptor. A phone call from his brother changed this move.

“My brother just formed this new label, [Trigon], and told me he’s releasing a new compilation that he wanted me to participate on, hopefully. He said he knew I had some music still left in me and at that point in my life, I’d kind of given up playing together. I wasn’t a musician when I was younger and was studying art. Still, I started playing in bands in 1979 with this weird, thrashy punk group, and over the years just wound my way through various weird scenes and musical ideas. My time in The Pontiac Brothers was amazing. My first show with them was opening for The Replacements in 1985 over in Hollywood at The Palace, but I couldn’t see myself touring with the band.

“At that point, I was taking my art interests seriously and just put my guitar in the closet to retire from writing altogether. Six months later, when my brother called, I agreed to partake in his comp and placed wanted ads for musicians for this new project where the music would be weird, with no filter/no-holds-bar. Something like Roxy Music meets The Flesheaters. One of the ads called for a piano player that must have influences from Mott The Hoople, The Stooges, The Replacements, and MC5. So, Chris (Bagarozzi) responded to that ad, and he told me, “Piano sucks! You need a second guitar player!”

Bagarozzi gives more context: “At the time of that ad, I was 21 years old and desperate to find people who played the kind of stuff I liked. Seeing the ad asking for MC5 as an influence freaked me out. I didn’t know anyone else who liked that band or knew who they were and called Jon only to convince him that he needed a second guitar player over a piano player because Wayne Kramer and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith!” 

Their reasons for the partnership were due to similar interests and the underlying idea that Claw Hammer would be Wahl and Bagarozzi’s first self-made project of substance. The two relocated from Orange County to Long Beach with this new galvanization. They spent the first year meticulously rehearsing with local musician Sean Edwards on drums and Wahl’s former Pontiac Brothers associate, Dave Valdez, on bass and gigging across the Southland to test out their material.

“We formed to record on my brother’s comp, and in the future, we just rehearsed as much as possible during our off time from work and on the weekends. The priority wasn’t to record because, during that time, no one formed a band to record. Several days after work, I’d come up with song ideas and drill them out in my head to bring into weekend rehearsal to see what we could make out of them. From there, a gig would be booked out in Riverside, a place where we didn’t know a soul, to play in front of two who would tell us they dug our set.”

Recordings with the initial lineup were secured, and by 1987, Valdez and Edwards would exit the band. Rick Sortwell would enter on the drums, while Rob Walther would be the permanent fixture on bass. More local and regional gigging would build the Claw Hammer enough buzz within the US underground media circuit to receive an offer from Long Beach local Long Gone John, to release Claw Hammer’s debut album on his Sympathy For The Record Industry imprint. In fall 1989, Brett Gurewritz’s WestBeach Studios studio time was booked from 2:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m., where the four delivered their eponymous self-titled album for Sympathy.

Claw Hammer’s debut album puts upfront what make this band so unusual among their world with nine songs of Wahl’s wailing vocals over unique chord structures and instantaneous rhythm changes that cross Avante-grade punk jazz with the mellow groove of The Meat Puppets. Sortwell would depart from the drum position, and Los Angeles battery-workhorse Bob Lee would enter the fold, thus solidifying the classic and most consistent lineup Claw Hammer would have. With their self-titled seeing release in conjunction with Trigon issuing their cassette exclusive Get Yer Za Za Yout, Wahl wanted to up the ante on a gritty, souped-up rendition of Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo LP after hearing the scuzzy dissonance of Pussy Galore’s spins on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.  

“We’d play Devo songs during our rehearsals, and the idea to cover that first record became an accidental effort upon hearing that gnarly sounding cassette of Pussy Galore’s version of Exile on Main Street. When I first talked to John about the idea, he hesitated about releasing an entire covers record off the bat. He offered to release a single first, which became Claw Hammer’s Double Pack What Attack double single of us covering Devo, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, and Pere Ubu.” Wahl recalls.

“That Devo album idea was just our spontaneous West Coast response to an East Coast band’s cover project to make a recording that became realized over time. We only played it live in its entirety twice, once opening for Haunted Garage and the second time at a Virgin Megastore when Jerry [Casale] asked us to perform at a Devo laserdisc release party. We even did a one-off joke set of Steve Miller covers at a friend’s birthday party because we thought it’d be hilarious, and it was.” Bagaraozzi adds in.

When the single became a hit for Sympathy, Long Gone John greenlit the Devo record. The undertaking of Q: Are We Not Me A: We Are Not Devo began with seeking the assistance of the Mothersbaugh clan. 

“That whole project wasn’t a planned out thing, and we kept it secret so that the record would be released by surprise,” Bagaraozzi says. “We rehearsed that record from front to back endlessly because the plan was for Brett (Gurewitz) to record us live to two-track until the tape ran out. The only remedy for mistakes was playing the song repeatedly until there weren’t any. I already knew Mark (Mothersbaugh) and called him to ask if he and his brother Bob would be open to coming into the studio for Bob to play some guitar and Mark either sing or, as a joke, provide backup vocals on the album (laughs).

“These recording sessions were happening in December. They had family Christmas plans already lined up and couldn’t commit studio time. Still, Mark wrote liner notes for the record. We wanted to test the album live, and at that point, we were getting booked at The Lingerie. So one show, we showed up to a good crowd to play your average Claw Hammer gig and, without warning, went from our stuff to playing ‘Uncontrollable Urge’ to ‘Shrivel Up.’ People were baffled! We also invited Bob and Mark to check out the set, and they showed! People said, “Whoa, you guys did all Devo songs; you’ll never believe who showed up to see your set?!” (laughs). 

It wouldn’t be until Fall 1991 that the Q: Are We Not Me A: We Are Not Devo LP would see release alongside the band’s swansong release with Sympathy entitled Ramwhale. Recorded almost immediately after the Devo sessions, Ramwhale doesn’t lose the spastic chord progressions and syncopation featured on their debut album throughout its ten songs. Both albums were released back to back in September by design to avoid getting lost in the summer shuffle of college kids out of school, a move that played in both Sympathy and the band’s favor as touring ramped up with the album’s land in the CMJ charts and more, as Wahl recounts, “That Devo record also popped up one week on the Top 50 of the Billboard charts at the very bottom (laughs), which is my claim to fame.”

By 1992, Claw Hammer’s touring schedule ramped up with the likes of Mudhoney taking them out regularly on top of solo runs and the band making the carefully calculated jump to Guerwitz’s Epitaph label. At the time, Epitaph’s roster was bolstered by some of the biggest names in the California punk sound, led by Rancid, The Offspring, Down by Law, Bad Religion, Pennywise, and NOFX, all bands that Claw Hammer had zero sonic parallels with. Being the odd men out didn’t precisely phase the four, as they were already selective with the labels they work with. Epitaph boosted the band to a broader group of punk rock fans and granted the band to play with one of the sound’s originators. 

“Wayne Kramer came by the Epitaph office in either 1993 or 1994 to play a demo for Brett, who signed him, and suggested hiring us to be his backing band for The Hard Stuff record. This was right around when the majors were signing all these other rock bands hands over fist, and we just released Pablum for Epitaph and toured off the record. Pretty soon, Interscope would come in and buy the rights to our next two records from Epitaph.”

Claw Hammer’s move to Interscope in 1995 was far from a blind signing for the large independent. It came at the scouting efforts of notable A&R manager Anna Statman, who is instrumental in the early career bolstering of Faith No More, Helmet, Drive Like Jehu, Cop Shoot Cop, Del-Fuegos, and Violent Femmes.

“Anna’s involvement in the L.A. punk world gave her a reputation of having a golden ear of sorts, and we met her a year and a half before the Interscope move. She’d follow us on tour in places like Chicago and New York and even booked rooms for us in these gorgeous four-star hotels. The move had the perks a larger label carries with bigger everything (i.e., recording budget, publicity, higher level of gigs),” Wahl states.

“To be upfront, my time at Interscope wasn’t a good period in my life because of how much of a boy’s club that office was. They hired me away from Geffen and pretty much let me do what I wanted to do to the point where I felt like I was being dismissed. BUT taking advantage of the position and knowing that Claw Hammer is STILL one of the best bands ever, I took Ted Fields (co-owner of Interscope) down to Al’s Bar to see them play.

“It was hilarious; he pulled up in front of the club in a Bentley, and he really liked their set! I think Interscope allowed me to sign Claw Hammer for the same reasons Gary Gersh signed Sonic Youth and Nirvana. Interscope knew my reputation as a tastemaker from my time with Slash Records. Claw Hammer is the second liaison deal we did at the time, just after bringing Nine Inch Nails in from TVT Records. To this day, I still have a pact with those guys that if I die before any of them, they have to play my funeral (laughs),” Statman shares.

Claw Hammer rode the wave to their benefit with the ripple effect of bands once considered too caustic to sell suddenly becoming an in-demand commodity for a label’s balance sheet and public image. “Nothing changed for us artistically,” Bagaraozzi recalls. “Interscope gave us free creative reign and more money than we’ve ever seen in our lives. The higher-ups there didn’t really take notice of the kind of bands Anna (Statman) signed, and she took advantage of that to sign groups she cared about regardless of their commercial appeal.”

On Hold Your Tongue (And Say Apple), the last record we did for Interscope, we were given a chance to work with Jim Dickinson. He produced The Cramps, The Replacements, and Alex Chilton. He was very down-to-earth and extraordinary; we had a blast with him. He wanted us to come to New Orleans where all this bizarre weather is. We were out of our element, so we lived in a studio and recorded there and then in Memphis.”

Interscope’s internal management changes during Claw Hammer’s label tenure would push the band to present themselves more professionally with their first order of business hiring management representation. Luckily, their friendship with the Mudhoney camp helped solve that problem with, Claw Hammer hiring Mudhoney’s manager to assume this responsibility. However, problems between the band and label would unfold.

“We signed with Interscope right around the time they went public. All these people involved with the label who weren’t before showed up, and they’re asking, ‘Why aren’t these guys number-one on all radio charts?’ We were low on the roster’s totem pole, unlike Rocket From The Crypt, who they wanted a radio hit from. We weren’t focused, but they told us to get a manager since we are about to go on our first tour where we’re getting big guarantees. We hired Bob Whittaker, who managed Mudhoney. The money made on those tours was great, the downside being the venues we were playing which were not the venues our fans normally go to.

“For example, over in Austin, we did well at Emos. Still, we were booked at venues where a band like Pantera sold out the previous night, and the crowd we attracted was half the opening band and our road crew. So all those years of building up fans through bookings at these great little clubs around the U.S., and we’d end up playing places our fans don’t know about or hated going to. Stuff like that puts a psychological toll on you. You start asking yourself questions about what the point is going out when barely anyone’s showing up. I called up the booking agent we signed with and gave him a long list of clubs and names that I’ve accumulated over the years. And that conversation felt like it was in one ear and out the number because nothing changed on the next tour,” Wahl recalls. 

On Interscope’s end, label management began seeing the band’s lack of a commercial sound as being a business loss, but that never bothered Statman, who exited the label in 1998, “We had so much fun, and the band was able to make some money during that time, I also think they were the least selling band on Epitaph at the time we signed them. They were the least commercial band in Interscope then (laughs). Those guys are incredible musicians and people, though; they’re the Beefheart of punk rock,” Statman enthusiastically states. 

Wahl’s reflection of the band’s end reveals a buried catharsis finally surfacing, “We finished a Mudhoney tour and went on the road with Geraldine Fibbers up the coast to Canada. On the way up there, I stopped by Mudhoney’s manager’s house, and he woke me up and said “Hey, let’s go get coffee” and then dropped the news that we’re off Interscope. That was a big relief. It was a great signing for them but not for us with other pop groups. It was nice at the start, and then it became a mega-company. So the drop from Interscope was a relief for me. Shortly afterward, Rob (Walther, bass) quit because he would always return to the same living and employment problems and just wanted stability. However, Bob (Lee) and I worked together for years afterward on other projects.”

“It was a strange time, though, seeing bands like Claw Hammer getting signed left and right only to be dropped a few years later because, for a brief period, there was a fleeting sense that all the underground, uncompromising bands were finally going to get their due, which sadly didn’t last long,” Bagarozzi concludes with. 

“When Rob quit the band in 1997, that departure left a big hole for Claw Hammer that we couldn’t replicate, and I mean that. Chris and I worked with him for a decade at that point and Bob for seven years of tough recording and gigging across the country. We all had a read on each other about what our next move or cue would be in the studio or on stage. With Rob, I’d also worked out this great visual cueing system where, during an extended jam or vamp, where I’d play guitar and sing and didn’t have the means to make eye contact with the band, Rob would subtly step into my periphery vision with the headstock of his bass to cue me when some abrupt chord or tempo change was coming up. Plus, he’s a dear friend. He also banked my second Amadans release called Iron Nails Run-In,” Wahl solemnly recounts. 

Claw Hammer would officially call it a day in 2000 but would reunite a handful of times in the 2010s for select headline gigs around Los Angeles and direct support to more prominent acts routing through Southern California. Two live records would follow with Spanish label Munster Recordings, pulling live material from the band’s archives and releasing Deep In The Heart of Nowhere, recorded at a 1995 Dallas, TX tour stop with the Bob Lee issued, seven-year-spanning live compilation Discount Hardware Live 1990 – 1997 coming to life in 2013 in time for a set of gigs for the reformed unit.

“In his next chapter, Wahl is pursuing composing for film and television, reuniting with Bob Lee and teaming with El Vez/Geraldine Fibbers bassist William Tutton for the slower and melodic Jon Wahl & The Amadans. Wahl and Bagarozzi would continue working together as two Keith Morris-led jazz/spoken word septet Midget Handjob members, seeing their only release in 2000. Lee’s post-Claw Hammer life includes being a member of the Southern California psych-rock group, The Freeks, and collaborating with Mike Watt & His Missingmen.

Find Claw Hammer on Facebook and more about Jon Wahl’s music through his website.

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