Clutch Interview with Neil Fallon: What’s This about Limits?

I was fortunate enough last fall to be asked to take some pictures of Clutch while they were recording their 10th studio album, Earth Rocker, at producer Machine‘s North Jersey studio, the Machine Shop. When I got there, vocalist Neil Fallon was putting down the chorus for what would become the album’s fourth track, “D.C. Sound Attack,” and the hook was so immediately strong that right away when I got back to my car I wrote down the words so I wouldn’t forget them when I had the song stuck in my head for however many months it would be until the album finally came out. It looked like this:

That was the first clue I had that Earth Rocker was going to be both something special and a very different album than Clutch‘s last, 2009′s Strange Cousins from the West. Where Strange Cousins pushed further into the mid-paced blues and jam explorations of recent years, even that tiny sample was enough to show that Earth Rocker was after a bigger sound, and in its finished product — released this week on the band’s own Weathermaker Music imprint — it got there. The massive room of a song like “The Face,” or the rush of its title-track, “Cyborg Bette,” “Crucial Velocity” or “Book, Saddle and Go”; it all adds up to a revitalized feel, and one well earned by the hard-touring Maryland stalwarts.

Clutch tour. That’s their thing, and it’s why it took so long to get this record together. In the four years since Strange Cousins hit, a collection of acoustic reinterpretations coupled with a Weathermaker reissue of 2004′s Blast Tyrant — their first collaboration Machine — and a Record Store Day 2012 picture disc single for the track “Pigtown Blues” filled the space between LPs, but Clutch were only ever off the road long enough to regroup for the start of the next run. Yeah, it was time to get an album out, but hey when Motörhead calls, you answer.

The point is, if absence made their fanbase’s collective heart grow stronger, Clutch weren’t actually absent. They were going door-to-door. Still, in no small part because of its energetic material, Earth Rocker (review here) arrives as an extra satisfying listen, like the album is its own bonus. “D.C. Sound Attack” is a highlight, as is “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…,” as is the side-A-closing slowdown “Gone Cold,” as is each track for one reason or another. How have Clutch chosen to celebrate the new release? The only way they seem to know how. By touring.

Teamed with London-based destroyers Orange Goblin for the first US leg going on now, ClutchFallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster — have embarked on what’s sure to be years of slogging in support of Earth Rocker. I spoke to Fallon prior to the start of the shows, after the band had gotten home from a stint through Europe in January/February, which as he noted in our conversation, was their best batch of gigs there to date.

After the jump, please find the complete Q&A with Neil Fallon of Clutch about the album, touring and much more, as well as selected pictures taken at that first in-studio (the first two below) and Clutch‘s 2012 CMJ party and performance, where they previewed Earth Rocker material for a short but memorable set.

How was Europe this time through?

It was great. Even though it was labeled as a promotional/press tour, it was easily Clutch’s best headlining run through Europe to date.

Was there something in particular that made it so good?

All the shows being sold out certainly helped out. Some of the places were smaller, that we’ve played in the past, but there were other places that were larger, and I don’t know if the climate’s changed or what, but it seems that continental Europe is really warming up to the band.

The schedule showed every other day for press days. Did you actually get a break at all, or were you doing press that whole time?

There were no days that we had completely off. The press days – usually press started at one or two o’clock in the afternoon and went until dinnertime. We did more press on that tour than we have probably collectively in the past 10 years of the band, as far as Europe’s concerned.

When you’re out there, do you ever get to see anything or take a break?

I certainly try to, but it was bitterly cold, and it’s not the best thing for singers to go walking around in the damp cold for hours.

Have you guys started rehearsing yet to go out in the States?

We never rehearse (laughs).

Never?

Never.

Never ever?

Well, we might. If there were months and months off, we might do that. Usually what happens is we’ll play one or two songs and then we’ll look at each other and go, “Fuck this.” Even just jamming around is sort of activating muscle memory, and usually the first show, you might be a by walking on eggshells with songs, but come the second show of a tour, suddenly that muscle memory comes back and you’re off and running.

About the album. Did you know writing the songs that you wanted a more straightforward rock sound, a little pulled back on the blues and jam stuff?

Yeah, I think we knew that pretty early on, when we first started writing the early stuff – we had had some conversations about general feelings towards what our instincts were telling us – and we hadn’t written much, but we knew we wanted to write faster songs and more succinct songs. It’s not like suddenly we fell out of love with the blues, it was just that I kind of see – to use an analogy, if you’re getting from point A to point B in a ship, you never use a straight line, you have to tack back and forth, and that’s kind of the way I see us musically.

Was there something coming off Strange Cousins that made you feel like it was time to try something different?

It was a good record, but I think we also toured on it to death. We really pounded those songs into the ground, to the point where these days, we’re lucky to play one or two songs from the record. That’s just from fatigue.

Have you ever worn out of a record like that before, to yourself?

Oh sure. Each and every record. Because we tour as much as we do, and we play and play and play, and usually what happens is we’ll start incorporating older stuff and start working on new stuff, and every record is usually some kind of record to the one that preceded it.

I think you can hear that through the catalog. Coming off Elephant Riders into Pure Rock Fury, Blast Tyrant. I think that makes a lot of sense. Makes me wonder what the reaction to this album might be, but I guess we’ve got a while before we get there.

Yeah. We’ve got to release it first.

How did the decision come about to go back to the Machine Shop?

Well, when we were writing it, in the early stages, his name came up because the material, at least tempo-wise, was reminding us for whatever reason of Blast Tyrant. We’ve worked with Jay on the past two records, and he’s great, but each producer has his signature sound and we wanted to mix it up a little bit. Also keeping it somewhat local is very important to us, because we all have families. We want to be able to drive home on the weekends and whathaveyou, rather than making camp in California or wherever. We had already worked with Machine, so we knew what we were getting into, and that was a big plus. It’s familiar.

Was the process any different this time around? Going into it with that past experience, was there something you wanted to do differently this time?

The process was pretty much exactly the same, except that I think, speaking for myself, I wanted to write as much of the lyrics ahead of time, in advance, nail it down prior to pre-production. I didn’t completely succeed at that, but Blast Tyrant, I was writing stuff a day before we tracked it, and that’s good for inspiration, when you’re pulling your hair out, but it’s not good for your blood pressure.

Was that a reaction to Strange Cousins too? Did you hold off until the last minute for that?

A lot of that material was written in the studio, and we had played some of those songs live, but that was very much a studio endeavor, at least the way I remember it. When we did Beale Street, we had pretty much written the whole record, but we were on tour. We did a tour specifically to get to California to record it, and we played the album more or less every night on our way out there, and by the time we got to Los Angeles, it was so easy. Ever since then, we’ve been trying to do that. Sometimes circumstances that have allowed us to do that, or we just haven’t been able to get our shit together, but this time we did.

Some of these songs you’ve been playing for a while. “The Wolfman…” I remember from New Year’s 2011 in Philly. Did that time help you pull the material together going into the studio too, for the songs you played beforehand?

Yeah, I think. I’m notoriously slow at writing lyrics, and those guys turn out riffs a lot quicker than I can write to. We didn’t know if we were going into the studio at any particular date, so we just kept writing here and there, and then we would give a song a rest instead of beating it to death. If we had played “Wolfman…” all these years, I think it probably would’ve been pretty stale by the time we recorded it. We recorded that song live for the BBC probably a year and a half ago.

If you’ve been putting material together over the course of however long, is there a bunch of material that didn’t get recorded or was leftover?

There’s three songs that didn’t make the cut, that I’m sure we will release in some capacity or other, whether it be as singles, B-sides, bonus tracks. There’s a lot of songs that just got thrown into the trashcan. For every one riff that makes it to the record, there’s definitely 10 that didn’t. We wrote pretty regularly on the road, but it wasn’t until this summer past that we really cranked it up and focused and realized, “Okay, we’re gonna record in September. We need to put the nose to the grindstone.” And I prefer to work that way anyway.

In picking songs, was that “faster songs, more concise,” a consideration in terms of what made the cut?

Well, this is a phenomenon that happens on Clutch records. We’ll listen to the collective work and we’ll ask ourselves, “What does this record need?” Usually, nine times out of 10 in the past, we’d say, “We need to write a couple more fast songs,” because a lot of our songs sit in the Clutch tempo, 95 beats per minute or thereabouts, and that’s comfortable for us but we have to push ourselves to write something fast. This time around it was the opposite. We said, “You know what? We have to write a slow song to have some kind of moment in the record where things can exhale.” And we wrote “Gone Cold” specifically for that, which was a new thing for us, having to write a slow song for a record.

That’s interesting, too. I wanted to bring up “Gone Cold,” because of where it’s placed on the record, closing side A. Can you talk a bit about the placement of the tracks and how it wound up there to break things up?

We definitely modeled this record on classic LP length and pacing. I think most people’s favorite records are anywhere from 35-45 minutes, usually 40 minutes. I’m talking like Led Zeppelin II, Dark Side of the Moon, Black Sabbath Paranoid. CDs, yeah, you can put 75 minutes of music on it, but that doesn’t mean you should. People’s attention spans only last so long, and you don’t want to overburden them. That placing of that song, we wanted it to be the point where the record turned, where you have your blasters and then maybe a longer song, your “D.C. Sound Attack” or something like that, and then this one at the end, sort of like a fadeout, but you know there’s something on side B. Even though most people will be listening to this on CD, I still think it works. Machine actually did the tracklisting. We did our own tracklisting, and it’s one of the good things about producers is they can hear things with a fresh pair of ears, because the musician and the person who wrote it is always biased with emotional attachment to certain things. We weren’t too sure about his tracklisting at first, but after listening to it a few times, we realized he was on the money.

Did you have something different closing?

The one I wrote had “The Face” closing.

I can see that. The epic. A big ending.

Yeah, but at the same time, when you put “Wolfman” at the end, I was like, “No way, you can’t do that,” and at the end, it does have a refrain which goes on which smoothes out.

With “The Face,” the lyrics present such strong images. Was there something in particular that inspired that lyric, or were you just painting a picture off the top of your head?

I don’t know what the right term would be, philosophy, or idea, or preoccupation that I had when we were writing this record was just kind of about rock and roll. The older I get the more I appreciate that I’ve been able to participate in the capacity that I have. But I get to thinking about how easy it is now in a lot of ways. It’s almost too easy. You hear rock and roll on the tv, and you see the image of the band running out of the van on stage in front of a crowd, and you see the product and it’s something like American Express. It’s easy to get music on your laptop. It’s easy to go see shows now. For us; I’m speaking about Western civilization. There was a time though not too long ago where that wasn’t the case. You can go back 30 years to where it was hard to get punk rock records. You had to drive to that one store and decide which two albums you might buy. It was hard to see shows. And you go back even farther and they were burning records and forbidding you to go to these shows. I’m glad we won the ability to listen and play rock and roll, but at the same time, I guess I have some kind of romantic nostalgia about the forbidden fruit of it and the riskiness and the danger of rock and roll. I think we kind of take it for granted that it’s rock and roll and it’s here and that’s the way it’s always been, and obviously that’s not the case. Even to this day, there’s places on this earth that people have to listen to rock and roll in secret. We were somewhere in I think it might’ve been France, and a guy came from Islamabad to see our show, and he was telling us about how they would have secret underground listening parties and secret underground shows for metal fans, and when I say underground, it’s not figurative. It’s literally – they have to be very, very careful about it. It’s very dangerous and they literally could lose their lives and limbs over it if they ran into the wrong people. And to me, even before meeting that guy, that’s kind of what I was thinking about, and that kind of culminates in “The Face,”  with the images of Les Pauls and drums and Jazz Masters burning. People can take what they want from that image, but it seemed to be striking.

Was there a face? Somebody’s face?

That song started as “The Face” as a working title before there was any lyrics. I wrote the lyrics and then I started thinking, “Well now I gotta retitle it,” but I started thinking about it, and I remembered in rudimentary music class where you have “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” and “Face” to remember the space, F-A-C-E, the notes of the scale, that’s kind of a reference to music, and I changed the lyrics a bit. Instead of “The hand moved over,” “The face moved over,” and it seemed to be a synchronicity of the two things, the working title and the subject matter seemed to work. And then Nick Lakiotes, I thought, “Well this is just working out splendidly.” It was one of the few times that things happened easily (laughs).

And of course Clutch has been called so many things over the years, so many tags to what you guys do. Is “Earth Rocker” your response to that?

I guess that song’s a couple things. On the one hand, it’s a self-motivational speech. To use an analogy, it’s what the fighter would say to himself before he goes in the ring. It started, we were doing a lot of festivals last year, and there’s a lot of waiting around at those festivals and people watching – that’s half the fun of it – and I was watching the circus backstage and I overheard a lot of young bands bemoaning the fact that they had to play and, oh, it was too hot, or the catering sucked, or there’s not a lot of people here, and it just really got on my nerves, because you should be so lucky that you have the opportunity to do this. Shut the fuck up already and play. And do it honestly.

That’s the D.C. punk in you.

Yeah, I guess so (laughs). It had been there all along, I just didn’t know it. I guess it’s related to “The Face” in some regards, where it’s just, “Get rid of all the nonsense that surrounds us all and do what it’s all about, which is playing live music and entertaining people.” And don’t overcomplicate it and try to make it out like you’re trying to land something on the moon. It’s fun. It’s joy. And we’re lucky to live in a day and age that we can do that so readily.

Was “Pigtown Blues” ever considered for the album?

Never spoke about it. We had been doing some acoustic stuff in between Strange Cousins and this, and we recorded that song and put it out specifically for Record Store Day.

In terms of the tour, Clutch and Orange Goblin. How did you wind up bringing them over, how did it work out, and how do you prepare your liver for such a thing?

(Laughs) We’ve known those guys for quite some time. We’ve known Ben [Ward] for ages. He comes to our shows and we had done some shows with Orange Goblin in the past, years and years and years ago. They had this new record and their name came up and immediately it was like, “Well this is perfect.” They’re a great band and I’m certain that a lot of Clutch fans already know about them and if they don’t, I’m certain that they’ll like ‘em.

And you guys just announced that you’re doing Rocklahoma this year. I hate to ask [Editor’s note: I did not actually hate to ask], but is this the first time you will have actually been “rockin’ with Dokken?”

(Laughs) I think it might be. I didn’t even realize they were playing it.

They put Dokken right next to Clutch on the poster.

Kick ass. That’s one you definitely have to walk home with. We’ll definitely put that song in the setlist too.

Will you tour around that?

Oh for sure. We’ve got two US legs lined up, as well as a European festival run that’s gonna take us – I know what I’m doing until the end of July, more or less.

And then you do it all again, basically.

A lot of touring on this record ahead of us. But that’s what we signed up for.

Well, Strange Cousins came out in ’09 and you had Basket of Eggs and Pigtown Blues since then and it’s not like you were sitting on your ass, but four years is a long time. Do you see that kind of length between albums happening again or will you try and get to a follow-up full-length quicker?

I certainly hope so, hope we don’t take that much time again. I think we had a lot of momentum though, and we like to keep that going. As far as writing goes, four years is too long. One of the reasons it took us so long though is we just kept getting offers to do these tours and open up for bands like Motörhead and Thin Lizzy, or Volbeat. Those were things that we always thought would benefit us when we did record and release this record and finally we just had to put our foot down and say “enough.” I have every intention of starting to write the next record ASAP. When it’ll come out, who’s to say?

More From Clutch’s 2012 CMJ Party & Performance

Clutch’s Earth Rocker website

Weathermaker Music

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11 Responses to “Clutch Interview with Neil Fallon: What’s This about Limits?”

  1. JohnArz says:

    So many good quotes from Neil. But what the hey hey, no word about more vinyl reissues? I need me some Robot Hive/Exodus on wax.

  2. Dane says:

    Good interview – and Earth Rocker is truly great. Very weird to hear Fallon talking about “getting the opportunity” to open for Volbeat. Volbeat does not deserve a mention together with the likes of Motörhead and Thin Lizzy – Clutch, on the other hand, does!

  3. Troy says:

    “The Face” is a phenomenal, epic (I hate that word is so overused, but it FITS that song) song. His explanation of it is so….perfect.

  4. Mike H says:

    Excellent interview.

  5. Mark says:

    Outstanding interview, a great read, and some great snippets from Neil.

  6. goAt says:

    ROCKIN’ WITH DOKKEN…awesome. That always has to twist a band’s tits, though-”Hey, great new record-when’s the next one?” ;)

    MACHINE DID nail the tracklisting, and also:

    “CDs, yeah, you can put 75 minutes of music on it, but that doesn’t mean you should.”

    A-FUCKING-MEN to THAT.

  7. steeb says:

    great work!

  8. Glenn says:

    Dane, i am not a volbeat fan but they are very big in Europe. Thus, opening for them in a hickey arena is a true opportunity.

  9. Mike H says:

    Awesome photos too!

    Was that lizard on the couch real?

  10. Rob says:

    I’ll never forget catching Clutch at old DC venues like the Black Cat. How far they’ve come, they really are a working man’s band. And I loved Neil calling out those whiny younger bands. Spoiled rotten kids would’ve been shocked at the fact that back then you didn’t have an internet to make a name for yourself.

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