Neil Fallon is the vocalist, lyrical genius/madman of Clutch, and a personal musical hero of mine. While the genre of Fallon’s band is up for debate, the passion of Clutch’s fans is not, cementing the band as a “cult band.”
Before Clutch’s performance with Orange Goblin, Lionize and Scorpion Child at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, I had the honor of sitting down with Neil to discuss his love of Star Wars, beer, lyrical complexity and much more.
Note: I had just seen Clutch at South by Southwest a few weeks before so our conversation started there.
How was SXSW for you? You said it was the first one since ’95?
Yeah, we did one, I think it was ’95. We played with Wayne Kramer (former MC5 Guitarist), which was really good. It was much smaller back then. They didn’t have the interactive and the film, and tech side of it. Discos weren’t part of it either. It’s so much bigger. It’s pretty overwhelming. I’ve felt a little bit old man-ish thinking music has taken a second seat to a lot of other things that were unmusical, but I’m sure the city of Austin has their reasons to bring in as many people as possible.
Did you have a chance to walk down 6th street at all?
I avoided it.
Smart. One of the other people you mentioned playing with during your 11oo Warehouse show (at SXSW) that you played with at that ‘95 show was Fred Schneider, how was that opening for a B-52?
Well, it was unexpected. You know what, I’d rather do something a little quirky and different than always playing with the same kinds of bands all the time. That band, if I remember correctly, was more of a rock n roll band compared to the B-52’s. It’s one of those strange things, touring in a rock band sometimes brings you to unexpected situations and that’s half the fun of it.
Like the first time I saw you guys was after The Fall of Troy and Coheed and Cambria. That was a very odd bill.
I don’t know if our fans were really hitting it off too well, but we have a pretty open minded policy. We’ll play with anybody, anywhere. It’s just music.
Going back to the very beginning, what was your first band called and what did it sound like?
We had a high school band; a hardcore band called Moral Minority, which I played guitar in terribly. Then we had another band called N.S.A., the National Security Agency. That was very short lived. Then I went off to school and these guys (the rest of Clutch) started a band called Glut Trip, and I filled in one night for the singer of Glut Trip who wasn’t able to do the show, and then I’ve been there since. We didn’t get “Clutch” until a couple months later. I think we always intended on changing the name, and never really got around to it.
Who inspired your vocal style? Were you trying to channel anyone, or did you just grab the mic and what came out, came out?
Early on I was listening to a lot of hardcore bands and punk rock bands, and I was trying to emulate that. I had that kind of naive opinion that melody was commercial, and that pitch was commercial. I had to teach myself. I never took any lessons, and it didn’t come naturally to me. Early on, I gravitated towards guys that maybe had a more gruff approach to singing, for example, Tom Waits. The first time I heard him was kind of a watershed moment. This is beautiful, in a horrendous way. You don’t have to be pitch perfect to be captivating, and once I realized that it opened up a lot of doors. It had a lot more to do with the lyrics, because you can say anything with enough conviction people will listen. He was one, I also was a big fan of Chuck D, more because I relied on rhythm early on as opposed to melody. Howlin Wolf, Nick Cave. There are other bands, like The Swans were an influence on us in the very beginning; you probably wouldn’t think that by listening to us, but Transnational (Speedway League) is, for the most part, a pretty slow record.
I fancy myself a nerd, and you claim to be one as well. I had a short stint playing D&D, and I was wondering what your character was when you played?
I had a couple. I know I was a druid of sorts, with the caveat that me and my friends had a very liberal approach to roles of AD&D. I was a warrior for a bit too. That was 1982 to 1984, or something like that. (Then) went to middle school, and if you got caught playing D&D you got your ass kicked, so that was sort of the end of it. Then, thankfully, video games were private.
How do you feel about how being a geek or being a nerd is kind of cool now, growing up in the time that you did where it was not?
I guess it’s a double-edged sword. It’s nice to think that people are more accepting of these things, but the appealing thing of being a nerd is the camaraderie of being an underdog, where I don’t care if you make fun of us or what-have-you, we’re so satisfied with that it doesn’t matter. I could draw the same analogy with rock n roll. It used to be very difficult to get punk rock and metal records, you had to go to a certain store. Then live shows, you’d have to know where it was at. Now, it’s all pervasive. You see the scenes of band loading in a dark alley, then going up on stage, and it’s an American Express commercial. I guess, it’s good to say we won those fights to say this is a legitimate form of music or art, at the same time the exclusivity is kind of gone to a degree. I think that’s also the case of nerdom, and it’s also a fad too. People will probably claim that, are also just doing that because it might be cool right now.
I saw an interview where you were interviewed by a nine-year-old girl, and you brought up a toy of yours, a Star Wars lightsaber. Are you still a Star Wars fan?
How do you feel about the prequels and the future sequels?
I have mixed feelings. I’m forty-one. When Star Wars came out it was really formative for me, and that changed my world. A New Hope, Empire (Strikes Back), and (Return of the) Jedi, those to me are a pedestal that will never be lived up to no matter what they do, and that has to do with how old I was. When I went to go see the other ones, I was bummed out. This is just a CGI orgy. Aesthetically I didn’t like it, I didn’t like the characters, but also keep in mind that I was watching it as a thirty-something-year-old man. It wasn’t designed for me. Now I’m a father, I have a three-year-old son who is now getting into Star Wars, and I get to live vicariously again through this. On one hand, I’m glad that the universe will stay alive for him, but I’ll be very certain to make sure he understands that my favorites are the best ones. Let’s get that straight from the get go. Sure, some of the effects, aesthetically, seem a bit dated, but I watch him watch this thing and it’s not dated, because the story’s great. I guess, I can understand both sides of the argument. I feel very possessive about it, but then they say, “If you truly love something, you’ve got to let it go.”
Do you have any hope for the sequels? I heard the news and thought it was kind of neat that Harrison Ford may be back, but I’m really weary.
A lot of us have made it impossible to be satisfied, because it’s entered the realm of a classic. I’m just looking to be entertained, and would never expect to leave thinking that was as good or better. That’s not gonna happen, but who knows? You see what happened with Alien, when they let anybody and their brother take control of it, and you ended up with some real travesties.
I’ve never thought of that parallel.
Once you just get to use that license, that image, it’s a very risky thing. I don’t think it’s really worked out for anyone. The first few Aliens were great.
Often in interviews or photo shoots, you and the band are portrayed as a gang of beer enthusiasts, is that accurate?
Yeah, we are.
What’s your favorite style?
Honestly, it’s pretty seasonal. In the summer, IPAs. Some of my favorite beers are from California. Racer 5 is one of my favorites.
I’m not a big fan of IPAs, but I’ve been told that if you don’t like that one, you should give up trying them, because that’s like THE ONE.
Yeah, I think so. I think that’s a safe assumption. I also like stouts, in the winter time in particular and sour beers. We have a beer with New Belgium.
I had it, it was pretty good.
Thanks. We modeled it basically after Blackout Stout from Great Lakes Brewing and a Kriek style that New Belgian could do. They were 15/14 and they’d just mix it. I didn’t know this until after that, I’ve read music reviews of our band and people can be very critical, but beer enthusiasts are the most critical people I’ve ever encountered. People will write a doctoral thesis about the beer they had the night before, and it was pretty interesting to see. I’d like to do it again.
Having another Clutch beer?
Yeah. That’s one cool thing since starting out, that the only thing close to a craft beer was Samuel Adams, and they kicked down a lot of doors. It used to be that the rest of the world looked down their nose at our American beer, now they’re looking to us for lessons. I think it’s because Europe has such strict laws regarding beers, but watching the industry recover from prohibition after so long is great to see. People want quality, and when they taste it, they’ll keep coming back for more.
Moving on to the new album, for some reason it’s being put out there as this return album, like a comeback album, but I don’t really feel like you guys ever really had a dip in quality or went anywhere. Why do you think that this attitude is being brought to Earth Rocker?
I know there were some people that were really not stoked on our forays into bluesville.
But Beale Street (to Oblivion) is awesome.
I love it too. I didn’t really know that until after the fact reading reviews like, “Oh, thank goodness Clutch has come back to this.” We’re not coming back to anything. We never went anywhere. Maybe, another fact is (producer) Machine did this record, he also did Blast Tyrant, so sonically it has some very similar qualities. When we went into this record, we just wanted to make a fast, efficient record, but we also don’t want to be one of these bands that does the “going back to your roots” record, because that often ends up being very contrived. Like many artists, we just want to keep moving forward. It’s a pretty simple record, there’s not a lot of jams in there. It’s just kind of to the point and maybe people see that as returning to something, to what album they’re talking about, I don’t know. People seem to like it.
Also, I’ve noticed an influx of people talking about your lyrics and are they absurd nonsense or are they really deep metaphors? How much of it is intense metaphors and how much of it what fits, or what feels right?
I think it has to be a balance of both. One of my biggest self-criticisms is over-thinking and over-writing, being too wordy. Sure, you’ve got to have justification for your lyrics because you’re conveying information, but you’re also conveying sounds. I need to strike the balance. If things are so literal, and there’s no room for interpretation, it’s just kind of dead upon arrival. A lot of times I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is, and that’s what makes it interesting. If I had to justify every line that I wrote, I’d go blue in the face. I do think about it quite a bit. I listen to the music and ask, “could this stand on its own without the music?” Usually that’s a pretty good test.
May I ask you about a couple in particular that are some of my favorites?
What inspired “Never trust a white man driving a black van, He’s just saving all his voodoo for you”?
That was when we did Blast Tyrant, that was right during the Washington DC sniper attacks, and everyone was doing a profile that there was a cargo van and it’s probably a lone gunman. A white guy that fits the description, mentally unhinged, paranoid guy, and everyone was looking for this guy. I started writing a song about that, and the more I wrote about it, the more I was like, “This just sounds dark and terrible.” You can’t really write about something like that, because people were dying. 14 people. You don’t want to use that, and disrespect it. So, that was sort of the inspiration of it and that, at least in my mind, the white guy driving the black van is sort of the icon, the undercover FBI surveillance vehicle, or your SWAT team or just a kind of modern pale horse, grim reaper-type figure. That’s where it started, and where it went, which is kind of where a lot of lyrics end up being.
10001110101? I think I got that right.
(Laughs) I did it randomly at a practice once, and said, “It would be cool to have a binary code in a song,” did it, and then realized there’s a whole world of people that are really into binary code and were asking me, “does it mean this?” and images that could be generated. I had to break it to them that it was random. Some people still don’t believe that. That was one of those things where the rhythm just sounded good. I didn’t want to subordinate rhythm to some secret message.
Who is Isabella? (of the Earth Rocker track “Oh, Isabella.”)
Isabella is… Have you seen the movie The Fountain?
I have not.
Check it out. It’s pretty good. I have some criticisms, but that’s for another interview, but I liked it quite a bit, because it was about time travel in the context of the new world, in the Spanish conquest. This was sort of my take on it where instead of the characters that are in those movies, it was me on Rockville Pike, Maryland. Isabella is the romantic figure of the queen that, I guess it’s stereotypical, where the conquistador’s fallen in love with her, but he’s plum on the other side of the Atlantic. A, kind of, stock Hollywood image.
How do you feel about Clutch’s status as a cult band? Considering, this is a much bigger room than I saw you in last time you had a headline tour. Do you think the label still stands?
I don’t know where “cult” begins and ends. People are very passionate about our band. I guess you could say Rush is a cult band to a degree. Rush fans are Rush fans, and I think they feel possessive about Rush, and there’s some analogy to Clutch fans. I don’t see that as a band moniker. I’d rather fewer people be very, very passionate about this band than a lot of people just sitting on the fence about.
Can we expect any Company Band or Bakerton Group (Clutch related side-projects) any time soon?
I would expect material from both, but not in the immediate future. We’re going to be on tour for about a year, more or less.
One of your songs was used in an episode of The Walking Dead, are you a fan?
Yes. I was a fan prior to that, so I was really tickled when that happened. It’s never happened. We had a song in Sons of Anarchy, and I hadn’t watched the show before, so I wasn’t really as emotionally attached to it when I got the news.
I’ve been meaning to catch up on that show-
The Walking Dead?
Yes, everyone I know watches. I’m usually bored by the zombie lore. Why should I watch Walking Dead, over anything else.
Because zombies are just a backdrop. It’s really a soap opera. You get used to them. You get used to beheadings, but it’s the interactions between different camps of humans who are fighting amongst themselves that really drives the story. It’s a very classic- it’s like The Odyssey at the beginning. The character wakes up, sorta like 28 Days Later, he wakes up in the middle of the apocalypse and he finds his best friend is sleeping with his wife, and they tell it in a pretty fresh way.
I’m going to end on one that a friend of mine meant to ask you about 11 years ago. If you were to have a children’s novel, or a children’s book, what would the plot be?
Mercy… that’s something I think about quite a bit now that I have a son. I’m thinking about Arrow to the Sun, which is probably my favorite book of his that we read. I wish I had an answer to that…
I know it’s tough to be put on the spot and be like, “Quick! Be creative! Go!”
“Make a story!” I think of my favorite books. A lot of them were pretty dark. Even the classics, like Peter Rabbit. I think if you could take any of the classics, Grimm or Aesop’s Fables and put it in a science fiction setting, it’d probably be pretty fun. It’s usually the old stories you just need to rewrite the characters and the names and put your spin on it. Those are always the classic plot lines. There’s an amazing book, and I can’t remember his name (Gerald McDermott), he did Anansi the Spider. That’s what he’s most famous for, but he did another one called Arrow to the Sun, and it’s about a kid who is the son of god. It’s a Pueblo Indian tale that’s from 1972. He gets shot into the sun by an arrow and then he gets sent back down by his father, and he has to go through these trials. It’s really dark, but a beautiful book. He ends up becoming a demigod at the end. For a five-year-old, how much of that do they understand? But as the adult, I enjoy reading it. It’s cool
Clutch will be on tour in the US through May promoting their new album Earth Rocker released via Weathermaker Music.
_Daniel Cordova (@ovacord)
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