Neil Fallon of Clutch Talks 27 Years Of Heaviness & New Album ‘Book of Bad Decisions’ (INTERVIEW)

Twenty-seven years, twelve albums, five EPs & several live recordings. If you haven’t heard of Clutch by now, you’ve been missing out for a long, long time. A hybrid of punk, hardcore and rock & roll, this foursome of school friends – Neil Fallon on vocals and guitar, Tim Sult on guitar, Dan Maines on bass and Jean-Paul Gaster on drums – have stayed true to their youthful roots while expanding their sound and their lyrics to stay modern in a classic rock obsessed music galaxy. And their upcoming album, Book Of Bad Decisions out this week, has all kinds of goodies for your ears, starting with the opening track, “Gimme The Keys,” on through “Emily Dickinson,” “A Good Fire” and “Paper & Strife.”

For Fallon especially, a notorious bookworm since he was a kid, he has been spurred on by life, world events and the stories he has read. But whereas some artists tend to get too deep into their political ranting, Fallon has always added a serving of humor within his words to keep Clutch’s music from becoming just that: three minute excuses for ramming their political views down the listener’s throat. Fallon may have the voice to stand you at attention real quick but he’ll douse you with some tractor-beam psychology and science-fiction imagery; hence the song “In Walks Barbarella” on the new album.

Glide spoke with Fallon a few days ago about his new songs, his reading inspirations and how Clutch avoided being stereotypical.

 

You still live in the DC area where you grew up so you didn’t get too far from where you started off

Yeah, I tried to (laughs) but I ended up back here. When you’re a young adult you want to get as far away from home as possible and then so many of us just end up back there. But yeah, it’s alright. I could definitely do worse.

I saw you guys play at Voodoo Fest in New Orleans a few years back in the pouring rain

Yeah, I think we’re still drying out from that one (laughs). I remember watching that storm front roll through and I was most worried about becoming a human circuit breaker. I’d been shocked, you know, on the mic a couple of times and seeing that storm roll through and standing in a puddle of water wasn’t probably up to OSHA standards. But I think with the luxury of hindsight it kind of added to the intensity of it, knock on wood. We had to lay out all our equipment the next day and I think there were a couple guitar pedals that didn’t make it. But at the end of the day you can replace those pretty easily.

Is that one of the worst situations you’ve been in playing live? Is it usually weather?

Yeah, with festivals the typical thing is heat and it can be hard to sing when it’s that hot. But that was probably one of the more extreme environments that we’ve ever performed in. The local people in New Orleans maybe are well-accustomed to this, and so are we, but there comes a point where you have to ask yourself, is this a smart idea. But hey, it was fun.

I don’t remember but did you play a full set or did you end up cutting it short?

We ended up playing a full set. I remember it poured and then for some reason when Pepper Keenan came out to play with us, the rain kind of stopped, and then he left and it started up again. He’s got some kind of in with Mother Nature (laughs).

You have a new record coming out. What was on your mind the most when you were writing these songs?

I think with us as a band, we haven’t really changed our process since we were kids. We get together and we play riffs and we decide which ones we like the best. Then I listen to these songs at home and to me it’s like, and this is our twelfth record, trying to find new lyrical territory to get into, which can be challenging. So I think that was the main thing on my mind. It wasn’t like an overarching theme. If there was one difference, I’d say it kind of started with Psychic Warfare [2015], more so kind of using my own true-to-life personal experiences and then exaggerating them for the purposes of lyrics.

As you’ve gotten older and you have a family, do you think more seriously about what you say in your lyrics than you used to?

I take it just as seriously as I did, you know, ten years ago. But I’ll say this, I remember years spent thinking when I become a parent then that’s the end of my creative life, because that’s what is supposed to happen. And I quickly realized that the opposite is the case because when you’re suddenly given responsibility to explain the universe to another human that doesn’t understand anything, you’re forced to look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes. It was very challenging and also very inspiring at the same time.

What was producer Vance Powell’s biggest asset to these songs – cause you had them written before you went in with him, correct?

Yeah, all but one. We wrote “Hot Bottom Feeder” in the studio. But he told us, “As a producer, I don’t have much to add on changing these songs,” because they were done. His asset is that he comes from a background of live audio. He got his education on the road, much like ourselves. So he’s very adept at knowing what microphone, where to place it on what cabinet and just really making it easy. Cause when all was said and done, after three weeks of tracking, I was worried cause it felt like I hadn’t done anything. Usually three weeks into recording a record I’m pulling my hair out, you know, banging my head against the wall. And this was not the case here. It was a breeze.

I think one of the major skills that a producer has to have is almost kind of being a psychologist in a way and knowing how to gauge personalities and get the most out of them. And he did. He came out on the road with us for three days. And if there was an actual, tangible thing that he added that’s the most obvious, is when he was out on the road and we were playing “In Walks Barbarella” he said, “This song really could use a horn section.” And that probably wouldn’t have happened had he not come out on the road with us and got to live with the music for a few days. He certainly didn’t have to do that. He just agreed to do it.

Which song would you say changed the most from it’s original conception to it’s final recorded version?

Oh boy, probably the first track, “Gimme The Keys.” We must have done six or seven versions of that song that we kept kicking around and kicking around, almost to the point where we were going to trash it. Cause usually the best songs write themselves very quickly and the ones that are the problem child they don’t seem to have the greatest longevity. But thankfully we kept at it and found a way to arrange the song that everyone was happy with.

 “Lorelei” has this great instrumental intro that winds almost spookily through the song. Did that song build from that or vice versa?

That was a riff I had written quite some time ago and we were getting towards the end of the writing period and I remembered that one. One of the challenging things about lyrics is you want the words to match the mood of the music and originally that song was going to be about, we have a song called “A Shogun Named Marcus,” and it was going to be about Marcus in his kind of golden years. And I wanted to look for a rhyme for the word Samurai and I stumbled on Lorelei and I kind of knew what that was but I looked it up and I realized then that that character of Lorelei was much more fitting for the mood of the song than this kind of comical character, Marcus. I’m a firm believer sometimes meter and rhyme will take the lyrics someplace you never intended to but that makes it more exciting than just trying to force an idea onto a song.

One of the more poignant songs on Book Of Bad Decisions is “How To Shake Hands.” The line where you say, “Give the people what they want and what they want is straight talk and no jive,” was very spot on.

Thank you. That song actually started lyrically as we were covering a Ry Cooder song called “John Lee Hooker For President.” The versions that we were coming up with didn’t really quite rate in my opinion. But I loved Ry Cooder’s lyrics where he’s assuming the character of John Lee Hooker and he’s talking about all the things John Lee Hooker is going to do when he’s president. So I kind of took that idea and ran with it.

Do you prefer taking politics and putting more humor to them than just coming straight out?

Yes. You know, not once in twenty-seven years have I said anything political onstage, because the thing is, I think people pay good money for a ticket to forget about life for a while regardless of their political inclinations. The same can be said about music. You don’t want to be lecturing people. I like escapism but at the same time I think humor is an effective critique. But having said that, I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes when you make a song too referential to a specific period of time, it can kind of date it and it doesn’t have the same shelf life as, let’s say, a story or something that lives outside that political sphere.

In terms of instrumentation, did you guys try anything new?

I can think of a couple of things, like this song, “A Good Fire.” Jean-Paul, our drummer, took up playing mandolin on tour. They’re small, you can stick it in the back of the cabinet in the bus and he wrote this riff on the mandolin. Then Tim and Dan played the riff on electric and bass and I said, well, that sounds like straight out of Black Sabbath Vol 4. So to think our drummer played a mandolin that ended up into a song, that’s certainly a first for Clutch.

Did you try your hand at playing mandolin?

It’s hard. The strings are so close together and with my gorilla hands, you know (laughs). When you hear someone like Bill Monroe go like thrash level speed on a mandolin it is beyond me.

When you first started playing guitar what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

The hardest thing then and now is the split-brain operation of singing and playing at the same time. Generally speaking, if it’s a riff that I wrote, I can sing along to it. But if it’s a riff that Dan or Tim, or in some instances Jean-Paul, wrote, I usually opt not to play guitar because I wasn’t born with an innate ability to just have that split-brain operation.

I understand that you are a voracious reader. What were some of your earliest favorites and what do you love to read now?

I would say that the one book that kind of kicked down the doors for me and affected me in a way that I didn’t see coming was when I was about thirteen or fourteen and I read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was the same age as the characters in the book and I was reading it in October so it was one of those kind of synchronous moments where the book really came alive for me. Ever since then I’ve been chasing that same kind of dragon. These days I like Science-Fiction and I’m also a big fan of Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, Don DeLillo. They’re challenging but at the same time when a writer writes beautifully there is nothing like it in the world.

With Science-Fiction, what intrigues you about those worlds?

I think Science-Fiction often is a critique of the here and now. You can read stuff from the golden age of Science-Fiction that obviously reflects the fears and hopes of that generation. A lot of Science-Fiction nowadays is about the plague and overpopulation and dystopia. I’m reading The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey. I’m on book seven now where it speaks to humanity expanding beyond the solar system and how even though despite those technological advances, humans are still tribal and will gravitate in social ways just as they did 10,000 years ago. It’s a cool commentary on human nature and I just like the backdrop of the stars because it’s the unknown.

You have a huge catalog of songs, and I’m sure you think they are all great, but what song has surprised you the most that fans really latched onto?

I would say the reaction and the longevity of “The Regulator” really surprised me. That started with me trying to learn how to play a Skip James song on a guitar and then kind of just taking that tuning and that finger-picking approach. I knew it was a very different Clutch song at that point and I didn’t know what to expect. And people just really ate it up and it was very gratifying to see that our fans are that open-minded.

How did Clutch not become a stereotypical hardcore band?

Well, we never had a conversation where we said we want to be this kind of band so we’re not making any mistakes because it’s an open book. And I think we consider ourselves students for life. There is no quote-unquote arrival or making it, you don’t really ever do that. I also think boredom. I can’t imagine doing the same thing for twenty-seven years. I would go crazy. I’d rather take a risk and fail than just kind of redo the same thing over and over and over again.

I think when you’re young, at least this was the way it was for me and I think it’s common for a lot of people, you have a very narrow view of the world and you think it’s the best and it will never change and you only like A, B, and C. It’s been a great education being in a band. You’re getting exposed to all these different kinds of music that I wouldn’t have otherwise. You got to grow. It’s kind of the whole point and if you’re not changing, you might be doing it wrong.

So what will be happening with Clutch for the rest of this year?

We have a couple of tours lined up. We’ve got this one coming up with Sevendust, who we toured with twenty years ago, believe it or not. They are similar to us and same lineup from back then. And Tyler Bryant. I haven’t seen Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown live but we met them through Vance Powell who recorded them as well and that’s kind of how we got introduced. Then we’re going to do a tour in Europe in December and a Christmas run and probably take off six weeks or so and start up again in the spring. Then the whole summer we’ll be supporting the record and probably do a lot of festivals and before we know it, this album will have been out for a year. So even though the album hasn’t even been released yet, I think we already see the next record sticking it’s head up above the horizon already.

If you don’t have fun at this upcoming tour, something’s wrong with you

Yeah, it’s not us, it’s you (laughs)

If you have any ideas while you are out on the road, will you be working them out in soundchecks?

We try not to do that too much because I think we work more efficiently privately, just the four of us. We can speak more honestly with each other when there isn’t an audience, even if it’s just the local crew who couldn’t give a damn (laughs). But I think we write better when we’re at home when we can just dedicate time to it and then taking those ideas and playing them live in front of an audience is usually a good crucible to put them in.

 

Main photo by Dan Winters; live photo by Jennifer Devereaux

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