From Hari Kari and Combines to Psychic Warfare: An Interview with Neil Fallon of Clutch
The frontman of the long-running Maryland stalwarts reflects on the past, the new LP, and just how it is that they've kept the original lineup together for 25 years.
Neil Fallon’s voice hints at what the man does on stage. The Clutch vocalist speaks in a low register, and his answers are far more controlled than the unhinged roar heard on records like The Elephant Riders and Blast Tyrant, although at any moment he could belch out a mighty roar through the phone. That said, there’s nothing overly fancy about Maryland’s longstanding pure rock furists—four dudes that look like East Coast dock workers who deliver meat-and-potatoes riffs with a very blue collar approach to performing live. You can’t argue with the results: 11 full-length records and a rabid fanbase that’s carried them for nearly 25 years.
That’s a long road for any band. And Clutch has thrived in recent years with the same four guys—Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, the rhythm-section of bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster—who played the opening riff to the opening song on their 1991 Pitchfork EP. 2013’s Earth Rocker was met with eager ears, and showcased a rejuvenated Clutch playing fast and loose. Their new record Psychic Warfare (out Oct. 2 via their own Weathermaker Music) is their best in years, picking up where Earth Rocker left off, with an endless stockpile of riffs, hooks and fantastical tales.
Noisey caught up with Fallon to talk about the band’s longevity, writer’s block, and storytelling in songs versus storytelling at parties.
Noisey: Clutch fans are pretty loyal. Do you think one of the reasons might be that the band is so loyal? You know, it being the same four guys.
Neil Fallon: I definitely think that’s part of the equation. I think people appreciate that about the band—that it’s been the four same guys; that we’ve toured. Building up a fanbase just by touring takes a lot longer, but the end result is people dedicate a lot more energy into listening to the band and going to see the band. And they are usually diehards. We didn’t suffer the curse of having a hit one summer.
Are you as surprised as anyone that no one in the band has bailed over the course of 25 years?
In hindsight, I can look at it and say, “Wow, that’s amazing,” but we’re always in the middle of it and it doesn’t ever seem like that would’ve been an option. And I know we still enjoy doing it, and I’m sure the other guys think the same thing. It’s like, “Well, is there something else you’d rather be doing?” And the answer is unequivocally no.
The new record Psychic Warfare is shaping up to be my favorite Clutch album in years. What was your particular approach with this one?
It came on the heels of Earth Rocker so quickly that it does share the momentum we’d gained. We upped the tempos quite a bit. It’s easy for any artist to get comfortable after twenty years, and kind of play the same tempos and play the same pentatonic scales. It’s important to do something more difficult to create something of value. I think technically speaking we were way more rehearsed going into the studio than we were for Earth Rocker. When I think about what we did for Psychic Warfare, it’s what gives it maybe more of a live, raw sound. We were really able to focus on a lot of details because of that, instead of just trying to remember the damn parts.
The Clutch sound is pretty recognizable, and each part is so important. Your lyrics are weird, and almost literary. You must be a pretty well-read guy.
Not nearly as much as I’d like to be; but I do read quite a bit. I like to look at my lyrics on the page without the music, and have them still have a bit of intrigue to them. At the same time I have to remember that this is rock and roll and not a dissertation, and try not to overburden it with too many fifty-cent words—which I have a tendency to do to entertain myself.
Are you a good storyteller at parties?
After a couple of beers, I’m sure I’m a master of it. I have a 5-year-old son, and I remember for years thinking once fatherhood came around that would be the end of my creative life. But I realize now that it’s the best inspiration you can ever imagine, because you have to see the world through someone else’s eyes and explain stuff you that take for granted. I bring this up because you mentioned storytelling—there’s like a sweet spot in a child’s life where you pretty much have a license to lie straight to their faces. I find myself taking great joy in just bullshitting this kid [laughs].
Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself to deliver compelling lyrics with each record?
I do. I think writing lyrics… it’s my favorite thing in the world to do, but it’s also the most frustrating thing at times. Writer’s block can be one of the most depressing mental states I can imagine, but then sometimes when something falls out of the sky it’s about as high as I can imagine.
Oh, I can relate.
Yeah, I’m sure you understand. It’s like a bad marriage—there’s a lot of abuse in it, but I’m never going to leave.
Do you feel there was ever a time, or a particular album, where you didn’t deliver?
It’s hard for me to be that objective about it. I will say that, looking back over 20 years, the period of time around Pure Rock Fury, I was burnt out. And I was also struggling with the notion of making a career out of this, because I believed for many years—foolishly—that being in a band was something you did before you did something you hate. And when I stopped bemoaning it and being defensive about it, and started having more fun, we did Blast Tyrant and that was a bit of a renaissance for me personally.
That was, what, about 10 years in? So that was like your rock and roll midlife?
Yeah, my musical midlife crisis, I guess.
I hesitate to ask about a favorite album, but is there one you’re particularly proud of?
Picking a favorite album is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child—it’s like they’re a little troublemaker but you still love them. I will say this, the self-titled… it took a lot of balls to put that record out to the crowd we were playing for. We knew we were going to get a lot of heat, and we did. I remember very specifically the first time we played “Spacegrass” live, and it was met with a sea of middle fingers, and rolling eyes and, “Fuck you, what is this?” And thankfully we didn’t listen, because it’s become one of the signature Clutch tunes.
It’s still a great song.
It’s a weird one. There wasn’t anything really like that at the time.
When did you discover you had that voice?
When we started I just jumped in completely blind, and just threw shit over the fence to see where it landed. When I listen to Transnational, it’s like, “Who is this guy?” It doesn’t sound like me. It’s been a very long education. And also figuring out one’s strengths and trying to amplify those and not worrying about being something you’re not. It’s something I’m still figuring it out, to be honest with you.
You mentioned Transnational Speedway League. The jump from that album to the self-titled seems huge—they sound so different to me.
It’s two different bands. With Transnational there was two batches of songs—there were these down-tempo, lyrically arced songs, and then we did another batch with “Shogun Named Marcus” and “El Jefe Speaks,” which were the last ones we wrote for that. And that’s when a light was going off in my head about what we could do. The self-titled record is the one that set us on the trajectory we’re on today, with riffs, and a bigger swing to the beat, and more of a sense of humor to the lyrics. And that’s much more fun. I mean, I can’t imagine being in a band for 20 years and rehashing juvenile angst—I’m approaching my mid-40s; I certainly don’t want to do that.
There’s definitely a sense of humor with some of the lyrics, which I’ve always appreciated. They’re smart—there’s satire, there are pop-culture references snuck in there. You guys were sort of ahead of your time.
Clutch was never engineered… there was never any preconceived notions of what we wanted to be. We just kind of did it, and hopefully the sum is greater than the parts. I remember doing shows opening up for big metal bands, and just being hated because it looked like we were having a good time. Metal is a very conservative genre—there are a lot of close-minded guys and gals. There’s an irony to it. There are a lot of metal fans who claim to be only into extreme things, but their list of extreme things is very, very narrow.
I think it’s changed somewhat in recent years, but I hear you.
It certainly wasn’t like that opening up for Pantera for a month and a half.
Oh, well there you go—that’s a whole different thing. That must have been a pretty crazy experience for you guys.
It was a good tour, but in hindsight we probably should’ve maybe painted our setlist a little more appropriately. But our mindset was if they don’t like us, let’s make them hate us. It was foolish in hindsight, because it’s not like we taught anyone a lesson [laughs], but, you know, live and learn.