Sunday, August 4, 2013

Popping the Clutch: an Interview with Neil Fallon (from 2007)

This is my interview with Neil Fallon that I referred to yesterday.  Once again, this interview was featured in RVA Magazine, and this chat took place way back in 2007.  I loved the format RVA Magazine was using back in those days, and this is one of the best pieces I provided them with during that timeframe.

Popping the Clutch:  An Interview with Neil Fallon conducted by James Wayland
Clutch has been one of the most unique bands to grace the heavy scene since their inception nearly twenty years ago.  They have continued to evolve as their output has baffled critics and studio execs looking to label their original sound.  During that time, they've given us an assortment of terrific albums and songs, including the treasure chest that is Elephant Riders, the iconic stoner jam “Spacegrass,” and their most recent offering, From Beale St to Oblivion.  This newest recording has received rave reviews, and some publications, such as Metal Hammer, have gone so far as to call it "the best album the group has ever produced."
On March 21, Clutch will bring their rollicking brand of sonic aggression to The National.  Those of you who have seen the band live will undoubtedly be on hand if at all possible, but if you haven't seen this unruly juggernaut at work, you should make sure you score a ticket.  This show promises to be a vibrant celebration of beloved hits and personal favorites that everyone will be talking about afterward.  Recently, I sat down with lead singer Neil Fallon to talk about how the band prepares for such a gig, and we also discussed the band's body of work, their creative process, their relationship with the guys from Jackass, and their future plans.
Read on for a peek inside the inner workings of one of modern rock's most powerful acts, courtesy of one of metal's most versatile vocalists.

JW:      First off, Neil, on the behalf of RVA magazine, I’d like to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk to me today.  Obviously, we’ll be talking a lot about Clutch and the music you make, but before we get into that, let’s step outside the box for a moment.  Maybe you’d like to talk about what you’re doing when you’re not making music.

NF:       Well, that’s pretty rare.  You know, usually, I kind of sit around at home.  Like right now, I’m at home for a few weeks, I got a few weeks left.  I’m always working on music in one form or another.  Other than that, I kind of enjoy just being a homebody, just kind of studying the domestic sciences as it were.

JW:      So I assume it would be fair to say that the work is the play for Neil Fallon.

NF:       Yeah, I guess I’m in a lucky place.  I mean, I don’t mind--actually it’s not that I don’t mind, it’s just that even when I’m not on tour, I look forward to going down to the basement and writing music.  Even if it ends up in the garbage the next day—it’s not like it’s digging ditches, you know?

JW:      Right.  Aside from the music you’re making, what are you listening to these days?

NF:       Well, let’s see.  I’ve been listening to some John Fahey.  A friend of mine turned me on to a band called The Elves Shelves Fair--they’re kind of associated with the Deltones and Sugarman Three, kind of instrumental R&B.  I’ve been listening to a hip-hop artist called Mr. Lift, but then there’s all the standards, the blues stuff I’ve always been listening to that I always return to as a fail-safe.

JW:      Cool.  Are you a fan of the cinema?  Are there any movies you’ve seen lately that you would recommend to someone else?

NF:       Well, I went to see No Country for Old Men, which I thought was awesome because it didn’t have a very happy ending, and I always appreciate that in a movie.  Just for shits and giggles, I would recommend Planet Terror, which, when I saw the previews for it, I thought it looked terribly stupid, but I wish I had gone to see it in theatres because it’s an amazing bit of film.

JW:      I would completely agree.  I think Death Proof may have been a better movie, but Planet Terror was far more entertaining.

NF:       Yeah, Planet Terror was entertaining on a lot of different levels.

JW:      Well, as far as Clutch is concerned, I think the band is 17 years old now, if I’m correct.

NF:       Uh, something like that, yeah.

JW:      And I believe you’ve produced eight full-length studio albums. 

NF:       Yep, I think so.  I don’t have the stats on hand, but that sounds about right.

JW:      Well, it’s definitely difficult to classify your sound—while doing some research online, I came across the following descriptions on various sites:  we’ve got “stoner rock, blues rock, hardcore punk, funk metal, post grunge, alternative general,” which I guess is somehow different from standard alternative, and “rock fusion,” among others.  What do you make of these attempts to label your work?

NF:       I like to hear that.  It makes me feel like we’re doing our job.  Everything’s subjective, of course, and I would rather it be that way than to say: “They are this and nothing else.”  I think that’s why we’ve been able to do it as long as we have, because I don’t think we ever really had a preconceived notion of what this band is or what this band is not.  It’s just four guys who like to make music with each other, and whatever that music happens to be or evoke, that’s what it is.  We just kind of follow our instincts.

JW:      Talk to us a little about the inner workings of the band:  Are there roles and schedules that have become routine, or is it still a learning process after all this time?

NF:       Oh, it’s always a learning process.  I think the minute you stop learning, that’s basically when you’re getting ready to die.  I mean there’s obvious things like learning to play your instrument better, but you’re always still learning about new music out there that will influence you.  There’s always room for improvement.  We tour a lot, and touring can become monotonous, but if you look hard enough, there’s always something to learn out there. 

JW:      Do you guys have to place an emphasis on creating new music or is that just something that comes naturally? 

NF:       I think there are two modes that we work in.  There’s the mode when we’re supporting a record and we are writing new music, but that’s maybe not as intense as when we’re focusing on a new record.  When that happens--and that will happen for us probably within the next six months--by that time, we will have accumulated a dozen or so rough ideas.  Maybe only two or three of those ideas are worth a damn, but then we get into the studio--well not the studio, but Jean-Paul’s basement, which is a studio of sorts.  I kind of like the deadline, I like the intensity of it, because if you have all the time in the world, sometimes you suffer from a lack of proper motivation.

JW:      The last few albums have seen a notable addition--here I’m speaking of Mick Schauer on the organ—and I think I’ve noticed a palpable shift toward the blues.  Talk about how this has changed the band and the progress it has allowed you to achieve so far as the music you make is concerned.

NF:       Well, I think that as far as the blues element is concerned, that just sort of happened incidentally.  Eric Oblander was playing harmonica on the record, which, of course, is kind of bluesy, and there’s a couple of songs that were written more in that style.  The Hammond B3 is always associated with soul, R&B, and the blues.  Once again, we didn’t really think about it, it’s just what happened.  I don’t think any of us either then or now said “Okay, we’re moving in a blues direction.”  It’s just a foray into a different vibe, I guess, and where we’ll go after that remains to be seen.

JW:      You mentioned Eric, and I really thought he added a lot to “Electric Worry,” and when I took in a show at the 9:30 club in D.C., he was terrific on stage as well.  Do you think he may find his way into the mix again?

NF:       I believe so, but it’s hard to say.  This next tour that we’re doing, for various reasons, it’s just going to be the four of us, meaning Jean-Paul, myself, Tim and Dan.  At times it was getting to be a little more than we could handle, and I think we wanted to focus on the nuts and bolts.  We wanted to strip it down and then start adding things again, just to give the whole thing an overhaul.

JW:      A lot fans—and I’m not necessarily in agreement here--but a lot of fans felt that with some of those additions, the sound had become a little softer.  Do you think stripping those things away indicates a return to a harder sound?

NF:       Nah.  I mean, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.  It’s not an effort to—I always thought it was hokey when a band said they were going to return to their roots.  To me, that’s like saying “We’re just going to go down the beaten path, because the one we’re on isn’t very lucrative.”  For us, it’s just a matter of gaining a point of reference.  I guess maybe the best analogy I can make is that sometimes if you add too many ingredients to the pot, you can’t really taste what the hell is going on.  That’s not to say those things won’t ever happen again, I certainly hope they do, but sometimes there are certain points in time where you just have to stop and check yourself.           

JW:      I think you make a great point.  So much happens to a band when they achieve success that I think it’s fair to say that when a band says they’re “going back to their roots,” that would probably require a time machine.

NF:       Yeah, I mean everybody’s different.  Everybody ages.  Musicians are no different.  I think the whole “going back to your roots” thing is an admission of grave defeat in some regards.  I think if you want to be a healthy artist, you have to keep moving forward and be willing to accept failure as part of moving forward, and out of that failure you can learn.  I mean, it can’t always be roses.  I think it’s more important and more honorable to take a risk and fail than to just kind of rehash something you’ve done in the past that worked.  The minute you start saying “The fans want this, we should do that,” well then you cease to be a rock band.  You’re just a commodity.  You’re a market force.

JW:      You mentioned earlier that art is subjective, which is certainly the case, although sometimes artists don’t want to acknowledge that.  Since that means the artist creates the music and the audience responds to it in their own unique way, what type of a reaction are you striving for? 

NF:       I think the biggest compliment that anyone can offer is to say that your music or show influenced their music, because in that, you get a sort of creative immortality.  You sort of add your creative influence to the pot.  As far as shows go, you know, it’s been a long time since anyone in the band was really interested in seeing a crowd beat the crap out of each other.  That’s just old and tired.  I think for us, I’d rather people just be satisfied in knowing that they had witnessed something unique that didn’t occur in the past and won’t occur in the future.

JW:      Neil, would you rather have those fans be instantly gratified with something smooth and palatable, or do you prefer to challenge them, forcing them to take a step back and digest what they’ve heard?

NF:       Both.  I think, if I’m going to see a band, I don’t want the band to be self-indulgent and just play new material because they feel they have to.  I mean, I want to hear music that I’m familiar with myself.  That’s part of the entertainment value.  At the same time, I don’t want the band to just go through the motions.  So I think you have to strike a balance between those two elements.

JW:      Clutch has a great relationship with their fans—incidentally, so far as I can tell, you guys sometimes do more than a hundred shows in a year’s time.  How much of an impact does your relentless schedule have on your ability to maintain that connection with the audience?

NF:       I think that is the connection, really.  I mean, the internet, you know, MySpace and websites, that’s all well and good, but it’s really fake.  I think it’s a good way to spread information, to get information out there, but to actually have some kind of relationship, it’s a false forum.  The most honest thing is to be in person, face to face, sincerely playing, and the crowd is sincerely enjoying themselves—hopefully.  That’s really the kind of the marriage between the musician and the audience.  I mean, that’s as old as the hills, that goes way beyond videos and records and albums.  Live performance is the heart and soul of it all.

JW:      On your latest album, From Beale St. to Oblivion, you worked with producer Joe Barresi, who has also worked with two of my personal favorites, The Melvins and Tool.  What was that like, and do you think he may be on board for the next album?

NF:       I certainly hope he is.  He just bought his own studio out in California.  I think he did an awesome job capturing a kind of real honest rendition of what the band sounds like live.  Plus, half the battle with working with a producer for a prolonged period of time is personality, and we got on great with Joe.  He’s really easygoing and it was actually fun to be in the studio for once.  In the past, it’s been a drag, we don’t really enjoy it, I don’t think, but that time around we did.

JW:      I’m glad you pointed it out, because I was going to reference how amazed I was at how live the album sounded.  I think maybe going back to The Stooges and Funhouse, that’s the only other album I can think of that really captured the live sound like From Beale St. to Oblivion.

NF:       Thanks, that’s good to hear.  I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that we really wrote the record front to back before we even got to the studio, and we played the album for two weeks on the road.  We started on the east coast and toured, basically playing the album every night.  The fans weren’t really happy about that, but sometimes that’s what you have to do.  Then, by the time we rolled into California two weeks later, we were really well-rehearsed and we didn’t have to worry about remembering the parts.  We were able to concentrate solely on the quality of the performance.

JW:      Neil, in the early 90s when Transnational Speedway League and the self-titled album launched, the lyrics, to me, seemed exaggerated and maybe even cartoonish at times.  Recently, however, there seem to be more references to real world issues pertaining to government, maybe even religion popping up in your songs.  Were you veiling these references early on or is this commentary on pop culture a new development?

NF:       I don’t know.  I mean, I’m probably the last person you want to ask about my lyrics.  It usually takes me a couple of years to figure out exactly what it is that I was saying truthfully.  I mean, I always know what my intentions are, but I always approach it as having free license to lie, to write fiction.  Basically, I approach it in the same manner that someone would write a fictional short story, so I don’t ever want to have people misconstrue it for setting off opinions too much about religion or politics.  It’s just that religion and politics play such a large role culturally that I see them as fodder to be characters or subjects for lyrical purposes.  If that makes any sense.

JW:      It does, and even though you just said you’re the last person I should ask about lyrics, I’m going to ask another question in a similar vein.  I picked up The Devil & Me tee-shirt at the show I went to because that’s probably my favorite track since Wishbone.  I like the song a lot, because to me it sort of has a Jim Croce “folk story” feel to it, but I’m really curious as to whose perspective it’s written from. 

NF:       The way I envisioned it, because sometimes I kind of have this movie playing in my mind when I’m trying to write lyrics, it’s the devil and God incarnated as two old men on two sides of the street, sitting on stoops just kind of yelling at each other like they’ve been doing for years, like sometimes you see old guys do.  Some of the verses are from God’s viewpoint, I think the first verse is, and the second verse is from the devil’s viewpoint, so it goes back and forth between the two.

JW:      Excellent.  I had a feeling and I was hoping you might confirm that for me.  Now, obviously, Clutch is a labor of love for you, but the word “labor” is there for a reason.  How hard is it to keep the ball rolling, and how much of a toll does all the effort you put in take on you?

NF:       In a spectrum of hard work, this is probably at the bottom as far as jobs go.  It’s like any other self-employed job, there’s feast and famine.  You have to exercise some sort of self-discipline.  No one’s sending you checks in the mail, you’ve got to go out and work for it.  The older you get, the deeper your roots go, and it’s harder to leave home and go out for weeks sometimes and come back.  At the same time, there are a lot of other jobs where you have to leave for months at a time or weeks at a time.  Creatively speaking, it’s easier to write and work when you’re always doing that.  If you take a sabbatical and then you go back to work, it’s not like a faucet that you just turn back on.

JW:      Different bands carry different reputations, and while there are several noteworthy things that could be said of Clutch, I think the superlative I hear associated with your band most frequently is “Terrific Live Act.”  How do you feel about the reputation you’ve garnered for delivering a great show?

NF:       I’d rather have that than anything else.  Speaking for myself, as a young guy, what really got me interested in rock n’ roll was seeing bands play live and blow me away.  Records are great, but the live show is so much more important.  I’d rather have it that way than have people say “Oh, they sounded so much better on the record.”  I mean, what a drag that would be.

JW:      Absolutely.  I don’t think there’s anything that can diminish a band’s appeal more than a lousy performance after you’ve listened to a great album.  Now, on stage, you guys seem really relaxed.  There’s a definite lack of “stage personas,” as I guess they’re called.  Has that always been the case?  If you would, talk about why that’s the approach Clutch has elected to take.

NF:       I guess just being in rock n’ roll, I’ve seen both sides, you know, of the stage.  It seems like a lot of work, and it seems like a real hassle to be somebody that you’re not.  Guys and girls who do that tend to take themselves way too seriously.  I think it should be fun and if we had done that, this band would have exhausted and killed itself years and years and years ago.  If you’re just yourself, then there’s really no effort, it just happens naturally.

JW:      We’re talking about live shows, and considering the body of work you’ve got to choose from, how difficult is it to narrow that down and come up with a setlist?

NF:       The way we deal with that is we go through alphabetical order. The first night of the tour Dan will write a setlist, then the second night Jean-Paul will write a setlist, the third night I’ll write the setlist, and the fourth night Tim will write a setlist.  Then it goes back to Dan, so we don’t have to sit there and talk about it.  We know there are certain songs that it goes without saying that we’re not going to play, because we haven’t played them in years.  We know that there are certain songs that we probably will play, because they were on the last album or what have you.

JW:      You’ve got a big tour kicking off on February 21 with Murder by Death, Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, and Hex Machine.  What type of show should fans looking to buy a ticket expect?

NF:       You’ve got four bands, get there early.  It’s just going to be a night of rock n’ roll; we’ll do our thing, they’ll do their thing, the crowd will do their thing, and when all is said and done, everyone will have had a good time.

JW:      We’ll definitely see you in Richmond when you hit The National—I believe that will be March 21st.

NF:       Yep.

JW:      I noticed as I was doing some research that Bam Margera directed the video for “The Mob Goes Wild,” featuring Ryan Dunn taking yet another on-screen beatdown—How did that come about? 

NF:       Well, even before Bam had his TV show, he and his brother Jess were coming to see us play outside of Philly.  Then, when his career took off, he was able to make demands of MTV and put bands that he liked on his show.  When we had that song, Bam offered to direct it on the cheap, because we don’t have a budget for that kind of thing, and it was close and easy for us, so we just did it.  That’s how it happened.

JW:      Are you a fan of Jackass?

NF:       I haven’t seen the last one.  It has its moments.  Sometimes it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but I know a lot of those dudes and it’s nothing I could do, I’ll tell you that much.

JW:      If you would, Neil, tell us a little about your side project, The Company Band.

NF:       Jess, who I was just talking about, called me up last year and said he wanted to put a band together just for shits and giggles.  He had me in mind, Jason Diamond from Puny Human on bass, and Jim Rota from Fireball Ministry, and Dave Bone, who I didn’t know at the time, but he’s friends with Jim.  These were all guys that CKY had toured with, so we just sent tracks back and forth to each other on the internet.  Then we got together almost a year ago next week to practice some songs, and then last summer we recorded some, pooled our money together, and put out this little EP.  It was just kinda something to do.

JW:      If your fans want to listen to The Company Band, how do they go about doing that?     

NF:       At the moment, it’s only available on iTunes.  It’s The Company Band, the EP is called “Sign Here, Here and Here.”  The physical cds will be ready in a couple of weeks and we’ll be selling them on

JW:      Neil, earlier you said Clutch would probably be back in the studio in the next six months, I believe—any teasers for fans as far as what they should expect?

NF:       I couldn’t tell you.  That’s half the fun.  Right now, we’re just kind of setting our sights on new material, going over some of the stuff we’ve written over the past year.  We don’t know where it’s going, but that’s what makes it fun.

JW:      All right, last question is a hypothetical.  One venue, three bands--What would your dream show be?  If you like, you can play alongside two of your favorites, or you can be a fan for the night and soak up the show.  Who’s taking the stage and where are we?

NF:       Well, I’ve got to say I’m pretty spoiled.  I would have to say the 9:30 Club because it’s one of the country’s best venues, if not the best, and it’s only 7 miles from my house, so I can take a cab back.  I guess—are these bands that are realistic or just fantasy?

JW:      It’s hypothetical, so you can choose any band at all.

NF:       The MC5, Bad Brains, and (long pause while Neil ponders carefully) Black Flag.

JW:      That sounds like a terrific show, Neil.

NF:       Yeah, it should be a good time.

JW:      Well, again, I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, and I wish you the best of luck in all your future endeavors.

NF:       Thanks for the opportunity.

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