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Interview: Going Deep Into All Things Clutch With Singer Neil Fallon

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Maryland-based hard rock quartet Clutch is and always has been without question one of the hardest working bands in the music business in the 20 years they’ve been together. They have nine studio albums out, along with some official and unofficial live releases, and a couple of DVDs. The group also performs at least 100 times per year on average, and that includes sets by their instrumental side project The Bakerton Group on occasion.

At the dawn of yet another set of shows, where Clutch will be one of two main supporting acts for former Ozzy Osbourne axe slinger Zakk Wylde and his band Black Label Society as part of the two month-long Black Label Berzerkus Tour that runs from late September to late November, lead singer/rhythm guitarist Neil Fallon did the media rounds for interviews all last week and weekend. I was lucky enough to get one of them.

On the afternoon of Saturday, September 18, I reached Fallon by cell phone and spent 25 minutes chatting with him about all things Clutch–I was home and he was located in a quiet area in a local IKEA store, of all places. The singer was gracious, low-key, funny, calm and of course, VERY informative, perhaps more so than any other recording artist I’ve ever interviewed (that includes Julian Lennon, Judas Priest singer Rob Halford, and Yngwie Malmsteen, among others).

Highlights include Fallon talking about Clutch possibly releasing a (mostly) acoustic-based EP as a future release, naming his least favorite album he’s recorded, and telling me how he REALLY thinks about some of the band’s former record labels (and how they successfully sued one of them).

If you’re a huge Clutch fan and care to know a lot more about Fallon and this band, get comfortable, grab a drink or snack and enjoy this interview.

Let me just start by saying congratulations on 20 years of being together as a band with Clutch, and getting hand-picked by Zakk Wylde to be one of the two main support acts on his Berzerkus Tour. That’s a pretty big deal, wouldn’t you say?

Yeah, it’s gonna be a good tour. We’re looking forward to it. We usually these days don’t go out for that long, but this is a special occasion and didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. [It] certainly doesn’t feel like we’ve been in the band for 20 years. It kind of donned upon me that this past August, I will have been in Clutch for more than half my life.

I’m sure that with all the bands you’ve played with over the years that you know and have kept in touch with Zakk over the years. But what was your initial reaction when you got asked to join the tour?

Well, I’ve never met him [but] I do know that we do have mutual acquaintances. Some good friends of ours called Sixty Watt Shaman toured with them years and years ago, but no I have never, ever met him but I will on Wednesday (September 22).

I wanted to ask you just a general question about the songwriting process. How has it evolved over the years between the four of you guys from the time you started until [latest record] Strange Cousins From The West? Do you guys do anything different as far as how you come into a jam session or a studio environment?

No, it’s pretty much the same as it was back when we first started jamming together in high school bands back in ‘88/’89. The only thing that’s changed really is the location and the technology. We just get together in [drummer] Jean-Paul’s basement where the drums are and kick around some riffs. Then those guys patiently wait for me to write lyrics. I’m terribly slow at doing it. You know one thing we’ve learned is it’s always best to give a song its litmus test on stage, because sometimes things sound great in the studio that doesn’t feel so good later on that you kind of say, [sic] shoulda coulda woulda. But that’s just part of the learning process.

That’s cool. Clutch had a fifth member for a few years. You had Mick [Schauer] on keyboards. And I’m wondering, did he choose to leave the band a few years ago, or did you guys not feel you needed him anymore? Because he was on a couple albums, a few tours, and then he was gone.

Yeah, he was out with us for close to three years, I think. I guess we had never sought a permanent addition. And I think with him, a lot of the driving force is he really wanted to pursue his professional bike riding, like touring bikes. Yeah and that’s pretty time consuming. So I guess he wanted to pursue that, and more power to him.

You guys have your own label now [Weathermaker Music]. Does that give you more creative control when it comes to recording a studio album like Strange Cousins, or at least more so than you would have had you stuck with DRT or another label?

Well, I think one of the reasons that we were always kind of habitually dropped by labels is because we never let them dictate what we were doing. So I don’t feel so much that we have more creative control because I think we always have that complete control. But what is different is we can dictate the sequence of events, cater it to our liking, whereas record labels, they believe religiously in something called an album cycle, which I think is a bunch of horse shit. So instead of sitting around two years between records, we can pump ‘em out as quickly as we want. It’s really not that hard, it’s just that the less people involved, the better it seems to go.

You got with Weathermaker now the rights to [Clutch albums] Blast Tyrant, From Beale Street To Oblivion and Robot Hive/Exodus and they’re all being reissued this year, with Beale St. already having been reissued. Did you guys have to put up a big fight with DRT to get those records back or was it a smooth transition?

Nah, it was pretty gnarly there for about a year and a half. We had already completed our record contract, but the thing was, DRT stopped paying us our royalties because they were a terrible business. So we sued ‘em. They couldn’t pay us what they owed us, so long story short, the judge awarded the rights to those masters back to us in lieu of the money that they owed us that we would never have seen anyway. So as much as I’d like to have been paid what’s owed us, I think maybe it’s a bit of a blessing in disguise, because those records haven’t been in stores for years.

Do you plan on getting any other albums back from previous labels like EastWest or Megaforce?

(Pauses) We could probably get away with putting out the Passive Restraints EP from Earache, because some of those tracks they just stole from us and put out. And we would like to sue them just as much but they’re in the UK, and international litigation costs more than it was worth. So maybe we’ll get to do that, but as far as Atlantic and Sony, I’m very skeptical we would ever get those back. I’d have to look at the contract and see when it expires, probably sometime well after I’m dead.

Seeing that you guys are almost always writing and recording, are there any new brand songs or maybe leftovers from Strange Cousins that you are going to be debuting on the upcoming tour?

Well, we’ve been writing, but what happened is that we have been kind of playing some acoustic-style songs because of the acoustic set we did at Bonnaroo this summer. And we decided to record it. It’s not purely acoustic because I played electric, a semi-hollow body guitar. So those might get busted out on this tour. It’s hard to say, but as soon as we’re done with this tour, (corrects himself) probably on this tour, we’re really gonna start writing new material.

One of the things I love about Blast Tyrant is the acoustics on the record. Do you guys see yourselves in the future doing maybe an all-acoustic tour or record?

It’s a nice thought, but it’s something [that] we wrestle with as far as, if you go on acoustic and then you play electric bass on it, well then does that open up the possibility to other electric stuff. And I think for us it’s maybe more just a malleable philosophy. I think this EP will be that [an acoustic-based release]. We’ve recorded nine songs. I don’t think all will make it, but who knows, maybe it’s the beginning of a new record and we just don’t know it yet.

Clutch have kept such a loyal following over the years and I’m wondering, are you surprised at all that you have such a loyal following after all these years despite all the changes in sound?

I’m not so much so surprised but I definitely don’t take it for granted. I feel very fortunate. For us, we can do this band for as long as we like because of that. I mean, I remember when we put out the [1995] self-titled record, there was a lot of people that suddenly said, “Oh this is a different band. I don’t know if I like them anymore.” But for every one person that left, two came into the picture. So, I think that’s the case with a lot of bands. You’ve got to be able to grow and change.

It’s great when artists like you guys can evolve and keep putting out killer record after killer record, and now you have DVDs out there. I read in an interview recently that for the longest time, you weren’t comfortable being filmed out in front of a video camera. For a band like yours that has such a great reputation live, that kind of surprised me. So what was it that you guys didn’t like about being filmed live all these years until the [2008] Full Fathom Five DVD?

I just found it to be distracting because I would overanalyze everything. Instead of just kind of ignoring it and just letting yourself go and do the show, you would say, “Well, did I play that part correctly? Am I too fast? Am I out of tune?” And then it just becomes a distraction in the performance effort. We’ve all kind of learned to ignore it and just kind of see it as part of equipment [issues], more than anything else. You can always delete it if you don’t like it.

Speaking of DVDs, I have the Live at the 9:30 Club DVD beside me. … What was your reaction when you saw those early performances [on the DVD] of “Wicker” and “Far Country” back in 1991 and 1992 at the old 9:30 Club?

I thought we looked like children. [I laugh] It’s definitely like a before and after shot of what touring will do to one’s physique [Fallon chuckles].

Pure Rock Fury is coming up on its 10th anniversary next year, if my memory serves me correctly. Maybe this is thinking too far ahead, but are you guys thinking of putting that out as a reissue or playing that whole album on a future tour?

Probably not. I mean, speaking for myself, that’s my least favorite record, I think. And as far as reissuing it goes, we wouldn’t have the rights to do that ‘cuz it’s on Atlantic.

Back to the reissues for a second. I have the Beale St. reissue … and I noticed something was missing. Some Melbourne [Heard It All Before double disc] bootleg songs were attached to the second CD … and you had two great blues covers mixed together to [start it]. I think it was “Burning Hell” by John Lee Hooker and “Are You Gonna Wreck My Life?” by Howlin’ Wolf. I looked at the Beale St. reissue and see that “Burning Hell” is missing [from it], so did you have any control of that being cut?

Yeah, we talked about putting it on there, and I listened to it, and I didn’t like it. [Fallon chuckles]

That’s reasonable. You’ve got control over it.

Yeah. Sometimes it’s hard to divorce one’s emotions when you’re playing both the role of businessman and artist. But sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about lyrics. A lot of your songs and titles … have out-of-this-world creative lyrics … and I’m just wondering where you get that kind of imagination for those kind of lyrics?

I kind of look at songs as writing a short story. I mean you can say whatever you want. I don’t write from personal experience. You know I lead a very, kind of benign suburban life and I think you kind of just daydream and write it down, and make it rhyme, and there you go. I think anything can be used as material to write a song. Sometimes it’s just as much the sound of the words as the meaning of the words. And you try to strike a balance between the two. (After this answer, Fallon asks if I can “hold on one second” while he unsuccessfully tries to order a drink at the IKEA store) Ok, I’m back.

Cool. Another song question for you. “Wishbone” from Elephant Riders is a very challenging song vocally. What do you think was the most vocally challenging song you’ve ever recorded

Oh, boy (long pause).

It doesn’t have to be one song. You can name several if you want because you have a lot of songs that really have that upper register that-

Yeah. I would say that’s one of ‘em. If I had to do it again, I’d probably sing it in a different register. But you certainly hit the nail on the head. Whenever I see that one on the setlist, I kind of grimace.

But that’s good though. You can tell me this yourself, but I think that the more the years go by, your voice just keeps getting better and better.

Well, thank you. To be honest, when this band first started, I really wasn’t interested in caring because I was coming from the hardcore punk rock school. I never took vocal lessons, and I think I kind of tried to teach myself and eventually kind of learned by doing. And also practicing at home on a four track helped out quite a bit. Quitting smoking helped out even better.

Hah. Speaking of practicing at home, from what I’ve read, you’ve been hard at work on guitar over the years. And I see on the 9:30 Club DVD that you do some slide guitar on “Gravel Road.” And I’m wondering, how happy are you with your slide guitar playing?

I can’t solo worth a damn. The rock ‘n roll, heavy metal guitar solo is something I’ll never be able to do. [Clutch guitarist] Tim [Sult] can do it excellently. [I’ve] definitely picked the finger-picking thing as what I like to play on guitar, so I think that’s why I kind of pursued that angle. I’m still learning, and I have a long ways to go, and I think everybody does. You can never stop learning.

I read somewhere that you’re a big fan of mixing up the sound from night to night, like playing Gibsons one night and maybe some Fenders the next. I guess Tim sticks to his Gibson Les Pauls and SGs [but] are you planning on continuing trying out different sounds night to night on the tour?

[On] this one, I’m gonna bring my two Les Pauls, and I just recently got a Hagstrom semi-hollow body which sounds pretty gnarly. So I’ll be busting that one out too.

Does the name Duff Goldman ring a bell to you?

Oh yeah, good old Duff.

A friend of mine had pointed out that your sister [Mary Alice Fallon-Yeskey] is on that Food Network show Ace of Cakes. I found a Youtube video [of] you guys on it and then I see the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, which is this Orange amp that’s made out of cake [that Goldman had made]. What was your reaction when you first saw that thing?

Well they told me they [Goldman and his Charm City Cakes company] were doing it and I’m, of course, always surprised by what he’s done. I’ve known him for ages. Actually, one of the first cakes he ever baked was for my wife and I’s wedding about 10 years ago, and he went to college with my sister. So he’s always been in the scene of our circle of friends, and to see him do good is pretty nice to see.

On the 9:30 Club DVD, when they brought it up to you, [the band was] doing a soundcheck, so did you guys actually have a chance to eat any of it?

I didn’t! I didn’t! I was kind of bummed. It was completely gone by the time soundcheck was over.

Oh man. They made it for both the band and the crew of the 9:30 Club, so there was a lot of people that had a chance at that cake.

It was a pretty small cake, to be honest.

It was. That pretty much does it from my end, for questions. It’s been an unbelievable pleasure and thanks for taking any amount of time to talk to me.

Hey, no problem.

I’ll be seeing you October 19 when you come to Boston, I think at the House of Blues.

Sounds good.

Good luck with the tour and all your other future endeavors

Thank you.

And good luck to the rest of the guys in the band too. So thanks a lot.

Cheers.

Cheers.

For more info on Clutch and their upcoming tour dates on this Fall’s Black Label Berzerkus Tour with Black Label Society, Children of Bodom and 2Cents, which kicked off last night in Portland, Oregon, go to their official website at pro-rock.com.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.
  • Tim Sheehan

    Nice work Charlie, clutch in rocktober

  • Frank

    Good job CHARLES!