Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Clutch's Neil Fallon: One For The Road

When I first heard I was interviewing Clutch’s Neil Fallon, my blood went cold. This is a man who draws on the suprasegmentals of ancient Greek poetics while describing the nights of dereliction that most people would take to their graves. With nine full-length albums and a slew of EP’s, live recordings, and side projects, Clutch has brought rock‘n’roll into the 21st century, the weight of their innovation placed squarely on their instruments. Punk, blues, metal, gospel, and whatever else - Clutch has used it all. Their first album, Pitchfork, verged on hardcore, while their most recent album, From Beale Street To Oblivion, has strong overtones of classic rock. I was prepared to meet broody intellectuals conversing about conspiracy theories, music history, and Louisiana barbecue.

I arrived at Slim’s as they were doing soundcheck. Clutch seemed unconcerned with soundman specifics, more intent on jamming one of their older songs. I waited for them backstage, a subterranean network of graffitied rooms. Fallon arrived, with his big beard and denim jacket, trailed by a video camera collecting footage for a long-overdue documentary DVD. His composure immediately put me at ease. He is the type of guy who looks you right in the eye when you speak to him.

Clutch formed in 1990: a bunch of high school kids in Germantown, Maryland, intent on raising havoc through rock‘n’roll. “Like most people, I wanted to get out of my hometown immediately,” Fallon says. He joined the band a year later. “We started doing hardcore shows ‘cause they were the easiest to get.” And the band were taking anything they could get, sometimes getting paid in pizza. “At times, it was like licking a 9V battery. But it was great fun. It was throwing stuff over the fence and seeing where it lands - we never had a meeting and were like, we want to do this, or we have this goal, we just wanted to play shows. To be honest, a lot hasn’t really changed on that fundamental level. It’s just some guys who want to jam and learn while doing it.”

Tim Sult (guitar) and Jean-Paul Gaster (drums) were the technically trained musicians in the band. When they took the stage later that night, the combination of Sult being totally cranked and Clutch’s streamlined sound made for an absolutely massive guitar tone. The slightest contact between pick and string would resound through the room. Accordingly, Sult’s rhythms and solos had to be dead on. When the band formed, Fallon played guitar - in his words - “very very poorly. Then I started singing. I was actually a fill-in for their other singer who couldn’t make a show; then I kept filling in.” Hard to imagine anyone besides Fallon singing for the band: they’ve kept the same line-up since recording their first album. Dan Maines on bass was trained similarly. “Dan had an electric guitar, and we asked him if he could play bass. He said yes, though he’d never seen a bass or touched a bass. At least that’s how he puts it.”

The band was entertaining the idea of college when they started getting bigger and better shows. For Fallon, the idea of being a professional musician seemed too good to be true. “I spent many years thinking that this wasn’t going to last. It really wasn’t until 2000 that it really dawned on me that this wasn’t going to end.” Touring with bands like Pantera, Slayer, Corrosion of Conformity, Therapy?, System of a Down, and Iron Maiden must have gotten the point across.

Hearing the content of Fallon’s lyrics one might suspect that he was raised by a family of truckers, spent time in outer space, and dated Marilyn Monroe. “When I hear either a great story or something outlandish it makes me listen to what a person is saying.” A good example are the opening lines to 10001110101: Ribonucleic acid freak out/the power of prayer/Long halls of science/and all the lunatics committed there/Robot Lords of Tokyo/SMILE TASTE KITTENS. Fallon can go from badass, to thought-provoking, to absurd in seconds.

“To be honest, half the time when I’m looking at a finished song I’ll ask: What the hell’s this about? But I know if it sounds good. Maybe in a couple years I come to understand it, in retrospect. I just look at writing lyrics as having a complete carte blanche. You can say whatever you want. No one believes horror writers or science fiction writers have been to the places they write about. Sometimes people are taken a back by the absurdity in rock and music, but I’ve always loved that. There’s never really any message, ‘cause I’m always changing my own opinions about stuff. If anything, it has to have a balance between giving people enough tangible things to listen to, while also giving them enough elbow room to create their own input. That keeps it alive. If everything were written in obvious terms, it’d be dead in the water.” Clutch’s website designer, Doug Fisher, came up with the cool idea of linking Fallon’s references within the lyrics portion of the site. For example, click on “little bunny fu fu” and you go to www.bussongs.com.

Gospel also plays into Fallon’s style, imbuing him with the air of a preacher. It is not uncommon to hear “Can I get an Amen” during a Clutch song. He was not, however, raised on such music. “I went to Catholic Church, man. They had a lot more bells and smoke.” He fell in love with it through television and the radio. “Just the groove of it: it has a huge swing and melodies that went into the blues and rock‘n’roll. They really aren’t that far flung from each other when you look at the family tree of rock and music.”

During the last-minute set up at Slim’s, the crowd swelled in anticipation of Clutch. It’s hard to be an opening band anywhere, but in San Francisco the audience won’t even arrive until the headliner begins to set up, preferring to smoke cigarettes in the fog than watch untried bands. I asked the dude in charge of Clutch’s merch table if a lot of people mosh at Clutch shows. He said no. He was wrong. Clutch played all their favorite songs to a room full of maniacs: Immortal, Tight Like That, I Have The Body of John Wilkes Booth, 10001110101, Cypress Grove, The Mob Goes Wild, and choice selections from Beale Street, to name a few. Gaster did several drum solos, and similar improvisation ran through the whole band, often resulting in fifteen-minute compositions of two or more songs. Unfortunately, organist Mick Schauer, who has been featured on Clutch’s last two recordings, was not present. Sarah Billiet, cellist and organist of opening band Murder By Death, instead provided accompaniment on a couple of Beale Street’s songs.

The sleek, classic sound of From Beale Street To Oblivion fit nicely beside Clutch’s more metal songs, and sounded more aggressive live than on the recording. Back in 1995, Dan said, "We may not sound like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath or AC/DC or bands like that, but we owe more to that kind of band in a way than any other." On Beale Street these influences are felt more than any other album. Fallon doesn’t want to look at it as a return to their roots, however. “The more we play the more we understand rock’n’roll music and we’ve come to appreciate the confluence between American blues men and English rockers, that period of time when classic blues and rock just mated, between 1975 and 65’. That’s when my favorite music was made. I don’t think we ever want to consciously go back to our roots. It’s sort of giving up and surrendering and we always want to move forward.”

If there is one thing that defines Clutch, it’s constantly moving forward. Fallon hates the idea of having a crutch, whether it be LSD or four-four timing. “Reality, as it is, seems to be pretty entertaining. I don’t need to make it any more exciting because it’s pretty overwhelming as it is.” Their work ethic has them jamming 3-4 times a week and “time off” is more of a mindset than an actuality. “We’ll get back from tour and in a week be back at JP’s place. Sometimes you have to bang your head against the wall for weeks, but then you’ll have this moment when, all of a sudden, there’s half a dozen songs. Having played together for so long we can anticipate each other’s intents. At this point, playing with other musicians is like learning another language. But it’s important to risk failure, it helps you reference where you are and where you shouldn’t go.”

Beale Street was recorded in an entirely different style than previous Clutch recordings. Upon settling the basic track list, the band began a two-week tour across the country that ended in an L.A. studio, with producer “Evil” Joe Barresi (Tool, Queens Of The Stone Age). Having toured with the songs, they were fresh in their minds and in their fingertips while recording. The process gave Beale Street a live feel, a richness or soul. “I like songs where you can hear someone inhaling or the squeaking of a high-hat hardware. It makes it sound like you’re in the room. It’s got more presence. Whereas recordings that are sterile, just a list of songs, are maybe sonically impressive, seem kind of dead to me.” Mick Schauer’s B3 organ (or “sonic trampoline,” as Gaster calls it) added its warm tone to a second Clutch album, again allowing Sult the freedom to do more solos as on Robot Hive/Exodus.

With “2 dozen ideas” for songs already in the works since recording Beale Street, it sounds like Clutch will continue releasing an album almost yearly since ‘97. Fallon has also recently released a side project called The Company Band, and Gaster, Sult, Maines, and Schauer have completed work in their side project, The Bakerton Group. When I asked Fallon to predict the future ten years from now, he answered realistically, and optimistically: “Let’s see, that will be 2018.” He screwed up his eyes. “Hopefully, we’ll still be making music. Touring gets harder the older you get, not because your back hurts but because your roots get deeper at home and your responsibilities get deeper. Hopefully, we’ll still be able to go around the world and play rock‘n’roll and entertain people while doing it. ‘Entertainment’ sounds like a cheap idea, but that’s really what it is. People work all week and by the time Friday or Saturday rolls around, they want to adjust their head a little bit. To be able to do that here, there and anywhere, that’s all I can really ask for.”


google1212121212 said...

Thank you for that, Neil Fallon has always been my idol, he started getting me into music.

Anonymous said...

Good interview! Very well written. Clutch is a recent love of mine- fills a void in my musical life. Exactly the rock I needed.

Anonymous said...

Very nice! I have loved Clutch for over 15 years. They are the BEST of the best of the best.

Erin said...

I work with a kid that loved Creed (yes, Creed) because they "play rock and roll." In his defense, he is only sixteen. I Forced him to listen to Blast Tyrant and told him, "Creed is bullshit, but Clutch? They're the real thing. 100 percent music without any cry baby theatrics to obfuscate the flimsy lyrics that most bands try to push off as 'art'."
He no longer listens to Creed. He found the real thing. :)

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