bill bodkin speaks with Clutch frontman Neil Fallon about pure rock fury, shoguns named Marcus and domo arigato if we got to …
In 1996, I purchased my first record with my own money — the soundtrack to the John Carpenter/Kurt Russell film, Escape From L.A. It was rife with emerging hard rock and heavy metal artists, and, to be fair, I bought it just for the White Zombie single “The One.” Yet, there was one song that stood out from the rest, even above my then beloved White Zombie. The cut was “Escape From The Prison Planet,” a hard-as-nails tune filled with infectious bass grooves, playful, off-the-wall lyrics and vocals that vacillated between a sneaky, raspy near-spoken word cadence and a graveled-voiced lion’s roar.
And from that moment, I became a fan of the almighty Clutch.
For the past 20 years, Clutch has evolved from a mid-Atlantic metal band to genre-melting cult icons. Mixing heavy metal, punk, hardcore, blues, hip-hop and bluegrass, the Maryland-based band has outlasted its contemporaries that crowded my first record. Despite never having a top-charting pop hit, the band has crafted unforgettable tunes with outlandish names like “A Shogun Named Marcus,” “I Have The Body Of John Wilkes Booth” and “Elephant Riders.” Their songs that have become the soundtrack to countless ad campaigns, video games (most notably Left For Dead 2) and film soundtracks. And with lyrical content ranging from war protest (“The Mob Goes Wild”) to family holidays (“Wishbone”), Clutch has also carved its place in hard rock history as one of the most engaging lyrical bands.
Recently, I spoke with Clutch’s frontman and lyrical miracle, Neil Fallon. The bearded lead singer talked about everything from the band’s appearance on Ace Of Cakes to the current state of hard rock, their record label and craft beer.
Pop-Break: One thing I’ve always wondered is how you guys came together to form such a unique sounding band.
Neil Fallon: We all went to high school together, and I think our story is pretty typical to any high school band. We were just a group of guys who liked music. We weren’t jocks or seeking academic excellence — we just liked rock ‘n’ roll and punk rock and heavy metal. After high school we tried a couple of different things, musically that is. Right around the time of the self-titled record [circa 1995] was the eureka moment for the band. I think if there’s anything that can be said about us being unique it’s that we never talked about what kind of band we wanted to be or didn’t want to be. We just kinda followed our instincts.
PB: I saw on a video interview interview on your website where you said that the band was, and still is, influenced by what your listening to. What bands were you listening to during the band’s, no pun intended, impetus.
NF: I think a lot of Black Sabbath. At the time, we were discovering a lot of the lesser-known rock bands of the ’70s, whether it be Cactus or Armageddon. We discovered those bands when we were on the road and meeting others bands and bands talk about bands. It was kind of an open university for a lack of a better description. And I think that had a lot to do with the change that occurred between Transnational [Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes And Undeniable Truths released in 1993], which was kind of a hardcore record for a lack of a better phrase and the self-titled which was definitely driven by the pentatonic riff and has more of swing to it.
PB: When you guys started, or let me say when you were in the hard rock scene in the ’90s and you were signed to a major label (Atlantic), how is that scene different from the hard rock scene or should I say the scene you are in now. Can you talk about the difference in the music industry between the time you were signed and now?
NF: I guess I can as a spectator, but with Clutch our bread and butter has always been selling T-shirts at shows. We did that in 1993 and we’re doing that now in 2011. It hasn’t changed at all for us — we’ve been very insulated. We never had a huge hit that we had to follow up on and we never were an expensive band in terms of what we needed to do a show. We’ve been able to carry on irregardless of the changes that have occurred in the music industry.
Having said that, we’re in a position where we have our own record label (Weathermaker). I don’t think we would be there if we weren’t signed to majors at one point and been given tour support. I guess if there’s any changes — the playing field has been leveled completely. Whereas in the ’90s and ’80s and ’70s, A&R representatives were responsible for kind of cherry picking what bands were to be given the chance to be success and now the Internet is everyone’s A&R representative. And that’s a blessing and a curse. Anybody can have their band and give them a worldwide audience. At the same time, it’s overwhelming just how much is out there.
PB: Speaking of your label, how does it feel to be like, “I was on Atlantic Records — now I have my own label”? How is it, now that you’re the master of your own fate — your own boss?
NF: It’s incredibly gratifying. I think everyone in the band sees it as we’re very fortunate to be in this position. Keeping a band around for over 20 years is rare, and being in a position to sell your own records to your fans, is a great position to be in. Going back to the last question, there’s still a lot of people who prescribe to the old the model and when they hear you have your own record label and you’re putting out your own records they see that as an admission of failure.
NF: Oh yeah, I could name names (laughs). Because the idea that you’re not signed to some major label is some kind of stigma or some kind of admission of failure and having to do it yourself is a bad thing. Where we’re coming from is the complete opposite. In some regards, I can even relate to the music industry because what they’re doing is so … it’s different. Clutch is never going to a platinum record and we’re fine with that. We have to be honest with ourselves and say we can sell this many records to these many people and that’s fine, we get to make a living doing what we do. We’re not asking much more than that.
PB: Do you feel any more stress running your own label than being on a major label?
NF: I would say it’s a different kind of pressure and stress. It’s a positive pressure. I know we can do things we weren’t able to do before. Now everything is your own baby. Before, stress came from other people’s ineptitude or dishonesty. Nowadays, if something goes wrong, we know who’s to blame and how we can fix it with a simple conversation.
PB: You have a strong, cult following. What do you think it is about Clutch that has kept fans coming back for 20 years — buying records, T-shirts and seeing you live?
NF: That’s always hard for me to answer because I’m so close to it and it’s hard for me to see it from a different perspective. I think we’ve always been very honest. You look at some bands’ 8 x 12 glossies over the years and you see how hard they struggle to stay current. [laughs] If you look at ours, not a whole lot has changed other than facial hair and weight gain. [laughs] And I think that’s because we’ve always been about the music. Clutch fans know that. It took a long time for us to build up our fan base because we’re not writing pop music. I think when you do that, you can have a much longer career that way. An overnight success story usually ends quickly.
PB: You perform hundreds of a shows a year. I mean, you’ve got a ferocious touring schedule. How you do stay passionate about performing live? I’ve never been in a band before, but I can imagine that grinding out on tour can probably wear you down.
NF: It’s fun. That’s the short answer. I only have to work — I mean, absolutely honestly, the only thing I have to do is perform rock ‘n’ roll music for an hour and a half to two hours. When I’m not doing that, I write rock music. Sure, there are times when you want to go home. Maybe it was a shit show or you’re sick or personalities are getting to be too much. At the same time, I ask myself, “What would you rather be doing?” When we go practice or rehearse, we go to JP’s [drummer Jean-Paul Gaster] and I have to drive on the interstate and I get caught in rush hour traffic. When I sit there with the rest of the commuters, it’s a quick lesson about looking at the glass being half full. The worst day of rock ‘n’ roll is better than sitting in afternoon rush hour traffic.
PB: Here’s a bit of a fluffy question. One day, my wife called out to me from the living room and said, “Hey do you know that band Clutch is on Ace Of Cakes?” That cake looked so good — I just wanted to know, how good was it?
NF: That cake? I didn’t get any! So I can’t really answer your question. I don’t know how it looked on TV, but it was a pretty tiny cake. When we were at the 9:30 Club [where the episode took place], it’s a hometown gig and I go out with my wife to restaurant and when I come back it was just crumbs.
PB: You mentioned the 9:30 Club, and I know you recorded a live DVD there. Since it’s a hometown venue for the band, how special was it to perform there and film your DVD there?
NF: It was great. But, I was terrified because we had only [performed the entire] self-titled front to back two nights previously. So that was the third time we did it. It was pretty gratifying, because I used to go to the old 9:30 Club to see the first shows I ever saw. So to play the sold out show in front of a hometown audience was … uh … a warm, fuzzy feeling.
PB: You’re going to be touring the Northeast for the next few days, specifically The Brooklyn Bowl tonight and Rocks Off Concert Cruise Aboard The Jewel. Will you be performing a specific album or the whole catalog?
NF: We’re picking up everything across the board these days. We’ve been touring for a long stretch now so we’re looking to play some songs we haven’t played in a while. Monday we’re getting together to play four songs we’ve haven’t played in a couple of blue moons. Hopefully, if I can get my act together and write some lyrics, we’ve got some new tunes that we’ve been chomping at the bit to play.
PB: Speaking of, I know you re-issued Blast Tyrant earlier this year. Are there plans within the next year or so to release a new record?
NF: Yeah, that’s the plan. The idea is to record in the beginning of the year, maybe January or February, which would get a record out around April 2012. That’s the rough plan. We’ve got a lot of material, I just have to buckle down and write some words.
PB: Finally, until we get a new record, what can we expect in terms of big events from Clutch?
NF: We have Blast Tyrant coming out on vinyl. The other thing that’s pretty cool is in August. We did a collaboration with New Belgium Brewery in Colorado and we went to the brewery and we did a beer with them. It’s a dark sour ale and I actually I think the first case got delivered to John Paul’s house this morning. New Belgium doesn’t have distribution in the mid-Atlantic, so as a part of them rolling out in the area they’re coming out with this Clutch beer. It’s a limited thing, it won’t be brewed forever.