Interview: Neil Fallon of Clutch on writing lyrics as movies, Baltimore unrest, and the influence of the internet
Few bands have endured, and survived, the trends in hard rock and metal over the past 20-plus years quite like Clutch. From their early days catching the attention of bored MTV viewers desperate for excitement through the “A Shogun Named Marcus” video to releasing five stellar records in the 2000s, Clutch have earned their rep off musical consistency, a live tenacity, and playing by their own rules.
Now cast as one of the most electrifying and genuine rock bands over the past 20-plus years, the Maryland crew will be unleashing a heavy dose of pure rock fury with Atlanta metal giants Mastodon and Swedish rock and roll crew Graveyard at the House Of Blues Sunday night (May 17), all part of the trio’s Missing Link tour.
Vanyaland was able to have a chat with frontman Neil Fallon about the influence that sci-fi movies and the wild west has on his lyrics, the chaos happening in the band’s native state of Maryland, and their upcoming album Psychic Warfare, which will be the band’s 11th LP in a relentless career.
Rob Duguay: A lot of lyrical content in Clutch’s music centers around a lot of sci-fi and dark Wild West themes. What influences you to write lyrics on those topics?
Neil Fallon: Probably because I’m a sci-fi fan, which is usually what I’m reading and those are the movies that I watch by choice. I try to approach lyrics as writing a very small movie and putting that down on paper, I don’t know if that ever comes across. With the Wild West, I grew up out in the west as a young kid and I think I have a romantic notion of it at this point because I’ve been living on the East Coast since 1980 but it’s still a place that I go to in my head in my imagination.
You can also sense a huge blues influence within Clutch’s music, was that something the band immediately wanted to focus on when you guys were starting out or did it just happen due to everyone’s playing styles?
When we first started out, definitely not because we were listening to punk, hardcore, and metal and that was about it. We were also 18 and 19 years old at the time but as you grow older you learn more things about music and I think we just went backwards in time starting from listening to hardcore and punk to ’70s metal and ’60s rock and going back to the beginnings of it all and I think that was a bit of an education for us.
It is pretty cool how you guys made the effort to do a bunch of exploring musically to harness an original sound. For much of the ’90s Clutch was an underground rock act that wasn’t at the forefront of the mainstream but you had a loyal following. You guys were one of those bands that people would talk about and when someone told you about Clutch you wanted to see them live. Nowadays the band has had a lot of commercial success and you have a bigger fan base while playing bigger venues and bigger festivals. Do you embrace being in the mainstream? Do you even think about it? Does it irk you with Clutch gaining this amount of popularity?
I don’t really think about it at all, I’d be doing this regardless and I know if we do a show for 50 or 50,000 people, I’m going to play just as hard and sincerely in either of those situations. We got to where we are by a lot of hard work so I don’t feel uncomfortable at all looking out at more faces now and if it also helps me support my family then I’m all for it. I don’t think we’ve changed in order to cater to that, maybe the internet has just brought us to people that radio and A&R representatives could not.
Do you feel that the internet is a great tool for bands to use?
Yes and no, there are two sides to it. I think it’s a great tool because you can cut out a lot of middlemen and get directly to your fans but at the same time it’s an embarrassment of riches. It’s so overwhelming that it’s hard to sort through it all and I think it’s also a bit of psychology of things being disposable where as when I was growing up you spent a lot of time wondering what album you were going to buy with your $20. Now, you don’t even have to think about that so I think there are two sides to it — but it’s definitely helped Clutch out, we just seemed to be at the right place at the right time.
Outside of Clutch you’re also involved with two other bands, the band’s instrumental side project The Bakerton Group and you’re also in a supergroup called The Company Band with CKY’s Jess Margera, Fireball Ministry’s James Rota, Dave Bone, and Fu Manchu’s Brad Davis. Does it ever get stressful for you when it comes to juggling three different musical projects?
If it does, it’s a stress I welcome. I’d rather be stressed out about writing music than be stressed out about being stuck in traffic so I gladly accept it.
Do you find yourself as a musician doing things differently in the other bands than you would with Clutch? Do you ever have to adjust yourself to it?
For sure, and I think it’s one of the things that attracts any musician is doing projects out of what they would normally do. When you’re with a group of people for a long time it’s great, you can anticipate each other’s moves but you can also get too comfortable and when you take yourself out of that comfort zone you learn a lot by just having these musical conversations with people that you hadn’t before and hopefully walk away with a larger skill set.
It’s always great when you meet musicians who always want to push and challenge themselves to become better. As we’ve talked earlier about the sci-fi and wild west themes, Clutch has also been known to write songs about current issues and the political system. Being a Maryland resident, and since everyone all over the globe knows what’s going on in Baltimore with the protesting and rioting, what’s your opinion on what’s been happening in the Charm City?
I think it’s indicative of a larger problem and I also believe when you watch a 24-hour news cycle of the same street corner burning over and over again it makes it look like the whole city is in flames, and that’s not the case. I think it goes beyond just poverty and racism, it also stems from a city that was built on a 19th century Victorian factory system which has been outdated for almost a century now and people are trying to make a living within the skeleton of a system that doesn’t work anymore. That’s the case for a lot of East Coast cities in the rust belt, down to the Chesapeake Bay. When the industry dropped out you have the shell of a city and the population just looking for jobs. I certainly don’t have the answer to it, but I’m wary of anyone who says they do.
Clutch recently announced that they’ll be putting out Psychic Warfare in September. What can fans expect from the upcoming record?
It’s the same four guys, so it’ll be similar in that regard. I think it’s a faster record than Earth Rocker with maybe one exception. There’s a sense of humor in a good portion of this record and more storytelling than Earth Rocker, it was a fun record to make and I’m very proud of it.