Ever since the early '90s, Clutch (which is comprised of singer/guitarist Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines, and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster) have done things their way, and along the way, created such modern day metal masterpieces as The Elephant Riders and From Beale Street to Oblivion.
In this interview, the always-awesomely-bearded Fallon explains how songwriting inspiration comes at the darndest times, Lemmy Kilmister's career advice, and the dangers of rap rock.
Neil Fallon: Well, it had been quite some time since the record that preceded it [Strange Cousins from the West], it was almost three and a half years between the two. We just did a lot of touring and didn't really have time to stop and take a break and concentrate on a record until last summer. We knew that we wanted to write a faster record and we wanted to model it after the A side/B side LPs of the '70s and '80s. We think that's a good template - just because you can put 75 minutes on a CD doesn't mean you should.
And we wanted to write a faster record. We had come off of two tours, one with Thin Lizzy and one with Motörhead. Listening to those bands was very informative. I just wanted to write a lean record. Other than that, the process was the same as it's always been: we just kick around riffs until we find something we like. One thing that was different is we did a lot preproduction with Machine [the album's producer]. So when we went into the studio, we knew pretty much exactly what we were... no, actually, not pretty much; we knew exactly what we were going to do.
Songfacts: You just said something interesting about how you looked at Earth Rocker as a full album, like back in the old days. Why do you think now it seems like more and more bands aren't thinking in terms of albums, just singles?
Neil: I don't know. Maybe it's economically easier for a band just to record one or two songs and you can turn it out faster. People's attention spans I think get shorter and shorter every year. And if you don't stay on the radar, maybe bands tend to be forgotten.
Plus, people treat iTunes and such as "a la carte." Play one song here, buy one song there. But I like an album. All my favorite records are 35 to 45 minutes long.
Songfacts: I totally agree. When I was growing up it was all thinking about in terms of an album, not just one or two or three songs.
Neil: I think an album should have some kind of plot line. Not saying that it's necessarily has to be a concept record, like Dark Side of the Moon, but the greatest albums are very cinematic. They take you from Point A to Point B. And we were trying to accomplish that by putting a very slow song in the middle of the track listing to act as a pivot point.
Songfacts: You mentioned touring with Motörhead and Thin Lizzy was also an influence on the album, but I don't really hear Lizzy's trademark guitar harmonies or anything like that on Earth Rocker. So I'm just curious, how did Thin Lizzy affect the new album, and also Motörhead?
Neil: It's not literal. Like you said, you're not going to hear a very Thin Lizzy sounding record with Clutch. But coming off of Motörhead and Thin Lizzy, because we're older now, we hear those bands much differently than we heard them when we were 16. So when I hear Little Richard, and Chuck Berry was a great influence on him, I can hear that now. The same with Brian Downey on the drums playing shuffles. I didn't know what a shuffle was back then. Now you listen to it and you hear very smooth rock shuffles. Touring with those bands made us think about the wider scope of rock & roll.
Songfacts: Are there any good stories about hanging out with members of Motörhead or Thin Lizzy?
Neil: With Lemmy, it's amazing how much discipline the man has, because people think it's the opposite. You can't do that that long and that well without an abundance of self discipline. And he would say very brief but sage comments. He'd say, "The older you get, the harder you have to try, because people are just looking to see your weaknesses."
We're in our forties now and on a lot of bills we're the oldest band. But when we're touring with Motörhead, we're certainly not. So we look at that as a bit of a mentorship.
Songfacts: Looking back, how would you say that your songwriting has changed over the years?
Neil: Well, we've become more of like the blues form of rock & roll. With a group like ZZ Top, it is more about the form of a song, where we were kind of antithetical to that because we were more of a hardcore or metal band at the beginning. To our ears it sounded very commercial. It was a naive notion at the time.
And lyrically at the very beginning, it was kind of emotional and negative to some degree, and I burnt out on that pretty quickly. Then I realized that it is much more fun and you could get a lot more longevity by telling a story than a diary entry.
Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?
Neil: Tom Waits. Leonard Cohen. Dylan, of course. Because I'm thinking from a lyrical standpoint. And Nick Cave. Chuck D from Public Enemy I think is a great one, too. But Tom Waits sits on top of that pedestal for me.
Songfacts: And who are your favorite bands as songwriters?
Neil: Well, probably most of the classics, like Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. Pink Floyd. I never tire of listening to Dark Side of the Moon. I think the best songs are when the lyrics match the mood of the music. And that's a band that seemed to be able to do that effortlessly.
Songfacts: I agree. And also with Pink Floyd, there's such a difference between the era when they had Syd Barrett as the main songwriter, and then when Roger Waters took over the songwriting.
Neil: That's true. Everybody loves Syd Barrett, but Animals wouldn't have happened with Syd Barrett.
Songfacts: How do you normally approach songwriting?
Neil: Well, musically, maybe someone comes up with a riff at home. But invariably, the majority of the riffs occur when we get together and just start playing. And some of them will play something, then the other three guys will look at that guy and say, "That was good, do it three more times and we have a part." It's very fluid and democratic. Our songs don't belong to any one of us. Once we get a rough form, we demo it and I take it home and they patiently wait for me to write lyrics, because I'm pretty slow with that.
As far as the lyric side of it, I could tell you, when I dedicate time to write lyrics, when I sit down with a pad of paper, the only thing that happens is I end up getting drunk. And the next day the only thing I have to show for it is a blank piece of paper and a hangover. Inspiration usually comes when I'm pushing a cart in a grocery store or sitting in traffic, or sometimes even standing on the side of the stage during a jam at one of our live shows, things pop into my head for a beat with no apparent reason. If I can manage to jot it down before I forget, that's usually how a lot of songs start.
Songfacts: Let's discuss some of Clutch's classic songs. What do you recall about "Elephant Riders"?
Neil: That song we had written when the band moved to West Virginia in a very old house, built in 1760. It was kind of the history of the Civil War. That part of West Virginia where we were living was close to Harper's Ferry. I'd never really known much about the Civil War until that time. When I started reading about it I got very interested in it, and that particular part of the East Coast of the United States and those images infused themselves into that song and that record.
Songfacts: What do you remember about "Dragonfly"?
Songfacts: "Careful With That Mic"?
Neil: That was just me "taking the piss" about rap rock. I never thought in a million years that song was going to end up on a record. Other people liked it, and I actually was kind of dragging my feet, and said, "No, because people are going to read this the wrong way, saying that you're trying to do rap rock," where I was just kind of taking the piss. That was done for fun.
Songfacts: "The Mob Goes Wild"?
Neil: That was written at the beginning of the Iraq War. I don't want to open up this door and go into that, but I found it to be kind of surreal on a bunch of different levels. That was my way of transcribing that onto paper. I think it was some kind of civil discontent on my part.
Songfacts: And what are some of your favorite songs off Earth Rocker?
Neil: Well, the first one that I really like, "Gone Cold," just because it's different. I love playing that live. It gives me a chance to reboot my brain. And I very much like "Wolfman Kindly Requests," that's a fun one to sing.
Songfacts: And lastly, what are the future plans for Clutch?
Neil: Touring and touring and touring. I pretty much know what I'm doing for the next year. I don't know when I'm taking breaks. But we're going to strike while the iron's hot. And then hopefully capitalize on our momentum and write a new record ASAP.
April 4, 2013. Here's the Clutch website.
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