Interview with Neil Fallon of Clutch: From The West To The East

Four humble men of Maryland should be heralded as the saviors of rock and roll. A gold standard for stoner rock, modern blues rock and general no-bullshit jam, Clutch has been an example of hard work and talent equaling good tunes; a band developing organically and delivering without pretense.

And next year, the band celebrates 20 years together.

But it hasn’t slowed them down. Through consistent touring, they’ve continued to grow and find new fans even after most club acts would have worn their audience down long ago. Having put out two releases (in theory) this year: El Rojo as their instrumental side project The Bakerton Group, and their ninth full-length as Clutch, Strange Cousins From The West, Neil Fallon, Jean-Paul Gaster, Tim Sult and Dan Maines return to their quartet form after a two-album affair with keyboardist Mick Schauer.

I caught up with Fallon on this leg of their U.S. tour, which ends with two nights in New York City before they head overseas until the end of the year, to talk about the writing process and how it’s developed over the band’s time together.

You’ve had a little time with Strange Cousins From The West. Now that you have a little distance from the material, do you have any new feelings about it, how’s it working out live?

I think we’ve been playing almost everything from the record. We just started playing ‘Freakonomics’ the last couple weeks, which kind of surprised me because when we recorded the song I wasn’t really over the moon about it, but then playing it live, I was like, ‘Whoa, this actually is a really great song, it gets a great reaction.’

That was one thing I learned in the process of bringing the music on the road. Some of the stuff we had written beforehand that we had played live, and that’s something that I think we all prefer but you can’t always have that luxury. I think the recording is pretty accurate to what we play on stage, and I’m ready to start thinking about the next record.

When you say that the record is pretty accurate to the live setting, did you not get that feeling from the previous record or from Robot Hive?

I think Beale Street was pretty accurate, cause we were playing that live. Robot Hive we wrote quite a bit in the studio. Blast Tyrant was almost entirely a studio creation. I think with each successive one it became more and more honest. It’s not as if Blast Tyrant had backing vocals and cellos over everything, it’s just more tempos and changes that occur that sometimes make sense in a studio environment and not so much on stage or vice versa.

I was big fan personally of what Mick was doing, particularly on Robot Hive. What happened there, was it personal, musical, did you just want to get back to a four-piece?

It was personal on him. He had some personal issues he needed to sort out and the environment of the road wasn’t the place to do it.

I only say because you guys are looking down the barrel of 20 years, but there’s not really any band drama among Clutch, at least not publicly. What’s the secret?

I think if a band can get through its first few van tours, it’s a pretty good litmus test of what they can do. We’re fortunate in that we didn’t come to a table with a musical agenda for each one of us. We were just sort of like, ‘Well, let’s make something together.’ And we’re still in a process of figuring that out. You’ve also got to respect each other’s space and have a good sense of humor and sometimes shit can go wrong and things just aren’t the best as they could be, but you gotta keep in mind that the sun’s gonna rise tomorrow and look at the half glass full, because to be in a position where you’re making music for a living is a very, very rare thing and I think we all appreciate that and don’t want to mess it up.

When you talk about coming in with a musical agenda, when one musician wants something to sound like a certain way rather than trying to make a collaborative effort, do you feel that what either causes band breakups or causes bad records has to do with that kind of ego issue rather than just coming together in a room and what you get is what you get?

It’s hard for me to think about life would be like in a band where you worked under the shadow of a dictator who is gonna tell you you’re going to do this, this, this and that and you’re not going to do this this, this, this and that. Then you’re basically a hired gun.

When you’re in a band that’s a democracy, it can be a blessing and a curse. The curse aspect is you get into infighting over the subjective differences of music. It’s not science, it is art. The flipside of it is if you can make music where the sum is greater than the parts, that’s the best thing of all. For me, the fun part of writing music is you expect one thing and then it ends up somewhere else.

Some people don’t like that. Some people want to realize a preconceived vision, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but to me that’s kind of stale. I’d rather be surprised by what happens. And if that means I have an idea and they say let’s not do it that way let’s do it this, I learned a long time ago to not take that as a personal affront, that’s just life in a democratic band.

And I guess that’s why you’re already looking forward to writing another record.

Yeah, I say that not because I’m over the last record but we started writing this record quite some time ago and we’re looking at a year. If you think about the writing process and the recording and release process, if we were to start working on a record on the first of the year it wouldn’t be for another year that it would come out which would push it to about 18 months ahead. Plus, you know, writing music is fun. And frustrating, but mostly fun.

You put out El Rojo also earlier this year, the second Bakerton full-length, but it’s not like this Clutch record is lacking instrumentals. Do you guys have a line where you draw where this is a Bakerton song and this is a Clutch song?

It really is a grey area. There’s no formula. There are Bakerton group riffs that I hear that I say, ‘Well I could put lyrics on there.’ And there are Clutch riffs that we’ve played that I think that could easily become loose and more instrumental. Just speaking for myself, it’s a good exercise to shut my mouth and play guitar for a bit.