Flattening the curve is a strange concept for Clutch, the Maryland rockers who continue to experience an exponential growth in their loyal fan-base. If you dig songs that have “groove,” with a mix of bluesy hard rock and funky riffs, and an oozing touch of hardcore, you are missing out f you are not already a Clutch fan. The band will reach their 30th anniversary in 2021, and while everything is at a standstill when it comes to touring, they keep forging ahead with the energy of 50,000 unstoppable watts. Recently they experimented with a new format, releasing stand alone tracks online, in an initiative named “Weathermaker Vault Series”. It consists of re-recording of some of their older songs, and a few tasteful covers of bands that influenced their sound, such as Cactus and ZZ Top.
Sonic Perspectives collaborator Rodrigo Altaf – a long time Clutch fan who discovered the band by accident at a festival many moons ago – had the chance to sit down with their charismatic front-man Neil Fallon. They discussed the evolution of the band, the upcoming Record Store Day release of the monumental Obelisk box set, the cancelled tour with Volbeat, the changes in his voice, facial hair and many other subjects. Listen to and watch the streaming audio slideshow, or enjoy the audio in your favorite podcast player. You can also read the interview transcript below. And as usual remember to subscribe our social media channels to be notified about new interviews and contents we publish on a daily basis.
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Neil, how are you doing?
I’m good, how are you?
Good, man. We’re here in self isolation in Toronto, and I imagine you’re in Maryland right now.
Yeah, pretty much the same thing. We’re trying to make the house clean!
Let me start by asking you about the “Weathermaker Vault Series”, where you’re re-recording some of your old material, and also bringing new cover songs! What was the idea behind that?
Like a lot of heavy metal bands and hard rock bands, we’ve been very slow to adapt to streaming and the world of digital. The fan base of rock and roll is still oriented towards physical albums. So we really wanted to explore avenues to release our material digitally. But since we didn’t know what we were doing we just decided to re-record some old songs and some cover songs. If it turned out to be a disaster, we would hate to have released a whole album of new material, so there’s that. And it’s also to bridge the gap between albums and to keep people engaged.
I love what you did to “Willie Nelson”, “Spacegrass”, “Electric Worry”… how did it feel to revisit those old songs – I imagine it’s like reconnecting with an old friend!
It is. We played those songs for many years, and they changed through those years. Especially the songs we wrote in the studio or right before we got into the studio and were never tested out on the road – that always changes the song. And I’d like to think we became better players through the years. And I don’t listen to our songs in our free time, so it was kind of eye-opening to listen to those songs for the first time in many years. It was kind of like reading an old diary entry.
I imagine you found new things here and there in every song, right?
Yeah, I think that when you first write a song and record it you’re more worried about learning it and executing it properly and not having fun, but once you know the song backwards and forwards, that’s when a performance can truly pop and shine. And it’s easier to sing if you’re not trying to remember the lyrics. If you have it memorized already it cuts you free a little bit.
Lyric wise, do you still relate to all those songs? Are you the same person who wrote those songs years ago?
Lyrically for me there are maybe two phases. In the early stuff I still hear my teenage “bad attitude” in some songs [laughs]. And then later I tried to write fiction. And I’m grateful I did that because I can re-tell a story and find something new in it every time. I think the songs that are more emotionally anchored to me are hard to relate because people change through the course of their lives, and I’m glad I’m not the person I was thirty years ago – that would be weird! [laughs]
It would. And the reason I’m asking that question is because the biggest change I see in most of the songs you re-recorded is your voice, which is much more mature and confident nowadays. Do you feel the same way about it?
Thank you for saying that. For me it was many years of identity crisis maybe, because I was always of the mind that if you’re in a punk rock or a hardcore band, things like pitch and melody were things to be avoided, because that sounded like commercial motivation. That was kind of an immature attitude to have, because I realized that a lot of the punk and hard rock bands I like have plenty of melody and pitch. And I don’t think I took it very seriously in the first years, because I thought this was just a temporary thing. But then I started taking guitar lessons, and not even two years ago, I started taking singing lessons. And that has helped me immensely. I guess I had just throwing shit over the fan for many years, and this is where we arrived eventually! [laughs]
How do you take care of your voice these days? I imagine that taking lessons like that has helped you with that, right?
Yeah, that was the main reason to take lessons, it wasn’t an attempt to sound like anyone in particular or to change the way I sound. It’s like a muscle like any other thing in your body, you have to warm it up. I tried everything under the sun, all the teas etc. What you need to do is drink lots of water, exercise your voice regularly and learn the very difficult art of shutting your mouth. [laughs]
I imagine that’s the hardest part!
It is, because when you’re trying not to talk and people come and talk to you – and shows are always very social – and you don’t engage back, you can come across as being arrogant or just a jerk, but sometimes that’s what you have to do, because you always have to think about tomorrow’s show, not just the one that’s happening right then and there.
It makes sense. Let me talk about your videos for a bit. You guys always seem to have so much fun doing those videos – “In Walks Barbarella”, “X-Ray Visions”, “Burning Beard” come to mind, and now the new video for “Willie Nelson”. Who’s responsible for the concept in all those videos?
Not us! [laughs]. We’ve always had a tumultuous kind of relationship with videos. Nowadays it’s become easier because it’s cheaper to make – recording music is easier, making videos is easier…we did the videos for “Hot Bottom Feeder” and “How to Shake Hands”, both of them in one day. These most recent videos have all been made by a guy by the name of Dave Brodsky, and that’s always his brainchild. And “X-Ray Visions” – that was Dan Winters who did that album package. But I think we found a good teammate in Dave Brodsky because he can turn these things out in a way that’s relatively painless way for us to do. This has always been a problem, because we’re not actors by any stretch.
I think you and JP seem to embrace the acting part of the videos a little bit more, for the most part, but Tim and Dan seem kind of uncomfortable at times, am I right?
I think Tim has definitely warmed up to it. And Dan has never liked to be around cameras, period, in any capacity [laughs]. I don’t relish it, because all four of us are fairly humble dudes who simply like to play music. Sometimes when we feel uncomfortable with these things it’s not really for any other reason, it’s just that it’s not in our skillset.
Fair enough. And a funny detail about the “Willie Nelson” video is that you shaved your beard! Can I ask why? And how long did you groom it for?
I shaved it right after the New Year, because my son, who’s now going to be ten, asked me to. And then three days later he said “can you grow your beard back?” [laughs]. I was honestly kind of annoyed by it. The first time I grew a beard was probably around 1997 or something like that, and then it came off. This last manifestation has been like that for about fifteen years. And I’ve gotten used to it, I’ll probably grow it all back and like anyone else in this coronavirus situation, growing one’s hair seems like the natural thing to do.
Well, I heard that having short or no facial hair helps you put your mask on, but there’s so much conflicting information that I really don’t know at this point! But I digress…tell me about the choice of covers for the Weathermaker Vault Series – I know you did “Fortunate Son”, from Creedence Clearwater Revival, a Cactus song and a ZZ Top song.
I think we just wanted to play songs that we liked, and that’s really quite that simple. These are songs we grew up listening to, and I think doing cover songs is a good exercise. When you’re writing songs you’re in your comfort zone, because you’re writing whatever comes naturally. When you’re playing someone else’s songs and learn someone else’s comfort zone it can be very challenging. What sounds like a straightforward song like “Fortunate Son”, was for more challenging as I would have expected, as far as the guitar parts. As many times as I heard that song – and it must have been thousands – trying to figure out the little licks that John Fogerty plays was really hard, and there’s no straight answer on the internet, so we just kinda said “you know what? Let’s make it our own to some degree”.
Funny you say that, because a lot of bands seem to find their comfort zone in doing covers, but you see it in a different way. So that was challenging for you.
Yeah, it was challenging to try to get into someone’s headspace. If a guitar phrase starts a certain way, our instinct is to end it a certain way because that’s the way we do it. But someone else who wrote this is someone else. So it’s kinda forcing you to practice music in a way you wouldn’t have otherwise. And maybe some people like cover songs because they’re a bit of a protective play. If you put an album out covering ten number one hits, then half the work is already done for you. Then it’s not much of a chance creatively, let’s just say that.
Tell me about “The Obelisk”, an LP Box Set you’re preparing for Record Store Day on June 20.
It’s not going to be the “Weathermaker Vault Series” on vinyl, these are already existing releases which we are bundling up in a package. We will press up the “Weathermaker Vault Series” on vinyl, probably at the end of the year. We need to record a few more tunes, to have it be a full blown full length. But back to your question, “The Obelisk” has seventeen LPs, some of them are picture discs, a turntable mat, a signed lithograph all put inside this giant black box.
You’re certainly not holding any punches in this release, because it’s massive!
Thank you, and it’s reassuring that people still like physical albums and not just their phone or whatever device is convenient for them.
Let me take a quick detour and ask you about the collaboration you did with Volbeat on the song Die to Live, which is amazing! I guess the intention was to play this song live in the tour you guys were going to do together later this year, which is now postponed, right?
That’s correct. We had done a tour with Volbeat years ago in Europe. And we stayed in touch, and we’ve done festivals almost every year, every summer, we happened to be on the same bill. I got an invite from Michael [Poulsen, singer and guitarist with Volbeat] to track this thing, and I guess it became a single, so they decided to do a video. And although he and I never discussed it prior to the tour, I was always under the assumption that it would be a no brainer, to do that live in their set. And hopefully that remains the case when we reschedule these things.
Are there talks already of rescheduling those dates? I know there were a few South American dates that were also postponed, right?
Yeah, it’s a real drag, we have been trying to get down to South America for years and years, and finally the stars aligned that we could go down there, go to Santiago, do a big festival in Mexico City, but fate dealt a difficult hand. I can’t speak about specific dates. One, I don’t know yet, and two, I’d be remiss if I was to run my mouth. I’m usually the last one to know about these things anyway. I go on our own website to find our tour dates [laughs]
Fair enough. As a South American myself – I’m Brazilian, by the way – I hope you guys make it there. I know you guys played in Brazil once, but you’re nowhere near as famous there as you should be, and I hope that touring there more might change things in your favor.
I hope so to. We’re gonna get down there eventually and make it happen
You worked with Vance Powell on you last album, “Book of Bad Decisions”, and I remember one of the things you did was to invite him to see you on tour before you went to the studio. I think that helped the end result of “Book of Bad Decisions” a lot, right?
I agree. His background is in live sound, so he was able to see the dynamics of those songs. A perfect example would be when we were playing “In Walks Barbarella” live, one day after the set he came into the dressing room and said “this song needs a horn section”. So there were very tangible things that happened because he came out on the road with us.
Was that the first time you had a horn section in a song? I think so, right?
Technically, with a full section, yes. On the “Elephant Riders” album, Delfeayo Marsalis played on a number of songs. But that was more like a jazz approach to the tunes.
On the last album, there was a song about Maryland Crab Cakes, called “Hot Bottom Feeder”. You also did a song about recycling bins years ago, called “Green Buckets”. How do you explain that such weird subjects come to you? Is there anything you consciously avoid or search for while writing?
I search for whatever can provide me enough nouns and adjectives to get through the song and maybe write some story, even if I don’t exactly know what it’s about – that’s half the fun. For the most part I try to avoid politics, because I like escapism in music, and sometimes getting reminded of things, even if I agree with it, that can be a bit of a bummer. And I write a lot of songs that involve cars, so I’ve been trying to avoid that, because I think that has been done to death quite a bit.
Whose idea was it to add the line like “Put Jimi Hendrix on the 20-dollar bill, and Bill Hicks on a five note”?
That was myself. That whole song started as we were learning a Ry Cooder song called “John Lee Hooker for President”. It’s hysterical, he does a great John Lee Hooker impersonation. I wasn’t really stoked with our final product, but I liked the idea of a presidential campaign in song form. In his version he talks about having other bluesmen in his cabinet. So I kinda yanked that idea and made it my own,
And you mentioned your son, who is now ten years old, I believe. Do you find that it has changed the way you write in any sense?
Oh, absolutely. I kinda had a very naive notion that once I became a parent, my creative life would be over. That somehow my imagination would be stifled with the responsibilities of raising a human being, but it’s the exact opposite. Because once you’re tasked with explaining the universe to somebody, you’re forced to exercise your head in ways that you wouldn’t otherwise. He had so many questions that you didn’t expect, like first thing in the morning “hey dad, why are most umbrellas black?” [laughs]. That’s a valid observation, and in some ways he’s teaching me to observe the world with new eyes again, because you can take things for granted as every year passes by.
As a father of a five year old, I can definitely confirm that [laughs]
On the topic of children, you’re involved with an organization called Innocent Lives Foundation. How did that happen, and what is the organization about?
I’m a board member of the Innocent Lives Foundation. A friend of mine called Chris Hadnagy runs a company called Social Engineer and they do the human side of hacking. That’s how he makes his bread and butter, and in the process of doing that, he was getting more and more requests to help with cases of online child predators, and that kind of ugliness. He realized he knew a bunch of people with a specific skillset that could help law enforcement. To put it in a nutshell, the team – I’m not part of the team, I’m a board member and my capacity is to help raise money. But their goal is to unmask online child predators, on whatever platform they’re working on, create a dossier and then hand that over to the appropriate law enforcement. It’s a charity, and it’s only been around for just over two years, and we’ve had dozens and dozens of cases that the team has handed over to the law enforcement. Where it goes from there we don’t really know, because that’s not our job and that’s actually a legal issue. What we’re trying to do is to provide the skills that some of the bureaucratic law enforcement agents frankly don’t have.
Alright. I told you I’m a father, so I applaud you and thank you for doing this and for taking this initiative. Is there a website where we can go and donate?
Ok. As soon as we’re done I’m going to make a donation.
Thank you, I appreciate it.
Going back to Clutch, you guys are about to complete quite a landmark – your 30th anniversary! Are you planning anything special to celebrate it?
Book all those cancelled shows [laughs].
That’s a start! [laughs]
No, I don’t think we are. We haven’t really spoked about it – we didn’t for the 20th, we didn’t for the 25th, and I think we’ve always been kind of averse to that, because we’re a little bit spooked by nostalgia, and we like the idea of looking forward. Speaking personally, I think the best way to celebrate the 30th anniversary is to put out another kickass rock and roll record, just like we did on the previous one before that. The trajectory of this band hasn’t been a sprint, it has been a long slog, a marathon and we have our fans to thank for that, for allowing us the luxury of doing that for so long.
We see so many bands come and go in a span of 30 years, some of them with many lineup changes…what would you say is the secret for your longevity and for sticking together?
Some of it is just good old fashioned work ethic and not taking it for granted and being defensive about it. If you’re afforded the opportunity to make a living or just have a life in the creative arts then you’re a very, very fortunate person, and you should be very defensive about it, and not ruin it with vanity, or substance abuse. We all have our ups and downs, but if you find yourself in a situation, you gotta treat the art like it’s a baby that you’ve been forced to adopt. And also, I’d say a good sense of humor. You gotta be able to laugh at yourself.
It’s cool that you say that. The only other band I think stood together for so long is ZZ Top. Maybe also Rush, but even they had a change in lineup after the first record, so props to you for looking at it that way!
Do you have any regrets, or anything you would have done differently? What would the Neil Fallon of 2020 say to the Neil Fallon of 1991 if he could?
I do have one, I think about it quite often: I wish I had written everything down and kept a diary and a journal of even the most boring days on the road or in the studio. Because I never thought it would last this long. My memory is pretty terrible, and it would have been nice for me to have a document to look back and remember how these things change so slowly. But over the course of thirty years, a lot has changed. So that’s what I would tell myself: don’t be so damn lazy! [laughs]
So no chance of an autobiography any time soon?
No [laughs]. If there is, I have to make a lot of stuff up!
Filling the blanks, right?
I’m like the opposite of Keith Richards in that sense.
That’s a shame! I’d love to read that bio, but anyway, moving on… Clutch has opened for many metal bands in the past, like Slayer, Pantera, Iron Maiden etc. Do you find that you’re usually embraced by the metal crowd, or do you guys have a hard time at shows like that?
It depends. I think it’s changed quite a bit. I think metal used to be much more conservative and much more “folded arms across the chest”, because if you didn’t look it and you didn’t sound it, then they wanted nothing to do with you. But now, we can go to these huge metal fests like for example Hellfest and we don’t look it, we don’t sound it, but people love it. I think people have become more open minded in some regards. I remember growing up – and it sounds so stupid in hindsight when we would think that “oh, someone with a shaved head shouldn’t go to a metal show, because the long haired are going to beat him up”, or vice versa. And how ridiculous that sounds now. But then again, maybe that’s still the case and I just don’t go to those shows anymore…but we always found it easier to get metal bills and hardcore bills than anything else so here we are.
Funny you should say that, because the first time I saw you guys was in a festival in Australia and you played before Anthrax. I was there for Anthrax and when you guys started I was like who the hell are these guys with flannel shirts? But then I stopped and listened, and fell in love with the band after the first song!
What’s the plan for the band right now, are you thinking about a new album already?
We are. We started kicking around riffs, and that’s kinda put on hold. I think we’ll just have to kinda do that at home for a while. I would love – I know we all would love – for there to be a new album this time next year.
I loved the previous one – I don’t know if you read my review, but it was a glowing one of course, and I think you’re on an upward trend with “Earth Rocker”, “Psychic Warfare” and “Book of Bad Decisions”, so I hope you keep that trend!
I hope so too!
Neil, thank you so much for your time, and stay safe out there!
You too! Bye Rodrigo!