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I Had To Ask Myself What I’d Rather Be Able To Do: Sing Or Hug My Wife And Son”

Politics, legacy and endurance with Clutch vocalist Neil Fallon…

When people get to meet me outside of music,” grins Neil Fallon, with relish, “the first words out of their mouth are normally: ‘I didn’t realise how short you are.’” It’s safe to say the inimitable Clutch frontman is not cursed with delusions of grandeur. Looking back over a career that’s spanned the past 27 years in the comfortable cool of the basement of his family home, the biggest voice in rock is set to its lowest intonation this morning. There are no forehead-vein-bulging tirades, no erratic lyrical swerves. Instead, his conversation flickers with convivial warmth and playful intelligence.

The year 1991, he admits, seems like a lifetime ago. But the enthusiasm for self-development and constructive progress burns as strongly as it did for the young man who picked up the mic – alongside the ever-present line-up of bassist Dan Maines, drummer Jean-Paul Gaster and guitarist Tim Sult – at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Maryland all those years ago.

“They say onstage you’re always larger than life,” he shrugs, mulling the distance that opens up as soon as instruments are laid down. Enjoying a midweek lull between midsummer festival engagements, he’s the picture of domesticity: not much like the star who’ll delight thousands bellowing lines like, ‘Telekinetic prophetic dynamite/Psychic warfare is real/I know what you’re thinking, sister/X-ray vision!’ when Saturday comes. “I actually enjoy all the suburban dad stuff,” he admits. “Picking up the kid from the bus stop, doing yard work, fixing stuff around the house.”

He’s as happy, too, conversing on award-winning literature and classic blues as alien conspiracies and heavy metal. With rollicking 12th album Book Of Bad Decisions now out, though, it’s obvious that there’ll be no middle-aged dying of the light for Neil. Rather, he’s a battle-hardened pro who’s simply learned when to keep his powder dry, how to channel a million miles’ experience to maximum effect, and what it’s going to take to continue along this ever-upward trajectory…

The Book Of Bad Decisions feels like a telling title. Is it a reflection on your 27 years with Clutch?
I don’t know that Clutch has made bad decisions in excess, compared to any other artists. We made a lot of great decisions, too. But if you’re truly living life you have to make those bad decisions, look at them as opportunities to learn, and, hopefully, not do the same things again.

Does it refer to something more specific?
There are two layers to it. Firstly, I’m a big fan of [the author] Cormac McCarthy, and I’d written the lyrics to the [title-track] in an attempt to do an annotated version of a sort of Cormac McCarthy scenario. Later, that title just seemed to encompass the 15 tracks: not that each one represented a bad decision, but that each track could be viewed as a chapter of the book.

When you say ‘Cormac McCarthy scenario’, are we talking more super-violent western Blood Meridian or super-violent post-apocalyptic wasteland The Road?
(Laughs) The last one I’d actually read was [super-violent gothic horror] Child Of God! A lot of his situations revolve around something bad happening that’s kind of nebulous. You don’t know exactly what – just that it’s really, really bad. That’s what I was trying to get at: a character at a crossroads; someone at a bus or train depot with blood on him, but you don’t know if it’s his blood, or someone else’s. I like the mystery of that.

Disparate political motifs have cropped up throughout your career, but Book Of Bad Decisions’ lead single, How To Shake Hands, feels like your most direct engagement with the subject yet. But why now?
I knew when we recorded this song that it was going to be viewed through that lens, but the honest truth is that that song came about when we tried to cover Ry Cooder’s John Lee Hooker For President. We felt like we weren’t doing it justice, but we really liked the absurdity of the lyrics. When we recorded How To Shake Hands instead, I could tell people were going to read all kinds of things into it…

Do you consider yourself a political person?
A lot of it is ingrained, living so close to Washington DC. The short answer is that I see myself as an observer: someone outside of it politically, emotionally, even spiritually. It’s an industry that doesn’t provide a material return. I find it repellent in a lot of ways.

If, as in the song, you were actually president, what changes would you make?
Tribalism is the biggest threat these days. I think one of the sad things is that the idea of being a moderate is completely unsexy. But when political spectrums get pulled and pulled and pulled, as T.S. Eliot said, the centre cannot hold. The United States is a big-ass country, and there are 300 million different opinions. There’s definitely something to be said for just being a boring president who’s willing to listen to both sides.

And what about if you had to indulge your own outlandish whims?
I’d make it a federal offence to listen to music on your iPhone [speaker] without headphones or ear-buds!

Throwing back to your childhood, would you say you had the classic all-American upbringing?
It was very Simpsons-esque. I grew up in Washington state where my dad was working on cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation Site. Then we moved out East. We were the typical American nuclear family: mom, dad, daughter, son, dog.

What are your earliest musical memories?
My dad’s record collection: his 45s. He listened to a lot of Beatles, [Bob] Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and folk music. If there was a watershed moment at a very young age, though, it would’ve been discovering this record my dad had that was very atypical of what he usually listened to: a straight-up 1968 California psychedelic acid-rock band called The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. I listened to their cover of Frank Zappa’s Help, I’m A Rock incessantly. It terrified me. You don’t hear scary songs on the radio growing up. That was the point I realised that there was a much wider range to what music could do.

So, how did Clutch get started?
We started a band for shits and giggles, really. No-one in the band was the star athlete or fast-tracking their way to an Ivy League school. We were, like the majority of people in high school, just trying to do the best we could. In music, I found really similarly-minded people. There was no master plan.

You grew up in close proximity to the infamous DC punk scene. How did that factor in?
When that’s your only point of reference, you don’t realise how great it is at the time. Hindsight is 20/20 and I realise now how lucky we were to be able to hop on the metro and see bands like Fugazi and Bad Brains. I was too young to see the golden age of DC punk rock – Minor Threat, Void – but I first started going to shows around ‘87 and wound up at a lot of hardcore shows at the Safari Club.

What were the biggest hurdles in the early days?
At the very beginning, it was stage-fright. Getting onstage didn’t come naturally. I never sought the limelight or wanted to be the focus of a whole room of people. I was terrified. Even to this day, before a show I’ll start inexplicably wringing my hands. It’s important now, though, because I want every show to be awesome, rather than because I’m terrified like I was at 17.

Opening for Slayer not long into your career must have been fun, then…
Slayer was certainly no walk in the park, but their crowd was a little easier than what we’d braced ourselves for. Spending so many years being the opening act, you’ve got two choices: develop a thick skin, or go home. You can make or break; support each other or start accusing one another. We kind of circled the wagons and relied on each other.

When did you realise you had that voice?
I don’t think I found that voice until around 2000. There were maybe seven years of just throwing things over the fence to see where they landed. I’ve been working on it since the beginning, though. I took my first vocal lesson about three months ago – just in an effort to keep going. I wish I’d done that 20 years ago!

The evolution from debut LP Transnational Speedway League to the sophomore self-titled album feels like a key moment…
Those changes needed to happen. If we’d continued to make music like Transnational I’d personally only have had one record left in me. One of the biggest stumbling blocks – coming from hardcore and punk rock – was this notion that you have to be aggressive and mean all the time. That’s exhausting. I think the realisation that we could have swing in our music, humour in our lyrics, and maybe even tell a story or two was when the gates opened.

How important does that storyteller sensibility remain to you?
Some people do emotional songs – happy; morose; melancholy; angry. I would get tapped out on that very quickly. But you can always find something new in a story. You can always rewatch the movie or re-read the book.

Did you envision Clutch’s story lasting this long?
From the get-go, John-Paul and Tim were always of the mind that they were going to be in a rock’n’roll band for the rest of their lives. I was just along for the ride. At the early stages I’d always think, ‘This’ll last another month or two, tops.’

And when did you come to terms with being in the band for life?
It was right around the end of the [2001 fifth album] Pure Rock Fury cycle. In the 1990s we enjoyed the support of major labels who allowed us to tour and open up for a bunch of other bands. When that well dried up – not just for us, but a great number of bands – around 2000 we had to ask ourselves whether we were happy to get out of the tour bus and back in the van to start from scratch. There was a lot of soul-searching. But we all went all-in.

Since then, you’ve fought for your music, right?
Around 2007 we went to court with our label DRT and won our masters back. We decided to start our own label Weathermaker Music. It was a risk, but, in hindsight, it was an awesome decision.

Is there much tension between Neil the artist and Neil the record exec?
It can be schizophrenic at times. Labels and bands tend to have an adversarial relationship. The artist in me wants a record case that looks like a pop-up book and has fireworks coming out of it. The Weathermaker owner in me knows it’ll be too heavy and cost too much.

Looking back, what has been your proudest musical moment?
We played [Colorado amphitheatre] Red Rocks with Mastodon [in 2015]. There were 7,000 people there. I remember thinking that Red Rocks was so exclusive – the place where U2 play. But here’s us – a band who puts out their own records – playing to a sea of Clutch shirts. It was incredibly gratifying and humbling.

Do you prefer to gauge success like that rather than album sales?
I’ve always been dismissive of things like chart positions and gold records hanging on walls. That said, [2015’s] Psychic Warfare getting to Number One on the Billboard hard rock chart was very gratifying. It was a big middle finger to all those naysayers. The real reward, though, is getting up onstage and seeing a 13-year-old kid attending his or her first concert and losing their minds. They’re gonna have that memory for the rest of their lives.

You were diagnosed with cervical spinal stenosis in 2013. How close to disaster was that?
That was a dark night of the soul. To make a long story short, the surgeon told me I could maybe get away with walking around with this for the rest of my life. But if someone rear-ended me at a stop sign I could lose [all feeling] from the neck down. Then he said I can do the operation, but the way that’s done is by yanking your voice box off to one side and you might never be able to sing again. I had to ask myself what I’d rather be able to do: sing or hug my wife and son. The answer was obvious.

How else has fatherhood affected you?
Fatherhood has affected me profoundly. For years, I thought that becoming a parent would be the end credits of the creative life. But it became quickly apparent that this was the most rewarding, intellectual, creative enterprise I’ve ever participated in. It’s trying to explain the world to another human being. It’s having to answer questions that never in a million years would have come to you walking down the street. It’s a great way to grease the creative skids.

Aside from family life, what do you do to relax?
I get to scream into a microphone 90 minutes a day. That’s incredibly therapeutic. I’m around loud stuff so much that away from that I really enjoy the peace and quiet. I like sitting in my backyard and listening to the birds.

Do you have hobbies?
I try to write. One of my goals before I kick it is to write some kind of book, though I find that an incredibly intimidating proposition.

What do you see yourself writing?
Half the problem is that – as with music – I like every genre. I should probably be more practical about
it and try writing a short story before setting out to write the Great American Novel.

You recently became a representative for the Innocent Lives Foundation against online child predators. What motivated you to undertake that?
It’s an organisation headed by my friend [the white-hat hacker/podcaster] Chris Hadnagy. He asked me to help him bring this organisation into the public light to get more exposure. To be honest, when I first heard about it I didn’t want anything to do with it because I found [the cases they were looking at] to be so revolting. But then I realised that if you’re given the opportunity to help, you should help.

Looking to the future, what do you want your legacy to be?
Music has been around for thousands of years and this is just a drop in that great ocean. There is a sense of immortality where one’s music inspires someone younger than you to make their music, and they in turn to do the same. But individualism is the most important lesson. I’d rather see someone interpret [my motifs] and make them their own. That’s so much more fruitful than someone covering your songs in some bar at 2am.

Finally, when the time comes, what message should be inscribed on your tombstone?
Vamanos, vamanos (laughs)!

Words: Sam Law
Photo: Paul Harries

Clutch’s new album Book Of Bad Decisions is out now on Weathermaker Music. The band tour the UK in December. More information here.

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