We recently caught up with Neil Fallon of Clutch to discuss the past, the present, and the future amidst the current climate.
Neil Fallon, the notoriously bearded frontman of the band Clutch, spent some time talking with us about some very interesting topics: the early days of Clutch, writing music, the loudest and rowdiest fans, favorite junk food… and to shave or not to shave?
LH: In the midst of the current “norm,” how are you and the rest of the guys holding up, Neil?
Neil: I imagine we’re like everyone else on the planet Earth, you know, hunkering down with our families, and our plans with the band, like every other band, have evaporated for the foreseeable future. We tried, kicked around the idea of the streaming thing, but that has now proven to be very difficult. We live in a highly-populated area, and Washington DC is preventing groups to gather… we don’t know the first thing about setting that up and we would have to have a group help us. Maybe in a couple of weeks, we can reassess it… but that’s kinda what we’re up to now.
LH: Okay, let’s go back in time, to a very young Neil Fallon… tell us what your first connection to music was?
Neil: That would have been my dad’s record collection. It was a mixture of 45’s from his childhood, and he listened to a lot of the usual suspects that his generation liked… Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, and the Beatles. There was always music playing in our house. That was it for me, that’s what got it going.
LH: Was dad a musician?
Neil: He played piano, he took lessons as a child and just played it as a hobby. My mom played accordion, but we weren’t the Partridge Family by any stretch of the imagination.
LH: Back in the early days, back at Seneca Valley High School, you had joined forces with Dan, JP, and Tim… and Clutch, as we know it, began its evolution. Did the project start as your typical cover band, play covers, book gigs, make some money as a working/performing band… or was the intention right out of the gate let’s write, let’s create and let’s record?
Neil: It was that, the later. We had a couple of different manifestations of the band, under different names prior to this and we did do a couple of covers.. some Minor Threat songs, some Bad Brains songs. But for us, those were local bands and we were very lucky that was our local scene and that kind of mentored a lot of bands like us. We were always much more interested in writing our own music, and I think that it is much more satisfying. Sure it’s more of a creative risk, but anything in life is… the reward is greater if the risk is greater and that’s more satisfying.
LH: So looking back on the name Clutch, you had mentioned that you had done a couple of things under different names. What gravitated you toward Clutch, why that for the end product of the name of the band?
Neil: We had a show booked, and we had to come up with a name to put on the flyer. We liked mono-syllabic band names, Prong was one, Tim and JP were huge Prong fans. Tommy Victor, we did a number of tours with them and he is a great guy. There was also a local band called Swiz… someone said Clutch, and we had every intention of changing it, but we never did.
LH: And here we are today… Can you remember that first live performance in front of a large crowd?
Neil: The very first one of them all was with myself, Dan, Jean-Paul, and a different guitar player. We had a hardcore band, and the high school had a talent show that you had to try out for. We got on stage before the talent show judging panel and we were rejected from even performing in the talent show. Probably rightly so, because it was atrocious. But I was a nervous wreck. I remember my knees almost giving way underneath me. It took me a long time to get somewhat comfortable in front of an audience, and to this day I get nervous before a show… but I think that’s a good thing.
LH: For that incarnation, were you playing any guitar or strictly on vocals?
Neil: I was playing guitar first, and it was a terrible Cort guitar. I was always wondering why these guys are so great and I was terrible. A friend let me play his Les Paul, and I was like “Ooooh, that’s how it’s supposed to feel.” That was well out of my ability to buy at that time, so I stuck with that. Then we graduated and went our separate ways for a little bit. I filled in, with the band prior to Clutch, that was everyone except myself and they had a different singer, and he couldn’t do the show and they asked me to fill in… and that’s all she wrote!
LH: At what point did you say “okay.. this IS my day job?”
Neil: You know, that took me a real long time to arrive there. It probably wasn’t until 2000/2001. You know, we spent the better part of the 90s signed to labels, and getting tour support, and not really making any money at all because it was going into the gas tank. When the 90s ended, and like every other band that dried up very quickly, we had to ask ourselves what are we going to do and are we going to get back in the van? At that time, wives and kids were coming into the picture and I had to ask myself, am I going to be able to support a family doing this? I think we all felt this way. We rolled the dice, and said this is what we’re going to do, and became much more passionate. I became much more defensive, aggressive, and I started taking lessons. I still take lessons, and in some ways that was an “ah-ha” moment, and I’d been taking it for granted for a long time because it had landed in my lap at such an early age.
LH: Would you say it was the Pure Rock Fury success was the tipping stone that made you say “let’s do this?”
Neil: No, that whole record was written in the time… I guess you could call it the dark night of the soul, not to be too dramatic. I was creatively kind of exhausted, I think we were physically exhausted, after tour after tour after tour. I think it was in between then and Blast Tyrant. When Blast Tyrant came out, it put the wind back in the sails.
LH: Let’s talk about the writing process with Clutch. Is there a tried and true formula that starts with maybe a hook and builds from that, or a title or lyrics to set the theme… or is it more of an organic/accidental progression born out of say jamming?
Neil: It’s wherever I can get it (laughs). I will write down ideas for songs, like lyrically, before the music and sometimes they end up in songs, and sometimes they don’t. We get together if somebody has a riff, and we’ll kick it around, and it will change. We’ll sit on that riff for like five minutes, record it and start collecting these things. The most laborious part is the lyrics because the music is done and I’ve gotta come up with some fresh idea and melody, and this and that. I have found that over the years, the songs that have the most positive response from the fans and the most longevity are the songs that were written very quickly, and I’m talking in a matter of hours. It’s the songs that take days or weeks that sometimes don’t make it on the album, or we just don’t play them much because it was a pain in the ass.
LH: Does the band have a writing/creativity ritual that takes place before or during your sessions that you would like to share with the fans?”
Neil: Well, we have a warehouse where we store all our gear and merchandise we sell. There’s a little space where we get together. The last time, what we did, we didn’t get together unless everyone had something to bring to the table. That allowed us to push each other, and demand more from each other and was much more productive than not setting that parameter. That’s really it…anything goes!
LH: Clutch songs, Clutch videos, Clutch albums, all have this incredible storytelling power to them. Has there ever been a time when an album concept or title came before the songs? And the song vibes and theme are groomed for the album title?
Neil: That’s a tricky question. I think concept albums are tricky, like a needle to thread. You make lyrics subordinate to some idea, and it can become forced. I think the best example of that is the Styx album, Killroy Was Here. Was it worth putting all of that music under the sum of this idea? And there are other albums, like Dark Side Of The Moon, and it’s a concept album but it is vague enough to say who can say exactly what that concept is. I think of Book Of Bad Decisions, that idea came afterwards when I was trying to think, is there a common theme for these? The best we could come up with is they are like short stories or chapters in an anthology. We had a song and it had “book” in the title, so it seemed like it was a good fit.
LH: Okay talking to guitar player Neil now… do you still own that first guitar?
Neil: No, I think I took apart, then painted it and then swapped it with somebody for a Westone, and I had the Westone for a while. The first nice guitar I bought was a 1966 Telecaster, that a couple of years later. I had to sell for rent money. It’s sort of a right of passage for any musician. I wish I did, I have a lot of cheap-ass guitars, I don’t have a lot of expensive stuff.
LH: That’s funny, I was going to ask if you are a collector?
Neil: Well, I will say this, I do have two Gibson ES-335s and those are not cheap guitars. Expensive, but I love em.’ I started playing on them because they were lighter and I was having issues with my neck. They’re my two favorite guitars. I have a Martin D-15 that I play quite frequently, and I have a Mule resonator guitar that is great fun to play.
LH: So, when it comes time to sit down and write music… do you have that goto, hitmaker guitar?
Neil: It’s the one I am looking at as we speak, kind of the “honey-burst” 335 that I got a few years ago. It’s easy to play, it sounds great, it feels comfortable and I don’t have to think about it. The less thinking I have to so the better.
LH: Are you a fan of open tunings? And what is your favorite, if you are?
Neil: I am a huge fan of open tunings. We have a number of songs in open tunings. Probably one of our most popular songs “The Regulator” is in open D minor, and I love it because it’s just so spooky.
LH: I sat down years ago and learned it. It was good fun.
Neil: Great! Yeah, that came about because I was trying to play Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman.” I gave up and decided to write our own song, in open G, and it was slide and that was fun. I am actually trying to learn another Skip James tune in open G.
LH: So are you a glass slide, brass slide, ceramic guy?
Neil: I like brass. I forget the name of the gauge but it’s the huge one. Super heavy and runs the whole length of your finger. I like it because it fits perfectly over my wedding ring and kind of locks it in place. I tried playing with the pinky, but I can’t do it, so I just put it on the ring finger.
LH: What is your all-time dream amp?
Neil: (Laughs) You know what, for many many years I have been wanting to buy a vintage Champ. It’s small, they sound great… one of the best sounding amps I have ever heard was a Champ. So I’ll probably get one, but until then we have Universal Audio’s fake Champ that we use.
LH: Okay, let’s switch back. We were talking about Book Of Bad Decisions, and you guys released that on Weathermaker Records, brought 15 new tracks, and nearly one hour of new material. Which track on the album presented the biggest challenge in the studio, and which track are you most proud of?
Neil: Well, that’s the thing about that record. It was actually the easiest studio session we ever had. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we pounded those songs live before we hit record. We only wrote one song in the studio, and that was “Hot Bottom Feeder,” because we had an extra day, and some extra tracks laying around but that happened fast. For me, probably “Emily Dickenson” singing-wise, was probably one of the highest notes I ever hit, so that was hard but worth the effort.
LH: So let’s expand this, looking back to the birth of Clutch. What rings your bell as your all-time favorite song?
Neil: Sort of like picking your favorite child. The very early stuff sounds like a different band to me and, in a lot of ways, it was. Hadn’t seen the world, didn’t know a lot about other kinds of rock and roll and it wasn’t until the self-titled record that I think the band went out on the trajectory that I think we are still on. When we recorded “Big News 1,” it was very different from anything else we had done previously, and I didn’t know how it was going to be received. I remember playing it live and a lot of hardcore kids were not very happy with us. But, I have a special love for that song because it encapsulates the band that has lasted us this thirty years. That was kind of the blueprint for all of them.
LH: Looking at the entire catalog, which track is the most fun to perform live and which track has the most “energizing” effect on the crowd?
Neil: “Electric Worry” by a mile. That’s the closet thing to an international hit that this band has ever enjoyed. It’s an easy song to sing along to, especially at festivals, and it always does well. I love playing “DC Sound Attack,” it’s got that cowbell breakdown and it’s just fun to do, it’s easy to do. I’m not a believer that something has to be complicated to be good. I think sometimes simplicity is its own virtue.
LH: Given the history and the energy at the shows, has there ever been a time when you guys were shut down… because the “Mob actually did go wild?”
Neil: That did happen once. We did a show with Anthrax, and it happened after we played. In the late 90s in Detroit. It was at Pine Knob. I remember that pit, for some reason. The first time I was kinda fearful for not only the people there but my own band. That’s one… In all these years, there’s never been a time when an authority figure or law enforcement figure has come up and shut us down. There’s been times when the powers failed, I’ve seen that. We were doing a festival in Germany, and there was a threat, and they had to move 60,000 people, and that was very unnerving. But all in all, it’s been pretty lucky for these shows in that regard.
LH: Onto the Weathermaker Vault series. The latest release and new studio track “Willie Nelson” also brings to us a killer video, and a clean-shaven Neil. I am sure you get this a lot… do you prefer beard or no beard?
Neil: (Laughs)There is something to be said about both of them. The only reason I shaved after the new year is because my kid said I haven’t seen your face, can I see your face? So I shaved it off, and like two days later he came up to me and said, can you grow your beard back now? Okay, so now you know what’s under there, you don’t wanna see it, yeah thanks! And I kinda grow a little weary of waking up with a raccoon on my face every day. It’s growing back now, but that probably has more to do with being shut in the house like everybody else.
LH: Let’s talk about that video for a sec. We see a demonic Tim, and he’s getting ready to get medieval on you. He then proceeds to repeatedly dunk Neil’s character into the bathtub. I’ve gotta ask, just how many takes did you guys do to get that right?
Neil: Not too many, maybe four or five, and it was only for that one passage. Dunking your head in an Airbnb bathtub is pretty gross. We had to do it for the art, and take one for the team.
LH: Expanding that, let’s look at the entire Clutch video library. What was the most fun to shoot and what was the biggest pain in the ass?
Neil: You know the Brodsky ones, he’s done the last number of them and we did “Hot Bottom Feeder” and “How To Shake Hands,” both of them in the same location, both of them in nine hours. That to me is incredible and a testament to him. He does a lot of the stuff in post. Videos have never been our forte. The other cool one, the “X-Ray Visions” one, we did in Dan Winters’ photo studio in Dripping Springs, Texas, which is a real privilege to see that man’s workspace. He’s an icon in the industry, and you can hang out there, and just look at stuff and never be bored.
LH: So what was the pain in the ass video?
Neil: It wasn’t technically a Clutch video, but we agreed to do a video, or appear on Bam Margera’s show on MTV, where we performed on a tubing hill in central Pennsylvania in the dead of winter. We stood up there, and it took snowmobiles to drag our gear up, and that was one of the more miserable shoots we’ve ever done.
LH: Tell us about the Innocent Lives Foundation, what they are doing and what your role is.
Neil: Well, I am a board member, and in a nutshell, the mission statement of the ILF is to unmask online child predators and that’s what we do. It started with a friend of mine involved in the security industry and hacking industry and he realized that there is a real shortage of skilled hackers to address the situation. So what the ILF does is create dossiers and profiles of predators that think they’re anonymous and often slip up. Then they hand it off to law enforcement. We’ve only been doing it for two years, and have over 80 cases that we have created. What happens after that, we don’t know, it’s not our job to know, we’re just supplying the skills. It’s a charity that survives on donations, and they can be made to innocentlivesfoundation.org.
LH: Now, the current tour for April and May with Volbeat has been understandably postponed. You guys are known for one of the most rigorous touring schedules in the music industry. So what is the current high score for consecutive gigs in a row? And have you made it to all 50 States?
Neil: You know, the consecutive in a row were back in the early days. I can’t do 21 in a row anymore, can’t even do 10 in a row. We talk maximum 6, and you have to rest the voice because we’re not pulling any punches on that stage, and it does take a toll on you. I do remember on the Biohazard tour, it was 21 shows in a row. The only State we have not been played in is Alaska. We have driven through Wyoming but not performed in Wyoming. We’ve played all the other ones, including Hawaii.
LH: Do you have a count of international countries you have visited?
Neil: No, but we tour western Europe quite a bit. We still have a tour booked for late this summer in eastern Europe. We did have a bunch of shows that are postponed in South America and South Africa which we have never been to. We’re very lucky to have seen as much of the world as we have. It’s a bit of a drug, once you’ve started to get a taste of seeing the world we live in, you want to see it all. There’s a lot of pins I want to put in the map that we have yet to do.
LH: Okay Neil, we are going to wind things up with a little Loud Hailer rapid fire. I will shoot you a question, and you give me a one or two-word response. Ready? What is the band’s favorite junk food?
LH: Where can we find the loudest and rowdiest Clutch fans?
Neil: Flint, Michigan.
LH: Favorite dead musician you would pick to jam with?
Neil: John Bonham.
LH: Biggest non-musical influence?
Neil: Cormac McCarthy.
LH: Are you an iPod shuffler or a playlist guy?
LH: What are your top three tunes on your favorite playlist?
Neil: I made a playlist of all the songs that we used to listen to on cassette in our very first touring van. Here are the first three of that list… “Lord Of This World” by Black Sabbath, “Light Another” by Cypress Hill, and “World Peace” by the Chro-Mags.
LH: Favorite 70s TV sitcom?
Neil: All In The Family.
LH: What is your favorite IPA?
Neil: Right now, that would fall into a local brewery here called Manner Hill.
LH: A favorite up and coming band that we should check out?
Neil: A guy from Australia who plays blues named C.W. Stoneking and I’m also a fan of All Them Witches.
LH: Your favorite concert of all time?
Neil: Bad Brains at the 9:30 club in DC in 1988.
LH: Last question… give us something from the Neil Fallon bucket list that you have planned for your future?
Neil: I’d like to write a book.
LH: Have you started it or are we still in the pre-planning thought process?
Neil: I haven’t even figured out the genre yet, so I need to start narrowing this down.
LH: Neil, I would like to thank you for taking this time with Loud Hailer Magazine today. It’s been a pleasure, and this will most definitely bring some happiness to the music world and Clutch army. Before we close, is there anything you would like to say to the fans?
Neil: Stay healthy, stay sane, and we’ll see you on the other side of this thing.
LH: Appreciate you, Neil… have a great one brother, stay healthy.. and stay away!
Neil: Yeah right on, take care!
Be sure to check the band’s website for tour information as well as upcoming band news, and also go to innocentlivesfoundation.org and be part of all of the wonderful things that this organization is doing.