Interview with vocalist Neil Fallon and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster
By Joshua Bottomley
Throughout its 20-year career, the Maryland quartet Clutch has been labeled everything from hardcore stoner metal to bluesy southern sludge. But never before has a Clutch album more deserved the simple tag “rock ‘n’ roll” than the band’s 10th studio effort Earth Rocker. Jettisoning much of the laidback roots revival style found on previous LP, Strange Cousins From The West, Clutch shifts straight into fifth gear on Earth Rocker with fistbangers such as “Unto The Breach,” “Crucial Velocity,” and the bellowing title track. Middling with the uptempo numbers are go-go bebop (“DC Sound Attack”), forlorn swing (“Oh, Isabella”) and acoustic laments (”Gone Cold”). Needless to say, Earth Rocker is full of surprises and has a little something for everyone. We chatted up frontman Neil Fallon and drummer Jean-Pail Gaster to learn how Clutch made the planet move.
Gentlemen, do you consider Earth Rocker a 180 from Strange Cousins From The West?
Neil: In some regards, sure. I think we sometimes react to our last record as a way of looking forward to the next record. The blues influences that were apparent on From Beale Street To Oblivion or Strange Cousins are more or less absent on this record. That wasn’t because we decided that we were sick of it. The way we work creatively, and I guess the way a lot of bands work, you don’t move in a straight line, you tack back and forth diagonally between your influences.
JP: I don’t think it’s a complete 180. It’s important to think about the perspective of what happened musically with the band. When we did Strange Cousins, that was the first record we’d done in a couple records where we didn’t have organ on there. We didn’t have any harp going on. So Strange Cousins was a stripped down record in a couple ways, in the instrumentation and the way that we put the songs together. I think that concept was honed for Earth Rocker. We had to make Strange Cousins to make Earth Rocker. I think it’s a more distilled version of what we were going for.
When did you decide that you were going to go in a harder, faster direction?
Neil: We didn’t know exactly what we were gonna do. I guess we never do. That’s the fun part of doing something creative, figuring out what that is. When we were on tour with Motörhead and Thin Lizzy, it wasn’t so much that we were listening to them every night and taking notes, it was that when we were on tour with them we were listening to bands similar to them in our free time. Bands like Rose Tattoo or early Deep Purple. We were re-evaluating or taking another look at that part of rock ‘n’ roll history. We didn’t try to write a record that was a tribute to that, that’s just where our heads were at the time.
JP: We made sure the songs were more focused. When we put the songs together, we talked a lot about how we wanted to make a powerful, fast record that sounded like the bands we were touring with. Some of that energy and feeling that we got watching those bands definitely came through in Earth Rocker.
So JP, how was it watching Mikkey Dee (Motörhead) play drums every night and how did that translate into your playing on Earth Rocker?
JP: He is ferocious! He is a damn freight train, a really inspiring drummer to watch. He has a tremendous amount of groove. It was interesting to talk drums with him. I can’t play like Mikkey Dee for shit. I’m not even gonna pretend. But there’s this concept of shuffle that both Brian Downey (THIN LIZZY) and Mikkey Dee have. The shuffle is something you could spend your entire life trying to master. There’s always going to be new ways of looking at it, different nuances. So it was interesting to watch Mikkey Dee’s version, then Brian Downey, and put my own twist on it.
Is Earth Rocker at all a statement towards the critics and detractors who claimed that Clutch had lost their hard rock edge?
Neil: Well, first, I’ve never listened to the detractors or critics in the 20 years we’ve been in the band. If people look to critics to conduct their creative impulse then they’re really not an artist. Also, we don’t wanna bore ourselves, so why would we wanna do the same thing again? You can write songs in different keys and at different tempos, but if they’re all sitting in the same village, you can only explore that village for so long before you want to see what’s on the other side of the river, to use a very bizarre geography analogy.
When did you decide that you wanted to work with [Blast Tyrant producer] Machine again?
Neil: When we realized the songs were going to be faster and harder. In some ways it reminded us of the stuff we had written for Blast Tyrant and we really liked Blast Tyrant so we decided to give him a call. We knew what we were getting into.
How does Machine’s approach differ from [Strange Cousins producer] J. Robbins?
JP: J. Robbins is a consummate engineer. He studies mic placement and miking techniques probably more than any other producer we have ever used. He’s very laidback and let’s things happen very naturally and organically. Machine is a complete maniac. He’s much more concerned with what you’re playing than what microphone is on the bass drum. It’s a totally different environment for recording. Machine gets very excited about stuff. He has a lot of ideas, about how maybe I should phrase something. A lot of the times his ideas are good ideas, I think that the important thing is to try everything. That’s what’s nice about working with him; you can experiment all day long. The way he puts things together and makes the record come together allows you that opportunity to play whatever you want to play.
You’ve stated previously that Machine is a bit of a taskmaster and that he increased the tempo of some songs on Blast Tyrant. Did you enjoy a similar experience recording Earth Rocker?
Neil: It was much the same phenomenon. We’ve been playing together 20 years and we know each other’s comfort zones, and [Machine] wanted to push that. If we had a song at 120BPM, he’d say, “well why don’t you try 135?” When we first started playing, that of course sounded ridiculous, but we got accustomed to it. That’s a fictitious example, but many things happened like that. He flipped parts around and micro-managed us in a way that we never could, or would.
Being consummate professional musicians, has it gotten easier for you to track in the studio, or is it still an all day affair?
JP: It’s an all day affair. When we were tracking with Machine, we would start at 10AM and go to 6, 7, or 8PM. Working with Machine is a different way of recording than we normally record. Strange Cousins and Beale Street, or the super early records, we all played together as a band in one room. When we did Blast Tyrant, he had us play separately to tracks we had recorded previously. Most guys record like that now, but for us, guys who’ve been playing music for so long, that was a new experience. I did my best to be prepared. I did my homework. Sometimes I’ll even make a chart in my own hieroglyphics. You go in as prepared as you can be, and ultimately you get a little frustrated, because you’re still not prepared enough.
Lyrically, Earth Rocker seems a little more personal and political than past efforts, was that an angle you were vying for?
Neil: A lot of times I don’t know what a song is about, other than I’m satisfied with the lyrics. I think that’s a better thing than knowing exactly what a song is about, because then there’s nothing left to think about.
Clutch makes its living as a touring band and each show is always a little different than the last. How many songs do you rotate through your set lists?
JP: I’m not sure exactly how many songs we have in rotation, but as the tour goes on, that list grows and grows. It’s just an attempt to keep things interesting.
Neil: Usually when we first start out a touring cycle, there are probably 30 songs that we could play at any given time. Then after a couple months that’s probably getting closer to 50. We do that for our own attention spans. If you start getting too comfortable that’s when the mistakes start creeping in. You start daydreaming and shit.
20 years into your career are you happy with where Clutch is at, or would you like to still push it further?
Neil: I would certainly like to push it further. The first half of this band’s career I was half expecting it [to end]. But we kept going and one day I woke up and realized, “Whoa, this is what I do!” Speaking for myself, I feel more hungry and motivated than I ever have with this group of guys. I’m very fortunate to do something creative for a living. Most of my friends who are creative have to do that in their odd hours, after their jobs that they don’t like. Because of that, I really appreciate the position I’m in now, and I don’t want it to stop. I would lose my mind.