The Foundation of Western Civilization: An Interview With Neil Fallon of Clutch

by | May 20, 2022 | MUSIC

It’s hard to believe it, but Clutch has been around for over 30 years. The Maryland-based band, whose unique sound straddles the worlds of classic rock, heavy metal, hardcore punk, and (as discussed in this interview) even a little bit of hip hop, released their debut EP, Pitchfork, in 1991. In 1993, the year they released their first LP, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes, and Undeniable Truths, I (Marilyn) saw them put on an incredible headlining show at the long-gone Richmond venue The Metro. Around the same time, RVA Mag’s John Reinhold was seeing them as often as possible in Winston-Salem, NC, including once with a now-infamous tourmate (but you’ll have to read the interview to find out who that was).

We’re all quite a bit older now than we were then, but somehow Clutch’s music has remained a mainstay of the heavy music underground, with landmark albums like their 1995 self-titled album (discussed below) and 2001’s Pure Rock Fury. Most recently, they released brand new single “Red Alert (Boss Metal Zone),” which, in inimitable Clutch fashion, bases its lyrics around a ridiculous internet conspiracy theory that used the schematic of the famous distortion pedal as “evidence” to prove that 5G was causing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout their three-decade career, Clutch have remained hard-touring road warriors, reliably coming to Richmond’s National every couple of years to blow minds and speakers once again. Of course, every band, from young groups playing their first shows to seasoned road warriors like Clutch, had the past two years of their career completely upended as COVID made it all but impossible for bands to tour for a year and a half. Like many, Clutch dealt with this setback by filming a series of live performances that they streamed from their rehearsal room. As vocalist Neil Fallon explains in this interview, it was very important to them that they get this right, and capture the unmistakable feel of live performance, even if they weren’t able to be in the same room with their many fans.

Clutch will be back at The National this Sunday, finally back in the same room with their many Richmond fans. If you don’t already have your ticket, you’re gonna want to grab it now. But first, check out this conversation between our own John Reinhold and Clutch’s Neil Fallon, which covers everything from what it’s like to perform three-decade-old songs to the ways in which Drake resembles Slayer.

Hey, Neil said it, not us.

John Reinhold (RVA Mag): So where are you?

Neil Fallon (Clutch): That’s a damn good question. We’re somewhere in the middle of Illinois. We have a day off. We have a show tomorrow in Illinois, and I’m just kind of looking at a barren wasteland of a used car dealership and a water tower. And that’s about it.

John: Do you ever pull from that kind of stuff while you’re traveling, and seeing America, those moments on the road?

Neil: We have a great luxury of being in a tour bus, but the downside of that is you don’t get to see a lot of that stuff. You just fall asleep and wake up where we need to be. Whereas when we were in a van, you got to see all the granular details of roadside America.

John: You probably had plenty of years to enjoy roadside America through the van. I imagine the step up into luxury is probably kind of nice at this point.

Neil: Yeah, I’m not complaining. Don’t get me wrong.

John: So RVA magazine first interviewed you… my gosh, quite a few years ago. Tony, the founder of RVA, and myself  grew up in Bassett, Virginia. We would go to Ziggy’s in [Winston-Salem,] North Carolina to see shows. I cannot count on my hands the amount of times I’ve seen Clutch. It’s a part of the collective youth for me and many of our friends growing up in Southern VA. 

Neil: Well, that’s cool. I’m glad to hear that. A lot of times we do an interview and they just don’t know the band from Adam.

John: I’m certainly very familiar, I was in a band that played a few Clutch songs, like “A Shogun Named Marcus” and “[Walking In The Great Shining Path Of] Monster Trucks.”  

Neil: We played that last night.

John: What is it like for you breaking out stuff like “Monster Trucks,” where it’s kind of a younger version of you and you’re jumping into that younger vocal area? What is it like doing those kinds of songs now?

Neil: In some ways it’s kind of like reading an old diary entry. It’s good to get perspective to see where you’ve gone to since then. I mean, there’s also those cringey moments, where I’m like, “Wow, I wish I had chosen a different word here.” And I know I can sing circles around those songs. My voice has changed quite a bit, but you know, a lot of the really early stuff was driven by adolescent anger that kind of dissipated really quickly. I’m glad for that, because I see guys my age trying to, like, keep up their 19 year old anger, and damn, it’s gotta be exhausting.

John: I imagine it would be very exhausting as you get older and you have a family, trying to get in that mindset over and over again. Not to mention, the vocal exercise of it all would be pretty difficult. I know you deal with keeping your voice over all these different tours. Are there any special things you do?

Neil: You know, coming out of hardcore — and this is a long-winded answer, so bear with me — coming out of hardcore, punk rock, I got the false impression that things like pitch and melody were kind of commercial, and you were supposed to not do that. So it took me years to realize that that was a very naive attitude. Once I started trying changes in pitch, and seeing melodies, those were more interesting than just screaming. That’s way less taxing than just belting shit out.

So when I started doing that, it became apparent that I needed to take vocal lessons. Not to change how I was singing, but… it’s almost like doing stretching exercises before you run. I wish I had known that 30 years ago, but, you know, we all arrive at our spots one way or the other. You gotta be honest with your age. I can’t go out after every show and drink pitchers of beer, and all you can eat pizza, and expect to wake up the next morning and feel good. Feeling good is a nice thing.

John: Yes, it is. Something popped up on my feed today, and I knew I was gonna talk to you today, so, interestingly enough, the ol’ Facebook showed me that the Clutch self-titled album came out today in 1995. What is it like reflecting on that album in particular? Maybe I’m wrong on this, but I think in some ways that was the first Clutch album that got some distance and really set you guys up.

Neil: It’s funny that you mentioned that, because I was speaking to some fans yesterday and they asked me what our favorite records were. And I mentioned that one, because I kind of feel that the self-titled record was the album that set us on the trajectory that we’re still on today. I’m sure we’ve tapped back and forth between different ideas or sounds, but that’s when we embraced the classic rock that we grew up listening to, and incorporated that into the heavy metal, the hardcore, and the punk rock that we listened to as teenagers. Maybe we didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the Eureka moment that allowed us to do a lot more stuff. If we had just said, “We’re only gonna do variations of Transnational Speedway League,” we probably wouldn’t have lasted another year.

John: Yeah, there’s a lot of different sounds on the self-titled album, sounds that are very appealing to me to this day. “Droid” and “Spacegrass” are in particular amazing to me because, well, I’m a big space guy anyway. Obviously those are also very popular with the fans. Spacegrass being, you know, one of them. Shoot, I even made a DJ Space Bass Mix called “Saturn is my Rotary” with cover art by Morgan Sawyer that has Jesus on a dashboard. I just have always been into how unique those sounds are, then and now. I’m so thankful that Clutch has kept it going, and especially coming from COVID. So how is it being out of COVID and going back to it?

Neil: I guess the short answer is, I still feel like we’re not out of it. I mean, every leg that we’ve done this tour, someone in our camp has gotten it. I’ve had it three times, and one of them really kicked my ass and it scared the shit out of me — for some selfish reasons, because a respiratory illness and singing do not make great bedfellows. I think we navigated those two years fairly well with just getting on the streaming thing. Sure, there was a financial aspect to that, but I think more importantly, it gave us a goal where it was like, okay, in three months time, we have the streaming, we got “[Red] Alert,” we’ve got to practice these songs.

We got to set that up, and that set up these mile markers. Not let our skills atrophy, because it’s just like any other muscle — if you don’t use it, it gets smaller. At the end of the day, it was odd, singing to a camera or singing to a laptop. But after the fact, seeing that there were a thousand people watching this and making an evening out of it was very gratifying. I don’t think we’ve ever taken that for granted. 

I mean, maybe at first I took a lot for granted, but I’ve always appreciated what we have. But it definitely put a spotlight on not taking anything for granted, because it can be taken away very quickly.

John: I really enjoyed the streams. I needed it, and there was a certain rawness to them. I think there’s a rawness that comes with Clutch in particular. It’s kind of delightful to see for me, seeing when you were like, “We’re going to figure out how all this works.” Seeing people my age being like, “Okay, I guess we’re doing this streaming streaming thing,” and figure out this technology. But I think it also led to some really cool moments, for the fans that were in attendance and watching. And of course we get to support you while we’re all trying to figure out what in the hell is going on.

Neil: Yeah. I think you’re right on the money. That it was like, the people were trying, and the viewer was trying, to figure out what was going on. We were trying to figure out what’s going on and how to best navigate it, and we were very committed to actually doing it live. And it was pretty terrifying, especially when we told people that we were going to record the set and then press it up as vinyl. I think the risk and the gamble of assuming that the performance is going to go well provided some semblance of the adrenaline of a live show. If we had said, “Okay, we’re going to record something pre-recorded and then say, it’s ‘live at the tombstone’,” that’s one, kind of dishonest, and two, there’s no sense of urgency. I think that sense of urgency is one of the most important things about a live show.

John: Yeah. I got to see a couple cool live shows during all that. I actually really, believe it or not, liked the Post Malone show that he did, where he did all the Nirvana covers, which was surprisingly raw and good. I think those shows that I enjoyed the most were the raw ones. I thought Clutch’s, especially in the beginning, were very raw. And I liked that it was very analog feeling, if that makes sense; being a sound guy coming from digital technology, but always wanting that raw and warm analog sound. 

Neil: I think I know what you’re saying. We also realized that we could have too much production.

John: Yep. 

Neil: I’d seen some bands with that. Basically they’re on a soundstage with a big light show and it almost pointed to the fact that it wasn’t real life, that it was kind of overcompensating. Whereas if you just do it brass tacks, I think that’s a much more relatable scenario to most. 

John: Yeah. I think that’s why Clutch is relatable in a lot of ways. I have shown off Clutch to many people. I’m very proud of the moments where I’ve shown some music to some of my hip hop head friends, and had them be like, “Yo, that’s pretty cool.” I think there’s a certain amount of lyricism, and there’s a certain amount of cadence to your voice and the way you present lyrics, that’s unique in the genre of rock. You’re not doing rap rock here, we’ve been down that road before, but it gets me to the question. You’ve mentioned being a fan of rap before. Can tell me a little bit more about what you like or what you’ve listened to in that kind of genre, and how it might influence you a little bit?

Neil: Yeah, sure. There’s a couple of different ways to approach that. I still listen to most of the hip hop that I listened to when I was between the ages of 16 and 25. I’m talking about early Public Enemy, NWA… I still listen to that. I’m kind of overwhelmed these days by how much there is. I look at it online; it’s like, I don’t even know where to begin.

I still listen to that Drake record. I was pleasantly surprised. I was bracing myself to be like an angry old, middle-aged guy. And I think it actually kind of kicks ass. It reminded me of a lot of hip hop I listen to that wasn’t, you know, mumble rap, or vocoded to all hell. Where there’s actually a lot of wordsmithing going on. I think musically too, it almost had the same feeling I had when I heard Slayer for the first time. It was terrifying. But that kind of intimidation is what turned me on. I was like, ‘Wow, I want to hear that again.’ Almost like a rollercoaster, musically speaking.

I think sometimes people draw too much of a gulf between metal and hip hop. And I think about this quite often, because we use Chuck Brown as our walk on music. That’s just a part of the influence of hip hop, but [Chuck Brown] was a blues guitar player, and he’s approximately the same age as Tony Iommi, who was also a blues guitar player. I think both those dudes probably listened to the same records growing up. And there’s really not that much of a walk between Black Sabbath and The Soul Searchers.

John: Yeah. There’s a certain groove to it. I get it with music like Clutch, and rap. It almost has the same cadence, almost like the same kind of like feel. I think that’s one of the appeals of both hip hop and Clutch, and why, when I do play Clutch for some people that might not listen to that style or metal as much as perhaps I do, there is definitely some crossover there. People seem to appreciate both. I’m sure you know, the reaction videos on YouTube are a huge thing.

Neil: Ha, well I’ve only watched a handful of those. I think a lot of that has to do with Jean-Paul’s swing. Metal bands are just punishingly straight. Jean-Paul puts a huge swing on just about everything we do. I think that’s the commonality between what we do and a lot of that hip hop. I mean, we do listen to a lot of hip hop, but that feel that you’re talking about, I think it’s just a huge pocket of swing.

John: Yeah. Yeah. Jean-Paul definitely has that almost jazzy feel sometimes, which I absolutely love. Makes for good listening anytime, even when I’m cooking or in the yard. Now, I know you love to garden. What do you listen to when you’re at home cooking or gardening, if anything? 

Neil: Well actually, in our house, we listen to two radio stations. We listened to WWOZ from New Orleans that plays a lot of jazz and blues, and some hip hop at night. And we also listen to KCRW from Los Angeles. I liked the unexpected nature of those playlists. Because the DJs are really good and they do specific kinds of genres. That’s what we listen to at home a lot. Because my wife and I have kind of a different musical base, so we have to find a common ground.

John: I hear that.

Neil: We can’t blame each other if we put ourselves at the mercy of the DJ.

John: Yeah. I hear you. I’m the cook of our house and I probably play Mr. Bungle’s California more than anything when I’m cooking. Which is great, because it confuses the living daylights out of my wife. [Neil laughs] Because she doesn’t know what to make of it. She’s like, are these different bands? And I’m like, no, no, no, that’s the same band. So I always wonder what people do at home, as far as their relaxation time when off the road, and back home. What’s that dichotomy like? What is it like being a father, then shifting to the tour, and then going back to fatherhood? Do you compartmentalize it, or is it just a natural shift?

Neil: It’s pretty natural. I mean, we’re not Motley Crue, staying up all night with girls doing blow. We usually go to bed within an hour or two after the show. We’re pretty simple in that regard. I usually have a little bit of a hard time falling asleep the first couple of nights [after coming back from tour], because around 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, my body’s naturally producing adrenaline, thinking I have to do a show. But one of the great things about where we are is, this is my job. I don’t have to concern myself with getting a gig in between tours. To me that’s success. That’s the sweet spot. And so when I’m at home, I’m home 100% of the time, seven days a week. And I can be very present. I also wonder how my son wraps his head around, like, okay, Dad’s gone, Dad’s home… but I have a feeling if I were like a Washington DC commuter, five to feeling like ten days a week, I would be a very, very different person, and not in a positive way.

John: Yeah, that’s what’s great about it. You do your art and then when you’re home, you’re home. I’m very happy for you and for Clutch’s success, and the fanbase that you guys have continued to have. I think it’s very rare in rock, to have what you all have. There’s multiple layers to it, and you’re living it. So, you know, congrats to you.

Neil: Well, thank you. The way I calculate success is like, you got to do something that you love, and that’s all you have to do. Most of our friends that are in bands or are musicians have to relegate that to weekends, maybe. I’ve known plenty of musicians that bang their head against the wall for years, to no avail. And sometimes things are looking good and then fate just deals them in, all four hands. But you know, we’ve stayed committed, through feast and famine as well.  

Sometimes you can generate more quote-unquote “luck” the harder you work. But I also understand it’s a rare thing, to have the same lineup and to be able to do this. And as every tour passes, every year passes, I think we get more and more defensive and protective about it, because we realize that we dodged a lot of bullets along the way. We don’t, and we shouldn’t, take any of it for granted. I mean, the last two years was sort of a preview of what retirement might feel like. And it’s a drag. We don’t want to do that. 

John: I feel that a lot. So you’re on tour with The Sword — I think that’s a great lineup. Can you tell me a little bit about The Sword, and how [touring with them] fits within the tour and the Clutch sound?

Neil: Well, we’ve done a number of tours with The Sword, starting out when they were very, very young. It was probably 15 years ago that we [first] toured with them. That’s a rough estimate. [We’ve toured with them] both here and in Europe, and it’s a great fit. I think they’re much more in that classic metal vein, but there’s an odd man out kind of vibe to them. I think we share a kind of camaraderie in that, they do their own particular brand of it and they’re not going to change. That’s who they are. I think their close fans can sense that. I’m sure the majority of the people in the crowd are mutual fans. Which is a good thing to have.

John: It’s nice to see a bill that works together, as far as the sound and the night. You don’t always get that — I’ve gone to enough shows to know that. I was going to tell you about an interesting show that I saw at Ziggy’s, and I’m sure you remember this. It was when you guys opened for — dare I say his name? Marilyn Manson. That was definitely one of the stranger lineups I had seen, as far as musical styles. I was young at the time. I certainly remember being really hype on it.

Neil: Yeah. That tour… well, Manson, as far as I understand, was a big fan of Transnational. He liked that record, and in the meantime, we had recorded the self-titled album. So when we were opening up, we started playing a lot of that self-titled, which he didn’t have a lot of use for. And I think he even wrote about us in his book, saying, “It was like watching concrete dry.”

John: Oh my god. [Laughs]

Neil: I take it as a badge of honor. [laughs] To be quite honest, I had a really bad attitude on that tour. I hated it. But in hindsight it was actually one of the best tours we ever did, because when we went back to those towns where we had opened for Manson, there was clearly a lot of people coming to our headlining show that saw us for the first time on that tour. So I’m grateful for having done that. God, it was long, though. Four months long.

John: Oh yeah. Well that’s good to know. I’m glad I got a little of the inside info here. I can definitely see where it would open Clutch for some new fans, that are still coming to all the various shows that you do. And… [laughs] I’m glad that you have the badge of honor from Manson. Shoot, I would put that on a shirt and wear it. 

Neil: [still laughing] I always look at that, the analogy of concrete dryness, and say, “Well, you know, concrete is the foundation of Western Civilization.” So take a hike.

Clutch will be performing live at The National on Sunday, May 22, with special guests The Sword and Nate Bergman. Doors open at 6:30 PM. Tickets are $32.50 and can be purchased at The National’s website.

Interview by John Reinhold. Introduction by Marilyn Drew Necci. Top Photo by Dan Winters.

John Reinhold

John Reinhold

John Reinhold is currently CXO of Inkwell Ventures Inc. which owns and operates RVA Magazine and GayRVA. Also, he is a deejay with PLF, husband and father to a couple of great kids.

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