They don’t have any smash hit singles or gold records. You won’t hear them on the radio. They’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet over the past 32 years of their existence, Clutch has amassed a rabid, loyal fan base due to their integrity, work ethic, and their uncompromising original music. They’ve never followed any trends; they’ve never tried to fit in to any genre; and they’ve never looked, dressed, or acted like rock stars. Seemingly always on tour, Clutch is known for never playing the same set twice; as there is the potential for any song they’ve ever done to be played live on any given night. You can experience this for yourself when the band plays Iroquois Amphitheater on Thursday, July 27. LEO had the chance to speak with vocalist Neil Fallon ahead of the show.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
LEO: First things first, how do you go about picking the setlist?
Neil Fallon: We take turns, going alphabetical order of first names. The first night of a tour Dan [Maines – bass] will pick the setlist, Jean-Paul [Gaster – drums] will do the second night, I’ll do the third, Tim [Sult – guitar] will do the fourth, and then repeat. And if we want to add a new song that we haven’t played in a while, we’ll do it for soundcheck. So by the end of a tour we have anywhere from 60 to 70 songs that we could pick on any given night.
How do you remember all of those songs?
It has to do with just constantly rotating the stock. It’s a lot of muscle memory, to be honest. And I find the less I think about it, the easier it is. Because if I’m worried about like, “Oh, what’s the next line and the next verse?” that’s when it goes pear shaped. But I just listen to what JP, Tim and Dan are doing and it kind of just happens automatically.
How have the four of you all been able to keep everything going for the past 30 years without any main lineup changes?
It’s a mixture of hard work and good fortune. I think we understand that the sum is greater than any one of the parts. And there’s a signature sound that’s just our collective personality. And taking it seriously, I mean, I know when I was in my 20s I didn’t take it very seriously, but no one takes shit seriously in their 20s. And we’ve lost people over the years; Mick [Schauer – keyboards] passed away. I think once you start getting into middle age you feel your own mortality and you become more protective of what you have and realize you’ve got to hold on to it. If anything, it’s a physical thing. You’ve got to take care of your health. You can’t tour like this or perform if you’re treating every night like a Friday night. That was great 1993, but it’s not 1993 anymore
So when you’re performing live, it almost looks like you’re performing a sermon, like you’re preaching. Is that something that just came naturally, or is that something that just came about over time?
I’ve heard that from a lot of people, and it was never premeditated. I think its nervous energy, like waving my hands around and kind of making eye contact with people. That’s just the way it manifested with me. I didn’t think about it. To this day, I still get nervous before we play. And I think that’s a good thing, rather than having to work yourself up.
Clutch initially started with more of a hardcore sound, but moved into a blues-based sound over time. Was that a conscious decision, or was that evolution?
It was evolution. I mean, I don’t think we ever really talked about it. Our first seven inch, I was 19 years old. And then our first record, I was barely 21 and still kind of figuring things out. And a lot of that hardcore stuff is great. I love listening to it. But I think we had to be honest about how long you can generate that kind of energy. Not to say that we’re old and tired. Well, maybe a little bit, [laughs]. But to be angry at 19, that’s kind of understandable because you just have that pubescent energy. But if you’re in your mid-30s trying to be angry because of your breakup with your girlfriend from 20 years ago, that’s kind of a non-starter. So I think, musically, when we started basically playing more pentatonic scales and becoming more riff oriented with a bigger swing, and lyrically telling stories as opposed to expressing emotions, then it became like, anything’s possible.
Is there one song that you would say is the quintessential Clutch song? One you would tell someone who’s never heard you to listen to if they wanted to hear what Clutch sounds like?
Oh, that’s a good question. Because when I do pick this one, there’s going to be fans that say that’s a terrible choice, you know? I will say this, even though I know I can sing all those songs much better now than I did when we recorded them, but the self-titled album, I think, put us on the trajectory that we are today. And I know I will never get sick of singing “Big News 1.” And I think that song, when it came out, shocked the shit out of a lot of people. So I’ll pick that song because it’s quirky and it’s heavy and there’s a sense of humor to it that I think runs through a lot of our songs. Similarly, when we did “Spacegrass” for the first time live, that was met with a sea of middle fingers and crossed arms. And I think it illustrates the importance of doing what you want to do, because if we had listened to those people, we would have never recorded the song and then no one would have heard it, and we all know now that’s a very popular song.
My brother came up with this question and it was too good not to ask; [referring to the lyrics for the Clutch song “Willie Nelson”] Have you ever actually smoked any of Willie Nelson’s weed, or do you just assume it’s killer?
[Laughs], No, I haven’t. They sell it at the dispensary next to my house though. But the short answer is no. I did have the chance to go see Willie Nelson the summer before last year and it was killer. But I think about those lyrics sometimes when we’re playing it, and they were written in a time where marijuana could land you in jail for decades. And it just makes me so furious that some people that used to profit from putting people in prison for that now own stock in the companies selling it. It just makes my head spin. And so many lives have been ruined for like something that. I’m not a big advocate for drug use, but the thing is, this is part of the Earth. This is something that grows out of the ground; it doesn’t come out of a laboratory. It’s like saying “No, you can’t eat tomatoes.” It’s ridiculous. But anyway, I digress. So that was the inspiration of that song. But yeah, I just assume it’s killer. •
Clutch plays the Iroquois Amphitheater on their “No Stars Above” tour Thursday, July 27 at 7:00 p.m. with guests Dinosaur Jr. and Red Fang. General admission tickets are available for $45.50 through Ticketmaster and the Iroquois Amphitheater box office.