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:: Spotlight :: Interview with Clutch

By: Justin Donnelly

Cult underground rock and roll/metal act Clutch are never ones to disappear from the limelight for any great length of time, and after as little as eight months after the release of their live CD/DVD release ‘Full Fathom Five: Audio Field Recordings 2007 – 2008’, the legendary Maryland based band are back with their ninth full-length album ‘Strange Cousins From The West’.

With one show remaining on their two week tour of Europe in the lead up to the release of ‘Strange Cousins From The West’, I caught up with vocalist Neil Fallon at a service station in Berlin to talk about the band’s label Weathermaker Music, the departure of keyboardist Mick Schauer from the band’s line-up (who include guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines, drummer Jean-Paul Gaster) and the surprisingly stripped back feel of their latest album after two highly acclaimed blues drenched efforts in ‘Robot Hive/Exodus’ (2005) and ‘From Beale Street To Oblivion’ (2007).

“When we go in to make a new album, we don’t go into the studio with the idea of wanting to do this or that. I think, as is the case with most of our albums, we just kind of went in and started writing songs, and it just so happens that the album sounded very stripped down and sounding like a much more guitar orientated album than maybe the previous couple. A lot of people don’t realise that ‘From Beale Street To Oblivion’ was recorded in a very similar manner. All the songs were written in the same way, it terms of just a guitar, bass and a drum kit. It wasn’t until later that we added keyboards to it, a bit of harmonica here and there and a lot of layers added on top of the guitars. At the time, that was all well and good. But that all changed when Schauer left the picture about a year and a half ago. We seriously thought about bringing the keyboards back and getting someone else into the band, but when we sat down and really discussed it, we all agreed that maybe this was a good opportunity to examine the parts of the engine a little closer. And I think it was a good exercise if anything. I really like the fact that its bare bones, and I think J. Robbins (Ex-Jawbox vocalist/guitarist) who recorded and produced the album, has got a really good ear for capturing us in a very honest manner.”

As with all Clutch albums, ‘Strange Cousins From The West’ is full of Fallon’s weird and often cryptic lyrical musings, and it’s no more evident than in the album’s title itself, which appears throughout the song ‘Minotaur’. But when asked for an explanation, it would appear that the meaning is something that is not altogether an easy concept to break down into simple terms.

“I think it’s a mixture of self description and people’s perception of us from the outside. Naming an album is pretty difficult, and that line simply came up from one of the songs on the album. That’s usually the case when it comes to naming our albums. For whatever reason, that line seemed to capture the mood of the album. I tend to look at the title in a number of ways. ‘Strange Cousins From The West’ could be an oblique reference to our songs or, maybe even us as well in some ways. I can see that. For me personally, it’s kind of hard to talk about, because it’s more of an abstract aesthetic, rather than a concrete idea. To some people, we are outsiders, I can understand that. I think I would rather be on the outside looking in, than on the inside looking out. I think it’s easier to be artistic in that regard, because if you’re appealing to everybody, you’re probably not taking that much of a chance. And I think it’s more important to take a risk, and maybe not appeal to everybody, but a lot more to a smaller and select group of people. As far as rock and roll goes, I think we just do what we do, and don’t give it a whole lot of thought. We just try to put the music up on a pedestal, and everything else can be damned. In some ways, maybe we are the ‘Strange Cousins From The West’.”

Falling into the line of the strange album title is the rather surreal artwork for the album, which was created once again by artist Nick Lakiotes (‘Robot Hive/Exodus’, ‘From Beale Street To Oblivion’ and 2007’s double live album ‘Heard It All Before - Live At HiFi Bar’).

“It is strange! (laughs) What happens with the packaging is that you kind of pull off the o-card carded stencil on the front and it will reveal a larger picture underneath. It’s a really elaborate package once you open it up. It was done once again by Lakiotes, and once again he’s done an awesome job at it. He’s a guy that I met literally in an alley by a dumpster at a nightclub in Brooklyn (New York) one night. Usually people that I meet in an alley by a dumpster who give me a card are people that I never follow up on! (laughs) But for whatever reason, I went and checked out his website and looked at his artwork, we started talking, and we hit it off. I think he has a keen sense of doing things in a surreal way, but in a manner that I think is appropriate for a band like Clutch.”

Another addition to ‘Strange Cousins From The West’ that is every bit as perplexing and typically Clutch like is the inclusion of a cover version of Pappo’s Blues’ 1971 song ‘Algo Ha Cambiado’ (‘Something Has Changed’).

“About a year ago, or maybe even a little longer than that, we got turned onto this band called Pappo’s Blues. It was a band led by this Argentine blues and metal/rock artist by the name of Norberto Napolitano. He started putting out albums in the late ‘60’s, and followed through with releases through the ‘70’s and the ‘80’s. When I heard his music, I got kind of freaked out. It was something that I had never heard before, and it was so excellent. I think all the albums, right from his first album through to his fifth album, are all fantastic. It’s a shame that he’s no longer with us. I really wanted to showcase just how good his music was by putting a track of his one the album. ‘Algo Ha Cambiado’ is a great song, and I think the whole world should know about this band. We did an English version of that song, but it just didn’t jive correctly, so we kept it in Spanish. It was a touch track to nail down, but I got it in the end. Luckily, our tour manager is from Mexico, so I sent him demos along with questions like, ‘Do I sound like an idiot on this? Does it make sense to you?’ (laughs) But he said that it sounded alright. I trust his judgement. I hope he’s not taking the piss, because if I find out, he’ll look like the idiot! (laughs)”

Given the band’s somewhat unfortunate string of luck with several previous record labels, it’s not surprising to find that after some fifteen years, the band has founded their own label Weatherman Records. But according to Fallon, even after three releases, the struggle between being an artist and musician is still being figured out.

“I think it fortunate that we live in a day and age where I think the internet really allows that to happen. If this was ten or fifteen years ago, I don’t think we would be in this position. It’s still a bit of a learning curve. I don’t particularly want to be a business man, because number one, I’m terrible at it, and number two, I guess I’m a musician, and that’s all there is to it. But fortunately we have folks working for us like Jon Nardachore that can give us the luxury of concentrating on music and, therefore making business decisions once in a blue moon. I must say, having said that, you still have to make decisions every day, especially in regards to reading e-mails and making phone calls. I think the better you get at it, the less you have to think about it, and the more you can just be a musician. The record label, if you could really call it that, it’s not an accurate name for it because we’re not going to sign other bands. What we want to do is put out our own music. And if something goes wrong, then at least we know who to blame. And trust me, it’s a lot easier to fix it when it’s you! (laughs)”

Although having set up their own label, Fallon says Clutch don’t have any grand plans expanding upon their own music for release on Weatherman Music.

“I think fans can look forward to seeing some DVDs released on the label, and maybe some releases from The Bakerton Group (Weatherman Records release the band’s ‘El Rojo’ album earlier in the year). I think at this point, that’s all we’re thinking of doing. Maybe some old re-issues of our old stuff if they come back into our possession, much like the same way we recently released ‘Slow Hole To China’ release.”

As the conversation comes to a close, I asked Fallon his thoughts on the band’s current European tour, and what the possibility of another Australian tour was, given the overwhelming positive reaction to the band’s tour in 2007.

“The European tour has been going real well. We kind of scheduled our schedule around doing Download in England at the beginning of the tour, and that show went really well. We also did a festival in France called Hellfest, which was another really good show. So we booked in some club dates around those couple of shows, and things have been going really well. As it stands, we’re about to head back home before heading out for a month long US tour. Right now, we’re talking about doing a tour of Australia around February 2010. That’s the plan, but we’ll have to wait and see if that actually comes to be. But if it does, by the time we get down there after so much touring, we’ll be ready. My only concern is if everyone else is ready! (laughs)”

I would like to thank Neil Fallon for his generous time, and Steven Stavrakis and Vanessa Bassili at Shiny Entertainment for making the interview possible.

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