Let’s face it and begin by saying as it is: rare are the hard-rockers that have managed to consistently stay in optimal shape over the span of two and a half decades, let alone successfully challenge and surpass themselves as brilliantly as the almighty Clutch. With the overwhelming success of their previous album Earth Rocker, Clutch have sent a clear message to their rock n’ roll peers, sending rock veterans back in their place by delivering an album of blues bred rock n’ roll tunes shining with outstanding relevance. Carrying on with their crusade of glory, the Maryland sons of rock have thus returned with yet another left hook in their discography titled Psychic Warfare, an album that is sure to spread the gospel of Clutch’s immanent greatness on their current European tour. Here to discuss the new-found scripture that is Psychic Warfare, frontman Neil Fallon was kind enough to grant us an interview to help us gain some X-Ray vision insight into the album. You better believe it, brother.
So last month you released your latest album Psychic Warfare. Could you give us a track by track insight and introduction to this album?
Yeah, sure. So The Affidavit is the intro track to the album, which we did after the record was pretty much done. We wanted an intro for the album. We’ve done instrumental album intros before but the idea this time was to play around with ambient noise but then that just sounded weird, without any purpose, so we added a dialogue over it to go into X-Ray Visions, as though it were a response to the person in The Affidavit. I envision The Affidavit as a kind of detective or a private eye.
The Second track would be X-Ray Visions, which is a sort of a fictional exploration about paranoia, in Hotel Rooms late at night off of highways in the West of the United States, where strange things seem to happen. I’ve always been intrigued by David Lynch weirdness and Philip K. Dick, who are 2 of my favourite authors who create my favourite atmospheres, and that was what I was trying to go for in that song, even though it’s an aggressive song.
This leads us into Firebirds which I see as a continuation of X-Ray Visions, where the character who’s getting X-Ray visions escapes the hotel of horrors, gets on the road and happens to pick up a beautiful hitchhiker, who turns out to be just as much trouble as the motel was. I don’t know if you could quite call her an extraterrestrial, but she’s got “extraterrestrial inclinations” (laugh). It’s the exact thing that I was really into when I was 15 years old, and not I’m 44 and I’m still thinking about the same things; space-cars and cute girls.
A quick death in Texas was the only song that I didn’t have lyrics for when we tracked the album, it was the last song we wrote. We were tracking in Texas at the time and the environment that I was staying at inspired the lyrics. I was staying in kind of a small stone cabin on mountain that I rented for a couple of week, which I thought was a cool idea at the time. I wouldn’t want to say that I was freaked out when I got there, but I realised that I’m a city person, the quiet really made my head spin around. I got kind of paranoid, even though it’s a lovely place, when you’re by yourself your mind can play all sorts of tricks on you. If I hadn’t been in Texas, I probably wouldn’t have written those lyrics. It’s supposed to be a “humorous song”, not too terribly serious.
The next song would be Sucker for the Witch. That’s a song that’s part-true back when I’d go to Salem, Massachusetts when I was a kid. My parents brought me there and I did encounter the daughter of one of the local Wiccan practitioners. I’ve always thought about that ever since and that’s what inspired the song. I’m just wondering why I’m always obsessing on these powerful female figures, like some sort of self-psychoanalysis I guess.
Your love is Incarceration is a thematically odd one for Clutch. We don’t have that many songs with the word “love” in it, we sing about cars and… monsters and whatnot (laughs). That was another Tongue-in-cheek song using the very old and familiar theme of bad relationships, which is something I had been trying to shy away from because it’s been done so much. That was sort of an untapped subject for us, which is why I was attracted to it. It’s not true, I’m in a lovely relationship with my wife. When she heard the lyrics, she was like “what is this all about?” but it was more like having a laugh really.
I’ve noticed that a lot of songs on the album deal with strong female characters, was this an intentional theme for the album?I realised it about halfway through writing the record. I was a couple into the record and I asked myself “Am I doing too much of this?”, but then I realised that for whatever subconscious reason I would keep on thinking about this. Maybe it’s because it’s a subject that I haven’t addressed much in 20 years, only here and there sporadically. I would always be like “Ew, I don’t want to talk about that, that’s too personal, it’s been done so many times”, but I realised that you can “reinvent it”. I don’t think that it’s indicative of anything personal, but rather of a new subject matter that I hadn’t really touched on. I realised that personal relations was sort of an untapped subject, and it became sort of an undiscovered cash of ideas.
Doom Saloon is one track but it’s really an intro to Our Lady of Electric Light. It’s just guitar, to put words on it would have probably destroyed it; it has to be its own atmosphere. It’s got this classic American Western style and chord progression. It had been its own entity for a while but then we attached it to Our Lady of Electric Light, it seemed to set the mood: being in 3/4 and a slower ballad, it’s mostly about building an atmosphere rather than aggression or technicality. It’s moody.
Building unto Our Lady of Electric Light, I think it’s kind of a song that’s about limbo, which is a subject I often think about. It works its way into my lyrics someway or another, whether it’s figurative limbo or alcoholism or being homeless or being in between relationships … when you don’t know where you are, in between point A and point B. It can be a very exciting thing but it can also be frightening, and that’s what I envision in that song. The bar flies in that saloon get a visitation from a supernatural being, which is another thing that I liberally stole from David Lynch (laugh).
Noble Savage originally had a working title of “Motörhead” before I wrote lyrics to it because it had a classic progression, tempo and drum beat that is classic Motörhead. When I listened to it, I thought there’s only so many subjects you can write about in this style of music, the most obvious one for me being Rock n’ Roll. I love Rock n’ Roll songs that talk about Rock n’ Roll songs (laughs). Its fun, it’s self referential and it’s a motivational speech in some ways. In a nutshell, the lyrics are about when I have to explain myself about what I do for a living. I’m in my forties, I’m a dad, I meet people in the playground because of my kids and whatnot and I hear people saying they work for this or that and when they ask me what I do I’m like “Aw shit, I’m a singer in a Rock band”. Sometimes people look at you like you’re batshit crazy, but I sort of take that as a badge of honour.
For Behold the Colossus, when I heard that classic galloping riff, that triplet feel always lends itself to songs about battle; it sounds like you’re on a horse. When I heard that I immediately regressed to my Dungeons and Dragons mind of the early 1980s’. I get to write lyrics now that I could only fantasise when I was a kid, so now I’m painting a story and this is a mini fantasy movie, at least in my mind. It’s got monsters from the classic pantheon of monsters versus humanity. You could do all sorts of analysis of that but really it’s just a Dungeons and Dragons theme for me (laugh).
Decapitation Blues is about a specific thing that happened to me. I got some surgery on my neck and had to get my spine severed and I got some bones from deceased individuals put in my neck. After I had the surgery, I started thinking that, for one, I was actually decapitated for a moment, even though it was in a controlled medical environment, and that I actually had dead people’s bones put into my neck. I started thinking about these stories about when someone gets an organ transplant and they start to pick up the habits of the people that gave their organ; like someone who suddenly starts craving fried chicken when they used to be a vegetarian. I started thinking “what if this starts happening to me?”. It’s all about conjecture though, it’s about dealing with being scared about it in a humorous way, because I think humour can be a good way to get through ugly times or scary times.
Were you ever under the suspicious that you were picking up some odd habits from your organ donors?
(Laughs). Uh no, it’s a good question… (starts thinking and scratching his magnificent beard)… I’ve stopped eating as much meat… The thing is that now they take the bones hundreds of different donors and they basically grind them up into a paste. Maybe they’re all arguing amongst themselves to a degree where I can stay true to my own habits (chuckles).
Son of Virginia is a fiction that came about by the working title of the song. On Strange Cousins from the West we had a song called Abraham Lincoln that we made an acoustic version of, and it was so different that we decided to make it its own song. So when we decided to make it a new song we needed a new title, so we just randomly called it “George Washington”. When it came to write the lyrics, I didn’t know what to write about and I started thinking about George Washington, how he was considered to be the first son of Virginia. I used that as a background to create this spooky story about a dog walking on two legs in a graveyard. I honestly don’t really know what the song is about, and that what I like; trying to figure out over months or years what I was getting at. Sometimes I write a line down and I don’t know where it came from but I just know it’s good enough to trust it and go with it. It’s probably just an interpretation of dreams and nightmares and late night fantasising.
Could you tell us a little more about your very “striking” lyrical approach? There always seems to be this catchy call-and-response, “punchline”-based dimension to them.
Well the best songs are always the ones that write themselves immediately in half an hour. I don’t really know how that happens, it’s usually very difficult. I often keep a journal on my phone, which thankfully is always around. If some random miscellaneous phrase comes to mind I’ll write it down and try to keep it in mind. I try to listen to the music and go with whatever imagery it evokes, however vague. I think that’s kind of the job of the songwriter, to wipe off the fog from the window to see what’s on the other side. I also try to pay attention to meter and rhyme and sometimes the punch-line has the best value when it doesn’t rhyme. You’re always expecting an “ABABAB” rhyming structure, but when you go “ABABAF”, it can have a stronger impact. I try to pay attention to that and I sometimes even count the meter to see if it’s in Iambic Pentameter or Trochaic …whatever. No one is going to really pay attention to that other than me and the rhythm. Jean Paul actually spend an amount of time listening to the meter of the lyrics after we did the demos to change his beats a little to make some complementary accents or ghost notes around the lyrics. I think it makes a big difference, it prevents things from getting stale.
Was there any particular approach, idea or goal when it came to writing Psychic Warfare?
I think that I first we were over-thinking it, since Earth Rocker was very successful for us. On one hand we wanted to do better but on the other hand we didn’t want to simply repeat Earth Rocker, which kind of drove me into a frenzy. Then we realised that we weren’t thinking this way when we made Earth Rocker, so we should just thinking about it and make another record. That’s the easiest way to do it. Rock n’ Roll is not science, it’s an art. It should be coming from the heart and not so much from the head. I’d rather hear a passionate sloppy performance than a technically perfect insincere performance, that’s just my personal preference.
Dan Winters did the album art. He also did the album art for our 2 first records, and he came back on and we simply told him to make the album art. He started showing us images and he brought up the cover image, which at first seems very militant, but then again it also encapsulates the spirit of the album. You’ve got an angel, who’s a supernatural, psychic and otherworldly being and then you’ve got these ridiculous turrets, which obviously represents the Warfare aspects. In the inside it get a little more trippy. I liked how the art was monochromatic, which is something we haven’t gone for recently, and I like it because it’s also open for interpretation. I don’t exactly know how every image fits with the lyrics but it’s probably for the best because I don’t want it to be too literal.
Psychic Warfare marks the third release on your own label. Has this changed things for the band as opposed to when you were signed to major record labels?
Well it’s more work, it’s an education and it requires decisions being made everyday. Then again, in this day and age with the internet, if you’re an artist of any genre in a position to sell your own records directly to your fans, I can’t see why you wouldn’t do that. The idea of signing to a label for 6 or 7 records with the hopes of becoming this huge band is very antiquated. We understand that our music isn’t for everybody, we’re only going to appeal to a certain amount of people and so it makes more sense to sell the right amount of records to the right people, maybe slowly gain a little more slowly over time. When you’re on your own terms if something goes wrong you know who’s to blame. I will say this: throughout the 1990’, we were signed to Eastwest, Atlantic… the biggest names you could imagine, but when we would come to France, no one would come to see us. No marketing, no promotion, no distribution… every record was imported so it cost a fortune to buy. The internet changed that a lot, people started to check us out on Youtube for free in their house. We got small distribution deals slowly over time and then now we put out our own records and we’re selling out clubs! (note: The show at Le Trabendo was sold out months in advance). So there’s something to be said about that; the idea of a major label becoming your patron… I think it might work for bands like One Direction, but for a band like Clutch… nah.
Would you have done things differently if you had known or do you feel like signing to major labels were a necessary step for the band?
I think that at the time it was necessary to get some kind of recognition touring-wise. Radio was not going to play our music, so we were sent on tour, which is fine because we love playing live, but we wouldn’t have been able to do that without tour support from these labels. We wouldn’t have been able to go on tour with Sepultura and Slayer had they not helped us do that. It took us ten to twelve years of doing that until we were finally able to do that on our own without their help. In a way we kind of feel like we used them and not the other way around.
Are there any plans to reissue some of your previous releases? Elephant Riders has been out of print for a few years now for example.
Sadly, we can’t because we don’t own the masters. The best that we can do would be to re-record or wait 75 years (laughs), and I don’t know if we’ll be still around at least not in this body. Maybe I’ll be downloaded unto an artificial intelligence server farm somewhere (laughs).
Your lyrics tend to revolve around the supernatural and extraterrestrial phenomena on this new record. What is your perspective and your beliefs on the subject? I’ve heard that you used to rehearse right next to a military base, which tend to be rife with rumours and stories about supernatural and extraterrestrial activities.
Actually we still do rehearse there. It’s the US army’s main chemical weapon’s manufacturer and storage facility unfortunately, which is very unnerving (laughs). You always pay attention to which way the wind is blowing (laughs). We live in the Washington D.C suburbs, so the U.S government is a very present force, and without getting into politics too much because there are a lot of ugly aspects to it, I’ll say that it’s been a very cool place to grow up. There was strong punk rock and hardcore scene in Washington D.C and those were all local bands for us at the time, and we took it for granted at the time but now I realise how cool it really was: all of those Dischord bands, Fugazi, Bad Brains… we wouldn’t have had that if we had grown up somewhere else.
As far as the supernatural goes, I treat it as a great source of information to put into songs. Sure, I could tell you tons of stories, but sometimes time has a way of making you question yourself where you end up asking yourself if you really did remember it that way. The mind is a powerful thing, and I sometimes ask myself where the action lies; inside, outside, someplace in between… if that makes sense.
I’d like you to finish this story for me “I haven’t told this to anyone before and I probably shouldn’t, but…”
(Chuckles and scratches his beard, pensive) Wow there are so many to chose from… When we were tracking Elephant Riders, I was staying by myself in our band house, which was about 300 years old. I was singing Ship of Gold and I stopped the tape and I heard a voice out in the woods mocking me, yelling back the same line, and there were no neighbours… I ran into the house, turned off all of the lights and I sat by the door with a rusty and dull hatchet and a BB Gun, which is a useless instrument, not knowing what I would do with either of them. I just waited there until the sun came out. It was the only evening I was by myself in the house. The house had a very bloody history in the Civil War and that was the one time I spent by myself there and that was the LAST time I stayed there by myself. If I knew everyone was leaving I would drive out for an hour and a half to my parents’ house to crash on their couch because it was too damn scary. It was a great place to have a band house though, there were no neighbours so you could do whatever you wanted.. and rent was cheap (laugh)
Could you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books
One of my favourite books would be Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, who’s most famous for writing what became No Country For Old Men. Blood Meridian is phenomenal.
My favourite album… to this day Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon is still my favourite record because it stands the test of time, I don’t get tired of it. In terms of new albums that I’m listening to, there’s a band called Icebreaker who redid Brian Eno’s Apollo record for the guitar, and I can’t stop listening to that. It’s kind of the opposite of what we do and that must be what I like about it, it’s very soothing.
In terms of movies, I loved Ex Machina I thought it was a fantastic movie. Other than that, the movies that I can watch over and over again are Alien, Blade Runner…
I think Philip K. Dick in general is an influence. I like how he’s always questioning what is real and what isn’t, his characters are always caught in between the two. When the real and the unreal collide, that’s always where the action is. I think he’s a prophetic writer, the things he wrote about 30 year ago are only now becoming a real thing: things like predictive crime and whatnot… it’s frightening and very interesting at the same time.
A huge huge thank you goes out to Matt, Stefan and to Neil for making this possible and for their incredible hospitality.