Clutch is a slick beast of blues-infused stomp-rock, two decades deep into a Zappa-meets-Sabbath-on-acid spin that's earned them a reputation as one of the most cerebral, technically proficient and quick-witted bands on the circuit.
Their latest album, Earth Rocker, is an 11-song collection of pure piston-pumping juggernaut uppercuts. No fat, no hesitation, just raw muscle with a cocked-eyebrow smirk. These are men in their forties, swinging like an '86 Mike Tyson – if Tyson had a sense of humor.
We tracked down vocalist and lyrical maestro Neil Fallon to discuss the new album, and find out how a band can make what's arguably the best album of their careers after 20 years in the game. The man who's just as inclined to drop references to Occam's Razor and "swan diving off the tongues of crippled giants" as he is to towing the rock narrative line has a booming, cavernous voice in conversation, just as on record.
Earth Rocker is an album with the kind of raw power, fast and aggressive, that one wouldn't expect twenty years into this. The jam band element isn't really there at all. Do you still relate to the creative space of a song like Spacegrass, 18 years later?
Sure, I think we do. We took a long period of time between Strange Cousins and this record. Strange Cousins was kind of a mid-tempo record overall, kind of a dark record, at least for me. We felt instinct and compulsion to write a fast and efficient rock n' roll record.
Not to say that the other ones were wishy washy, but we really wanted to focus our energy on this one moreso than we have in the past.
Given that you recorded all your pieces individually in the studio, something new for you guys, did the writing process take place in the same Clutch fashion?
As far as the initial creative process, that's the same now as it was in 1992. Someone plays a riff and we learn it, and Jean Paul plays a beat to it, and everyone waits for me to write lyrics. Or Jean Paul plays a beat and maybe that inspires something. But what's different with this record, and we did this with Blast Tyrant to a degree, but we did a lot of pre-production.
We more or less did the album twice – once in pre-production as a demo, where we decided and committed to all the parts and transitions and fills and tempos. Once that was done, it allowed us to go into the studio without worrying about remembering if we play this part four times or six times…. we just went in there and concentrated on giving it as fearsome of a performance as we could.
You said a while back that "if you're trying to remember it, then you're not playing from the heart — you're playing from the brain. That always sounds stale on playback.”
It's true. I think musicians are maybe more sensitive to their own playing than someone else is, but personally I'd rather hear a record where the tempos might swing wildly but you can tell they're just playing their hearts out rather than 'well, this is perfectly executed.' Perfection is boring, I think.
Some of the acoustic experiments you guys were messing around with over the past couple years. I remember seeing you at Bonnaroo in 2010 when you played that acoustic set. People had no idea how to handle it. It was awesome. Did any of that build the momentum towards a song as stripped as "Gone Cold"?
For sure. I think if we hadn't done that, "Gone Cold" wouldn't exist. I play electric, just cleaner. It's much more intimidating because you don't have distortion to duct tape your loose parts. It's very honest. It's just as much of a skill to learn how to play quietly or conservatively as it is to play hard and fast. So that was a really good exercise.
"Gone Cold" calls back to "Regulator" – would it be lazy to draw a comparative line?
No, I definitely was aware of that. The main reason is that the guitar line is a very similar finger picking style, the instrumental guitar part. I think the rest is a little more akin to Funkadelic. But the part you're talking about, we do have that kind of back and forth bassline on a guitar – it's very similar.
The track is going to surprise a lot of fans…
Yeah, that was the idea. Usually when we write a record and we listen to it, we'll say what else do we need to write? And the answer is usually that we need to write some fast thrashers. This time around we realized we needed to write a slow song to throw into the middle of this thing. So that's how the song came about.
Would you say that there's a thematic thread connecting the songs?
A very loose one, if that. I definitely went into this saying let's not overthink this record. I wanted to make more of a fun record than, say, Strange Cousins – at least lyrically. If there was any common theme, it was sort of commenting on rock n' roll. Not in an overly specific way, but it's our participation in rock n' roll. The older I get, the more appreciative I am of that.
You recorded 14 songs, but only 11 on the record – do you plan on letting the other 3 out into the wild?
Yeah we recorded 14, and three didn't make it on the album. I would imagine they'll come out, I don't know whether it'll be a re-release or just as B-sides in the future. They're great songs, I just think we really were committed to keeping this record in classic LP length.
I think there's something to be said about the fact that you've got a side A and side B, and it still translates when you listen to those albums on CD. Whether you're listening to Paranoid or Dark Side of The Moon, when you listen to the tracks one through ten, there's a bit of a plot arc. I think we were cognizant of that when we were putting this thing together.
Pick up Eath Rocker and keep up with Clutch at their official site.
Johnny Firecloud is the Music Editor for CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnnyFirecloud.