Alan Daly spoke to Clutch Frontman Neil Fallon in Dublin on the final date of their Earth Rocker world tour on May 9th.
Alan: Welcome to Dublin. You’ve been here before, but it’s been a while…
Neil: Yeah. I don’t recall the exact date. It’s been at least eight years.
Alan: Yeah, I believe it was the Ambassador in 2005.
Neil: Sounds right. That’s nine. So I was close!
Alan: Before that, you played Whelan’s in 2003, and 2001. So it’s been a while, and the show tonight is sold out since February, so your fans have obviously been waiting for you to come back. Did you expect tickets to sell out so quickly?
Neil: No! We debated whether or not we should move it to a bigger club. It’s been frustrating for us to get over here. We know there’s people who want to come and see us. But logistically, something has always come up. Sometimes it’s cheaper to fly out of London and end a tour there. The way the itinerary works, it was just difficult for us to get over here. But I certainly would like to do this more regularly.
Alan: Yeah. And maybe even a bigger venue, like the Olympia.
Neil: I think we played there with Therapy?
Alan: I had a look through your recent setlists and I notice that you have good variety in the setlists. Every night looks completely different. Not a lot of bands do that these days. It’s refreshing to see variation. How do you choose which songs to play each night?
Neil: We do have a system. One band member writes it, and we go through alphabetical order. The first day Dan writes it, the next day Jean-Paul, third day me, fourth day Tim, and then back to Dan. There’s an unwritten rule that if we’re gonna play a song that we haven’t played in some time, everyone gets fair warning, before sound check. You can listen to it on your iPod, and practice it during the sound check. The idea of doing the same set night after night would make me insane. I think that’s when I, and anyone in the band, would start day-dreaming. You’re just not thinking about it, and that’s usually when mistakes happen. I like the fear of not knowing a song too well. That’s usually when the best performances happen.
Alan: Yeah. Many bands take the easy way, and just stick to a formulaic setlist rigidly…
Neil: Yeah, that’s lazy, to a degree. But sometimes I think bigger bands become slaves to their production. Whether it be the lighting, or we have to do this song this way or that way. And then it becomes less musical.
Alan: And do you ever oblige fan requests? Say at encore time, if the crowd are chanting for a particular song?
Neil: Sometimes. Yeah. If it seems like the whole crowd wants one song that we know how to play. I’d rather not do it than massacre it! Yeah, sure!
Alan: So; Earth Rocker has been out for twelve months now. Album of the year from Metal Hammer, and ranked highly in Rolling Stone and other publications. How does it feel to have created such a successful album?
Neil: I won’t lie: It’s nice! It’s vindication. I knew we were making a fun record and that I liked it, but by the end of the process, I’m usually deaf to the record, and I can’t make head nor tails of it. And having put that out on our own record label, was nice vindication. That we were able to do that ourselves and receive critical appeal. It was heartening after twenty-something-odd years.
Alan: You mentioned your own record label there; Weathermaker. Why did you set up your own label? Looking back over your discography I see at least nine different labels over the years. So why the constant flux? And why create your own now?
Neil: We were signed to major record labels in the 1990’s, when every major label was signing every band that they could that remotely resembled Nirvana. That’s the long and short of it. And major labels are in the business of selling platinum records, and millions of records. We were never that band. And most bands aren’t. And nowadays, an artist can reach their fans with virtually no middle people involved. And because of the internet, bands that don’t play very commercial music can find that niche much more easily than say ten, fifteen years ago. We’re a much smaller entity than, let’s say Columbia or Atlantic, but that works to our advantage. It’s not about selling the most records. It’s about printing up the right amount and getting it to the right people. And communication and really dialling it in. We’ve had more success on this tour on our own label than at any time prior with any of the major labels.
Alan: So do you attribute some of the success of Earth Rocker to putting it out on your own label?
Neil: Yeah, well if something goes wrong, we know who to blame. It’s ourselves, and we can fix it. And I also attribute some of it, honestly, to file-sharing, because people can say “Hey, check out this band” very easily and very freely. Sure; you’re selling less records, but I know, immediately when file-sharing started, that’s when our shows started getting bigger. And I can’t think of any other reason that I can attribute that to. Usually people still continue to buy records. Maybe not all of them. But they’ll come to the show and buy a T-shirt and a ticket. That works for us.
Alan: Yeah. I know it’s ancient history now, but how do you feel about the whole Napster controversy, with the likes of Metallica spear-heading the campaign to shut down file-sharing? You seem to be very much in the other camp, in the belief that file-sharing helped your music.
Neil: I didn’t really come to that conclusion until I had the luxury of hindsight. I didn’t know what to make of it when it was happening. It’s still changing. Now the world is streaming; digital sales are declining, believe it or not; vinyl sales are increasing. And I think that is due to streaming. You can’t really change the world. And maybe Metallica thought they could. But that’s just because when you have so much success sometimes, reality gets a little warped. But I understand where they’re coming from. At first it was stealing. And I would take that personally too. But we weren’t selling any records! There was nothing to steal! [laughs]
Alan: Was it a lot of hassle to set up your own label? And do you think it’s something other bands should consider?
Neil: Absolutely. What you need is a good manager. Someone to answer the phone every day and make decisions about marketing. Because we’re not really well versed in that, out of the box. We’re learning more every day. I think it’s just a matter of being honest with one’s self. If you’re thinking you’re a band that’s going to change the world, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. You would be doing yourself a disservice if you have the means to do it, and you don’t. I would even go so far as to say that if a band can set up their own streaming service with their own music, then do that too. Exclude as many people between the fan and yourself as possible. That’s the bridge.
Alan: That’s good advice. So, you were off the road, in hospital, for a brief period last year due to an injury. How are you feeling now? Are you back on form?
Neil: Yeah, I feel good. I just gotta carry a yoga mat around with me now and do stretches. I had to get a titanium plate and six screws put into my neck here. It was just something that slowly developed over time. It was scary, and I would rather not to have done it, but it was one of those things that since it worked out well; it was a bit of a wake-up call. You take your body for granted, and you take your health for granted. And when these things happen, it kind of slaps you back in line, and you know you’re not invincible.
Alan: A childhood injury was mentioned as part of the official press statement. Would you care to elaborate on that?
Neil: I wish I could, because I don’t know! The doctor looked at the MRI and said “You had a really nasty neck injury when you were a kid”. The laundry list of stupid things I did as a child is so long, I couldn’t narrow it down. It was probably something involving a skateboard. My father had some spine issues, and then probably, I never considered myself much of a head-banger, but I’m sure I did. Which didn’t help the situation. My left arm started going to sleep; then my left leg. The doctor said “well you can live with it, but if you get rear-ended the wrong way, you could lose everything from the neck down”, so I thought; let’s just take care of this.
Alan: It’s good to hear you’re looking after your health. I’d like to discuss some of your Irish influences and connections. You’ve toured with Thin Lizzy and cite drummer Brian Downey as an influence on Earth Rocker. Do you rate Thin Lizzy high in your list of influences?
Neil: Yeah, and I think it’s one of those things that I probably didn’t realise it until later on. I would hear their major radio hits all the time, and maybe not pay that much attention to it because it was all-pervasive. And when you get a bit older with the luxury of hindsight, you can listen to things in a different way. And we did a Motörhead tour and a Thin Lizzy tour almost back-to-back, and listened to both of those bands in a different way. These are artists that, when they were kids, they went to see artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. So you could see that lineage, and that was pretty educational. Instead of saying “This is the band that does Ace of Spades” and “This is the band that does The Boys are Back in Town”; it’s much bigger than that. And very humbling.
Alan: Sure. Another Irish connection is the band Therapy? from Northern Ireland, who you provided guest vocals for on one of their albums. How did that come about?
Neil: They took us out on the tour for Suicide Pact and that was a really big tour for us, because prior to that we had toured with Sepultura and that was a very different crowd. They were recording in Seattle, and we did a show in Seattle and they asked us to come to the studio, and we did. Great guys; we saw them just the other day in Manchester or Newcastle. I think they are out there recording.
Alan: The song you worked on was called ‘Joey’; a tribute to motor cycling legend Joey Dunlop who was also from Northern Ireland. Did the choice of song have any particular significance for you?
Neil: No. That was just the song they were working on. The whole thing happened very quickly, and it was more of a spoken-word thing really.
Alan: Yeah, and I believe Tim [Sult, Clutch guitarist] was involved also?
Neil: I think they wanted a ridiculous American accent at the top. Because on the tour,we had a running joke of “Gentlemen, start your axes” during sound-check. It’s really not that funny out of context. They asked us to do that, and Tim played a slide part which sounded like an engine accelerating.
Alan: I suppose that was appropriate for the Joey Dunlop tribute. So, you’ve been playing with Tim, Jean-Paul and Dan since the formation of Clutch, but before that, Roger Small provided vocals in the “Glut Trip” days. I understand Roger was friends with the guys, and chose to focus on his studies rather than pursue a career in music. Do you ever see him any more?
Neil: I bump into his at shows every once in a while. I went to see the Budos Band last year, and I saw him. We’re on good terms. I’ve never asked him, but I have a feeling that he was kind of relieved. I think he enjoyed being in a band recording, but I don’t think he enjoyed being a frontman. It does take some getting used to if it’s not what your inclination is, and JP, Dan and Tim were dead-set; “We’re going to tour”. He’s more of a homebody. I get it.
Alan: I wondered if he ever thought back on his decision to further his studies rather than play music, and then twenty five years later, his bandmates have album of the year…
Neil: Yeah, that’s only if you look at the here and now, because between 1994 and 2004 there were some very lean years of living hand-to-mouth, and that was the crucible. I mean, I even asked myself if I made the right decision because I’m reaching the age that I can’t just hit the reset button, and say I want to be this or that. Those opportunities dwindle down. So I just stuck to it until I had no other option but to stay with it.
Alan: Now with the record label, maybe you could turn your focus more towards helping other bands? Like how you have brought Lionize out on tour with you this time, and you’re helping them along the way.
Neil: I don’t think we have any intentions of becoming a label that goes out and seeks bands to sign, unless it seems very natural and a no-brainer. Because we don’t want to be the bad guys on the other side of the desk. It’s also a very delicate operation, because a lot of these people who we are friends with in bands, we want to help, but sometimes that help gets confused as doing a favour. And to be in a legitimate business, you can’t run on favours. You have to profit. So it’s a bit schizophrenic for us, because we don’t want to be profiteers on other peoples’ talents, but we also want to keep in mind that when we’re 65 years old, we’re not going to be wanting to be on a tour bus. Or maybe we will! [laughs]
Alan: Well, Black Sabbath are still at it. The Rolling Stones are still at it…
Neil: Yeah, I wonder what kind of mattress they have on it. I bet they have good ones.
Alan: One final thing I wanted to bring up is something that I’m sure you’ve been asked a hundred times, and it’s based on your song ‘10001110101’. I have an interest in mathematics and my curiosity has gotten the better of me. First of all; is there a meaning behind it?
Neil: Well, there is no binary translation, if that’s what you’re getting at. I honestly had no idea about the kind of subculture of people who are into binary code, but I quickly found out about it. People were using all of these workarounds to find some hidden meaning. But it was purely rhythmical. Like two bongos; one has a higher note and one has a lower note, and that was your one and your zero. Had I known, I may have tried to put something in there. But interestingly enough; and this really split my wig. There’s a bridge that I drive under almost every day, and had years prior to ever recording that song. Sometimes you get stuck in traffic there, and there’s a Maryland State Department of Transport stencil; every bridge has a number; and it was on one of these supporting columns. And I just happened to look over, only a few months ago, and there was that pattern almost to the T. I think it had a couple of extra one’s, but it was 1000111011111, and I was like; “Holy shit! This is probably where I got it from”, never even realising. It was a subconscious image. I could have just as easily said 0100011, but that’s the one I chose, and that’s probably why. It freaked me out.
Alan: Wow, that’s incredible. Well, let me tell you what I was discovered when trying to find any sort of hidden meaning in the number. It is a binary number which is equivalent to 1141 in decimal notation, which is a semiprime number. These numbers are used in cryptography. And it’s also what’s called a centred hexagonal number, which means that if you had 1141 marbles, you could form a perfect hexagon by pushing them together.
Neil: Can I tell people that was my intention? That’s awesome. I’m going to google that as soon as we’re done! So I would imagine they would get exponentially larger?
Alan: Yeah, so it’s the 20th centred hexagonal number.
Neil: That’s even better, because I have this kind of fetish with twenty-sided Dungeons & Dragons dice, so the number 20 is cool. Thank you! If I feel like I need to pass on the illusion that I’m mathematically inclined, I will steal that from you!
Alan: Glad you like it! Well, that’s all my questions. Thanks for taking the time to answer them all. Will you get to spend any time here in Dublin seeing as it’s the last date of the tour?
Neil: No. I’ve got a four year old! My wife’s been alone with our four year old for three weeks, and the idea of me just traipsing around Temple Bar is not going to go over well!
Interview by Alan Daly
Photos by Olga Kuzmenko