By Martin Popoff
So admits consummate CLUTCH wordsmith Neil Fallon upon the occasion of the band's fast and hard-hitting new record called Earth Rocker, even if he is referring to subtleties on the album's cosmic cover art and not the top-shelf hand-crafted rock behind it.
And make no mistake, Clutch works hard to make it sound easy, as is evidenced by Fallon's answer when asked what went down different this time to past recent records. "Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that Machine, who we worked with for this record, one of his main focuses is preproduction, and we spent a great deal of time taking everything that we’d written and kind of concentrating it and micromanaging it, putting it under a microscope. And that allowed us, when we went into the studio, to kind of concentrate more on performances as opposed to remembering the parts. And in a lot of ways, we recorded the record twice. We did it once in preproduction as a demo, very lo-fi, and then we did it again under better conditions. And it made it go by quick too, because we didn’t have to discuss what we were going to do when we were in the studio, because we already knew what we were going to do."
"Machine has a very kind of intense recording philosophy," continues Fallon. "The way I record vocals, he’s in the room with me, no more than two feet away, and I did all the vocals on a Shure SM7B microphone, which is about a $300 microphone, and in the past I’ve sung into $3000 Neumann microphones, and this one was a tenth of the price and it sounded pretty good. Other than that, I think this record is, at first glance, very straightforward. It sounds like the band is right there in the room with you, but upon closer listen, there are a lot of very subtle things happening in the background."
But Earth Rocker is quick and to-the-point as well, represented as such by the slammin' title track. "Yes, well, we knew before we even started preproduction that we wanted this record to be approximately the same length as your classic LP vinyl. And those albums are constructed with a side A/side B kind of blueprint, which I think works very well for a listening experience. People’s attention spans, I think, that’s optimal--40 to 45 minutes. CDs came out and of all of a sudden everybody wanted to fill it up because you can do 76 minutes, and you ended up with a lot of filler. To this day, the best records ever made are pretty short--your LED ZEPPELIN III, and your Dark Side Of The Moon, are not very long."
"And we knew we wanted to record a faster record. And we wanted to make a more aggressive record, but when I say aggressive, I don’t mean in a negative or violent way. Passionate is a better word. It’s a confident record. There’s not a lot of pussyfooting going on. But at the same time, I think, we wanted to make it a sum greater than its parts."
But the band left space for... guitar solos! Explains Neil, "Tim and solos have always been a kind of love/hate relationship. When this band first started out, a personal mission statement of ours was that we weren’t going to have guitar solos. So that changed pretty quickly. And I think with him, he just thinks--and I agree with him--a lot of guitar solos are just there for the sake of being there, and don’t serve much musical purpose. I’m speaking in broad terms here. So I think he just wanted to make each one count, and in the end, he did a great job doing that."
Like the fine catalogue reaching back into the past, Earth Rocker finds Neil studding the album with storytelling and characters, always characters, which, quite deliberately, come to life through his vocal choices. "I think they have to. It’s easy to write in the first person, an assumed character, but when you actually have to verbalize it, that’s a different monster altogether, and I kind of play head games with myself, like yeah, at least for these three to four minutes, I’m that person, and I’m the world’s foremost expert on whatever subject I’m singing about. When those three or four minutes are over, then that ends. And you know, it is self-indulgent, but that’s half the fun.
As for his famous "bellow," amusingly present in the chorus to the record's title track, "I just kind of gravitated towards that, ended up doing it, and you know... let me back up a little. When we first started out, we were a hardcore band, and I think back then I had the kind of adolescent naivety that melody was a bad thing, that if you had melody, then you are obviously commercial. And I’ve since learned that that’s just not the case. And I early on gravitated towards people like TOM WAITS, and maybe more recently, a voice like LEONARD COHEN’s, where these guys, they may not have the most beautiful singing voices in the world, but there’s a quality in it; and the sincerity--that is its own kind of beauty. And at least I hope I can get an ounce of that into what I do. Another example not in the world of hard rock was Chuck D from PUBLIC ENEMY, which I listened to religiously in high school in the early ‘90s, and he had that same kind of core quality. And people sometimes say, you look like a preacher up on stage there, or you sound like preacher up on stage, and I guess I can understand where they’re coming from. But I think that’s because the blues guys that I listened to and I liked are emulating a gospel sound, if you want to talk historically. I’m certainly not trying to be that, but that’s what I listened to, and that’s what leaks into my delivery."
As usual, Clutch comes up with some sweet cover art to go with the timeless heavy jams enclosed. "We were wrestling with calling this record either Crucial Velocity or Earth Rocker," explains Neil. "And we were having a hard time coming up with images that looked like Crucial Velocity; they all ended up looking like Boston records, which are great cover art, but it’s not for us. And then Nick (Lakiotes) came up with this image, and he just looked like the Earth Rocker. It just kind of fell into place. If there’s a face that’s Earth Rocker, that him. We wanted something that was powerful and transcendent and had kind of a calm sense of power, without being threatening. You know, a lot of heavy metal records use... it just looks like the cover for a horror DVD. And I guess it’s always been that way, but that’s not us. We wanted something a bit more ethereal than that, and I like album art that you can kind of stare at and lose yourself in, and he did a great job of it."
As for the space-age touches to the otherwise olden and beholden American Indian theme... "Yeah, that was... there’s a song of the record called 'The Face', and I think he was vibing on that quite a bit. I’m a science fiction dork, and I definitely pushed Nick to do that. I sent him some album covers. Two album covers that we were really digging on were BLACK SABBATH’s Never Say Die, and Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy. Although they aren’t their most popular records, I love that kind of surreal science fiction aesthetic of those album arts. And we were trying to grasp onto that a little bit."
"I do notice the climate seems to be a lot more positive and welcoming to us than it was ten years ago," reflects Fallon in closing, asked if the band has created a unique niche for themselves, partially through their uniqueness, partially by just sticking around and staying serious about it for so long. "For many years, you know, people say, they described us as a cult band, and that’s fine. I think that means very little to the person that’s a fan of the band. Clutch fans are very possessive of us, and that’s a great thing, as a position to be in. One of the worst things that can ever happen to a band is to have a smash hit. It usually breaks up a band very quickly. Obviously we never had that cross to bear, and we built up our fan base through word-of-mouth and touring. And it took a long, long time to do it, but because of it, it’s that much stronger of a structure, and it’ll last longer, hopefully."
"It’s always going to be us; it’s always going to sound like Clutch, but we’ve tried different things. Some people said, oh, I wish you’d be more like your first records, or your self-titled and get away from this blues stuff. And then people hear the new material, and they say well, I kind of like the blues stuff a little bit more. But they’re still fans of the band, and that’s a healthy thing. It’s a great position to be in. Fans talk about us just, you know, what they’re listening to, or what their favourite T-shirt is from what tour. And that counts for a lot, because we put in a lot of years. And to be able to bring somebody some happiness, or some joy to their life, that’s the whole point, I think."