From bastardized binary to howling at the moon…from storming the Canadian border to life inside the biosphere, I can hardly think of a musician, aside from Clutch’s Neil Fallon, who can suck me in with just a few words and have me hanging on every syllable.
For those maybe not so ‘in-the-know’ Neil is something of a furious tentshow revivalist preacher meets blues-shouting prophet and wordslinger. Much like Tom Waits, the only vaguely comparable performer I can think of, Neil casts a rather lengthy shadow across the face of modern music. His is a voice to last the ages.
As I write this, I’ve been a Clutch fan for going on two decades (yeah, friends…we’re getting up there, aren’t we?), and thankfully the music just keeps getting better and better. Each new album release date is a day I mark on the calendar and await with glee.
And how could I not love a man who has mentioned the names of one of my daughters and my wife in the lyrics of his songs (Weezy and Isabella)?
This interview came about by chance. A wee while back I saw a link Neil posted on Twitter to a short clip with Scottish actor, Brian Cox, pronouncing Lagavulin. I replied asking Neil if he was a Scotch drinker, and a fan of Lagavulin in particular. “To a fault, sir,” was his reply. We shared a few messages afterwards in which he graciously agreed to share a little time discussing whisky, music and…well…wherever else the conversation leads.
So…let’s see where it goes then…
All Things Whisky: First things first. Exceptional taste aside, why Lagavulin?
Neil Fallon: I have a hazy recollection of first being introduced to Islay malt at a bar in Scotland some years ago. When I got back to the U.S., Lagavulin was the most readily available and I’ve been a fan ever since.
ATW: For a lot of people a drink as bold as Lagavulin is something of an acquired taste. Is this what you cut your teeth on or was there a bit of a ‘ramping up’ to get to where you were appreciating the hefty smoke and earthy notes of Islay whisky?
NF: Prior to going to Scotland with the band, my knowledge of Scotch was little more than Dewar’s straight up, Dewar’s on the rocks, or Dewar’s and soda. That’s what my grandpa drank and I think I associate it with some fond memories. I wish I could remember the name of the bar that opened up the single malt rabbit hole. There was a maelstrom of single malts flying around for the better part of an evening. I hope you’ll understand my inability to recall the details of that particular night. I do remember that it was an epiphany, though. The range of tastes were remarkable and of all of those, it was the Islay that really got me. It was a cold night and it tasted like a seaside bonfire.
ATW: Can you share a couple other favorite distilleries or particular whiskies (Scotch, bourbon, rye, what-have-you)?
NF: A friend of mine Chis Hadnagy (author of “Social Engineering – That Art of Human Hacking” and someone you should interview) introduced me to an amazing 25 y.o. Speyside, Glen Deveron. I’m not a big fan of bourbon or rye.
ATW: Can you recall what got you into whisky, or which dram was your first? Was it a positive experience at the time?
NF: It was probably at a Christmas party in the 1970’s when I accidentally helped myself to some of my grandfather’s Dewar’s. Heavily diluted, of course.
ATW: Does a good whisky ever really fit into life on the road, or is it more of a downtime sort of drink when at home and in between road jaunts?
NF: I suppose it’s for the best that most single malts are expensive. The cost prohibitiveness discourages it from becoming a regular on the band’s rider. For the better part of the 90’s I drank myself silly with Jack Daniels. I can’t stand the stuff now. Gives me hives. No joke. A single proper malt demands to be sipped and not lipped in some absurd back stage circus. I can’t do that anymore. The body doesn’t process overindulgence like it used to.
ATW: Speaking of home… you’re a family man now, I believe. How does this affect your writing cycles? I have two daughters at home, and know firsthand how hard it is sometimes to pick up a guitar. Do you have to block off time for writing and playing or does your creativity still have a sort of natural flow to it?
NF: Prior to parenthood, I thought that having a kid would be the death knell of the creative life. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The process of raising a child and having to answer countless questions about the world we live in has been a real boon. Yes, it is harder to find time to dedicate to writing. I have to do that between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. when my son is at school. But the structure is for the best. An open ended deadline is a lazy man’s best friend. I used to write into the wee hours of the night, but that just doesn’t work any more. There’s no negotiating with a 5 year old.
ATW: I saw an interview on youtube not long ago, posted by kidsinterviewbands.com. In true Southern gentleman style, you volleyed questions and answers with the young lady interviewer with class and tact. As a fan, it was a pleasure to see such a refreshingly down-to-earth approach and lack of pretention. Is something like this a bit of a welcome respite from what I imagine is the tedium of a rather formulaic interview process?
NF: I’ve done countless interviews with black clad metal journalists that pride themselves on being “extreme.” But I’ll tell ya, that interview had me squirming. I think I said “Ummmmmm…” more times in that interview than all others combined.
Kids aren’t impressed or trying to be anything that they’re not and I think that was what was so refreshing about that particular interview.
ATW: From the first Clutch concert I attended in 1995 (opening for Marilyn Manson at the New York Theater in Vancouver) to the most recent (headlining here in Calgary at Flames Central) for Earth Rocker, it is interesting to note that the energy has remained consistently high throughout the years, but that the vibe has shifted from one of a more intense and brooding nature to one of a more crowd-bouncing shout-along. Is this simply natural progression or conscious evolution?
NF: It’s a natural progression. We’ve never premeditated our music. It’s a simple process of trying to write music that we enjoy playing. Having said that, a good deal of our early stuff isn’t exactly us anymore. There’s a lot of anger in the early work and frankly, I’m not an angry person. I’d rather risk disillusioning some folks while being honest than keep them satisfied by jumping through the same hoops. There’s some bands out there that have been “angry” for 25 plus years. That just has to be a drag.
ATW: It’s arguable that no one in contemporary music is writing lyrics with as much wordplay, far-reaching and pertinent references and relevant cultural observation (albeit often quite cryptically) than yourself. I won’t ask the ‘inspiration’ question, but I will ask if there are a couple of songs you can reflect back on now (in all modesty) and say ‘fuck, that was brilliant bit of writing’?
NF: Ha.. that’s hard for me to answer without sounding like a jerk. There’s always something I wish I had done better or had not done at all. But I can think of two songs that are dear to me in that I think they represent important shifts in the band’s sound. “Big News” was a bit of a watershed moment. After that song, I felt it was much easier to write songs that had a lot more fun and humor in them. The other song would be “The Regulator.” That song opened up the door to a lot of more blues elements for us. It was also one of those fortunate moments where the lyrics seemed to match the mood of the music quite well.
ATW: Over the last couple of years (at least in the circles I travel) Clutch has become much more of a household name, with many immediately referencing a pivotal scene from the AMC’s The Walking Dead. This particular scene could not have been more perfectly set, with possibly the band’s most atmospheric tune thus far, The Regulator, perfectly capturing the emotion. How did your involvement with The Walking Dead come about? Did you, as a band have direct say in green-lighting the use of the song? Are you a fan of the series? The genre?
NF: I was a fan of the show before I got the call that they wanted to use “The Regulator.” I was stoked, to say the least. It came about by our publicist shopping the song around. These days TV shows and video games are just as important as terrestrial radio, if not more so.
ATW: Alright. Time for some cold, hard honesty. I gotta ask a question (mostly because a bunch of my mates begged me to) even though I’m sure it’s been beaten to death already. All the guys wanna know…how does the beard go down with the ladies? Or at the very least…with the one lady that matters most to you?
NF: Heh. I’ve never asked. But I will say this… I’d love to lop the damn thing off, but I’m afraid of what I might find underneath.
ATW: Let’s go back to one or two about the malts to close out, if you don’t mind…Imagine, if you will, you’re sitting down one eve to relax over a good book and an even better whisky. What are they?
NF: I like Glenkinchie 12. I think poetry is easier to handle if booze is involved. With that in mind, I would go for Dylan Thomas or W.H. Auden.
ATW: Finally…how about a good whisky and album pairing?
NF: I’ve never been too much of a Bruce Springsteen fan, but I’ve recently discovered the melancholy brilliance of “Nebraska.” So if we’re in the mood to brood… let’s go Islay. I tried Bowmore’s White Sands recently. That would go well with an album as dark as “Nebraska.”
ATW: Sincere thanks, Neil, for taking the time. Perhaps next time through town you’ll have a chance to come out for a few drams of something brilliant, old and rare. I’m sure we can find a couple on the shelves that will suit a Southern gent. Slainte.
NF: Again, apologies for taking so long to get this to you. Slainte.
Clutch releases ‘Psychic Warfare’ this September. Mark the calendar. And if you don’t already own it…buy ‘Blast Tyrant’ while you’re there. You’ll thank me.
– Words: Curt and Neil
– Photos: Curt (except as noted)