OD – The band has now been together for 24 years, did you ever think when you started that you would be still doing this so far down the line?
Neil – No, but I can say this. It was Jean-Paul and Tim’s vision that they were going to do music come hell or high water. I was of the mind-set that I was going to do this until I had to get that “terrible real job”. It was a foolish attitude but it was what I was told over and over again when I was a kid. I still think that some twenty odd years later, my Dad still believes that I’m going to wise up. What I can possibly do now is beyond me!
OD – Earth Rocker topped the Overdrive 2013 album of the year and is a phenomenal piece of work, there is a steady drive on this album that has elements of Blast Tyrant, did you set out to make an album that was more of a hard rock up tempo collection of compositions or did it just come about from the state of mind that you were all in during the pre-recording process?
Neil –I think there was a number of things in play here. We toured on Strange Cousins for four years and that’s a more darker slower record. Then we did two back to back tours. One with Motorhead and another with Thin Lizzy. Listening to our sets on each of those nights was really educational. We didn’t sound like either of those bands but we picked up on the philosophy of what they were doing. When we started writing, we just started writing faster songs that were more of the Blast Tyrant era, which is why we called Machine (producer) because he did “Blast Tyrant” for us. We just thought that was the right choice.
OD – Can you explain the artwork on Earth Rocker?
Neil – With all the guys out of the band, I’m the guy that really looks after the art side of things. I worked very closely with artist Nick Lakiotes who has done the artwork on Strange Cousins, Robot Hive and now Earth Rocker. I recall, there was a vague vibe of what we wanted which was something really powerful and aggressive but not something too Heavy Metal like a screaming skull! That face came from a number of things that were in play at the time.
For one, I happened to be in Detroit and there is a structure there called the Penobscot Building (see below) and it has architectural details corners, a lot of which are reference to auto companies. The building has Art Deco inspired design which was built in the 1920’s and has symmetrical designs of Indian Chef’s on each corner. I just though it looked really powerful and struck a chord with me. Also, hood ornaments from the inspiration of the motor industry are weaved throughout is really what got the ball rolling for us in terms of the design for the finished result of the Earth Rocker album.
OD –Do you approach the design of the album covers with a very specific idea or do you prefer to give 100% freedom to the artists?
Neil – Both! Nick has worked with listening the music first and at times prefers to not hear anything at all. Music can send you down a path that maybe you should not go, like a dead end. Sometimes I gave him nebulous ideas and I’m also the guy that has to say “no I don’t like that” then all of a sudden it’s like “I like that and can we expand on it”. I’m not well versed on creating art on a computer as well as Nick does but sometimes I send him ideas and sketches on a napkin for example and he will then elaborate on it.
OD – Jack White has been busy with creating a very unique and different approach to selling the vinyl format with hidden tracks in the label, and holograms etched into the record its self, would Clutch ever consider doing something like this to encourage music lovers to listen to vinyl rather than a digital format?
Neil – (Laughing) I consider the vinyl market to be a niche thing. It’s growing but you have to keep in mind that the company that I keep and probably the company that Jack White keep and the company that you keep are musically inclined people and it’s easy to think that this is what people really want. But the fact of the matter is that your average Joe has no interest in a vinyl record.
Having said that, it does give you freedom to do absurd things like that, when we did Strange Cousins, it had a massive fold out, a die cut map and a cork on the C.D. and that kind of thing you can do if your only pressing like 3,000. If your producing something like 100,000 your going to loose money. I do know that last year was the first year that digital declined and vinyl sales increased. I’m not sure if it’s going to continue but it will definitely plateau and stay stable because it’s cool. It’s definitely a cooler way to enjoy music. When you take a record and put it on, you have decided to take 45 minutes out of your day and physically interact with music. It’s not like sitting on a bus with a turntable on your lap. Streaming is definitely killing digital, I can see art going two directions your going to have the physical thing happening on vinyl because you have the surface area or square foot and probably digital art that you would get to entice people to download an animated version of the artwork.
OD –How do you get inspiration when composing lyrics or do you constantly have a stream of ideas/notebook where you document your thoughts?
Neil – I try everything I can, there is no system (laughing). I try to write things down in little memo pads. Sometimes a phrase will drop out of the sky and I don’t even know what it means but I try and work it into a song. Sometimes songs write themselves very easily and other times it can be the most frustrating thing in the world. The best songs are when the lyrics complement the mood of the music and it’s a very abstractive and tangible thing and I kind of look at a blank piece of paper as a sort of crystal ball. You can listen to the music and suddenly through the mist this movie with a very nebulous plot starts to unfold and I write a very vague screenplay for it. I probably can only justify the words being used as I’m the only one in the audience.
Writing lyrics is almost like a free license to lie and tell a story which is very liberating because no one can tell you your wrong. I might spell a few things wrong but that’s alright because it’s not a doctoral dissertation. It’s important to give the listener some meat and potatoes to sink their teeth into but if it’s so literal, it’s dead on arrival. If it’s like “this song is about this and happened on this day” then it doesn’t lend itself to the imagination. It’s good to be vague. People ask me “what does this song mean” and I never tell them.
So many people come to a book or a piece of music and are dead set on finding something. Charles Manson was set on finding a secret message in “Helter Skelter” it had not have been that song it would have been another. I know that a very extreme way of looking at it but I have heard people talk about a song and one is telling me that it’s Satanic and the other is asking me “why are you running Christianity up the flagpole”? It says more about these people than anything else.
OD – The “Earth Rocker” tour has been in full swing since last summer, do you have any stand out moments during this time that serve as a good or unpleasant memory?
Neil – If there is one example it would be our biggest show headlining last year in Greece. If you look at the sales of our album’s in Greece it’s virtually none. So we were thinking “why go to Greece?”. People do a hell of a lot of file sharing and when we turned up to the venue and it sold out 3,000 people. We went into this massive venue and they not only knew all the music from “Earth Rocker”, but they knew every other record we had done. The sing a long’s to the songs was so loud that it made it actually very difficult to perform the crowd was so, so loud. There is a huge rush from shows like that. We have been doing this for a long, long time and it’s shows like this that reminds you that we can take things for granted at times. It brings us back to when we used to be pleased that 50 or so people would turn up to our gig.
I believe that that rush is why a lot of musicians get into substance abuse because the high you get from shows is so good that you just don’t want it to go away. So you, complement in way’s that you shouldn’t.
OD – We spoke about vinyl albums earlier and artwork, do you have a specific album cover that you hold close to your heart and really admire?
Neil – Most of the Pink Floyd records really split my wigs. As a child, I remember my Dad’s collection and he had an Acid Rock record called “West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band” and it had a really classic psychedelic San Francisco, screen print, lava lamp kind of cover. I also remember being perturbed by Fleetwood Mac’s debut album from 1975, where Mick Fleetwood looks like a Dwarf, that really creeps me out for some reason.
OD – Lionize have been on this leg of the tour with you. They are also signed to the Weathermaker Label, are there any other bands that we are likely to see joining the Weathermaker roster and what are the possibilities of that band touring with you in the future?
Neil – Probably not! I’m not saying that it will never happen. But we are not of a mindset that we want to expand this as “a record label” because it’s still very much primarily a vehicle for Clutch to get our music out. We know that Lionize are going to tour like dogs and that’s half the equation. Our hang up is that we don’t want to be the jerks on the other side of the desk because we known what that’s like. We are very conservative and realistic about this.
OD – The last time you played in Ireland, you were supporting CKY in The Ambassador, if memory serves do you remember much about being in Ireland and if so what memories do you have?
Neil – I have spent much more time in the North of Ireland because I have friends there and every time we come here (Dublin) we have only spent a day and I’m only familiar with this immediate area. I have never been down South of the country and I would rather do that as a husband and a Dad rather than with the band. My parents and neighbors have all been there and it just looks amazing.
OD –With each gig that you do, how do you select the set list, is there a method to this or would it be a last minute thing?
Neil – We have a system and it’s very simple. One guy writes the set list each night and it’s done in alphabetical order and we do it in turn. So Dan will do the first night and Jean-Paul will do the second I do the third and Tim will do the fourth and Dan will do the fifth and so on. Tonight as it happens, is my set list and the unwritten rule is that if I want to play a song that we have not played in week’s, month’ or years, I will let the guys know ahead of sound check so they can listen to it on their iPods. That keeps us paying attention. If we played the same set every night it would be like Groundhog Day and we would go crazy and that’s when the mistakes happen. I would rather be afraid of a set list than disinterested in it.
OD – Can you comment on The Company Band and if there is any possibility of another album soon?
Neil – Not at the moment. We (Clutch) are already looking at the next record and that ties me up for the next year and a half. Jess has got this thing with his brother (Bam Margera) in Fuckface Unstoppable, Jim is really busy and Brad (Foo Manchu) has a new record coming out soon. Half of them live in California and the other live on the East Coast.
OD – In terms of new music, is there anything that is grabbing your attention or the attention of the band collectively at the moment?
Neil – Well, Jean-Paul (Drums) listens to a lot of Jazz, which is kind of above my pay grade and it’s not Country Music (laughs). I’m fond of the new Mogwai album and there is a new UK band called Wolf People they have an album called “Fame” which sounds like English ballad Metal. There is another band also called American Sharks who are a three piece and I guarantee if they stick to their guys will be on magazine covers. They only have one record out and are managed by Kyle from The Sword. They have a really great sound, kind of like MC5.
OD – Since the start you’re career in Clutch, have there been any real stand out moments that have given you food for thought?
Neil – We are going to try and record it in November. We are planning to write between now and then. If we pull it off, we should have something out about a year from now.
OD – The RSD split you did with Lionize was released recently, the song “Run, John Barleycorn, Run was this recording taken from the “Earth Rocker” sessions and if so is there any plans to release any more?
Neil – No, that was actually a song that we were writing when we were thinking about the last record. When the song was done we realised that we didn’t have a song for the RSD split. It’s kind of a bit more of a slower song that would be suited more on a 7″ rather than an L.P. It takes it’s hat tip from a Traffic’s song called John Barleycorn which is one of my favourite songs of all time.
OD – You mentioned that you had toured with Motorhead, do you have a Lemmy story?
Neil – The first tour that we did with them, I just stayed clear of him because everybody hounds him constantly every night and I didn’t want to be that guy. I ended up in an elevator with him one night by accident and he looked at me and said “your from the opening act” and I said “yea Clutch”. If there are no girls in the band he really doesn’t give a damn. So we are in this elevator and he then says, “your very consistent” and I didn’t ask him to elaborate (Laughs). There is another thing also that I think is really cool. They had their own catering with them and they had this guy Richie with them who would cook just traditional English food, basically all sorts of brown food. Yorkshire pudding and Sunday roasts seven days a week. I gained 15 pounds on that tour. Lemmy’s after-show was always the same. You would get a choice of two sandwiches on white bread, cut triangularly and wrapped in cellophane. One was a cold backed bean sandwich and the other was an anchovies sandwich, I just though that he has probably been eating that for the last 50 years! He could have what ever he wants and he is just happy with that. Gotta love Lemmy.
Earth Rocker is out now via Weather Maker Music.
Words – Oran O’Beirne
Photo – All photography by Steve Dempsey of Down The Barrel Photography