In this musician-to-musician interview, Frederick County’s Jason Varnadore connects with Neil Fallon, lead vocalist and guitarist for the band Clutch, about the release of their new album, “Earth Rocker,” and his experiences growing up and playing in Maryland. Fallon was sure to thank the locals for their 20-plus years of support. Clutch will play a sold-out show on Saturday at Rams Head Baltimore.When “Earth Rocker” came out it was No. 4 on the Top 100 and No. 1 in iTunes’ rock category. Does that take a lot of pressure off you guys?
It’s gratifying. ... If chart positions are an indication of people liking your music, what musician doesn’t want people to not like their music? On the flip side, as owners of our own record label ... you can do this if you stick to your guns and keep it simple. You know we’ve been through feast and famine with major labels. To be able to do this on our own ... I think it’s is an indication that this is work that can be done.
This is the third time you’ve worked with Machine. What made you go back to work with him?
When we were writing the record, we realized it’s a faster record, more aggressive. Machine is good at dialing that in. And he pushed us even more than we would have approached the songs. He’s got an unorthodox way of recording. So we knew what we were getting into when we signed up with him. With us and in many bands that are a democracy, you need to hire a temporary dictator because we participate equally in the songwriting process. And that’s all well and good. But things can take too long that way.
Do you guys get together and rehearse beforehand? Do you guys jam out then bring it to the studio?
Well, we’re always writing. We’re definitely more productive when we’ve decided that we’re going into a studio on such-and-such date. And that deadline is a good whip crack. We jot down sketches both lyrically and musically on the road. A lot of it we just get together in JP’s (Jean-Paul Gaster) basement and spit out riffs. And when someone likes it, it’s usually unanimous. It’s more of a conversation.
I’ve listened to the song “Earth Rocker” like a million times. I was wondering what listeners should take away from this song?
In some ways I think it’s like a self-motivational speech. The lyrics came up while we were doing a lot of festivals. There are a lot of young bands out there I was encountering that seemed to take it for granted. You know, bitching and moaning about having to play such-and-such time or the catering wasn’t any good. You know, f—- off. You should be so lucky to be doing what you’re doing. Sure, you can aspire to certain things, but the older I get, the more I see how rare and valuable rock ‘n’ roll is. I can kind of take it for granted myself. There are a lot of bands out there that just struggle to get out of the garage. And this is my way of talking to myself, you know?
After having Regulator appear on “Walking Dead” and bands like Mogwai and Mastodon dabbling in film scores, would that be something Clutch is interested in?
Sure. If it’s an excuse to make music, absolutely. But if I suspected it would interfere with just making kickass rock ‘n’ roll songs, I probably wouldn’t want to do it.
Where are you guys from originally?
We went to high school in Germantown. We all went to Seneca Valley. I live in Silver Spring. We’re all within an hour drive of each other, pretty much.
Did you guys spend a lot of time in Washington when you were younger?
We were very fortunate to come up where we did when we did because we got to see loads of incredible bands. D.C. isn’t so huge like New York or Chicago or L.A. There were still the peculiar local flavors. I see our formative years consisting of three things: the Maryland doom scene, bands like Unorthodox, Internal Void, Wretched, Pentagram. Then there’s also the hardcore punk scene with Bad Brains and Fugazi and Minor Threat. The third element was go-go. Those three things kind of put us on the path that we’re still on today.
So you guys rehearse here in Frederick. Do you purposely keep a low profile?
Yeah, Frederick, that’s where we all convene. We’re private people with families. We have wives and kids. We like to keep that ... it’s kind of like sacred ground for us. It’s not that we distrust everybody, but one or two nuts decide that they want to get close to us. That makes us feel vulnerable. So we just like to keep it close to the chest.
What brought you guys to Frederick?
JP lives there. We’ve been going up to Frederick to see shows as well, you know, growing up. Frederick is nice ‘cause it’s having its renaissance for the past 10 to 15 years. There are a lot of great restaurants that moved in. We tour the United States quite a bit and it gets more and more homogenized every year. But Frederick has maintained its historic character and kept its unique flavor, which is what I find attractive about it.
Would you consider playing a show in Frederick?
Sure. We played as the Bakerton Group at Krug’s (Krug’s Place, now defunct). And you know JP plays in Frederick with a guy named Mike Westcott pretty frequently.
You wrote “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” about Fort Detrick, right?
I used to spend a lot of time (in Frederick). We’d written a song and I needed a chorus. So I was driving through the neighborhoods near Fort Detrick and I noticed that a lot of the backyards had Hamm radio towers. I was going to a liquor store and the chorus of Hamm radio and liquor got in my head.
If you had your own beer pub, what kind of beer would you have on tap?
I’d probably have Clutch beer on tap, the one we made with New Belgium Brewery. It was a limited run; it’s getting hard to find.
What are your thoughts on the latest “Star Wars” news?
Well, I’m torn. Those first three, you know, I grew up with them. They were part of my childhood. Then the recent ones I was really disappointed with. I didn’t like them at all. But then again, I have to keep in mind that I’m watching as a 40-year-old man and those movies were designed for 7-year-olds. You know, I have a kid and I want him to experience the same thing, and if that means kind of selling it off then so be it. But I’ll be damn sure he’ll watch them in order to be able to understand the old ones are the best ones.
What’s your favorite ZZ Top record?
So this tour has been huge. Was that part of your promotion for the record and your independent label?
It’s been a lot of hard work. But that’s alright — it’s not digging ditches. And with more work comes more reward. And for us, it’s never been a sprint; it’s a marathon. You know we’ve been patient and level-headed about it. At the end of the day, we just love playing rock ‘n’ roll. If we can just keep that in mind, the rest is cake.
So you end the first leg of your American tour at the April 20 show in Baltimore.
Yeah, we have 10 days off then we do another month in the U.S. then a few days off. Then we go to Europe for a month. We’ll take off the rest of summer and mow the lawn. It’s the best education you could ever ask for.
What makes Maryland special when you play here?
The shows we play in Baltimore and D.C. are some of the most nerve-wracking because I recognize half of the audience. If we’re in Salt Lake City, I don’t really know anybody. When I recognize people I consider to be friends, I get much more nervous before a show. But then again, it’s neat to play for crowd that’s been there for 20 years and you know they’re bringing their kids. And that’s a good feeling ... that its become a generational thing. You can’t stop the march of time. It dawned on me the other day, I have been doing this for more than half of my life. I guess this is what I’m going to do.