"I can’t imagine being a songwriter and not reading. How is that possible?"
No truer words of wisdom have ever been uttered by a songwriter. It should come as no surprise that Neil Fallon, utterer of those words and the the singer/songwriter of the hard rock band Clutch, is a voracious reader. Fallon is a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy (a favorite among many songwriters I've interviewed) and William Faulkner, but he’s also devoured his share of science fiction over the years—which is why he wanted to branch out to other genres. So Fallon recently decided to tackle some light reading in the form of Russian literature.
But while literature plays a big role in Fallon’s creative process, a “calm headspace” is vital when he’s writing lyrics or trying to generate ideas. He gets to that headspace by not thinking about writing, which is why he rarely, if ever, sits down with the express idea of writing a song. Instead, these ideas come when gardening, going to museums—or even installing running boards on his truck.
Clutch has released eleven albums in their 25 years. The Maryland band has had the same four members since inception; they met while attending high school in Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Their latest album Psychic Warfare debuted late in 2015 at #11 on the Billboard Top 200 and #1 on both the Rock and Hard Rock charts. In May, they’ll embark on a tour supporting Lamb of God (read my interview with Mark Morton of Lamb of God here), so check 'em out. But first, read my interview with Clutch’s Neil Fallon after a behind the scenes look at he production of Psychic Warfare.
Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?
I try to write prose, yet it’s incredibly challenging because I've been listening to beats and paying attention to rhyme schemes for so many years that I find it difficult to write outside of that framework. But it’s fun for that reason. And I don’t know if you call gardening an art, but in some ways it is. It’s a great way for me to clear the creative cobwebs, to do something Zen. I also consume other art: I go to museums quite frequently and I read quite a bit.
Do your prose ideas ever turn into songs?
They always almost end up in songs. Part of that is because I self-edit too much then lack the follow up to actually make something into a short story. So when I write a catchy sentence, my first reaction is often, Well that’s a great line. I can make a song out of that instead. When I hear music, it invokes a mood, and sometimes it’s a songwriter’s job to dust off that window and see what that song or idea actually is. There’s always a short story to these songs that maybe hasn’t been crystallized on paper in that they are a digest version of a short story.
Other songwriters have mentioned that museums play a role in their creative process.
You could liken it to gardening because it may seem mindless to walk around and look at art, but museums work deep in my subconscious. For one, there are few audible distractions. And you’re looking at images, whether abstract or classical, that may not end up making it into songs but that nonetheless rattle the subconscious. It may not happen immediately, but a couple of days later an image that you don’t even really you saw when you were there actually ends up on paper.
What artistic period is your favorite?
I love sculpture gardens. I find them surreal, and I also like early to mid 20th century American artists like Edward Hopper. That abstract art makes me think a little deeper.
You’re also not the first songwriter to mention gardening. Is that an activity you consciously turn to when you start thinking of song ideas?
Whenever I’ve started my day saying, Today at 9am I'm going to try to write lyrics, more often than not nothing happens. Then that morphs into writer’s block. Activities like gardening are able to put me in a calm headspace to write. Just the other day I spent two days losing my mind trying to put running boards on my truck. It was unrelated to songwriting, but in the simple task of trying to put nuts onto bolts, I was thinking a lot about lyrics. Ideas popped into my head that wouldn’t have if I had been sitting in front of a computer or with a pad and paper.
That’s related to the topic of inspiration. Do you wait for the muse or work at it?
She’s not going to wait around for you. She’s a demanding lover. Laughs. It’s like physical exercise. I haven’t swum a lap in a pool for probably ten years, and if I did it today I’d have to probably ask for help from a lifeguard. But if I did a little every day, I'd eventually get there. You have to work at it, even by doing things that you don’t like or that you aren’t good at.
I often wonder if it gets harder as you get older. When you’re younger, you have an untapped reservoir of ideas, and when you mine them or cross those bridges, the labyrinth gets a little more complicated.
Do you try to write every day?
If I'm not writing, I'm practicing guitar. Even learning another song on guitar and making a mistake will open an unexpected door.
When it comes to songwriting, is there an ideal environment for you?
The very first thing in the morning or late at night. The brain works in a different way then. Once I drop our kid off at the bus stop, I head right downstairs for two or three hours. There’s a little corner in the basement where I write. There are no windows, which is probably better because it might lead to more daydreaming. And it’s the only place in the house where I can scream into a microphone without the neighbors calling the cops. Laughs. In the afternoon I do more practical things. Late at night my brain goes back to that state conducive to songwriting, when it’s less logical than it was at 2:30 in the afternoon.
I spent many years when I was younger assuming that once I became a father, it would be the creative death of me. I’d have no more free time and would become a bitter old fart. But I couldn’t have been more wrong because suddenly I've been given the task of explaining reality to someone else. There’s no more challenging or rewarding exercise than that. And watching someone else see the world for the first time is very inspiring.
We have four young kids, and I’ve found that as a purely practical matter, having a family has made me far more disciplined as a writer because I have so little free time.
Absolutely. If I have an idea after our conversation, I have maybe an hour to get it down or record it. But if I was on tour, I’d say, Eh, maybe I'll do it tomorrow. Then the idea fades forever. So I think a routine is vital for the creative process.
Is there anything you like having with you in order to have a productive writing session?
I always have a cup of coffee with me in the morning. And having spent many a late night with beers in front of me while I write, let me tell you: coffee is definitely better for songwriting. What seems better after beer number seven at 11pm is not nearly as good the following morning.
I’ve had many songwriters tell me that they get great writing done hungover.
It depends on the song. I can’t imagine writing an upbeat rocker with a hangover. I try to write positive lyrics with those songs, but I can see how a hangover would be a good backdrop for a more melancholy song. If you’re slow, a melancholy song can be good theme music. But in the morning when I'm caffeinated, a melancholy song can really bum me out.
You mentioned writer’s block earlier. How often does that happen, and how do you get out of it?
I like to think of myself as being a perpetual state of writer’s block. And every once in a while a passage allows me to weasel my way through. I don’t look to my life too much for inspiration, and sometimes I bite off more than I can chew when I think I can write a three-minute song as a grandiose fantasy epic. But out of nowhere, a couple of lines can sound interesting enough to make me want to know more. That’s the watershed moment where the song happens easily.
How often do you set ideas aside if they aren’t working, then come back to them later?
Sometimes, but I don’t wait too long. Maybe a few weeks at most. On Psychic Warfare, I banged my head up against the first track, "X-Ray Visions" so many times. I finally stopped working on it. I came back to it after we finished all the other songs on the album by asking myself What’s the first thing I did in the story? without knowing what the story was. That became the first line of the song, and I approached it with a fresh angle.
Sometimes you get married to an idea, and everything else suffers because you refuse to give it up. You have to let it go. Songwriting is often a grab bag of ideas where I’ll take one of those ideas and try it in several different spots or songs to see where it works best. I have so many of those discarded ideas that my basement floor looks like a Staples dumping ground or an episode of “Hoarders.”
But there are times when you have to let go of an idea and let meter and rhyme do the heavy lifting. I'm not ashamed to admit that The Rhyming Dictionary is my Bible. It’s a book from the early part of the 20th century by Clement Wood. I’ve used it so many times that I had to get it re-bound. So often a word in that book has taken me on a completely different tack with a song idea. It’s much more exciting being on a creative ride rather than being a dictator and requiring that a song stick to a certain direction.
What’s your revision process like?
I tend to write too many words. That’s easy to do when you're in whisper mode or when you're just saying words in your head. But when you sing them, the words become longer, the vowels become longer. And I realize that I do have to breathe. The spaces in between matter as much as the sounds. There are also some conventions in rhymes that I do too often, and I have to go back and change them.
Paul Banks from Interpol once told me that melody is king, and that he will change a word in a line for the sake of melody even if means a difference in what the line means. It sounds like you do something similar.
I do, but that’s relatively new to me. I’ll be honest: given where Clutch came from, for years I thought that pitch and melody were commercial things that you shouldn’t do, lest your music sound catchy. And hardcore wasn’t supposed to be catchy, right? It’s supposed to be dissonant and mean. But I’ve come to realize that, yeah, melody should come first. I kind of fell back to a more rhythmic approach. I've always been a huge hip hop fan, and I can still do that easier than I can do melody, but I've learned, and am still learning, about melody.
When it comes to lyrics: pen and paper, or computer?
Pen and paper. Always always always. It’s a much more sensual and physical experience. You can doodle in the margins, draw arrows, see your changes. Sometimes I don’t want to delete ideas; I just want to draw a line through them so they aren’t as permanent. All art is physical when it’s being made, and pen and paper feel more physical to me.
What was the easiest song you ever wrote?
I wrote all the lyrics to “Burning Beard” in about ten minutes. I was under an intense deadline, but deadlines can be a great muse. We wrote it in the studio and I had to track it that day. I made a lot of leaps because I wasn’t afforded any opportunity to edit or ask myself what it was about. I was reading Philip K. Dick at the time, so his words make an appearance in the song. But the manic and wild word association in that song happened because I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it.
Speaking of writers, who are some of your favorite authors?
Right now I'm reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s a bit of a head scratcher because I've never read Russian Literature before, but I was reading a book called Imaginary Cities that mentioned a story about the devil coming to Moscow in the 1930s with this huge bipedal walking cat. That image reminded me of the lyrics to “Son of Virginia,” so I had to find the book with that story. Master and Margarita was that book.
As far as favorite authors, I love Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner. With both of them, there a lot of empty spaces between the words. I understand the words in front of me, but I’m always reading the sentence twice. Iain Banks and Gene Wolfe are two of my favorite science fiction authors, although I'm trying not to read so much science fiction anymore.
I've found that songwriters are voracious readers. You can’t be a good writer unless you read. It doesn’t matter what you write. And McCarthy is big favorite among songwriters.
I can’t imagine being a songwriter and not reading. How is that possible? How would you be an awesome drummer if you didn’t listen to drummers? I imagine that McCarthy is popular among songwriters because he writes very efficiently and he creates beautiful, sweeping panoramas with few words that are suddenly interrupted by ugly violence with little dialogue. It’s almost like a song in some ways.
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