Clutch reveal the stories behind the songs on Book Of Bad Decisions

From writing about redneck samurai to Willie Nelson’s personal stash, it’s fair to say Clutch are among the most colourful lyricists on the planet, crafting immersive narratives that reference some of the most illustrious figures from literature, folklore and history. Hammer caught up with vocalist Neil Fallon and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster to get the inside stories behind the songs on their 12th album, Book Of Bad Decisions. Taking inspiration from everything from crab cake recipes to Wikipedia entries, it’s their most ambitious chapter to date.

Gimme The Keys

Sample lyric: ‘Gimme the keys and get the hell out of Dodge’

Jean-Paul Gaster: “The song deals with our first US tour, and a particular incident that happened when we played a hardcore show/skinhead rally – not Nazi skinheads, just regular ones – in Lawrence, Kansas. Basically, we got threatened with a firearm when the sound guy thought we’d stolen a microphone.”

Neil Fallon: “The [2015 horror] movie Green Room is probably the most accurate portrayal of hardcore shows I’ve seen! Ha ha ha! That whole show was cinematic – there were huge storm clouds and heat-lightning striking in the distance, and tornado sirens going off all around. You couldn’t have scripted it better.”

Spirit Of '76

Sample lyric: ‘Moon collapsed in the garden / Vikings looted the plains’

Neil: “In 1976 I was in Boston for the Bicentennial of the US [the 200th anniversary of the Declaration Of Independence], which basically turned into this huge patriotic orgasm. The melody to this song had that anthemic feel which made me very emotional, but I didn’t want to write a song like [George M. Cohan’s march] You’re A Grand Old Flag. I started thinking – instead of 1776, I wanted to capture 1976 and all the things that happened that year. For example, the line ‘Moon collapsed in the garden’ was about [The Who drummer] Keith Moon collapsing at Madison Square Garden, while ‘The Mohican’ is a reference to [Robert de Niro’s character in] Taxi Driver.”

Book Of Bad Decisions

Sample lyric: ‘I walked into the station, all covered in blood’

Jean-Paul: “Lyrically, this was inspired by Cormac McCarthy, who we’re both huge fans of. It’s this idea of describing scenarios in beautiful but grotesque detail, almost as if you’re in the room.”

Neil: “Touring pre-cell phones, we’d be waiting in line to use the only working payphone in town, and at 3am you’d run into some very interesting characters, giving you looks like: ‘If you don’t hang up soon, you won’t see sunrise.’ This was a tribute to that, in a typically McCarthy way; there’s a person covered in blood, trying to get from point A to point B during the dark night of the soul.”

How To Shake Hands

Sample lyrics: ‘Take that boy out his crib / and put him in the executive office!’

Jean-Paul: “We try not to be influenced by politics these days – there’s so much shouting and negativity, a lot of effort to take away from other people rather than working together for the common good. In some ways it’s impossible to not be influenced by what’s going on, but Neil was more interested in poking fun at that. It’s the story of a guy who runs for President because he’s got a lot of ideas… which seems to be popular right now!”

In Walks Barbarella

Sample lyric: ‘Space trucking son ain’t what it used to be’

Neil: “[2015’s] X-Ray Visions and [2016’s] Firebirds were parts one and two of a concept. Barbarella is part three – the narrator of those previous songs is now speaking to his son 20 years after those instances, saying, ‘If you go driving in the desert you need to be careful’, but at the same time looking back at those events with fondness.”

Jean-Paul: “It started out as a funk tune – I’m a huge James Brown fan and one thing he was best at doing was organising the individual parts so that each was different, so even if it’s simple, the power of it all coming together makes it more powerful.”

Vision Quest

Sample lyric: ‘Oh pale rider you’re in need of a hella talking to’

Neil: “I’ve always been a fan of the boast, whether in rock’n’roll or hip hop, and this is a boast about out-drinking the Grim Reaper!”

Jean-Paul: “It’s got a New Orleans feel, which puts a twist on the song. We also had our buddy Chris Brooks [from fellow Maryland rockers Lionize] play piano, to give it a boogie-woogie vibe via Motörhead. It was inspiring to be around Motörhead. I honestly can’t say enough good things about them as people. I miss that band, and I miss Lemmy.”

Weird Times

Sample lyric: ‘Your thetan levels are far too extreme!’

Jean-Paul: “This speaks to the craziness of the times, painting a picture of how we’re living in a hyper-driven news-cycle scenario.”

Neil: “One day I went into town and there were several religious organisations on each corner farming for new followers and I just thought… that’s so weird, man. It’s almost like a farmer’s market for the soul. I make references to Scientology [‘thetan’ means ‘spirit’], because I’m fascinated by the intersection between religion and science fiction; I’m not a fan of L. Ron Hubbard’s writing, but what he was able to achieve… I just don’t get it.”

Emily Dickinson

Sample lyric: ‘Hooked on phantom power, the acres seemed to ache’

Jean-Paul: “This was inspired by a farmhouse we once lived in, in Bakerton, West Virginia. It was built in 1760 and had a snake infestation. We tried to drive them out by playing as loud and long as we could… which didn’t work.”

Neil: “My belief in ghosts wavers depending on mood, but it was strongest the year and a half I lived in that house. I had a recurring idea of one day pulling up the driveway and seeing a woman’s profile in the attic. Emily Dickinson is the most prominent American Victorian woman I can think of, and the idea of being her suitor was a surreal way to describe what that time was like.” 

Sonic Counselor

Sample lyric: ‘Look no further you have found the right church’

Jean-Paul: “We started playing Sonic Counselor on tour last summer, playing some beautiful outdoor venues with Primus. The whole vibe was really nice and that’s how Neil came up with the original concept.”

Neil: “I heard the beat to this song and immediately saw it as a tribute to Clutch fans. Whether it’s Birmingham, Alabama or Birmingham, UK, there’s a camaraderie that is almost church-like. People sometimes say, ‘You’re like a preacher onstage’, but I think it has more to do with the congregation than the people onstage and treating the show as a special, sanctified event every night.”

A Good Fire

Sample lyric: ‘I remember hearing Sabbath for the first time’

Jean-Paul: “This song was inspired by the Maryland doom scene in the late 80s and early 90s. There were a lot of bands that were directly inspired by Black Sabbath, and would play these field parties, all stood around a giant bonfire – it was a really fun time.”

Neil: “I’m sure a lot of Hammer readers have clear memories of hearing Sabbath, and for me it was a field party in October, drizzling around a bonfire where somebody had a boombox playing Black Sabbath. I was very young and it terrified me but I liked it and wanted to get scared again.”

Ghoul Wrangler

Sample lyric: ‘Mabel won’t you wake up we got lawyers in the barn’

Neil: “I’ve always had this story about some rural farmers finding unexpected characters in their barn. It didn’t have to be lawyers, it could have been doctors, or politicians – anyone that wore a suit – eating their livestock. Maybe there’s an analogy about the white-collar world feeding off the working class, but it’s more I wanted to write a mini horror movie, so it was about an old man on his last legs overcoming a baker’s dozen lawyers who eat his livestock.”

Jean-Paul: “Lyrically it’s totally over the top, but it’s the way that Neil screams ‘ghoul wrangler!’ that really sets the tone.”

H.B. Is In Control

Sample lyric: ‘The joint erupted in a medieval melee’

Neil: “This was about looking back at our time on the road, where sometimes the only place to eat was a 24-hour diner. You would pull in at three or four in the morning, and find a very colourful mix of people inside. The things you’d hear and see were almost always inexplicable, and I had this notion of looking at that classic American diner, but painted by Hieronymus Bosch. There’s an oblique reference in there to Celtic Frost, too, because his art has been used on so many metal covers that I wanted to pay homage to that.”

Hot Bottom Feeder

Sample lyric: ‘Grab a biscuit cutter and pack it ’til it’s filled’

Jean-Paul: “It turned out great – it lends itself to live sets, and is super-fun to play. I remember Neil coming into the studio like, ‘The song is going to be a recipe for crab cakes’ and we were like, ‘Awesome!’”

Neil: “It turns out that Vance [Powell, Grammy-winning record producer] also did a track with Seasick Steve, which was his recipe for biscuits, and includes the lyric ‘biscuit cutter’ [Southern Biscuits]. What are the chances? It’s also typical that the most controversial lyric I’ve written in 27 years is one I didn’t write – the people of Maryland were upset because I didn’t include Old Bay Seasoning in the recipe.”

Paper & Strife

Sample lyric: ‘Reptilian oil pompadour set to kill’

Jean-Paul: Paper & Strife is a straight-ahead rocker, designed to make you move!”

Neil: “I came up with the lyrics for this after watching the [1969] documentary Salesman, a film which is seen as the granddaddy of documentaries. It follows door-to-door bible salesmen in the late 60s. I’ve always liked the characters of grifters, the guy with the big pompadour who lives in his car and is swindling people. It’s not a nice thing, but there’s an element of romance and cool to it – as much as I hate to admit it – and the way these people live on the edge of society.”

Lorelei

Sample lyric: ‘Oh my compass is spinning and I’m so far from home’

Neil: “I wanted to write about A Shogun Named Marcus [the character in Clutch’s 1993 song] in his winter days, but I realised there was a sense of humour before that wasn’t really present. So it became about the character in [1997’s] The Elephant Riders, who after the war has sold his elephant and become a hermit in a cave, where people see him as a sage of sorts. It’s about being lost and not knowing what to do with one’s self – but I don’t think it’s a sad thing. It can be good – if you know exactly where you’re going, life can be boring.” 

Clutch's new album Book Of Bad Decisions is out now.