Neil Fallon doesn’t do small talk.
He’s friendly enough, but a hummingbird will have beaten its wings five times in the span of time that elapses between ‘hello’, and, say, how much he loved the restrained visuals of recent outer-space films Ex Machina and Moon, or casual mention of the Black Knight conspiracy theory positing the notion that high above our heads orbits a highly classified, monolithic object of potentially ancient, extraterrestrial origin. Does he believe in any of that? No, not really, but the Clutch vocalist doesn’t just love ideas – he feeds on them. But if you’re aware of any of the sci-fi- and pulp-themed, politically outraged Baptist Revival-style audio sermons he and his fellow Maryland-based blast tyrants have crafted for over 20 years, then you already knew that.
Nestled inside the Galaxy Diner in downtown Manhattan, with piercing blue eyes poking out of a heavily bearded, slightly gaunt face – he does yoga every day or he doesn’t sleep – he’ll flit from one mind-bender to another with the agility of someone for whom mental gymnastics is a daily occurrence, and the monotony of touring is only broken up by a turn inward.
It’s a special day today. Mastodon, Clutch and Graveyard are nearing the end of a States-wide sojourn, the Missing Link tour, and Neil Fallon and company are using the day off to showcase tracks from their just-announced Psychic Warfare album. True to form, the band have decided to play it live instead of hitting play on an iPod, and as Neil explains, he hasn’t chosen the title lightly. With a gravelly baritone, he’ll describe how it stems from a love of literature and speculative fiction that’s as deep as his love of Sabbath and the Washington DC go-go scene that inspired so much of his band’s inimitable groove.
“I pick inspiration wherever I can get it, and some of that’s fatherhood – when you’ve got a kid asking you why everything is so, it forces you to reassess everything,” he says. “Philip K Dick is a big influence, too – we always do a song based on his general philosophy. This time it’s X-Ray Visions. He’s got a lot of commentary on technology and the human psyche, but what most intrigues me about him is the human mind’s ability to correctly or incorrectly discern what is real and what is not real, be it via drugs or technology. He was very prophetic in many ways. So many movies have taken from his work, either overtly or covertly, it’s amazing.”
It’d be easy to mistake this all for casual escapism or using fantastical notions to inform some seriously prolific lyric-writing, of course, and it’s over a second coffee that Neil relates it all to an everyday parallel that’s particularly close to home: the Baltimore, Maryland riots. The period of unrest took place in April, following the funeral service for Freddie Gray, a young black man who died from injuries sustained in police custody.
“It was ugly and sad and indicative of a real problem in America, but it wasn’t just racism that was the problem,” says Neil. “The media throws gasoline on these fires because they sell fear. Baltimore was built on a Victorian factory system, and in the 50s when ships stopped coming up the Chesapeake Bay, it became this skeleton. If you look at all the helicopter shots of what happened with the riots, most of them were juveniles. You know what? When I was a kid I broke a lot of things, too, and it certainly didn’t make the news. It’s like Philip K Dick, news and entertainment have merged into one. It’s not news, it’s a show. It was shameful.”
We break there, as a soundcheck at D’Angelico guitar showrooms beckons, where an awaiting throng of media and industry types are about to hear the next chapter in Clutch’s extraordinary life as a band’s band, a term Neil baulks at slightly, but there’s no time to talk. It’s time to hear the new stuff, and it doesn’t disappoint. X-Ray Visions is a head-bopping groover bound to get devotees on the dance floor. It’s a striking contrast to the cinematic Our Lady Of Electric Light – a slow-burning dirge that’s as forlorn as you’ll ever…
“Uh, this is a song about driving a car through space…”
OK, perhaps it isn’t all high-minded, but along with the set-ending, mid-tempo swagger of Son Of Virginia, it promises great things for the Marylanders.
“You thought you could get away from me, didn’t you?!”
A silhouetted heckler has just walked in and turns out to be Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds.
“Stop, you’re freakin’ me…! Oh, it’s you,” says Neil.
Brent heads upstairs to try out some high-end guitars. Neil, perhaps more relaxed without the pressure of an imminent gig, has a little more to say about how he rates his current touring-mates amid much pressing of the flesh.
“If being a band’s band means dedication to music and an artform, then yes,” Neil agrees, “but also having some self-deprecation in there. Ultimately, I’m just a rock singer.”
He’ll relate how it was about 10 years ago, around the time that Mastodon’s 2004 classic Leviathan was being written – Neil featured on their seminal Blood And Thunder – that the two groups first clicked, and how Clutch’s affection for them grew out of seeing their going through a very relatable period of living out of a van.
“Their lyrics are unique – they’re thought-provoking and every album is an idea, it’s a story, and I gravitate towards that kind of escapism, and they’re insane performers,” Neil says. “Their technical ability is pretty profound. Brent, I don’t know how he does it. He’ll talk to you one minute and be like, ‘Gotta play a show’, and he’ll do an outrageous solo like he’s sneezing. There’s a cottage industry of Mastodon imitators, and I suppose that’s the sincerest form of flattery.”
And with that, it’s time for a drink in the weird, city-lit shadows. Brent’s disappeared somewhere with Tom Cheshire, singer of Masto-side-project West End Motel and vent for various musical eccentricities, and as for Clutch, well, a shot or two of tequila never hurt anyone much.
It’s a new, sweltering summer’s day, and Central Park is awash with the hum of roadies at work getting the last bits of the stage prepped and tweaked for tonight’s headliners. Clutch drummer JP Gaster is rat-tatting at his practice pad while Mastodon drummer/singer Brann Dailor relates the excitement of his band’s appearance on Game Of Thrones, fittingly, as Wildlings.
“I think the missing link is somewhere between Cro-Magnon and modern Homo sapiens,” ruminates guitarist Bill Kelliher, speaking of the inspiration for the tour name. “I mean, we’ve got a primordial, heavy, lumbering thing going on, man! We’re Mastodon.”
He’ll reveal there’s a modicum of fanboyishness about their choice of co-headliner that predates Leviathan and goes back to the first time he ever heard Clutch.
“Everyone was listening to all this crazy metal stuff, and then they came out and it was like, ‘Oh.’ Simple riffs, poetic lyrics, catchy three-note rhythms – it always thrilled me and made me kinda want to dance with all the other dudes: not headbanging, but grooving out, like a really 70s rock band. I remember when we got asked to open up for Clutch in 2001 or 2002 for 100 bucks a night. We were like, ‘Yes!’ We met them backstage and their guitarist Tim [Sult] goes, ‘Didn’t I see you in the pit?’ That was totally me. Not headbanging – funk dancing.”
It’s that mutual admiration that lead to a long-standing relationship, and a level of inspiration as well. JP’s all-day practice sessions, their restraint. “They don’t have to show off, they’re totally less is more, and when everyone was going for the most complicated math songs they couldn’t have been further away from that. When Brann and I were playing in Lethargy, I’d get home and put them on, like, every day. They’re great musicians, I learned from that.”
Later on, the dulcet, Sabbath-loving tones of 70s revivalists Graveyard still reverberating around the urban greenery, Clutch will take the stage for nothing less than a masterclass in simple rhythmic mastery and fire, before unleashing a caterwauling barrage of riffs and true musical stagecraft so impressive it even draws out Ben Weinman from Dillinger to hang at the sound desk – a brief glimpse of community and artistic regard far removed from the politics of record sales or tickets sold. Mastodon, for all their Grammy nominations, still seem tethered to the same virtues that got them in the van in the first place. The otherworldly thrum of Oblivion, the riffing might of Black Tongue – it’s stagecraft bordering on the shamanic, Brann Dailor’s four-handed drumming framing a musical canvas boasting every colour and a sense of conviction and self-belief that places them, along with their esteemed tourmates, far, far in the minority.
Mastodon’s Once More ’Round The Sun is out now. Clutch’s Psychic Warfare will be released this September
STRANGER THAN FICTION
A Philip K Dick primer
One of the giants of 20th century science fiction, Philip K Dick explored the themes of altered states of consciousness and authoritarian governments, in novels now regarded as masterful storytelling with a metaphysical agenda.
The Man In The High Castle (1962), for instance, deals with an alternative America ruled by the Axis powers. Six years later, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? had a bounty hunter policing an android population, and formed the basis for the movie Blade Runner. Similarly, 1977’s A Scanner Darkly was turned into a film, relating the tale of an undercover narcotics agent falling victim to a mind-bending drug. The movie Minority Report was based on Philip’s 1956 short story, and Total Recall was drawn from 1966’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Philip based the autobiographical VALIS (1981) on his own paranormal experiences and hallucinations, and it became an opera. This was the first part of what was planned as a trilogy, but the third book was never completed. He developed some of the messianic plot from the Black Knight conspiracy theory, which claimed an alien satellite was in orbit above the Earth, influencing events.
Philip K Dick died in 1983, aged just 53, but his writing has grown exponentially in importance.