Germantown, Maryland’s Clutch has been around over twenty years, jumping from one record label to another while releasing skull-crashing post-grunge LPs like The Elephant Riders, Blast Tyrant, and Strange Cousins From The West.
But now the bards responsible for “Burning Beard,” “Profits of Doom,” and “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” are running their own record label, whereon they issued what is arguably their best album yet in 2013’s Earth Rocker.
Clutch—which still features the original lineup of Neil Fallon (vocals), Tim Sult (guitar), Dan Maines (bass), and Jean-Paul Gaster (drums)—recently swung through town for another sold-out show at House of Blues Cleveland. We spent a few minutes chatting backstage with Gaster on how far the band has come, where it might be going, and who they’re taking with them.
Fresh from sound check, the goateed drummer sat opposite us in one of HOB’s green rooms, on a sofa overlooked by a mural painting of a bespectacled John Belushi (as “Wild Bill” Kelso from the movie 1941). Gaster credited Clutch’s ardent fans for the band’s continued success, shared some of his influences and inspirations, and seemed genuinely optimistic and excited about the future.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: How have you been? How were your holidays and how’s the tour going?
JEAN-PAUL GASTER: Going great. We had about a month off between Thanksgiving and Christmastime. So that was nice. Now we’re out here to hit it again.
CME: Always nice to get some down time with the family. Earth Rocker’s been out nearly a year—since last March—and it’s currently making several year-end “Best of” lists. That’s got to feel pretty good.
JP: It’s very satisfying. We’re very proud of it.
CME: The writing and recording for Earth Rocker was a little different from that on previous records. [Producer] Machine came back to help put this one together with you. What was that process like?
JP: Machine produced Blast Tyrant—which was about ten years ago. We used him again for this record. There were a few records where we didn’t work with him, but the thing was, now we have a better understanding of how he works. And that really jived with the way we wanted to put this together. So it was a good meeting, and at a good time for us.
CME: You’re accustomed to working things out together as a band in the studio, but I understand that Machine had you laying down individual parts this time out.
JP: That’s right. We recorded in what some people might say is the most “modern” way. That is, I would record my drum tracks individually, playing to scratch tracks of guitars and click tracks—as opposed to nothing at all. And the advantage to recording that way is that you can really zero in on the details. The passages, you can build them in a way you might not be able to otherwise. So it’s a different way of recording. It’s not a better way; it’s just a different mentality. It’s a different way of putting songs together, which I think is a healthy thing for musicians. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, which isn’t a good thing, creatively. So we try to avoid that!
CME: I suppose it is more “modern”—or at least more common—for the drummer and bass player to go in and lay the foundation first. So the other guys had the luxury of recording their tracks with your drums already laid out for them, yes?
CME: How much material was written before you went in to record with Machine? I know the last time you were here—in late 2011—you played “Crucial Velocity.”
JP: We were very well prepared when we went in. And that has a lot to do with how Machine works. There’s a lot of preproduction involved before the record gets made.
CME: You have your own label with Weathermaker. In the old days didn’t you have your own label, too, before Columbia and DRT?
JP: We released a couple things on something we called River Road back in the ‘90s. For us at the time, that meant that we would record and print up the CDs on our own, and release them over the internet. So we had some experience running our own label. And, truth be told, we did it again that way when we were assigned to major labels. More than once! It was a difficult time for us, because we were often ready to record new music—but the labels weren’t always ready to commit to another album. So we found this middle ground, and that’s where River Road Records started. And that laid the foundation for what became Weathermaker.
CME: And now you have Lionize on the label. They’re the first non-Clutch-related act on the roster, yes?
JP: Yes, it’s the first time we’ve done something that hasn’t been directly related to the band. So it’s not The Bakerton Group, it’s not The Company Band—which is a project Neil does. So yeah, it’s the first time we’ve done something unrelated to Clutch.
CME: Does having Weathermaker afford you a bit more freedom, creatively?
JP: Absolutely. You can make the record you want to make when you want to make them, and do it your way. And we don’t have to worry about stuff like, “Is this going to be something that will sell a million copies or not?”
CME: With Earth Rocker, I noticed a bit of a theme with respect to the history of rock and roll. “Crucial Velocity” pays homage to early rock musicians, like the guys at Chess Records who cut “Rocket 88.” And the song “The Face” alludes a bit to authority figures smothering rock culture—and the defiance and rebellious spirit that preserve the music in the long-term. I know you may not be associated directly with the lyrics, but was this a band idea going in, to speak to these ideas?
JP: Yeah. I think going in we wanted to make a very concise rock record. A record that was very focused, and had energy the whole way through, and one that you could listen to from beginning to end. And with that came this idea of just making a straight-up rock and roll record. We’d been touring with Thin Lizzy, and we saw that there’s kind of a void out there with respect to straight-up rock. And obviously Thin Lizzy was one of the greats at that, so we were very inspired by them when we went in for Earth Rocker.
CME: I’m no drummer, but I’m always curious about the tools of the trade. What kind of drums are you playing on tour these days?
JP: I don’t subscribe to any one particular kind—or brand—of drum. I like the freedom of being able to play whatever kind of drums I want. I like playing older drums. I like old wood. I have several Slingerland kits that are, in age, between forty and sixty years old. I’m playing a newer kit tonight. I like to change things up. It’s fun to have a new snare drum or bass drum in front of you and have that drum speak to you, have that sound inspire you and get you to practice. Or they might inspire a particular idea or song. So by changing things up, you get a bit more flavor.
CME: Like having a big vocabulary, or a painter with lot of colors. You mentioned Thin Lizzy earlier. As a drummer, do you have any influences?
JP: Watching Thin Lizzy’s Brian Downey play was an amazing educational experience. I’d not seen him play before. I’d only heard the records. He’s definitely one of my favorites. Then there are guys like Elvin Jones. And Ginger Baker. My favorite drummer these days is a guy called Johnny Vidacovich out of New Orleans, Louisiana. He plays everything, man. He is drums. He’s most famous for having played with Professor Longhair in the Seventies. But he’s steeped in the New Orleans tradition of drums, which means he’s a master of those very early, turn of the century second-line styles, all the way up the most modern jazz and funk styles. And he plays all of that in course of one song sometimes! He’s very inspiring.
CME: You guys are headed for Australia again after this current U.S. jaunt. Are you looking forward to Soundwave Festival?
JP: We’ve been there before, but it’s been a while. I think it was three years ago. We enjoy going over there. It took about twenty years to get there, and when we did we were excited by how well-received we were. Lot of fans down there.
CME: Given the big year 2013 was for Clutch, do you have any resolutions or hopes for the new year?
JP: Well, we’re excited about Lionize. And finishing the Earth Rocker tour. With Weathermaker, we came to the realization that we have the opportunity to put out music that we’re excited about. So we’re looking forward to putting out the new record with Lionize. We’ve known those guys a long time, and they’re very hard-working band. Excellent players and great, great songs. So we’ll just continue touring, and hopefully get to our next record in late 2014.