“I just saw four kids in the front row; they’re carrying the torch, and it’s a powerful thing.”
Catching up with Clutch is not easy. For a quarter of a century, these road dogs have been touring and recording nonstop. With 11 albums under their collective belts and sold-out shows from Akron to Adelaide, they have amassed one of the most loyal and diehard audiences in rock; and without the benefit of radio airplay or MTV. Their classic sound appeals to alternative rockers, classic rockers, punks, and discerning metalheads worldwide. The affable, articulate, and accommodating drummer and founding member, Jean-Paul Gaster, took a minute away from gardening, practicing, and running Clutch’s label to speak to me before departing yet again.
You’ve been around for 25 years. When you started, what were your expectations?
We didn’t have any. We started the band with the intention of only making some good recordings and local shows. The bands we looked up to didn’t necessarily fill up arenas or even theaters. We started playing with all kinds of bands, like Monster Magnet and even Marilyn Manson in the early days.
Where does Clutch fit in today’s landscape? You’ve always had a diverse audience.
I call what we do rock ’n’ roll. For me, it’s just what we grew up listening to: Bad Brains, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, P.I.L., or Bob Marley. It’s all just great music. When people ask me what kind of music we play, I just tell them rock ’n’ roll. As the years go by, we’ve managed to carve out our own sound and identity. We have less to do with what’s going on. That may be good or bad, depending on who you ask, but that’s what we’re most proud of.
What do you think the evolution of metal and punk has been? You’ve been able to straddle both worlds well.
To some degree, those audiences have merged. I can’t speak authoritatively about the current metal scene as much. When we were first coming up, there weren’t so many subgenres of metal: we had hardcore, thrash, or speedcore. These days, it’s more complicated; it’s hard to say what metal is. We embrace it all and make it our own. That’s why we can share the stage with Morbid Angel, or Whitesnake, or even Bob Marley and the Wailers if they were still around. We’ve played tons of festivals. We can play any festival with any kind of band and to any audience.
Your live shows are legendary; even in markets where you’re not getting a lot of airplay, you manage to draw big crowds. Was there a time when radio and MTV played a part in your career?
No, it’s not been the case. [Laughs] It was a slow build. In the ’90s, we spent a lot of time on the major labels. They were completely radio-driven: You had to have a single that reacted on radio in two weeks. Your record could be dead in the water if you didn’t get major airplay. Major labels relied on radio to such an extent, that it dictated your future. You’d be dropped from the label—or even worse, be stranded on a label and they won’t let you out of your contract. More than anything, I’m glad we don’t have to deal with that drama anymore. It was such a drag.
What song do you enjoy playing the most in concert?
We change the set list up every night, and we have a lot to choose from. I try to establish a relationship with each song every night. There are some songs I like playing better than others, maybe because it’s new or I’m just getting along with that song. I always keep an open mind and try to vary it. I focus on what I like and not on what I don’t.
Do you get along with Corrosion of Conformity and Lamb of God?
Yes. We got to open for CoC in 1993, and that was almost as big as Bad Brains. They’ve always been one of my favorite bands; I think that several of their albums were breakthroughs. It’s great to see Pepper [Keenan] back in the band. Reed [Mullin, drummer] was a huge influence when I was a youngster; they’re great to hang out with and drink beer. Woody [Weatherman] likes to have fun, and Mike [Dean] knows a little about everything.
Lamb of God we’ve known for some time; they’re from Richmond. The DC area has a connection with Richmond, and I’ve had a lot of friends who have moved there. It was one of the first great cities for us. We used to travel there a lot and made great contacts.
Are you already recording new material for a follow-up?
Yes, we are. We just got together a few weeks ago and started kicking around some new ideas. I suspect that, after this tour, we’ll do something. We’ve been hitting it hard with Psychic Warfare. The last couple of months have been nice, because we’ve had some rare down time. We did play a festival in Australia in between; we don’t sit around often. We finish a record, tour, and then come back and try to make another record.
How does the band use social media to connect with fans?
That’s a huge question. We try to keep a steady stream of things up there. We like to post our set list every night, and it gives people a chance to see what we’re going to play when we come to their town. Or, they saw the gig the night before in another town and they know we’re going to play a different set. Leading up to the release of a new record, we drop little snippets to build anticipation for a new record and excite people. These days, the first week’s sales are so important, so we like to use social media to frontload. We like to let the fans know about pre-production, new songs, talk about gear.
Our fan base is pretty dedicated. We’ve been around so long now, and they’ve grown up with us. We have full families with their kids who come to gigs. As long we can, and there’s an audience, we intend to keep playing. I just saw four kids in the front row; they’re carrying the torch, and it’s a powerful thing.
What side projects are you and the other members working on?
I’m working with Mark Morton [guitarist] from Lamb of God on his solo record. They’re probably the premier modern metal band out there. They’re filling Metallica’s shoes, and a lot of people know about them. That’s good for us. We’ll earn some new fans, and maybe some of our fans will be converted to them, too.
Who made you want to play music?
Black Sabbath had a lot to do it, and they were my first favorite band. Seeing Bad Brains really made me want to play the drums. They were the stuff of legends, but seeing them live that night was electric. That was the closest I came to feeling like I was in church. Seeing that band that night at the 9:30 Club made me think about what I wanted to do. A lot of people think they’re hardcore, but they’re nothing [compared to Bad Brains]. They were up there with Led Zeppelin: They were the most devastating live band. Bad Brains were really important, and as a live band, they were the most powerful performers I’ve ever seen, and that’s why I’m here today.
What’s your best road story?
I once heard David Brockie [Gwar vocalist, aka Oderus Urungus, who died in 2014)] say something great. They asked him the same question, and he said a crazy road story is where the band shows up on time, you can find the promoter, the sound works, and there are no incidents during the set. That’s an outrageous road story. Pulling up to a gig and there’s a promoter, no fight in the audience, and no meathead causing a ruckus is the rare road tale. There’s never a serene, calm day on the road. We’ve pulled up where there’s no promoter or no PA at a venue. You just become immune to it and carry on. It’s hard out there, and you have to be mindful, aware, and on top of it.
What do you do when you come off the road?
We do tour quite a bit. When we get home, we disconnect for at least a week or two. I enjoy gardening. I’m getting ready to put my tomatoes and peppers in tomorrow, and I go to the ocean or do some fishing. We’ll be back on the road this Saturday, starting in Jacksonville, Florida.
What do you think of today’s music industry? What is it to you?
As a label owner, it’s kind of hard to wrap your head around what’s going on in the “industry.” We’re fortunate: We continue to sell CDs, downloads, and even vinyl. It helps financially, too. I think the majority of people are having a hard time selling their music. Streaming services are interesting; I love Spotify, but not sure where it’s going. There’s a lot of speculation. The streaming services may eventually compensate artists fairly. More onboard opportunities to use [social media] to your advantage to get your music out there. We used to put out flyers at the record store; now you put ads on Facebook. It’s the same mentality, but just a different form.
As a living musician, you have to keep your ear to the ground. It’s work that has to be done. Our manager, Jack, says a lot of wise things. One thing he said early on, was there are no shortcuts in rock ’n’ roll. It’s work. We enjoy it. Sure, it’s tough and exhausting, and I enjoy playing drums and playing every night. I love being with the guys, riding around the world, seeing people and places. I still like it.
Do you have a road routine?
Yes, I do, and there are always a lot of hours between the gigs. I spend a lot of time practicing. If you come two or three hours early to the venue, you’ll hear me practicing sometimes, or I’ll be in the basement or a closet, wherever. I’m always thinking of the drums. Once you’re up there and you’re playing, that’s one mindset. When you’re in the live situation, you’re just playing from the neck down. I like spending time getting inside the song and analyzing things. I like to think of how drums work within the context of a song, and I find it really meditative.
Did you study formally?
I came to the drums late in life, at 16. I took some lessons. Back then, I didn’t understand the value of practice. I’d put on a Black Sabbath record and kind of play along. In my early 20s, after being on the road for some time, I started taking lessons with a Big Band drummer named Walter Salb, and that’s what he did for a living. I started taking lessons in DC. The most valuable thing he taught me was how to be prepared for anything: play a shuffle, a funk beat, and great rock beats. You have to practice every day. You have to nurture this instrument and wrap your head completely around it. Anyone who thinks they can get better at drums without practicing doesn’t know much about drums.
Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with?
There are all kinds of great artists out there, but recently I collaborated with Mike Dillon, a phenomenal percussionist and vibraphonist. We covered Chuck Brown’s song “We Need Some Money.” He’s a powerhouse and can play anything; I’d love to make a record with him someday.
How do you make your set list for each show?
We start the tour with Dan [Maines] making the first set list, then me, then Neil [Fallon] and Tim [Sult]. We started doing it that way 20 years ago. We actually made it according to the alphabetical order of our first names. We have been called the Grateful Dead of hardcore because of our set lists. [Laughs]
Is Psychic Warfare still doing well? Is there more life in it?
We came out with really great numbers, #1 hard rock, and it’s on our label. It’s great to do it on a major label, but even better on our own. We run this thing front to back. I wait for the FedEx truck and load palettes of vinyl; I accept orders; et cetera. It’s a real thing. We have a label manager and an account manager. It’s our entity, and to have success on your own is great. We’ve even put a few bands out. We put out Lionize, a band from Maryland; the Bakerton Group—that’s the four of us playing instrumental music. We released that on Weathermaker Music, as well.
How do you discover new music?
Honestly, I like Spotify, just as a fan of music. You can check out artists and make your own playlists. I learn a lot about new bands that way, and I can listen to a lot of jazz and dig further back to learn more about drummers and other musicians. From there, I can check out other musicians and dig even more. I love listening to John Coltrane. From him, I learned about other artists.
What are your memories of St. Louis?
We played St. Louis a lot of times, probably 25 or 30 times by now. I remember specifically playing in 1994 with Bad Religion at Mississippi Nights. We were supporting them; it was an odd package. We always hooked up with bands that were not necessarily like us, but we managed to earn some fans out of every show. I remember we returned with Sepultura shortly after that at the American Theatre. We had a small base, and it’s slowly grown to what it is today. | Doug Tull
Clutch appears Corrosion of Conformity and Lamb of God at The Pageant in St. Louis on May 12. A full list of May tour dates is below.
05.01.16 | Monster Energy Welcome to Rockville, Jacksonville FL
05.03.16 | The Orpheum, New Orleans
05.04.16 | Minglewood Hall, Memphis
05.05.16 | Brady Theater, Tulsa
05.07.16 | Carolina Rebellion, Concord NC
05.08.16 | Eagle Theater, Reading PA
05.09.16 | State Theatre, Portland ME
05.10.16 | House of Blues, Boston
05.12.16 | The Pageant, St. Louis