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Hot Wings & Hard Work
An Interview with Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster
Clutch is here to take a steaming, heavy-metal shit on a pop-divas doorstep. In this age of Lady Gaga and other reptilian family bloodlines, the collective unconscious deserves a healthy rock 'n' roll enema. Clutch's latest independent studio album, Earth Rocker, has come to save your children.
After amassing over two decades-worth of loyal fans, producing ten studio albums, burning through ten-feet of frontman Neil Fallon's beard trimmings, and brewing their very own Clutch brand Dark Sour Ale, they have finally gained all the necessary ingredients for a number one, heavy-rock album. They have melded so many generations of music and created something new, solid, and full of enthusiasm for your headspace.
The only real downfall of Earth Rocker is that it brings you to the ultimate climax, leaving you craving for more. It's a tease of an album, coming to a quick close just over 44 minutes long. It almost plays like a legendary epic that has been crammed into the length of a novella, which may be why the album hits so hard.
Clutch's music is the powerful distillation of passion, creativity, and dedication that is all but extinct from mainstream culture. It packs so much velocity, it should include a Whiplash Advisory on its back cover.
Despite everything that makes the albums so great, it is merely a sample of what it's like to experience the band live. Clutch often tours up to six months out of each year, which contributed to the four-year development cycle for Earth Rocker.
Fans of all ages coalesce, thrash, and pump their fists to the hard-hitting, rapid-fire amalgamation of soundwaves that penetrate you to the bone and make every hair on your body dance with electricity. People surge the crowd through a gauntlet of clothing being thrown around the pit. We even saw a woman in her 70s– with a lavender perm and coke-bottle frames– sitting up in the loft and flashing the universal sign of the horns. Good music knows no prejudice.
Clutch is ultimately a laid-back band that wants to have fun, play hard, and enjoy the ride just so they can share it with the world. It's reassuring to know that bands like this are rockin' planet Earth along with us. Before Clutch went on to play before a spirited crowd at Stage AE in Pittsburgh, PA on April 19th 2013, we had the honor of meeting with drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, who was more than amicable by allowing us into the band's private dressing room to hash out some details about how drumming and the band has permeated his life.
What drives you to make your music?
Jean-Paul Gaster: I think it has to do with when we started the band. We started this band because we wanted to play good shows and make good records. That inspires us to continue to do what we do, even today. That mentality is very much a part of the band and who we are and the way we look at being in a band.
What state of mind do you tend to be in when creating music versus playing music? Is it two different states of mind?
JPG: Yeah, definitely. Two very different mind-sets. When we're creating music, I'm very much just paying attention to what each guy is doing. We tend to get together and just jam, and that usually happens at my place. We just moved into a warehouse so we'll actually be moving the studio over there and that will be fun. I'm usually the guy who records the stuff, we record absolutely everything. So I'm always listening to what these guys are playing and as soon as I feel like there is a new thing happening that needs to be documented, I'm pushing Record. So I'm kind of doing two things at once. Then when the songs are written and it comes time to play the shows, that's a completely different mindset, you know. I very much strive to stay out of my head and just play from the neck down.
So what are some of the biggest challenges you face when trying to create a new album?
JPG: Not trying to repeat yourself. That's one of the main things that we really focus on. The reality is that we've been together for 22 years. We're just gonna sound like what we sound like. But within that, we're trying to always find something new, a new avenue or a new way of looking at something. I think that's probably the main challenge.
When you guys are writing new songs, what comes first, lyrics or the instrumentals?
JPG: Usually the music comes together, although more and more we tend to hear lyrics right off the bat when just kicking around an idea. At least they're vocals anyway, maybe I shouldn't call them lyrics, they're more vocal ideas. That's a good thing because we get some perspective on the music when Neil interjects sort of how he's sort of thinking about singing a particular part, it tends to clear up a lot of the confusion sometimes as to what the part is supposed to be and what we're supposed to do with it.
Are there any specific messages you can speak of on any particular songs?
JPG: Neil writes all the lyrics. Rarely, from what I know, is there really a message. I think that there is a lot of things that inspire the lyrics and sort of bring those lyrics to that level where, we can look at the same words, but come away with different ideas as to what those lyrics are about. That's one of the things that I think Neil is best at, and I'm very grateful to have him in the band.
What do you do to unwind from a show?
JPG: I enjoy a cold beer. I enjoy craft beer in particular. Beer is kinda like jazz, you know? You don’t have to like it all. So I enjoy a good beer and usually jazz records.
What do you do to unwind when you're not touring?
JPG: Practice. There are always things to do around the house as well. I look forward to going home and maybe putting some tomatoes in the ground. Getting ready for summer time, I enjoy that. But, you know, drums is very much what I do all the time, and If I'm not playing them I'm usually thinking about them or thinking about the next time I'm going to play them.
You know, there's always things that have to happen, though. I gotta go renew my drivers license; that's a half day for me. So I'll think to myself, now I 'm not gonna be able to practice in the morning, I have to go get my drivers license, then inevitably there will be other errands to run. But I do make it a point to try and play at least a few minutes every day.
How do you keep track of all your musical ideas as you go along?
JPG: Record everything, absolutely record everything. We have everything mic'd up all the time. Everything is ready to go. So as soon as we hit on something, Bam! I'm documenting that thing, and we'll document even just little bits. Each time the idea changes, even just a little detail of it, [we] document that. So that every step along the way gets put into the computer. That way we don’t forget it, because we do have an awful lot of ideas and after a while you just can't keep track of 'em all.
So you have to go through all your previous recordings to find the ones you want to develop?
JPG: That, in itself, is another task [laughs].
Of all your songs, do you have any that you most enjoy playing for crowds?
JPG: We're having a great time playing the new songs. Some of the new songs in particular that I find fun to play would be “Earth Rocker.” I enjoy playing “Gone Cold,” that's the first time I've done brushes on a recording, and it's the first time that I've brought brushes into the live Clutch setting. So, for me, that's kind of a breakthrough. I enjoy playing that. We've been putting “Book, Saddle and Go” into the set for the last few weeks, and that song has been becoming a really fun song to play as well.
I see you switch your set lists up a lot.
JPG: Yep, we switch it up every night. Tonight is my night, tomorrow night would be Neil. We go in alphabetical order by first name.
Do you have a favorite Clutch album?
JPG: Yeah, it's funny to say but the Earth Rocker record is something that we're very proud of. It took longer to make than the other records. We really concentrated on trying to make a record that was very cohesive from beginning to end. As far as the entire recording, I'm very proud of the way Earth Rocker turned out.
Our self-titled album, I think, was very important in that we sort of found our voice on that album, and I still enjoy playing the songs on that album.
My first concert with you guys was back in '98 with Slayer and System of a Down in Cleveland, it was awesome.
JPG: Yeah! Sweet, I remember that tour well.
You guys do have a loyal fanbase.
JPG: Yes, we're very lucky to have folks like you that have been coming to see us for years and years, and we're gonna keep doing it.
Personal favorite band?
JPG: Personal favorite band, that's tough to say. Black Sabbath comes to mind. I just got the new Black Sabbath single last night, and I listened to it and that was cool. Some of those riffs were pretty mighty. Black Sabbath is very important to me. Bad Brains, very important band. Maybe the Allman Brothers, too.
What is the last concert you went to as a fan?
JPG: Last concert I went to, as a fan, was Roy Haines. Roy Haines is a drummer who has been playing professionally since probably the mid 40's. He played with everybody –from Charlie Parker to Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane– and he made a bunch of records on his own. He was 86 years old, and it was really very inspiring to see him play with such passion. It was interesting to watch him play because at 86, you could still tell that his mind is working and he's playing new ideas and he's still experimenting on stage.
That was something I needed to see, it was very inspiring. I'm planning on doing this for a long time, so to see a drummer like that was very educational.
Do you have a particular time of day that you are most creative, like morning or night?
JPG: Yeah, after I've been at home for a while, not on tour, I do get up early...relatively early anyway. I enjoy practicing in the morning- having a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of toast, and then get down in the basement and spend some time on the drums. That's definitely a favorite time of mine. I enjoy the evening time too, you know, when the sun is starting to set. If I'm home I'll probably fire up the grill, the wife and I will throw some pork chops on there.
Does your family ever come with you on tour?
JPG: Yeah, sometimes. My wife comes out and visits from time to time. It is difficult because you know this is a job, but a lot of people don't really see that. Day in and day out, it can be pretty grueling, and it's not really a place you wanna have your spouse the whole time. It's tough living conditions some times.
Clutch has had a few brushes with the zombie genre- do you find yourself liking any zombie fiction?
JPG: My wife was a big fan of The Walking Dead, and I enjoy that too now. She likes zombies more than I do.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?
JPG: I like to cook when I can and I enjoy spending time outdoors, but mostly, I like to play drums.
What inspires you musically?
JPG: Well, the drums are an instrument that require to spend some time with it every day. And you have to take that time. If you'll do that, it's very rewarding. There are numerous things that you can be considering all at once. When I'm practicing, I'm thinking about a lot of different ways of looking at the drums. I try not to practice just one thing, I sort of try to bounce around. It's great because I've been doing this now for 22 years, and I still find a great challenge in looking at those drums and trying to make some sense of that instrument. For me, the challenges involved in playing the drums and trying to get to know that instrument is really integral to the way I look at being in a band.
If you could do anything in the universe, what would it be?
JPG: I wish I could be a drummer who knew what the hell was going on [laughs].
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
JPG: So much violence happening these days, and it's really disheartening and frustrating. At the same time, it makes you realize that what we do is very special. It provides people with a great deal of satisfaction and entertainment. In these tough times, when we have things happening that have been happening the last few days, I think it makes what we do even more important to us.
What is one place in the world that you haven't been that you would like to visit?
JPG: We were joking around that we'd like to go to Cuba [laughs]. Some friends of ours were talking about how it would be fun to play down in Cuba, I think that would be interesting. But South America in general, we've not had the opportunity to play down there yet, and that would be a lot of fun, I think. Brazil especially seems like it would be a great country for Rock and Roll.
Since you started your label, Weathermaker Music, do you feel any differently about sharing albums online?
JPG: Not really. My thought process has always been that most folks that enjoy Clutch music are going to buy Clutch music. That's not saying all of them will. Ultimately, I think our fans are ones that really wanna have at least the real CD and the packaging, while being able to look at the lyrics, that's all very important.
I think the truth is, eventually there's gonna come a time where music is not something you even pay for. I think it's probably gonna be free. As much as I hate to admit that, I think that's probably the reality. The real challenge will be just getting out there and playing, and I think the albums will really be just a tool to get your music out to the people. Which is pretty tough knowing that, we have our own label now. I think that's kinda the reality.
Do you have any thoughts particularly on the Boston Marathon tragedy?
JPG: You know, the thing that frustrates me the most about it is the way that, ultimately, they'll probably politicize this thing and very little good will come of anything that we learn from it. That's what is so frustrating to me. All the politics that are gonna get injected in to it.
What did you do before Clutch?
JPG: [laughs] I worked at a children shoe store for a lot of years. I used to work for a really cool family. They were very patient with my drumming and my wanting to be in a band, so they would let me take off when I needed to. That was fun. I worked as a welder for a while as well, and that's when I realized I really don't wanna be a welder, I really wanna try and get this drumming thing happening. [laughs] Thank God that worked out.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
JPG: I wanted to be a pilot, for a while. I thought it would be cool to be a Navy pilot. But then I was informed that you have to do well in school to do that. I wasn't a very good student. And I used to like to ride skateboards quite a bit, but to be honest I wasn't really sure what I was gonna do. I always enjoyed working. I was very industrious, I would mow lawns or clean gutters, cut down trees and dig ditches or even walk dogs. Whatever it took to put a couple bucks in my pocket. So I definitely wasn't afraid of hard work, but I certainly didn't get along with the idea of doing homework. That was a hurdle for me.
Do you have any superstitions?
JPG: No, I don't have any superstitions. Although I did eat a bunch of hot wings the other night before I went to bed, and I had this crazy dream that the house was talking to me.
What did it say?
JPG: It said, “You're not the only one here.” That's creepy. But it was only because I ate a bunch of hot wings.
Do you have any rituals you perform before a show?
JPG: Actually, I have something that I call the Rudimentary Ritual that I play before every show. This is an exercise that a very famous jazz drum teacher came up with, his name is Alan Dawson. The rudiments are basically the building blocks of what we use when we drum. There are hundreds of rudiments out there, and Alan took about 86 of them and put them together in a sequence. It takes about 20 minutes to get through the whole thing. It's very meditative, I enjoy doing that before a show.
In a previous interview, Neil had mentioned wanting a monosyllabic name for a band- what made the band decide on the name Clutch?
JPG: Because the other option at the time was Belt. I think Belt kinda sucks for a name. We used to not really care for Clutch very much, I remember that. There was a time a few years ago when we thought our name sucked. I'm glad we kept it though.
What are you reading right now?
JPG: I'm reading a book about Birds Eye, the guy who started frozen foods. It's kind of an interesting story, but I don't usually read stuff like that. I like reading Cormac McCarthy. I've read most of his books. His books are cool because I feel like you can read them again in a few months or maybe a year later. You definitely see different things in the book. I would probably say my favorite book is Blood Meridian. The Miles Davis autobiography is also pretty great.