In-depth Interview With Clutch Drummer Jean-Paul Gaster

Interview by Avinash Mittur

Maryland rockers Clutch are all set to take the year of 2013 by storm with the release of their fantastic new album ‘Earth Rocker’ on March 19th. We started listening to it a week or so ago, and it hasn’t left our music players since then. This is an essential set of tunes for all heavy music fans. And what’s more, the band is ready to embark on the Earth Rocker North American Tour now, to play some of these songs on stage for us. After reviewing the record, we set up an interview with drummer Jean-Paul Gaster to discuss this album in detail, among other things, of course. Our man Avinash had a great conversation with JP yesterday. Read it below, check out the amazing lyric video for the title track, and visit Clutch online using links at the bottom.

First thing, I got to listen to Earth Rocker for the first time last night and it kicks a whole lot of butt, congratulations dude.

Awesome, you enjoyed it?

Oh yeah, I liked it a lot!

That’s good to hear! [laughs]

I noticed your drumming is a lot more hard hitting and direct than it was on Strange Cousins From The West. Were your drum parts dictated by the songwriting or perhaps the other way around?

Well, I think it came from our mentality of trying to make a very focused rock record, a record that had a good energy from beginning to end. That mentality really kind of permeates the whole process, and it affected the way I play drums on the record, the way we put the songs together- really it was that mentality that we carried throughout the whole process.

On “Mr. Freedom” you do this kind of funky shuffle too, there are some other songs where you sound like you’re going back to an old school Bernard Purdie-like shuffle.

Yeah definitely! One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of ‘shuffle’. You can spend a lifetime trying to master it, and there’s always going to be new subtleties and new ways of looking at it. You can never really say ‘Yeah, I own it’. Except maybe Bernard Purdie! [laughs] But yeah, that concept of shuffle is something that I thought about for the recording. There are some cut-time shuffles that have a Bernard Purdie kind of a feel, there’s also more of a rock and roll kind of a shuffle- for that one I was thinking about Professor Longhair and his drummer Johnny Vidacovich on their song “Bald Head”. That was kind of a different take on a shuffle, and then there are some double shuffles. There’s some Chicago double shuffles on there as well on “Book, Saddle & Go”. There’s a few of those different styles on the record.

Were these new styles for you to take on and learn, or have they always been a part of your vocabulary and bag of tricks as a drummer?

I think it’s something that I’ve played since the beginning, but it’s one of these things that you have to cultivate and think about as you’re playing in 12/8. For me, it’s not really a ‘bag of tricks’- it has to do with how you subdivide the measure. You can look at the measure in a straight way like in quarters and eighth notes, and then within that you can further divide in a straight way or you can divide in triplets, but you can be thinking in 12/8 or playing in 4. It’s all how you hear that subdivision. It’s important to keep that other gear happening, that 12/8 gear going on, when you’re playing- your playing has to be a little bit more elastic so it allows the groove to breathe a little bit.

From what I understand, the songs on Earth Rocker were written to reign in the more ‘jammy’ aspects of Clutch in order to keep things more straight ahead, right?

Yeah! We wanted to make a record that was very focused and had a good energy from beginning to end. We thought a lot about how we would structure the songs and making them fairly straightforward. The arrangements I think are very efficient- we thought a lot about that, and how to make them pack a punch and be able to say what we needed to say and get out of the way.

I haven’t gotten to hear these songs live yet since I’m on the west coast, but how are these songs going to be expanded upon in the live setting?

All of these songs we played live before we got into the studio, and we actually thought a lot about how these songs would translate in a live setting. We wanted songs that had that ability to be recorded as well they were when played live, but that doesn’t happen with all of our songs. For example, songs that sound cool on a record but don’t translate to the live show. I’m thinking of something like “Amazing Kreskin”- I love the recording of that song and we have played it live on occasion, but it’s just not one that seems to translate well to the live setting. We wanted to be sure that every song on Earth Rocker would be able to do that. As far as the improvisational aspect of things goes, there will be times during our set where we’re definitely going to improvise on some of these newer themes, and that’ll make things exciting. The record was really an attempt to make things really focused though.

I noticed that the band have been a lot more active on social media and with promotion in general with this new album- is that perhaps due to having more experience with running your own label, Weathermaker, compared to the last time around?

Absolutely. We’ve learned a lot since we first started Weathermaker, and we can’t discount the impact of social media on how people hear music and people’s impression of music. I think we’ve been getting better at that with the last couple of releases on Weathermaker.

Definitely, I particularly really liked the in-the-studio videos.

It was fun to record those bits, and I was proud of the way we were able to sort of ration them out on a pretty regular basis. It really helped to build up the energy leading up to the release of this album.

About Weathermaker real quick- I know the reissues of your albums on DRT Records are all finished up, but is there any other archival material that Clutch might release in some form?

Yeah, there could be. There are a bunch of old tapes from demos that we did throughout the ’90s that are just waiting to be gone through. Some of that stuff was released and others were songs that we never released any versions of. I got to say though, the next two years are going to be really busy doing Earth Rocker tours. We’re hitting the road hard for this one. The touring’s going to be very extensive and it’s going to take us two years to do all the things we want to do for this album.

Going back to Earth Rocker– this is the first album you’ve done with Machine producing since Blast Tyrant. What was different about the production process this time around compared to the last time you worked with him?

I think we’re both better at what we do. He has definitely grown in both the music that he listens to and the way he does his thing- I think he’s even better at it and we’re better players. One difference between Blast Tyrant and Earth Rocker was that we spent considerably more time in pre-production this time, probably twice as much time getting the songs together, talking about arrangements, tempos, things like that. It was a little more of an extensive process and that actually made the recording part of it easier. I think we were better equipped to record in the style Machine records because we had done so much pre-production.

Was the pre-production process just you four jamming in a rehearsal room, or was Machine involved in a way?

By the time Machine came onboard, all the songs were written. The actual writing process started really three years ago. In between tours for Strange Cousins we would get together and jam. If we had a couple weeks off we would get together and throw around some ideas. We never really tried to make those ideas into songs, they were mostly just jams. It was fun to work that way, it was low pressure. After three years of that, we had a huge pile of material to go through. A lot of that stuff we didn’t use, some stuff we cannibalized, others became inspiration for something totally new. By the time we got to the actual pre-production with Machine, we had a pretty good idea of what the songs were going to be and how we wanted to arrange them. He really helped us fill in the details and bring them to their current state.

I was just going to mention that the song “Pig Town Blues” was played live right around the same time as “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…”- was it left off of Earth Rocker because it didn’t fit with the vibe of the record?

We were experimenting with some acoustic kind of arrangements. We put some stuff on the re-release of Blast Tyrant, some re-workings of older songs but done with a minimal, but not exactly full acoustic scenario. It was playing in that dynamic, playing very quietly, that was something that was very challenging for us. One of the last songs from that writing session was “Pig Town Blues”. Just after we recorded that version of the song, we switched gears and started thinking about Earth Rocker. That was sort of like us ‘turning the page’ towards what we wanted to do on Earth Rocker.

I noticed that some of the extra tracks on the Blast Tyrant re-release feature keyboards. Who played them?

Chris Brooks played keyboards on those songs! Chris plays for a band called Lionize who we tour with quite a bit. They’re friends of ours and a great band. He was around and available. He’s a great player so we brought him onboard to play keyboards.

I know in the past you have brought Chris onstage to play keys for some of the DRT-era songs. Since you’ll be touring with Lionize on this upcoming headlining tour, do you think this might be a regular occurrence?

You never know! We’ll get out there and see what happens. We’ll see what the set list brings- we play a different set list every night. On the first night of the tour Dan [Maines, bass] will make the set list, the second night is myself, then Neil [Fallon, vocals] and then Tim [Sult, guitar]. Then we start all over. We started doing that about fifteen years ago, and that allows us to have a wider variety of songs to include in the set. On any given night there might be DRT-era songs with keyboards on them, or maybe we’ll play something older or newer. This way it stays fresh and it makes for a more exciting show for us and hopefully the audience.

Now for you in particular when you get to choose the set list, is there an era of Clutch that you like to especially draw songs from or perhaps an era you try to avoid?

Well, we switch it up pretty regularly. I think we have certain songs from each era that translate especially well. Going back to what we talked about earlier, some songs are better live than in the studio and others vice versa. We tend to pull some songs from all the eras that best represent the live set that we were in at that time. On any given night it could be anything from the past twenty three years.

I asked the mainly because I heard you weren’t too big of a fan of the Pure Rock Fury era of Clutch, and I noticed that you guys don’t play very many songs from that album live these days.

Yeah, I guess some songs just get played more than others. I don’t really have a good explanation for that. There are songs that sort of come into favor and songs that sort of go away. On any given night though, you never know what you’re going to hear.

Is that the same case for you as the musician though? Like say when Dan puts together a set list, how far in advance do you get to see the set and prepare for it?

We usually know right around after dinner time. That’s usually around 7 or 8 o’clock when the set list finally gets turned in and show time is usually around 9 or 10 o’clock, so we got two hours there. That means you might have to do some homework, that certainly happens. You might have to get your iPod out and try and reacquaint yourself with some songs.

I also noticed that your printed set lists usually don’t have encores listed. Do you guys typically improvise the encores?

Yeah absolutely. Rarely do we actually write in the encore. We will do that on occasion if the set list makes more sense that way, but for the most part the encore is something we decide right there. Usually that’s when we’re backstage having a beer and cooling down for a second.

About eight years back ago Clutch did ‘An Evening With Clutch’ tour that featured two full Clutch sets and had The Bakerton Group [the instrumental side-project of the members of Clutch] opening. Do you think Clutch may return to the ‘An Evening With…’ style for any future shows again?

Sure, it could happen! That was a lot of fun because we were able to play Bakerton Group stuff, which is a completely different approach and it was a great warm-up for the Clutch sets too. I prefer doing that kind of ‘An Evening With…’ show to be honest. Having said that, it’s pretty demanding. We would play for close to three hours at a time. It’ll take us a few weeks to get our sea legs on this tour. Who knows, that could happen later on in the touring cycle for Earth Rocker.

While you guys were on DRT the band was putting out albums once every one or two years whereas there was a four year gap in between these two Weathermaker releases. Does operating your own label lend a more relaxed vibe to the touring and album cycles and allow for more time in between albums?

For sure. There’s no pressure at all to put out a record or to wait- we’ve been in both scenarios before. We wanted to record earlier than we did actually- we had plans to record an album about two years ago, but then these tours kept coming in. First was Black Label Society, that was a really extensive tour of the United States. That was a good tour, we were able to play for new people and get the music out to fresh ears. That sort of pushed things back and while we were on that tour, we got the word that we would be touring with Motorhead. You have to go on tour with Motorhead! [laughs]. That happened and then shortly after that we got to tour with Thin Lizzy in the U.K. Things kept getting pushed back, we all these opportunities coming to us. Like you said, there was not a lot of pressure. If we wanted to make a record, we could do it.

You know, it’s a good thing that those Motorhead and Thin Lizzy tours happened especially. From what I understand, those two bands in particular were a large influence on the concise attack seen on Earth Rocker.

Without a doubt. We thought about those bands a lot when we were writing the songs and when recording the album.

I wanted to hear your opinion on this as a drummer- what do you think of drumming to a click track either live or in the studio? I’ve seen insane metal drummers like Gene Hoglan use them, but I have never seen you use one on any videos or the two times I saw Clutch.

I think a click is a great tool. On Earth Rocker I played exclusively to click tracks. I think you do have to practice. I know early on in our recording career, I would play along with click tracks from time to time and it would be very frustrating. You have to practice that stuff and you have to be prepared. It’s a tool, and I enjoy it in some ways.  It definitely allows you some freedom for things like editing at home. Just speaking for myself, when I’m doing demos in the basement I’ll play to a click because it’ll make it easier for me to chop stuff up and maybe rearrange stuff. Having said that, I think you have to have good time as well. You can’t just rely on the click track for your timekeeping, you have to have that feeling internalized. It’s good to practice with a click, but it’s also just as important to play without the click and be aware of the time and how it feels.

Right! Because in a way, the drummer is supposed to be the click and be the metronome for the band.

Right, yeah! That is your primary goal as a drummer- your first job is to keep time. The band is only as good as the drummer and if the drummer has trouble with time, it’s going to be a battle from the very beginning.

About your drum set- you’ve only got one rack tom and one floor tom. I personally think that’s really cool when drummers have small kits, but how do you achieve your signature huge sounding fills like the one near the end of “Cypress Grove”?

Well, recently I’ve been thinking a lot about sticking- how you get around the drums and how you navigate from drum to drum. It’s also really important to get a lot of sounds out of just a few things, and that why I play the kit that I have. I like to have drums that are very resonant, and that you can open up in some scenarios or you can sort of bury them and get a different kind of a sound. It’s important for your drums to be able to detune properly so you can play with a lot of dynamics- that’s just as important as what drums to play, it’s how loud you play them. Making sure that you’re cognizant of different dynamics and making some notes louder than others is a simple idea that adds a lot of character and a lot more feeling.

Gotcha. I noticed you also have two ride cymbals on your kit- that’s really uncommon with most rock drummers out there.

I look at cymbals the same way I do my drums. I want my cymbals to give me a wide variety of sounds and it’s important to think back historically when we first started seeing cymbals on the drum kit right around the turn of the century. There was no such thing as a ride cymbal or a crash cymbal, they were all just cymbals and it was up to you to play it and make it sound the way you needed it to sound. It wasn’t actually until much later on that people started thinking about ‘this is a crash cymbal’ or ‘this is a ride cymbal’. I try to look at my cymbals the same way, they’re supposed to be able to do the same things. I want a cymbal with a bell, I want a cymbal that can open up very nicely for a crash sound, or a washy kind of a sound, I want a cymbal that sounds just as good when you play it very loud and when you play it very quietly. Both drums and cymbals are something that you want to be able to draw a lot of colors out of.

Going back to the live shows, Clutch have developed almost a ‘Deadhead’-like culture among the fans with people going to multiple shows on the same tour and fans trading bootlegs online. How did this develop throughout the years since the self-titled record when Clutch started touring nationally?

I think it happened really pretty naturally.  I think the key element was the fact that we toured as much as we did and people realized that we were a good live band going out there and supporting their latest album. The first job of a band is to play live- I think people realized that we’re most comfortable live and that kind of spread through word of mouth as time went on.

Clutch don’t headline in the west coast very often, the last time the band did a headlining run around here was close to four years ago. Why is this the case?

Four years is probably right. Well, you guys are far away man! [laughs] When you book a tour, you have route it in a way that makes sense. I love California but we can’t just tour only California, we have to get out there and make it back and do okay financially. On this particular tour though, we’re doing a pretty good job of hitting up California. We’re going to continue to tour on this album and hit some other places on the west coast. We love it over there, it’s just a matter of getting out there.

Sure. I don’t know how much you’ve been keeping up with the news with Slayer and Black Sabbath lately, but drummers have been getting the short end of the stick lately when it comes to having a say in the band’s activities. Was this something you’ve ever had to deal with in your career as a drummer?

Speaking for myself, not really. As a band member, you’re worth what you contribute to the end result and some drummers are very content just to sit there while the rest of the band figures out whatever the song is, and then the drummer just kicks in and starts playing that same old beat again. That works for some bands, but speaking for myself I love to be very involved in everything we do. I try to contribute ideas to whatever project I’m working on, I’m definitely not one of those fly-on-the-wall type drummers. I definitely think you are as important as how much you contribute.

Earth Rocker is set to be released on vinyl, CD and digital formats- how do you absorb music nowadays? Do you usually spin vinyl, listen to your iPod or do you still listen to CDs?

Well yes, I do all of those! A lot of times I’ll stream music actually. One of my favorite radio stations in the world, actually my absolute favorite radio station in the world, is WWOZ out of New Orleans, LA. At any given time you can tune in to that station and you’re going to hear some great music. A lot of it is traditional New Orleans music but there’s a lot of other stuff that’s played there too, music from around the world. It’s one of my favorite things to listen to that station because you never know what you’re going to hear. We stream Pandora a lot here at my house, we do that quite a bit. In between I’ve got my iPod and I try to keep that very well stocked and try to bring in some new records whenever I can. We listen to a lot of music around here, that’s for sure.

Are there any other drummers that you’ve seen lately that really blew you away live or on record?

Well sure! I try to go out and see my favorite drummers play whenever I can. One show that I went to fairly recently that was really inspiring was Roy Haynes, who is 87 years old now. He’s been playing professionally for I don’t know how many years, since the beginning of recorded music. It was really inspiring to see him play because you could see his mind still working. I think there are probably parts of his playing that were affected because of his age, by that I mean I’m not sure if he has the same physical ability to move around the drums like he had when he was 30 or 40. What I found most impressive was that I could see that he was thinking about what he was playing, and he made you not even think about speed or how deftly he played these ideas because his playing was so musical. It was inspiring because he was playing differently than he was thirty years ago, than he did fifty years ago and even before that. He continues to evolve and you can see that in his playing and it is so inspiring and really blew me away.

You know I got that exact same feeling when I saw Tower of Power last summer. Their drummer David Garibaldi was so intensely focused on playing a part that was musical and gave the best contribution to the live show, not simply virtuosic in nature, that it evoked a similar feeling in myself too.

That is… yes. I would love to see David Garibaldi one day, I have not done that yet. He is a monster.

Alright then. Jean-Paul, thank you so much for talking with me. I’ll see you in LA and San Francisco!

No problem, good talking to you and have a good one. 

Related: ‘Earth Rocker’ album review


North American Tour Leg 1 (w/ Orange Goblin, Lionize & Scorpion Child):
3/8: Cincinnati, OH @ Bogart’s
3/9: Nashville, TN @ Marathon Music Works
3/10: Sauget, IL @ Pop’s
3/11: Little Rock, AR @ Juanita’s Cantina Ballroom
3/12: Tulsa, OK @ Cain’s Ballroom
3/14: Dallas, TX @ Palladium Ballroom
3/15: Austin, TX @ SXSW
3/16: Austin, TX @ SXSW
3/18: Colorado Springs, CO @ The Black Sheep
3/19: Salt Lake City, UT @ The Depot
3/21: Los Angeles, CA @ House of Blues
3/22: Tempe, AZ @ The Marquee
3/23: Las Vegas, NV @ Hard Rock Café Las Vegas Strip
3/24: Anaheim, CA @ House of Blues
3/26: San Francisco, CA @ The Regency Ballroom
3/27: Reno, NV @ Knitting Factory
3/29: Seattle, WA @ Showbox at the Market
3/30: Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater
3/31: Boise, ID @ Knitting Factory Concert House
4/1: Missoula, MT @ The Wilma Theater
4/2: Spokane, WA @ Knitting Factory Concert House
4/3: Vancouver, BC @ Commodore Ballroom – SOLD OUT!
4/5: Calgary, AB @ Flames Central
4/6: Saskatoon, SK @ Odeon Events Centre
4/7: Edmonton, AB @ Union Hall
4/9: Winnipeg, MB @ The Garrick Centre
4/10: Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
4/11: Des Moines, IA @ Wooly’s
4/12: Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
4/13: Grand Rapids, MI @ The Orbit Room
4/15: Syracuse, NY @ Westcott Theater
4/16: New Haven, CT @ Toad’s Place
4/18: Toronto, ON @ Sound Academy
4/19: Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE – Indoor
4/20: Baltimore, MD @ Rams Head Live – SOLD OUT!

North American Tour Leg 2 (w/ The Sword & Lionize)
5/1: Richmond, VA @ The National
5/2: New York, NY @ Terminal 5
5/3: Clifton Park, NY @ Upstate Concert Hall
5/4: Portland, ME @ State Theater
5/5: Boston, MA @ House of Blues
5/7: Charlotte, NC @ Amos Southend
5/9: Tampa, FL @ State Theater
5/10: Ft. Lauderdale, FL @ Revolution
5/11: Orlando, FL @ House of Blues
5/12: Pensacola, FL @ Vinyl Music Hall
5/14: New Orleans, LA @ House of Blues
5/15: Atlanta, GA @ Center Stage
5/17: Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
5/18: Columbus, OH @ Rock on the Range*
5/19: Indianapolis, IN @ The Vogue – Tickets
5/21: Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hill Ballroom
5/22: Fargo, ND @ The Venue
5/23: Lincoln, NE @ Bourbon Theate
5/24: Pryor, OK @ Rocklahoma*
5/25: Houston, TX @ House of Blues