Interview – Jean-Paul Gaster, Clutch Drummer
House of Blues, Anaheim, CA, March 24, 2013
by Brent D. Tharp
Prior to Clutch’s Anaheim show on the Earth Rocker tour (live show review), I had the opportunity to speak with their drummer, Jean-Paul Gaster. We spoke on a variety of topics, but much of this interview focuses on the studio work for Earth Rocker, which dropped March 19, the recording process with producer Machine, and Gaster’s constant quest for drumming history and knowledge. Most recently, this includes some journeys, musically, to the Bayou swamps of New Orleans. The interview was conducted outside, early on a warm, spring evening in southern California.
The new album has been out all of five days. Have you had a chance to look on your website forum, seen any feedback from the fans, heard anything from people after the shows?
Sure. Everybody seems to be very excited about the record. Of course, that’s always the case when you release a new record; people are always enthusiastic about it. But it feels like the energy on this record is especially…”bubbly.” I really feel like something is resonating with this record, more than previous albums, so it’s an exciting time for the band.
One of the things I noticed on the new album, is that Tim’s [Tim Sult, Clutch’s lead guitarist] front and center on this album, even more so than Neil [Neil Fallon, Clutch’s lead singer and lyricist].
Yes. I think a lot of that has to do with the producer, too, Machine. He’s a very guitar-oriented kind of guy, and I know Tim spent a lot of time recording his guitar parts, probably more than he has on the last couple records. Machine is very meticulous, and he’s very concerned about the sound for the part. I know that there are a variety of guitar tones on the record, and Machine is really good at choosing the right tone for the right part. [Editorial note: Machine also produced Clutch albums Pure Rock Fury in 2001, and Blast Tyrant in 2004.]
Going into the studio on this one, I understand you did a lot of preparation ahead of time. Was that partly because Machine was producing it?
We knew what we were getting into with Machine. He has a very specific way of working. As the songs were coming together, we knew that we wanted to make this focused rock record. We wanted it to be very concise, and so we spent a lot of time really editing ourselves, being very detail-oriented, knowing that when Machine got there, it was going to be even ramped up another notch. So, I think just knowing that Machine was going to be part of the project, I think really put a spin on the way we put the songs together.
It sounds, just listening to it, like a lot of work went into the new album. I mean, really, how was it? When you finished it, were you all completely tired out, or excited?
Very excited, very excited. We knew, even just going into the studio, that we had a special collection of songs. The interesting thing about Machine is the way that he actually records, and that is that we all recorded our parts separately, which is different than we do normally. Usually we get in there as a band and play, the three or four of us, if Neil’s playing guitar on a song, the four of us will be in there cutting a song together, and that’s the way we’ve done the majority of our recordings. Machine really looks at it a completely different way. So, that means the tracks that he records in pre-production, end up being the tracks that I play to. So I go up to New Jersey by myself, and I listen to the scratch demo tracks, and a click track, and we really build the drum parts from the ground up. That’s a very different way of recording. I kind of liken it to being a vocalist in a vocal booth, in that it’s just yourself and the producer, and it’s very detail oriented, in that you’re recording small bits, some verses, some choruses, maybe a couple bridges. So…he’s really good at being able to take those short little performances, and then build an entire performance out of that.
I realized watching some video footage of Machine working with Neil, that you don’t get an opportunity to cheat, when you’re working by yourself with your producer.
That’s right. There is no cheating going on, you’ve got to play every damn thing.
And as a producer, then, he has to know that what he’s doing separately, is going to come together and sound right, or it’s a complete cluster.
Right. He has a vision of what the recording is going to be even before we start it. He already knows in his mind the kind of performances he’s looking for, the kind of sounds he’s looking for. But I think also, a lot of that has to do with him knowing the band as well as he does. We’ve known Machine now for 12 years, recorded with him on numerous occasions, and we know that when we get together with him, it’s a different way of recording, it’s a different way to make an album. And as musicians, I think it’s very important that you put yourself, sometimes, in those situations where you’re not totally comfortable, it’s different than what you did last time. Good things come from that kind of energy.
I read an interview with Machine where he said when he first started working with you, his goal was to help the band make radio-friendly songs. So, 12 years later, do you think he’s getting there?
Ah, I don’t know! [Gaster laughs loudly]
I’ve been trying to come up with the right way to describe your fans. They’re not rabid fans, from the standpoint of liking the band no matter what. Your fans seem to be committed, but thoughtful. They would give you a free pass if they didn’t like a particular release, but they also know that you don’t expect them to do that. And it seems like they would be disappointed if you put out an album that sounded a lot like one of your recent albums.
I think that’s the case with the majority of the folks who appreciate our band. There’s always going to be that contingent of people who have some kind of emotional attachment to an album, but so much of that has to do with wherever they were in their lives at that point. Maybe it was the summertime that they spent with some girl, or maybe they went away to school, and they were hanging with their buddies, and that particular album was a record that was important for them. So, they always identify that part of their life with the band. But I feel like those fans are really the minority. For the most part, I think our fans are really anxious to hear new material. They expect us to do something different, and I think they would see through it if we just went up there and ran through the motions. They would know.
I think they’ll be into whatever you put out, as long as you’re honest about it, and they can tell, on stage, that you believe in it. And you’re giving them all that you’ve got.
Right. Yes, I agree. And I think the same thing goes too, for bands we take on tour with us. Clutch fans will see through bullshit in a second. On the other hand, if a band just gets up there and plays hard, and plays honestly, like they mean it, the chances are that that band is going to gain some fans from touring with our band.
Talk for a minute about Weathermaker Music. You already have a lot of side projects going, and now you’re also running a label at the same time. Is there a part of that, that’s just a big pain in the ass? And what do you love about it, that you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise?
Well, I think it was much more a pain in the ass when we were on the major labels, labels like Atlantic and Columbia, and even later on, when we were with DRT. The relationship with a label was always a difficult thing for us, even from the very beginning. The frustrations that we dealt with, really made it more difficult to be in a band, made it more difficult to write music, made it more difficult to concentrate on playing shows. So when we started Weathermaker, we went into it knowing that it is going to require us to spend a little more time, and think about the business, but it’s a much more fun way to do it. The meetings that we have are productive, fun meetings, and it’s not about fighting with the label about this or the other, or we need to try to convince the label that we want to make another record. We don’t do that; we do fun stuff, and that makes it an enjoyable part of what we do.
So now you can argue about what design to use on a skateboard deck that you’re including in an album bundle that you’re selling.
Whereas, a major label would say, you can’t do that. We need to license that from so-and-so skateboard company.
You nailed it. It requires us to put some time in it, but it’s fun stuff like that.
A lot of people told Ani DiFranco that she wouldn’t make it with her own label, but they were proven wrong. She’s selling quite a few albums now, but even back then, she could sell a tenth of what she needed to sell on a major label, and still make enough money to survive, to have a full-time job being a musician. What’s more important to you in having your own label, the artistic freedom or the financial freedom to be a musician full-time?
I think these days, it really goes hand in hand. The mentality of the band, from the very beginning, was to play good shows, and to make good records. We still do that to this day. At the same time, we’re very blessed that we can do this for a living. We’re appreciative of it, and I think the fact that we can make a living at this, just makes us work all the harder, because it’s really something special. I know there are a lot of bands out there that would give anything, to be in our position. So we don’t take it for granted, we get out and we play hard every night, because we know that’s what we’re there to do, and that’s what we’re best at.
Okay, now, talk about the shuffle.
The shuffle. Well, you can spend a lifetime playing the shuffle. We did a tour with Thin Lizzy in the UK, and it was really fun to watch Brian Downey. He was as inspiring as he was educational. It’s interesting to watch a drummer from his generation, who grew up playing shuffles that were probably Earl Palmer shuffles, or Chicago shuffles, and then to hear him put his twist on it, and make it what, eventually, became heavy metal. For me, it’s important to dig deep, and think about where those rhythms came from. Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of early rock n roll, from New Orleans. I’m talking about guys like Professor Longhair, Fats Domino. The drumming on those records is shuffle based, and it’s interesting to watch what happened in the 50s, when guys started to straighten out that shuffle just a little bit, and put a little bit more of an edge on it. Guys like Earl Palmer, for me, were really instrumental in pushing those triplets around, mashing them together or spreading them out. There’s an amazing amount of flexibility that happens within that feeling, within that shuffle. The more you know about it, the more you study it, the more music you listen to, the more it really becomes your own.
What you’re talking about is old jazz greats and blues guys, who were playing brushes and that kind of thing. Over more than 20 years, you’ve done it all, seen it all, but it must be exciting when you find something like that, from way back, to inspire you.
That’s the thing with drums, you know? It requires you to think about it every day, and to be honest about who you are as a drummer, where you draw your influences, where you hear the music. Speaking for myself, I study every day, I think about the drums every day, at least a little bit, and when I don’t, I don’t feel good about my playing. Man, the drums, that is the best instrument [laughs].
[laughing] Of course it is! What artists in particular are you listening to right now?
For me, it means studying the history of the instrument, trying to find those guys who really had their own sound, and their own approach to the drums, and how that affected the music. You can take a guy like Elvin Jones, one of my very favorite drummers in the world. He was a jazz drummer, but he was also greater than that. He really took the drums to a different spot. The way that he thought of polyrhythms, the way that he listened to the music, the way he orchestrated those parts on the drum kit, was pretty revolutionary. You take a guy like that, and then you think about, how far was his influence, how far-reaching was that? From guys like Elvin Jones, you’ve got guys like Ginger Baker, and John Bonham, all these kinds of drummers. Sure, he was a jazz drummer, but he really changed the way that people looked at the instrument. That’s what’s exciting for me, trying to find those kinds of players.
A lot of music, beyond being derivative, is also whatever is the current flavor of the month. You guys don’t seem to ever be concerned about that at all. It seems like that might be a label’s concern, but especially with your own label, there’s no concern at all. You just go with stuff, and it’s exciting as a listener, because you have no idea what you’re going to get when you pick up that album.
Throughout the years, we’ve made it a point to not really pay attention so much to what is happening, but to make music that we like, and that we want to listen to, and that we feel good about playing.
Anything you want to say to the fans, or misconceptions you want to clear up?
A lot of times, you meet people, and they see that you’re in a rock band, and there’s this tremendous amount of noise that comes off the stage. Often times, you meet fans, and I think they’re pretty surprised at how quiet we are, and laid back, and we really do tend to stay to ourselves. It’s really about playing the music, that mentality doesn’t permeate all of our lives. We’re not running around yelling all the time.
I read Lemmy’s [Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead] autobiography, and he’s brutally honest in his book. How was it being on tour with him?
Lemmy was inspiring on a lot of levels, and a very nice guy to hang out with, and speak with. Watching that guy play music, for me, takes me to what we were talking about before, thinking about the history of the music and where it comes from. When I was a young man, and I first heard Motörhead, I was convinced that it was the heaviest, most metal thing that ever happened. When we toured with Motörhead this last time around, I looked at them, and I thought, this is an amped up rhythm and blues band. To me, that epitomizes the respect I have for that band.
You’ve been together for more than 20 years, including off days when you’re on tour. What keeps you guys from killing each other?
We have a tremendous amount of respect for one another, and we also know each other inside and out. We’re good at giving each other room, and I think that’s probably the main thing that keeps the band together. The other part of that is what we were talking about earlier. When we got the band together, the intention was just to play shows, and make good records. It wasn’t to make a bunch of money, to get on the radio, or to pack stadiums, because all the bands that we liked didn’t do any of those things. I think a lot of it has to do with just being honest with why it is you’re in a band, and why you want to make music. We all work on the same wavelength, in that respect. We all have very different influences, and listen to very different kinds of music, and think about music in different ways, but the one thing that we have in common, is really that we’ve stuck with that goal, of playing good shows, and making good records.
And I think, a lot like your fans, you’ve never really put a label on your music.
Right. Miles Davis once said, that if you name it, then you’ve dated it.
Very good. Nice to meet you in person, Jean-Paul, and thanks.
That was fun. I’m glad we got to enjoy the evening out here.