Interview: Dan Maines, bassist of Clutch, talks Upstate NY, a new record, and The Walking Dead

When Clutch came to Upstate Concert Hall in September, I was lucky enough to sit down with the bassist, Dan Maines. The lineup of the band has added members to it’s roster over the years, but the core lineup of Dan, Neil Fallon, Jean-Paul Gaster and Tim Sult has remained the constant for over twenty years. Clutch has been a staple to the Upstate New York music scene for most of their career, and it was great to talk about the area, the band and the process with Dan. Also, for the first time, we brought along a local musician, Dustin Alexander, who plays in the band Jesus Christ and the Hallucinogenic Allstars to ask a few questions, bassist to bassist.

Dustin Alexander (JCHA), Dan Maines (Clutch) and Jeff Ayers (NYS Music) backstage of Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park, NY.  Photo by Jim 'JT' Gilbert / JTGphoto.com
Dustin Alexander (JCHA), Dan Maines (Clutch) and Jeff Ayers (NYS Music) backstage of Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park, NY. Photo by Jim ‘JT’ Gilbert / JTGphoto.com

Jeff Ayers: In your personal opinion, how has playing in the heavy rock scene changed in the last two decades? Do you still feel like it’s an uphill battle?

Dan Maines: I don’t know, that’s kind of a hard question to answer. We are not in the position to really know what it’s like for a band starting out now. It might be a little more difficult for them now, as opposed to when we started. We were coming up at a point in time when a whole new genre of music was moving into the mainstream. Bands that we were listening to for years, that we were looking at as influences, they were suddenly becoming major label bands. That happened for us as well, and we got swept up in that frenzy, to jump on that bandwagon. What people were calling alternative, or grunge rock, and some bands that didn’t even fit into that category were swept up too, for better or worse. Talking with the band we are on tour with now, Lionize, they are in a better position nowadays. Hearing the things they pick up on [coming up in the industry.] Now, it seems like it’s not even mandatory to be a legitimate band anymore.

 JA: Yeah, I see that too.

DM: Bands that play along to recorded tracks, that isn’t really being in a band. The whole thing for us is playing a live show, to be entertaining for us and the live audience.

JA: You guys do that very well, I have to say.

DM: Thank you. I mean if you can’t do that as a band, without the use of computers or backtracks, you should probably rethink your approach.

JA: I totally agree. You talked about being swept up by the major label race in the 90’s to sign a bunch of bands.  You guys started on Atlantic or Columbia Records right?

DM: We started on East West. Which was part of that Atlantic family, and that was in 1992, when we signed, and the record (Transnational Speedway League) didn’t come out until 93. We actually released an EP on Earache Records before that. (Passive Restraints).

JA: Then in 2008, you started WeatherMaker Records.  How was that process, being in the business for a while at that point then starting your own label? Was it tough?

DM: Yeah, it definitely was. We were on East West, then moved to Columbia, and then Atlantic. We just got fed up with the game. It’s a weird business, so many personal changes happen on the fly, on a weekly basis sometimes. We felt like there wasn’t any real direction, and nobody knew what the hell to do with us. We signed with an independent label, DRT, and put out three records with them. But that was the slow decline with our relationship with labels. We had to go to court, and winning that decision bolstered our resolve to just say, “Let’s do it ourselves”. At that point, we were in the right position, we had already put out records on our own. We put out Jam Room on Riverroad Records, which was basically selling records out the backdoor of the van. So we had been doing it already to a point, and the only thing we didn’t have was distribution. So we had to find a couple of really good people in that field to work for us in an unconventional label.

JA: Speaking a little about Upstate NY, you guys have been coming to this area for a long time. I can’t even count the amount of times I have seen you play this area. Do you enjoy Upstate NY? Are you happy with the response you get from this area?

DM: Definitely. That is kinda how we started out. Being from Baltimore, we would play up to Boston, and then head to Detroit, and then play our way back home. So this became our spot, or one of them.

Dan Maines (Clutch) at Upstate Concert Hall. Photo by Jim 'JT' Gilbert / JTGphoto.com
Dan Maines (Clutch) at Upstate Concert Hall. Photo by Jim ‘JT’ Gilbert / JTGphoto.com

JA: Do you remember Saratoga Winners?

DM: Absolutely. I mean they were one of the earliest supporters of us, even more so than our hometown. This has always been a really great place for us to play.

JA: We have a great metal scene in this area, but also a great jam scene. You guys fit into so many pieces of that puzzle.

DM: Yeah that’s good. Man, I’ve never even thought about that. Makes sense.

JA: Personally speaking, I started listening to you guys in the mid nineties because a local radio station was playing you (Z-Rock), and then you guys started playing up here. Not only a fan of you guys, but through the times I have seen you tour, I have found favorite bands because the were your openers. Like The Sword, and Mastodon. Do you hand-pick your tour mates?

DM: We get a lot of help from our booking agency, when we are planning on touring, they also have bands on their roster that they suggest to us. Also, bands that we might not know exist, but want to tour with us, submit themselves through our booking agency. We are with The Agency Group. That’s how we found out about American Sharks, when we were touring with The Sword. Kyle (Shutt) suggested that we play with them, and I am really glad he did, because they are great.

JA: You guys have been really lucky to have your music attached to other aspects in the media. You have your songs used in sports games and broadcasts, and video games like Tony Hawk, and also television. Do you see a big help from that stuff? More recent example was when “Regulator” was used in a 2012 episode of The Walking Dead.

DM: That was huge for us!

Dustin Alexander: Are you a Walking Dead fan?

DM: Absolutely! I lost my mind when I got that email.

DA: I got the chills when that song came on.

JA: Dustin and I were watching that episode together, and we jumped off the couch when that scene happened, screaming “Clutch is on the Walking Dead!”

DM: That was amazing. It definitely helped us reach new people, too. Before that episode came out, we keep track of what songs and albums are doing the best on iTunes for example. After that episode aired, there was a huge spike in interest in that song. Same thing goes for like hockey or baseball teams that will sometimes use one of our tunes. I think the Vancouver Canucks, they were using ‘Electric Worry’ as their goal song.

JA: So cool!

DM: Yeah, it’s a hockey stadium, so I guarantee you that more than half the people in that place have never heard of us before. They get that [song] in their heads, and they go ask their friends, or they go look it up. It all helps.

JA: Because I am a giant nerd, I have to ask you this question. On the new record, “Earth Rocker”, the song ‘Unto the Breech’ has a lot of Doctor Who references. Who is the fan in the band?

DM: Neil! To be honest, I didn’t know about half the shit he was talking about.

JA: Ha! But whatever works for the song I guess?

DM: Oh yeah.

JA: I’m going to turn this over to Dustin Alexander, who is a local musician playing in the same genre as you guys, to ask a few more questions:

DA: My biggest concern, as far as touring, is how do you keep healthy? You guys play hard and long, and are playing huge sets night after night. How do you maintain yourselves?

DM: I drink a lot more water than I ever did. That is the biggest thing. Because, you are not gonna stop drinking beer, that just isn’t gonna happen. You are not gonna stop eating pizza. You can eat less pizza, but just drink as much water as you can. I wish I knew that fifteen years ago. It catches up to you. Don’t eat McDonalds.

DA: Since you guys have been together for so long, how do you get everybody to be on the same frequency and the same mindset? How has that worked out for you in Clutch, creating records?

DM: You kinda just have to be honest about it. It’s a weird thing for us. As long as it doesn’t remind us of something we have already done, or another band entirely, we are always down to try something a little different. At the same time, there is never any spoken direction. We don’t even know what the hell we are doing sometimes. We are writing a new record right now, and the only goal posts we have is to write. The more open you are to musical ideas, the easier it is to write songs, because you aren’t pigeon holed into a specific sound. There are instances where individual instruments can throw something new into a song that the other members won’t pick up on[right away]. Like, Jean-Paul could do some kind of a New Orleans shuffle kind of beat in a song, and that song could have nothing to do with funk whatsoever, but it fits that groove.

DA: Sometimes you are in the studio and laying down stuff, and you pick up on things you didn’t even know were part of the song.

DM: That’s what makes it interesting, especially in this band.

DA: What’s next after the tour, are you planning on going back in the studio?

DM: This tour is the last “Earth Rocker” tour that we will do. We are going to take three months off, and write and finish the material for this new record, and hopefully go into the studio as soon as we can next year and get something out.

DA: Do you guys have a method you follow each year, time to tour, time to get in the studio kind of thing?

DM: Yeah we have to plan it out quite a bit, because we don’t really write on the road. It’s hard to set aside a big chunk of time at home to write. So when we are home, we get together as often as we can at our studio and record every single idea we have. Whether it is a single riff, or a whole song, we get it down on tape and move on. Then a few months later we go back to it, and listen to everything we have and try to see what we can piece together into a song or an album. Sometimes it comes together in the matter of an hour, sometimes it takes weeks.

DA: Do you feel like after you write the riffs and give it that break, it helps?

DM: Sure, it does.

DA: As a bassist, I have to ask, your rig set-up is pretty rad. Are you using the Orange Tiny Terror?

DM: Yeah, I got the terror running through the Orange fifteen, and the SVT through the other cab.

DA: Is that the 1000 watt head or the 500?

DM: I’m not sure. I have both, and one is set up for the European tours, and the other is for the U.S.

DA: I have the 500 watt and i’ve been so happy with it.

DM: Yeah, they are awesome.

DA: Your rig sounds powerful up there. Do you use a pedal rig at all?

DM: No, I used to try and mess around with a wah pedal, and I liked the stuff I used it for on the records, but it’s kind of a trap for me I think. So I took it out of the mix completely, to force myself to think of something to play, rather than rely on the crutch of a pedal.

DA: I noticed that your lines are sturdy, and hold the floor down, and not too intricate. Do you notice yourself pulling back a bit to keep it a little less complicated?

DM: Yeah. That is the kind of playing a like in a bass player anyway, for the most part. The Band of Gypsys is my epitome of perfect music. Billy Cox is solid as a rock, and I use that as a starting point to my approach to playing. When I feel like I can elaborate a little, and do a “Look what I can do” riff, then I’ll do it. It’s not like, “Where can I do something sick in this song?” That’s not what it is about for me. You can find the balance though.

DA: Well that is why I like your playing because of how sturdy you keep it.

DM: Well, I get to play with Jean-Paul, so I’m lucky.