Clutch is one of the headliners for the Rock ‘N Derby Festival, taking place in Schaghticoke May 20-22 and is currently on tour with Lamb of God and Corrosion of Conformity. NYS Music recently had a chance to sit down with the man who keeps the beat for the venerable Clutch, Jean-Paul Gaster.
When you’re in high school, you probably have a group of friends that you swear you’ll be tight with until the end of days. Perhaps that group of friends forms a band in someone’s garage or your parents’ basement. An oath is taken among yourselves that you’ll always be a band, no matter what.
Odds are, that high school band probably doesn’t make it through graduation. Sometimes though, it does. All of a sudden, 25-26 years later, you look out in front of you during a show at say, Upstate Concert Hall, and see one of the guys you made that pact with oh-so-long ago, accompanying you in the rhythm section of one of rock’s longest running lineups.
If your name is Jean-Paul Gaster, and you play drums in the Frederick, MD based band Clutch, that buddy you’re looking at is your high school pal and band mate, bassist Dan Maines.
Clutch’s foundation can be traced back to the halls of Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, MD, where the members of the band met. Gaster, Maines and guitarist Tim Sult got together to form Clutch in 1991. Original vocalist Roger Smalls left the band shortly after formation and was replaced by another friend, Neil Fallon. The band has been going strong ever since.
Gaster is a drummer’s drummer and a student of the instrument. We spoke at length about Clutch’s longevity and influence; the value of side projects; the festival scene and drumming as a mental exercise.
Mike Kohli: One of the things I’ve noticed with you guys – I’ve seen you perform a few times over the past couple years – is the way you interact with each other. I know you’re all friends from high school. Is that something that comes naturally? Do you just kind of give each other a look onstage and go with it? How’s the onstage chemistry work?
Jean-Paul Gaster: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of unspoken dialog going on up there. I think it just comes with playing with the same guys for so long. I think musicians do that in general . I think we’re in a unique situation because we’ve been doing it for so long. Even in the writing process, we might play for 45 minutes and there might not be a whole lot of verbal communication, sometimes none at all. But we manage to put these ideas together with sort of pointing and grunts.
MK: Kind of a universal language…
MK: When I go to shows – I’m into a lot of different types of music- but typically when I go to a show, I watch the drummer. Now, I’m by no stretch of the imagination, a drummer. I do play a mean steering wheel though.
When I caught your show with Corrosion of Conformity in Clifton Park a few months ago, watching your style, it’s got a jazzy feel to it, kind of like Bill Ward of Sabbath, Ginger Baker of Cream. You mentioned them before as big influences on you. Have you had any formal jazz training or did you teach yourself how to play?
JPG: Early on, I took a few lessons, but I never really practiced. It wasn’t until I was about 23 when I started studying with a man named Walter Salb (Click the link for a short documentary on Salb). He was a professional teacher/instructor/player in and around Washington, D.C. for many many years. He actually started playing professionally in 1946, so he was definitely from the big band/swing era.
I learned a tremendous amount of stuff from him. A lot of it was thinking about jazz and what it means to play jazz. But i think more than that, he really taught me to be a musician and to be prepared for any musical situation. He wanted his students to be able to do any kind of gig and to play that music with authority and confidence. Those kinds of lessons had a really lasting impact on me. I miss that guy. He passed away about ten years ago.
MK: I’m sorry to hear that. Sounds like he was a really big influence on you.
JPG: Yeah, he definitely was. He lived life to the fullest all the way to the end; I will say that.
MK: I’m kind of into the jamband scene, stuff like Phish and moe., those types of groups. Sometimes I’ll come across people who for whatever reason, still don’t know who Clutch is. Why that is, I don’t know. You guys have been around for such a long time and have been a big influence on a lot of bands. You’re solid, a solid rock and roll band.
However, one thing I’ve noticed about you guys, you don’t fit neatly into any one mold. You’re not a metal band. You’re not a classic rock band. You came about during the grunge era, but you don’t fit into that category. You’re kind of in-categorizable. So when I try to describe Clutch to people who haven’t heard of you guys, I tell them you’re kind of a jamband. Your setlists aren’t always the same. You do stretch stuff out. You throw some improv in there. Have you ever been involved with any of the bands in the jamband scene? Say Warren Haynes or Govt Mule…
JPG: We like those bands a lot. I’m a huge fan of the Allman Brothers, Govt Mule. Warren Haynes’ playing, I think, is just incredible. You know, a few years ago we spent a lot of time trying to break into that scene a little bit. In retrospect, I think we were still, for those folks, I think there was a little too much for them. Maybe a little too much music coming at them. So, yeah, definitely familiar with that scene. Would love to play with some bands in that scene. I think that maybe that they weren’t really ready for us at the time. But stuff changes. And hopefully we’ll be able to get our music out to some of that scene.
I think the coolest part of being in this band is that we’re able to pull from so many different genres. We’ve played with so many different kinds of bands through the years. When you come to a Clutch show, it’s really a mishmash of different kinds of music fans. And I’m very proud of that. And I think that has a lot to do with the longevity of the band and the band’s ability to draw like we do. These days, pretty much all over the world.
MK: That’s exactly what I see when I go to the shows. There are guys who look like me, just a regular everyday joe, there’s college-aged people, there’s the stereotypical headbanger looking guys…It’s really a testament to what you guys do. You can draw all different types of people.
JPG: It’s a beautiful thing.
MK: Working with Neil…when I listen to Clutch, I envision Neil’s voice, his vocal style, as another instrument in the band. But also, his lyrical style, it’s almost percussive, the way he delivers the lyrics. So he’s almost like a multi-instrumentalist in that way. How does it play with you? Do you guys get together and work lyrics out so that they have that percussive style?
JPG: I’ll say this. Neil writes all of the lyrics, which in this band is a great thing. Because, speaking for myself, my lyrics would suck (laughter). I think the last time I tried to write lyrics it was sometime in high school and it wasn’t good.
So, we are well aware of Neil’s virtuosity and talent. I think he’s probably the most talented lyricist in rock and roll today. It has to do with being able to pull from so many different sources. Much like the way we put together our music. I think a lot of bands spend a lot of time asking, “Is this our band? Is this the kind of music our band can play?” The great thing about Clutch, you can literally go up there and play whatever you want whether it’s in a live situation or getting together to write new songs. There are no rules. So in that respect, I think we’re very fortunate.
Speaking directly to the rhythmical feel of Neil’s lyrics, I think a lot of it has come directly from hip hop. Early on, Chuck D from Public Enemy was a big influence on him. We listened to a lot of hip hop as a band in the early and mid 90s. That had a lot to do with it for sure. And as a drummer, I react to whatever is happening rhythmically within the band more so than in a melodic sense so I’m listening for those things. On Psychic Warfare for instance, I paid particularly close attention to the way Neil syncopated his lyrics and how they were swung. That gave me a lot of inspiration as to how to play that part, how to best support that vocal.
MK: That whole hip hop thing, that’s really what came across to me. His vocal style is hard driving as well as hip hop. You summed it up perfectly.
MK: Any plans for anymore Bakerton Group stuff? (The Bakerton Group is a Clutch side project that works primarily as an instrumental outfit, incorporating elements of blues and other sounds outside the typical Clutch sound.)
JPG: No immediate plans. I will say, we did have a request from someone to record one of the Bakerton Group songs. We certainly said, “Of course. Go for it!” That was an interesting request. We haven’t had that in a while. The Bakerton Group project gives us the opportunity to play a little bit differently than we do in Clutch. Mainly because it’s mostly instrumental stuff. It’s sort of a laboratory for us.
Having said that, we’ve been so busy with Clutch stuff, we really haven’t had much time to do it. We did Earth Rocker, and there was a tremendous amount of momentum that came off of that record and that’s really flowed right into Psychic Warfare. And I know we’re going to be really busy on Psychic Warfare for at least another year.
MK: That’s terrific. You guys deserve to be busy. I pre-ordered Psychic Warfare on vinyl and when it was delayed and delayed, I ran out to the nearest store and bought the CD on release day. I had it on repeat for like four days straight. I really soaked it up. It’s definitely my favorite album of 2015, to say the least.
JPG: Wow, thank you.
MK: Festival season is heating up. Do you enjoy the festival circuit?
JPG: Festivals are fun because you get to play with a lot of bands that you normally wouldn’t play with. And more importantly, there are lot of folks there who don’t necessarily know about Clutch who will be given the opportunity to check us out.
MK: Do you get to mingle a lot with other bands when you play festivals?
JPG: Sure. Sometimes you run into old friends. Sometimes you make new friends. It’s always a good time. And it’s nice to be outside and not so much in a rock venue. It’s a different kind of environment, when you spend 6 or 7 nights a week in the dark theaters and clubs, it’s nice to get outdoors.
MK: Is King Hobo (another Gaster side project with the motto: “Get funky or get out.”) still a thing? I know it has to be tough to get together with Per Wiberg (keyboardist) from Opeth and Thomas Andersson from Kamchatka. Do you still work on stuff with those guys?
JPG: Sure. There’s some new stuff in the works with those guys. That was an incredible time to be able to go over there (The band recorded at Wiberg’s home in Sweden in 2005.) and record with Thomas and Per. I try to do as much of that as I can.
You know, with every side project, at the end of the day, all that energy ultimately comes back and makes Clutch a better thing. Every time you play with somebody new you’re going to learn something. There’s gonna be some energy there that you pick up on that’s gonna eventually translate back to your day gig, which for us, is Clutch.
MK: Do you do stuff over the Internet? Throw a few tracks in Dropbox and go back and forth with it?
JPG: Yeah, we definitely do that kind of thing. It’s great to be able to take advantage of the technology available to us. We weren’t able to do that 10-15 years ago.
MK: What do you listen to when you’re just going about your day?
JPG: I listen to all kinds of stuff. I’ve been listening a lot recently to Miles Davis’ Live at the Cellar Door. It’s the complete recordings that he eventually edited down to make Bitches Brew. Jack DeJohnette is on that record. Dave Holland is on that record. Just last night I was listening to Robert Palmer’s Sneaking Sally Through the Alley. That’s an incredibly funky record. He’s got the Meters as his backing band on that record.
MK: Yeah, yeah, that’s quite different than the Palmer who became a hit in the 80s.
JPG: I very much enjoy that recording. Really I listen to pretty much anything. The blues – Muddy Waters, B.B. King. Reggae stuff. Bob Marley and Augustus Pablo. I like dub a lot. I will say these days, I don’t listen to a lot of loud rock and roll. I do on occasion. I find myself always trying to pull influence from other stuff. And I think that’s what makes the rock and roll better.
MK: Your drum kit, I’ve noticed, is a lot of vintage equipment. Is that all you play?
JPG: I have vintage kits. I have newer kits as well. But I will say, the newer kits I have, and I’m speaking specifically about my Gretsch USA Custom kit. Really, it’s the same drum and the same design that they’ve been making for 50-60 years. There’s a lot of modern stuff out there that’s great, that sounds good.
I prefer to go with that older style tone. I don’t muffle my drums much at all. Playing a drum that’s wide open, that’s not muffled in anyway is much more difficult than playing one that’s muffled or has pillows in the bass drum. And the sound that you get out of a drum that’s wide open like that has a lot of possibility. You can get to a lot of different sounds, a lot of different dynamics depending how you hit that drum, how you address that drum in the context of what the music is.
I find that vintage drums or drums in the style of vintage drums, give me a little bit more tonal color to work with. I don’t play a big kit. I have a bass drum, two tom toms, a snare drum and a couple cymbals and that’s about it. I look to my drums to give me a lot of options. And I feel like with drums like that, they really respond to how you tune them and how you play them ultimately.
MK: Rumor has it, you’ve been known to practice on your drum pad for eight hours at a time while on the bus…
JPG: (laughter) Eight hours may be a little bit more than what really happens. I will say that when I’m out on the road, i have a practice kit and a couple of drum pads. And when you’re out there, that’s what you do 24 hours a day.
So when I wake up i think, “What do i need to do to make this the best show it can be?” I think about the drums all day long. Before sound check I try to warm up. After sound check I’ll typically get something to eat and then I’ll hit that practice kit until showtime. I’m there sometimes for three or four hours, but the time moves quickly.
Practice for me is not a tedious thing. I had an interviewer say to me one time, “I hear that you practice very often.” And i explained to him, “Sure, I’ll practice three or four hours a day sometimes.” He says, “Well, doesn’t that get boring?” (laughs) I said, “Only if you find practice boring.” I don’t. I find it to be very meditative.
There are points in the practice routine where you really reach a mental state in which time is irrelevant and you’re only considering the concept in front of you and how it relates to other stuff that you’re doing. I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. A lot of relaxation. So much of what we do now is mental. What I mean by that is, drumming has become more mental than physical for me. So, many of the exercises I’m working on are not really how fast can you hit the pad or how quickly can you play paradiddles. I’m really trying to deconstruct stuff. I’m trying to get inside the drums, subdivide things into what I haven’t done before. It’s a very mental thing for me.
MK: Well, that’s good to know. I get tired just watching you.
MK: I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, just one more thing: A buddy of mine, who went to the show with me back in October, wanted me to mention something to you. He’s been home brewing for a while and is on the verge of opening a brewery here in our town. He said, “If Clutch plays opening night of the brewery, I will close the doors the next day. It cannot be topped.”
You guys wanna call his bluff?
JPG: (laughter) Ha ha, no. But we’ll take some of his beer.
MK: Nice. OK, I’ll let him know.
MK: Thanks for taking time to speak with NYS Music. Good luck with the rest of the tour and keep on rockin’.
JPG: Thank you, sir. Talk soon.