J.P. Gaster of Clutch: The Hellbound Interview
By Matt Hinch
It’s not every day that you get to interview a member of your favourite band. So when the opportunity to talk to drummer J.P. Gaster of hard rockers Clutch presented itself, I jumped all over it faster than Takeru Kobayashi on a hot dog. Our conversation took us through topics like their new album Earth Rocker, and touring, to social media and craft beer. Blast “Unto the Breach” with drummer extraordinaire, J.P. Gaster.
It’s been said that Earth Rocker is your fastest and heaviest album to date. What was the impetus to move in that direction a little bit?
There’s definitely a few things. One of those things was going on tour with Motorhead. Watching those guys play every night was very inspiring on a number of levels. I think we toured with Thin Lizzy not too long after that and it was on that tour that we realized there was really a lack of just straight up rock and roll records coming out these days. So I think we wanted to make something that was, front to back, a very focused kind of a recording. A very efficient kind of recording. One that had good energy from the very beginning to the end.
Going into the studio with that mindset was your preparation any different?
I think we were more selective of the kinds of parts that we wanted to have in the songs. I think we were more selective of how the tempos were. We were definitely a lot more focused on this record in the writing process. We actually talked about the kind of record we wanted to make. And that hadn’t really happened before. Generally we just get together and just jam and our favourite things are the ones that end up being on the record. This time I think we wrote the same way but I think we really edited ourselves more and I think we had a real vision of what kind of record we wanted to make much sooner than we had with other albums.
The cover art is pretty phenomenal. I’ve seen a number of variations on merch and all that too. What’s the deal with that image?
Well, we wanted something that was very powerful looking. Something that kinda looked old. We worked with the same guy who’s done a lot of artwork for us, a great artist named Nick Lakiotis. He worked very closely with Neil [Fallon] on the imagery and the overall tone of what the layout was gonna be. A lot of the sketches are really sketches that Neil did on his own where he just put pen to paper and came up with these concepts and then sent them off to Nick and Nick would make them real. So to speak. Neil has a lot to do with the imagery of the band and on this record especially, the idea of the different faces on the album. He had a lot to do with that.
Do you have any expectations for the album?
We expect to be on tour for a very long time.
That’s pretty much a given isn’t it?
Yyyyeahhh. We wanted to make a record that would translate well to the live setting. On any album there are certain songs that lend themselves to being played live and I think for this record we wanted to have more of those kinds of songs than on any other recording we’ve done. And so I think that has a lot to do with the way the record flows and how we’re going to be able to play these songs live.
How did you determine the track listing?
The sequence itself really had a lot to do with Machine [Producer of Earth Rocker]. He had an idea for a sequence and it wasn’t all that different from ours. One thing he was good at doing was putting songs together that we normally wouldn’t have thought of. The pacing of the record overall. I think one of my favourite parts of the record is when we get to “Gone Cold”. It’s so much different from the songs that precede it. “Gone Cold” gives the record a chance to readjust. In some ways, kind of come back down to earth. And then right after that we go to “The Face” which is one of the most epic songs on the record. So he had a lot to do with that and some of that too was the way he was able to make the transitions flow very smoothly from one song to another. We were lucky to have him.
Now you’ve worked with Machine before correct? Was it any different this time?
He worked with us on Blast Tyrant and even a couple songs on Pure Rock Fury. I think when we first started working with him it was a jarring experience. He works very differently than we were accustomed to recording. I mean when it comes time to make the record each person records their parts on their own. So that meant that I was recording drums to tracks that we had recorded in pre-production. And to click tracks that we had put together. It’s kind of like a singer being in a vocal group. Where you’re concentrating on very small bits of music. There’s a lot of editing that goes on. It’s a very different way of recording than we generally do. I think it was different this time around because we knew what we were getting into. We knew how we like to work and I think it helped us because we had that in the back of our minds when we were actually writing the songs. And we knew we were working with Machine and the songs would lend themselves to that process.
One could never accuse Clutch of making the same record twice. You’ve alluded to approaching Earth Rocker differently but is there any goal conscious or otherwise to give each album its own flavour?
I think we had a tendency to react to what we just did. And some of that is probably conscious and I would bet the majority of it is subconscious. That’s just because we’ve played together for so long and we always challenge ourselves to try to do something new. Try and find those new sounds and new ways of playing in a group. It’s tough to say what happens next. My guess is whatever we record next will be quite different than Earth Rocker. It would be tough to beat the overall pace and tempo of this record. It’s something that we’re really proud of so I think when it comes time to record another album we’ll have to come up with a fresh approach. I think to do Earth Rocker 2 would not work in a lot of ways.
Any seasoned Clutch fan can hear an individual track and pretty much know which album it came from.
Thank you! Each album really does have its own identity. It’s a document of where the band was at at that given time. And there are a lot of things that go into that. There’s where you recorded, how you recorded, what touring was going on before and after that. We’ve been through a lot as a band so each record really marks a different time.
The changes were never drastic but its gradual and you still know it’s Clutch.
You definitely know it’s us four playing. That’s one thing that I think we’re really good at, is just sounding like ourselves. That comes from playing as much as we have and finding your own voice. Tim’s gonna sound like Tim [Sult] regardless of what guitar he’s playing through, or what amplifier. And the same goes for Dan [Maines] and Neil. And I strive for the same for myself. I really want to have a sound that is my own sound. That just comes from playing and studying and thinking about music.
Do the rest of you have any lyrical input or is that just all Neil’s thing?
Neil really writes all the lyrics. My attempts at writing lyrics early on were fucking terrible. [laughs] So we’re really lucky to have Neil as a lyricist. I know that when Neil’s putting together the ideas for each song, rarely is there an underlying theme or idea. I think more often what happens is the songs come together and these lines are sort of drawn after the fact. And I know I’ve heard Neil talk about how oftentimes he doesn’t really know what a song is about until sometimes year later. My favourite part about the lyrics is that they’re always surprising. I’m usually the guy who records the demos. So a lot of times that means we’ll record a track and then Neil might come back a couple days later with an idea of how he wants to approach that song. And it’s a lot of fun. I’m looking at the console and he’ll be behind me singing. And I still get goosebumps. When he sings that first line it’s like “Wow! Where did that come from? That’s awesome!” I’m really lucky to be in a band with that guy. [laughs] It’s fun. That feeling is as exciting as it was back then.
For a long time you bounced around on labels almost every album. Was that part of the reason behind starting Weathermaker Music?
Yes. Over the years the labels have always been a source of great frustration for us. And that holds true for when we were on little tiny independent labels all the way through to when we were on the major labels. That struggle was always the same and it was basically that the label was never satisfied with the amount of records that we sold.
They couldn’t grasp the intangibles.
Correct! I think they would see the band touring and we had a very solid touring fanbase and we would sell a consistent amount of records album to album. And I think the label saw that and they’d get excited about that and they thought to themselves “Well surely this band can sell this many tickets and can sell 100,000 records. With any kind of help at all we can make this a gold band or even a platinum band.” It didn’t take them long to realize that it’s tough work to sell real music. Radio stations are skeptical about playing new things. I think that had a lot to do with our battles with the labels because back then it was just all about getting your song on the radio. If you could do that, the sky was the limit. So it’s really nice not to have to deal with that part of the business. We still talk about business and spend time on that part of what we do but it’s a lot more fun. It’s easier and not nearly as stressful. And none of the fights that we used to have. It allows us to think about music and not about what some guy at the label is gonna say.
Does Weathermaker plan on working with artists that aren’t directly affiliated with Clutch members?
We have dabbled a little bit in that. We did The Company Band which is a side project that Neil does with Jess Margera, a good friend of ours, and Brad from Fu Manchu. We recently put out a 7” of The Mob, which is actually our manager Jack’s band. They were one of the first NYHC bands. These guys started in the early 80s and they played quite a bit and they definitely made a mark on what would become the NYHC scene. So those guys are playing together again. So we put out a 7” of theirs. That was a lot of fun. And right now we’re just mostly thinking about Earth Rocker. Who knows what the future will bring?
Now judging from the media I’ve been seeing lately and your Instagram feed, you guys are big into craft beer. How did you get into that?
You know, touring the world and tasting local beers is probably one of the best parts of the job. So the opportunity to try these different styles and these different breweries is a great experience. You really have to take advantage of it if you can. And speaking for myself I feel there is a relationship between people who brew craft beer and folks who make music. There’s a lot of passion there for what they do. There’s definitely not a lot of money in it. And it’s something you really have to dedicate yourself to. So there’s definitely a lot of relationship there between beer folks and musicians. We’re lucky enough to have a lot of friends in breweries around the world so it’s great.
There’s artistry to creating craft brews too.
Absolutely. It’s such a great time for craft beer too because there are so many people out there doing good beer now that I think it inspires all the others to do their very best. If you’re not making good beer these days, you’re gonna get run out of business. And the same goes for music, if you’re not playing well people will forget about you tomorrow.
Do you have a favourite brewery or specific beer?
There are so many great breweries out there. We brewed a beer with New Belgium out of Fort Collins, Colorado. We actually collaborated with them on a beer that was released last year. So they’re a great brewery and there’s another from there I like quite a bit called Oskar Blues. And there are great breweries out here too. There’s one in my hometown of Frederick, MD by the name of Flying Dog. Their beers just keep getting better and better, man. They’re doing all kinds of great stuff. The amount of experimentation going on over there is very exciting. There are all kinds of great breweries out there. It’s tough to name them all. You guys have a great brewery up there called Unibroue. They do Belgian style beers. I was actually drinking one of theirs last night called “Maudite”. It’s pretty delicious. I think my favourite of theirs though is the “Fin du Monde”. That’s their triple, it’s delicious. I love those guys. (Haha, me too! – DA ED)
I mentioned the band’s Instagram feed and you have Twitter now too. What made the band finally succumb to the greater social media world?
You have to if you want to explore all of your options for getting your music out to people. You have to try all the stuff and I think early on, we didn’t really know too much about it to be honest. I don’t have a Facebook. I don’t want to have a Facebook. I’m sure it’s a very difficult thing to keep up with. But it’s something that you have to have. You have to be able to get your music out there. And if that’s how people find out about music these days then you have to embrace that. We’re definitely getting better between the Facebook, the Instagram and the Twitter. It’s cool. It’s a lot of fun. People enjoy getting those regular updates about what’s going on. So that’s great. I think [seeing the set lists] in itself is cool.
I’ve heard of and subsequently fallen in love with bands only because they were touring with Clutch. Do you try and take out bands that you feel people need to hear?
Yes, for sure. We try and have a diverse bill. We try to have a bill where all the bands are solid. The thing about a Clutch crowd is, we’ve toured with bands that make music in a different way than we do, the crowd always saw through that. If they sensed any kind of bullshit, they saw right through that. So we try to have a good bill. On this particular tour coming up we’ve got Orange Goblin, some friends of ours from England who are a great heavy doom rock and roll band; and some good friends of ours called Lionize who we like to tour with quite a bit. Great players, great guys. And then a young band who I don’t really know that much about called Scorpion Child. I checked them out on YouTube and that singer’s got some pipes for sure. It’ll be interesting to watch those guys. So yeah we try to have a good diverse bill. People spend a lot of money on tickets and you want to make sure people feel like they got their money’s worth and they had a good time and they want to come back and do it again. If that means that we try to put the very best bands on the bill that we can then that’s what we do.
Is it harder to go on tour now that it was years ago?
Ya it definitely is. You know I mean it’s tough. We all have families and that part of it never gets easier. But it’s what we do. It’s our job and you have to love it. Because if you don’t, the road is no place to be.
How do pass the time in between tour stops?
I practice. I spend a lot of time practicing. On a pad or on the drums. The thing to remember is when you’re out on the road, although you’re playing every night, there isn’t really time to think about the drums. Because once you get up there and you’re on stage, I try not to think about what’s happening too much. I just try to have a good time and play with feel. So it’s important to balance that when you’re on the road you have to have some mental practicing time. And just makes the show that much more fun. So that’s what I do, I practice.
One thing I’ve always admire is how your set list varies across a tour. How do you decide what to play?
Well we have a very specific system. That means that on the very first night of a tour, Dan will make the set list. On the second night I will make the set list. On the third it’s gonna be Neil then it will be Tim. This does a couple things. It allows us to have a wider variety of songs to play. We’re not playing the same 18-20 songs a night. And it also gives us a chance to improvise in between songs because there are a lot of segue ways that happen in the set, and we really try to hit the vibes and we know where we’re supposed to start and where we’re supposed to end up and whatever happens in between there is anybody’s guess. So that makes the show fun and makes it exciting. And when we switch up the set list and put these little bits of improvisation in there, it really gives each show its own personality and its own vibe. And it makes it a real musical situation and not just the band playing the songs off the set list with the same stuff in between songs. Because that can get really tired and cumbersome. We try not to do that.
Do you basically just know all your songs then or do you rehearse a large number of them before you head out?
We pretty much know the songs. Sometimes we’ll sound check if it’s something we haven’t played in a while or something that’s brand new that we need to sort of re-learn. We’ll usually do that at sound check. I think when we were touring on Strange Cousins we were rotating through about 60 songs.
Can we expect any surprises on this next tour?
Just the new songs. I mean that’s gonna be our main goal. To really concentrate on the new record and try and play these songs as well live as we did in the studio. The studio versions are pretty great. We have our work cut out for us.
Clutch fans are known for being very die-hard and fanatics. Have you ever run into any fans that are just way over the top?
There are some folks out there that love the band so much that it can be slightly disturbing. But this is music and people react to it differently. If somebody wants to tattoo their favourite band’s signatures on their arm then more power to them. [laughs] It’s not something that I would do. But yeah, there are some fans out there that are really, really into the band. Thankfully. A lot of people do album artwork or Clutch logos. I think that stuff’s cool. I see a lot of those. It’s the guys who want you to sign their bodies, so they can have your signature tattooed on their arm. That to me is pretty over the top.
I noticed that you’ll be playing Hellfest this year. Are you excited about that?
For sure! We love playing festivals. We’ve played Hellfest a couple times. I think that’s one of the most fun ones that we’ve done. There’s always going to be some good bands on the bill and a lot of times we’ll run into some folks that we haven’t seen in quite some time. It’s a good time.
I’ve got a couple questions from fans here too. One fan would like to know, if you can recall, why the tour with Helmet never panned out.
I don’t know. I know that there have been times that we’ve spoke with those guys about touring over the years. I can’t remember what time he’s talking about in particular. Cool band. We should do that one day. I think that would be a great tour!
Is there a specific piece of gear that you couldn’t live without?
My cymbals. And I’m lucky enough to have a really great selection of cymbals. So much of what you do as a drummer is pulling sound out of an instrument. And so I’m not really too concerned about what drums they are exactly. My main thing is thinking about the cymbals and making sure that I have cymbals that I feel comfortable playing. A lot of times we’ll do festivals where you’ll just have a backline. There’ll be just some sort of house drum kit there. And for some drummers that can cause a lot of stress. Just walking up there and seeing this brand new kit, ya know. Speaking for myself, I relish that. I like that challenge of someone putting a new set of drums in front of me. The important thing is if you have your cymbals. That’s harder to duplicate. Your cymbals are very much a part of who you are. Definitely my cymbals.
Have you ever thought about making a movie from one of your concept albums like Blast Tyrant or Robot Hive/Exodus?
We’ve kicked around the idea. The idea sounds like it would be a fun thing to try to do. But it also seems like it would be a tremendous amount of work and I don’t know if we know any filmmakers that would be willing to invest that much time.
Lastly, if you weren’t in Clutch or you weren’t making music at all, what do you think you’d be doing at this point?
I think I might be a chef. I like to cook. I think that type of work is similar to rock and roll in that the hours are kind of crazy. And you have to really love it. I’m pretty sure there’s not a whole lot of money in being a chef either. [laughs] Unless you’re on TV. I guess you could strive for that.
Thanks for taking the time for us today and I look forward to seeing you in Toronto on April 18.
Cool man. It’s gonna be a good time. Take care!
Clutch’s newest album hits the shelves March 19 from Clutch’s own Weathermaker Music. And be sure to catch Clutch on their upcoming tour with Orange Goblin, Lionize and Scorpion Child. They hit Vancouver April 3 (SOLD OUT), Calgary April 5, Saskatoon April 6, Edmonton April 7, Winnipeg April 9, and the Sound Academy in Toronto April 18. See you there!!