(from the November 2010 Issue of Modern Drummer, available here)
by Billy Brennan
In the January issue of MD, Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster reflects on the band’s reissues of its three DRT Entertainment releases—From Beale Street To Oblivion (2007), Robot Hive/Exodus (2005), and Blast Tyrant (2004)—and the foursome’s current status with its own Weathermaker label. In this exclusive online interview, Gaster enlightens us on everything from Clutch’s ever-evolving live sets and 2010 DVD, Live From The 9:30 Club, to his influences growing up and his outlook from behind the kit.
MD: Your influences run the gamut, from the hardcore and metal of Black Sabbath and Bad Brains to Elvin Jones to Washington D.C. go-go music. When you got into playing drums, did you have these influences already, or did you find that drumming led you down these avenues?
Jean-Paul: The go-go thing was around since I was a kid. At the time I didn’t realize it was a regional thing. I just thought it was the popular music of the time. So there would be like local hits, local go-go hits. The one that got really big was “Da Butt.” Everybody knows that one by E.U. [Experience Unlimited]. But there’d be go-go around all the time, and it’s always that first stuff that you listen to, you know?
I remember going to school dances, not to actually dance, because I’m a terrible dancer—I was way too shy to talk to girls. But I used to love going just to hear those go-go records. And they’d play them really, really loud. It would be stuff they wouldn’t even play on the radio. But, again, I didn’t realize it was a regional thing until I actually got on tour and started going out there and trying to tell people about this music. And they would be quite surprised; they’d never heard of this kind of a thing. So the go-go thing was there from the very beginning, even before I played drums.
As far as hardcore, those were the shows we used to go see. We used to go to D.C. Space or the old 9:30 Club, and a lot of churches would have shows too. We’d go to St. Stephen’s Church to see Fugazi play, or Nation Of Ulysses. They used to have a “Fall Brawl,” and all the New York bands would come down. Leeway and maybe some punk rock bands from Baltimore would play. So that was the scene we started playing in almost immediately—not so much because we sounded like those bands, but because that was a scene where we could trade shows with other bands. It was really active. And the idea of doing things on your own, that DIY mentality, really came from the hardcore scene.
MD: How about the jazz influence? Was that there from the start, or was that something you matured into?
Jean-Paul: I think that was there from the start. Jazz was always something that sounded very interesting to me, but it was a little bit of a mystery as well. It wasn’t until I started studying with [renowned D.C. area drum instructor] Walter Salb that I started understanding what it meant to play jazz drums. I don’t consider myself a jazz drummer, but that’s pretty much all I study. I don’t study rock beats. I’m constantly working out of Syncopation and applying those ideas in a jazz context. All that independence and stuff that you learn from Syncopation can easily translate to rock music. So I just find the more I work out of that book, the more fun it is, the more ways I learn to apply it. It’s just one of those books that keeps giving. You’ll never really conquer that book. [laughs]
MD: Speaking of the 9:30 Club and some of the older stuff, your DVD Live At The 9:30 Club came out recently. The included Fortune Tellers Make A Killing Nowadays film gives a lot of insight into your drumming. At one point your kit is described as a sort of Frankenstein set that’s composed of an amalgamation of things. What’s behind your gear choices?
Jean-Paul: On Strange Cousins [From The West], just as an exercise, I figured it would be cool to use only vintage drums. Over the years I’ve collected a bunch of them. I had a few wood drums whose bearing edges were kind of destroyed. I think someone had tried to file them down. So I sent them off to Fork’s Drum Closet in Nashville, and Sam Bacco cut new edges on a 1965 5×14 Ludwig that I have—a Jazz Festival drum—and a 1951 solid-shell Radio King. I got the drums back from him, played ’em, and was really blown away. Old drums have, I think, a little bit more spirit than new drums do. They have more idiosyncrasies. You have to work with them a little more, but it pays off. They have their own sound.
So when it came time to do that record, I just gathered up all my vintage drums. I had those, I had a 1967 chrome-over-brass Gretsch drum, and a Supra-Phonic from, I believe, 1969. Each one does something really well. So just as an exercise, we said, Let’s just try something different for each song. Let’s keep the drums old, but let’s see what’s gonna best complement that tune or that groove. Consequently, I think each song on Strange Cousins has its own identity. The snare drum has so much to do with what the final mix ends up being, so it was a fun thing to do.
MD: Were there guidelines you went by in terms of choosing which drums worked for which songs, or was it trial and error?
Jean-Paul: It’s definitely a trial-and-error thing. I didn’t change heads that much. I tend to tune the drums more or less the same. I don’t like to tune a snare drum really high. I think you lose some of the subtlety. So they’re mostly medium-high to medium—maybe there are a couple of them that are a little bit lower pitched. The shell has a lot to do with it. Right away you can narrow something down: Is this a steel-shell song? Or is this a wood-shell song?
“Abraham Lincoln” has a lot of press rolls and some funky sticking things happening, and that 1965 Jazz Festival drum had a lot of articulation when I would play that sort of subtle stuff. I felt like those press rolls and stuff cut through a little more on that drum, so consequently that was the one that made the cut. Whereas on “Algo Ha Cambiado” we used the Slingerland solid-shell, the Radio King. And that one has just got beef, a real fat backbeat sound. And I think that pushed the song a little more. It really cut through the guitars in a good way. So you just experiment. And a lot of it’s just personal choice and where your head is at that day.
MD: Does your cymbal selection go through the same process, or is that more of a static thing?
Jean-Paul: I would change some cymbals, depending on the song. For the most part I’ve stayed the same, though. I think I was using some 15″ Meinl Custom Darks that are really great. They look like they’re about 150 years old. They’re really green. I never polish my cymbals. So that particular set of hi-hats stayed the same. I used a couple different rides. I used a 23″ Heavy ride, a 24″ Medium ride. I love the 22″ Dry ride. I use that quite a bit as a crash too.
I try to keep all my cymbals on the heavier side, and that way I can get a lot more sounds out of them. I am not a fan of a 16″ crash cymbal. For me it’s not real versatile; it kind of does one thing. But if you get a cymbal with a little bit more weight and more diameter, you can coax a lot of sounds out of it. And I think that’s something that I’ve gotten better at over the years—trying to play cymbals rather than bash them.
MD: The 9:30 Club DVD also covers a set where you guys were playing a few shows that included your entire self-titled CD. A lot of people say Clutch has evolved from a more aggressive sound to a more blues-heavy sound on the last three or four records. When you go back to play those older tracks, do you have a different take on them, or do you pretty much play them the way they were played fifteen years ago?
Jean-Paul: I think there’s a little bit of both happening. It was interesting to go back and listen to those songs, some of which we’ve been playing all along and some of which we hadn’t touched in years. It was interesting to go back and listen to what was going on fifteen years ago.
There are a lot of 8th notes, I’ll tell you that, man. [laughs] It was 8th notes all night long. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was listening to a lot of Buddy Miles at the time, and I was really liking the Band of Gypsys record. And, you know, no one can play that 8th-note funk like Buddy Miles could. So I thought about him a lot during that recording. Looking back, I’m pretty proud of it. I know that I can play a lot of those things better these days. But for the time, and for the way we made that record, I’m very proud of it.
MD: Clutch changes sets each night, with each band member taking a turn choosing the set. Do you aim for something specific when it’s your turn to structure the set?
Jean-Paul: Definitely. I think about what the venue’s like. Some songs translate better in a smaller venue than others do. I think about what the occasion is—you know, if it’s a festival you might pull out some more heavyweight tunes. And if it’s a 300-capacity club gig, you might get into a different kind of scenario.
The best thing about Clutch is that we can go up there and play whatever we want. As a drummer it’s the greatest gig ever, because I can play whatever comes into my head. There’s a lot of freedom there, so you try to think about it a little differently each night. Some nights you feel like jamming more, and some nights you feel like putting out heavier stuff. Maybe that day you listened to the Bad Brains and you want to put all your fast songs up front.
It’s fun just to change it up, which keeps things fresh. There’s nothing worse than going to a concert and seeing the guy say the same crap between songs. You know, all the drum fills stay the same, all the guitar solos are exactly the same…. That’s more like a school play than a rock concert. We try to stay away from that. And the thing is, when you change it up, good things can happen. Bad things too. There’s a lot of mistakes that happen. Sometimes we’ll try to transition from one song to another, or maybe we’ll jam one song into another, and not everybody’s on the same page and we end up not all coming in together. But that’s the beauty of it. It’s a real live thing. If I’m not having a good time, y’all aren’t having a good time.
MD: Do you have a favorite song to play? And conversely, if it’s one of the other band members’ night to make the set, is there a song where you think, Man, not that one again?
Jean-Paul: Well, the good thing about it is, when it was the four of us getting together and trying to write down the set list, I think we tended to put in a lot more of the same songs. Inevitably there’s going to be a tune that’s more difficult to play or one that you can’t quite wrap your head around. But if someone put it on the set list, it’s your job to get up there and play the tune as best you can. Consequently, I think you develop a relationship with these songs where you can’t let yourself not like the song. You’ve got to find something within it that’s going to excite you.
MD: When the band writes at your home studio, do you decide ahead of time that what you’re working on is going to be for Clutch or for your instrumental alter ego, the Bakerton Group? Or do you decide after the fact?
Jean-Paul: It’s definitely after the fact. The songs come together in any number of ways. There’s no formula. A lot of times it’s just a jam where we literally start with nothing and then maybe twenty-five minutes later we’ve got a couple riffs that fit together. Sometimes, Dan [Maines, bassist] or Tim [Sult, guitarist] might come to the table with a riff that we start playing. Neil [Fallon, vocalist/guitarist] is really good at coming over with stuff that sounds like a completed song. It happens any number of ways, and, because of that, hopefully the songs have their own identity and feel.
MD: Your songs always have a very organic feel to them, and I think a lot of it comes from your style of drumming. Your fills and song transitions feel in the moment, but you execute them perfectly. Do you think ahead for fills and parts, or is it spur-of-the-moment stuff during jams?
Jean-Paul: It’s definitely a spur-of-the-moment type of thing. There have been times when I’ve tried to write a fill for a specific spot, but it never really seems to work right. You think something sounds good at the time, when you’re really sort of overthinking it.
I do make notes before I go in to record, though. I’ll have a basic idea or skeleton of what I’m trying to accomplish for a particular song. I might write down a basic version of what the verse groove will be, let’s say. And then the verse will have variations on that theme. Or I’ll have an idea to try to play a particular kind of fill in a section. But when you get there it’s kind of like whatever happens, happens.
MD: How would you describe your philosophy on the drums?
Jean-Paul: When it comes time, you just have to play like your life depends on it. And it does. This is what I do for a living. I don’t take this for granted. I practice every day, and I think about the drums every day. And when it’s time to play, you put your heart into it. You do everything that you can to make it a good show. When I’m out here on the road, I wake up in the morning and think, What do I have to do in order to have a good set tonight?
You have to eat right, you have to think about music, you have to practice, you have to try to get as much rest as you can. You know, we’re here to make music. That’s what we do. I just play as hard as I can.