Clutch’s Jean-Paul Gaster
The Making of Earth Rocker
Story by Billy Brennan
Photos by Paul La Raia
Producer/engineer Machine describes Clutch as the blue-collar rock band. It’s an appropriate title. The group’s work ethic and curiosity make Clutch absolutely revered by its fans. Likewise, the band’s drummer is a favorite among those who prize his old-soul approach to modern heavy rock. In this exclusive MD feature, we go deep into the details of one of the most fruitful working relationships in contemporary music.
Machine is best known for his methodical, hands-on contributions to metal albums like Ashes of the Wake by Lamb of God and Gutter Phenomenon by Every Time I Die, so he might not seem like the obvious choice to man Clutch’s boards. But in addition to their uniquely groove-fueled riff-rock style, the members of Clutch are well known for their willingness to explore and experiment with musical genres as well as with methods of working. And to that end, Machine brilliantly facilitates the band’s balance of creativity and structure.
MD had the chance to spend a day with both drummer and producer at the latter’s Machine Shop studio in Belleville, New Jersey, while the pair were in the midst of tracking drums for Earth Rocker. Between exploring the studio space, grabbing lunch at a nearby Stewart’s, and watching Gaster lay down a propulsive groove for the track “Mr. Freedom,” we took advantage of a rare opportunity to witness two giants of music do what they do best, and to grill them about their methods in real time.
MD: Not to put you on the spot with JP here, but how has it been working with him again?
Machine: I cried before work this morning. [laughs] I’m barely holding it together even as we speak. No, it’s awesome working with Clutch. They listen to each other—and they invite me in, which is great. They’re not afraid to try this, try that, analyze it for a minute…it’s like bop.
Another thing: Their cell phones aren’t ringing all the time, and they’re not tweeting, Facebooking, this-ing, that-ing. The TV’s not on. They go to work, and afterwards, boom, office closed—let’s have a beer.
MD: What’s the process in the studio?
Machine: First we bring the computer in and mike up the band horribly. We make the songs work in the room, and if it impresses us there, it only gets better. Even Neil [Fallon, vocals/guitar] is in on it at the beginning—and dude, that’s rare. The band wants to know either Neil’s lyrics or the intent behind them. That determines everything.
MD: JP, do you think that mentality is part of the reason you’ve been successful?
JP: There’s a tremendous amount of respect among the four of us, and that goes back to when we first started touring. We got in a van when we were nineteen years old and drove across the country. Those formative years really made the blueprint for who we are now. It’s just a bigger version of what we were doing twenty-two years ago.
And then we have someone like Machine come in, who’s able to become part of the creative force that makes a record. Not a lot of people could do that. We work with all kinds of producers and engineers—guys who are strictly, you know, tech dudes. And I think Machine is by far the most hands-on when it comes to the creative side of it. And in a good way. He asks questions and suggests things that really put a different perspective on whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish. That’s one of my favorite things about doing what we’re doing.
MD: You’ve been playing some of these songs on the road for a long time—shaping them live and then getting into preproduction.
JP: Some of the early ones, like “Space Cadet,” have been around for over a year. We thought about this record more than the other records we’ve done. I think back to 2009 and the first record we put out on [Clutch’s own label] Weathermaker, Strange Cousins From the West, and that came together relatively quickly. A lot of it had to do with the fact that we were just excited that we could record an album and put it out on our own.
From the very beginning of the band, the business side was always tough. Dealing with the labels, whether they were majors or indies or mid-level, it was always a source of frustration. So when the concept that we could put out our own records became a reality, it completely flipped the script for us. On this record we knew we could do this. We had real distribution and we could put out the records in a real way. And so we said to ourselves, Let’s crank this up. Let’s kick it up a notch.
MD: Was it a matter of being very thorough and thinking ahead a lot, or do you ever have issues in coming up with new material that you’re satisfied with?
JP: We always have issues coming up with material that we’re satisfied with. [laughs] We probably throw away ninety-nine riffs for every one that makes it into preproduction—and even then, if you’re one of those songs, the odds are still against you. Because we thought so long and hard about this album, there was a lot of stuff that we were like, “Nope, we’ve done that before, we’ve said that before, that’s not interesting to us right now.”
I will say that touring with Motörhead and Thin Lizzy in the last year definitely made an impact on this record. We just saw things a little bit differently. Watching Lemmy [Kilmister, Motörhead leader] being Lemmy every night for six weeks is an experience that everybody should be a part of. Just being around that guy and watching what he does—even aside from a musical level, that idea of being a blue-collar band. That guy is the most blue-collar rock ’n’ roller there is. And so being around him and seeing that band every night was inspiring for us. All those experiences we’ve had in the last couple years have made this record what it is.
MD: Was there any music you had been listening to that affected your approach this time out?
JP: Brian Downey, the drummer for Thin Lizzy. Oh my goodness, that was one of the most inspiring things. That guy owns the shuffle. Owns it. The track that we just cut, just when you got here to the studio, I was thinking about Brian Downey the entire time. He’s got such a beautiful, effortless way of putting out a tremendous amount of energy. And he just barely breaks a sweat. That was really inspiring to me.
MD: The shuffle is conceptually pretty simple, but it’s so difficult to perfect.
JP: I’m still working on it. I used to play with this blues guitarist back home. One thing that was invaluable to me was, we would be playing a shuffle and he’d come over and say, [in a heavy mock drawl] “Quiet down, boy, quiet down.” And then he’d get on a microphone and say, “I want it so quiet, you could hear a rat piss on cotton.” [laughs]
So I’d be playing what I thought was just the very softest, quietest shuffle you could imagine—and that was not quiet enough. “Quiet down, boy.” So you’d have to play really quiet. But doing that for an hour each night? That was a learning experience and really brought the concept of the shuffle together for me.
MD: Tell us about the set you’re using.
JP: The kick drum is a 14×26 1957 Slingerland that I found on eBay and then recut the edges and rewrapped. It sounds fantastic. You can’t beat old wood. The toms are ’61s—9×13 and 16×16—and the interesting thing is that these three shells are mahogany/poplar. So they have a slightly darker tone. Sometimes I like to think that these toms would sort of be like a Gibson SG [guitar], where maple shells might be more like a Les Paul. I think maple shells tend to be a little boomier, with a little more top end. And these tend to have just a little more midrange and low end. And they’re really fun to play.
MD: Describe the snares you used on the album [pictured below], all of which are Slingerlands.
JP: [From left starting in the back row] we have an ’80s-era 5½x14. It has a brass shell without the chrome on it, so it sounds a little more polished. It’s got a little bit more of a “produced” kind of sound; there are not as many nasty overtones in that. It sits in a mix really well, depending on the song.
The next one is a late-’70s 5×14 Slingerland chrome over brass. This one’s got a little more bite to it.
Next to that is the most recent snare I’ve gotten, another chrome-over-brass Slingerland, but it’s a 6½x14. This one saw some action on the record. I’m definitely into ten-lug snare drums. They feel different from eight-lug snare drums. I think they cut a little more.
To the right of that is a snare that I found in 1993, when we were out with Sepultura on the Chaos A.D. tour. We were in Oklahoma City, and there was a pawnshop across the street from the gig. This was my first sort of vintage drum that I came across. I bought it for $40, and it’s been on nearly every Clutch record since then. It’s a really reliable snare drum, a lot of fun to play. It’s not a particularly expensive drum, and it’s got an aluminum shell, so it doesn’t have a tremendous amount of low end; it’s a little bit more mid-sounding. But it has a lot of crack and cuts through in a good way.
And this guy here in front is a 1963 Slingerland. It has the same style of shell as the toms and bass drum. It’s another that I got on eBay. I need to stay away from eBay, because if I go on there I will definitely buy something. But this one’s cool. On the inside it says “Service Club #1.” I’m not totally sure, but I’m pretty certain this means the drum would have been part of a house kit in a military officers’ club—a service club. It sounds great, and it’s very different from the others, really meaty and deep sounding. It’s fun to play and blends well with the other drums because of the mahogany/poplar shell. It’s got that same sort of fat warmth to it.
The interesting thing is that we sampled each one of these snares, and when it came time to pick the one we liked for each track, we’d run the song [with each snare sample in the mix]. It was interesting to be able to scroll through all five snares and find the one that sat best in that song.
Machine: Yeah, within the perspective of the track. That’s another thing—you have to put things in the world they’re gonna live in.
JP: Sometimes you put up a different snare drum and say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely the one.” But you really need to be able to compare all the different sounds before you can tell which sounds best. This gives you a much better idea without having to [record a different take with each drum].
Machine: That idea came about when your wife was making fun of you for not being able to choose drums. And I was like, “Oh, it’s gonna be like that? I know—I’ll sample them and swap them in the track instantly!”
MD: We’ve talked in the past about looking back at choices and wishing you had done something differently. Do you think this approach will prevent that sort of thing?
JP: Yes, for sure. This really puts everything into perspective, and at the end of the day I feel a lot more confident. And Machine’s got a great ear and a good understanding of what each drum will do within the song.
MD: Is it a coincidence that you decided to go with all vintage Slingerlands for this album?
JP: I have mostly vintage Slingerland drums. I have a special place in my heart for old drums, these Slingerlands in particular. And on the last record I sort of made it a point to play all old snare drums. That was a lot of fun and makes for a unique-sounding record. Most people don’t use old drums. Some old drums are sort of crotchety; they have their idiosyncrasies, and you have to learn each one. But to me they have a lot more character and are more fun to play than a new drum right out of the box.
MD: The idea of old drums having a history to them adds an intangible factor as well.
JP: You just can’t beat it—to think about how that wood has been sitting around for so long and how people have been playing those drums [for so long]. Those molecules are getting moved around and everybody’s talking to each other, and after all these years everything just sort of lines up.
Machine: That’s a very real thing with instruments. Look at all the famous Stradivariuses—you know, million-dollar violins. That’s the same theory. That guy was the best craftsman, and that’s the notorious thing, but then [violin experts] say the age factors in as well. Because they’ve aged that way, that makes them sound unbelievable.
MD: Has your Meinl cymbal selection stayed the same?
JP: For the most part, yeah. That 23″ heavy ride cymbal in particular; we tried to use others, but that one just seems to get along with this room and these songs.
My Sand Hats have a kind of trashy tone. We put up some 14″ Byzance Mediums, and they sounded good too, but they have kind of more of a hi-fi sound. These guys really cut.
I’ve also been using an 18″ Byzance Sand crash and a 19″ Byzance Medium crash. Those are actually a little lighter than what I’ve toured with and normally play. But I don’t really think about size; I just go with my ear. We tried to make it a point to have that be the guide, rather than what it looks like.
MD: Let’s get into more detail about the recording process for Earth Rocker.
Machine: I was thinking, If I got to do another Clutch record, what would I do to top everything from before? And obviously there could be no drum replacement. No way on a Clutch record. But [we could] try to put the kick in its own room, in a way. So we used one of those tubes that they pour concrete into [to create columns for construction]. This one measured thirty inches by twelve feet, and we cut it to five feet long and covered the outside with high-density vinyl, which is super-heavy and sound-rejecting. We also lined the inside with Auralex. Then we needed to somehow mount mics in the middle. Neil Fallon said, “Why don’t you just suspend a pole inside and find a way to mount mics to that”? So we found hardware to mount mics to poles, and by also using three spokes and some ties, we could place the mics anywhere within the tube.
MD: What kinds of mics do you have in there?
Machine: We have a Beyerdynamic M88 for close miking, and outside is a Shure Beta 52. We put aside a whole day just to get sounds, and we did a series of tests, moving mics and changing mics, and we filmed all that, which is something I’ve never done before. We put that into iMovie, and, to go even nerdier, we could edit so that we could quickly compare, listening to things like the phase reaction of the two mics together.
MD: Phase differentials take some time and experimentation to figure out.
Machine: It takes a long time to digest the physics of it and really understand the benefits. Knowing all about phase and how the mics talk to one another—that’s what separates the amateurs from the pros. With a lot of modern recordings it almost doesn’t matter. All the drums are sound replaced or super-gated, and all of this stuff goes out the window. But with great traditional recording, it’s the opposite. There’s interplay between all the mics. The snare sound isn’t just from the snare mic, it’s from the overhead mics, the cymbal mics…. It’s understanding the science of it all that makes a great recording.
Another thing is that miking too close doesn’t necessarily represent the sound of a drum. If I stood an inch from your ear and said, “Hey, how’re you doing”? that’s not necessarily how my voice would sound if I was standing in front of you. In front of you my voice would have a presence. So miking too close to the drum for that isolation thing—that might be good for one style of music, but not for Clutch. It’s all about making the drums sound like drums.
MD: What other drum recording methods are you using?
Machine: If you’re going to pick one drum to acclimate the room to, you go to the top snare. The kick is in its own space, so we had that covered. But for the snare we used a Shure SM57 on top and an SM7 on the bottom. Then on the rack we used a Sennheiser 421. And on the floor an AKG D112 kick mic, which I like better than a 421 for that use.
We used AKG 451s for cymbal mics, which is typical. But check it out, this is the bomb—just for the ride, just for this record, we used a Beyer M160, which is a ribbon mic. This is one of the main John Bonham ribbon mics. That was crucial, because the ride is such an important voice for JP and Clutch. It needs the presence that you can get from a ribbon mic. Ribbon mics are slow and can’t produce super-sharp “ouch” transients. So they come in sounding dark and you think, Oh, that’s not good. But when you EQ them, there’s that awesome vintage sound. Then I have an AKG 480 on the hats.
We also have a good old SM58 in there. It has a bit of a breakbeat sound; it’s mono and really gets the drums and rejects the cymbals. If you listen to it by itself, it’s really cool sounding. It’s a cool little element to mess with in the mix; you can crud it up and blend it in.
And, of course, the room mics: all mono—also very cool, very Clutch, very vintage. We have an AKG 414, which is placed halfway between the top of the snare and the ceiling. Then there’s another 414, mono, farther back in the room.
You should’ve seen us do our video test—JP playing dope beats and us running around the room with mics.
MD: All of this tech stuff can be intimidating to drummers wanting to get into recording, especially those who don’t have the means to play around with many options.
Machine: I never went to school; I was always just doing it—making mistakes, experimenting. And all my things are based on common sense and using my ears, a very musical approach to how it all happens.
JP: You were also a musician first, and I think that leads to a unique perspective. A lot of guys just get into the mechanics of it, and that’s all they see.
MD: There’s the stereotype of a producer trying to be the “fifth” member of a band and sort of forcing it, but that’s obviously not the case here.
Machine: There are a lot of producers who wouldn’t be a match for Clutch. You could say this about a lot of bands, but you have to get this band. And the fans know it; they sniff it out. Even the last record I did with them, Blast Tyrant, I think it ran that edge. Fans liked it, but there were still some people who felt it was getting close to sounding too produced.
But some of the concepts we used on Blast Tyrant we carried through on this album, like using extreme panning. The boards back in the day didn’t have pan knobs; they only had three-position switches. It was left and right, and in the middle it said “both,” which made mono. So it’s cool to have more modern and bigger sounds, but that feel—that old-school feel with the panning—is definitely carrying through.
JP: Going back earlier, we did a couple tracks with Machine on Pure Rock Fury. The concept of recording [each instrument] individually was foreign to us then. But I think it’s important to try different approaches.
I’ve been lucky to record a lot this year. I made a record with my buddy Mike Westcott, who’s an excellent blues guitarist from back home. We recorded that live, straight to tape, and it was a lot of fun. I also did a recording with Five Horse Johnson—same method. Then in Sweden I did a King Hobo record, and that was really live, like, “How does this song go? Okay, press record.” Then being able to do something like this, where it’s very regimented, focused, and detail oriented, it’s a change of pace. But for me that’s a really healthy thing. It makes for a different kind of recording and a different experience. And the more experiences you have, the better you’re going to be.
I’m not saying no to anything now. I’ll go and record anything, at any time, in any way, with anybody. Whereas maybe ten or fifteen years ago I may have been very skeptical if a producer said something like, “You have to record to a click.” That would’ve been a really scary proposition to me. These days I eat it up. It’s just another way to make a record, and you have to be flexible.
Last October, during the CMJ convention in New York City, Clutch played a secret studio show for industry pals and CMJ attendees at the Machine Shop studio in Belleville, New Jersey, where Gaster’s interview was also conducted. The lucky crowd got to hear the band perform songs from the new album at the very studio in which it was recorded—even better, they got to participate in the recording itself. In addition to playing Earth Rocker, the group performed the go-go-style breakdown that’s been a longtime feature of its live show, complete with an oral history of the beat.