It took twenty-four years, thousands of road miles, and eleven studio albums—on four different record labels, no less—before the Maryland-based alt-rock band Clutch scored their first number-one album, 2015’s Psychic Warfare. It was the second release on the band’s own label, Weathermaker Music; the first, Earth Rocker, had cracked the top ten on Billboard’s rock charts two years prior, a strong indication they’d made the right move by going it alone. “When we finished our deal with DRT in 2006, we realized we needed to make our own label,” says the band’s staunch yet affable drummer, Jean-Paul Gaster. “And even if we sucked at it, it was going to be better than any label we’d dealt with up to that point.
“Every time we got dropped,” Gaster goes on, “we just focused on the music. We knew that if we continued to record, there would be opportunities to play. And if that meant driving 3,500 miles in a van, then that’s what we did. It’s been a slow build, but I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.”
Clutch is one of only a handful of rock bands to make it through the major-label meat grinder of the ’90s and early 2000s intact. And not only did they survive without suffering significant casualties—vocalist/guitarist Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines, and Gaster have been the core of the band since forming in 1991—but they’ve also remained eternally hip, cultivating a steadily growing audience of dedicated fans who never miss a chance to experience the band’s unique brand of hard-nosed, groovy, witty, blues–inspired rock. Whether you dig all the way back to Clutch’s 1993 full-length debut, the hardcore-leaning Transnational Speedway League, or drop the needle somewhere on the more progressive- and funkier-sounding sides of 1995’s self-titled release or 1998’s The Elephant Riders, you’ll no doubt land on something with an infectious, fist-pumping riff and body-rocking groove.
The band explored more straightforward, driving beats on 2001’s Pure Rock Fury, and 2004’s Blast Tyrant helped introduce Clutch to a wider audience when the single “The Mob Goes Wild” was included in the popular videogame Rock Band 2 and the deeper cut “The Regulator” appeared in an episode of the post-apocalyptic television series The Walking Dead.
Adding organist Mick Schauer to the group for 2005’s Robot Hive/Exodus, JP and company showcased their blues influences by covering Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Gravel Road” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking?” Clutch continued to explore the slinkier, groovier side of things on 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion before returning to a more stripped-down aesthetic on their ninth album, Strange Cousins from the West.
While most bands tend to chill out later in their careers, Clutch cranked the intensity level to a new high for their tenth album, Earth Rocker, which was released in 2013 after the band toured in support of hard-rock legends Motörhead and Thin Lizzy. The chart-topping Psychic Warfare followed suit with an edgy, ferocious sound that gives the entire record a sense of urgency, from the up-tempo rocker “X-Ray Visions” to the sludgy closer “Son of Virginia.”
When it came time to make their twelfth album, Book of Bad Decisions, Clutch packed up the band truck and headed down to Nashville to spend a few weeks at Sputnik Sound with award-winning Nashville-based producer Vance Powell, whose raw, organic style of recording—as heard on hit albums by Jack White, Chris Stapleton, and others—appealed to Gaster and his bandmates, who were looking to make a more sonically aggressive and live-feeling album this time around.
MD: What did you hear in Vance Powell’s productions that made you want to work with him?
JP: The thing that stood out to me most when I listened to recordings that Vance had made was that each instrument had a very definitive character. It wasn’t the normal sounds. Things sounded squashed or smashed or distorted or colorful in some way. That’s what we were ready for at this point. We were looking to make a very different-sounding record than we’d made in the past. I think both Psychic Warfare and Earth Rocker were similar in that the tonality was consistent from beginning to end. This time around we wanted to try something different.
MD: But not straying too far—you guys have maintained a general aesthetic.
JP: That comes from having the same four guys play the same four instruments. You can work with different producers and in different studios, but if the band is true to [their] sound, it’s going to end up sounding like the band. Working with different people helps inspire the energy of the record, maybe even more than the eventual outcome of what it sounds like.
MD: How was Vance’s production style different from what you’ve experienced in the past?
JP: Speaking just about the drum sounds, he had a very specific idea for how the bass drum was going to sound. That really colored the entire tonality of the drumkit.
MD: Did you talk about that sound ahead of time?
JP: Yeah. He mikes drums differently each time, so we talked about wanting to have not such a wide, panoramic sound but a more focused image of the kit. We listened to some music together, but most importantly he came out on the road with us.
MD: It really sounds like you guys were playing live on Book of Bad Decisions.
JP: That’s what we were really trying to capture, and I think Vance’s time on the road helped him hear what we were like live. I think that experience gave him a perspective for how he wanted the record to ultimately sound.
So the bass drum sound really set the tone for what we ended up getting. We used a 26″ drum. The heads were tuned super low, to the point where when I hit another drum, the heads would really resonate. There was no hole in the front head. We just had two microphones on the front head and nothing inside the drum. That gave it an older flavor.
MD: I imagine that sound took up a lot of space in the mix.
JP: Thankfully Vance knows how to make that stuff work. It’s pretty inspiring watching him dial in tones. He’s very hands-on, and he’s not afraid to turn things into the red to get a specific sound. He’s mixing as he’s recording. And we played together in the room with the intention of keeping all the tracks.
MD: And that’s different from how you’ve approached recording in the past?
JP: We’d gotten closer to that on Psychic Warfare, but even some of the basic tracks weren’t used. This time around, we made it a point that when we recorded the drums, we wanted to have keeper takes for guitar and bass, too. We even started doubling guitars as soon as we had a basic band track down. That gave us an idea for what the record was going to sound like right away, rather than [us having to come] back to a song a few days later. It was [a] very spontaneous feeling, which wasn’t something we’d had while making the last couple records.
MD: Did that approach force you to make compromises with the takes that you ended up using because they were overall better for the band?
JP: Every take was made with the intention that it would be the final take. But when I would listen back, if I heard stuff that wasn’t exactly what I wanted it to be but the overall groove was there, we just let it be. For me, it’s not about showing off all the cool fills I worked out ahead of time. I want the tune to have energy of its own. And I’m thinking about how to support that vocal to make it the best that it can be.
MD: Did you workshop these songs live beforehand?
JP: Definitely. We started the writing process about a year before we entered the studio, at our warehouse, which we call Doom Saloon. Every night after rehearsal, I would mix down whatever ideas we had that day and post them to Dropbox. For the first six months, it was about building a catalog of songs in varying degrees of being complete. Some sounded like tunes right away, and others were riffs or jams that could be shaped into songs. But ultimately new songs come together when we play them live, which is something we’ve done since the beginning of the band.
MD: What happens to the songs when you take them out live?
JP: They go from being a conceptual idea to something that’s finished or something that needs to be fixed. When we play a new song live, I’m thinking about how everybody’s gelling together, and I’m listening to how the vocal is being performed. We’ve always been a live band, so the live show is where the songs come to life.
MD: Do the tempos change once you take them out live?
JP: Tempos are a huge part of it. We record the new stuff when we play it live, and oftentimes I’ll play to a click to get a feel for whether or not the tempo is where it needs to be. That way it’s a concrete discussion about whether or not it felt better when it was faster the night before. By the time we get to the studio, we have an idea of how each song is supposed to be played and where I might need to pull some things back to make space for different riffs.
MD: Did you track to a click?
MD: So when you say “pull back,” you’re talking about subtle changes.
MD: How did you develop this ability to pull back or push without rushing or dragging?
JP: That’s something that I’ve developed from years of playing with a click when we’re writing. The first thing I do when these guys bring in a new riff is find the tempo. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where you start jamming a new idea and it feels great, but then when you come back to it later it doesn’t have that same energy. I’ve found that we can avoid that by keeping to that original tempo. Then later we can make a decision to try it faster or slower.
MD: What are you focusing on when you’re pushing or pulling within one tempo?
JP: I’m thinking about the whole band and what I can do to get them to hold back a little bit. But I’m not thinking about anything specifically with the drums at that point.
MD: Do you cue those shifts with fills?
JP: I do that from time to time, but fills are usually the last things I think about, especially when recording. No matter how much I practice a fill ahead of time, as soon as I get in the studio and start playing, whatever plan I had goes out the window. [laughs]
MD: How does Clutch write? Does someone come in with three quarters of a song or just a riff? And how do the ideas get shaped into a complete song?
JP: This time around, every time we got together, everybody would bring in an idea. Being the singer, Neil would usually have ideas that were pretty complete-sounding. On the other hand, I picked up mandolin a few years ago, so I wrote ideas on that. One of those is on the song “[A] Good Fire,” which was really just me trying to play a shuffle in the style of Double Trouble. So every time we got together, there would be four new ideas. After a few months of doing that, we had a huge collection of riffs, full songs, and potential ideas. But there’s no one way that a song gets written in Clutch.
MD: So you jam on a riff for a while, and then other ideas pop up?
JP: Yeah. We’ll jam on the riff for a bit and then record that. Then we’ll think about other ideas for different sections that we could add, and we’ll record those. Because we’re cutting to a click the entire time, sometimes we’ll record the different parts separately, and I’ll edit them together later. That way we don’t spend too much time getting bogged down by working out little details that might not be too consequential to the song. Those things can be worked out later. But you have to have the song together first.
MD: Do ideas get trashed?
JP: Sure. Of all the things that were brought to the table, probably eighty percent of them ended up not being used. We pulled from fifty or sixty ideas to end up with the fifteen songs on the album.
MD: When it comes to drum parts, do you usually go with your first instincts, or do you go through a slew of permutations?
JP: In the writing stage, I try not to overthink what I’m doing. Usually I’ll have something that comes out right away, and most of the time that’s what ends up on the record. But I’ll spend time on my own tweaking stuff. I might move bass drum notes in a verse or rehearse some crazy fill that I know won’t end up on the track anyway. [laughs]
MD: Getting back to the drum sounds on Book of Bad Decisions, what else did you do to get that gritty, aggressive sound?
JP: We had a stereo ribbon mic directly over the top of the kit, and most of the drum sound came from that. Then we just filled in mics around it.
MD: Were you hearing the distorted or compressed sounds as you were tracking?
JP: Absolutely, and that made me play a certain way. On the title track, which is basically a twelve-bar blues with a simple groove, I got really excited when I heard the bass drum breathing. And I had the snare tuned super low. I used a 1939 Ludwig & Ludwig 8×14 solid-shell drum. I could hear all the resonance in the headphones, which made it exciting to play. Vance also had an old Ampex microphone facing the kit over the hi-hats that he would send through some old guitar stomp boxes. That was exciting because it created these layers of extra rhythms to play to.
MD: How many snares did you use on the record?
JP: We used a different snare for each tune. I brought probably ten, and we used a couple of Vance’s. He has an old Leedy that ended up on “Hot Bottom Feeder,” and there’s a stave drum on “A Good Fire.” I brought some Gretsch and Slingerland drums. I have a chrome-over-brass that I’m especially a fan of.
MD: How did you decide which drum to use?
JP: We just tried them in the track. Vance was very opinionated about what he thought would work in the end, and he would push me to tune higher or lower than I would normally do. He has an idea of what he wants the song to sound like before we get to the mix stage, so he was making decisions as we went. We were committing to the sounds, rather than waiting for mixing to decide. That made the recording process exciting and maybe even a little scary at times. With the technology that we have available these days, we could have put things off until almost the mastering stage. We wanted to avoid that.
MD: Did you swap out toms?
JP: We used the same toms, but I used clear heads this time, which was something I hadn’t done in many years. So overall the sound was probably brighter than I’ve had on previous albums, but that ribbon overhead rounded off the harsh edges a bit.
MD: What was your cymbal setup?
JP: I used Meinl Byzance series. I used Jazz hi-hats for a good portion of the album, and I used 14″ and 15″ Vintage Pures. The main ride was a 24″ Medium, but I have a 23″ Heavy that I used on occasion. The crashes were 19″, 20″, or 21″, and I usually had another ride there too, like a 22″ Sand ride or 21″ Medium.
MD: Do you use the second ride for riding or crashing?
JP: I ride and crash on all of my cymbals. I only use three, but I ride on all of them, and I hit the bells on all of them. It’s important for me to be able to get different kinds of colors out of the cymbals, which I think makes my playing more detailed.
MD: Is that a jazz influence?
JP: I suppose so. One of my favorite drummers is Johnny Vidacovich, and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from him. One of my favorite things about him is his ability to get all these different colors out the drums and cymbals. I try to apply that to Clutch. I make an effort to draw the sounds out of the drumset to complement what’s happening in the music. That makes the experience of playing drums a little more interactive, rather than it being a color-by-numbers thing.
MD: You seem to be able to produce a big, confident sound without actually hitting the drums super hard. Did you practice developing your touch?
JP: That’s something I’ve definitely practiced and continue to practice. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, I heard a lot of go-go records, like Chuck Brown, Experience Unlimited, and Rare Essence. The sound of those beats made an instant impression on me, even before I was playing drums. I liked the persistency of it, and there was no question as to where the time was. Even when I started playing in hardcore bands, I always thought about how a drummer like [EU’s] Juju House would play it. How do I make it swing like a go-go thing?
So go-go very much informed how I play drums today. I don’t want there to be any question as to where the time is. When you hit the bass drum, you make sure everybody knows where it is. And that backbeat…you have to make it crystal clear. If you can provide that, you make the other musicians feel very comfortable because there’s no question as to where the time is.
MD: I was thinking your more nuanced touch might have been coming from a jazz or John Bonham influence.
JP: You’re right, too. At the same time I was hearing go-go records, I started listening to Black Sabbath. I remember listening to Bill Ward one night and realizing that he was doing things that I had seen Gene Krupa do on concert shows that were airing on public television. As a fourteen-year-old kid, that blew my mind, and I began to understand how you could play heavy music without playing like a meathead. You could have some finesse in the sound. Then from listening to Bill Ward, I started digging into other guys who were straddling the jazz-rock thing, like Ginger Baker with Cream and Mitch Mitchell with Hendrix. I wanted to bring that concept into my playing.
MD: Did you go through a period of obsessive practice?
JP: Early on I didn’t really know how to practice. The idea of working on specific ideas was foreign to me. I just played along to records and watched as many drummers as I could. But when I realized that I wanted to play drums for a living, I started studying with a well-known teacher in the D.C. area named Walter Saab. He taught me how to practice. We worked on independence, and he taught me how to use the book Syncopation. I worked on those things for years, and I took that book with me on the road with Clutch.
MD: Were you full-time with Clutch at that point?
JP: We were full-time pretty much right away, but right around that time we were doing well enough to rent an old farmhouse in West Virginia. We jammed all the time, and I would practice five to eight hours a day when we weren’t on tour. It was a great experience. We didn’t have any money, but we were driven, and we learned how to play.
MD: That must have set the mold for the band.
JP: Very much so. I knew that this band had the potential to make an impact on people, and we’re very fortunate to have very dedicated fans. And it was no different back in the early days. It was much smaller, but the folks who came to shows appreciated us just as much. And that meant a lot to us because we were bouncing around from label to label at that time.
MD: What are you working on these days? Are you trying to learn new techniques, or are you focused on refining what you already know?
JP: It’s a little bit of both. I try to practice things in small pieces. Most recently I watched some videos of go-go drummer Paul Buggy Edwards and picked up on a little hi-hat sticking thing he was doing. So I put on a metronome, played some go-go beats, and started putting in these little six-stroke rolls on the “&” of 3. After chewing on something like that for a while, it inevitably grows into something else that might work within a different context.
I think many drummers would benefit from listening and trying things that are outside their genre. Someone like Elvin Jones inspires me in ways that I can apply to what I do with Clutch, and that’s beyond any specific licks. It’s more about the energy he brought to the bandstand and the way he inspired the musicians around him.
MD: There’s a similar emotional depth and power in your playing.
JP. Thank you. Maybe some of that has to do with this idea of thinking that time is elastic. You can affect the musicians around you just by the way you play a beat. There are all these rhythmical gears happening at the same time, whether that’s triplets over straight 16ths or the other way around. You don’t have to play them, but if you can hear these gears over what you’re doing, it gives your playing a bit more fluidity and elasticity, which can translate into a more emotional feel.
MD: You guys play a lot of shuffles. How can someone get that feel dialed in?
JP: You just have to play the damn shuffle. [laughs] Just sit down and play a double shuffle, with the bass drum, snare, and ride in unison, and try to make it breathe while getting the hi-hat closing really crisp on 2 and 4. I also often practice playing the shuffle as quietly as I can while keeping the pulse happening. That’s very difficult to do.
You also have to understand that the shuffle is elastic. Depending on the amount that you smash those shuffle notes together, you can get different textures and colors. You can open them up to get that New Orleans thing that’s halfway between straight and swung. Or you can play it totally straight.
You can experiment with various degrees of swing. Play a shuffle to a metronome at a moderate-slow tempo. Make the shuffle very straight at first, and then start to shuffle it even more, until the notes are almost stuck together like a flam. Then straighten it back out, but keep the time happening.
MD: Did you do anything to develop your inner pulse, or was that something that developed over time?
JP: I almost always practice with a metronome, especially if I’m focusing on something very specific and I don’t want to be distracted. For example, if I’m playing a shuffle and I’m feeling really good about the way the left hand is sounding, then I’ll start to think about the ride cymbal. What if I put a little more of an accent on beat 1? Or what if I put a little accent on the “&” of 1? What does that sound like?
MD: So you’re really into exploring the nuances.
JP: Yeah, because that’s where the feel happens. I’m not interested in developing fills that are three bars long. There are plenty of other drummers who do that way better than I do. I would much rather spend my time shedding to a Muddy Waters record and seeing how much I can squeeze out of a shuffle. I think it’s important to get that shuffle feel together because it informs the rest of your drumming, even the way you play a rock beat. If you can wrap your head around the shuffle, it’ll make your playing more elastic.
MD: That goes back to what you mentioned about hearing all these different gears going so that you’re not locked into playing things just one way.
JP: Absolutely. But when it comes time to play music, I make it a point to stop thinking about all of that stuff. Hopefully you’ve practiced these ideas to the point where it all happens subconsciously. The best gigs I’ve played were the ones where I wasn’t thinking at all—the music just happened. Practice with your brain, but play from the neck down.
MD: What have you not accomplished that you’d like to tackle?
JP: There’s always room to play more jazz. Those are the drummers that continue to inspire me: Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette…. What blows me away is the vocabulary that these guys were able to develop over a very short amount of time.
MD: And we’re still trying to figure it out.
JP: Right. Here we are a hundred years later, and we’re still trying to figure out how they arrived at those ideas. Those are the concepts I focus on when I’m by myself. How to play a ride cymbal beat…you can think about that all day long.
JP’s Book of Bad Decisions Setup
Drums: Gretsch Brooklyn series in Cream Oyster finish
A. 8×14 Ludwig & Ludwig snare
B. 9×13 tom
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 14×26 bass drum
Cymbals: Meinl Byzance series
1. 15″ Vintage Pure hi-hats
2. 20″ Extra Dry Thin crash
3. 24″ Medium ride
4. 20″ Medium crash
5. 19″ Medium Thin crash
Heads: Evans G2 Coated snare batter, G2 Clear tom batters, G2 Clear bass drum batter
Sticks: Vater West Side
Hardware: DW 9000 series hi-hat, snare stands, and bass drum pedal, 6000 series cymbal stands
6 Big Beats from Book of Bad Decisions
JP Gaster’s powerhouse pocket and slinky feel are on full display throughout Book of Bad Decisions. Here are half a dozen highlights.
“Gimme the Keys”
The album’s opening track begins with a heavily filtered half-time shuffle that leads into a driving triplet-based groove featuring some snaky left-hand ghost notes and drags. (0:54)
“Book of Bad Decisions”
This super-funky tune leaves plenty of space to feature the trashy, pumping drum sound JP and producer Vance Powell crafted for the record. Dig on how Gaster glues the groove together with a couple choice grace notes on the snare. (0:00)
“In Walks Barbarella”
Clutch cops a ’70s funk vibe on this tune, and Gaster crafts a super-slick two-bar groove that keeps the beat buoyant with subtle variations in the kick and snare parts. (1:15)
JP is a master at creating big, powerful grooves that are sparse with notes but abundantly detailed and nuanced. This song’s primary groove features tight offbeat drags that live somewhere between straight and shuffle feels. (0:06)
“A Good Fire”
Here’s a driving rock shuffle that features a slinky snare that implies quarter-note triplets and choice hi-hat openings on the backbeats to keep the groove grounded. (0:10)
“Hot Bottom Feeder”
Gaster showcases his early rock and New Orleans influences with this crafty Bo Diddley–meets–Mardi Gras Indian beat. (0:16)