In continuing with my coverage of my trip down to Columbus, Ohio for Rock on the Range, I was able to chat with Jean-Paul Gaster, the drummer of the Maryland-based multi-faceted rock band Clutch. Getting their start in the hardcore scene around Baltimore, they were always that unique sounding band everywhere they played fusing bluesy, psychedelic elements into heavy, hard rock music. With early trips spanning all across the northeastern part of the nation and the Midwest, including their first gig in Detroit at Saint Andrews Hall in 1993, Clutch was successful able to break out of their locale and consistently stay relevant over the past 25 years.
Last year, Clutch released their eleventh studio album Psychic Warfare. Here's my interview with Jean-Paul Gaster.
Looking back, what were you some of the best memories with just starting this band back in the early 90s?
The things I remember most are the very first shows that we played. We came up in the east coast hardcore scene. I don't think we necessarily sounded like a hardcore band but we used to go to a lot of shows and the hardcore scene at that time was a very active community. It was easy to get shows, trade shows with other bands, so I can remember traveling down to Richmond, going up to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, going up to Boston. Those first trips are the ones you really, really remember. You sort of can't believe you're doing it. Here's we are 25 years later still making trips, still going on tour.
Being that you were a different sort of band in that hardcore scene, how were you able to fit in?
We had a very heavy sound to begin with so the hardcore scene kind of embraced us right away. At the same time, we sounded a lot different then the other hardcore bands, so I think we stood out in that regard. So very early on, we had a buzz locally around Baltimore and in D.C., and that quickly spread to Philly, and then eventually even going out to Detroit. We had a great first gig in Detroit. We played at Saint Andrews Hall in '93.
How were all the members of this band able to stay together for so long?
When we started the band, we had two intentions: that was to play good shows and to make good records. That really was the beginning and the end of it. We did not think about making a career out of this in any regard. Speaking for myself, I figured out early on that I really love the drums and I wanted to play drums. I don't think any of us really thought that this band would be a band that would be able to, in 25 years, build a career for us and visit all these fantastic places that we've been able to visit. The intention really was just to do, as I said, just make good records and do good shows. We still do that to this day. When you have those two goals in mind, it really cuts out a lot peripheral nonsense. There's an awful lot of stuff that happens around a band that is not necessarily related to music, whether you are talking about business or you're talking about logistics or touring. There's a whole bunch of stuff and there's whole bunch of distractions out there. We've really tried to, at the end of the day, just still focus on those two things and those have been the beacon for us.
How did everyone in the band originally meet?
We were in high school together. We were in a terrible hardcore band senor year in high school. Tim [Sult], our guitarist, actually graduated a year before we but he went to the same school. That's how we met.
How were you able to break out of your own local in Maryland back then?
The first opportunity we had to go out on tour, we did. We took that opportunity and we just went out and played our asses off. Played as hard as we could. We played with a lot of different kind of bands early on. We quickly moved away from the hardcore scene. We retained a lot of those fans but then we went on tour with bands like Monster Magnet, Prong, Sepultura, Bad Religion, eventually Marilyn Manson, Tad, Pantera. I could go on and on. The thing is we don't necessarily don't sound like those bands but there would always be a core group of people who heard something in the music, something resonated with them. Then, they showed up to the next gig that we came to town. I can remember doing that Manson tour in particular, and at that time, we weren't really excited about. Looking back at it now, it was probably the best thing we ever did. We came back to town 3-4 months later and there's a bunch of Marilyn Manson t-shirts out there. So, thank you Marilyn Manson. That was a great tour.
What was so attractive about Clutch that all these fans of bands you toured with that you wouldn't necessarily be lumped together with liked you guys?
There's an honesty in the sound. We don't try to pretend to be something that we are not. There's not a lot of posing going on. We don't really look cool. I mean, look at us! (laughs). There's a lot of bands here today that spend an awful lot of time picking out wardrobe and putting on makeup. I prefer to spend my time in the trailer warming up. That's what I do. I play drums all day. I think people relate to that. I see that there's an honesty in the music. It works the other way too. Often times, we go out and headline a tour and we have to bring other bands with us to open the show. We try to bring the very best bands that we can, either friends of ours or guys who we think are good players. But that doesn't always work out, sometimes you have to do a favor for somebody, and sometimes that favor means there's going to be a band up there who doesn't necessarily do music like Clutch does. The fans see through that immediately. They can see when somebody is faking it. In that respect, I'm very proud of our fan base. I think that our fan base is a very musical one. They probably have a wide variety of records in their collection.
After 25 years, how do you keep everything fresh musically?
The most obvious thing is that we change the set list every night. Every night, we take turns making a new set. That in itself shakes things up enough to keep things fresh. We try new songs. There's new segues, little improv sections that we come up with. All that stuff is new. When we get into actually writing new material, we always try to challenge ourselves, try to find something new, try to find a new thing. For me, that's the best thing about being in this band is that we really do try to keep things as fresh as we can and try to experiment with different stuff. It doesn't all work. That's part of the beauty of it.
The newest album Psychic Warfare, what was the mood of the band going into writing and recording it?
I think that we were all very surprised by the success of Earth Rocker, first of all; the record that preceded it. That record did very well for is. We were able to play places to hadn't played before. Play in front of crowds that were bigger than ever. It was a very exciting time. We knew going into write Psychic Warfare that we set the bar high. We needed to make a better record even than Earth Rocker. We challenged ourselves quite a bit. One way that Psychic Warfare is quite different than Earth Rocker though is that we spent a lot of time, once we had the arrangements of the tunes solidified, playing those songs, whether it was on tour or even just in the rehearsal hall or even once we got into the studio. We would start each day in the studio by playing all the songs, not worrying about recording anything, not worrying about micromanaging every bar and beat; play the damn song and make it feel like a song, play its like a set. So that brings a lot of fresh energy to Psychic Warfare.
Even after 25 years, how does it feel that there's room for new levels of success and acclaim?
Sure, this band continues to grow. It blows my mind. Its something that we don't take for granted, I can tell you that.
How do you stay a band and be sustainable?
That can be very difficult. When money troubles start, internals in the band can get tough. Luckily, we've been, knock on wood, quite successful these last few years. As I said, we don't take that for granted. We tour a lot. We play a lot. We know that each gig is just as important as the last one and so we're going get up here this afternoon and we're going to play this gig as if it will be our last gig ever. Then, we're going to get on the stage in Wichita and we're going to do it again there. You have to maintain that intensity and you can't let the size of the crowd influence how you feel about it. You can't let the weather, if you're hungover, you're tired, or you ate a shitty sandwich, whatever, you can't worry about that. Those people paid hard earned money, you got to up there and you got to make the rock-n-roll.
What inspires you and the band the most when writing and playing music?
Music. We listen to a lot of music. All kinds of music. We don't listen to a lot of loud stuff or heavy stuff. On occasion, we still do. Speaking for myself, as a drummer, I try to study the history of the instrument. I listen to a lot of jazz. I listen to a lot of funk.
I felt that vibe on this latest album, this sort of bluesy funk vibe.
I think that's what makes it fun. You got to bring all those other influences into what you do and that's what makes the music exciting. There's a whole lot of musicians out there these days making music and its like they are only paying attention to their specific genre, and even more narrow, their specific genre that happened in the last ten years. The music they are exposing themselves to is quite limited. You're really doing yourself a disservice. The wider variety of music that you bring, the more exciting it is to play music. For me, the more fun it is. I'm not interested in trying to play the dudes from last year. I want to explore new things.
What are your aspirations for the future?
I want to continue to make records that we're proud of and I want to continue to tour. Play for more people than we ever had. Get to new places. Just challenge ourselves as musicians. This band I think about first think in the morning and the last thing at night. Its something that we don't take for granted.
What do you think is the scariest thing about being a musician?
Just putting it all out there and knowing that it's a ballsy move to say I want to make music for a living. You really have to put your whole heart into it. You can't half-ass this stuff. I had drum teacher, Walter Salb, who once said 'If you want to be a musician, that has to be your plan. If you have a plan B, that's really your plan.' I still think about that. There's other shit I could do, but this is what I do for a living. I put my whole heart into it.
What's the most rewarding?
Getting up on stage and playing drums for a living, it's ridiculous! It's my favorite fucking thing to do and I get to do it every night.
Ultimately, what do you want the legacy of Clutch to be?
That we made honest music and that we played the best shows that we could play. That's the beginning and the end of it. There's lots and lots of legendary bands that have had amazing songs, that have touched a lot of people's lives, my goal is not to be a virtuoso musician, my goal is to play music.
For more information on Clutch, visit pro-rock.com.