the AU interview: Jean Paul Gaster of Clutch (Maryland)

American rockers Clutch are back with their tenth studio album, Earth Rocker. Heading into the 23rd year of the band's career, Clutch had a specific type of album in mind when they headed into the studio to work on their 2013 release. Drummer Jean Paul Gaster chats with us about the making of Earth Rocker, being away from their families for extended periods of time on the road, and when we can expect Clutch to visit our shores.

How has the promo cycle for the new album been treating you?

It’s been good! We’ve been very busy; we’ve been doing more interviews and more press for this record, more than any other record. So for us, that’s pretty exciting; the press has always been elusive for us, so this is great. We’re relishing it.

Like you say, there’s clearly an interest for the record; I know that in Australia, there’s a bit of hype generating for the new Clutch record and the ensuing possibility of a tour. When making the new album, did you take a listen to the earlier stuff in your catalogue, just to get an idea of what you wanted not to do?

You know, we didn’t really listen too much to our previous efforts when going into the writing process, but I did find myself going back and listening to the recordings and the production techniques of earlier records as we were going into it. We’re pretty forward thinking for the most part; we like keeping fresh and we don’t like to repeat ourselves.

I’ve read in another interview that, for the material on this record, the band focused more on ensuring that each song packed a punch, as opposed to just winging it in a jam session and seeing what came out. There was more of a focus on what you wanted the songs to sound like. What prompted that approach?

Well I think that one of the things that prompted it was realising that was a real lack of honest to goodness rock and roll records being made out there. I know there are a lot of bands out there who maybe think about some of the classics, whether it’s a Jimi Hendrix thing or a Black Sabbath thing or an MC5 record. You go to listen to that band and you think to yourself, ‘Well, where’s the MC5 on there? I can’t hear it.’. We wanted to make an honest to goodness rock and roll record; we thought there was a void for these types of records out there. That was part of it.

Over the years, would you say there’s been a significant change in the way Clutch has approached the actual recording of records? Obviously people change with time, but how has the band’s formula shifted in the way you make music now?

In a lot of ways, it’s the same; in terms of writing the record, it hasn’t really changed that much. By that, I mean that in between tours, we get together in the jam room or in my home studio or wherever we happen to be rehearsing at the time, and we just to play together and come up with some ideas; at that point, we’re not really thinking about making full songs. These little bits and pieces, whether is something Neil [Fallon] comes in with or Tim [Sult] comes in with even Dan [Maines] may have a riff or it may even be a drum concept. There may be something I’m working on, maybe it’s a particular exercise or a particular subdivision I’m thinking about; these little tidbits that we get together and we work on are not really about making songs, they’re about coming up with something that we feel good about. It’s something that feels good to us.

In that respect, we haven’t changed that much; we’ve done it like that for probably close to 20 years, so the main difference for this one was that we made the conscious decision to make this very focused rock and roll record. We had not done that in the past; in the past, it would be a collection of jams that we were feeling good about and we would pick our favourite ones. Whatever those favourite ones ended up being – that’s what wound up on the record. I think that this time around, we tried to be a little more selective and we tried to be a little more focused in the way that we thought about how the record was supposed to be sequenced and about the kinds of songs we wanted to have on the record. It was definitely a more thought out process, this time.

Have you been able to tour much of the record or roadtest any of the new songs in sets recently? How are you all feeling about the new music being performed live at the moment?

We’re feeling really good about it. The new songs are designed to be played live and there’s always been that element of that. We always try to play the new songs before we get into the studio; on this record, I think we were able to do that a little bit more. I think that we were really conscious about how the songs would translate to a live setting; we wanted those songs to be powerful and we wanted to be able to breathe life into those songs when we perform them live. I think that this record reflects that.

It must be a bit of a task sorting through the wealth of Clutch material each night to assemble a set list? It must keep the band fresh and on your toes as much as anything else.

We have a very specific method to how we make set lists, and that is on the very first night of the tour, Dan makes the very first set. I’ll make the next set, Neil will make the third one and Tim takes the fourth one. At that point, we start all over again; we’ve been doing it like that for probably 15 years and that allows us to have a wider variety of songs to pull from and it allows us the opportunities to improvise a little bit, because the songs are always in a different order. There’s always going to be something a little different that is happening, whether it’s a song that we haven’t played in a while or maybe a song we’re trying to transition into another song. A lot of the times, the improvisations are transitions from one song to another, but that gives us the opportunity to stretch out a little bit and it makes us engage. It makes us excited about what’s going on and hopefully that translates to the audience.

You’ve been a touring band for so long now and of course, you’ve got families now; does it ever get any easier to leave that part of your lives behind for extended periods of time?

It doesn’t make it easier, if anything, it makes it more difficult to do. It is what it is; we’re guys who are 40 years old and we have families and it’s tough to leave. The important thing to remember is that this is something we’ve been doing since we were 19 and it is just a part of who we are. We’re lucky enough to have wives who are understanding of that; I’ve known these guys longer than I’ve known my wife and I think all those guys could probably say the same thing! You know? This is what we do, so it’s just part of our DNA at this part.

Speaking of tours – when a friend of mine found out I would be interviewing you, she got slightly excited and needed to know if the band would be venturing Australia-side anytime in the near future. Do you think this is in the band’s plans at the moment?

[Laughs] For sure. I’m thinking that we’ll probably get down there towards the end of the year and I’m hoping that we can spend a good amount of time down there. We love coming to Australia, it’s a beautiful place; the beer is cold and people like rock and roll. That’s, like, our ideal area.

Excellent stuff! Thanks so much again Jean Paul; best of luck with the album and hopefully we’ll have some announcement of tour dates here soon.

Absolutely, thank you very much for your time.