Throughout Clutch’s incredibly consistent, 23-year career, the band’s atomic potpourri of heavy blues riffs, greasy grooves, and punk rock attitude has made them difficult to classify. Long-burdened by erroneous designations ranging from “stoner rock” to “funk metal,” it’s high time they were recognized as simply one of the best pure rock and roll bands working today – with an emphasis on working. The Beltway-based foursome still tours relentlessly in support of vital new records, and at least one of its members engages in some pretty rigorous continuing education on the side.
“Are you familiar with Alan Dawson’s Rudimental Ritual?” Jean-Paul Gaster asks coyly over the phone from his suburban Washington, D.C. home. Clutch’s Bonhamesque beatsmith recently committed to tackling this most sacred of drum texts – an amalgamation of the 26 American rudiments, several Swiss rudiments, and a host of Dawson’s own nasty “innovations,” all atop a bass drum ostinato. The entire arrangement takes about 20 minutes to perform, several years to commit to memory, and a lifetime to master.
“I’m 41 years old and I started trying to learn this thing when I was 38,” Gaster continues. “It’s some deep drum stuff, man – you’ve got to really want it. At first it’s very intimidating, cause it’s so freaking long. But once you get into it and give yourself a shot, there’s some logic to it. It exposed me to rudiments that I had never even attempted, some of which have crept into my playing and show up on the new album.”
Said new album is the energetic Earth Rocker, Clutch’s whopping tenth studio effort. Extensive touring with legends like Motorhead and Thin Lizzy inspired the increasingly jam-driven band to adopt a more focused, take-no-prisoners songwriting approach, and a reunion with producer/engineer Machine (who also manned the controls on fan-favorite Blast Tyrant) has resulted in Clutch’s most bombastic release to date. Yet it’s the tender brushwork on the record’s lone mellow moment, the sparse “Gone Cold,” of which Gaster is seemingly most proud.
“I was intimidated by brushes for many years,” he explains. “But after I learned The Ritual, I went back and played it with them over and over. That forced me to really play each note, because you can’t depend on the bounce you’d normally get from a stick on all those drags and rolls. It did wonders for my confidence. I ended up developing muscles in my hands I never even knew existed.”
Gaster’s ardent attitude toward self-improvement can be traced back to high school, when he taught himself to play by jamming along to Sabbath, Hendrix, and Cream records. Equally enamored with Elvin Jones as he was Ward, Mitchell, and Baker, his heart was broken as a senior when he failed to make jazz band (the director claimed he played too loud and would be of no use in such a context). Motivated by this rejection, Gaster sought the tutelage of D.C. jazz legend Walter Salb, even as he was beginning to hit the road with his classmates in Clutch.
“Walter taught me a tremendous amount,” Gaster says of his abrasive yet admirable mentor. “Not just about drums, but music in general, and how a professional musician carries himself. We would work out of Ted Reed’s book, Syncopation, which not only helped with my reading, but also my sense of time and independence. To this day I’ll go on tour and I might bring just that book and a pad and I’m set. I could spend hours and hours looking at those pages – it’s truly a lifetime of studies.”
Gaster’s slippery-meets-slamming style is also a product of some unique regional influences. As a teen he was exposed to the arguably unparalleled D.C. punk and post-hardcore scene, exemplified by the ferocious energy of luminaries like Bad Brains and Fugazi. He was also privy to the grooves of “go-go” – a percussion-heavy subgenre of funk that is often credited as a precursor to hip-hop. The syncopated, cowbell-drenched breakdown of Earth Rocker’s “D.C. Sound Attack” is a nod to this extremely provincial brand of music.
“It wasn’t until we stared touring that we realized a lot of people didn’t know about artists like Chuck Brown or Experience Unlimited,” Gaster notes. “Just the cowbell parts alone on those records will knock you out – they’re so funky. The D.C. go-go sound is something that, throughout my career, has always been in the back of my head. I’m thinking about those cowbells, I’m thinking about those congas. You don’t necessarily always play all those other layers of percussion, but if you keep them in your mind, it creates a more elastic feel. It makes the groove a little deeper.”
While the atmosphere may be decidedly grittier than any Phish concert, spontaneity and improvisation are key ingredients to Clutch’s live approach. Members take turns writing a fresh set list each night, with virtually every song in the band’s extensive catalog being fair game. “We’re not just running through some set list that we came up with six weeks ago,” Gaster assures. “Sometimes that means breaking out the iPod and doing a bit of homework before the show, but that keeps things really exciting – both for us and the audience.”
It also provides myriad combinations for ad-libbing between songs. “One of the guys might say, ’Okay, we’re going to jam the end of ’Soapmakers’ and somehow we have to end up on ’The Elephant Riders.’ That jam could be 20 seconds or 12 minutes. It’s extremely wide open, but we’ve played together for so long, we really kind of share one brain. If the feeling’s right and I’m up for it, there may be a drum solo, which can be a great vehicle to segue from one groove to another.”
Tireless devotion to study and preparation has supplied Gaster with endless ammunition for such situations. But for this consummate pro, taste always trumps chops. “Practice can open those channels between your brain and your heart to your limbs, so that the music flows through you and your drums become an extension of what it is you’re trying to say. But you also have to speak in a musical way. That’s the real challenge. Inserting a lick into a song or even a solo just for the sake of doing it? To me that’s not music. That’s a different thing.”