SCHAGHTICOKE — Close your eyes and think of that favorite bar of yours. The one where no one gives a damn what you look like. It’s your sanctuary. A place you can just grab a beer and take out your work week frustration listening to music amongst friends.
Now, when you think of that music, chances are Clutch is in that head of yours. If not, it ought to be.
This four-piece band out of Maryland has been rocking hard for 25 years. In that quarter-century its members have witnessed the saturation of hip-hop and auto-tuned vocals in Top 40 radio, the birth of Internet commerce and the subsequent hit on the music industry. But, its sound has a strong grasp on the bare bones of good, ol’ hard rock.
While relaxing at his home, Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster recently sat through a phone interview with us. The band is scheduled to play the Schaghticoke Fairgrounds for the three-day Rock ‘n Derby festival from Friday, May 20 to Sunday, May 22.
MH: When you’re on break, I read somewhere you’re a big “Walking Dead” fan.
JP: “I like ‘The Walking Dead.’ I’m not sure I’m as big a fan as they made it out to be on the Internet. But, I do like it. In fact, I think my wife and I need to catch up on the very latest episode. She’s more of a fan than I am. She introduced me to the show a few years ago, and we were very surprised when they played “The Regulator” on “The Walking Dead.” So, that was exciting for us.”
MH: If you were a cast member, what would be your weapon of choice?
JP: “A gun, for sure.”
MH: I’d choose a motorcycle and get the heck out of there. Now, you were touring with Motorhead just a little while ago.
JP: “We had the opportunity to do two tours with Motorhead, actually. One in the UK, and then the most recent one, here in North America.”
MH: What was your takeaway from that?
JP: “It was incredibly inspiring. I’ve known about Motorhead ever since I first got into music. Oddly enough, I’ve never had the opportunity to see them. Whenever they came through town, I was on tour, but I’ve listened to them for years. Seeing that band live really knocked me out. Lemmy in particular was an inspiring figure. Watching him make rock ‘n’ roll every night just reaffirmed my belief in making music. He was somebody who did it all the way to the end. Regardless of all the partying and all that stuff. I think the best thing about Motorhead was the music and the playing. That’s what interests me.”
MH: Now, unfortunately Lemmy passed away in December, a big surprise for everybody. Did you have any opportunity to have a conversation with him? Any advice he was able to share with you?
JP: “To be totally honest, I was quite intimidated by him. I never spoke to him. Not in that kind of way — it was always just short and very casual. My favorite memory about that tour though was watching them soundcheck in Canada one afternoon. I think we were in Edmonton. And, Mikkey Dee, was very friendly. All those guys are very friendly. Mikkey Dee. and I would talk drums. After the gig, we’d get together and grab a beer. Just talk about drummers. Stuff that drummers talk about. One afternoon, he invited me up onto his drum kit. The thing about his drum kit, first of all, it’s set up on an enormous riser. So, you’re easily six-feet up above everybody else on stage. You have to climb a ladder to get on this thing. And, once you get up there his personal monitor rig was probably bigger than a lot of PAs in clubs and in theatres. This thing was just enormous. So, I told him, ‘I’m not sure I really want to go up there.’ He said, ‘No. No. Really. You must try it.’ So, I said, ‘Well, look. If I’m going to climb all the way up there, I’m going to play a beat.’
So, I did. I climbed on up there and I started playing his drum kit. Next thing you know, here comes Lemmy. And, almost immediately, within a bar in a half, Lemmy’s playing along. Then, shortly thereafter, “Zo” [Phil] Campbell joined in. So, I had the opportunity to jam along with Lemmy and Phil. For me, that was the treat of a lifetime. I will never forget that day.”
MH: One thing I wanted to ask, in May you’re going on tour with Lamb of God, who also have been around. Now, I read an interview with [Clutch lead singer] Neil [Fallon] where he seemed to allude that there is almost a disadvantage to being around for so many years. Is that something you agree with? Do you see where he is coming from, where fans seem to look for a weakness with bands who have been around for so long?
JP: “I think I understand where he’s coming from. When you’ve been around for as long as we have, you’ve made a lot of records as we have, played as many shows, I do think there is a mentality out there where people want to tear you down a little bit. More importantly, though, this band provides people with not only musical enjoyment, but also a reason to get together with friends and listen to music. The ability to do that year after year I think is very, very powerful. It’s something that people don’t forget. We have the same crowds coming to see us play every time. They bring a friend. Sometimes they bring their kid or wife. So, it’s an amazing thing. I’m very proud of the audience that we’ve been able to build up over the years, because it’s very diverse and it’s very open. And, I think that’s a great thing.”
MH: Now, the 25 years that you’ve been around, there’s been a lot of changes that have hit the industry. Is there any one that you can think of that has impacted you and the band?
JP: “I think the biggest thing is the fact that the major labels sort of went under. We never experienced much success with the major labels. All through the 90s, we bounced around from one label to the next, and that made being in the band very difficult. Mostly because dealing with those entities, it wasn’t inspiring musical mindset. There was a lot of conversation about stuff that was not musical. I think, at the end of the day, I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. The label was in business to make a lot of money, and Clutch is a band that wasn’t really designed to make a lot of money. When we started the band, really we just wanted to make good records and play good shows. The idea of making a million dollars is not on our agenda at all. I think the labels though, at that point they were willing to sign anybody and everybody. They would take a chance on you and hope you were the one band in a thousand that would break. So, that was a really frustrating time. Being able to get off the label, being able to start our own thing, [record label] Weathermaker, that’s been the most important change in the industry. For us, anyway.”
MH: Streaming has been a hot topic in the industry. I see Clutch on Spotify, for example, but not other artists for the No. 1 reason there’s not the ability to produce a stream of income for the artist. It’s just not fair. Is that something you don’t have to worry about too much because of Weathermaker? What’s your take?
JP: “The bigger picture is the physical sales of CDs and vinyl and all those mediums are down. There are some hope with the vinyl scene, I think people are buying more of that than they used to. But, in general, physical sales are down. Even just straight-up downloading, going to iTunes and buying the record, even that isn’t what it once was. And, I think that it is because of streaming. I see a lot of interviews with musicians crying about Spotify and crying about streaming music. Look, it’s not a good thing for anybody. It’s a pretty crappy place we’ve gotten ourselves to. But, that’s the reality. There’s a lot of fans out there who listen to music in that way. So, for us, we struggle with that a little bit. How do we deal with this idea of streaming. For many years, we restricted it. Anything that we owned we kept off the streaming services, with the exception of just a few songs. Then, last summer we went full bore. We decided, let’s give it a shot and see how it impacts our bottom line. And the verdict is still out. I don’t see us making a whole lot more money on Spotify, but, if the music fans are listening to Spotify, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not making that music available. You can debate all day long about whether or not it’s a fair trade, but as a musician, we never got paid for anything anyway. So, you have to kinda look at the big picture.”
MH: True. Very true. Now, you’re going to start touring in May. Anything you’re looking forward to in this coming leg?
JP: “Yeah, I think it’s going to be fun. The Lamb of God guys are guys we’ve known for a long time. They’re from Richmond, VA. Just down the road from us. I can remember very early on, one of those first cities that we could really travel to and we would go down there and do gigs. So, Richmond is an important town for us, I think. It will be fun to play with Lamb of God. And, the festivals on that run, too, are going to be pretty great. The cool thing about festivals is you get the opportunity to see a lot of bands who you wouldn’t normally get to see or check out. So, I look forward to that.
MH: I’ve run out of questions for you. Was there anything else you’d like to add?
JP: “Just come out and see us play.”