Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with drummer Jean-Paul Gaster of the Baltimore-based alt heavy metal band Clutch about riding the label merry-go-round in the 90s, forming their own label and how changing a tire at night in alligator alley was a character building experience.
CP: Walk me through the origins of Clutch. You guys came together in 1991. What were the circumstances?
JP: We just got together and started playing. We didn't come from other bands and we hadn't released other records. We'd known each other since high school, and shortly after high school, we formed the band.
CP: As high school students, would you have imagined the band lasting as long as it has?
JP: Absolutely not. When we started the band, the intention was just to play shows, play good shows, and make good records. That was really it. The bands we looked up to at the time were bands that didn't receive commercial success, so the kind of music that we wanted to play wasn't going to generate money, let alone a career. That was really the starting point for the band. I would never have imagined we'd be able to do this 21 years later.
CP: To last as long as you have, have you had to make any sacrifices, as far as your musical principles?
JP: The fan base definitely is appreciative of how we make music and our approach to it. As far as having any commercial success or thinking that way, even in the '90s, when we were on major labels and radio was a very, very important thing to them, quite honestly when we tried to write a radio song, it just didn't sound like a Clutch song. We really don't know how to make music other than how we make it. I think that was a source of frustration for the major labels.
CP: Did you just tell them they had to deal with it? How did you reconcile what you could do and what they wanted from you?
JP: The relationship between us and the labels kind of followed a template, which is that they saw a band that had a following. We got folks who would come see us play, and we sold a few records. The labels got excited about that because here was a band with a fan base that didn't have to start from scratch.
They automatically thought this was a band that had something going for it, so if they could sell 700 records on their own, it should be easy to get them to sell 7,000. We would make a record with the company, the record would come out and, inevitably, they would learn that it's a tremendous amount of work to sell something like Clutch because it's not a commercial sound and we certainly don't look commercial. [Laughs.]
So inevitably, we would be dropped. Then, we'd go on tour, get more fans, and then the next label would come snooping around and go, "Hey, you guys have a fan base," and then we'd say, "Here we go again." It was kind of like groundhog day for a lot of years there in the '90s.
It's what it was. It was '90s music that was based on radio play, and that was something that we really didn't know how to do, even if we wanted to.
CP: Sounds like you guys must have welcomed the shift to digital downloads since that puts so much more control in the hands of recording artists.
JP: I think it's definitely agreed with us. We started with the idea of folks downloading our music and stuff very early on because a lot of times people couldn't find our records. The idea of trying to get enough records made and put in stores was always a sore spot with labels, who didn't want to print enough records. They painted themselves into a corner, because here was Clutch coming to town, and no one could find the records, so they would go online and start downloading them.
CP: And you've started your own label a few years ago.
JP: Yeah, we had to do it, at that point. We knew that signing to another label wouldn't be the right move on any level. We jumped in and we're still figuring it out - it's been a learning process - but it's really made being in the band a lot easier. So many of the politics and stuff that's not fun about being in a band went away when we started doing the label on our own. That was in 2008.
CP: Have you been with the band from the beginning?
JP: The lineup is the same. It's the same four guys. We added an organist for a couple of records there, but other than that, it's been the same guys since the beginning.
CP: When so many other bands can't make it more than a couple of years without membership changes, what are you guys doing right?
JP: It goes back to what I was saying earlier. When we started this band we just wanted to play good shows, maybe play with some cool bands and make some good records. That was the beginning and the end of it.
Many people get into bands to make a million dollars or because they want to date models or because they want to party. The truth is, we didn't do that. We wanted to make music. That mentality has helped keep this band together through the tough times.
CP: What were some of those tough times?
JP: The '90s were very difficult, dealing with the labels. You're broke all the time; you're fighting with your label. Those were dark times, but that's part of being a music and part of what makes you who you are.
The same thing goes on the road. Stuff happens on the road. I've changed tires in Alligator Alley at 4 p.m. before. That's no fun. I've had to walk down the road to find a tow trucks. We've driven 800 miles in an RV without a muffler. [Laughs.] We've slept in numerous parking lots and gotten broken into.
That's all stuff that happens on the road, those are real experiences, and if you don't have those experiences, I think you're missing out on part of being in a band and being a musician. Those are the things that really make you.
CP: Clutch has a pretty extensive catalog. What have you guys been playing on this tour with Hellyeah?
JP: We take songs from the entire catalog. About 15 years ago, we came up with the idea that we would switch up every night who would make the set list. Last night, for instance, was Dan's night. Tomorrow night in Springfield will be my night. Then, the following night will be Neil and lastly Tim before we start all over again with Dan.
Just the fact that we change the set list every night and we can pull all the songs in the catalog, that keeps things exciting for us out there.
CP: How do you Hellyeah? Have you ever toured before?
JP: Actually, we toured with Pantera back in the '90s, and we knew Vinnie Paul back then. We played a couple shows with Damageplan back in the day. I think, really, it was a case of the booking agents getting together and saying, "Hey, let's try to put a package together that makes sense." This is a good package.
There are different kinds of people coming to the shows - attendances are good - and that's what you want. You want a good attendance, and you don't want the promoters to get the dirty end of the stick, either. You want everyone to be happy and to make some money. You want a show with a wide variety of people there who want to see the show, buy some beers and maybe a t-shirt.
CP: Do you find that you approach music differently now than you did 20 years ago?
JP: No doubt about it. Just practicing everyday, practicing drums and thinking about drums and listening to other music, listening to guys who are inspiring to you, your perspective is always going to change. It think that's a very healthy thing. When you try and do what you did the last time around, that's when the trouble starts.
CP: What are some defining characteristics of how you're playing now as opposed to a few years ago?
JP: We're getting ready to work on a new record, so all our creative energies is focused on this now. This time around, we want to focus these songs as best we can, boil to the essence of what makes them their own song. That's one thing we're thinking about.
We want this to be a focused, hard-hitting rock record. There aren't that many good rock records out there now, but we're going to try and make one. We're going to start recording it in August.