Interview: Clutch's Jean-Paul Gaster talks Inkcarceration Festival
Inkcarceration Festival

Clutch has been bludgeoning ears since the release of their debut album, Transnational Motor Speedway, in 1992.

The hard-hitting Maryland quartet cultivated its core following with each subsequent release—from the eponymous Clutch in 1995 and The Elephant Riders in 1997 to Earth Rocker in 2012 and Psychic Warfare in 2015.

You probably know ‘em best for supersonic singles (and outlandish videos) like “The Mob Goes Wild,” “Electric Worry,” “Burning Beard," “50,000 Unstoppable Watts,” and “X-Ray Visions.” Their muscular, mountainous guitar sound (courtesy Tim Sult) borrows the blues crunch of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and punk power of Bad Brains and Black Flag, while their rhythm section (boasting bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster) recalls percussive duos of the past like John Entwistle / Keith Moon (The Who), Chris Squire / Bill Bruford (Yes), and Neil Peart / Geddy Lee (Rush).

Then there’s the bizarre-yet-book-smart lyrics of vocalist Neil Fallon, whose trademark growl gives life to fist-pumping paeans to sundry historical figures, hilarious hillbilly culture, sci-fi shtick, highway hi-jinks, and the American West.

Clutch recently completed their eleventh studio album, Book of Bad Decisions, and dropped the tantalizing teaser single “Gimme the Keys.”

The album is set for release in September on the group’s own Weathermaker label. Meanwhile, Fallon and friends are booked for the inaugural Inkcarceration Festival in mid-Ohio…followed by a North American tour with Sevendust in the fall.

The weekend-long Inkcarceration event is set for July 13-15 at Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield (site of the historic prison seen in the 1994 drama The Shawshank Redemption) and will feature over 30 bands (on two stages) and over 70 tattoo artists and vendors. Tickets (three-day or single) are available now at the festival website, as are VIP options and camping packages.

Rise Against, Of Mice and Men, A Day to Remember, and Life of Agony are scheduled to play on Friday evening. Bush, Our Lady Peace, Living Colour, and Fuel top Saturday’s bill.

Clutch headlines on Sunday, July 13 with Black Label Society and Sevendust. Other acts slated for that afternoon/evening include Hatebreed, Corrosion of Conformity, and Suicidal Tendencies.

We rang Clutch baterista Jean-Paul Gaster last week to talk about riff-writing for the new album, tweaking his tempos, fleeing angry roadies in Kansas, and exposing one’s dermis to exquisite inks.

AXS: Are you guys on tour now, or in-between dates?

JEAN-PAUL GASTER: We’re actually getting ready to go to Europe. We’ll head out on Wednesday and do a few festivals. We’ll start in Spain. We’ll be over there for just over a week.

AXS: So it’s Europe, then Inkcarceration Fest here, and then a full North American tour.

JPG: Correct! That will coincide with the release of Book of Bad Decisions.

AXS: When did you guys start writing for the new album?

JPG: It was just after New Year 2017. We wrote pretty much throughout the whole year. We wrote a tremendous about of material, and over the course of the year, we kept whittling down. We’d introduce new ideas from time to time. We took our time with this one. I think it shows. The songs are crafted in such a way that they play well live. The way the arrangements are great…it’s just great! I love being in the band and making music. That’s what it’s really all about, making music and playing shows!

AXS: The band posted a couple making-of videos. So you’re the guy who keeps track of all the new songs and the narrowing-down process?

JPG: Yeah, I’m sort of the default engineer and mix guy. I enjoy that, actually! I enjoy doing all the demos for the band. At the end of each day, I’ll take my computer back home with me and go down into my home studio and mix up the day’s tunes. For me, that’s the most exciting part of the day, listening back to what we accomplished. It’s putting my ear on it and figuring out what the next move will be for each tune. Then we’ll get together again the next day or day after and we take it from there. It’s an organic process. Once it starts, it continues all the way until the record gets recorded.

AXS: When certain riffs or bits don’t make the cut, are they cannibalized for other tunes or recycled later? Or do you just let ‘em go?

JPG: A lot of times the stuff gets cannibalized. That’s definitely the case. Oftentimes we’ll try to put two or three parts together to come up with something, and then we’ll set it aside. It’s common for us to circle back and go, “That stuff we did back in March was good. That one riff was really cool even if the other two parts weren’t.” So we’ll cannibalize that good riff! It’s pretty cutthroat, as far as being a new idea in the back of new ideas. We liken it to an athletic team. Sometimes songs get cut! We’ll say, “You didn’t make the team this time, but you’re welcome to come back and try again next year!”

AXS: On the behind-the-scenes videos Neil says everyone wrote riffs, including you—on mandolin! Was he kidding, or is that a real thing?

JPG: That’s a real thing! I’ve struggled with trying to play a melodic instrument ever since I started on drums. I’ve been around guitars, basses, pianos, trumpets. I just seem to get along with this little mandolin! I am by no means an accomplished player, but it gives me the opportunity to look at things in a different way. I have a better understanding of how songs come together, of the melodic structure. Sometimes I’ll come up with an idea and present it to the guys, and they’ll play it on “real” guitars!

AXS: For your part on the vid, you discuss your deliberate approach to playing slowly. Can you talk about the importance of proper timing and tempo?

JPG: One thing I’ve learned over the years is that oftentimes there will be a new idea that gets introduced into the mix. One guy might bring a riff or even an entire tune. We’ve all been in the position where we’ll start playing it, and it feels really good, and everyone’s excited about it. But sometimes after ten or fifteen minutes of playing, you start-stop, start-stop. Sometimes after working on an idea for a while, that initial thing that peaked everyone’s attention wears off. So you ask, “What’s different? What changed over the course of fifteen minutes?” So one thing I’ll do is lock in a tempo right away. When an idea is brought to the table, I’ll get the metronome out and try to find the right tempo for that riff or that piece. That way, that part gets locked in, and I don’t have to think anymore about fast or slow. I can concentrate more on the form, the structure, and the changes. So that gets taken out of the equation; it’s one less thing to have to think about. Ultimately, you listen back to that piece after getting the tempo, and then you can make decisions about whether it’s too fast, or whether it could be slower. But at least then it’s a concrete number—a real thing, and not just some “feel” thing. Tempos can drastically change the feel and texture of a beat. Even just one or two bpm can really change things! And that’s something we’ve worked on over the years. I’ve used that as a tool for songwriting ever since then.

AXS: Listening to the lyrics of the new single, “Gimme the Keys,” there’s a reference to an SM-57, which is a popular microphone model. It sounds like the tune is telling the story of some on-the-road shenanigans between rival bands. Is it autobiographical?

JPG: [Laughs] That is correct! It was the summer of 1992. We were on our very first US tour. We were actually opening for a straight-edge hardcore band called Four Walls Falling out of Richmond, Virginia. When we first started playing…we came out of that East Coast hardcore scene. I don’t think we were a hardcore band, but it was a good place to start a band because the scene itself was pretty fertile. You could trade shows with other bands, it was easy to get shows. We would often correspond with other bands from other towns, and one of them was Four Walls Falling. So we landed this US tour. That took us to Lawrence, Kansas—the Great Plains—in this agricultural warehouse with these tractors and stuff. They’d turned the place into a music venue. So we showed up there, and it was this festival with lots of hardcore bands. Being the youngest and most inexperienced band on the bill, we got put to the end of the bill, the clean-up band. Somewhere along the way, one of the bands that preceded us thought that because they weren’t compensated in the way they should’ve been, they stole a microphone, an SM-57, and they took off. At the end of the show, a very angry sound man came around the corner with a friend of his—who had a firearm with him—and they essentially held us up and said, “Hey, you need to give up this microphone.” Of course, we knew nothing about this microphone or anything he was talking about. We were lucky enough to “get out of Dodge,” as Neil says. I said, “We’re not going back to Lawrence, Kansas ever again!” Of course, that wasn’t true, because we were back there like six months later. But that’s the stuff that happens to a young band on the road for the first time! Those experiences make you who you are as a band. So that’s what “Gimme the Keys” is about. It’s all about the experience of that night.

AXS: You guys have been around a long time now! If that happened on your first tour in ’92, you’ve hit the quarter-century mark.

JPG: Yeah, we have! Over twenty-five years with the same original four members. And I love that! I love that it’s been the four of us for so long. It doesn’t feel like twenty-five years, I’ll tell you that! Sometimes it feels like a matter of weeks, but then I’ll look back and see what there, what we’ve been able to accomplish. And that’s amazing!

AXS: What do you guys do at festival shows when you’re not onstage? Do you hang out? Watch the other bands?

JPG: It definitely depends. Every day on the road is different. For Inkcarceration we’re flying in. We won’t be on tour yet, so it’s a one-off. We’ll get in on the evening before, we might even visit the festival grounds and see what that entails. But at festivals I’ll check out as many bands as I can, even bands I’m unfamiliar with. It’s important to see what’s going on, what other folks are doing. And the opportunity to see and hear different kinds of music, it’s what makes a festival a festival. It’s as much for the bands as for the fans!   

AXS: Given that this is a tattoo-themed cultural festival, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you have some ink of your own.

JPG: Yeah! I have a few tattoos. I get stuff of my travels. I’ve got a piece from when we went to Japan. I’ve got one of a koi. I’ve got various seafood; I’ve got a shrimp an I’ve got a crab. It’s a mish-mash of everything! I’m not one of these guys who will go out, and within eight months gets covered with tattoos. It’s just little by little for me, and I enjoy them as they come. But I’ll say that for as much as I love my tattoos, I do not enjoy the experience of getting them! For me, it’s a painful experience, and I can’t stand the sound of the gun [laughs]! I love tattoos, but the process for me is not enjoyable!