The members of Maryland hard rock group Clutch are musicians’ musicians.
Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster’s enthusiasm during a recent chat was palpable as he discussed his and his band members’ wide-ranging music tastes, their experimentation and their dedication to advancing their chops.
It comes up in the first question. The band will headline the Midtown Ballroom on Saturday with Portland’s Red Fang and Washington’s Mos Generator opening, but for most of its tour, it is playing alongside Hatebreed and East Coast Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys. The latter is not a band you’d necessarily expect on a bill alongside Clutch’s bluesy stoner rock, but in a way, that’s the point, according to Gaster.
“I can remember very early on getting a call from Marilyn Manson asking would we be interested in support,” Gaster said from a tour stop in Charlotte, North Carolina. “This was back in, man — this was the mid-’90s, probably around ’95. And we were not particularly excited about that tour — at that point, we weren’t really a huge fan of Manson’s music. But to be honest with you, it turned out to really be a cool tour, and looking back, that band at that time was a great band, and we made a lot of fans. So we stuck with that philosophy all throughout our career: Just play with anybody who wants to play with you.”
Fans know Clutch has never been a typical hard rock (or stoner metal, or whatever you want to call it) band. A willingness to look outside their own musical box has stuck with Clutch’s members since the band formed in 1991. Gaster gave a sample of bands that might be played on the tour bus on any given day, including reggae icon Bob Marley, bluesman John Lee Hooker and black metal pioneers Celtic Frost.
“Early on, we all had interests in music outside of metal and hardcore, and that was there from the very beginning,” Gaster said. “… You’ve gotta feed yourself music. You have to dig a little bit and you have to — it can’t just be all about just yourself and your band and your riffs.”
Gaster and the rest of the band — vocalist/guitarist Neil Fallon, bassist Dan Maines and lead guitarist Tim Sult — dug deep on last year’s “Book of Bad Decisions,” the group’s 12th studio album and first since 2015’s “Psychic Warfare.” Produced by Grammy-winning producer Vance Powell (Chris Stapleton, The Raconteurs), the album finds room for swirling psychedelia, bluesy funk and even a horn section for the first time on a Clutch record on the song “In Walks Barbarella.”
The horns were Powell’s idea, Gaster said. He went on the road with the band for three nights to get a feel for its live show, studying the sound from the front-of-house as well as the stage. Every song on the album was road-tested before it was recorded, according to the band’s website.
“I think he’d heard our music before, but I don’t think he’d seen us live, and the live thing is very much what we do,” Gaster said. “The more that we can bring that energy into a recording, I think the better the recording is going to be ultimately.”
Of course, the group has a new problem: missing the horns onstage. “If there are horn players in Bend, Oregon, and you guys wanna play with us, hit us up and we’ll work it out,” Gaster said.
The band’s members still take turns writing the set list each night. Again, the tradition goes back to challenging themselves musically.
“It’s cool because it allows us to play I think a wider variety of songs than we would if it was a more stagnant way of doing it,” Gaster said. “It keeps it interesting for us because we’re being challenged all the time, and I think it keeps it interesting for the fans as well in that way.”
“Book of Bad Decisions” songs such as “Lorelai” and “Emily Dickinson” have popped up recently in shows after long stretches in which they weren’t played, Gaster said. The latter song, which as the title suggests tackles the American poet’s life (albeit in a typically surreal way), offers an example of Fallon’s unusual subject matter and wordplay.
“Still to this day, I get goosebumps when I hear those lyrics sometimes for the first time,” Gaster said. “That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for being in this band. There’s never disagreements. There are times though when we hear … the concept that Neil’s trying to put across lyrically — and sometimes even in the early stages, the lyrics themselves are not fully fleshed out, but there will be an intention, a style that he’s gonna go for. That will oftentimes reshape the music in a way.”
Since releasing “Book of Bad Decisions,” the group launched an online singles series, the Weathermaker Vault. So far, it has released two covers — Willie Dixon’s “Evil” and ZZ Top’s “Precious & Grace” — and a re-working of its 2007 song “Electric Worry,” which has become a staple of the band’s live shows.
The rerecording showcases the band’s evolution since the original track’s release.
“That song was made at a time when I started really thinking about this idea of shuffle — you know, a drum shuffle — and the shuffle is something that you can work on your entire life, I feel like,” Gaster said. He went on to cite inspirations such as New Orleans jazz drummer Johnny Vidacovich, Thin Lizzy’s Brian Downey and Stevie Ray Vaughan Band’s Chris Layton.
“For me, (‘Eclectric Worry’) is actually more enjoyable to play because now I have a better understanding of what it was I was trying to do in the studio 10, 12 years ago. So for me, that was the main impetus, and I think the same holds true for the other guys: Everybody’s got their own way that they play that song now.”