“We got big news, the party boat is here. The band is kickin’, and I see lots of beers.”
– Clutch, “Big News II”
On the night before Clutch played to a full house in late 2016 at the Tvornica Kulture club in Zagreb, Croatia, the band ventured out for a few beers and by evening’s end developed a particular affinity for the lagers from local brewery Pivnica Medvedgrad. Unbeknownst to the band, prior to their arrival the brewery had teamed up with a local artist to develop what drummer Jean-Paul Gaster calls “the coolest thing that anybody has ever done for us.”
“The next day we showed up at the gig, and the same brewery had brewed beer especially for us and for that gig,” Gaster says. “It blew me away because, obviously, when somebody brews a beer they have to think about ingredients and what those ingredients mean. No doubt the brewers had to be thinking about Clutch, maybe even listening to our music while they were putting it together.”
Pivnica Medvedgrad’s gift was a few cases of bottled beers wrapped with custom-designed labels that on the back read, in part:
“We have been waiting for you. All of us. … We heard you were craft beer fans, so we decided we have to give you a couple cases of the best and finest that our small country has to offer. Thank you for having us, thank you for the music, and if and when you return, we’ll be waiting with a full fridge!”
Clutch is a road warrior. By my count the band played 100 live shows in 2016 alone, or about one gig every three-and-a-half days; I see 93 shows in 2015. That’s been a fairly common annual pace over Clutch’s 25-year run, even during those rare “slow” years when the promotion cycle for the latest album has died down and the band is back in the studio to start it all over again. Indeed, singer Neil Fallon owns it on the title track of 2013’s ripping Earth Rocker when he declares that “if you’re going to do it, do it live on stage, or don’t do it at all.”
The band simply doesn’t take breaks. Including their 1993 debut album, the heavy-handed Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes & Undeniable Truths, the band has released 11 studio albums, four full-length live albums, two compilations, and a handful of EPs, with the biggest gap in new music falling between 2009’s muddled Strange Cousins from the West and Earth Rocker almost four years later. Clutch finished recording their 12th record, Book of Bad Decisions, in Nashville in early 2018 with a release date pegged for September.
But this short story isn’t about the band’s dogged work ethic or their music, a muscular, groove-heavy splendor of metal, jazz, blues, and funk—or what one might just call proper rock and fucking roll. Pardon the brief digression, but no band, aside from perhaps the great Ween, has had a more lasting musical impact on my life than Clutch, which in 1995 rewired my teenage brain when they dropped their greasy, stoney, swashbuckling self-titled album. It’s one of the finest (and most overlooked) hard-rock efforts of the ‘90s and a Herculean creative leap from Transnational Speedway League.
Today, however, the topic is travel and beer, two things about which Gaster discussed before soundcheck, in Amsterdam, on the first day of the band’s 15-date 2016 winter European tour.
Clutch Meets New Belgium
I meet with Gaster to talk about his band’s collaboration beer, the aptly named Clutch, with New Belgium Brewing Co, which in December 2016 re-released the brew five years after introducing the first run in a much-smaller quantity. It’s an imperial wood-aged ale made of 80-percent stout and 20-percent sour (the first batch had a 70/30 ratio), a blend which reflects the band’s fondness for both styles.
Clutch (the beer) was one of the earliest collaborations between a band and brewery, a trend which has accelerated in recent years and which I covered in some detail for BeerAdvocate magazine. It was a perfect match between a longtime Clutch fan in New Belgium wood cellar supervisor Eric Salazar, and Clutch, four dyed-in-the-wool craft enthusiasts.
The band, in fact, requests a six-pack of local craft beer on its tour rider, and Gaster says that he and his bandmates have dabbled in homebrewing. In April 2013, heavy-metal magazine Decibel put Fallon on its cover holding a lovely glass of ale from Flying Dog Brewery, which is located in the band’s homebase of Frederick, Maryland. “For me, the thing I enjoy most about beer is having a fresh, local brew. I’m not so interested in what the style is because I’m pretty open-minded,” Gaster says. “It’s kind of like music—if it’s good music it’s good music, and if it’s not it’s not. I look at beer the same way.”
The Perks of Travel
Gaster recalls getting turned onto craft, at least what little of it was available then, during the band’s early days on the road in the ‘90s. “I really kind of got into beer just a couple years into our touring, right on the cusp of the first wave of microbrews. It didn’t take me long to figure out that a Sierra Nevada was way cooler than a Budweiser,” he says. “So for the first couple of years touring around the country, I remember feeling kind of stoked if we could find Sierra Nevada or even Sam Adams. We’d be in Nebraska or out in the Midwest, and all these breweries hadn’t popped up yet. It was still kind of like everybody drank Budweiser, and then maybe if you were in California you could find something good, or if you were on the East Coast you might get a Sam Adams or a Harpoon.”
Gaster says that exposure to different regional beers and beer styles has over the years proven to be a considerable fringe benefit of the relentless touring. “One of the perks about being in a band is being able to travel and taste all these delicious beers, so I think being on tour can be kind of a beer education,” Gaster says. “I remember touring with Sepultura in 1996 and hanging out with [Sepultura guitarist] Andreas Kisser. He introduced me to Duvel, and that was my first experience with a real Belgian beer with a nice glass, a foamy head—I’d never had anything like it before.”
We’re chatting backstage at 1,500-capacity Melkweg in a mostly empty upstairs room, where the heady, comforting vapors from one staff member’s recent smokedown are so strong that I’m lightly buzzed by the time I conclude the interview. The room has big windows yielding views of empty Lijnbaansgracht below, which one block west crosses the Leidesgracht waterway in Amsterdam’s historic Grachtengordel, a UNESCO-protected area noted for its seventeenth-century canals lined with perfectly imperfect canal houses.
When I visit this city, large chunks of my days are spent bicycling from one end of these canals to the other, up to Prinsengracht, down to Herengracht, back up and down Keizergracht again, chain lock rattling against the mudguard, before venturing further out into De Pijp, Oost, Oud-West, aimless and content. Evenings are for refueling at Proeflokaal Arendsnest, Brouwerij de Prael, or one of the Dam’s other fine beer bars.
When I mention that Amsterdam has a fantastic beer scene, and ask Gaster if he’ll have time to visit any bars or brewpubs before heading to Münster, Germany, for the next show, he says that while he does find time to get out here and there, when he’s on the road, he’s at work. “It’s great to go check out a cathedral or a museum, or even a cool pub, but for me it’s just all about that gig,” he says. “When I get up in the morning the first thing I’m thinking about is what I need to do today to make sure that tonight is everything that it can be. At the end of the day I’m here to play drums, so if I don’t do well that night, I ask myself, ‘what are you doing here?’”
“Beer is awesome, and so is Michigan, so good for them.”
Growing up Gaster spent some time in Taylor, Michigan, a suburban city located about 20 miles southwest of downtown Detroit. His father, working for the Detroit District of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, ran tug boats on the Great Lakes. “The economy was awful at that point,” says Gaster. “I remember going up there and looking at Detroit, and at places like Flint and even Grand Rapids, and thinking to myself, ‘wow, it’s tough living up here, man.’”
This was well before the state’s economic turnaround, modest in scope and ongoing though it still may be. “The people that stayed love Michigan—there’s so much heart there, so much spirit,” says Gaster. “I was so excited when I saw that Michigan had this beer thing going on, because beer is awesome, and so is Michigan, so good for them.”
Bridging the Gaps with Beer
Over the past 23 years I’ve probably seen Clutch live going on 40 or 50 times, across multiple states and countries. The first time was in 1994 at Flint’s gothic Capitol Theatre, when the band shared the bill with Fudge Tunnel (great band), Fear Factory, and Sepultura. There for Clutch’s instrumental side project, The Bakerton Group, I was one of about 25 people to see a short impromptu set in the basement of New York’s Knitting Factory. I’ve seen the band play a Hudson River cruise boat, and most recently watched them bring down the house with a rousing set at London’s sold-out Roundhouse.
There’ve been countless opening (and headliner) bands, many of which Clutch know or booked themselves for their headliner tours, but not all of them. When he sees unfamiliar faces backstage, Gaster says that beer–as has been the case for time infinitum across social gatherings–often breaks the ice.
“In a lot of ways I think beer is a unifying thing. There are times when we’ll be hanging out and you don’t really know the guys in the band, but you know they like beer, and so that just sort of opens up a conversation,” he says. “Even if you don’t like the band’s music, if they like good beer it kind of makes them cool.”