Big Bottoms: Clutch’s Dan Maines Has Groove in His Pocket
Clutch is undoubtedly one of the most loved bands on the road today. They have the perfect balance of heavy metal thunder and blues-rock charm that reminds us of those Zeppelin records which first turned us onto all that is heavy. They tour constantly and if they aren’t coming to your town, it’s because they just left.
Like any great rock band, Clutch is powered by its rhythm section. Drummer Jean-Paul Gaster is hard to ignore with his laid back yet deliberate battery while bassist Dan Maines—just to JP’s left on stage—is most often overlooked. If JP is Clutch’s heart, Maines is the aorta that delivers the groove to the other essential organs, Tim Sult, Neil Fallon and crowd.
Maines is self-taught and learned bass in order to join Clutch, which is probably why his playing suites the band so well. Clutch classics like “Big News I & II,” “Spacegrass,” “Elephant Riders,” “10001110101” and “Mr. Shiny Cadillackness” showcase Maines’ natural ability to lay down classy, memorable bass lines. Never overplaying, every successive Clutch album is a veritable clinic of how to choose your spots in between guitars and drums for maximum effect. On Clutch’s latest full-length, Earth Rocker, Maines deftly grounds future live staples like the steady-hammering of “Mr. Freedom,” the punk rock honky-tonk of “D.C. Sound Attack” and the stuttering rumble of “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…”
Maines discussed with me the huge steps he and the band have taken as players from their first album to now, the way he writes his signature lines, Clutch’s enduring connection to late-‘80s/early-‘90s hardcore and how they keep getting bigger twenty years into the game.
A lot of people describe early, Transnational Speedway-era Clutch as being a hardcore band. I don’t feel that’s particularly accurate; but how did you see yourselves at that time?
I don’t think we really thought of ourselves as a hardcore band. I guess we got that label in the beginning because those were the shows we were playing when we first started. We didn’t really, for whatever reason, get into the metal crowd at that time. The hardcore shows were just a lot easier for us play.
When you’re starting out, you just play wherever you can. You play for whoever comes to your shows, and we were happy to have them.
The reason I ask is because I’m not sure I can think of two bass players that would have less in common than a hardcore bass player and the guy playing “Big News I & II.”
[Laughs] Yeah. When you sit down and write a song, the last thing you want to do is something you’ve already done. When we got into the self-titled album, a lot of things came into play to make that record such a departure from Transnational. We spent a lot of time on the road playing. I think we just kind of naturally were feeling a little more confident on our instruments and a little less inhibited to stick with what we were doing up until that point. When you play the same 12 or 15 songs over and over again for a year on the road, you’re ready for something different.
Was it a big adjustment, going from the Transnational style to the self-titled or did you already have a background in both types of music?
Well, I wouldn’t say that it was a conscious decision to do something completely different from Transnational, it just ended up that way for different reasons. I don’t really have a good answer for that. The biggest thing to me from Transnational to the self-titled album is the swing in the songs. Transnational is more of a straightforward feel; everything is on top of the beat. The self-titled album has more of a swing to it. I think that’s a combination of where JP was taking his drumming and the style of riffs the rest of us were coming up with.
Between Transnational and the new record, Earth Rocker, how has your playing changed or evolved?
I think that on the earlier stuff, my bass playing might have had a bit more of a droning aspect to it—not so much riff oriented. That was probably an influence of music I was listening to at the time, like The Swans, or also that I hadn’t been playing bass that long. The longer you play, the more your abilities grow on the instrument, the more you’re going to stretch out musically.
The differences between my abilities on Transnational and our third record, Elephant Riders, were huge. When I joined the band, I didn’t even know how to play bass. I’d never even picked up a bass. I’d been playing guitar for about a year and a half. When I started playing with Jean-Paul and Neil, they were looking for a bass player so I picked up a bass. Within about a week of playing bass, I was probably better than I was on guitar. It was just a more natural instrument for me. But I really hadn’t been playing that long before we went into the studio to record Transnational Speedway League.
That was ‘93, I think, when that album came out. In 1995, the self-titled came out; ’97-’98 Elephant Riders came out. By the time we started writing Elephant Riders, I was feeling a lot more comfortable with the bass. I felt capable of injecting more of my musical influences into my playing.
I certainly knew and loved Black Sabbath when I was recording Transnational Speedway League, but I was nowhere near the player to try and comp Geezer Butler’s style. The difference in style really comes down to your ability to play other styles and feel comfortable enough to put it in your own music.
Do you think you always had those groove sensibilities even before you picked up guitar?
Yeah, I do feel like I did have a certain level of natural skill. To be honest, I kind of used that natural ability to just pick up things by ear and play. I wish that I hadn’t relied so much on natural ability and sat down with a teacher earlier on in my bass playing career. At this point, I’ve fallen into some potentially bad habits that are hard to break. As far as learning how to play, it was mostly by ear and then by watching Tim play and learning from being in a band.
What’s your favorite Clutch bass line from your career?
A song that’s really fun for me to play is “Easy Breeze” and that’s off of Slow Hole to China. That [ album ] is kind of a collection of B-sides, of songs that didn’t make a particular record we were recording. A lot of songs off of Elephant Riders I love to play. “Wishbone” is one of them. Oh, and “The Yeti”—I love playing “The Yeti.”
What is it you like about those songs?
Just the groove, really. Those songs are kind of complicated but not difficult to play. They just have a good groove to them.
Earth Rocker is more on the upbeat side of the Clutch spectrum; which previous Clutch album would you say it most resembles?
Well, when we were at the point where we had a good six or seven songs written for the record, I think we felt like, of any record we had written before, Earth Rocker most closely resembled Blast Tyrant, as far as the vibe of the songs. That led us to the decision of working with [producer] Machine again.
In the end, it was a good decision. He had really good input when we needed it and I’m really happy with the way the album ended up.
How much of your writing do you do on bass?
When I write at home, on my own, it’s usually on bass. I’ll usually either just open up GarageBand, come up with a beat and play along with that and hope something good comes out or sometimes I’ll just play along with other music and that will inspire an idea. Usually when I come up with these ideas and bring them to band rehearsal, Tim and Neil and Jean-Paul start doing their things and the song is much easier to complete. It’s very difficult for me to sit down and write a song as a whole and really feel good about it. We’re the kind of band that really benefits from the input of everyone else.
So do you try to write guitar riffs or do you leave that up to Tim when you show him a bass part?
I’m always thinking about riffs. For us, nine times out of ten if me and Tim are playing the same riff together, that’s when it sounds the best. Occasionally, I’ll write a riff and put a guitar track on top of it and listen back, I’ll realize that maybe it needs a separate bass line, and I’ll come up with that. But I’m never going to assume than every part I come up with on guitar is what Tim’s going to play.
I think a lot of the bass lines that I like are a reaction to a guitar riff that Tim or Neil will play. When you’re coming up with a bass line for a guitar riff that somebody else wrote, you usually end up writing something that you wouldn’t have written on your own because you’re reacting to someone else’s starting point.
Clutch has really ballooned over the past five years or so it seems. Do you think that’s the result of having played so many shows?
Absolutely. I think that what success this band has and will have in the future is because of touring. That’s what got the band its start in the beginning. That is what has had the most impact as far as more people becoming aware of the band. Having your song played in TV shows or having it in video games certainly helps as well, but I think we’re one of those word of mouth bands.
Somebody goes to a show, they bring their friends. Their friends have never heard of us before, but hopefully by the end of the night, they’re a fan. We’ve never been the kind of band that gets a lot of radio play. But I’d definitely pin it on touring. It’s something that we really like to do. Where we feel the most natural is on stage. That’s what’s most enjoyable for all of us. Every night is a new opportunity to do something different.
I just can’t really picture us ever stopping. I know, at some point, it’s going to happen, but I just can’t picture that in my mind [laughs].