by EA Poorman
Can you remember that first record that blew your socks off? You know which one I’m talking about. It was the first time you heard an album, or just a song, that stopped you dead in your tracks and made you, by unforeseen force, sit and listen. That record that changed you, man. “Thriller was the first record that I remember being enthralled with”, says Clint Roth, the man behind the rock ‘n roll machine known as Big Jaw. “The next record that had such a big impact on me was years later when I was about 12 and I found AC/DC’s Back In Black in my sister’s cassette collection. I don’t know where that came from. I don’t ever remember her listening to it. I had never even heard of AC/DC up to that point. I think listening to that tape at that time had just about as much effect on me as any piece of music could have on anybody. That record completely changed how I felt about music.”
Clint Roth, in his own way, is making the kind of music that will someday fall into the hands of some kid living between “nowhere special” and “nothing doing” and will change that kid’s perspective on life and open his eyes to the world of rock ‘n roll. Roth is the mastermind behind the modern-rock-alternative titan known as Big Jaw. As Big Jaw, Roth makes music that lies somewhere in that realm of heavy rock where Queens of the Stone Age like to dabble and cover Zeppelin riffs in street grit and glitter. Where Stone Temple Pilots and Sly and the Family Stone get together and trade riffs and shots of Maker’s Mark. Roth’s own take on the heavy groove and even heavier riff is a magical one. But none of this musical goodness was instantaneous. Like everyone, Clint Roth had to start somewhere. “I am from the Fort Wayne area”, says Roth as we talk about his formative years near Fort Wayne. “I grew up in Leo and lived there until I went away for school in Florida. After school I moved back to Fort Wayne for a few months, then headed out to California. The plan was to move to L.A. and try to intern at a recording studio or a label. While I was at school in Florida I made a friend who was moving to San Francisco after graduation and he and his fiancee invited me to visit them for a few weeks so, they being the only people I knew in California, I took them up on that. I stayed with them for about three weeks and while I was there I made phone calls to every recording studio I could find about interning in San Francisco but had no luck. So, I got a number of a friend of a friend in Pasadena who was willing to let me stay at her place so I decided it was time to pack up and head south. I told my friend I would be leaving at the end of the week and the very next day I went out to my car to go buy some LA maps (this was way before smart phones and GPS) and found that my car had been stolen. The cop that came to write the report told me to write it off and forget about it because it was more than likely parts in Mexico by then. So, I lived in San Francisco for two years.”
But, with just a chance encounter the former Hoosier saw his life begin to change. “One of my Dad’s friends was very good friends with Kelly Harris’s (Von Iva) parents and without knowing me, she took me in”, said Roth. “She let me stay on her couch. She fed me. She introduced me to her friends. She was great. One night she took me to a warehouse party and on the way we stopped to buy booze and I bought a bottle of Maker’s Mark. On the way into the party she stopped to say hi to one of her friends and she introduced me. It was producer/engineer Billy Anderson and I recognized his name from the credits of a Mr. Bungle CD I had been listening to and reading the liner notes of just the day before. I asked if this was him and he said it was. I told him about not having any success getting any recording studios to talk to me and I asked if he had any advice. He told me if I shared my bottle of Maker’s with him he’d tell me whatever I wanted to know. I never made it inside that party (as far as I can remember) but we sat outside and drank whiskey and talked. He gave me a phone number for Toast Studios and the managers name and told me to call and tell them that Billy Anderson said to hire me. I called the first chance I got and got an interview and that turned out to be an amazing experience. I learned just about everything I know about recording there assisting for Jacquire King (who went on to produce Kings of Leon and a million other things), Jason Carmer (who produced Third Eye Blind, Kimya Dawson ,Explosions In The Sky and million other things), Chris Haynes (Grammy nominated mixer and also the guy who mastered my EP and mixed “Calling Out”). By the time I went to LA two years later (after they found my car in Napa) I was 23 and already up the ranks as a first engineer on a few major label projects. Rising up the ladder in LA where you can expect to answer phones for a few years before you get your big break to be an assistant and possibly never rise above that unless your lucky, I hit the jackpot by having my car stolen and being stranded in SF where there was considerably less competition but still some big projects being done. Possibly one of the most fortuitous car thefts of all time.”
By simple twists of fate, Clint Roth got in on the ground floor to some amazing recording projects(thanks in no part to someone stealing his car), but I’d wondered when he’d gotten the itch to make music of his own. “I think I was trying to play music before I even really understood what music was. Not that I really understand what music is now but I have a little bit better grasp on the concept of the world and the things in it than I did when I was six. Or maybe not. When I was five or six, my Mom started sending my older brother Duke to piano lessons. I don’t think it took very long before I made it heard that this was something I wanted to do, too. My Mom was all for it. We took lessons from a woman named Nancy Coolman. Her family ran an apple orchard outside of Leo so there was always apple cider in the mix as well. She taught kind of her own version of the Suzuki method which, in the beginning at least, emphasizes learning music by ear rather than reading notation. I think this had a really great effect, good and bad, on my life as a musician. I have never had a strong grasp of music theory. I still, embarrassingly, couldn’t tell you the names of the notes on my fretboard without counting and only a handful of years ago learned about common chord shapes and the names of the chords (some of the chords) I’ve been playing for years. If you talk about any kind of music theory, no matter how basic it might seem, I’m usually pretty lost. Every few years I make a big push to try to learn and I usually glean a little bit of information that sticks with me but it is a huge effort. On the flip side of that, I’m very appreciative for being trained to focus on hearing what’s happening rather than focusing on the math of written music at such an early age. When I started getting interested in guitar around the time I was 13 or 14 I had even less patience with learning anything that wasn’t directly related to making the sounds I was interested in. I skipped learning scales and modes and guitar theory (which I couldn’t really grasp) and instead jumped in and tried to learn Metallica songs by listening to the tapes. So basically, Metallica taught me how to play guitar. For the first few years I played and learned by listening, reading tabs from guitar magazines, and getting occasional pointers from my friend Jason Howey (Autovater) who was a grade above me at Leo and was a big inspiration while I was learning to play. Later on in my teens I did have the honor of briefly studying with the late great George Ogg, but we focused more on the feel aspects of guitar than the technical. Even more recently, just a few years ago, I had the pleasure of studying and picking up some tricks with the amazing Kenny Taylor.”
So at an early age, Clint Roth gets the bug for music, and by the time he’s in his teens he’s teaching himself to play guitar thanks to Metallica and Guitar World magazine. Then by the time he’s 23 years old he’s pushing faders on some pretty swanky records. When does Big Jaw come into the equation? ” I moved back to Fort Wayne from L.A. in 2006. At the end of my time in L.A. I had pretty much stopped engineering records and was writing music for commercials. I kind of had this idea that I could do that from anywhere and wanted to be back in Ft. Wayne where I could be near my family and friends and live for cheap while I spent some time exploring making my own music after about a decade of recording music for other people. I messed around with a bunch of ideas and then finally got serious about making an actual record around 2008. While I was visiting friends in Toronto for Nuit Blanche, I got inspired to really commit myself to the project and get it done. When I got home I started writing Appetite for Construction and started Big Jaw. My initial thought was to play everything myself but after awhile, I wondered why I, as a mediocre drummer, was playing drums when some of my best friends are great drummers. So, I enlisted my friend Adam Aaronson to play drums on my records. He’s a really amazing drummer. When he was young he studied with Tony Williams and went on to play with bands including My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, and most recently We Are Scientists. I would love for him to be an official member but he’s not so interested in touring anymore and that’s the next step for me. So, right now, Big Jaw is just me but I am not Big Jaw. I am Clint and I have always intended for Big Jaw to be a band and accrue other members along the way.”
Roth just released his second Big Jaw album called Photophobia. It’s a great little nugget of crunchy riffs, catchy hooks, and some truly impressive production work. I asked Clint about the time between the releases and differences between the two albums. ” Yeah, this record took a very long time to make. A little over a month after I released Appetite for Construction I lost a close friend in a car accident and everything flipped upside down for me. It was an intense period and one of the ways I tried to work through it was by playing music. Which helped until it didn’t and then I stopped. I left the music alone for awhile and when I came back to it I found that I had started all this hyper-emotional music and I didn’t know what to do with it because I’m a fairly private person. It was really very uncomfortable for me to open that part of myself up for criticism, but that’s art I guess. Now that I have put myself out there in that way and that part of my brain that freaks out over things like that can see that it’s not the end of the world to show that you can be vulnerable, I hope I can be be free to say what’s on my mind and in my heart without so much of an internal struggle next time.”
Besides his amazing songwriting prowess and studio wizardry, Roth is a damn fine artist as well. I asked him about the album artwork concepts for his musical projects. “For Appetite For Construction my initial plan was to do a very basic cover for the CD along the lines of Muddy Waters Electric Mud. One day I was randomly looking around some art sites and stumbled on a feature about an artist named French. He did some really great pencil drawings and one in particular struck me as a great idea for a record cover and that was the rooster standing on the skull. I emailed him and told him I was self-producing a record and paying for it myself and asked how much he would charge to give me the rights to use it on my cover. He responded and told me to go had and use it, no charge. It still amazes me how generous that was that a stranger would just say ‘go ahead and use it’. Then my friend Tim Litton, who is a professional graphic designer, helped me put it all together and took photos for that first record.
For Photophobia I wanted to commission my friend Brian Phillips to do a painting that I could use as a cover. He agreed and made a really great painting but I kind of had him do it prematurely. By the time the record was finished it was evident to me that what I asked him to do really didn’t fit with how the record turned out, so I’m hoping to use that painting for the cover of the next project (which I already have a title for.) In the end I used one of my own paintings for the cover. I was kind of hesitant to use my own art for the cover because I’m not as confident about my art as I am my music so I was afraid that if I did the art I might decide that I don’t like it later on. But I felt like this painting really worked for this record so I went for it. I’m not a graphic designer or anything but I have been painting for a handful of years on my own and I really love it. I started painting about the same time I started Appetite for Construction and it has really become a part of my life. The past year or so I’ve mostly been doing mixed media pieces.”
So what’s next for Clint Roth and Big Jaw? “Next for me is getting a live show together and starting to try to get the word out in earnest. I love playing live and interacting with people and I’m looking forward to getting back out there. But where its truly at for me is recorded music. I love listening to records. I love making records. It is the form of creativity that is the most meaningful to me. The most exciting part is that by making my records and putting them out into the world I have become a part of something that I love and that can’t be undone.”
Check out Big Jaw’s music at http://bigjaw.bandcamp.com/, and you can check out Clint’s art at http://www.clintroth.com/. Keep up on all things Big Jaw at https://www.facebook.com/bigjawband. And when Clint hits your town, get out there and see Big Jaw.