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There and Back Again: Clint Roth and Big Jaw
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
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.”
Roth’s plan was to move to L.A. and try to intern at a recording studio or a label, but the only people Roth knew in California were a couple he had met at school in Florida who had moved to San Francisco after graduation. Roth took them up on an invitation to visit and called every studio in the area, looking for intern or employment possibilities, but had no luck. A friend of a friend offered to put him up in Pasadena for a while, so Roth made plans to move there. “The very next day I went out to go buy some LA maps (this was way before smart phones and GPS) and found that my car had been stolen,” Roth says. “The cop that came to write the report told me to 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,” says Roth. "She let me stay on her couch. She fed me. She introduced me to her friends. She was great. One night on the way to a warehouse party she stopped to say hi to one of her friends and she introduced me. It was producer/engineer Billy Anderson. 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.”
Roth told Anderson about his lack of success in finding work at a studio, and asked Anderson for some advice. “He told me if I shared my bottle of Maker's Mark with him he'd tell me whatever I wanted to know,” Roth says. “I never made it inside that party (as far as I can remember) but we sat outside and drank whiskey and talked.”
Anderson passed on a name and number for Toast Studios. “He told me to 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 Roth went to LA two years later (after they found his car in Napa) he was 23 and already up the ranks as a first engineer on a few major label projects. “I hit the jackpot by having my car stolen and being stranded in SF where there was considerably less competition (than LA) but still some big projects being done,” he says. “In L.A., 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 you’re lucky. It was 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,” he says. “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 Roth was five or six, his older brother Duke began taking piano lessons. It wasn’t too long before Roth let his mom know that he wanted piano lessons, too. “My mom was all for it,” says Roth. “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,” Roth continues. “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 Roth started getting interested in guitar around 13 or 14, he says he had even less patience with learning anything that wasn't directly related to making the sounds he was interested in. He skipped learning scales and modes and guitar theory 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."
Roth moved back to Fort Wayne in 2006, wanting to reconnect with family and friends, live on the cheap, and explore making his own music after about a decade behind the boards for other people. After “messing around with a bunch of ideas,” Roth got serious in 2008, starting Big Jaw and writing the project’s first record, Appetite for Construction. His initial thought was to play all the instruments himself, but… “I started wondering why I — as a mediocre drummer — was playing drums when some of my best friends are great drummers.” He enlisted his friend Adam Aaronson, who played with bands 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,” Roth says. “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."
Big Jaw’s second album, Photophobia, just came out. 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. "This record took a very long time to make,” he says. “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 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. The cover of Photophobia is his own work. Roth says he didn’t feel comfortable putting one of his own paintings for the cover. “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."
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 bigjaw.bandcamp.com
Check out Clint's art at clintroth.com.
Keep up on all things Big Jaw at facebook.com/bigjawband.
And when Clint hits your town, get out there and see Big Jaw.