Monday, October 8, 2007

Believing the Fiction

On the cusp of national recognition, Séance Fiction frontman Evan Clayton dishes on the new EP, Bodog's Battle of the Bands, and a geek's journey to metal

Metal is for low-tuned guitars and pounding double-bass drums. Metal musicians don't play wussy church organs. So when twenty-five year old Evan Clayton meets me at his apartment door holding an effete-looking pair of organ shoes, I have to ask what the hell is going on.

"They look stupid," he admits. "And they don't fit right, either." But he needs to earn performance credits for his second Bachelor of Arts degree. His second.

I wanted to interview a man whose rage-filled lyrics are currently ranked number ten in the country on the Bodog Battle of the Bands. But it turns out the self-described "angry, drunken Viking" thrives on knowledge. He talks about a documentary on the Orkney Islands while I look around his pad, which looks like a dorm. A flag with a Viking ship on it hangs over the mini-fridge. The bookshelves are covered in philosophy, literature, and...wait. What are those books over there?

Those are Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks, Evan says. Then, with a grin: "Yeah, I'm a geek. So shoot me."

Idiot dreams

Actually, there's a story behind those books, and it connects to where he's at today. Growing up in the Mayberryesque town of Centre, Alabama, Evan was probably the least likely candidate for metal-god status. But at fifteen, he and a friend were kicked out of a church youth group for playing the fantasy game.

Yet when the deacons' sons got caught selling drugs -- in the church -- nothing happened to them. No one even said a word about it.

"That's probably where I my intense hatred of hypocrisy got started," he says. And indeed, hypocrisy is a favorite subject for the "Reverend" Evan, along with alienation. They were staples for Idiot, his previous band, and inform much of Séance Fiction's lyrics. Just listen to Show & Hell, an anthem for everyone who's endured derision for daring to dream. It's an ironic song, too, given that his band is running so high in the Bodog Battle of the Bands voting.
Outcast, reject, these things I know well
Outcast, cast, outcast fearing no hell
They said that I would be no one, no one
They said that I would be nothing, nothing
But I know a lie when I'm shown one,
You can't take this out of me, out of me
"That song is very much about the younger Evan Clayton," he says. "I wanted to be a rock star since the age of twelve. For a long time, I was a total dork with two or three friends and no car. I spent all my time on music and gaming." The experience in church youth group was the final straw, apparently, because it removed his only peer group and tore at his religious grounding. Cast adrift, he felt free to explore anything he wanted.

"I've never felt quite at home in a spiritual sense," he says. "Religions in general tend to bother me." He eventually became an openly-practicing pagan in the buckle of the Bible Belt, attracted to the lack of structure and emphasis on free thought.

It shows up in his lyrics for the first time with Year and a Day, a track from Séance Fiction's new EP. The title refers to a Wiccan marriage rite. "I try to write a love song about every four or five years," Evan quips. "This one's about how no two people are perfectly fitted, how we can't fix people no matter how much we love them, and how it's sometimes the broken parts that do fit. You can't force have to let people be free."
I'd like to change the polarity of the Earth
So that no compass could bear you away
But I love you too much to ever force your hand
Or try to make you stay, but
I'm still failing miserably to
Find a way to you, still
Hopelessly trying to
Find a way to fix me and you
The need for freedom also drives his musical imagination. In a decade when Grunge was all the rage, Evan was inspired by metal bands like Tool and Fear Factory. "Strapping Young Lad had that machine-beat, the snare and kick drum and guitar all hitting at once. I loved the way that sound made me want to go, go, go."

But Evan didn't just want to imitate a sound, he wanted to innovate. "I liked that 80s electronic sound, too, and I had this idea in my head of what it would sound like to mix electronica and metal."

After trying several bands, Evan finally got together with Fred Crow, Jason Watts, Blu Keasler, and Nathan Bane to form Idiot. While they never earned a label contract, the band toured and cut Idiocracy, a full-length CD, and also sent Evan down an important path: lead vocals.

"Basically, I was at a party with two of them, and they said: 'We want you to sing, or we're going to quit the band.'" But it took Evan years to master the creative screaming of his musical idols. "I had to hurt myself. A lot," he says. "It took me a long time to learn how Maynard Keenan could rip my face off, but do it clean."

Evan is still reticent about why Idiot broke up. Clearly, the experience is still painful to him. "There once was a dream that was Idiot," he says with a sigh. "After that, I was stuck in a rut for a long time." Then he gets up from the couch, where he's been sitting with a drinking horn, and becomes more animated. Enough about the past -- he wants to talk about his new band and their new CD.

Political Séance?
Evan eventually got together with Alex Frost, a techno musician with plenty of depth. "At the time, I was extremely jaded and didn't feel much hope for anything, musically. But it's turned out to be everything I've dreamed of." With his unstructured creativity, Evan compliments the methodical Alex. Together with Gary Lee, a friend who picked up the bass, a band was born.

Evan suggested the name Séance Fiction, after a song by Fear Factory's Burton Bell and Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler. "The other guys looked at me like I'd pissed on the floor," he says. "That was our name from the get-go." The sound had a sharp edge and a scary tone from the very beginning. "We wanted lots of color, a band that would be right at home playing a Halloween party. When we light up the first chord, that first riff, we want people to hear something both beautiful and terrifying -- we like to think that Séance Fiction is what God sounds like."

But Evan, whose maverick mindset had led him down the halls of academia as well, had politics in mind from the beginning. It wasn't a hard sell with Alex, who had tried to start a chapter of Students for an Orwellian Society on their college campus. Their first EP featured the anthem Intransigent, in which the first verse ridiculed latter-day hippies while the second verse vilified the religious right.

The new CD is no partisan screed, either. "It's not the 'vote-for-Giuliani' or 'Vote-for-Hillary' album," Evan jokes. He draws inspiration from Aristotle, the ancient greek philosopher, who called politics 'the master art' of a society. "If your politics are out of balance, then everything's out of balance," Evan says. "Swinging violently from one extreme to the other doesn't solve anything."

That theme of political moderation comes through in Course of Human Events, a track named for and inspired by Thomas Jefferson's words at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. "Lots of bands can point the finger, but not many can look into a mirror. So often, people become the things they hate." As the verses present a series of revolutions, the chorus becomes a caution:
It's time to progress forward and
tell you just how things will change.
We know just what's best for you,
watch everything stay just the same.
When in the course of our human events
you find yourself tired of the lie,
just know that deep down we care about you -
now bend over, and cover your eyes.
One reviewer called their first EP, Believe the Fiction, "a perfect soundtrack for the apocalypse." Your Answers Questioned is a little less violent and a lot more pessimistic. In Compliance, Evan offers a distopian vision out of Orwell's 1984 -- but uses the imagery we find on cable TV right now. "The lyrics contain a cheeky, sarcastic message: 'Go back to sleep. Ignore the man behind the curtain.'" Evan rolls his eyes. "We've all seen the guy in the suit on every channel, surrounded by symbols of trust. He's just a clone of the last guy. They're all mouthpieces for one belief system or another."
I am the person, you are the people
The people must do what the person has said
I am the vampire that will keep on sucking
Until the whole world is rotten and brain dead
Bow down unto this, ignorance is bliss
Just give away all the things
That made you different and so brave
Don't ask why, conform and comply
"Freedom means being free of constraints and protections. Freedom is dangerous," Evan explains. It's not nice, or easy, or friendly. It's challenging to both governing and governed. The coward's way out is formal, rigid control -- as expressed subtly in Rise, a track that, on the surface, is just a fun song about zombies. "What's the difference between a necromancer raising an army of the undead, and a demagogue controlling an army of the brain-dead?" He asks. "Not much. And they're just about equally dangerous."
And I demand this of you,
And I command this of you,
I will not stand here just to be defied.
You will not stray from me or question why.
Onstage, Evan loves to wear a t-shirt of the MacManus brothers in their pose of righteous vengeance. Peace Means Reloading, the last track the band has chosen for the new EP, has a strong current of Boondock Saints in it. "Some people say there's no such thing as righteous vengeance. I say some people just need killing." Indeed, 'some people just need killing' was the song's working title. "It's our angry, bitch-at-the-TV song."

Success at Last?

When asked about his band's enviable position in the Bodog voting, Evan is not as excited as I expected. "That was Alex's doing," he says. "He and Adam Lawson (the band's new bassist) are the beat-the-pavement people, the ones always out on the street promoting. It's almost an insult to offer to help them."

Still, doesn't it feel great to be as high as number ten in the country? "It is amazing to get such notice, to have a million complete strangers listen to your music and think it's that good," he admits. "But it's also kinda scary. I've never even been outside the southeast -- now we're being told that after a certain stage in the battles, we'll need passports. Passports!"

In the past, Séance Fiction has won Battle of the Bands competitions through the strength of their performance -- and their knack for gaining audience-participation. "I like the idea of bands battling," he says. "Competition brings out the best in a band like ours. And I think Fuse (the cable channel on which Bodog Battle airs) is a far better medium for us than, say, MTV. I've watched it, and it seems to be all about music instead of the same ten sucky pop-hop videos followed by eight hours of shitty programming -- Christina Aguilera playing with her Barbie dolls, and so forth."

Their rise to prominence may be coming at exactly the right time, too. This summer saw them losing their bassist and replacing him with Adam Lawson, a genuine talent. That changeover caused them to scrap the work they'd done on the new EP and start over. "It took a long time to get Adam fully up to speed," Evan says, "and we're just now getting back to where we were in June, but with an even better stage show."

Does Evan covet the million-dollar top prize, I wonder? He spins in his chair. "Actually, it would be nice to just be a finalist. There would be more freedom. I mean, what do you have to do to for that million?" As always, Evan is more concerned about his creative freedom than anything else. "If I end up a pauper because of this, I will not regret it. I'd hate to be in a band and not be doing what I thought I should."

But what else would he do? Evan shrugs. "If I didn't have this thermonuclear explosion in my head, I'd just turn into a regular guy... I'd just conform and comply," he says.

Sure -- with two college degrees, Evan could find some other life. But somehow, I just don't see it happening. When I say so, he points to the computer behind him. "I'm working on a new cover of Smashing Pumpkins' Stand Inside Your Love," he says. The band is adding to its list of non-metal songs, such as Coldplay's Clocks, that they have given a 'metal conversion.'

He would be doing that sort of thing even if he wasn't in a band, he says. Apparently, it won't matter what happens to his career -- Evan will always be metal, no matter what he does for a living.

Even if he winds up an organ player.

Powered by ScribeFire.