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Get Pitchshifter frontman J.S. Clayden talking about politics in his native Britain, and it's like listening to comedian Dennis Miller rant about crap here in the United States, only in a thick north-London accent -- and not as funny.
Clayden, who sings and writes the lyrics for the techno-tinged, heavy-rock outfit, isn't trying to be especially hilarious, although in conversation he's playful about his song writing. Like Miller's comedy routines, many of Clayden's works are about sociopolitical inequities. Take taxes, for example.
"I never really earned any money my entire life -- and I'm not earning a lot of money now -- but I'm paying taxes," claims Clayden, whose band plays OZZfest in West Palm Beach July 2. "And that money now, my tax money, is going to countries like Indonesia, who then go and kill people in East Timor, so technically I'm funding that. That's the thing that gets to me at the moment."
At least it's one of the things. Look for a song about it on the next album. For now there's plenty of antiestablishment vitriol on Deviant, Pitchshifter's fifth full-length studio offering.
"Forget the Facts" opens with a menacing, discordant guitar figure circling around Clayden's sniveling vocal: "Forget the fact that you won't show me./'Cause there's nothing that you wanna show," he sings. "Forget the fact that I don't look like you ./Forget the fact that this is nothing new."
""Forget the Facts' is about how we're all quite happy to perpetuate our Western, white, nuclear family image," explains Clayden. "But we happily forget the facts that people get paid slave-labor wages to make the carpets that we buy from the stores."
As the song pounds along, more strident guitars join in, slashing out a militant melody line to match the song's machine-gun drumming. Then Clayden delivers the chorus: "Forget the violence forget the pain/ Our happy meals will taste the same."
Clayden's songs are full of that type of wry irony, a stance he borrowed from the punk music that fueled him and his brother, Pitchshifter bassist Mark Clayden, as adolescents in working-class Nottinghamshire.
"I was obviously too young to catch the Sex Pistols wave of [punk]," admits Clayden, age 29. "Although the Pistols are still certainly an influence. I caught the second wave: the Subhumans, Rudimentary Peni, Icons of Filth, and the end of Crass. It was really encouraging, because the music spoke directly to us. We lived in projects. We came from working-class families. We didn't have any money. Punk music reached out of the sky like the hand of God and touched you on the head and goes, "I am talking to you.' Whereas big, posturing rock lunacy like Kiss didn't say anything to me. Men in tights biting blood capsules? Whatever. Yeah, it's nice, but punk was singing about stuff that happened -- about getting beat up by the police, about being on welfare, about life being shit where you live, you know? It spoke straight to us, and we were like, "I fucking love this music.'
"Pitchshifter is punk in its inception and the way that we deal with things," he continues. "It's just obviously we've moved into a different sphere of music, but we're still punk in what we do."
Although it has transitioned from the industrial metal of its early-'90s albums to studio-slick techno-rock to somewhere in between, Pitchshifter indeed started out in true punk fashion.
"None of us are trained musicians," Clayden lets on. "We got a few hundred dollars together, and we bought a drum machine, a bass guitar, and a lead guitar, and everyone chose what they were going to do. We just wanted to make the music that we wanted to hear that no one else was makin' which I think is why a lot of bands start making music."
Clayden was actually living as an artist in France and selling paintings in 1989 when his brother and guitarist/programmer Johnny Carter formed Pitchshifter and wrote an album. The duo landed a record deal and called on Clayden to fill out the lineup, so he returned to England, and with the addition of his socially conscious lyrics and surly vocals, the album Submit was released in 1992. Psensitised followed in 1993, firmly entrenching Pitchshifter in England's industrial underground with songs like "To Die is Gain" and "(A Higher Form of) Killing."
Outgrowing its raw, relatively minimalist sound, Pitchshifter sought to bring its message to a broader audience on 1996's Infotainment by adding hyperpaced techno breaks and layers of studio sampling to its metal-edged musical mélange. Cuts like "Underachiever" and "Product Placement" illustrate Clayden's continuing penchant for social commentary, and the group -- which had already traveled ahead of the industry curve by releasing a 1995 remix album -- included tracks of samples at the end of the Info CD for fans to "steal" and use.
This technological drive peaked with the album www.pitchshifter.com in1998, on which the band made another sonic leap by incorporating even more drum 'n' bass backbeats and layers of sampling along with the bruising guitar work of Jim Davies, who joined the group during the recording of the album.
A prime example is the edgy, caustic "Genius" with its wall of guitar distortion and a huge bottom end of fat, choppy beats driving Clayden's manic screech: "If dysfunction is a function, then I must be a fucking gee-nee-yuuus."
Twisted yet witty lyrics and a unique amalgamation of sounds set Pitchshifter apart from the metal-pop of Korn and Limp Bizkit. Unfortunately, the departure of Carter following .com left Clayden to work the digital wizardry himself -- and with his own ideas about utilizing the technology at hand.
"I stripped down a lot of the stuff that we would normally have," he says, "like millions of layers of sampling that would clutter things up, and just said, "OK. What's the minimum that you can get away with and it's gonna still be Pitchshifter and convey that mood?' And I think it's a stronger album for that -- no disrespect to Johnny or anything we did."
No disrespect to Clayden, but he's rejiggered the Pitchshifter formula a bit too much. Electronica influences that made the band so unique have been buried in the mix.
"It just seemed like a natural progression to us, because we did about as much as you can do programmingwise with guitars on pitchshifter.com," he explains. "We came off nine months of touring right before we started writing this album, so we had a much better idea of what works live, and the band's just moving more in that direction. I mean, there's still a lot of electronica on this album, but it's done in a subtle way."
True enough. The verses in "Hidden Agenda," "Wafer Thin," and "Keep It Clean" have a slightly hip-hop flavor, while "Dead Battery" and "Scene This" contain drum 'n' bass breaks, although veiled ones.
Even with less techno twist, Pitchshifter offers a brainier slice of metal musicality than most of its contemporaries. And while Deviant marks a move away from overt electronic experimentation, the choice to record with producer Dave Jerden (Alice in Chains, Jane's Addiction) for a fuller guitar sound helped bring to fruition one of Clayden's long-standing punk dreams -- to collaborate with former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra.
Because Jerden prefers to work in his Los Angeles studio, the band flew to the U.S. for the Deviant sessions, and Clayden and Biafra -- mutual fans of each other's music who had joked for years about writing a song together -- finally hooked up when Biafra swung through L.A. on a speaking tour.
The result is the tongue-in-cheek "As Seen on TV," a driving punk rave-up to which Biafra lent one of his trademark spoken-word screeds: "Each new hot generation has a statement they wanna call their own. Tattoos? Piercings? That's for moms and dads. What you want to do is spend your allowance on Devil-horn implants, Elephant Man head, designer tails, third leg, fourth leg/Everyone a hermaphrodite!"
Says Clayden: "He made it all up on the spot. He literally walked into the booth, put the headphones on, and just did it all straight in an hour. And then he was like, "Let's go eat.'"