During the 90s California based gothic/Christian metal band Saviour Machine was a fascinating, almost mysterious phenomena and especially the musical approach combined with the intriguing Bowie-like vocals and theatrical stage presentation of singer Eric Clayton, made the band stand out in the metal scene in a unique way. Their first two albums `Saviour Machine I’ and `Saviour Machine II’ are true classics leading SM to a cult status and a growing fan base. But along the way things got out of hand and after releasing their `Legend’ trilogy, based on the Book Of Revelation, Eric hit rock bottom, retired from SM and that was it for the band.
Five years ago Eric returned on stage being part of Ayreon’s live production The Theatre Equation. Three years ago Eric moved to Germany, formed his own band The Nine, did a few shows and recently released his first solo album `A Thousand Scars’, because he needed to tell his story and take the listener on a journey in his soul hoping to explain unanswered questions. And so, on an ordinary evening I contacted Eric Clayton, who seems happy and relieved, for a confession.
THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK
`A Thousand Scars’ is a very personal, deep, intimate and above all touching album. Eric agrees with me that it seemed inevitable that at one point in his life, he would make such a personal record, as he add to it especially considering how long he has been gone and the weird story about his disappearances.
,,My story has been kind of building and building for a long time and I realized that I had to tell this story, I had to tell it now before I got any older and forgot [laughs]. And what happened was a combination of many things. The catastrophe that was left behind in the wreckage of the `Legend’ trilogy, all the other crazy parts of my story that goes along with the `Legend’ project and the way that went down, my health issues and my disappearance. All the stuff with the record company and former management just got ugly, the whole thing went shitty and with all that it almost felt like on a personal side I needed to tell my story. A personal story that maybe could fill in some holes for people that had so many questions. I left so many questions, I published a book in 2010 and then I disappeared. I did so many things that were so unkind to my fans and I treated them very shitty for a long time. I felt this is a record for them as much as it was for me. There are songs on this record, that if you close your eyes and didn’t know it, you probably think this is SM. There are pieces that have a SM-esque kind of quality about them but feel like they go in a whole different universe. And there’s a few things that are very delicate, things that I never did with SM, like stripped down gospel arrangements in ,,A Man’s Heart’’ or the final track ,,The Greatest Of These’’ that is kind of a church hymn somehow. So all the qualities that made SM are still present in this album but it is just done in a very nuanced understated, kind of delicate way, instead of hitting you over the head with it and just smacking it in the face. It’s me telling a much more gentle story that needs to be told in a certain way.’’
,,As a young man filled with all kinds of crazy dreams and ambitions there were times where that floated around in there and I lost perspective of maybe what it was all about.''-Eric Clayton
SM has always been labelled as a Christian band and the lyrics and presentation didn’t think otherwise. After all these years I wonder if Eric is still `heavily’ into religion?
,,That’s kind of the million dollar question, isn’t it? I was raised in a very fundamental kind of grassroots Southern Baptist church in America. There were a lot of African-Americans and Hispanics and I grew up in a really kind of warm earthy community with middle to lower income level families. But there was a lot of love, music and us singing and that might have had a profound effect on me actually. Gospel music, I probably fell in love with it as a kid in church, especially when I heard the black ladies singing, it just did something to me. I am not sure if I was ever a religious person but I connected with gospel music very early on somehow and it was profound. Years later when I formed SM with the name of the band, the presentation of the material at the time, I thought it was almost like a calling or a mission. Like I was called to be some sort of preacher. As a young man filled with all kinds of crazy dreams and ambitions there were times where that floated around in there and I lost perspective of maybe what it was all about. Then the responsibility of it just became way too much and I realized I am not meant to be a preacher, I am not qualified to be a preacher, I am not a minister, I am just an artist who’s trying to interpret my understanding of what I grew up in and maybe my understanding of scripture that has puzzled and fascinated me for decades. My religious upbringing combined with this fascination with scripture and so forth, and maybe just a young man’s complete wild ambitions to take on something like the Book Of Revelation and say yeah let’s make a rock opera. Who does that? I would never try something like that now for sure. I made so many records early on in my career that just confused and divided people, good people on both sides of the fence and I really wanted to share this story, cause it felt it was a good time to bring people together on something. But I am a man of faith, I always have been. Personally I hate to use the word Christian because there are so many bad things connected to it historically so I prefer to use this: I am not a religious person but I really do, till this day, try to follow the teachings of Christ as a centre point in my life, as a foundation.’’
Before Eric started to work on his solo album he initially had a different plan; together with his brother Jeff and the other guys of Saviour Machine, Samuel West [drums], Nathan van Hala [piano] and Charles Cooper [bass], he had started to work on a new SM album after being inactive as a band for about a decade. With Eric already living in Germany and his band mates in California, files were sent back and forth, on which Eric recalls:
,,We were developing a record what I believe would have been a very good record if we would have just continued working on it. My solo album started with me and a guy from Minnesota named Adam Pederson, who programs digital sounds. We threw a few ideas back and forth and I started writing. Then I started writing on my own, simultaneously while Saviour Machine was trying to write a new record and that’s where things got complicated. I realized that the material my brother and I were separately working on was perfectly matching, while it didn’t match so much with what the other guys were writing. Jeff and I had about 5 pieces we thought we could use on a SM record and at the same time in this narrative, I am listening to these instrumentals my brother is working on, ,,The Space Between Us’’, ,,Revelation Mine’’, ,,American Whore’’, and all of a sudden I am not writing lyrics for SM anymore, they’ve just become instantly personally connected to me. So my brother and I in the middle of a SM production basically trying to write a record, we both realized that we had to stop and I needed to do this. It was difficult and it was tough on the other guys and I put them in a rough situation. They were ready to make a record and in kind of a shitty way I had to stop the whole thing to pursue something personal.’’
But what exactly happened after the “fall” of Saviour Machine? Eric turned his back on sunny California and took off to Utah, as he explains:
,,When you are on the bottom, broken and shattered into pieces, there’s nowhere to go but out. Since Utah so much has happened and things really changed for me. Starting with me finding some kind of new sense of life, a new sense of purpose. I needed a job and something to put my energy, my passion in when I rebooted my life, since music wasn’t gonna be there. I have always been very passionate about playing baseball and I used to be a pretty good baseball player, particularly a good hitter when I was young. I love kids and always liked communicating the game. I spent on and off coaching kids in baseball and softball for several years and when I moved to Utah I got back into it fulltime. It was actually my dream to be a professional baseball player and I was on a pretty decent path for that kind of life. But by the time I was 18 years old talking to majorly teams about signing, I had one hell of a crystal meth problem, among other things. I was doing massive amounts of methamphetamine in 1984/1985, it was everywhere in Southern California. Basically my baseball career ended with some fail drug tests and just failed life at the time. When I came out of the wreckage of that I stopped using methamphetamine in 1987. When I had hit bottom for the first time in life, that’s where my interest in making music came from very shortly after and it was out of the blue. I didn’t have any musical background as a kid or any training or anything like that. I love music, I like to sing but I knew nothing about music, I couldn’t even play a chord on a piano. All of a sudden at 19 years old I got songs in my head, melodies, and SM is born. My passion for baseball is definitely next to music, it might be my greatest passion in life and I do love the game. If I wasn’t a baseball coach, I might have been a teacher, I think for middle school. Kids need good teachers, especially when they are around 11, 12 years old.’’
Then Dutch musician Arjen Lucassen, the rock opera mastermind behind Ayreon, traced Eric through a very close friend and gave him a call asking to perform in his new live production The Theatre Equation. A chain reaction started. ,,That slowly helped me fall in love with music again. I never thought I could.’’
Eric sings on the fabulous studio album `The Human Equation’  as the character Reason and he mentions that he has only good memories working with Arjen. Therefor knowing he would get involved in a class act and production Eric admits it didn’t make him say yes at once. He was retired and had no interest returning into the spotlights what so ever.
,,I didn’t want to do it unless I really felt like I should, like I wanted it personally. And I couldn’t find that in myself at the time. I couldn’t find the desire to step on stage and sing or to be a performer again. But what I did find was a sense of loyalty I guess. Once I heard everybody was on board I really didn’t want to be that guy that didn’t show up. I kind of took it as a matter of pride and loyalty and not wanting to be the asshole. Also Arjen made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, the money was very good and Arjen takes care of his people, there’s no doubt about that.’’
,,This experience taught me a lot about myself.''-Eric Clayton
Eventually joining The Theatre Equation, living in The Netherlands for two weeks, it turned out to be a mind blowing, an elegant and amazing experience, as Eric describes it, but actually quite overwhelming as well.
,,It was the first time I’ve been in any sort of public situation in years, I found camaraderie and friends. I instantly connected with Devon Graves. We are both from California, we grew up 2 hours apart, both listened to a bunch of the same kind of music, kind of travelled in similar scenes, both started bands around the same time, so how did we never meet until now? But it was also absolute a terrifying experience and quite a catharsis in itself. I don’t know if anybody that saw me for those two weeks could visibly see I was this nervous man trying to be at peace with the situation. This experience taught me a lot about myself and if I was going to commit myself to a comeback, I had to change certain things about myself in order to do it in a healthy, truly professional way and not allow myself to get fucked up like before. Hopefully I am a better man and a better performer for it.’’
A BROTHER FROM ANOTHER MOTHER
And so Eric teamed up with his small inner circle and Devon Graves, [known as the frontman of Psychotic Waltz] to produce `A Thousand Scars’. According to Eric, the story was there, but he had to find a way to communicating it on an 80-minute CD. A big puzzle that normally could keep a person awake at night but not Eric, explaining he is a chronic insomniac.
,,I was completely, really crazy, nocturnal for about 25 years, sleeping only for about 4, 5 hours in the morning and there were years during the SM era that I didn’t sleep. But since I moved to Germany 3 years ago I somehow found a more natural rhythm. I am too old now to not sleep and I have to at least get a nap [laughing]. But of course there were plenty of restless nights while making this album. We had a lot of challenges logistically, because the music was being written by my brother in California, me here in Germany recording ideas on my cell phone and sending it to my brother, my programming guy in Minnesota, my band The Nine that was developing and learning the structure of these songs in The Netherlands, including one track that was written by my drummer Twan Bakker. And then of course bringing it all together to Devon, who lives in Austria. I stayed in his studio for 5 weeks, because it wasn’t just vocal performance, backing vocals and arrangements and all, we were bringing all these files together before we even could produce the album. It took hours and hours of just uploading and sort it all out, so the technical aspect, the logistics were intense but I had an amazing time. Everybody worked so hard to make this record, we did it completely independently, though we had some crowd funding, but we made this thing on a shoestring. It was friends making a record otherwise we couldn’t have made it for this amount of money. The outcome is even beyond I had in mind, I am very proud of it.’’
Eric tells that he has always been his best with Jeff, being his ‘bro’ and wingman and making `A Thousand Scars’ physically without him in Europe was difficult on many levels. But working with Devon made it definitely easier for him.
,,Devon is the only guy, the only other musician I’ve ever worked with that I have a language with like I have with my brother. We don’t even need to talk half the time, it is just there, just perfect. It’s natural and it’s just beautiful. Devon helped me not miss my brother so much. In 2017 Devon and I produced the David Bowie cover ,,Fame’’ together after Bowie died and that turned out amazing. That’s when I realized not only is this guy a great brother and somebody I want to work with, but this guy gets me and I get him. I knew this is the guy I want to produce my solo record. He is a brother from another mother. Devon has this little magic touch he puts on things, fairy dust we call it. As intense as this record was, we almost had too much fun working on it. When you’re working on something powerful and truly, as it is an artistic expression and you are really in it, the experience itself is profound and mind blowing, it’s also heavy and it wears you out and you need those little breaks, those breaks of levity humour, fun and relaxation.’’
With the Dutch band The Nine, Eric found another partner in crime actually on a blind date via a dear friend.
,,When I told my friend I was playing with the idea putting a European band together because I wanted to go out and perform again, since it has been so long and SM is not going to be able to tour any time soon because my brother hates to fly, he encouraged me to put a band together. I started auditioning German guys, brilliant players, very nice and professional people, but my German is shit and most of these guys didn’t speak English very well so there was a communication problem. Then my friend said what about looking for Dutch musicians? Actually I love Dutch people, they are hilarious and there is nothing better than the laughter of Dutch people. My friend knew these guys that played in a 90s cover band called Les Neufties, apparently it’s French for The Nine. Hé, that’s my favourite number! I am obsessed with that number since I was a little kid. And they played songs of Soundgarden and Alice In Chains so I thought they can play heavy music, let’s see what happens. We literally got together on a blind date with instruments and started kind of noodling and I took it from there. After a couple of months of rehearsals we realized this is working, we booked nine gigs and here we are. Members of The Nine are on every track as well as Devon and his family, my brother performs on his 4 tracks and we had a lovely guest vocalist in 3 songs, a girl from Greece who worked with Devon before, and my programmer and a cell phone [laughing].’’
When the word came out, old fans showed their interest and support and these earlier mentioned nine gigs were a success, which did surprise Eric in a way. Not only because of his long absence, not being sure if anyone cares anymore, but also because he came out in a different way looking and performing than during his SM days.
,,That was a big one too. I decided not to come out with all that shit on my face, this isn’t SM, it is just me performing SM songs and some of the music that I love, songs that I’ve always wanted to sing. Actually these shows were really more for me, they were really selfish because I needed to know if I could do this without SM, without the make-up and just enjoy performing and connect with my audience and feel like this was real. You know what? Somehow they felt as monumental as some of these earlier SM performances. They were powerful, emotional experiences were I felt deep connections with people in different ways than I ever felt with SM. Indeed, without the make-up and the theatrics, being bare-naked it was easier to connect via my true self with my audience. Back in those days when I put that stuff on, costume, make-up, props and all that, each one of those was some type of psychological armour. It very much was me performing a character, an actor. The problem is when you do that all the time you get caught up in being somebody like Eric Clayton all the time, especially back in those days and people didn’t realize you don’t sleep in that stuff, you don’t wear it at home, you don’t walk the dog with that stuff on. It was part of my burnout back then because I created a persona, a character that was kind of so unique, captivating and fascinating, weird and all those other things, that it created more questions than it did offer answers. When you do that and you’re playing around with all that symbolism, theatre, politics, religion and all that shit, you are bound to eventually caught up in all of it and it became just too much for me to keep track of in what’s real and what’s not real anymore. Where’s me in all of this? It is easy to lose your identity in something like that.’’
Now that Eric found his way back to music and fought his demons, how does he feel about the future? Is there more to the story to tell on a second solo album and what about Saviour Machine? Eric has some thoughts.
,,This feels like such a monumental achievement right now. It is such a special record and such an intimate story, such an outpouring of my soul, I realized that after something like this, after giving everything I got, and a combination of 20 years leading to all of it, I feel like a man who’s just climbed to the top of Mount Everest. I didn’t compose music for so long, but something tells me that even though I just dumped everything I had to give at the moment, there is more. I have been whistling and humming and having melodies floating around in my head for a couple of weeks now. Doing The Theatre Equation made me also realize I should sing with women more often because this is interesting for me as a singer. I actually recently did a little country duet with a dear friend of mine who comes from a country background. I had such a nice time doing it. Since the few gigs I did with The Nine, I got the taste in my mouth again and I do want to get out to perform because as personal as `A Thousand Scars’ is, as much as it goes into some heavy deep dark shit, I have a beautiful stage presentation that I was basically formulating and creating and visualizing as I was writing the record. And I would like to present that to the people but if this whole quarantine situation continues to go on much longer, without us being able to go out to perform live, it definitely change some general plans. Also my brother and I were in the early talks kind of resuming our SM production, because it’s kind of time. We were gonna wait until a little later this year but now with this whole kind of pause in the world, we thought maybe now, why not. With me working on a SM record I have to consider the idea SM could perform again and if that happens am I willing to go back into the role, put on the make-up and to put on a SM concert? What I can say honestly for myself when the time is right and if everything comes together as it should, absolutely, it will happen.’’
Eric Clayton And The Nine Facebook here
Eric Clayton And The Nine Website here
HBLS review `A Thousand Scars’ here
HBLS live review ECATN here
Portrait photos Eric Clayton by Christopher Lee Meadows
Band photos by Harry Heuts
FROM MY PERSONAL PHOTO ARCHIVE:
Eric Clayton [L] - Me - Nathan van Hala [R] of Saviour Machine somewhere in 1997 after a show in Antwerp, Belgium