The bass lord morphs and mutates between rhythm and lead parts with a hearty Wal 4-string, Gallien-Krueger crushers, and a pedalboard that could make Adam Jones jealous.
“Will the next Tool album take more than 10,000 days?”
That was an ongoing (and agonizing) joke for Tool fans that awaited the band’s fifth album following the release of 2006’s 10,000 Days. (A cruel clairvoyance of a title.) For those counting, when Fear Inoculum was finally delivered on August 30, 2019, it was just 4,868 days from their previous album. All crummy jokes aside, the anticipation of the album was real for a reason: the music. And the rhythmic cog of their constant contorting of depth and darkness is bassist Justin Chancellor.
Sure, drummer Danny Carey is a living legend bashing everything his large frame can smash and crash. Adam Jones transforms his guitar into a Hans Zimmer production with varied textures, temperaments, and traits his tone expresses. During shows, singer and lyricist Maynard James Keenan prowls in the shadows adding to the band’s musical mysticism. This triumvirate core dished out the punishing EP Opiate in 1992, and their 1993 debut full-length Undertow was more complex and calculated in its rage. But in 1995, when Justin Chancellor replaced Paul D’Amour on bass, Tool immediately expanded their dimensionality. The original three continued to dazzle and dumbfound listeners, but the addition of Chancellor and his pocket-minded role unlocked a collective vocabulary previously unspoken. Simply put, if Tool was an octopus, Chancellor was the head. The others could be momentarily independent tentacles exploring the melodic murkiness of their respective reaches, but when they needed to propel forward, Chancellor was steering. His lines are the base for the band’s groove and attitude that became a focal point on subsequent releases with 1996’s Ænima, 2001’s Lateralus, 2006’s 10,000 Days, and eventually 2019’s Fear Inoculum. The former three went triple-platinum, while the latter three were No. 1 on the Billboard 200. (Ænima landed in the No. 2 spot.)
If you ever catch yourself playing air guitar to Tool, you’re probably mimicking Chancellor’s parts. “Schism,” “The Pot,” “Forty Six & 2,” “H.,” “Fear Inoculum,” “Descending,” “The Grudge,” and plenty of others feature his buoyant bass riffs.
Chancellor’s tone has had a longstanding relationship with Wal basses, Gallien-Krueger amps, and Mesa/Boogie cabs. The evolving part of his rig has been his pedalboard. At this juncture of the band’s run supporting Fear Inoculum, Chancellor’s board is larger than his guitar-playing counterparts. Yet everything has a place and purpose. Some of it is duplicity, some of it is to avoid any required knob-turning during the show, and as we find out in the Rundown, some of it is just for fun. Grab a seat and get comfortable as Chancellor and his tech Pete Lewis walk PG’s elated Chris Kies through his live setup.
Like a Glove
While recording Ænima, Chancelor borrowed a friend’s Wal bass that was originally fretless, but his pal did the dirty work of embedding frets into it. “That original bass’ tone immediately fit in with the band and covered the right area of sound,” remembers Chancellor. He promptly ordered his own replica of that build, and this is the second edition of it. The above 4-string has been his main bass for the last 15 years. It has a mahogany core, bird’s-eye maple caps, a neck incorporating mahogany, maple and rosewood, and a rosewood fretboard. Some minor changes to improve comfort and playability include lighter hardware and Luminlay fret markers. Chancellor’s basses take a custom set of Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinky Bass strings that have the standard .045-.065-.85, but because they tune down to drop-D for most songs, he swaps in a .110 from the Power Slinky pack. And when they go to drop-C for their oldest material, he’ll put on a .135 string. He hammers on the strings with a custom Dunlop (1 mm) Tortex Tri pick. All his instrument cables come from Mogami.
Chancellor recalls auditioning for Tool with an Ernie Ball StingRay, but it just didn’t work with the band’s sound at the time. Fast forward two decades and the StingRay has found a cozy place in the Tool setlist. The 2018 Music Man StingRay Special is used on “Descending” from Fear Inoculum. Anyone keen on details will notice the high-tech solution of duct tape and marker that allows Justin to incrementally notch up the volume during the song’s blossoming midsection.
Pretty Practice P
Justin scooped this beautiful 1963 Fender P bass from Norm’s Rare Guitars. He does have a small collection of old instruments, but they have to meet two requirements before he makes the buy: They have to sound amazing and they have to be players so he can “bang away on them” without remorse. He doesn’t play it onstage (the vintage P’s output doesn’t have enough horsepower for Tool), but he does bring it on tour because he finds it inspirational to play, so it’s often with him backstage, on the bus, or in the hotel room.
Welcome to the Thunderdome!
This configuration of Demeter preamps and Gallien-Krueger power amps has been the nucleus of power for Justin’s studio and stage sound for years. The Gallien-Krueger 2001RB heads each hit their own cabinet. The “clean” RB runs into a Mesa/Boogie RoadReady 8x10. The middle RB head in the rack is the “dirty” amp that goes into a prototype Mesa/Boogie 4x12 that is EQ’d gnarlier and takes all of Chancellor’s pedals. He feels the 10" speakers retain the integral low-end bass tone better than the 12s, while the larger speakers are better suited for offering his distorted or effected tones an overall warmth that can disappear in the 10s. (The bottom 2001RB is on deck in case either head fails.)
Above the G-Ks are the Demeter Bass Tube Preamplifiers that give FOH a pure sound to mix in as needed. (The second Demeter unit is a backup.)
And up to the Radial JD7 Injectors are amp switchers that also help remove noise, signal loss, or hum and buzz.
Here are the two Mesa/Boogie cabs—the 8x10 on the left and the custom prototype 4x12 on the right.
Justin Chancellor's Pedalboard
This setup is either a bass player’s dream or nightmare, but for someone as adventurous as Chancellor, this is where the party starts. At a glance, you’ll notice many of his pedals are available at your favorite guitar store, including six Boss boxes, an Ernie Ball Volume Pedal, and MXR Micro Amp. Crucial foot-operated pedals are in blue with the Dunlop JCT95 Justin Chancellor Cry Baby Wah with a Tone Bender-style fuzz circuit (far left) and DigiTech Bass Whammy (middle). He really likes using the Tech 21 SansAmp GT2 for distortion and feedback when the Whammy is engaged or he’s playing up the neck. Covering delays are three pedals—he has the pink Providence DLY-4 Chrono Delay for “Pneuma” that is programmed to match Danny’s BPMs, which slightly increase during the song from 113 ms to 115 ms. The Boss DD-3s are set for different speeds with the one labeled “Faster” handling “The Grudge” and the other one doing more steady repeats. There’s a pair of vintage Guyatone pedals—the Guyatone VT-X Vintage Tremolo Pedal (Flip Series) and Guyatone BR2 Bottom Wah Rocker (a gift from Adam Jones). The Gamechanger Audio Plus pedal is used to freeze moments and allow Justin to grab onto feedback or play over something. The Boss GEB-7 Bass Equalizer and Pro Co Turbo Rat help reinforce his resounding, beefy backbone of bass tone. The MXR Micro Amp helps goose his grimy rumbles. The Boss LS-2 Line Selector is a one-kick escape hatch out of the complicated signal chain for parts of “Schism.” The Wal and Music Man stay in check with the TU-3S tuner, a pair of Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Pluses help bring things to life, and everything is wired up with EBS patch cables.
Shop Justin Chancellor's Rig
Music Man StingRay Special HH
Dunlop JCT95 Justin Chancellor Cry Baby Wah
Gamechanger Audio Plus Pedal
Boss DD-3 Digital Delay
Boss BF-2 Flanger
Boss CE-5 Chorus Ensemble
Boss GEB-7 Bass Equalizer
ProCo Turbo Rat
Tech 21 SansAmp GT2
DigiTech Bass Whammy
MXR Micro Amp
Boss LS-2 Line Selector
Ernie Ball VP Junior 250K
Boss TU-3S Tuner
JHS Switchback A/B Effects Loop Switcher
Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus
Radial JD7 Injector
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The British songwriter traversed the bleak thoroughfares of his past while writing his autobiographical sophomore album, Seventeen Going Under—a tale of growing up down-and-out, set to an epic chorus of Jazzmasters and soaring sax.
British songwriter Sam Fender hails from North Shields, England, an industrial coastal port town near the North Sea, about eight miles northeast of Newcastle upon Tyne. Fender grew up in this small village, which he calls "a drinking town with a fishing problem." He lived there with his mother on a council estate, a type of British public housing. This is the mise-en-scène for Sam Fender's coming-of-age autobiographical new album, Seventeen Going Under. On the album's cover, a photograph shows Sam sitting on a brick stoop.
"That was a back lane that I used to go down and smoke weed when I was about 15 with a bunch of tearaways," Fender says in his regional "Geordie" accent. "That back lane leads into this estate called Meadow Well, which was an estate that had 80 percent unemployment where we grew up. There was a lot of riots there back in the '90s. It was practically on fire for the whole of 1991. Parts of it were just a wasteland for teenagers, and that's where we used to go and sit and hang out and stuff."
About a mile from that stoop is the Low Lights Tavern, where Fender tended bar after high school, and it's also where he played his music in the early days. Fender's manager, Owain Davies, first heard him play guitar there in 2013 in the corner of the pub. Davies immediately took Fender on as an artist, telling U.K. music industry trade paper Music Week: "He's just an undeniable talent, he's hard to ignore."
Sam Fender - Seventeen Going Under (Official Video)
Indeed, Fender's lyrics stop you in your tracks. These are from the title track of Seventeen Going Under:
I was far too scared to hit him
But I would hit him in a heartbeat now
That's the thing with anger
It begs to stick around
So it can fleece you of your beauty
And leave you spent with nowt to offer
It makes you hurt the ones who love you
You hurt them like they're nothing
After hooking up with Davies, Fender doubled down on gigging and writing, gaining fans and traction, and eventually won the 2018 BRIT Critics' Choice Award before releasing his first album, Hypersonic Missiles, in late 2019. Taking a slow-burn route of building a following for six years before releasing a full-length likely contributed to that album instantly having wings, debuting at No. 1 on the U.K. Albums Chart. Fender's sound and identity as an artist coalesced, with his songwriting skills bucking pop formula. "Hypersonic Missiles" weaves a love story in between musings about "feeding the corporate machine" and "kids in Gaza being bombed." In "Dead Boys," Fender vulnerably grieves fallen mates, victims of the male suicide epidemic in Northern England. Jangly Jazzmasters and epic, chorus-drenched solos play a lead character through it all.
Thematically, Fender, who is 27, gazed outward on Hypersonic Missiles, but he goes deeply inward on Seventeen Going Under. It's literally the soundtrack of his adolescence. "It's mainly about self-esteem, growing up, and the political landscape of England, and how that affects the Northeast and how the Tories basically alienate my hometown and the people that live there," he says. These songs of tribulation are resonating strongly with Britons, and landed Fender another No. 1 album in the U.K. when Seventeen Going Under came out in October 2021.
TIDBIT: Seventeen Going Under was recorded at Wor House (Sam Fender's studio) in North Shields, England, and Grouse Lodge in Ireland. It was mixed by Craig Silvey (Arcade Fire) and produced by Bramwell Bronte.
"I feel like it's my first proper album," says Fender. "The first record was a hodgepodge of songs written over six years. Some of the songs were written when I was 19. I was a baby when I wrote some of the songs on that album. Whereas this is a collective piece of work written over the course of two years. And I feel like it's more cohesive as a piece of work. I think it has continuity. I think it has a sound."
The album might've turned out completely different if not for the pandemic, which resulted in a prolific writing period for Fender, who was forced to quarantine. "I've got a health condition, which affects my immune system, so I had to stay in the house. I was alone, so there was a lot of reflection, a lot of looking back at the past," he recalls. "I was doing therapy at the same time to try and get my head screwed on, and I ended up dissecting my whole childhood in therapy. And then learnin' about the reason why I was the way I was; the reason why I was reacting to things in certain ways; the reason why my relationships weren't goin' well; the reason why I wasn't being the most savory character or not being my own ally. I was kinda making life hard for myself."
And so, this reckoning unfolds throughout 11 tracks. The title song documents a dark time when Fender's mother was battling health issues and couldn't make ends meet. It's a banger that cuts right to the struggle of feeling helpless as a teenager—being old enough to know what's going on but being too young to fix anything.
Sam Fender's Gear
"I like a Jazzmaster through a Fender Twin," says Sam Fender. "I like a bit of compression, just to kind of give you that bite, and I love an old Electro-Harmonix Small Clone, just the original cheap chorus pedal."
Photo by Laura Brindley
Fender American Pro Jazzmaster
1959 Fender Jazzmaster
Takamine acoustic (gift from Elton John)
- Fender '65 Twin Reverb
- Fender '65 Deluxe Reverb
- Fender '68 Custom Deluxe Reverb
- D'Addario EXL115 Nickel Wound (.011–.049)
- Electro-Harmonix Small Clone
- Electro-Harmonix Small Stone Phase Shifter
- Electro-Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff Pi
- Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Nano
- Electro-Harmonix Memory Man
- Electro-Harmonix POG2
- Electro-Harmonix Stereo Polychorus
- Fulltone OCD
- Origin Effects Cali76 Compact Deluxe
- Mooer Yellow Comp
- Strymon BigSky Reverberator
- Boss RE-20 Space Echo
- Way Huge Red Llama 25th Anniversary Overdrive
- Gamechanger Audio PLUS
"Spit of You" is about his dad and the complicated relationships between sons and fathers. "Me and my dad had a five-year period where we didn't get on very well," Fender shares. "He lived in a different country. As things have progressed with my career, we started hanging out a lot more. It's about a father and son's relationship and the inability to talk about anything other than DIY, music, or alcohol. If anything, it's a just declaration of love for my old man. And funny enough, it's his favorite song."
Not all the songs chew over familial dynamics. Fender dissects his own communication and romantic failures on "Get You Down," and there's externally pointed angst on the album's two political tracks: the rebellious anthem "Aye," which pokes and prods around class/wealth disparity, and "Long Way Off," which Fender says sounds like "a Bond movie theme" with its grandiose instrumentation.
"It's got 164 tracks of audio," Fender says of the latter. "It just built and built and built and became this huge orchestral track. It's about political polarity and how I feel a lack of identity with any of the political parties currently in my country. I think it's quite a unanimous feeling in a lot of places at the moment. A lot of working-class people in England feel displaced by it all, and in my hometown as well. It was written around the time when all the Trump supporters were storming the capital building. We're a long way off from sorting out the mess the world is in."
“It’s such a refreshing rehash of ’80s music. It makes me think that a lot of the sounds in the ’80s that sound jarring and cheesy, I feel like it was just because it was the early days with synthesizers and them sorts of guitar sounds.”
All of the songs were written by Fender, who played guitar, bass, piano, Hammond organ, synthesizers, glockenspiel, mandolin, and harmonica inside the North Shields studio he built by necessity during that time. The album has horns and strings across it, and Fender also wrote the string arrangements, though he didn't play those parts himself. His five band members, most of whom he grew up with—drummer Drew Michael, guitarist Dean Thompson, bassist Tom Ungerer, guitarist and keyboardist Joe Atkinson, and saxist Johnny "Blue Hat" Davis—play on the album as well. It was produced by Thom Lewis, aka "Bramwell Bronte," Fender's longtime collaborator who also produced Hypersonic Missiles.
Fender has a homespun grit much like his idol Bruce Springsteen, whose working-class ethos and songs from the heartland resonated with Fender at an early age. (The Boss connection has earned Fender the nickname of "Geordie Springsteen.") Fender's sound has a tinge of throwback and noticeable nods to his influences (cough, cough, sexy saxophone solos), but the magic lies in how he connects on so many levels with cinematic arrangements, bull's-eye lyrics, and sincere delivery. The songs are a baring of the heart, a showcase of human struggle.
His father and older brother (nine years his senior) are also musicians who gigged around town, obviously influencing Fender's journey down the troubadour road. "I got a guitar when I was 8 and started mucking around with it then. By the time I was 10, I was starting to get quite proficient," Fender shares. "And then as I got older, I realized at school there was always a couple of kids that could shred, and could really, really play. And I just thought, I don't wanna spend the rest of my life learnin' guitar just to be that—I wanna make songs, ya know?" As a kid, he was obsessed with Slash, Page, and Hendrix. "Then my brother started showin' us Springsteen and all that. I loved Oasis and all the British stuff as well."
“I felt like it could be powerful and delicate and all the things in between. That’s when I started singing properly, is after hearing Jeff Buckley.”
Photo by Charlotte Patmore
But a gamechanger came when Fender was 14 and his brother gave him Jeff Buckley's Grace. "I always had quite a high voice for a tall … I'm 6'1," he says. "Normally that means you're, like, a baritone, but I'm, like, quite a high tenor. When my brother gave us Jeff Buckley, I was like alright, he does that, and it's rock 'n' roll, and it sounds cool. That means I can do this as well [laughs]. I felt like it could be powerful and delicate and all the things in between. That's when I started singing properly, is after hearing Jeff Buckley. I always wanted to have a voice that was, like, "rawr"—gruff 'n' stuff—when I was a kid, but then I realized, well, that's not really who I am."
Sonically, the War on Drugs is one of Fender's favorite bands. Their impact on how he approaches crafting song parts can be heard in "Last To Make It Home," particularly the expansive guitar solo on the outro. "I had the Fender Twin up, like, so loud that my ears were bleedin', with my whammy bar," Fender says of recording that solo, "and whichever way I turned, I got that feedback. You get that sort of 'Champagne Supernova' endin'," Fender says. (WoD frontman Adam Granduciel had signed on to mix that track, but ultimately couldn't do it because he missed the master deadline for his own album.)
"I like Springsteen for the lyrics, and I love War on Drugs for the sound," Fender shares. "I think it's such a refreshing rehash of sounds we already know—it's such a refreshing rehash of '80s music. It makes me think that a lot of the sounds in the '80s that sound jarring and cheesy, I feel like it was just because it was the early days with synthesizers and them sorts of guitar sounds. I feel like the War on Drugs have refined it. It's beautiful and I think there's more to be looked down that avenue. That's why I'm quite chorusy-soundin'—I love that sound. It's nostalgic for me, even though I'm not from the '80s, I grew up in a house where that music was playing."
“I was doing therapy at the same time to try and get my head screwed on, and I ended up dissecting my whole childhood in therapy.”
Though his new album is bursting with layers upon layers of instruments, he undoubtedly has an ingrained sense of how to be impactful with just a guitar and his voice, which came from years of performing solo without a backing band. In a BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge concert in early 2020, Fender did a solo performance of Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black," fingerpicking the melody and bass line, while nailing a rather ambitious vocal. His thumb bounces between the 5th and 6th strings, while his other fingers create a harp-like effect on the melody. "It's a strange move, but once you start getting the muscle strength, it's a constant thing and it's quite hypnotic," he says.
Fender describes his songwriting method as "chop and change." He noodles on his Jazzmaster, does some fingerpicking, or switches to another instrument. "A lot of the times I write a lot of songs on piano and convert to guitar. So, I find the chords on piano sometimes and then I'll find interesting variants of the chords on the guitar to make it sound pretty." He likes to experiment with tunings as well. Seventeen Going Under is mostly in C# standard, though he did play around a bit with Nashville tuning and light gauge strings.
When conversation turns to a special guitar he just bought, Fender lights up. "I've finally treated myself and allowed myself to buy something that was expensive because there's always an air of guilt," he says. "I've been lucky, Fender's always given us stuff. I've always had loads of free guitars because I've always been sponsored by them. But when it comes to buying stuff, there's still a part of us that thinks I'm still living in the flat with my mum on a council estate, and I still feel like I can't. I'm like, "ooh, that's a lot of money." It's like a subconscious thing. I was always quite frugal. I was always scrimpin'.
Fender primarily plays Jazzmasters, but he strapped on a Stratocaster for "Will We Talk?" at Hole 44 in Berlin, Germany, on November 4, 2021.
Photo by Chux on Tour Photography@chuxontour
"But I've just bought a ridiculous Jazzmaster. It's a 1959," he continues. "It's the second year of Jazzmasters, one of the very, very first ones. It's absolutely stunning. It's got a gold scratch plate, and it came with a packet of strings from 1959 from New Brunswick."
He explains his sweet spot for tone matter-of-factly. "I like a Jazzmaster through a Fender Twin. I like a bit of compression, just to kind of give you that bite, and I love an old Electro-Harmonix Small Clone, just the original cheap chorus pedal. I think it sounds great. And every other chorus pedal I put on I'm just like 'pfft whatever.' People go, 'try this boutique $300 fucking chorus pedal.' And I put it on and it's not as good as a Small Clone. Small Clone just sounds like a chorus. And it's one knob. It's idiot proof and I'm an idiot [laughing]. That's my go-to."
At the beginning of 2022, Fender will live in New York City while recording his third album at Electric Lady Studios, which is where he'd planned to make his second album before the pandemic made that impossible. He wrote 60 songs over the last two years, recording only 11, which means he has a good stash in his back pocket. The rest of 2022 he'll be headlining arena tours, as well as supporting the Killers on four dates in London and Dublin.
On the release of such a personal collection of music, Fender recently penned a letter to his 17-year-old self. In it, he tells young Sam not to be so serious. Present-day Sam's social media is light and carefree, with videos of him explaining how to make the best cuppa, eating jellied eels, and mini movies of strangers on the street with improvised voiceovers. So, it appears time has done the songwriter well. It's all in the new album, but 27-year-old Sam had this to say to 17-year-old Sam: "Art is the purest remedy for all internal conflict and you're taking a career in it. It's an honour to do what you will do, never forget that. You may feel alone currently but you will realise that your stories, when put to music, open up a side of you that actually helps people. A lot of these stories were originally about you but they belong to everyone, as everyone has their own, and they will be screamed back at you—from clubs and dive bars, even arenas. Some kid, 17, probably going through a boatload of similar shit that you experienced, will be front and centre, screaming these stories as if it's their last night on Earth."