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Interview: Iced Earth Guitarist Jon Schaffer
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Obi-Dan   |  
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Jon Schaffer

If aliens came to earth and wanted to know what true heavy metal is, you could do a lot worse than to introduce them to Iced Earth, the Tampa, Florida band of sheer brute force whose near thirty year history has given us ten studio albums. But they’re not done yet.

Overseen from the beginning and at all times by ever-present guitarist and founder Jon Schaffer, Iced Earth’s is a story of a man with a one-track metal mind. Fronted during their history by ex-Judas Priest pipesman Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens and long-serving lead singer Matt Barlow, Iced Earth embarked on another new chapter in 2011 by hiring Canadian Stu Block and releasing album number ten, Dystopia.

If those aliens enjoyed Dystopia, which of course they would, what with it being yet another storming heavy metal charge, they may also like to get their hands/tentacles on Iced Earth’s newest live album. Live In Ancient Kourion was recorded and filmed at the beautiful, historic Kourion amphitheatre in Cyprus and boasts close to three hours of Schaffer and his band cranking out their hits to some crazy Cypriots.

Schaffer, as he says, is a man who moves forward all the time, which is why the future of Iced Earth is bright. Now is the time to hear from the leader…

Geeks of Doom: How are you?

Jon Schaffer: Good, man, just busy writing, working, doing a lot of press for the DVD. I’m in the writing process for the next Iced Earth album, so it’s always a time of a lot of pressure and a lot of work but it’s good, very happy with what’s coming out so far.

Geeks of Doom: Glad to hear it. Like you said, the live album and DVD have just come out – why did you choose that venue in Cyprus and that show?

Jon Schaffer: Well, we wanted to film because we feel like this is a new beginning for Iced Earth with Stu coming into the band, that’s part of it. Also, for other reasons, the band feels revitalized, I felt like it would be an important period to film so that we would have a document of this period. We had planned fairly early on in the Dystopia World Tour finding a place to film a DVD and we played in Cyprus in December 2011, it was the last show on the first European leg we did on that world tour and we talked to the promoter, just in small talk, that we were looking for a place to film. He said, ‘Why not Cyprus?’ I said, ‘Yeah, maybe, we still have a lot of places around the world that we want to play and we may find another market, but let’s see’. Anyway, a couple months go by and he sends me a photo of the Kourion theatre and says, ‘This is where you should do your DVD!’ I was really hooked into the idea instantly when I saw that. I mean, the Cypriot fans are killer. so that’s always a good thing, but that place was really special and it looks like we’re going to be the only band in history to play there because the Department of Antiquities in the Cyprus Government said never again. So it’s pretty cool…I don’t think the fans did any damage to the place or anything, I think it’s more that they don’t want it to turn into a habit because it is a very historic place and so it’s cool, it was a really special thing and I’m glad we got to document it for our legacy.

Geeks of Doom: And it was a monster of a show, it was close to three hours long.

Jon Schaffer: Yeah something like that, it was a long one. When we did Alive In Athens that was two nights and we knew we weren’t going to do two nights here, so we just tried to make it a long show. We had a lot of technical problems on the song “End Of Innocence”…we did it actually twice, we had major issues both times, so we weren’t able to capture those takes. That’s the only song out of the entire set that didn’t make it on the DVD.

Geeks of Doom: There’s still plenty to choose from! Some bands like to deliver a ‘short sharp shock’, but that was a long show – do you think that’s the best way to see Iced Earth?

Jon Schaffer: I think for what we’re doing, for the Iced Earth fanbase, this is something that they’re sort of used to with us. I understand the philosophy in the way other bands do it. Obviously we wouldn’t do something like this if we were going out and opening for a bigger band; number one, they wouldn’t let us, but it wouldn’t be smart if you’re introducing a new audience to your music, you want to do like a greatest hits, pop ‘em in the face and then get out so that it’s memorable and it’s not too much. We knew we were going to be playing for the Iced Earth faithful and I think in that instance it makes it a really special night, a special event, so I think it was cool.

The next one that we do probably won’t be as long as this, but I felt like we needed to cover various periods throughout the majority of the catalogue. I think we did that pretty well, it’s just when you have ten records out, man, it becomes difficult to try to capture something that’s going to please everybody without getting to be ridiculously long. But the cool thing is we have a lot planned for the future: I think we might be filming a DVD on every world tour cycle from here on out, picking some kind of cool, exotic location around the world and film and because Iced Earth’s catalogue is so huge we’re going to be able to dig into a lot of past stuff that we haven’t done in years, maybe never in some cases, and this will allow people to hear Stu sing the older material. It doesn’t make sense in this day and age to go into the studio and re-record anything so I think in a live setting that’s the way to do it. So I think it will please fans on various levels from being able to hear the band play stuff we haven’t done in years and years, sometimes never, and the other side is to hear some of the classics with Stu singing it. That’s what we’re looking at for the future.

Jon Schaffer

Geeks of Doom: You mentioned Dystopia, your most recent album. In the build up to the release and last year following the release, there was so much talk of your fall-out with ex-lead singers. Was it a relief to get this year, and a new live album, off to a positive start?

Jon Schaffer: I guess in the media there was a lot of negativity, but I didn’t feel that. A lot of people were like, ‘This is the end of Iced Earth!’ Well those people that say that clearly don’t know Iced Earth. They don’t know how things work and they don’t know the way our operation is. So I never had any fear of that whatsoever and certainly when Stu came for the audition it was clear that we found each other, it was really like, ‘This is really cool, there’s something special going on’ and I can say from a standpoint of Stu being a strong road warrior who can go out and deliver the goods every night and is a very talented singer, that’s great, but he’s also a very good friend and that’s even more important that you have the chemistry on a personal level. That, I think, is equally if not more important than it is on an artistic level.

So we’ve got all that and we really have a special relationship. Whatever people say, I don’t really care, I’ve never concerned myself with what the illusions of people who run at the mouth say because 99 percent of the time they don’t have the facts, they don’t know how things work. They base their judgments on maybe ten percent of the information, so it’s a waste of time for me to be concerned too much with what people think. I go forward all the time, that’s what I do.

Geeks of Doom: You said you have a special relationship with Stu and he wrote a lot of the lyrics for Dystopia, whereas before you wrote nearly all the music and lyrics for Iced Earth. Was there a reason for Stu contributing so many of the lyrics?

Jon Schaffer: We wrote most of the lyrics together, but the main contribution Stu really made was with the vocal melodies. Matt [Barlow] wrote lyrics in the past. I tried to get people to contribute more. It’s weird, man, people assume that just because somebody’s a musician they must be a songwriter too [but] that’s not the case. I think the biggest contribution Stu has done besides lyrical stuff – I’m talking about vocal melodies because he’s so good at it. It’s never been a situation where I don’t want somebody else to contribute; I have a standard and a level and a certain vision and it’s got to fit within that vision and that’s what makes Iced Earth what it is, regardless of who’s been in and out of the band. It’s clear, if you hear the first album [Iced Earth] or you heard Dystopia, this is the same band. That’s because of the songs and it’s because of the structures and the tones and everything, you know? It is Iced Earth. When I started working with Stu one of the things I spoke to him over the phone about was that, because I heard some Into Eternity stuff and I said, ‘Are those your chorus parts?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, most of them are’. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s killer!’ Because they’re big hooks.

I’ve always been the one 95 percent of the time coming up with the chorus melodies and the lyrics and now I’ve got a partner that can help with that, that’s a great thing. So he’s really good at coming up with big, hooky vocal parts so of course we’re going to use that. But it does have to fit my vision and there’s times when I say, ‘Let’s go back to the drawing board with that,’ with Stu and he’s like, ‘OK, no problem.’ He’s a total soldier, very easy to work with, very easy to produce, fun to produce, fun to push him, to drive him into different directions with his voice that he’s never tried before. He gets really excited about it and you can’t ask for a better [guy] to work with whether you’re in the writing process or in the studio producing the actual record.

Iced Earth

Geeks of Doom: From a listener point of view he’s certainly very talented. Another new face in the band is bass player Luke Appleton. He seems perfect for the job, doesn’t he?

Jon Schaffer: Yeah, he’s great, man. He plays bass like somebody who’s way beyond his years. Let’s put it that way: he plays bass like a grown man and I’ve had a lot of bass players through the years that I’ve worked with in Iced Earth and in other projects and it’s refreshing to see instinctively that this kid knows what a bass player’s job is and executes it so well. That’s one of the reasons you can actually hear the bass guitar because it was played right! He was doing what a bass player should play and when you have that kind of performance it’s worth making it audible. If you don’t, then the bass player’s kind of dancing around between what the drummer’s doing and the guitar, but not really playing with anybody, then you just sort of bury it and you let it there to provide the low end, you don’t feature it. It’s going to be great to work with Luke in the studio because he’ll get pushed up to another level. Already with his knowledge and as young as he is he already understands instinctively what his role is. So he’s great on stage, he’s an excellent player and I expect that he’s going to just improve and improve the more he learns at this level the way we do things in the studio. He’s just going to grow and grow, that’s what’s really cool. So yeah, he fits great with the band.

Geeks of Doom: You might be able to tell by my accent that I’m English and for you to have an Englishman in the band, I highly approve!

Jon Schaffer: [Laughs] Yeah, well we’re kind of like the international band here! We’ve got an American, Canadian, an English guy, so yeah it’s cool.

Geeks of Doom: If you have a quick search on Facebook you find some interesting Jon Schaffer-related pages – Jon Schaffer’s Hair, Jon Schaffer’s Godly Right Hand, The Religion Of Jon Schaffer – do you have a good relationship with your fans?

Jon Schaffer: [Laughs] I had no idea, man! I’ve never heard of anything like that! That’s funny! Yeah, I think I have a good relationship. Whenever I have time and there’s fans, I try to spend quality time with them and answer their questions and I’m very friendly with them. Unfortunately, sometimes if I’m in a rush to the airport or if we’re in a rush to get into the venue and I can’t, you know sometimes it’s just not possible, I have to say, ‘Man, I’m sorry guys, I can’t sign or talk right now’. But I try to do that and I think the one thing that we are blessed with, Iced Earth is blessed with having some of the most passionate, loyal fans on the planet. I saw some book, I don’t know if it’s the Heavy Metal Bible or the Encyclopaedia of Heavy Metal or some shit, where we are in the top five of most passionate fans, up with [Iron] Maiden and KISS. That says something. Of course those guys sell a lot more records and tickets than we do but they’re measuring with the passion of the fans and I think it’s really a great thing. I think it stems from just being honest and sometimes being honest will get you into trouble, but I think at the end of the day it generates a lot of respect and we’re just true to what we do and the fans appreciate that.

Jon Schaffer

Geeks of Doom: Also, the other names you mentioned are some of the hardest working bands going, so I think fans respond to that as well.

Jon Schaffer: Yeah, that’s true. Since Dystopia we’re in a position now where we can tour like a real band and work even harder. So it’s a very, very cool thing. Like I said, the chemistry just in general, it’s not just about the five guys in the band, it’s about the core crew members that we have and it’s about the management and the people that are behind the scenes working to make things happen. The whole thing has a lot of positive energy right now and we’re excited, man, because I think we’re going to be able to take Iced Earth, clearly geographically we’ve taken it further than it has ever gone before, but I think in terms of awareness and exposure and increasing the fanbase I believe that we’re going to take it farther than it’s ever gone before. There’s a huge spike upwards going on and a big buzz worldwide and I think that the fans see that’s genuine that there’s a lot of love amongst the band members and we’re having fun. All that stuff is really different compared to what it had been say to the ten years before that. It’s a good thing.

Geeks of Doom: Iced Earth is pretty much booked up for the summer in Europe, then in January you are coming back for a big tour. Do you feel more at home here, is there a bigger response when you come to Europe?

Jon Schaffer: I don’t know, man. I mean, we are as successful in the States as we are in Europe, I would say they are equal. Clearly if you look at the per capita, the population, in a country like Greece we are much bigger there compared to anywhere else in the world, but that’s a very small market. Our goals are this summer we’re going to be recording the new studio album and in between the weekends where we perform festivals we’re going to be tracking. First we’re going to be rehearsing, working on the new songs and doing some in-person writing together. We got about seven songs finished so far and I think we’ll have another six or seven. We’re going to track in Europe and play festivals on the weekend and at some point I’ll be flying to Florida to mix the album there at Morrisound then we have a big announcement to make in the next week or two about more touring that’s going to happen in October, November, and then our headline world tour starts in January. So we’re starting in Europe but we’re going to be doing North, Central, South America, Asia, Australia, hopefully New Zealand this time around, so it’s a process. But we do love Europe, we love coming there, we’ve been coming there for 23 years now and have a lot of very loyal fans. So it’s cool but I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily different or bigger than the States. You have to look at it in a market base. But Germany is certainly like a second home to me just because I’ve been going there so long and I have a lot of very good friends there.

Geeks of Doom: And so are we looking at a new album end of this year early next year?

Jon Schaffer: Yeah. I mean, if we can stay on track, if we don’t have any delays, we would really like to shoot for an October release for the new studio album. If we end up having some kind of a delay because it’s going to be such a tight schedule and tight timeframe in order to hand the master into the label in order for them to get it prepared for an October release…then it’s going to be January when the new stuff comes out. But I think we’re going to make the deadline happen, I feel pretty confident about that. I’ve already got the theme happening, the album cover art concept is happening, the artist is starting to work on it this week. We’re really ahead of the curve on a lot of that stuff so we’re in good shape and I think unless something crazy happens we should be able to stay on point and have that October release.

Live In Ancient Kourion is available now through Century Media Records on 2-Disc CD, Deluxe 3-Disc CD/DVD, MP3, DVD and Blu-ray.

Check out icedearth.com for updates on the new album and latest tour dates.

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